Mediterranean: A Raiders’ Paradise


The SBS officer most effective at making up ways to circumvent operational setbacks was Anders Lassen, a Dane who throughout 1944 led SBS raiding parties (above) against the German-held islands of the Dodecanese.


David Stirling

Both the SAS and SBS sprang from No 8 Commando, a unit established in the summer of 1940 on the instructions of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While No 8 Commando achieved little before its disbandment in 1941, it inspired Roger Courtney to form the Special Boat Section (as it was first called) and David Stirling the Special Air Service.


“A Levant Schooner”, a typical Greek caique, naval crew of 3, carying a Special Boat Service patrol of approximately 12 men. Vessel armed with one PAK 38 (Panzerabwehrkanone) forward and two .303 Browning Medium Machine Guns amidships. Fitted with a Valentine tank diesel engine with a maximum speed of approximately 8 knots, typically used for island raids.

It was in June 1943, a year after COI had become OSS, that W. J. Donovan at last welcomed the fulfilment of a dream to possess his own commando force when a new Operational Group Section was formed under Colonel E. Huntingdon. There had been a protracted struggle against departmental opposition and bureaucratic obstruction, and it would take longer yet to recruit sufficient men of the right calibre from the navy and army for raiding and clandestine warfare. In fact, final opening of the manpower coffers was withheld until September when, in line with the approaching abandonment of the Marine Raider concept, the army transferred many dedicated fighting men from certain elite ‘ethnic’ units it had tried to form. Rapidly the Operations Groups (OGs) increased from a handful in June to nearly 6,000 by the end of October, and of these over 5,000 were abroad, the major portion in the Mediterranean where the successful invasion of Sicily in July, followed by a landing in Italy on 3 September, opened up an infinite number of opportunities for action.

The contrast between the strong, fortified coastlines of Norway, Holland, Belgium and France and the extended and vulnerable ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, in Churchill’s celebrated phrase, was absolute. The shores of Southern France, Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece, with their innumerable islands, promised to be a raiders’ paradise. No sooner had Italy secretly indicated to the Allies her intention to quit the Axis than the countries under her suzerainty began to crawl with the maggots of an alien presence. Allied agents were inserted to collaborate with indigenous anti-Fascist elements who now openly combined with active partisan bands, particularly in the Balkans. Operations and supply by air and sea were controlled by the representatives of SOE, OSS (by mutual agreement) and agents of the Russian armed forces, aided by skirmishers of the conquering armies. How bare of defenders the coastlines were on the eve of the invasion of Italy’s toe by the British Eighth Army when Operation Baytown was revealed on the night 25/26 August, as a commando patrol under Major P. Young crossed the Straits of Messina and penetrated well inland without making contact. The thunderous bombardment which announced the arrival of the main assault on 3 September, on the heels of careful prior survey of the beaches by Berncastle and two LCNs, was thus an over-insurance, underlined when subsequent commando landings elsewhere found evidence of a speedy and orderly enemy withdrawal.

Orderliness went by the board, however, when, on the night of 8/9 September an Armistice between the Allies and Italy was announced and the Fifth US Army began landing at Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche. At once the entire Italian mainland and wherever Italian troops garrisoned the Balkans were thrown into turmoil, as partisans, anti-Fascists, Allies and Germans struggled to seize whatever arms they could from the surrendering Italian armed forces. Simultaneously the gates of prisoner-of-war camps were thrown open, releasing a horde of amazed Allied sailors, soldiers and airmen who roamed the countryside in a state of ebullient freedom without knowing how to reach safety.

To exploit opportunities in the enemy rear, a motley collection of 30 Commando, LRDG, SAS, OG and an AFHQ organization called Force A were deployed. 30 Commando was at once foraging ahead of the advancing Eighth Army, and later landing on the Island of Capri, to pluck priceless naval secrets from safes and depots. Dropping in by air or going ashore from a rapidly increasing flotilla of purloined ferry boats, MFVs, feluccas, US Navy PT boats and Italian MAS were parties of SIS, SOE and OSS agents acting as runners of guns and all manner of supplies to the partisans, particularly those in Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece.

Usually these landings were carefully planned, after-dark affairs met by clandestine reception committees. Operations by Force A’s N Section, for example, required meticulous organization. Teams of two officers and a Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) operator would direct six-man parties of SAS and OG behind the enemy lines to contact known or suspected concentrations of prisoners, who were sometimes in partisan care and invariably in need of feeding, clothing and protection before being guided to safety. Occasionally the route for small groups would be overland but generally it was expedient to take larger numbers to the coast and ship them out. On 30 November, in one area of Italy alone, some 13,000 men with two lieutenant-generals and four major-generals, were estimated to be at freedom. At first a small fleet of fishing boats and fast motor boats was pressed into service, a single demand in November calling for ten sorties a week. Mostly they picked up soldiers but one US Navy officer working for an OG had the pleasure of bringing back 13 US Army nurses who had been rescued by partisans in Albania. In due course much larger craft were used, as for example for Operation Darlington II, on 24 May 1944, near Ancona. On this occasion US Navy Beach Jumpers, guided ashore by Force A agents, found the right place and, in desperation, packed 25 out of 100 POWs in their inflatable boats because the LCI with a beachhead force from 9 Commando had gone astray. Fortunately the enemy were nowhere about and it was possible for the LCI to complete the work before dawn and save the remaining 75.

More orthodox, but a complete fiasco, was Operation Pipsqueak on 14 June, when 73 men of 9 Commando again formed an unopposed bridgehead 60 miles behind the enemy lines at the mouth of the River Tenna to allow armed jeeps of Major V. Peniakoff’s (Popski) private army to operate deep in the enemy rear as the Allied offensive began to flourish to the southwards. Waspish in his disparagement of Commandos, as was Peniakoff’s way, he thought better of proceeding when it was found that the defeated and fast-retreating enemy was already pouring back and filling in strength the previously deserted terrain he intended to raid. Having wisely called off the operation, it was discovered that the LCT was immovably stranded on the beach, leaving no alternative but to wreck the jeeps and the LCT’s engines prior to making an ignominious evacuation on the single escorting ML. Just under 120 men packed into this small, wallowing craft just managed to get home in safety.

Trying to penetrate a war zone in which the enemy was constantly alive to the threat of ambush, raiders were frequently ambushed themselves and sometimes disappeared without trace. On 21 April 1944, for example, MAS 541 attempted to land two French saboteurs 10 miles from Genoa as part of Operation Cadex and was apparently blown up by a mine. The next night two PT boats landed 15 uniformed members of an OG near Sestri Levante to block the Spezia to Genoa railway line by demolishing a tunnel (Operation Ginny), but were caught by the Germans at once and shot without trial two days later.

Far happier had been a raid by eight men of an OG who landed on the Yugoslav island of Korcula on the night 16 April. Met by partisans, they moved to a hide before setting out next night successfully to ambush a German road patrol. Isolated episodes such as these merely irritated the enemy. Seen as a whole as part of a series of operations closely related in time to major partisan raids elsewhere they had an influence, although they never achieved decisive results. Deprived though they were of freedom of movement throughout most of the hinterland, the Germans managed to retain control of vital inland communications, so that, when the time came to withdraw in the autumn of 1944, they departed in good order and to an unshaken schedule. But of course their problems and losses were much increased by constant fear of ambush, while Allied morale was strengthened and intelligence enhanced by the work of raiders who moved, barely checked, around the enemy, striking at an innumerable number of targets as opportunity permitted.

The principal restrictive influence on most Allied operations in the Mediterranean was caused by the diversion of resources once Overlord had been decided upon. As a result nothing like the advantage which Churchill would have liked to take of Axis weakness was possible. Particularly was this so on the Allied right flank where responsibility for the attack fell on Raiding Forces of Middle East Command and the activity was more fluid, widespread and diluted, directed as it was against Crete, the Greek Islands and the mainland of Greece itself. Here the SBS had conducted a private war of hit-and-run since 1942, merged in September 1943 with attempts by LRDG and other forces to obtain a permanent footing on strategic islands such as Leros, Kos and Samos. But, as on the mainland, the swift German reaction to the sudden Italian volte face prevented a lock, stock and barrel handover of Italy’s holdings in the Dodecanese and Aegean. Until the Germans were levered out by the main strategic force to the northward, Raiding Forces Middle East had to be satisfied with small raiding alone.

An outstanding example of what could be achieved fell to three patrols of an 11-man SBS squad on the night 15/16 November 1943 which penetrated Simi town, partially destroyed the local Headquarters, killed the OC Troops, wrecked the power station, blew up the ammunition dump and killed 23 of the enemy, before withdrawing without loss to themselves. But the most lucrative dividends paid by LRDG and SBS here, as elsewhere, were volumes of information which not only pointed out fresh strike targets but gave forewarning of intentions and counter-action. And, of course, they pinned down enemy troops urgently needed elsewhere.

Along the Yugoslav coast and across Axis lines of sea communication in the North Adriatic Commandos, OGs and associated elements seized a firm base on the Island of Vis as a first step to giving direct support of Marshal Tito’s hard-pressed partisans on the mainland. 2 Commando, ten men from 10(IA) Commando and two OGs moved there in mid-January to form the centre of Force 133 which, in the ensuing months, would be reinforced to include 40 and 43 (RM) Commandos, 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry, batteries of field artillery and light anti-aircraft guns, a COPP and a few captured Italian guns to support more than 1,000 partisans. Their volume of raiding expanded in ratio to the progressive arrival of fresh units and the gradually diminishing size of enemy garrisons which, to the end, remained determined and very alert. For a start three troops of 2 Commando in company with a 30-strong OG crossed 20 miles of sea to capture four prisoners on Hvar island, the first of several such Endowment missions aimed at this objective and designed to create a sense of uncertainty among all the local enemy garrisons in the vicinity. They also interfered with coastal shipping, thereby placing a greater load on the threatened inland routes.

