English Civil War Starts in the West


Various Musketeers


1643 the newly raised regiment of cuirassiers commanded by Sir Arthur Hesilrige


Musketeers’ equipment 1: Musketeers 2: Hats & Montero caps 3, 4: Bandoleers & tools 5: Muskets

Fighting broke out in the west even before the King raised his standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642. At the end of July the Marquis of Hertford turned up in Bath with the King’s commission as Lieutenant General of the six western counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. Charged with distributing commissions of array to the King’s supporters in those counties, he chose to proclaim the fact not in hostile Bristol but in the rather safer atmosphere of Wells. Unfortunately, his call to arms met with a muted response, and while the local Trained Band was persuaded to muster under Sir Edward Rodney, they made it plain that they had absolutely no intention of fighting anybody. This was unhelpful to say the least, but on the other hand Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lunsford succeeded in raising some 240 volunteers for a marching regiment to be commanded by his brother Sir Thomas. Three troops of horse were also raised, two for Lord Grandison’s Regiment and the third commanded by Sir Ralph Hopton.

Meanwhile, Sir Alexander Popham was having rather better success in raising volunteers and Trained Bands for the service of Parliament. On 1 August 1,200 men were mustered at Shepton Mallet, and although Hopton turned up as well hoping to disrupt the proceedings, he hastily withdrew after counting heads. This reluctance to initiate hostilities did not last long. Just three days later the first shots were fired in a minor skirmish at Marshall’s Elm on 4 August. Although the Cavaliers claimed a famous victory, their celebrations were cut short next day when Popham moved forward with his whole force and compelled them to retreat to Sherborne.

Thereafter, there was something of a lull, but the Earl of Bedford was sent down from London to take charge, and with 7,000 men at his back, he turned up before Sherborne on 2 September. Not surprisingly the Royalists hastily threw themselves into the castle, but then finding Bedford more cautious than his numbers warranted, they reoccupied the town with some 300 foot. A rather half-hearted siege, or rather blockade, then followed, but Bedford pulled out on the 6th and fell back to Yeovil.

The following afternoon Hertford sent Hopton after them with 100 horse, sixty dragoons and 200 foot. It was intended to be no more than a reconnaissance in force, but Hopton nearly came to grief just as he was preparing to withdraw from his observation post on the curiously named Babylon Hill. Intent on watching Yeovil Bridge, the Cavaliers failed to see a party of Parliamentarians coming out of the town until it was almost too late. Sending off his foot at once, Hopton tried to cover their retreat with his cavalry. Two of his troops led by Captain Edward Stowell:

… charg’d verie gallantly and routed the enemy, but withall (his troops consisting of new horse, and the Enemy being more in number) was rowted himselfe; and Capt. Moreton., being a little too neere him was likewise broaken with the same shocke, and the trueth is in verie short tyme, all the horse on both sides were in a confusion: At the same tyme a troope of the Enemyes horse charg’d up in the hollow-way on the right hand, where (Sir Tho: Lunsford having forgotten to put a party of muskettiers as before) they found no opposicion till they came among the voluntiers upon the topp of the Hill, where by a very extraordinary accident, Sir James Colborne with a fowling gunne shott at the Captain in the head of the troope, and at the same instant Mr. John Stowell charg’d him single (by which of their hands it was, it is not certaine) but the Captain was slayne, and the troope (being raw fellows) immedyately rowted. In this extreame confusion Sir Ralph Hopton was enforced to make good the retreate with a few officers and Gentlemen that rallyed to him …

Despite seeing the Royalists off the premises, Bedford made no attempt to exploit his little victory. On the contrary, displaying his usual lack of resolution, he promptly decamped to Dorchester. Heartily glad to find him gone, the Cavaliers hung on at Sherborne until news came through on the 18th that Portsmouth had been taken by Sir William Waller. This unhappy news seems to have finally convinced Hertford that he was engaged in a hopeless task, so he abandoned Sherborne and headed north with all his forces to Minehead. The intention was then to ferry them across the Bristol Channel and march to join the King, but when they arrived in the little port it was to find only two ships there. These were sufficient to carry Sir Thomas Lunsford’s Regiment and the guns, but the cavalry had to be left behind. With Bedford closing in, there was little alternative but for Hopton to bid goodbye to Hertford and the Lunsford brothers and retire westwards into Cornwall.

Bedford made no attempt to pursue him, and instead rejoined Essex to play a less than glorious part in the Battle of Edgehill.3 This was rather unfortunate, for Hopton’s arrival in Cornwall altered the balance of power there in the King’s favour. Encouraged by the arrival of his cavalry, the local Royalists managed to bring over 3,000 men to a muster on Moilesbarrow Down on 4 October. For the most part they belonged to the Trained Bands, and although they enabled Hopton to occupy Launceston and secure the line of the Tamar, they also displayed the Bands’ traditional reluctance to cross the border into neighbouring Devon. Consequently, five of the Cornish leaders engaged to raise and maintain volunteer regiments, and with this little army at his back Hopton turned ambitious and cast his eyes on Plymouth.

As a first step they moved forward and occupied Mount Edgecumbe House and Millbrook, thus securing the Cornish side of the sound, and then forced a Parliamentarian detachment to retire from Plympton. This detachment had a curious history. At the beginning of October Lord Forbes’ regiment of Scots mercenaries, who had been carrying out a series of piratical raids on rebel-held territory in Ireland, put into Plymouth and were promptly hired to defend it. Thus fortuitously garrisoned, the town was secured pending the arrival of Bedford’s replacement, Lord Robartes, and three newly raised regiments. Two amphibious raids by the garrison on the outpost at Millbrook were beaten off, but on the night of 6 December Colonel William Ruthven, the mercenaries’ commander launched an altogether more successful raid on Modbury.

Hopton had arrived there earlier that day in an attempt to raise the Devon Royalists, but the gathering ‘was rather like a great fair’,4 and he could scarcely find enough armed men to mount sentries. Inevitably Ruthven (who had also been appointed commander-in-chief of the western forces) mounted a raid which scattered the assembled Royalists, captured the High Sheriff and very nearly snapped up Hopton as well. Then, taking no chances, instead of returning directly to Plymouth, he marched hard for Dartmouth and shipped both his men and the prisoners back by sea.

Without the Devon men there was no hope for the present of taking Plymouth, yet Hopton needed to secure a proper base where he could shelter and supply his army through the winter. An alternative had to be found, and so he turned his attention to Exeter instead. At first all went well. The city was summoned on 30 December, and Topsham was seized in order to prevent supplies or reinforcements coming up the Exe estuary. Unfortunately for the Royalists, while they were thus occupied in sealing off the seaward approaches to Exeter, Colonel Ruthven mounted a large body of musketeers on every nag he could find, and threw himself into the landward side of the city. This unexpected stroke did far more than simply dash the Royalists’ hopes of taking Exeter for as Hopton admitted:

Their expectation of ammunition, subsistence and increase from the County utterly failed, so as the army was enforced in that bitter season of the year (encumbered with all sorts of wants, and with the disorder and general mutiny of the Foot) to retreat towards Cornwall.

Baffled, the Cavaliers fell back by Crediton and Okehampton. Ruthven, indefatigable as ever, soon got on their track and, notwithstanding a creditable rearguard action at Bridstowe, he chased them all the way back into Cornwall and mounted an unsuccessful attack on Saltash. Even this minor reverse worked to his advantage for, while the Cavaliers’ attention was fixed on the town, he managed to pass a body of men across the Tamar at Newbridge. Hopton was now in a most unenviable position. Ruthven had forestalled him at every turn and was now mounting an invasion of Cornwall. What was more, additional Parliamentarian troops were known to be on the way, commanded by the Earl of Stamford who had hitherto been making a nuisance of himself in the Severn valley. Once he joined forces with Ruthven the two of them would be well nigh unstoppable.

