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.

Naval Mine Warfare, WWII


EMB Mine being laid from an S-Boote. Photograph from Suddentscher Verlag.


EMC Contact Mines aboard a Leberecht Maas class destroyer in Autumn 1940. Note the trolley rails.

Hidden, unseen, and inflicting their damage below the waterline, mines were one of the most feared naval weapons of World War II. Worldwide, mines sank 534 ships, accounting for some 1.4 million tons. Only torpedoes sank more ships than mines. The same had held true in World War I, and yet most of the great naval powers entered World War II poorly prepared to deal with mines. Only Germany and the Soviet Union included strong mine countermeasures forces in their fleets, no doubt because of their mutually bad experiences with each others’ mines in World War I. They also had the largest mine inventories at war’s start.

More significantly, Germany exploited British magnetic mine technology from World War I to produce a magnetic mine of its own. It was a technical surprise that cost the British dearly in the war’s early months, but fortunately the Germans had few in stock and their production had a low priority. Moreover, the German Navy commander, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, wasted the opportunity by using them in small numbers instead of concentrating them for a decisive effect.

The British implemented countermeasures by mid-1940 and began to develop advanced mines of their own. Thus began a technological war between the Western Allies’ mine and mine-countermeasure experts and their German counterparts. It was a war the Allies eventually won, but not without difficulty or pitfalls.

Although seemingly unglamorous and unexciting, mine warfare was a critical element of naval operations in World War II. By 1943, for example, mine-countermeasure forces constituted nearly 60 percent of the German Navy, while their Allied counterparts had grown to more than 1,100 ships and boats from a force of only two dozen at war’s start.

German minefields were the deciding factor in Russo-German naval operations in the Baltic Sea, and a major hazard to Allied shipping. Axis minefields affected Allied planning for every amphibious operation in the war except Operation TORCH in Northwest Africa. The Western Allies, on the other hand, used mine warfare to choke German Baltic coastal and river commerce during the war’s final years, while Soviet minefields severely inhibited Axis naval operations in Soviet coastal waters. In each instance, the country employing mines found them to be a cost-effective weapon, particularly in circumstances and areas where the opposition had naval supremacy.

Mines can be used either offensively or defensively, with the latter being the most common. Laying defensive minefields around key ports and coastal areas was one of the first naval actions undertaken by nations entering the war. This activity also highlights where a country either felt most vulnerable or most expected an enemy attack. These minefields served to restrict maritime movements within the mined areas to “transit lanes”—areas within the minefields, or between them, in which no mines were present.

Since mines, particularly moored mines, often drift with the tide and current and are indiscriminate in what they destroy, transit lanes had to be maintained by constant clearing. Hiding the locations of the transit lanes from the enemy was a major concern as well, since he might use the lane to penetrate the minefield or lay mines within it.

Mines are classified by how they are detonated (contact or influence) or deployed (moored, bottom, or free-floating). Contact mines explode when the target makes contact with the mine. Influence mines detonate as a result of the target’s influence on the local environment—either due to the noise it makes (acoustic mines), its effect on local water pressure (pressure mines), or magnetic attraction (magnetic mines). Moored mines are secured by cable to a casing that lies on the bottom. As the name implies, bottom mines rest on the bottom, while free-floating mines float just below the surface. There are three types of free-floating mines: drifting mines drift in the surface current; creeping mines drift at a fixed depth in the subsurface current; and oscillating mines drift at varying depths within the subsurface current.

Each type of mine has its own strengths and weaknesses. All bottom mines, for example, are influence mines and must be laid in waters less than 100 fathoms deep. Otherwise, the targets may not pass close enough to detonate the mines, or they may be too far away for the blast to be effective.

Influence mines were the most difficult to detect and counter. They also drifted less than the other types of mines, and therefore were easier to “reseed” (that is, lay additional mines in the field) and sustain. Moored mines could be either contact or influence and could be laid almost without depth restrictions. They were the easiest to detect and remove, however, and had a tendency to drift with wind and current over time. This made moored minefields more difficult to maintain.

All free-floating mines of World War II were contact mines. Almost totally random weapons, they were rarely laid in fields but generally were employed near enemy harbors or staging areas, where current and tides would preclude their becoming a threat to friendly forces. They are the most difficult mines to defeat and they are such a random hazard that international law requires free-floating mines to sink within eight hours of being laid.

The mine’s primary effectiveness is in its psychological impact. Mines can be laid by any platform (ship, plane, or submarine), encountered anywhere, and they are virtually undetectable. Thus, prudent mariners avoid known or suspected minefields. More significantly, mines require more effort to clear than they do to deploy. The best minefields include a mixture of moored and bottom, contact and influence mines, but such fields are exceptionally difficult and dangerous to lay. Whatever that difficulty, however, it is little compared to what is required to clear such a minefield.

Minesweeping was the only available method of clearing mines in World War II. So-called because the original mine-clearing equipment employed a steel cable towed behind the sweeping ship to “sweep” away the mines’ mooring cables so they would float to the surface for destruction, minesweeping was a tedious and dangerous task. The ships that carried the gear were called minesweepers.