In return, of course, there was also a feeling of insecurity on the Allied part and the need to retain strong forces on Vis for fear of a sudden fierce enemy counter-attack, such as had been accomplished with such dash in the Aegean. Only pinpricks could be made until, on 10 March, after 43 (RM) Commando arrived, Operation Detain I against Solta Island was launched. This time the raiding force numbered 500, including artillery, in two LCIs supported by MGBs, MTBs and aircraft and had as its objective the town of Grohat. In the classic manner the landing was launched at a distance from the objective. Enemy outposts were overrun during the cross-country march to the objective and final assault on the town was made with full air and artillery support. Over 100 of the enemy were accounted for against only a dozen Allied casualties. Then, just to rub in its threat, Force 133 sent 43 (RM) Commando to tackle Hvar again four days later (Endowment VI) and followed this up with a joint commando and partisan raid on Korcula on 23 April.

Periodically the Germans would mount heavy punitive raids against Partisans, and few caused more disruption than Operation Roesselsprung, launched in mid-May with the aim of capturing Marshal Tito and the Allied Military Missions attached to the Partisan headquarters. It nearly succeeded and resulted in some 10,000 Partisan casualties. To help relieve the strain, Force 133 was asked to create a diversion. The result was Operation Flounced. Hastily laid on and including nearly every available unit, it aimed at the island of Brac where 1,200 Germans were thought to be. Carried across 40 miles of sea in an LCT, a coaster and a fleet of MFVs, MLs, LCAs and caiques, 6,000 men were put tidily ashore by night at three separate places on 1 June as a demonstration. Unfortunately that was the end of events as planned. Moving quickly inland on the 2nd, the intended attack to seize vital high ground fell apart due to a breakdown in radio communication at the crucial moment. Coming under heavy artillery and mortar fire and stumbling on a minefield, a bayonet charge by 43 (RM) Commando achieved considerable local success, but could not be sustained through lack of coordination with the rest of the Force. Leaders were killed or wounded, including Lieutenant-Colonel J. Churchill, the Force Commander, who was captured. Subsequent attacks to drive the Germans off failed and casualties mounted as the essential factor of surprise was lost. In conditions such as these raiding ceased to be practical, so withdrawal was carried out on 4 June without undue trouble due to exemplary work by a rearguard and by the navy. As at Dieppe, the weakness inherent in large-scale raiding against emplaced defences by forces which lacked surprise and the participation of armoured troops, in a war dominated by tanks, had been exposed. In the crunch of a fire-fight, Commandos, for all their excellence as shock troops, were flesh and blood like other soldiers.

The style of Mediterranean raiding after Flounced represented a continuation of the proven formula of repeated miniatures, although only in terms of distance from base to objective was there much similarity to the raids across the English Channel. The base camps were on foreign soil as opposed to cheerful English seaside resorts. Life and battle took place among a grim populace whose internecine tribal hatred – Croat against Serb, Royalist against Communist – were every bit as ferocious as their struggles against the German invader. Morale could be damaged; it made a lot of difference when the destination of return from peril, death and maiming was to the welcoming arms of landlady, publican or family as opposed to a harsh military environment.

Among the most daring and most successful operations was Sunbeam A, carried out by three canoes under Lieutenant J. F. Richards RM of RMBPD against Portolago Harbour on Leros to attack three German-manned destroyers and three escort craft on 17 June. Crossing three harbour booms was one difficulty they easily overcame; creeping unharmed alongside the ships to fix their limpets another. ‘At one point we were urinated upon by a sentry we had not seen or heard. We listened to various crewmen chatting excitedly to each other.’ But they fixed their limpets to some of the targets and retired to a shore-side hide where ‘through the day we listened to various explosions taking place within the port. Some were depth charges.’ The next night, after spending a day pestered by doubts and scares, they re-entered the harbour to complete the job, but this time were challenged three or four times. ‘Cpl. Horner called out “Patrol”. There then occurred what appeared to be a state of panic on the Anita and gestures were made that Cpl. Horner move alongside. He replied xxxx! [sic] and did move alongside. Nobody on board seemed to know what to do, so Cpl. Horner moved away into the shadows.’ Later he withdrew and the whole party was picked up and taken to safety by the ML.

Simi was again the target for attack on 13/14 July, this time leading to the virtual destruction of a weak garrison and beginning a process of complete domination by which, over the ensuing months, the garrisons were worn down to the point of evacuation or surrender. Chios fell at the end of September, Samos a few days later and Lemnos in the middle of October. But, when all was said and done, the depredations by raiders, particularly those of the amphibious hit-and-run variety here, on the right flank of the Anglo-American front, were side-shows within a side-show. The fiercest action in the Balkans was of the inland, partisan kind supplied by sea and air but depending mainly on the thrust of an approaching Red Army for substantial military and political reinforcement.

In similar collaborative style, raiding forces and clandestine operators in Western Europe approached the zenith of their contribution hand-in-hand with orthodox armies once Overlord had deposited its massed invaders ashore on 6 June. This was the hour of British and French SAS units, American OGs, Inter-Allied Missions and SOE Resistance Circuits, combining under such titles as Jedburghs, Suffolks and Massingham, and sent in to infest the French mainland as the Germans struggled to consolidate a crumbling front in Normandy. Now the emphasis lay preponderantly upon insertion and resupply by air. Although several units were infiltrated through the lines in Normandy and stores continued to be smuggled across the beaches of Brittany and southern France, the raison d’être for amphibious hit-and-run raiding had disappeared. Once airborne raiders had touched down, they tended either to be destroyed by the enemy or to maintain their presence within specified areas of responsibility. To assure survival they were compelled to convert an initial, shadowy presence into the substance of solid occupation, either by winning absolute control of the ground by persuading the enemy to vacate or surrender, or, through a process of gradual attrition, by easing the way for the approaching armies. The sea was only occasionally a suitable escape route.

By mid-August everything was leading up to the final breakout from Normandy. This coincided with Operation Dragoon, the major landing by Allied armies in southern France in the by now familiar landing pattern of initial probing and sabotage by partisans and agents, survey and pilotage by COPPs and spearheading of assault by Commando-type troops. It included on this occasion the 1st Special Service Force which had been formed in June 1942, as part of the American/Canadian ‘Plough Force’ intended to land in the Japanese-held Aleutians but used instead to fight in Italy.

After the guns faded in Normandy came the swansong of amphibious raids off the French coast – Operation Rumford, designed to investigate the Ile d’Yeu on the night of 25/26 August, carried out by HMS Albrighton (captained by Lieutenant J. J. S. Hooker, RN) and executed by five Frenchmen and a Briton under Lieutenant W. Dauppe (all of 10(IA) Commando) who went ashore in a dory to find that the Germans had departed the previous night.

Post–Spanish Armada


Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.

There is no doubt that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was a pivotal moment in British history, and one that helped define a nation. But England had been exhausted by the effort of repelling the invaders. She may only have lost 50–100 dead and 400 wounded, and none of her ships had been sunk, but after the victory, typhus, dysentery and hunger killed many sailors and troops (estimated at 6,000–8,000) after being discharged without pay. So much for Elizabeth’s fine words at Tilbury.

However, the English victory revolutionised naval battle tactics with the promotion of gunnery, which until then had played a supporting role to the tasks of ramming and boarding. The Battle of Gravelines started a lasting shift in the balance of naval power in favour of the English. Geoffrey Parker wrote that ‘the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battle fleet afloat anywhere in the world.’ The English navy yards were leaders in technical innovation, and the captains devised new tactics.

Superior English ships and seamanship had foiled the invasion. The Armada failed because Spain’s over-complex strategy required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. But the poor design of the Spanish cannon meant they were much slower in reloading in a close-range battle, allowing the English to take control. Spain still had numerically larger fleets, but England was catching up.

Elizabeth became known as ‘Gloriana’. The ‘Protestant wind’ had worked in England’s favour. On these shores at least, Protestantism ruled and the Catholic bogeymen were seemingly banished. Clerics preached that God and Protestant England were as one and Papists were promised hell in the Channel and in the afterlife. In the words of the bishop of Salisbury, John Piers, God had executed ‘justice upon our cruel enemies; turning the destruction that they had intended on us upon their own heads’.

Sir Roy Strong:

To England and Protestant Europe this was seen as God’s judgement and his handmaiden went in triumph through the streets of London to St Paul’s to give thanks amidst the acclamation of her people. In a sense she became England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada made a reality of what her government had striven to achieve, a united people held together by the crown, Protestant, patriotic, fearless in defence of Queen and country. Although in political terms the victory may have changed little and the country was to remain involved in a costly war for the rest of the reign, in moral ones it gave confidence and creative energy to what was in essence a new civilisation and society …

The boost to national pride lasted for years, and Elizabeth’s legend persisted and grew long after her death.

The Spanish appear to have shrugged off their defeat as nothing more than an unfortunate setback. The Spanish navy underwent a major organisational reform that helped it to maintain control over its trans-Atlantic routes. High-seas buccaneering and the supply of troops to Philip II’s enemies in the Netherlands and France continued, but brought few tangible rewards for England.

Within a few years Spain, opposed to Henry of Navarre’s claim to the French throne, invaded Normandy and Brittany, captured Amiens and Calais and threatened the key Channel port of Brest. The English sent 4,000 men to Brittany and, with their French allies, saw off that threat. But a Spanish raid from Blanet in galleys not at the mercy of English winds exposed again the vulnerability of Elizabeth’s realm and her navy was recalled from overseas duties. The danger was very real as Philip was planning a second invasion Armada. It set off in winter 1596 but was thwarted not by English galleons, but by the weather.