At this point Hopton had an undeserved stroke of luck. Three Parliamentarian ships were driven by bad weather to seek shelter in Falmouth. Naturally enough, they were promptly seized by the Royalists, and the powder found on board (together with an equally welcome supply of hard cash) encouraged them to fight one last battle. At a muster held at Boconnoc on 18 January Hopton’s de facto position as commander of the Cornish army was formally confirmed6 and the decision was taken to counter-attack.

Accordingly, they marched next morning from Boconnoc, and at about noon came up with Ruthven’s army on some rising ground known as Braddock Down, just outside Liskeard. The Parliamentarians had rather more cavalry than the Royalists, but fewer infantry. Moreover, all of Ruthven’s foot were a mixture of raw country levies and Trained Bands; his Scots mercenaries had been left behind to hold Plymouth. Nevertheless his position was strong enough to give Hopton pause to think, and he drew up his army on another low hill, leaving a shallow valley between them.

For about two hours both commanders maintained their positions. Understandably enough neither general felt too keen about descending into the valley and fighting uphill. Ruthven might have done well to avoid battle altogether and wait for Stamford, but he had done well enough against Hopton thus far and he was no doubt confident of beating him again before the Earl arrived to steal his thunder. For his part Hopton was equally keen to anticipate Stamford’s arrival and so, firing two cannon as a signal, he sent the Cornish surging forward. Both horse and foot crossed the valley and advanced so resolutely that Ruthven’s men were seized with a sudden panic. The Parliamentarian foot fired just one ragged volley, and then broke and ran before the Royalists could come up with them. To add to Ruthven’s chagrin, as they streamed back through Liskeard in great disorder, the townspeople suddenly rediscovered their loyalty to King Charles and rose up against them. Afterwards the Cornish claimed to have lost just two men and, while it is likely that most of Ruthven’s men ran away too quickly to be killed, some 1,250 of them surrendered along with five good guns and all his baggage.

Otherwise, Ruthven got clean away, for the Cavaliers rested at Liskeard on the 20th, but once they had sobered up, Hopton divided his forces. One column directed upon Launceston sent Stamford into headlong retreat, while he himself marched on Saltash. Ruthven was busily digging in there, but the town was peremptorily stormed on the 23rd. This time Hopton claimed to have taken another 140 prisoners, but Ruthven and most of his men were taken off in small boats. Buoyed up by their altered fortunes the Royalists then proceeded to overstretch themselves again by making a second attempt to blockade Plymouth.

Once again they were hampered by the customary refusal of the Cornish Trained Bands to cross the Tamar. There was no alternative but to divide the army into a number of relatively small detachments and quite inevitably, on 21 February, Ruthven sallied out and fell upon Sir Nicholas Slanning’s post at Modbury. The Cavaliers at first put up a creditable resistance, but as soon as it grew dark, they fell back to Plympton leaving behind 100 dead, 150 prisoners and five guns. To make matters worse, it was learned that Stamford was pulling an army together at Kingsbridge, so next day Hopton mustered his forces on Roborough Down and then retired to Tavistock.

On the 28th he, Ruthven and Stamford agreed a local ceasefire. Bitter experience had shown that neither side was strong enough to invade the territory of the other so it seemed sensible to call a halt to unnecessary raiding during what remained of the winter. What was perhaps more surprising was that the ceasefire actually held for the stipulated forty days and nights.

Battle of Stratton, Cornwall, 16 May 1643 I


Sir Arthur Hesilrige’s Cuirassiers (known as Hesilrige’s London Lobsters due to their armour).


Beacon Hill

At the time Stamford was lying at Exeter recovering from an attack of gout. In his absence the Parliamentarian field army was commanded by Major General James Chudleigh. Soon after midnight he set off from Lifton with 1,500 musketeers, 200 pikemen and five troops of horse with the intention of attacking Launceston. Warned of his approach Hopton took up a defensive position on Beacon Hill with Sir Bevill Grenville’s Regiment, and was joined there by Godolphin’s just before Chudleigh turned up at about 9am. Finding the hedges at the foot of the hill stuffed full of Royalist musketeers made Chudleigh hesitate, but an hour later he launched his attack and cleared the hedges. However, further progress was arrested by the arrival of Lord Mohun’s Regiment and some horse and dragoons led by Sir John Berkeley.

Thereafter, the battle settled down into an inconclusive firefight while both sides waited for further reinforcements to come up. The next to appear were Colonels Slanning and Trevannion, but Chudleigh was joined at the same by Sir John Merrick’s Foot (a regular regiment sent down by Essex), and a detachment of Northcote’s Regiment. Nevertheless, with his whole army now concentrated, Hopton felt confident enough to launch a full-blown counter-attack. By this time it was starting to get dark and the attack threw Chudleigh’s men into confusion. A hasty retreat then followed, covered by Merrick’s regulars, but as the Royalists took neither guns, colours nor any appreciable number of prisoners, it may be concluded that the victory was by no means as complete as they thought.

Sourton Down

At any rate, Hopton now decided to follow up the supposed victory by mounting a dawn assault on what he fondly imagined to be the shattered remnants of Chudleigh’s army at Okehampton, on the morning of the 26th. This entailed a night march but the Royalists blithely set off and walked straight into an ambush on Sourton Down.

Hopton himself admitted afterwards that he and some of the other Royalist commanders were ‘carelessly entertaining themselves in the head of the dragoons’ when they abruptly discovered a body of cavalry a mere carbine shot away. It was all too obvious that they were within carbine range, for they greeted the Royalists with a volley which inflicted few casualties but naturally inspired a fearful panic. As it happened, there were only 100 Parliamentarians, but none of the Royalists were disposed to hang around counting heads. Following up his initial success, Chudleigh plunged into the disordered Royalist ranks. Hopton’s dragoons turned and ran, carrying away their own cavalry who had halted uncertainly behind them. They in turn rode over the infantry until Grenville and Mohun made a desperate stand by the guns. Hopton himself, mounted on a faster horse, got as far as the rearguard, but then finding that no one was actually pursuing him, he turned around and brought up Sir Nicholas Slanning’s Regiment to reinforce Grenville.

At this point there was a pause as Chudleigh, not wishing to push his luck, drew off and summoned up 1,000 foot from Okehampton. During the lull the Cavaliers manned an old ditch and planted swine feathers (pointed stakes) in front of their guns. Eventually they saw the distinctive glow of slow-match as Chudleigh’s infantry came up and fired two cannon-shot into them. This unseasonable welcome halted the Parliamentarians in their tracks. They may not have been too keen about fighting in the dark – which can hold all manner of terrors for those unused to it – and the prospect of assaulting a force of unknown size dug in with artillery was too much for them.

Nothing daunted, Chudleigh himself essayed another cavalry charge but found his way blocked by the swine feathers. Baffled by this unexpected obstacle and thoroughly disgusted by the craven behaviour of his foot, he then decided to call it a night and returned to Okehampton under the cover of a sudden rainstorm which thoroughly drenched both armies. The Royalists had survived the night, but there was no disguising the reality of their defeat and they fell back in to Bridstowe in considerable disorder. In the process they also managed to lose Hopton’s personal baggage and with it correspondence detailing Royalist plans to advance into Somerset in order to open up communications with the King’s Oxford Army.

Stamford, whose gout had been miraculously cured by the victory on Sourton Down, was determined to prevent this, and ordering his forces to concentrate at Torrington, he crossed the Cornish border on 15 May. Knowing that Hopton would be certain to launch an immediate counter-attack, Stamford took up a strong position on a 200-foot ridge at Stratton and waited for him. The Parliamentarian forces appear to have comprised some 5,400 foot, 200 horse and thirteen small guns. Hopton on the other hand, distracted by Ruthven’s still active garrison in Plymouth and by a diversionary raid on Bodmin, could muster only 2,400 foot and 500 horse. Nevertheless, a council of war concluded that ‘notwithstanding the great visible disadvantage that they must either force the Enemies’ Camp, while the most part of their Horse and dragoons were from them, or unavoidably perish.’