The only available mine-countermeasures equipment at war’s start was the Oropesa sweep from World War I. Essentially a “wire sweep” that trailed behind the minesweeper, the Oropesa sweep cut cables out to about eighty meters from the sweeper. Each sweeper could conduct two sweeps, one to a side, per sweep run. The lead ship in a sweep formation had to literally “lead” the unit through the minefield. The position was normally rotated since losses among lead ships exceeded 10 percent. The trail ships also faced danger because they had to avoid, as well as destroy, the mines the lead ships released. Unfortunately, the Oropesa gear could only be used against moored mines. The introduction of German bottom magnetic mines in 1939 came as a total surprise and ultimately led to the development of influence sweep gear and degaussing equipment.

The introduction of influence sweep gear in mid-1940 marked the beginning of the technology race in the mine war. The British LL magnetic sweep used alternating electric current, pulsed through a cable towed behind the minesweeper, to detonate magnetic mines at a safe distance by simulating the passage of a ship. The Germans and the British also modified aircraft, the Ju-52 and Wellington bomber respectively, to conduct influence sweeping. Carrying huge electric coils in rings attached to their fuselage and wings, these aircraft cleared suspected minefields by flying over them at altitudes of less than forty meters. Such aircraft swept large areas of influence mines but proved vulnerable to enemy fighter aircraft.

One other countermeasure to magnetic mines that all sides used after 1940 was the elimination of ships’ magnetic signatures. Since all metal ships acquire the magnetic signature of the area in which they are built, they need a major deperming or signature removal effort to reduce their magnetic vulnerability. Maintaining that magnetically neutral signature requires the installation of electric cables along the ship’s hull. Passing electric current through those cables “degaussed” the ship (that is, prevented its developing a local magnetic signature). Degaussing equipment is a major design feature of all warships to this day.

The Germans got the mine warfare lead again later in 1940 when they introduced acoustic mines. However, Raeder employed them before they were available in large numbers. The British recovered one in August 1940, and one month later put a mechanical acoustic sweep into service that could defeat the German acoustic mine. Unfortunately, sound dampening the equipment on British ships proved too expensive to implement during the war, although they did do it in minesweeping units. The Germans countered by producing a combined acoustic/magnetic mine, but the British soon developed minesweeping tactics to counter it as well.

The Allies were not idle in mine development, Great Britain developed magnetic mines in World War I and employed them again beginning in April 1940. The Germans countered by developing their own magnetic influence sweeps. They also built a specific class of magnetic sweep ships, called Sperrbrecher. Equipped with huge electric coils in their bows to project a strong magnetic field ahead of them, these specially reinforced ships had shock-mounted equipment and other damage reducing features to survive mine detonations. The Germans used these units to lead coastal convoys through suspected and likely enemy minefields. They became increasingly important in the war’s final two years, as the Western Allies, in particular, laid more and larger minefields.

The Germans began to employ mines with arming delay mechanisms in late 1941. The mines could also be set to arm from six hours to twelve days after they were laid. Hence, a field thought safe after multiple sweeps could suddenly become active. The Germans also introduced refinements in their acoustic mine sensors, lowering the frequencies monitored and targeting specific ship equipment, making it more difficult for Allied sweep gear to simulate. They also began to employ multiple polarity magnetic mines and finally, ship counters to complicate sweep efforts—that is, the mines required a variety of magnetic phenomena to detonate and allowed a preset number of ships to pass by safely before they would detonate. Thus, an area was not truly clear until the entire field had been swept to the maximum “number” that an enemy mine could be set. Moreover, the sweep gear had to simulate a wider variety of magnetic signatures to detonate the mine.

Both the Germans and Western Allies had combined acoustic/magnetic mines with ship counters and variable arming delays in service by late 1943, when the Germans introduced their latest technical innovation, the bottom pressure or “oyster” mine. These mines were detonated by the pressure wave a ship generated as it moved through the water. No minesweeper could simulate that wave since each pressure wave was unique to the size and speed of a ship.

Determined not to repeat Raeder’s mistakes from earlier in the war, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz waited until the Allied Normandy landings to employ oyster mines. By then, however, he lacked the means to lay the mines in the invasion area. Only a handful could be deployed. Had they been laid in the invasion fleet’s assembly areas, they would have had a devastating effect. As it was, after some nasty surprises, the Allies easily avoided the few areas where these mines were laid. A few were recovered and the technology incorporated into Allied mines used against the Germans in the war’s closing months.

Although the Germans developed the most technologically advanced mines of the European theater, they did not employ mines to their maximum effect. Missing several opportunities to exploit their advantages both early and late in the war, the German mine warfare effort was further weakened because it supported only naval operations. Allied mine warfare operations were more opportunistic and better integrated into their overall war effort. Thus, they employed mines effectively to cut German commerce on the Danube and other river systems critical to the German economy as part of the overall Allied strategy of attacking Germany’s infrastructure.

Allied mining was also geared to support the Allied ground campaign in Italy by interdicting German coastal convoys supporting German ground forces. A similar German mining effort directed at the Soviet river and coastal navigation system would have paid huge dividends for the German war effort on that most critical front. As it was, naval mine warfare represents yet another area in which the Germans wasted their initial lead and regained it too late to affect the war.

Additional Reading

Bekker, Cajus, Hitler’s Naval War (1974).

Campbell, John, Naval Weapons of World War II (1985).

Hartmann, Gregory K., Weapons That Wait (1979).

Hough, Richard, The Longest Battle (1986).

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.