The following year Elizabeth sought to retaliate by planning her own armada against Spain. A hundred ships and 6,000 men were to be sent to burn the port of Ferrol, where the Spanish were preparing yet another invasion fleet, but the task proved to be beyond England’s cash-strapped capacity. Drake also set sail with a fleet of privateers to establish a base in the Azores, attack Spain and raise revolt in Portugal. The expedition raided Corunna, but withdrew from Lisbon after failing to co-ordinate its strategy effectively with the Portuguese. Elizabeth fell back on the strategy of building up her country’s defences.

In October 1597 the third Armada set off. The Spanish plan was to sail 9,000 troops, protected by galleons, from Ferrol, while another 1,000 sailed in barges from Brittany with the apparent purpose of a swift raid. In reality, they were to meet at Falmouth, land and join up with a supposed rebellion by English Catholics. Again, the weather came to the rescue and the invaders were scattered by a storm off the Lizard.

Between 1595 and 1597 large-scale operations were resumed; Drake was called out from his retirement and placed, with Hawkins, in command of another expedition. Raleigh and Lord Essex brilliantly attacked Cadiz, capturing the city and temporarily bankrupting King Philip of Spain. But the delayed West Indies expedition accomplished little; both Drake and Hawkins died and were buried at sea, disease ravaged the fleet and in April 1596 several of their ships reached Falmouth in great want and distress.

Soon Philip was preparing another great armada and Elizabeth called up an army to defend her regal frame, to which Cornwall and Devon were to contribute 2,000 men. They were not necessary as the fabled ‘Protestant wind’ came to the rescue – the armada was struck by fierce gales off Finisterre.

At Plymouth, the military Governor raised his garrison to 100, and while under his supervision many more hundreds of pounds were spent upon the fortifications of Plymouth Citadel. The strain was being felt: notification was given that there would not be sufficient funds out of the revenue of Devon and Cornwall to meet his half-yearly charges, now amounting to £900.

Ralegh and Essex were fitting out another joint expedition at Plymouth, this time for the Azores, to intercept the Plate fleet. Meanwhile, information was coming into the west country of the renewed preparations in Spanish harbours: an armada of 100 sail. It was thought that, as in 1588, they would be heading for Calais. In the Azores, the English fleet of Raleigh and Essex just missed the Plate treasure fleet bound for Spain: the narrowest escape King Philip had had. Essex and Ralegh quarrelled bitterly and, their fleet battered by the gales of that summer and in no condition to fight, made for home.

Two days before they left, the Adelantado weighed anchor from Ferrol (Spain) and with all his armada kept company ‘with great joy’ until within twenty-five leagues from the Scilly Isles off Cornwall. Then it transpired what his objective was not Calais at all, but Falmouth. His instructions were a new and elaborated version of the great Menendez’s plan of the 1570s: to seize, fortify and garrison Pendennis Castle at Falmouth, then take his fighting ships to the Scilly Isles, wait there and destroy the English ships returning from the Azores. If successful in this, he was, with the other half of his forces, some 10,000 men, to march eastward and capture Plymouth. It was an ambitious plan, and some part of it might have achieved success. But again, the Channel winds prevented it being put to the test. It was October when the armada put out. It was within two days’ sail of Land’s End when the autumn gales struck it and forced it to turn back.

The immediate consequence of the failed invasion was that the fortification of Pendennis Castle was undertaken in real earnest. Lord Essex gave his opinion that it was not defensible as it was against an army landed, and that an engineer should be employed to make the ground better to resist fire. It was reported that the Adelantado had meant to establish himself on the headland and turn it into an island by cutting the narrow neck of the peninsula.

At the moment of danger, Raleigh had drawn 500 levies into Pendennis, a crippling burden for a poor county. When it had passed, Godolphin wrote to him: ‘Our country poor people do and will much repine at the burden of maintaining these small forces, of 400 or 500 at Penryn for guard thereof, which guard to the intended force is of ineffectual moment.’ He suggested a further garrison to lie in readiness about Truro. ‘But what speak I of beggarly country aid against princes’ royal armies, which cannot but by our prince’s purse and munition be resisted?’ The strain of defence, the constant responding to calls on levies, maintaining them in service, was becoming too expensive for Cornwall’s meagre resources.

Still the Spanish refused to give up. By then Henry IV was firmly in control of France and by the 1598 Peace of Venins he abandoned his support for England in return for the Breton and Normandy ports captured by the Spanish. Philip of Spain’s successor, Philip III, then tried to negotiate a leaseback of those ports for use as a springboard to England. Luckily for England, Henry rejected that plan.

In 1601 Spanish attention turned to Ireland, then in a turmoil of revolt led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. The rebels defeated Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, and the Spanish saw their chance. Forty ships and 5,000 troops sailed for the Irish coast. The fleet was battered by storms and half turned back, but the remainder made landfall, landing at Kinsale in September. By then, however, the rebels had been defeated. The Spanish became bogged down in the beachhead, and when news came through that the remnants of the rebel armies coming to join them had been crushed, they surrendered on honourable terms.

On Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James VI of Scotland became king of England offered Philip III a negotiated peace. Both sides were exhausted by 20 years of war and the August 1604 Treaty of London offered an honourable settlement. Spain effectively recognised that they could not reverse the Reformation in England; the English agreed to halt efforts to destroy Spain’s trading monopoly in much of the Americas.

Mutual suspicion and tension, however, continued for decades until the French once again became England’s main threat.

The myths of the Armada became reality for most Britons up to the Second World War and beyond. They helped define a sense of Englishness driven by both fear and certainty. Its fury, brief though it was, and bungled as much of the enterprise was, gave the nation a moment of invigoration and renewal. As Garrett Mattingly wrote in 1959: ‘Its story, magnified and distorted by a golden mist, became a heroic apologue of the defence of freedom against tyranny, an eternal myth of the victory of the weak over the strong, of the triumph of David over Goliath. It raised men’s hearts in dark hours, and led them to say to one another: “What we have done once, we can do again.”’

The Armada myths continue to inspire.



London Irish Regiment training on Graveney Marsh in 1940.

On the night of 27 September 1940, Luftwaffe pilot Fritz Ruhlandt and his crew dropped their 4,000lb cargo of bombs over London and headed home. Flying over Kent, their Junkers 88 bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire from a gun emplacement beside the Medway at Upnor Castle. One engine was destroyed.

Spitfires and Hurricanes from 66 and 92 squadrons gave chase, under instructions to destroy it if they had to or, better still, force it to land. The Junkers 88 had come into service the previous September as soon as the war had broken out and had seen action over Poland, France and southern England. In those skies it had proved capable of taking heavy flak and continuing to fly. Its maximum speed was 292mph, its ceiling was 17,290ft and it had a range of 1,696 miles. It was a valuable asset and RAF scientists and designers dearly wanted to know its secrets. A general order had been issued to all units to capture one more or less intact. The RAF pilots succeeded in their aim, harrying the damaged aircraft engine until Ruhlandt had no option but to attempt a forced landing on Kent’s Graveney marshes. Unteroffizier Ruhlandt, despite being wounded, brought down his plane and he and his injured crew members crawled from the wreckage.

The descent and crash landing was heard by a unit of A Company, 1st Battalion, the London Irish Rifles at their billet at the Sportsman Inn in nearby Seasalter. As the threat of invasion by the Germans eased, their task changed to capturing any enemy aircrew brought down in the Kent countryside. During the Battle of Britain and throughout the late summer of 1940, the marshy flats had gained a new role as an emergency landing ground for crippled aircraft, both British and German. A Dornier Do 17 came down on the mudflats at Seasalter on 13 August 1940. Another bomber crash-landed just beside The Neptune pub at Whitstable on 16 August. The London Irish riflemen recognised what they had heard and around a dozen men rushed to the scene. They fully expected the four-strong Luftwaffe crew to give themselves up without a fight, but as they approached the plane, the Germans opened fire with a machine gun.

The British servicemen hit the deck. The soldiers returned fire but were forced to take cover under a hail of bullets. The Irish Rifles regrouped and a small group crept along a dyke towards the Germans. When they were about 50yds away one of the airmen waved a white flag but as the soldiers closed in fighting erupted again before the Germans were overpowered. One of them was shot in the foot during the brief battle. Nobody was killed.

During the exchange, the Rifles’ commanding officer, Captain John Cantopher, arrived at the pub for an inspection. According to the regiment’s official records, a Sergeant Allworth explained he had sent the men to the downed aircraft.

‘They took arms I hope,’ Cantopher said. ‘No sir …’ The sergeant broke off. Sounds of machine gun fire could be heard. ‘It looks as if they should have done,’ commented Cantopher. ‘Forget the inspection, I am going over there. Bring some of your men with rifles and ammo.’

Witness Nigel Wilkinson said:

On approaching the aircraft the men were fired on by the German crew with the aircraft’s two machine guns. The London Irishmen got into attack formation and having laid down heavy rifle fire on the aircraft mounted an assault of the Junkers across the marsh. By now the enemy aircrew had been wounded by the rifle fire and decided to surrender. It was at this stage that Captain Cantopher came on the scene.

The soldiers knew that enemy bombers were fitted with time bombs that enemy crew would prime on crash landing. The soldiers discovered such a device and removed it. Unknown to the prisoners, one of the soldiers could speak German and he heard the fliers talking about a second time bomb due to go off at any moment. Cantopher dashed back to the aircraft, located it under one of the wings and threw it into the ditch, saving the prized aircraft for British engineers to examine.

The soldiers took the captured Germans back to the pub. Corporal George Willis, the regiment’s piper, was in the Sportsman when the men returned with the Germans. He recalled: ‘The men were in good spirits and came into the pub with the Germans. We gave the Germans pints of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs. I got a set of enamel Luftwaffe wings.’

The Luftwaffe aircrew went to prisoner-of-war camps. The riflemen were mentioned in dispatches for their tactical ability, which had forced the surrender of the heavily armed Luftwaffe crew. Unofficially, however, it is said the riflemen had their knuckles rapped for opening fire without being ordered to do so.