Thus far, the fighting in the west had been extremely volatile and characterised by sudden assaults and even more precipitate retreats, but the battle of Stratton was altogether different. The Royalists moved forward to their start-line under cover of darkness, and at dawn commenced a brisk firefight with the Parliamentarian musketeers lining the hedges at the foot of the hill.

For some reason, the Cornish Royalists do not appear to have deployed their infantry in conventional brigade or battalion formations, but rather seem to have favoured forming a front line of musketeers behind which stands of pikemen waited until called forward to effect a breakthrough, or to mount a counter-attack, as the case might be. This can be seen quite clearly at Stratton, for while the musketeers were thus engaged Hopton formed his pikemen into four assault columns each about 600 strong. The first, under his personal command, was to attack on the right against the southern end of Stamford’s position, two more under Grenville and Slanning were to attack in the centre, while the fourth led by Godolphin formed the left wing. In reserve were some 500 horse under Colonel John Digby

At about 5am all four columns rolled forward but were unable to clear the hedge-line, and the battle degenerated once more into a desultory firefight. Hopton stubbornly refused to pull off, and this phase of the battle lasted for about ten hours. By about 3pm, however, the Cornish musketeers were running short of ammunition and Chudleigh decided, possibly independently of Stamford, that the moment had come for a counter-attack. Placing himself at the head of a stand of pikemen, he swept down the hill and ran full tilt into Sir Bevill Grenville’s pikemen. So sharp was the shock of the onset that Grenville and most of his front rank were knocked off their feet.9 Naturally enough, Chudleigh’s men were also a little disordered as a result and unable to withstand a very prompt counter-attack launched by Sir John Berkeley. Not only were the Parliamentarians thrown back in their turn, but Chudleigh too may have been knocked off his feet for he was amongst the prisoners. While the Parliamentarians were thus distracted the Royalist flanking columns renewed their assault and this time managed to push their way on to the upper slopes of the ridge. Stamford’s left abruptly gave way, and with his infantry reserves already committed to Chudleigh’s ill-fated counter-attack and most of his cavalry off raiding Bodmin, he was unable to prevent his line being rolled up. Regiment by regiment his army was broken, but he bravely remained on the field until, according to Colonel John Weare, he had but twenty men standing by him. Then, having fired off his guns one last time, he and Weare fled to Exeter, leaving behind 300 dead, 1,700 prisoners, the thirteen guns and most precious of all, seventy barrels of powder – enough to fight another battle.

Hopton now proceeded to occupy Launceston where he received the happy news that the Marquis of Hertford and Prince Maurice were marching to join him with a substantial force of horse and foot. He had already received warning that such a move was imminent, and so he made a dash for Chard in Somerset and there rendezvoused with Hertford and Maurice on 4 June. Once combined, their forces mustered a very respectable 2,000 horse, 4,000 foot, a regiment of dragoons and a useful train of artillery. Clarendon implies that the army’s command structure was less than satisfactory for:

… how small soever the Marquis’s party was in number, it was supplied with all the general officers of a royal army, a general, a lieutenant-general, general of Horse, general of the ordnance, major-general of Horse, and another of Foot …

It was no doubt intended that they would recruit an army large enough to justify their employment. In the meantime, although Hertford still held the King’s commission as notional General of the Western Counties, his Lieutenant General, Prince Maurice, was the one who actually exercised that command. The Earl of Caernarvon was General of the Horse, with Sir James Hamilton as Major General under him. The Earl of Marlborough was General of the Ordnance, and Sir Ralph Hopton served as Field Marshall. As was customary the important strategic decisions were taken by a Council of War comprising all the senior officers of the army.

As to those strategic decisions, thus far the campaign in the west had been of only local significance, but now the Cornish army was required for something far more important.  The Royalists’ overriding concern at this time was the security of the King’s Road. Bitter experience had shown that it could not be kept open by locally raised forces, and that it was equally dangerous to divert troops from the main Oxford army for that purpose. Now Maurice was once again charged with taking Bristol and securing the lower end of the Severn valley.

Battle of Stratton, Cornwall, 16 May 1643 II



British Battles

Instead of marching directly upon the city he first set about securing his position by taking Taunton Dene – which surrendered under the threat of being stormed – and then Bridgewater and Wells. At the latter place the Royalists received the disturbing but not unexpected news that Sir William Waller was concentrating his own army from the Severn valley and what remained of the Western forces at Bath. Notwithstanding the fact that Stamford’s foot had been well beaten at Stratton, Waller probably mustered about the same number of infantry as Maurice. As for the cavalry, Stamford’s 1,200 horse and dragoons were still available for service. In addition Waller also had his own veteran regiments of horse and dragoons, Colonel Robert Burghill’s regulars and a newly raised regiment of cuirassiers commanded by Sir Arthur Hesilrige.

Some sort of reconnaissance in force was obviously called for so Maurice took Caernarvon’s Regiment out on the 10th to have a look at them. As frequently happens in this sort of affair, he ventured too close and was promptly attacked by some horse and dragoons. Caernarvon’s men evidently did not put up much of a fight, for they were promptly beaten back into Chewton Mendip where Maurice was wounded and captured. The rest of the Royalist army was moving into its quarters when the unhappy news came through and a rather odd argument ensued. Some officers of Maurice’s own regiment held that they were under his direct orders to take up their quarters, and that should they attempt to rescue him they could be court-martialled for disobedience! Captain Richard Atkyns, however, announced himself willing to take the risk and set off at the head of his squadron.

Happily, he almost at once ram into the Earl of Caernarvon who professed himself heartily glad to see the Captain and readily gave him orders to attempt a rescue. Thus reassured, Atkyns pushed on and ran into some dragoons, but providentially (or so he says), a thick mist suddenly descended and under cover of it the dragoons mounted up and fell back. If this was true they cannot have fallen back far for Atkyns and Caernarvon then encountered two squadrons of Waller’s Regiment, flanked by dragoons lining some hedges. Nothing daunted Atkyns promptly charged the left-hand squadron commanded by Captain Edward Kightley:

The dragoons on both sides, seeing us so mixed with their men that they could not fire at us, but might kill their own men as well as ours; took horse and away they run also. In this charge I gave one Captain Kitely quarter twice, and at last he was killed: the Lord Arundel of Wardour also, took a dragoon’s colours, as if it were hereditary to the family to do so; but all of us overran the Prince, being a prisoner in that party; for he was on foot, and had a great hurt upon his head, and I suppose not known to be the Prince. My groom coming after us, espied the Prince, and all being in confusion, he alighted from his horse, and gave him to the Prince, which carried him off: and though this was a very great success, yet we were in as great danger as ever; for now we were in disorder and had spent our shot; and had not time to charge again; [i.e. to reload] and my Lieutenant and Cornet, with above half the Party, followed the chase of those that ran, within half a mile of their army; that when I came to rally, I found I had not 30 men; we then had three fresh troops to charge, which were in our rear, but by reason of their marching through a wainshard before they could be put in order: I told those of my party, that if we did not put a good face upon it, and charge them presently, before they were in order, we were all dead men or prisoners; which they apprehending, we charged them; and they made as it were a lane for us, being as willing to be gone as we ourselves.

Having suffered ‘two shrewd cuts’ on the head, and then having been ridden over by his own men, rather slowed Maurice down, and it was not until 2 July that his outriders readied Bradford-on-Avon, about five miles south-east of Bath. Waller was already waiting for them, covering Bath in a strong position on Claverton Down, so the decision was taken to swing farther east in an attempt to outflank him. This turned out to be a surprisingly delicate operation for Maurice was clearly determined not to take any unnecessary risks. As a first step Hopton was sent with a detachment of Cornish foot to dislodge a covering party from Monkton Farleigh. This was accomplished without much difficulty and the Parliamentarians were then driven back through Batheaston and on to the southern slopes of Lansdown Hill, a long steep-sided ridge running north-west from Bath. At the same time Maurice successfully crossed the Avon only to find Waller retiring into Bath. That evening the Royalists decided to continue their turning movement in the hope of seizing Lansdown Hill and thus interposing their forces between Waller and Bristol.