The Junkers 88 was transported to Farnborough airfield where RAF technicians discovered it was only two weeks old and had been fitted with a secret and extremely accurate new bombsight. The aircraft was characterised by extended wings, improved handling and upgraded navigational aids, and represented a state-of-the-art example of the Luftwaffe’s bomber stable. Which explains why the crew, doing their own patriotic duty, were so willing to fight until their aircraft was destroyed.

Cantopher was awarded the George Medal for his bravery. But otherwise the incident was kept quiet during the war as the British did not want the Germans to know that they had captured nearly intact one of their most modern bombers. Newspapers made no mention of it and memories faded over 70 years.

In September 2010, the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association marked its seventieth anniversary by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the Sportsman pub.

The ‘battle’ of Graveney Marsh was the last exchange of fire involving a foreign invading force to take place on mainland Britain.

Soviet Interceptors – Cold War




SR-71 Blackbird (two-seated training version in the photo) – one of the most amazing aircraft ever built and real engineering wonder that came out Skunk Works facilities under brilliant lead of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Predominance as strategic level reconnaissance airplane, among others, realized through high-altitude and Mach 3+ flying. (Photo: US Air Force)

Despite the fact that Blackbird was not seriously endangered by the Soviet air defense, thanks to its flight speed and high-altitude operations, SR-71 operated outside the Soviet borders. A typical mission consisted of flight near the Soviet border and collecting data from deep inside the adversary’s airspace thanks to high-tech radar, optical and sensor equipment installed onboard SR-71. Although details about the installed equipment never went into public, there are official claims by the US Air Force that SR-71 could cover in one hour the ground area of 260,000 km2. In order to secure the longest possible flight range, soon after being airborne SR-71 would go for air refueling. After returning from the zone of action one more refueling would be performed; all in favor to prolong the time of being airborne. During the mission the flight speed of SR-71 was limited to Mach 3.2 although the airplane could reach even higher speeds. Its predecessor, A-12, could develop top flight speed of Mach 3.56 and the operational ceiling of more than 27,400 meters. Although the flight speed and altitude granted safe operation, unobstructed from the enemy’s air defense, the interception of SR-71 was tried out many times, but without real success. Still, optimally deployed Soviet anti-aircraft missile systems or MiG-25 interceptors posed some threat. With introduction of Soviet MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors, this threat became truly realistic.

The American projects of different types of Mach 3 airplanes, triggered reaction on the other side of the Iron curtain. Soviet attention was focused on US B-70 and SR-71 projects. Both types of airplanes had their first flights in the first half of 1960s. Although B-70 remained at prototype level, the Soviet answer in the form of Mach 3 interceptor went into full scale serial production and was widely introduced into operational units. Soviet MiG-25 was a sober answer, in accordance with the doctrine and capacity of the Soviet aviation industry and as a result of arms race between the West and the East. The question of this race was who could build faster and higher flying airplane.

The first prototyped MiG-25 took off in 1964, and it was introduced into operational service in 1970. At that moment MiG-25 was unreachable regarding flight speed and operational ceiling to any western fighter or interceptor airplane. MiG-25 reflected practical simplicity. To be able to withstand thermal stress caused by high speed aerodynamic heating, the airplane, including wing spars and fuselage frames, was mostly made of stainless steel. The robust structure of MiG-25 was reliable and easy for maintenance.

The use of titanium instead of stainless steel was also an option, but this option was abandoned because of high price and unsolved problems related to material processing. The problem of the cracks inside welds of thin-shell titanium structures presented unsolvable issue. Finally it was decided that the main materials would be different steel alloys that would constitute 80% of the MiG-25 structure. 11% of structure would be made of aluminum and 9% out of titanium. Two powerful turbojet engines provided enough thrust; so theoretically, MiG-25 could reach the flight speed of Mach 3.2 at an altitude of 27 kilometers. However, the operational flight speed was limited to Mach 2.8 considering that at flight speeds higher than that the engine turbines tended to overheat, resulting in possibly damaging engines beyond repair.

MiG-25 was definitely for the West one of the greatest Cold War enigma. High flight speed was one of the NATO concerns, although, in reality, MiG-25 could hardly compromise the mission of, for example SR-71, first of all because of poorer avionics and also not being able to keep continuous flight speed above Mach 3. Inaccurate intelligence triggered general opinion in the West that MiG-25 was actually a highly maneuverable fighter airplane, instead of interceptor. The large wing surface was wrongly interpreted; as a matter of fact, MiG-25 needed big lifting surface because of maximum take-off weight (it was made of steel!) of more than 35 tons. The American response to wrong intelligence data was the initiation of a new program which would result in one of the best fighter-interceptors of the Cold War and the post Cold War era – it was McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.

The shroud of secrecy around MiG-25 was removed in 1976. On September 6, Viktor Belenko, a Soviet Air Defense pilot, defected with his MiG-25P to the Japanese airport Hakodate. The airplane was practically newly produced and gave the Americans a chance to take a close look for the first time into the modern Soviet aerospace technology. The airplane was built around two massive and powerful Tumansky R-15(B) turbojet engines, each rated at more than 10 tons of thrust. Welding was partially manual and rivet heads were not flushed in the areas where this could not influence the aerodynamic drag. The airplane structure was mainly made of nickel steel and not of titanium as it was largely assumed in the West. The airplane g-load was limited to 4.5 g and the combat radius was just 300 kilometers. The scale of airspeed indicator was marked red at Mach 2.8 and the typical interception speed was at Mach 2.5; all in favor of extending the lifetime of engines. The majority of onboard avionics was based on vacuum tube technology. Although vacuum tube technology was obsolete it proved to be very tolerant to peak temperatures developing at Mach 3+ airspeeds. Other than that, vacuum pipes were much easier to maintain, from the Soviet standpoint, and they were resistant to electromagnetic pulse, for example after nuclear explosion. After 67 days of detailed analysis the Americans returned to the Soviets Belenko’s MiG-25; in pieces of course.

Although the results of MiG-25 technical analysis proved that the Soviet aerospace industry was behind that of the Americans, this fact could be deceiving. One must not forget that the philosophy of the Soviet war strategists, since World War II, was based on massive military production of reliable and easy-to-maintain systems, scarifying at the same time their sophistication. Through that context, the legendary MiG-25 should be observed. Until 1976, the Soviet Air Defense Forces (Russian: Aviatsiya PVO – Protivo–Vozdushnoy Oborony) had in its inventory more than 400 MiG-25 interceptors. In interception missions the Soviet interceptors relied heavily on their ground control. Guided by directions and parameters from the ground control, the task of the pilot was to take off as soon as possible, intercept an enemy’s airplane and shoot it down. For this kind of mission performances of MiG-25, like flight speed, operational ceiling and maybe most important the rate of climb, were more than satisfying.

In 1982, MiG-31 was introduced in operational service of Soviet Air Defense, conceived on the good bases of MiG-25. MiG-31 was characterized by properties which presented an upgrade of MiG-25. MiG-31 could fly supersonically at low altitudes, didn’t have to rely so much on ground control during interception missions, could engage several targets above and below owing to its look up and look down/shoot radar, and had bigger combat radius. The highest airspeed, much like in MiG-25, was limited in operational use at Mach 2.83, although engines had enough power to accelerate an airplane to Mach 3+. Initially, MiG-31 had two D30-F6 turbofan engines, each rated at 15.5 tons of static thrust using afterburner. It has to be noted that MiG-31 had maximum take-off weight of more than 46 tons, which puts it on the first place of the list of the heaviest interceptors in the world.

Designers of MiG testing and designing office soon realized that the performances of their MiG-25 were promising the setting of a whole range of airplane records, under the supervision of the International Aeronautical Federation. With that idea in mind, three specially designed prototype airplanes – Ye-155P1, Ye-155R1 and Ye-155R3 were prepared. The structures of prototypes were made lighter by removing, for the occasion, unnecessary equipment.

The first flight speed record was realized on March 16, 1965, for speed over closed circuit, without payload and with 1,000 kilos and 2,000 kilos payload. The test pilot Aleksandar Fedotov achieved an average flight speed of 2,319.12 km/h over a closed circuit of 1,000 kilometers.

On July 25, 1973, Fedotov reached the altitude of 35,230 meters with 1,000 kilos payload, and 36,240 meters with no payload. In the highest point of flight trajectory the airspeed of the airplane dropped to only 75 km/h. A few years later, on August 31, 1977, Fedotov set the absolute altitude record for turbojet-powered airplanes, reaching the altitude of 37,650 meters.

The climb rate records were demonstrated on June 4, 1973, when Boris A. Orlov climbed to 20,000 meters in just 2 minutes and 49.8 seconds. On the same day Pyotr M. Ostapenko reached 25,000 meters in 3 minutes and 12.6 seconds and 30,000 meters in 4 minutes and 3.8 seconds.

Overall, MiG-25 prototyped and prepared record breaking airplanes set 29 records, out of which 7 were absolute world flight speed, altitude and climbing records. Some of those still stand today.

The Italian Wars–Fornovo in July 1495


Charles VIII is attacked, Battle of Fornovo, 6 July 1495.


The first full scale battle of the wars was fought at Fornovo in July 1495. Charles’ triumph in conquering Naples was short-lived. Those internal elements which had contributed to the overthrow of the Aragonese dynasty soon realised that French rule was not a satisfactory alternative, and increasing unrest made the position of Charles’ army a difficult one. The Italian states, with the exception of Florence, which was now permanently committed to the French cause, came together in an alliance to evict the French, and began to receive increasing encouragement from Spain and the Empire. At the end of May, Charles decided to return to France with the core of his army, leaving a skeleton force under Montpensier to defend Naples. The armies of the Italian League began to gather to oppose this return march, but there was still little real political unity, as some thought it best to let the French pass on their way out of Italy rather than risk a confrontation with them. However, the opportunity, as Charles marched northwards with a relatively small army, was too good a one to be missed and Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, Venetian captain general and commander of the combined army, elected to bring the French to open battle rather than simply hold the Apennine passes against them. The latter course would have involved little risk and could well have led either to the eventual surrender of the army as it was cut off from its base, or at least to a hazardous transhipment by sea. It would have been a strategy very much in the Italian tradition, but Gonzaga felt both sufficiently confident and sufficiently determined to achieve the personal glory of defeating the French, to go for a crushing victory.

The French retreated along the route they had come in the previous year. This meant crossing the Apennines between Sarzana and Parma by the Cisa Pass, and coming down into the valley of the Taro at Fornovo. Here, below the town where the valley widened out, the huge Italian army was waiting for them in a camp fortified with a ditch and a palisade. Gonzaga described his army as ‘the finest and most powerful that has been seen in Italy for many years’. It numbered about 25,000 men of whom about 5,000 were in Milanese service and the remainder in that of Venice. Two thousand two hundred heavy cavalry lances of five men each formed the core of the army, but there were also about 2,000 light cavalry, mostly stradiots, and 8,000 professional infantry. Four thousand Venetian militia had also arrived, although the bulk of the militia forces were still on the march, as was most of the Venetian heavy artillery. The French numbered about 900 lances of heavy cavalry, 3,000 Swiss infantry, 600 archers of the royal bodyguard and 1,000 artillerymen, a total of about 10,000 men.

When it reached Fornovo, the French army crossed the Taro and began to move down the left bank of the river in front of the Italian camp. Its left flank was thus protected by the hills and its right by the river. In the circumstances the French not surprisingly expected the main assault on them to come from straight up the valley, and to counter this the Swiss marched in a tight square close behind the cavalry advance guard. Two further large columns of cavalry completed the order of the march with the King commanding the centre himself and the rear led by Gaston de Foix. The baggage train laden down with loot from the campaign was placed towards the rear and close to the line of the hills; the artillery moved on the right flank along the river bank.

The Italian battle plan was drawn up by Ridolfo Gonzaga, uncle of the Marquis and himself a veteran of the Burgundian wars, with just these dispositions of the enemy in mind. The tactical conception was masterly, although the details for its execution were over-elaborate. Basically the plan was to block the French advance with a holding force and launch the main attack across the Taro on the flanks of the centre and rear columns. This would have the effect of pinning the enemy against the hills, splitting his extended line of march, and destroying the columns in detail. To carry out this operation the Italian army was divided into nine divisions. The Count of Caiazzo, with the main body of the Milanese cavalry and supported by a mixed infantry force and a large cavalry reserve, was to cross the Taro in front of the French and engage the vanguard. Gonzaga himself with his personal troops was to cross in the centre, engage the French centre, and split it off from the vanguard. Bernardino Fortebraccio had command of the third prong of the attack, made up of the leading Venetian cavalry squadrons, and was to attack the rearguard. In close support to Gonzaga and Fortebraccio came the cream of the Venetian infantry, and then in reserve two further columns of cavalry. The first of these comprised the lanze spezzate known as the Colleoneschi and commanded by the son-in-law of the legendary Colleoni, who had died nearly twenty years earlier. The second reserve column was led by Antonio da Montefeltro, the illegitimate son of that other leading figure of the preceding generation, Federigo. While all these divisions were attacking directly from across the Taro, the stradiots were to pass right around the rear of the enemy and attack the vanguard downhill, thus causing further confusion and preventing stragglers from escaping into the hills. Finally a strong guard of cavalry and militia was left in the camp.

The intelligent use of reserves has sometimes been described as one of the distinguishing features of modern military tactics, and the concept was certainly one that had been widely explored by the condottieri. But in this case there was too much emphasis on reserves. Whether this was because Gonzaga had more men than he knew what to do with or whether it was a sort of natural caution is hard to say. However, part of the intention was clearly to prevent the reserves being committed too early or all at once, and the leaders of the various reserve divisions had strict orders not to enter the fray until called forward by Ridolfo Gonzaga and no one else.

The battle opened in mid-afternoon with a brief artillery duel across the Taro. But heavy rain had dampened the powder and the guns on both sides were more than usually ineffective. The rain had also swollen the river suddenly, and this was seriously to affect the Italian plan. When the signal to advance was given the three spearhead columns began to cross the river. The Count of Caiazzo attacked the van with indifferent success; his infantry were badly cut up by the Swiss who outnumbered them, and elements of his troops were soon fleeing towards Parma. However, he achieved his task of keeping the French vanguard occupied. The stradiots also reached their first objective and harried the French left flank. But when two of their leaders were killed, they drew off and began to plunder the baggage train, which their encircling movement had placed at their mercy. In the centre Gonzaga found it impossible to cross the river where he had intended and moved further upstream to cross close to Fortebraccio’s troops. This led to delay and some confusion; but above all it meant that instead of striking the gap between the French centre and the already committed vanguard, he crossed between the centre and the rearguard, thus exposing his flank to the full weight of the French centre. Here in the space of less than an hour the battle was decided. The element of surprise was lost by the delays, and Gonzaga and Fortebraccio found their squadrons depleted by the difficulties of crossing the river. They bore the full brunt of the counter-attacks of the French and no reserves came forward, as Ridolfo Gonzaga was mortally wounded at the height of the battle. Thus more than half the Italian army never got into action at all. The heavily mauled divisions of Gonzaga and Fortebraccio gave almost as good as they got; the two leaders particularly fighting with exceptional gallantry. At one point they came close to capturing Charles, but so furious a battle could not last for long. Both armies drew back to regroup, and then approaching darkness prevented a resumption of fighting.

The outcome of the battle appeared uncertain, and both sides claimed a victory. The French had achieved their aim of opening a road northwards, as they were able to resume their march stealthily the next night. They had inflicted the heavier casualties on Gonzaga’s army which lost over 2,000 men, including a number of captains. The Italians could claim to be the masters of the field as the French drew off, and they captured the French baggage, including Charles’ personal illustrated record of his many amorous conquests. They also took more prisoners. These perhaps, in terms of Italian warfare, were indications of victory; but Fornovo was fought for specific objectives, and Gonzaga failed to achieve his objective; so he can be said in real terms to have lost the battle. But he lost it not because the Swiss infantry and French artillery were invincible; neither of these elements played much part. Nor did he lose it because the French fought better or with more determination. He did not even lose it because a part of his army got out of hand, notably the stradiots, and another part, the Milanese, did not press their attack (perhaps on instructions from Milan), although these were the excuses given for the lack of success. Three factors really contributed to the Italian failure. First there was the sudden rising of the Taro which badly disrupted the Italian plan and caused last minute confusion. Secondly both Francesco Gonzaga and his uncle elected to lead the army, and thus no one was really in a position to direct the whole battle. Gonzaga, although he showed great personal bravery and many of the ideal qualities of a subordinate commander, had not appreciated that so large and complex an army needed to be directed from behind.

This was by no means a typical Italian mistake; neither Braccio nor Sforza would ever have allowed themselves to make it. Finally the sheer size of the army and complexity of the battle plan frustrated success. This sudden attempt to translate tactics which could work well with a small army used to cooperation to a large composite army which had come together for the first time, was bound to run into difficulties. More traditional tactics would probably have won the day by sheer weight of numbers, which is a curious reflection on the theory that Italian methods were outdated and superseded.

Fornovo was one of the two major battles in the whole period between 1494 and 1530 when a largely Italian army met the invaders in the open field. It is therefore one of the few occasions when one can seek to assess the relative merits of Italian and ultramontane military methods. For the rest of the time the political disunity of Italy and political weakness of most of the states made combination against the invaders and a real trial of strength impossible. Italians fought, sometimes distinguished themselves, and occasionally disgraced themselves, on both sides in the wars, but the warfare was increasingly becoming international rather than Italian. It only remains therefore to analyse briefly the Italian contributions to the changes which were taking place during these protracted wars.

WWII Signals Intelligence I

Russland, Funker in gepanzertem Fahrzeug

The German Army’s field signal intelligence effort was organized into nine SIGINT regiments (known as KONAs, Kommandeur der Nachrichten Aufklaerung) stationed on every front.

Signals intelligence, the intercept and analysis of electronic signals, had its birth just before World War I as telecommunications became increasingly important in diplomacy and military operations. In many European countries, the monitoring of this new communications system came under the same bureaus (called “black chambers”) that previously had intercepted and read foreign mail. Their contributions to military operations in that war and the importance of intercepting and analyzing a likely opponents communications (called signals at that time) were widely recognized during the interwar period.

By 1939, virtually every power in Europe had a signals intelligence agency within its foreign ministries, and more often than not, within its military departments as well. Signals intelligence (called SIGINT) was expanded during World War II to include the intercept and analysis of electronic signals not related to communications. This reflected the growing importance of radar and electronic systems in warfare. Winning the electronic war determined the outcome in the Battle of the Atlantic and contributed to the success of the Allied bombing campaign. Signals intelligence played a key role in every military campaign in World War II.

The more spectacular code breaking or cryptographic aspects of signals intelligence are well known if not well understood. Successful code breaking can have an immediate strategic impact on a country’s activities, both military and diplomatic. With it, one can read an enemy’s actual thoughts and plans and prepare one’s own countermeasures or reactions accordingly. For that reason, every major SIGINT agency had a code breaking section, and those of the respective foreign ministries generally had the largest and best funded.

The U.S. State Department was the only major foreign ministry that did not maintain a signals intercept service during the interwar period. Even minor European countries, such as Romania and Hungary, had such services. Fortunately for the United States, its military services retained their SIGINT agencies after World War I and had begun to expand their capabilities as World War II approached. At first, the U.S. military’s focus on protecting America’s territories in the Pacific limited its code breaking successes to the major countries in that theater, but with British assistance, the Americans were able to make a significant contribution to the Allied SIGINT effort in Europe after 1943.