Unfortunately, Waller was equally alive to this possibility, and next morning the Cavaliers were dismayed to find his whole army occupying Lansdown. Judging the position to be too strong to force, they then drew off to Marshfield, some six miles north of the city. There they were well placed both to act against Wailer’s communications with Bristol and to receive supplies and reinforcements from Oxford. Waller, however, had no intention of being turned out of Bath without a fight and began digging in on top of the ridge.

Early on the morning of 5 July this fact was discovered by a party of Royalist horse led by Major George Lower, but he allowed himself to be driven off so vigorously that the Cavaliers turned out expecting a full-scale attack. Some desultory skirmishing then followed. Preceded by dismounted dragoons, the Royalists pushed forward and eventually established themselves on Freezing Hill, immediately to the north of Waller’s opposition astride the Bath Road where it crosses Lansdown. At this point it was decided to call it a day, since too much ammunition was being expended to little purpose and the decision was taken to return to Marshfield.

Had Waller been content to let them go, things might well have turned out differently, but at about 3pm Colonel Robert Burghill moved forward with some 300 horse and a large body of dragooners. At first he met with some success, and the Royalist withdrawal became disorderly. Maurice had earlier ordered Hopton to provide detachments of musketeers to interline the cavalry squadrons, but far from strengthening the horse they only got in the way. Relations between the Cornish foot and the Oxford horse were already bad enough, and the necessary happy cooperation between the two was consequently non-existent. Unable to coordinate any counter-attacks, the cavalry fell back, and some even ran as far as Oxford, abandoning the musketeers to their own devices. They for their part very bloody-mindedly held on to their positions amongst the hedgerows and momentarily brought the Parliamentarian advance to a standstill.

Granted this brief respite Caernarvon at last managed to fight back. First the Marquis of Hertford’s own Lifeguard troop, commanded by Lord Arundell of Trerice, put in a charge, and in the melee Robert Burghill was badly wounded. Caernarvon then tried to second this success by leading forward his own regiment and, although he succeeded in driving the Parliamentarians into the valley separating Freezing Hill from Lansdown, he in his turn was wounded when Waller committed reinforcements of his own. Nevertheless, the Parliamentarians were unable to clear the valley bottom and soon retired back up the hill.

So far so good. The Royalists might now have retired to Marshfield in safety, but finding that his Cornish infantry had worked themselves up into something approaching hysteria, Hopton decided to give them the heads and, without bothering to consult Prince Maurice, he ordered a frontal assault on the Lansdown position.

Not surprisingly, this hasty attack quickly came to grief. Hopton began by employing his favourite tactic of pushing a column of pikemen straight up the Bath Road, while:

… sending out as they went strong parties of musketeers on each hand to second one another, to endeavour under the cover of the enclosed grounds to gain the flank of the enemy on the top of the Hill, which at last they did …

As the Royalist pikemen went up the road, they marched into a blizzard of fire from both entrenched guns and Parliamentarian musketeers alike which at first stopped them dead in their tracks. The attack might have stalled altogether were it not for Sir Bevill Grenville who rallied the pikemen, placed some musketeers on one flank – where they very prudently established themselves behind a stone wall – and got some horse to cover his right. Again pushing up the road, littered by now with dead and wounded men, Grenville gained the brow of the hill before being halted by a succession of cavalry charges – three according to Hopton. The last of them seems to have been most successful for Grenville, and many of his men were cut down and in the end the Cornish pikemen may only have held because Grenville’s fifteen-year-old son was hoisted into his father’s saddle.

In the meantime, relief was at hand in the shape of some cavalry led by Sir Robert Walsh and Richard Atkyns:

As I went up the hill, which was very steep and hollow, I met several dead and wounded officers brought off; besides several running away, that I had much ado to get up by them. When I came to the top of the hill, I saw Sir Bevill Grinvill’s stand of pikes, which certainly preserved our army from a total rout, with the loss of his most precious life: they stood as upon the eaves of an house for steepness, but as unmoveable as a rock; on which side of this stand of pikes our horse were, I could not discover; for the air was so darkened by the smoke of the powder, that for a quarter of an hour together (I dare say) there was no light seen, but what the fire of the volleys of shot gave; and ‘twas the greatest storm that ever I saw.

Unable to dislodge Grenville’s men and threatened by the Royalist musketeers working their way up on either flank, Waller meanwhile pulled back to what Atkyns describes as a very large sheep-cote surrounded by a stone wall. From there it proved impossible to dislodge him and both sides settled down to shoot it out until nightfall. During the night the Royalist commanders decided upon a withdrawal for their losses had been terrible and they were almost out of ammunition. In preparation for this their guns were sent away, but at about one in the morning some suspicious activity inspired them to send forward a scout who made the happy discovery that Waller was gone. As a Royalist Colonel named Slingsby afterwards remarked: ‘we were glad they were gone for if they had not I know who had within an hour …’

The Royalists may have been left in possession of the field, but to all intents and purposes it was they and not Waller who had lost the battle – a quite unnecessary one brought on by Hopton’s insubordination. At daylight they began retiring to Marshfield and might have taken up their old quarters there had not Hopton been badly injured when a precious ammunition cart blew up. Waller’s army was in much better shape and, having called up reinforcements from Bristol, he quickly got on their trail and hustled them straight through Marshfield. They then halted at Chippenham for two days, but with Waller now pressing hard on their retreat, they set off again and reached Devizes on the night of 9 July. Maurice tried to make a stand on Roundway Down next day, but finding the army had neither the stomach nor the ammunition for another battle, he pulled it back into the town. That night a Council of War agreed that the foot would stand a siege there while Hertford, Maurice and the horse broke out and rode for Oxford to bring relief.


Fu-Go balloon bombs


The illustrations depict the following weapons, from left to right: canister for the Ta bomb with a Ta bomb beside it, Ko-Dan rubber bomb, Type 99 No. 3 Mk. 3 Sanga and the Fu-Go.

The secret weapons that were developed by the United States against Japan, and vice versa, included some of the most fanciful ever seen in war. The Japanese resolved to launch incendiary attacks against the United States, and manufactured some 9,000 hydrogen balloons to which they fitted small incendiary weapons that could burn for over an hour and 33lb (15kg) of high explosive anti-personnel bombs. The plan was to launch them into the high-altitude jet-stream – which the Japanese had just discovered – so that the weapons were carried across the Pacific to North America. The balloons were made of paper and were assembled by young women, mostly acting students from nearby schools. The washi paper for the balloons was made from large sheets stuck together with ‘devil’s tongue’ gel made by boiling the roots of arum lilies. Virtually the entire stocks of the arum root gel disappeared from the stores, partly to feed the balloon industry, but also because it had a pleasant taste and was being consumed by the students in copious quantities.

Toward the close of 1943 and into the early part of February 1944, the Japanese launched balloons equipped with radios which were tracked so their courses could be monitored. Two stations set up in Hokkaido and in Chiba Prefecture could track the balloons only through the first portion of their flight, but once over the open ocean all con- tact was lost. The Japanese were aware that the west-to-east wind speeds were at their peak from November through to March, topping out at 298km/h (185mph). In addition, a shortage of meteorological data on weather patterns over the ocean and at high altitudes limited the ability to plan trajectories for th balloons. While the winds were higher, it was also winter throughout most of the launch window. In addition, the balloons had to be released in clear, cloudless weather with little surface wind. If balloons were sent up in over- cast skies with precipitation laden clouds, moisture would collect on the balloons which would freeze at higher altitudes, adding weight resulting in the balloons being unable to reach the S. Three major launch ites were selected: Nako 0 (Fukushima Prefecture), Otsu (Ibaraki Prefecture) and Ichin Omiya (Chiba Prefecture).