Although spectacular in its impact, code breaking is neither the only element of signals intelligence nor the most important. Much can be gained from analyzing the nature of the signal itself, as well as from whom and to whom the signal is directed. Individual Morse code operators tap out their messages in a unique way that can be identified. This “fist” could be used to track the operator’s movements. Since many military and political leaders of the period used their own personal communicators, the leaders or their units could be located by finding the communicators. Also, unit call signs or the code names that units and commanders used to identify themselves in electronic communications provided a means by which to track the movements and activities of those units. For that reason, many successful deception plans of World War II revolved around the placement and activities of communications personnel and the exchanging of call signs.

Determining with whom units and agencies are communicating can do much to identify the intentions, capabilities, and likely missions of those units or their leaders. For example, communications between a major enemy ground component commander’s headquarters and most of the enemy’s armored or mobile divisions in the area might indicate an impending offensive in that sector. The addition of a major air force HQ communicating with that commander’s HQ would be an additional indicator. Indeed, those were exactly the SIGINT indicators available to the Allied ground commanders in France on 8-9 May 1940, some twenty-four hours prior to the German invasion of Belgium.

Denying this sort of information to an opponent was as important as gaining it from them. Hence, SIGINT was very much a chess game between those collecting the signals and their opponents’ efforts to protect their own communications from interception or deny the collectors the details required to analyze those communications. This was called communications security. The communications security effort had to be balanced against the likely impact on one’s own forces. Using a permanent call sign, for example, simplified friendly force identification on the net, but also made it easier for hostile SIGINT services to do the same. Thus, most nations rotated their call signs periodically, except where speed of identification or communications outweighed the need for security—such as for aircraft, individual minor combatants, or tactical communications among units in combat.

Another aspect of SIGINT was direction finding, or DF. This technique used directional antennas to determine the azimuth or direction from which a signal emanated. Two or more intercept stations operating in concert against a single transmitting station (or emitter) could triangulate its position. In other words, they could fix the emitter’s location by plotting the respective azimuths on a map or chart. The emitter’s location, or fix, was where the azimuths intersected. The closer the angle of intersection was to 90 degrees (a “cross bearing”), the more accurate the fix. The fix’s accuracy also improved with the number of azimuths, since the primitive directional antennas of the period required the operator to judge the azimuth himself by deciding from which direction the signal was strongest. The more experienced the intercept operator, the more accurate his judgment. A larger number of azimuths also enabled the plotter to discard the most inconsistent azimuths, or to determine an area of probability if no clear fix emerged.

The transmitters frequency also affected the accuracy of a DF fix. Higher frequency systems had narrower beams and were easier to judge. Lower frequencies could be detected at longer ranges since their signals often traveled along the earth’s surface beyond the horizon (ground wave), or reflected off the stratosphere back onto the earth’s surface (sky wave). Radars, airborne navigation systems, and the higher frequency communications systems—such as very high frequency (VHF) air and tactical ground communications— could only be intercepted if the receiver was located within a direct line of sight of the transmitter. When detected by multiple intercept stations, however, an emitter’s position could be fixed very accurately and within a very short time.

Proximity to the transmitter was another consideration. The closer the intercept station was to the transmitter, the more accurate the azimuth was likely to be. That was why Allied naval authorities wanted high frequency DF (HF/DF) systems installed on destroyers escorting convoys. It enabled the escorts to locate the U-boat reporting the convoy’s location more accurately, significantly improving the chances of destroying the U-boat.

High frequency communications were so important to naval operations, because of the vast distances involved, that all nations employed huge naval SIGINT infrastructures with numerous HF/DF sites to track hostile and neutral naval forces. The Western Allies had the most extensive and effective networks, with SIGINT stations at virtually every British and American overseas base. The Italians and Soviets had networks that enabled them to track naval units operating in the waters near their shores. The Germans had only a limited capability to track naval units in the Atlantic accurately until they established HF/DF sites in France and Norway. Even then, the lack of “cross bearings” inhibited the accuracy of their fixes against units in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Britain had the world’s largest and most capable SIGINT organization at the start of World War II. All military and diplomatic SIGINT activities theoretically came under its umbrella, but in practice, the tactical and operational SIGINT collection of the military services came under the service chiefs. Still, Britain’s SIGINT effort was better coordinated than that of any of the war’s participants. Britain entered the war at a slight disadvantage since most of its SIGINT efforts had been directed against the Soviet Union during the interwar period—Germany had been identified as a threat only in the late 1930s. Britain did benefit from its good relations and cooperation with France, and from 1939 on, with Poland.

The French had a good picture of the German military communications networks, much of it gained from the Czech intelligence services that transferred many of their files to the French just before the German occupation in 1938.

The activities of Bletchley Park and its decoding successes are generally well known, but the British military SIGINT services also made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. The Anglo-American HF/DF sites greatly facilitated the Allies’ antisubmarine efforts, particularly after HF/DF equipment was installed aboard Allied escort ships. The British Army assigned signals intelligence companies, called special wireless sections (SWS), to each British field army HQ. Equipped primarily with HF intercept equipment and lacking DF capability at war’s start, these units became more mobile as the war progressed. The doctrine changed as well. In 1940, British SWS units in France detected the movement of the Panzer divisions up to the border and into the Ardennes. British commanders, however, did not accept their reports, waiting instead for confirmation by aerial reconnaissance. The resulting forty eight-hour delay was an important element in the Allied defeat in France. Afterward, such reports of “immediate significance” went directly to the British field army commander.

WWII Signals Intelligence II


Lydd HF Direction Finding Station 1945 Captain Louis Varney G5RV 2nd from left

The British “Y” Service, or voice intercept service, intercepted uncoded German voice communications—primarily the Luftwaffe’s, but those of the German Army as well. Field Marshall Sir Bernard L. Montgomery recognized and exploited the capabilities of the Y Service better perhaps than any other senior British commander.

Initially employed against German fighter and bomber communications to supplement data obtained from radar plots, the RAF’s Y Service took on a broader role as the British shifted to the offensive after 1942. Assigned to disrupt the German air defense system, Y Service operators actively intruded on the German night fighter and later on day fighter communications circuits. British operators would call the German pilots or HQ controller on the radio, issue false orders, request operational information, or question orders and otherwise disrupt communications. Beginning in 1942, every bomber raid included a specially modified bomber carrying Y Service operators who provided warning of German fighter activities and disrupted German communications as necessary. Since the German Army used tactical codes in their voice circuits, the British rarely used the Y Service operators to intrude on German ground communications.

To be effective, Y Service operators required an extensive knowledge of German communications procedures and call signs, as well as near native fluency in the language. Intrusion can be countered, however, by the use of regularly changing tactical codes and tight communications discipline. Since air operations occurred at a speed that precluded the extensive use of codes, air control nets were the most likely to suffer intrusion. The Germans countered the RAF’s Y Service by using female communicators, but the British introduced female operators of their own. Although the Y Service never completely disrupted the German air defense command and control system, it certainly reduced its effectiveness.

The Polish security service was much smaller than that of its allies and opponents, but it still managed to obtain copies of the German Enigma encryption machine and made significant inroads toward breaking Germany’s codes—particularly those of the Luftwaffe. The Poles also reportedly broke some of the lower tactical Soviet code systems. They shared their results with their Anglo-French allies, even smuggling the files and equipment to France after Warsaw’s fall in 1939. This collaboration was the foundation of the Allies’ successful and widespread penetration of the German Enigma encryption systems (ULTRA). Cooperation and collaboration between the United States and Great Britain only began after Dunkirk, and accelerated after the Battle of Britain.

Little is known about the Soviet SIGINT services, but given the lack of cooperation between the state security organs (see NKVD) and military intelligence before the war, it is reasonable to assume that each of those agencies operated its own separate SIGINT services. Although the extent of Soviet SIGINT capabilities in World War II probably will never be known, the Germans discovered during their early offensives that the Soviets had extensive knowledge of the German communications networks and command structure. Finland’s SIGINT services discovered in November 1939 that the Soviets had been monitoring their air defense and army communications for some time. The Finns also believed that they had discovered several instances of Soviet operators intruding on Finnish communications networks. The Germans reported similar experiences during the battle for Stalingrad and the later campaigns on the eastern front. At the very least, this suggests that the Soviets had a significant capability to operate against the communications of its two most important European foes.

Germany entered the war with three separate military SIGINT organizations: the Abwehr’s Chiffrierwesen, the Kriegsmarine’s Beobachdienst or B-Dienst, and the Luftwaffe’s Forschungsamt. The Gestapo had a SIGINT service as well, but used it primarily for counterintelligence. Each agency operated independently after 1938, and rarely shared information, much less cooperated with each other. The German military service chiefs, in fact, often used their SIGINT agency’s reports to curry favor with Adolf Hitler. The resulting dispersal of effort inhibited the overall effectiveness of Germany’s SIGINT effort. The Luftwaffe, for example, would not ask the Kriegsmarine to collect information about Allied land and air radars and electronic systems, nor would the Kriegsmarine ask the Luftwaffe for information about Allied sea-based systems. Conversely, neither service was enthusiastic about sharing what it knew about these systems. Both services had to collect against all possible Allied systems, and given the limited resources available, neither obtained all the information it needed to support its respective war efforts.

Nonetheless, all the German SIGINT services enjoyed some successes, particularly early in the war. The Germans concentrated on operational and tactical signals intelligence—that is, the rapid dissemination of SIGINT information directly and immediately to the operational-level commander. German Army SIGINT units were assigned to each army corps and contributed greatly to the successful ground offensives of 1939 and 1941. Detecting the movements of Allied ground units far ahead of the German advance, they provided timely warning of Allied countermoves that enabled German mobile units to outmaneuver their slower Allied opponents, who received their own SIGINT reports much more slowly. The German SIGINT equipment was also light and mobile and the units were totally motorized so they could keep up with the Panzer units. General Erwin Rommel’s signals intelligence company is probably the most famous of these units, and he credited much of his success to its efforts. That company was so good that Field Marshall Montgomery specifically targeted the unit for destruction before launching the El Alamein offensive.