Starting in November 1944, the Special Balloon Regiment established under the Imperial Japanese Army released a continuous stream of these balloons from Ibaraki Prefecture, on the western side of Honshu. On 3 November 1944, the Fu-Go balloon bombing campaign was officially opened. In all, between 9,000-10,000 balloons were avail- able and by 20 November, the first en masse launchings had taken place. Prior to launch, the sandbag release mechanism was set based on the estimated wind speeds to ensure the balloon was over the US before releasing its payload. The gas envelope was only partially filled to allow for expansion of the hydrogen at an altitude of 4,877m (I6,000ft). On a good day crews could launch up to 200 balloons. March 1945 would see the highest number of balloons deployed, 3,000 in all, and the final launch was made on 20 April. Typically included in batches of balloon launches would be a radio equipped balloon to allow for tracking.

Unlikely as it seems, the ruse worked; most of the balloons burst or deflated, landing in the sea, but over 1,000 of these secret weapons reached North America and a quarter of them caused damage, mostly small forest fires. The first reports of the fireballs descending from the skies were dismissed as farmhand gossip, but towards the end of 1944 the authorities realized what was happening. Some of the balloons landed intact and were examined by the military. The payload contained magnesium as an incendiary device, partly to set fire to the balloons on landing, but also to ensure that the device was consumed in the blaze, so that the Americans would not discover the true nature of these strange balloons.

However, the balloons produced minimal interference with the conduct of the war, and once the nature of the weapons had been discovered, many were shot down by warplanes in mid-flight. A secret agreement was made with newspaper editors, so that reports of successful attacks were never published, and the Japanese could not find out how successful their balloons had been. After five months had passed without any news of damage appearing in the American news media, the Japanese became discouraged and discontinued their attacks. In reality, 285 balloon bomb incidents had been reported and some of the balloons reached as far as Michigan. One was found by a group of holidaymakers in the Oregon woods, all of whom were killed when they tried to move it and the anti-personnel mine exploded.


SOE Drop by Ivan Berryman.
Halifax B.II Series 1 (Special) JP254 of 148 Special Duties Squadron, RAF is depicted over the drop zone near to the Alt Aussee salt mine in the Austrian Alps as two of the four SOE agents exit the bomber via the crew access door. Their mission was to secure and protect 6,755 items of the world’s greatest works of art that had been looted and stored by the Germans as they swept across Europe. With the allied forces closing in, the Germans had planned to blow up the entire store to prevent the artworks from falling into the hands of the liberators. Once on the ground, the four agents linked up with local resistance fighters and the mine and its valuable contents were eventually secured, the explosives made safe and the entire cache taken into the safe keeping of the 80th US Infantry Division as the German occupation of Europe crumbled.

So called because these clandestine units usually only flew missions into Nazi-occupied territory at night during the period of the full moon, the Royal Air Force Special Duties squadrons were equipped with Westland Lysander and Lockheed Hudson aircraft. The original Moon Squadron consisted of the four Lysanders of the Special Duties unit, 419 Flight (based initially at North Weald, Essex, and then at Stapleford, Abbots, and Stradishall), which was amalgamated with three Whitley and two Halifax bombers to form 161 Squadron at Tempsford in February 1942 be- fore being disbanded in June 1945.

Meanwhile, 138 (Special Duties) Squadron had been formed at Newmarket in February 1941 and combined with the King’s Flight (419 Flight). In August 1941, 419 Flight became 138 Squadron, with eight Whitleys and two Lysanders, which were replaced with the Halifax in October 1942. Based at Tempsford, the Halifax was replaced with Stirlings in September 1944, and in March 1945 was transferred to Bomber Command and reequipped with Lancasters. All these units acted on behalf of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and Special Operations Executive, and the first such mission of World War II was the dropping into France in October 1940 by the 419 Flight Whitley of a SIS agent, Philip Schneidau, who was collected from Montigny 10 days later by a Lysander from Stradishall, via Tangmere, flown by Wally Farley.

In the Mediterranean theater, 267 Squadron, equipped with Dakotas, was transferred from Heliopolis in Egypt to Bari in Italy to perform Special Duties in the Balkans. In February 1945, the squadron was posted to Burma, but flew regular transport missions. In September 1943, 1575 Special Duties Flight at Blida, Algeria, was redesignated as 624 Squadron and flew clandestine missions to France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans until it was disbanded in September 1944. Also flying into Poland from the Mediterranean was 1586 Flight, staffed with Polish personnel. It was redesignated as 301 Squadron in November 1944, to fly missions over the Balkans, and was disbanded in December 1946.

In the Far East 240 Squadron (based at Redhills Lake, Madras, and equipped with Catalinas) flew Special Duties flights from April 1943, landing agents on the Burmese coast. Missions to Malaya and the Dutch East Indies followed, and the squadron was disbanded in July 1945. Also at Redhills Lake were three Catalinas of 357 Squadron, previously formed at Digri in February 1944 from 1576 (Special Duties) Squadron with seven Hudsons and three Liberators. The 357 Squadron was disbanded in November 1945. The 628 Squadron, at Redhills Lake from March 1944, infiltrated Force 136 personnel into Burma and Malaya with Catalinas until it was disbanded in October the same year. The 1576 Flight (formed at Chaklala, India, in June 1943) flew flights over Burma, using a forward base at Dum Dum, Calcutta, and was disbanded in February 1944.

In January 1945, 358 Squadron had a brief existence at Digri with 16 Liberators, dropping supplies across southeast Asia until it too was disbanded in November 1945.

The Moon Squadrons relied on four main aircraft, with the slow but sturdy Lysander, with a range of 800 miles, proving the most reliable for pickup operations, capable of carrying up to four passengers. Also popular were the long-range B-24 Liberator and the PBY-1 Catalina flying boat for amphibious operations. The Whitley, which was obsolete at the outbreak of war, with a range of 1,500 miles, was used to drop agents into Nazi-occupied Europe until late in 1942, when it was replaced by the Halifax with a range of 1,860 miles.

The Duc De Choiseul And The Rebuilding Of The French Navy


Ville de Paris in Rochefort, 1764

At the beginning of 1763 France possessed 47 ships of the line, some of which were in need of repairs, and Spain 37, whereas the British had 111. If the Bourbons were to seek revenge in another war, they would need not only to match the number of British ships of the line but to surpass it, given Britain’s advantage in giant 90- and 100-gun ships, her pool of experienced and confident sailors and officers, and her veteran commanders. The British attempted to maintain 80 ships of the line in condition to serve. Louis set a goal of 80 ships of the line for the French navy and expected Spain to provide 60; the duc de Choiseul hoped they would be ready in four or five years.

France had a head start because of the ships of the line donated during 1762, of which only two had been launched by the end of the year. During the first four years after the Treaty of Paris the French navy launched the other fifteen donated ships, purchased the Vengeur, 64, and rebuilt the Conquérant, 74, Palmier, 74, and Zodiaque, 74. Choiseul complained to Ossun in 1762 that he worked eight hours a day on naval matters and was convinced the navy needed a complete overhaul. In March 1765 he issued a comprehensive reform and codification of naval regulations. He also made a major effort to fill the dockyards with the naval materiel necessary for building, repairing, and maintaining the fleet. The number of masts rose from 1,576 in 1763 to 4,341 in 1766 and the amount of wood for constructing hulls from 497,322 cubic feet to 697,000 cubic feet, while the amount of hemp and number of anchors also increased.

As naval minister, Choiseul also was responsible for France’s remaining colonies. He unsuccessfully tried to circumvent the Treaty of Paris by reestablishing control over the posts France had lost in the region of the Senegal and Gambia rivers of western Africa. In the West Indies, the heart of the remaining French Empire, he replaced commanders, gave Guadeloupe its own governor general, and attempted to strengthen military authority. He also made an un- successful attempt to colonize French Guiana on the northern coast of South America. Perhaps most importantly he loosened mercantilistic restrictions on trade between France and the West Indies so as to balance more fairly the needs of West Indian planters and the merchants of the French ports. His efforts had mixed results, but they did demonstrate a commitment to strengthening the colonies economically and militarily.

France would stand a better chance of defending her colonies and of taking the offense in a future war if the British army and navy were tied down by a revolt in North America. In 1765 Choiseul predicted an eventual American revolution, although he told Louis XV that they probably would not see it themselves. He sent a Lieutenant Pontleroy to the British colonies to gather intelligence. The results were sufficiently encouraging for him to send a more senior observer, Acting Lieutenant Colonel Johann de Kalb, who a decade later became a major general in the Continental army. By the time de Kalb returned to France in 1768, however, Choiseul seems to have given up any hope of an impending rebellion, an opinion shared by de Kalb.

By this time Choiseul seems also to have abandoned hope of a war of revenge in the near future. The improved relations between Britain and her American colonies during the Rockingham administration of 1765–66 may have had an effect on his thinking, but by the end of 1766 several other factors also seem to have inhibited thoughts of an early war. The first factor was the difficulty of sustaining the French navy’s building program until the goal of 80 ships of the line was reached, given the king’s waning interest and the continuing weakness of royal finances. The navy still had not paid all its debts from the war, and the government had difficulty increasing its revenues. Second, the Spanish navy’s rebuilding program, the necessary corollary to the French, began very slowly. During the first four years of peace Spain launched only eight ships of the line. It would be several more years before Spain possessed the 60 ships of the line upon which France counted. Third, Choiseul’s attention seems to have been increasingly diverted by France’s declining influence in eastern Europe. After Augustus III of Poland died in October 1763, France was unable to prevent the election to the Polish throne of a Russian-backed candidate, Empress Catherine II’s former lover Stanislas Poniatowski. Catherine and her new ally Frederick II of Prussia were not satisfied, however, and promptly demanded that Poland protect the rights of the country’s Protestant and Orthodox Catholic religious minorities. If the Polish Diet could be bullied into such a concession and into recognizing Catherine and Frederick as protectors of Poland’s religious minorities, Poland effectively would lose its remaining independence and France her pretense of influence in Polish affairs. France’s influence in Sweden and Denmark was rapidly declining, too. In April 1766 Choiseul turned over the naval ministry to his cousin the duc de Praslin and resumed direct control over foreign affairs; however important to him may have been preparing for war against Britain, the problems of the continent demanded his immediate attention.

After Choiseul left office, the naval budget was reduced. This had an impact on the royal dockyards. Although wood for construction continued to arrive, the number of masts and amount of hemp and sailcloth began to decline.

Ironically, Choiseul’s new tenure as foreign minister was marked by a colonial conflict. Charles III was outraged when he learned the British had sent a small squadron and landing party to one of the Falkland Islands, off the Spanish portion of South America. Choiseul counseled moderation, telling Spain in September 1766, that France would need another eighteen months to prepare for war. Within a few months he postponed until 1769 the projected time at which France would be ready. Meanwhile the French naval ministry gave a guarded reaction to a detailed Spanish plan of war. The Spanish government soon was distracted by internal political issues, and the Falkland Island crisis was deferred for several years. When it finally occurred in 1770 the French navy still was not ready to fight. Its program of ship construction had been drastically reduced after 1766 and did not revive until after Louis XV’s death in 1774. From 1766 through 1774 it launched only eleven ships of the line, the Couronne, 80, Actif, 74, Bien-Aimé, 74, César, 74, Victoire, 74, Alexandre, 64, Brillant, 64, Eveillé, 64, Protée, 64, Roland, 64, and Solitaire, 64. (It also purchased the Actionnaire, 64, Indien, 64, and Mars, 64, from the bankrupt East India Company.) This did not equal the seventeen ships of the line that were lost or retired from service between the beginning of 1763 and the end of 1774 (the Royal-Louis, 116, Couronne, 74, Défenseur, 74, Actif, 64, Altier, 64, Aventurier [ex-Saint-François- de-Paule], 64, an earlier Brillant, 64, Content, 64, an earlier Eveillé, 64, Hasard [ex-Notre-Dame-de-Rosaire], 64, Mars, 64, an earlier Protée, 64, Rencontre [ex- Vierge-de-Santé], 64, Sage, 64, an earlier Solitaire, 64, Ferme, 56, and Utile, 56). Thus, only sixty ships of the line were available on 1 January 1775. This was only thirteen more than on 1 January 1763 and only three more than on 1 January 1755.

During his second tenure as foreign minister, Choiseul enjoyed one clear victory, the leasing from the Republic of Genoa of the island of Corsica, which proved a permanent acquisition. In spite of the British public’s outrage, the weak government of the ailing Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, and the inexperienced Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, protested but did nothing more. This victory was overshadowed, however, by disastrous defeats for France’s friends in eastern Europe. In March 1768 the Poles rebelled against their government in response to the rights recently given to religious minorities. Six months later the Turks, with French encouragement, went to war against the Russians. Chosieul had badly misjudged the situation. Logistical and financial difficulties prevented France from sending more than limited financial aid and a few volunteers to help the Polish rebels. The relatively modern Russian army was called into Poland, and it proved more than a match for both the Poles and the Turks. Aided by the British, the Russians even were able to send a fleet from the Baltic via Britain to the Aegean Sea, where in 1770 it annihilated a Turkish fleet. France’s entire system of client states in eastern European now was threatened and her impotence in foreign affairs revealed to all.

Choiseul’s position at the French court also was weakening. It is possible he at least flirted with the idea that a war with Britain would restore his power. In 1770 the conflict over the Falklands became acute when the Spanish commander at Buenos Aires sent a squadron to the British post at Port Egmont and expelled the garrison. Choiseul’s diplomatic correspondence with Ossun was ambiguous about France’s plans and the king was left in doubt about Choiseul’s intentions. Facing renewed struggles with the parlements, Louis XV wished peace at any price and extracted a promise from Choiseul that he would do his utmost to preserve it. In December 1770, his suspicions that Choiseul was pursuing a separate policy led to the downfall of the foreign minister. War was averted when Charles III apologized to George III for the insult given Britain. In exchange, Frederick, Lord North, the British prime minister, secretly promised that Britain quietly would evacuate the islands later.

Choiseul’s downfall also brought down his cousin, Naval Minister Praslin. After a short interval Pierre-Etienne Bourgeois de Boynes, the former president of the Parlement of Besançon and supporter of the king whom Chosieul had betrayed, became naval minister. During his three years in office, supplies of masts, wood for construction, and other naval materiel declined drastically. With its rebuilding program stalled and its dockyards depleted of supplies, the navy apparently was not very formidable when he left office in 1774. Nevertheless it had hidden strengths and in several areas was superior to the navy of twenty years earlier. First, its ships of the line on average were somewhat larger. At the end of 1774, 32 of its 60 ships of the line carried 74 or more guns (increasingly the measure of a true ship of the line), whereas only 25 of the 57 ships of the line at the beginning of 1755 had carried that many guns. More importantly, thanks to the great expansion of colonial trade and fishing since the end of the Seven Years’ War, it could draw on a larger pool of sailors and hence man more ships. Here, France’s saving of her access to the Newfoundland and St. Lawrence fisheries was crucial; the sailors they trained made the difference of perhaps a dozen ships of the line. (The fisheries trained roughly a third of the navy’s sailors. If half of these could not have found alternate maritime employment, the navy would have lost a sixth of the crews of the 63–73 ships of the line it used in the War of American Independence.) The balance of opposing naval forces in the War for American Independence was so close that a dozen ships of the line were enough to make a crucial difference. More likely, however, France would not have risked involvement in the war had the navy been weakened by the loss of the fishery. Finally, the navy could look for help from the Spanish navy, which had grown almost as large as the French; from 1767 through 1774 it launched 22 ships of the line. The French navy had received Spanish help during the Seven Years’War only after it had been fatally weakened; if it could find earlier help, it might hope for different results, even though the British launched 52 ships of the line between 1 January 1763 and 1 January 1775 and ended the period with 106 ships of the line.