The Luftwaffe used the same equipment and employed a structure similar to the army’s, providing each Luftflotte (Air Fleet) with a radio reconnaissance battalion. These battalions monitored enemy air force and ground service communications to provide warning of enemy air movements, locate enemy operating bases, and locate enemy air headquarters and command posts. The radio reconnaissance battalions in Germany and on the western front were consolidated in May 1944 to concentrate against the Allied bombing campaign. They provided warning of Allied bombing raids by intercepting the prelaunch testing of electronic systems aboard the bombers. They also helped to track night bomber streams by monitoring the bombers’ navigation systems and radar emissions.

The Kriegsmarine primarily employed permanent HF/DF sites located near its major bases in Germany and the occupied countries in the west. These sites enabled the B-Dienst to provide accurate locating data on enemy ship movements in the North Sea and northern Atlantic to German naval units involved in the Battle of the Atlantic. The data were disseminated immediately to naval and U-boat operational headquarters and disseminated regularly to units at sea. The accuracy was not very good on shipping in the Mediterranean, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, but it did give German naval units an idea of what they might encounter. Also, the B-Dienst was able to decrypt Allied convoy and Royal Navy operational communications during much of the war’s early years. That was critical to Germany’s success in Norway and contributed to the effectiveness of U-boat operations during early phases of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Kriegsmarine also assigned B-Dienst detachments to Germany’s surface raiders and major surface combatants. Thus, every flagship and surface raider had the ability to detect Allied naval formations and convoys in their operating area. In some cases, the B-Deinst detachments also did local decoding of enemy communications, particularly merchant shipping and aerial reconnaissance reporting. Transmission security was provided by the use of “one-time” pads to protect against enemy decoding.

Italy’s state and military intelligence services had SIGINT units. Targeted mostly against the French and Yugoslavs, the Italians had a reasonably effective decoding service, which successfully broke the Yugoslavian Army and the French and British naval codes during the interwar period. The Italians, however, were similar to the French in that they relied on permanent signals-monitoring stations. The Italian services were totally dependent upon SIGINT sites in Italy and Albania. This not only inhibited the interception of Allied communications in North Africa and the more distant waters of the Mediterranean, but it delayed dissemination of the reporting. It also prevented the rapport and mutual understanding between the intelligence services and the supported commanders that are so essential to effective intelligence support.

The Italians’ most prominent success came during the invasion of Yugoslavia when Italian radio operators in Albania regularly intruded on the encrypted Yugoslav command net, countermanding attack orders and misdirecting Yugoslav units and logistics support.

In contrast to the cooperative Anglo-American SIGINT effort, the Axis countries did not trust each other enough to share information, much less coordinate their SIGINT efforts. Finland had the best SIGINT service of the minor countries, decrypting Soviet naval and other communications at various times during the Winter War. Monitoring of Soviet Air Force and army communications also provided the Finns with key information about Soviet intentions and preparations well in advance of actual attacks and bombing raids. Unfortunately, it was not enough to know when, where, and with what your opponent was attacking. One had to have the resources to defeat the attack, and such resources were what the Finns most acutely lacked. The Romanians and Hungarians also had fairly large and effective SIGINT services, but their efforts were directed more against each other, so they contributed very little to the overall Axis war effort.

SIGINT has become one of the most important elements of modern intelligence operations in a world of fast-moving, mobile military forces. Electronic signals are the means by which every modern commander sees and controls his forces, which are themselves dependent upon electronic systems to conduct their missions. SIGINT became an increasingly technological and complex affair as World War II progressed. The ability to read an enemy’s communications or know which of his units were in contact with each other provided insights into his operations and intentions. Knowing an enemy’s electronic sensor and navigation systems led to the development of effective countermeasures and the ability to blind him at a critical time, or just to avoid his forces when necessary. The Anglo-American cooperation in SIGINT enabled both countries to make the most of their SIGINT efforts and virtually guaranteed the Allied victory once the war-fighting forces had the resources to exploit the insights the SIGINT services developed.

Additional Reading

Andrew, Christopher, Codebreaking and Signals Intelligence (1986).

Clayton, Aileen, The Enemy Is Listening (1980).

Irving, David, Breach of Security (1968).

Kahn, David, The Codebreakers (1972).

Norman, Bruce, Secret Warfare: The Battle of Codes and Ciphers (1973).

West, Nigel, The SIGINT Secrets (1986).

Caesar Invades Britain and Germany


The approximate number of boats [800] in the fleet that carried the invading Roman army to Britain in 54 BCE. Of these, 28 were dedicated warships and most of the rest were troop transports. They used for troop transports both Standard warships and merchant ships, likely more merchants (when it’s not mentioned) than warships, which would’ve been less effective and more unusual. But there are definitely plenty of examples of both.


In place of the boats Caesar now had a bridge constructed. By a remarkable effort it was completed in ten days. Caesar gives a long, technical description of its building which has generated prolonged controversy over its detailed construction. Its location is equally uncertain but most probably across the middle Rhine between Andernach and Neuwied just north of Coblenz. The bridge was an impressive feat of engineering. In this area the Rhine is on average 1,300 feet wide and about 20 feet deep.

In 58 BC two German tribes, the Usipetes and Tencteri, under attack by the Suebi and unable to withstand the pressure, began a westward migration. Probably in January 55, after three years of wandering, they crossed the lower Rhine and entered the territory of the Menapii who had settlements on both sides of the river. At the arrival of the Germans they evacuated their settlements on the eastern bank and garrisoned the right bank to guard against a German crossing. Lacking boats the Germans entered into negotiations with the Menapii but these ended in failure. Pretending to retreat from the river the Germans deceived the Menapii, who relaxed their guard. A night attack by German cavalry killed the guards on the right bank and the Germans seized the Gauls’ boats. Once across they gained control of part of the lands of the Menapii, using their provisions and occupying their dwellings.

Caesar was in Cisalpine Gaul when he learned of the German crossing. He set out for Transalpina earlier than usual to prevent a more serious situation from developing. After he joined his army he learned that the arrival of the Germans had had further repercussions. As the Sequani had done earlier, several of the Gallic tribes invited the Germans to serve as mercenaries in intertribal wars. Encouraged by these invitations the Germans had moved into the territory of the Eburones and Condrusi who lived in the area between the Meuse (German Maas) and the Rhine and were Roman clients.

In response Caesar called a meeting of Gallic leaders. Here he probably means those of the central Gallic tribes, to rally support and to remind them of where their loyalties lay. He also levied cavalry from them both for military reasons and as hostages to assure good behaviour. After making arrangements to secure his grain supply he set out in the direction of Coblenz to confront the Germans. When he was only a few days march from them they sent envoys to him and requested lands to settle in – either those they already held or some other area designated by the Romans – and in addition offered themselves as allies. Caesar refused their request for their settlement as it would have upset his relations with the Gauls and the stability he had achieved, but offered them land on the other side of the Rhine in the territory of the German Ubii, which lay between the River Lahn and the Taunus Mountains.

The envoys asked for three days to consider Caesar’s offer. They requested that during the three days Caesar would not move his camp closer to their position. Caesar refused. He claims that the reason for this refusal was the fact that he had received intelligence that they had sent a large force of cavalry across the Meuse to loot and forage in the lands of the Ambivareti and that the delay was merely an excuse to put off fighting until the return of this force.

Caesar now advanced against them and when he was about eleven miles from their camp their envoys reappeared once again asking him to proceed no farther. Failing in this request they asked that he order his cavalry not engage them and to allow them to send an embassy to the Ubii. They said that if the Ubii accepted they would agree to Caesar’s terms. They asked for another three days to accomplish this. Caesar claims that in spite of his misgivings he agreed to go no farther than another four miles in search of water, and he ordered the Germans to assemble where he halted in full force and he would make a decision about their request. He then sent a message to his cavalry commander not to launch an assault and if he was attacked to wait until Caesar came up with the infantry.

The majority of the German cavalry was still absent when the 5,000 Roman auxiliary cavalry came into view. Despite the odds the 800 German horsemen charged and threw the auxiliary cavalry into disorder. When the Roman cavalry turned to resist, the Germans dismounted as was their custom, stabbing the horses and pulling their riders off until they finally routed the Romans, killing seventy-four of them. The rest turned in headlong flight until they came up with Caesar’s column. The disparity in numbers makes this rout surprising and it does seem suspicious. Caesar had already mentioned the fact that certain unnamed Gallic tribes had offered invitations to the Germans and they may have deliberately fled so as not to alienate the Germans. On the other hand there was a later occasion when a small force of German cavalry in Caesar’s service defeated a much larger body of Gallic cavalry.

The cavalry battle now persuaded Caesar that instant action was unavoidable. The rout of the cavalry would be seen as a defeat and persuade the Gauls who were unhappy with the Roman presence that Caesar’s forces were vulnerable. The next day a delegation of leading Germans appeared to apologize for the action, which may well have been unplanned. Caesar, who this time was not worried about violating the sanctity of envoys, detained them. He now marched against the leaderless Germans with his entire force, placing the cavalry at the rear as he was uncertain of their morale and loyalty. He deployed his army in a classic triple column of march so as to be ready for a sudden attack. Marching at the double he quickly completed the seven miles to the German camp and surprised them. The sudden appearance of Caesar and his army threw the unprepared Germans into confusion. The Romans broke into the camp. Those Germans who had arms resisted for a little while, fighting among their baggage and wagons; but the others, including the women and children, fled. Caesar sent his cavalry in pursuit. During the flight German morale broke down completely. They abandoned their weapons and standards rushed out of camp in an attempt to cross the river to safety. Caesar says that they fled to the confluence of the Meuse and Rhine: that is, to the Rhine-Meuse Delta in the Netherlands. But depending on the geography of the campaign, some place the battle near the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine near Coblenz. The first alternative is preferable. It is supported by the text and by a not entirely accurate description of the course of the Meuse earlier in the text. The flight was a disaster; when the Germans reached the Rhine a great number had been killed and many more drowned in the river.