In 1774 the possibility that the French navy might soon see combat, however, was unlikely. What transformed the situation was the death of Louis XV and the accession to the foreign ministry of a former member of the “Secret du Roi” who put into practice the policies of the “Secret,” including striking at Russia through Great Britain.

From Jonathan Dull, The French Navy in the Seven Years’ War

Hitler and Rommel



Throughout the summer of 1939, tensions between Berlin and Warsaw were methodically ratcheted higher, as Hitler pushed events closer to the tipping point and the Polish government maintained a belligerence which in light of the state of Poland’s army and her strategic situation was utterly unrealistic—encouraged, tragically as it turned out, by assurances from Paris and London that if Germany invaded Poland, it would also mean war with France and Britain. When on August 22 Rommel was summoned to Berlin for a special briefing, he was convinced that its purpose was to assign to him some special mission in a war he expected to begin any day. He was quite right on both counts. On August 23 the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a mutual non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which contained secret clauses that provided for the partition of a conquered Poland; on August 25, Rommel was promoted to generalmajor (“I left the Reichs Chancellery a brand-new general wearing a brand-new general’s uniform,” he wrote ecstatically to Lucie that night), and given a new, totally unexpected posting: when the war with Poland began, Rommel would command the Führerbeglietbataillon, responsible for the protection of the Führer’s headquarters and Hitler himself.

The German attack on Poland began in the pre-dawn hours of September 1, 1939. Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia, while carried out bloodlessly, had been tantamount to dress rehearsals for the mechanized warfare which the Wehrmacht was about to unleash against Poland. The operations in Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia had served as a “proof of concept” for its organization, machines, equipment, and doctrines. The German Army was developing a new form of warfare, and there were still plenty of kinks to work out, bugs to eradicate, as the mobility of mechanized forces, the reach of air power, and the flexibility of infiltration tactics were brought together in a form of warfare that the West would come to call “Blitzkrieg.”

The Poles’ situation was essentially hopeless: surrounded on three sides by German territory, their only chance at stemming the German advance was to abandon the western third of Poland, withdraw into the center of the country and make a stand along the Vistula River and before Warsaw, hoping that the French and British would intervene in the west and draw off enough of the German Army’s strength to allow the Poles to keep fighting. This strategy was soon in tatters as the speed with which the German spearheads advanced gave the Poles no time in which to organize defensive lines. The problem was not the shopworn cliché of cavalry charging columns of armor—a scenario that actually occurred but once—rather it was the Poles’ lack of comparable mobility: the Germans were simply moving faster than the Poles were able to respond. Even had they been able to stand on the Vistula and at the gates of Warsaw, the Poles were doomed, as they were stabbed in the back by the Soviets, who invaded from the east on September 17. The German and Soviet armies met at Brest-Litovsk on September 22, and though isolated fighting continued until October 6, the Polish campaign was essentially over. It was a staggering, lopsided victory for the Wehrmacht, whose losses in killed, wounded, and missing totaled just under 50,000, while the number of Polish dead and wounded alone was four times that number. In a speech given in Danzig a month after the campaign began, Hitler assured the world that “Poland never will rise again in the form of the Versailles treaty. That is guaranteed. . . .”

Hitler had made only a slight miscalculation in his assessment of the Allies: Britain and France had indeed honored their pledges to Poland and declared war on Germany, but then immediately thereafter the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, began to dither and blither, constantly finding new excuses for not striking at Germany across her western border, which during that sad September was held by a mere six divisions. Daladier of France followed Chamberlain’s lead, and the western front, such as it was and what there was of it, was a scene of masterful inactivity, a situation the French press soon dubbed “le Drôle de Guerre”—the Funny War—while their British counterparts called it the “Phoney War.”

Rommel saw no actual combat while commanding the Führer’s bodyguard in Poland, although on more than one occasion Hitler seemed determined to get as close to the fighting as he could, roaming as he did across Poland behind the advancing Wehrmacht, sometimes aboard the Führersonderzug, the “Führer’s Special,” incongruously named “Amerika,” or in a small armored column. When the 2nd Panzer Division forced a crossing of the San River under heavy fire from the Polish defenders, they were also under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to personally see his tanks in action. (Hitler had played a decisive role in the creation of the first panzer divisions.) At the Baltic port of Gydnia, which the Poles had defended ferociously, Hitler decided to personally inspect the ruins of the last Polish bunker, which sat almost literally at the water’s edge at the bottom of a steep incline. Rommel, charged with traffic control, announced that only the Führer’s car and one other vehicle would be allowed down that grade—everyone else would have to remain behind. When Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and personal gatekeeper, attempted to follow in a third car, Rommel stepped into the street and blocked the way, responding to Bormann’s obscenity-laced demand to be allowed to pass by bellowing back at him, “I am the headquarters commandant and this is not a kindergarten outing! You will do as I say!” Humiliated, Bormann silently vowed retribution, though it would be years in coming.

The wreckage of Polish tanks and artillery, along with crashed Polish aircraft, were of special interest to Hitler, who had a lifelong fascination with machinery. Less attention was paid to the long columns of Polish prisoners of war, or, for that matter, the casualties suffered by the German Army. One disturbing incident took place in East Prussia, when a train filled with wounded German soldiers was eased onto a railway siding next to Hitler’s Amerika. The bloody and maimed young men were clearly visible to those aboard—Hitler ordered the shades on the windows lowered to block them from view. Rommel was present for this display of Hitler’s indifference to the plight of the soldiers who fought and bled for him, an incident which only much later would begin to signify.

What Rommel immediately gained from his presence at the Führer’s headquarters was an eagle’s eye view of how the campaign was being fought; it was highly educational. This was his first experience of seeing war from a higher command perspective, and he took away a keen understanding of how mechanized and motorized units utilized speed and surprise to create a “force multiplier”—producing favorable results from their maneuvers and attacks that were disproportionate to the numbers of men and machines involved. The applicability of his own command style and combat experiences in the Great War, especially those in Romania and Italy, quickly became obvious to him, and he began to wonder how he might gain command of one of the coveted panzer divisions. He was uniquely positioned for such a possibility: in one letter to Lucie, he wrote, “I was able to talk with [Hitler] about two hours yesterday evening, on military problems. He’s extraordinarily friendly toward me. . . . I very much doubt that I will be at the Kriegsschule much longer, when the war is over.”

Rommel was wrong on both counts: he would remain the titular commandant of the Theresian Academy for another six months, albeit temporarily posted to Berlin should it be necessary to reactivate the Führer’s escort battalion; and the war was far from over. With military operations in Poland complete, he was able to secure a few days’ leave to spend with Lucie, but returned to Hitler’s headquarters on October 2 in order to prepare for the German Army’s victory parade through Warsaw on October 5. The city was a smoldering, reeking ruin, much of it reduced to rubble by Luftwaffe bombs and Wehrmacht artillery shells; Hitler stood for two hours on a specially constructed temporary reviewing stand while units of the army and air force marched past, Rommel standing behind him and to his right throughout. Hitler and company returned to Berlin that night, and on October 6 Hitler delivered a speech to the Reichstag in which he offered to make peace with Britain and France. Poland no longer existed, he argued; the entire reason the French and British had gone to war had evaporated. In a private conference with his senior officers the following day, Hitler let it be known that if his peace overtures were rebuffed, he was determined to invade the west at the earliest possible opportunity.