Caesar claims that he had few casualties and none of them fatal. He gives the number of the combined tribes as 430,000 and a later source, his biographer Plutarch, claims that 400,000 of them perished. These figures give one pause, especially Plutarch’s figure for those killed. This seems an impossibly large number given that the pursuit and the slaughter extended over a significant distance and that some of the dead drowned in the Rhine. No figure can be regarded as even remotely accurate. It is difficult to believe that both tribes were as devastated as Caesar implies. Certainly they were still capable of causing further trouble for the Romans in the last decades of the century.

Caesar’s enemies fiercely criticized his conduct in this campaign for the bad faith he had shown with the German emissaries. A commission of inquiry was voted by the Senate but it is doubtful that it was ever sent. Caesar had the year before made one of his reasons for going to war against the Veneti the detention of Roman officials who were in fact not envoys. Although he does make an attempt to exonerate himself by suggesting the cavalry attack was purposeful, he does not hide the basic facts of the situation. His political enemies may have seen this incident as a weapon to use against him, but it is doubtful, given the Roman attitude towards the northern barbarians, that this act was politically damaging.

Caesar now decided to cross the Rhine. He thought a demonstration on the right bank of the river might act as a deterrent to further German attempts to cross into Gaul. In addition, if he crossed the river he would be the first Roman general to do so and this might further mute any criticism of his actions against the Germans and add to his prestige. He also wanted to pursue the German cavalry, which had been absent at the time of his victory over the Usipetes and Tencteri. They had crossed the Meuse in search of food and plunder and then retreated back over the Rhine to the territory of the Sugambri, whose lands lay between the Lahn and Ruhr rivers, and made an alliance with them. Learning of this Caesar sent messengers to the Sugambri to demand the return of the fugitives. They refused his request, claiming that Roman power ended at the left bank of the Rhine and that what they did was no business of Caesar’s. His victory had not impressed many of the German tribes: only the Ubii sent a delegation and concluded a treaty of friendship with Rome. They had good reasons to do so. They, like the Usipetes and Tencteri, were under pressure from the Suebi, and Caesar provided a possible solution to that problem. They offered boats to ferry his army across the Rhine. Caesar rejected this offer. He was worried about the safety of the crossing. The Ubii may have appeared anxious for his help but how could he be sure of them? He adds that such a crossing would not be consistent with his own or the Roman people’s dignity. Certainly, dignity was an important Roman political and social concept signifying the respect that other individuals or communities accorded a person or a group. It is hard to understand what it means in this context. Perhaps of more importance was the use of Roman engineering skills to impress the Germans. In place of the boats Caesar now had a bridge constructed. By a remarkable effort it was completed in ten days. Caesar gives a long, technical description of its building which has generated prolonged controversy over its detailed construction. Its location is equally uncertain but most probably across the middle Rhine between Andernach and Neuwied just north of Coblenz. The bridge was an impressive feat of engineering. In this area the Rhine is on average 1,300 feet wide and about 20 feet deep.

During the construction Caesar was approached by a number of German tribes seeking peace and alliance. He received their requests favourably, asking that they turn over hostages as a pledge of good faith. It is not clear that these hostages were ever handed over, but later on Caesar was able to recruit German mercenaries so his action must have had some effect. Leaving a guard at the bridge the Romans marched into the territory of the Sugambri, who had already fled once they learned of the construction of the bridge. As some of the Gauls had done, they sought refuge in the forests taking all of their property with them. Caesar remained for a few days in the territory of the Sugambri laying it waste and then moved on to the lands of the Ubii. There he made an explicit promise to the tribe that he would aid them against the Suebi. Meanwhile he learned from Ubian scouts that the Suebi had assembled all of their men capable of bearing arms in the middle of their territory and would fight a decisive battle there with the Romans. The spot was too remote for an expedition and so Caesar recrossed the Rhine, destroying the bridge behind him.

Although Caesar claims that he had achieved his goals of overawing the Germans, punishing the Sugambri and of aiding the Ubii, it is hard to see the German expedition as a success. The few days spent in destroying the property of the Sugambri and the uncertain German promises of peace and friendship counted for little. The Sugambri had evaded him during his eighteen-day stay across the Rhine. He did not confront the Suebi, who were the main Roman problem in western Germany, and it is difficult to know how serious his promise of support to the Ubii was. Also Caesar exaggerates the importance of the Rhine as a dividing line between Gaul and the Germans. The German tribes of the Eburones and Atuatuci were already settled to the east of the Nervii. It was not this campaign east of the Rhine that was significant but Caesar’s string of victories in Gaul that made the difference. It is likely that had Caesar not campaigned, the Germans would have increased their migration into Gaul and occupied much of it.

Despite the fact that it was late in the campaigning season, probably in late July, Caesar made preparations for his expedition to Britain. At this point in his narrative he claims that the reason for the expedition was that the Gauls had received help from their kinsmen across the Channel. The biographer Suetonius mentions another reason: Caesar’s lust for pearls. This is hardly persuasive. Although Caesar mentions other natural resources he is silent about the pearls, and some later Roman writers considered British pearls to be small, discoloured and dark. Writing within a generation of Caesar’s death the geographer Strabo mentions that the island produced slaves, hides, gold, silver and tin but in Caesar’s generation far less was known about the products of British mining. Cicero mentions that he had heard that there was no gold or silver in Britain. Caesar indicates that there was tin and iron but says nothing of precious metals. There was a substantial trade with the tribes on the northwestern coast as far south as the Loire. But this was not a Roman concern. Caesar claims that the merchants who traded with the Britons knew only the part of Britain facing Gaul and were of little help. It may well be that they were afraid of the effects of an invasion on their established routes and customers, but that does not indicate that they feared they would be replaced by Romans and Italians. An invasion would upset their established relationships and make movement unsafe. These were reasons enough to be reluctant to provide the Romans with information. There is no doubt that the desire for wealth played a role in Caesar’s decision, but it was made for booty, not trade opportunities.

Caesar’s claim that the Britons provided support to the Gallic tribes in their struggle with the Romans may be true but exaggerated. He records that south-eastern Britain was inhabited by Belgae, who had invaded the area and then settled it. Coinage and other archaeological evidence point to successive migrations by Belgae beginning about a century before Caesar’s arrival on the island. There were certainly ties between the Belgic tribes in Britain and those on the continent. In his discussion of the continental Belgae Caesar mentions that within living memory Diviciacus the king of the Suessiones had also ruled Britain, presumably in the Belgic south-east. In 57, after the defeat of the Belgae, chiefs of the Bellovaci who had persuaded their people to fight fled to Britain. In 55 on the eve of his first landing in Britain Caesar sent out Commius, whom he had made king of the Atrebates, to Britain as an envoy because he possessed great influence there, presumably among the Atrebates settled in Britain. Despite these ties Caesar provides no evidence of substantial British support for his enemies in Gaul.

The most important reason for the invasion is to be found in Caesar’s political position at Rome. If he had originally planned the invasion for 56 his attempt to link it to the security of Gaul, which he now claimed was pacified, would provide a further reason to extend his command. His prestige would be bolstered by being the first Roman to bring an army across the channel. The British invasion has its counterpart in his crossing of the Rhine. Both were ways of justifying Caesar’s command and enhancing his standing. These actions seem aimed less at Germans and Britons and more at his political enemies in Rome. The quest for wealth was certainly a motive but a subordinate one.

The first landing in Britain in 55 was little more than a reconnaissance in force. Caesar brought his legions to the Pas de Calais in the territory of the Morini who, now overawed by the concentration of force, surrendered. The army he assembled for this campaign was certainly too small to accomplish more than to prepare the way for a larger expedition. It consisted of the Seventh Legion and his favourite, the Tenth, lightly equipped to save space, and a force of cavalry sailing in a separate convoy from a different port. He must have expected that he would be met by British tribes with whom he had already been in diplomatic contact before he sailed and that they would make a formal submission. Caesar does not mention the port from which he sailed in 55 but in the next year he sailed from Portus Itius, whose location is uncertain but may be Boulogne, and it may well have been the port he used the year before.

When Caesar left the cavalry had not yet embarked and a change in the weather prevented it from joining him. When he had sailed on 26 August Caesar had chosen the natural harbour at Dover for his landing, but the steep cliffs covered with defenders made a landing there impossible. He sailed north along the coast, probably landing between Walmer and Deal. The British had kept pace with his ships as they sailed from Dover and were ready to oppose his landing. Despite having to disembark in the water because of the sloping beach the troops forced their way onshore and routed the British, but pursuit was impossible without the cavalry. In this initial encounter the Romans had their first experience of chariot fighting. The chariot was still used by the British Celts long after it had been abandoned in Gaul and Caesar was impressed enough to add a digression on it to Gallic War.

A storm four days later severely damaged Caesar’s ships. This led to renewed fighting with the British, who were once again defeated. These successes had some effect. A number of tribes submitted and as a penalty for their initial refusal to surrender Caesar doubled the number of hostages he demanded and ordered the tribes to transport them to Gaul. Given the lateness of the season – it was close to the autumnal equinox – Caesar returned to Gaul. The expedition had almost ended in disaster because of the weather. The force was too small to achieve anything significant, insufficient attention had been paid to the weather in the Channel, and too little time had been spent in preparing for the crossing. Despite its shortcomings the British expedition produced the political results that were all that Caesar could have wished for: he was voted a twenty-day thanksgiving by the Senate.