Rommel would never return to Poland, and he departed the country just as the SS Einsatzgruppen, the special purpose commands, were moving in, so he remained unaware of what happened in Poland in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s triumph. The systematic, methodical extermination of Poland’s aristocratic and intellectual elite, along with her Jews, as well as anyone else the Nazis deemed unfit to live, along with the simultaneous deportation of all able-bodied men to factories in the Reich where they would become slave labor, began almost as soon as the last panzer came to a halt. It was the leading edge of a stormfront of death and despair that would sweep across Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the Wehrmacht for the next six years. Protected by a conspiracy of silence that all but assured disappearance and death for anyone who was too assiduous in their effort to pierce it, the Nazis’ liquidation of their various “problems”—the Jewish problem, the Gypsy problem, the Slav problem, the homosexual problem, the aged or infirm or mentally ill problem—in the east would rot the morals and poison the honor of an entire generation of German officers, as well as far too many of Germany’s soldiers, who served there. Prepared, willing, to look the other way, to invoke the principle, so popular with the Germans throughout their history, of “Not kennt kein Gebot!”—“Necessity knows no law!”—millions of ordinary, decent Volk became, in the words of Daniel Goldhagen, “Hitler’s willing executioners.”

Had he been paying closer attention, Rommel would have had an inkling that something seriously amiss was happening in Poland. Not long after the invasion began, Lucie contacted Rommel, asking him to make inquiries as to the fate of her uncle, a Catholic priest named Edmund Roszczynialski. Initially Rommel was fobbed off with bureaucratic excuses; more than a year would pass before he would have to inform her that there were no records of any kind regarding Father Edmund. Nor was there likely ever to be—he had simply vanished, almost certainly just one more anonymous victim of the SS execution detachments.

But by then, so much had happened to Rommel in particular and the world as a whole that the fate of a single Catholic priest became all but insignificant. In the months of October and November 1939 a titanic battle of wills was being fought between Hitler, who wanted to invade France and the Low Countries immediately if not sooner, and the Army High Command and General Staff, who, for a variety of reasons, some sound, others born of a hesitance that bordered on cowardice, sought to postpone any new offensives for as long as possible, preferably forever. The Polish Army, no matter how hard or how bravely it fought, had been not only outnumbered but also outclassed in its confrontation with the Wehrmacht. In 1939 the French Army, despite its current lethargic posture on the Western Front, was widely regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, armies in the world. And however much the French may have lost their fondness for offensive action, no German officer who fought against them in the Great War could forget their tenacity on defense, especially at Verdun, where, undeniably, a rational army would have run away. The French Army would, of necessity, bear the brunt of any German attack in the west, and the German generals feared another prolonged, indecisive bloodbath of the sort they had fought from 1914 to 1918.

The truth is, if the German Army had attacked in the west in the late autumn of 1939, that sort of stalemate almost certainly would have been the result. Showing a singular lack of imagination, the O.K.W. (Oberkommando des Wehrmacht—the Armed Forces High Command) had developed a plan for attacking the western Allies that was little more than an elaborate rehashing of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914—precisely what the French and British army commands were planning to defend against. The plan called for the German Army to anchor its left flank on the Ardennes Forest, and advance in a gigantic wheeling maneuver across Holland and Belgium with the objective of outflanking the French and British forces arrayed against it. (The two significant departures from the Schlieffen Plan was that first, there would be no battle of the frontier this time round—the Maginot Line defenses were too formidable to make any such action feasible—and second, Holland would be invaded along with Belgium; leaving Holland neutral in 1914 ultimately came to be regarded as a poor strategic decision.) The Anglo-French defensive plan, known as the “Dyle Plan,” called for the French Army and a British expeditionary force to advance into Belgium and take up a defensive position along the Dyle River, denying the Germans any opportunity to outflank them.

Weather and logistics ultimately combined to make any offensive operations in late 1939 impossible, and during the winter of 1939–40, Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein, the Chief of Staff of Army Group A, one of three such commands assigned to the attack on the west, began to rethink the O.K.W. plan. Turning the basic concept of the plan on its ear, he proposed that rather than simply marking time in the Ardennes, the German Army deploy its panzer divisions there, giving them the mission of breaking through the French defenses and then using their speed and mobility to move behind and cut off the Allied forces that had advanced into Belgium, drawn there by a large-scale feint by the right wing of the German Army.

The plan was imaginative, bold, daring, and risky, and for all of those reasons the most senior officers of the Wehrmacht vehemently opposed its implementation. But it appealed to Hitler, who recognized that, by its inherent risk, von Manstein’s plan, which he likened to the cut of a sickle, hence the unofficial name it bore, “Sichelschnitt,” offered a victory the size and scope of which had never before been seen in any European war. He ordered further elaboration and development of the plan, much to the chagrin of Generaloberst Franz Halder, the O.K.W. Chief of Staff, who had been largely responsible for the O.K.W.’s original plan.

In its final form, Sichelschnitt, now known as “Fall Gleb”—Case Yellow—called for two Army Groups, A and B, to carry out the offensive in the west. Army Group B on the German right, would move first, its 19 infantry divisions and three panzer divisions moving across Holland and Belgium, to serve as the bait for the trap to be sprung by Army Group A. Comprised of 37 infantry and seven panzer divisions, Army Group A would rush into and through the Ardennes Forest, which the French Army regarded as too dense to allow the passage of armored units, and force a crossing of the Meuse River, after which the panzer divisions would drive hard and fast for the English Channel, bypassing tough opposition and fixed fortifications, leaving them to be reduced by the infantry divisions which followed. The infantry units would also shore up the flanks of the corridor created by the panzers on their way to the Channel. The bulk of the French Army, along with whatever forces the British sent to France, would be trapped in Belgium cut off from their supply lines, with nowhere to retreat.

No doubt all of this would have been of great professional interest to Erwin Rommel under any circumstances, but it became of far more personal interest in February 1940, when he was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, one of the units to be assigned to Army Group A for the dash to the English Channel. He had spent the winter still in command of the Führerbeglietbataillon, and was present at the Reich Chancellery on November 23 when Hitler gave a violent dressing-down to his senior generals, damning their foot-dragging and obstructionism, questioning their fighting spirit and stopping just short of open accusations of cowardice. Rommel hung on every word, as he agreed with almost everything Hitler said: he enjoyed seeing these generals, many of them titled aristocrats who had spent most of their active careers in comfortable staff postings, taken down a peg. They had grown a bit too fond, in Rommel’s eyes, of the ease and routine of a peacetime army; now the Führer was putting them on notice that he expected them to be fighting soldiers rather than simply strutting martinets in high-collared uniforms.

None of the disdain, even contempt, which Hitler displayed to his other generals ever found its way into his relationship with Rommel. (It would be a stretch to call it a friendship—it’s improbable that Adolf Hitler ever formed a true friendship as an adult.) One of the reasons for Rommel’s extended tenure as commander of the Führerbeglietbataillon—a post more suited to a lieutenant colonel or colonel rather than a brigadier general—was undoubtedly Rommel’s reputation as a frontline soldier. None of Hitler’s cronies could claim the sort of shared experiences which linked Hitler and Rommel. None of them had fought in the trenches on the Western Front—Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, had been a fighter pilot during the war, Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, and Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS and chief of the Gestapo, had been too young to serve in the army during the war. Almost alone on Hitler’s staff Rommel knew what it was like to go through combat multiple times and survive—he and Hitler could claim equally with Winston Churchill that there was something exhilarating in being shot at by an enemy who missed.

The strange camaraderie shared by Hitler and Rommel did not go unremarked upon by the rest of Hitler’s coterie, notably by Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief Wehrmacht adjutant, who developed a strong dislike for Rommel and thought he had altogether too much ready access to der Führer. Ironically, Schmundt would come to appreciate what an outstanding soldier Rommel truly was and the two men would become good friends, with Schmundt often providing a back-channel to Hitler when Rommel’s need to speak with the Führer was particularly pressing. At the moment, however, “. . . relations with Schmundt are strained,” he wrote in a letter to Lucie. “Don’t know why: apparently my position with Hitler is getting too strong. Not impossible that a change will be insisted on from that quarter. . . .” Regardless of whatever might be the attitude of Hitler’s staff, Rommel had already made it known that he was chafing in the relative confinement of being the Führerbeglietbataillon commander, and was angling for a divisional command—and not just any division: he was openly lobbying for command of a panzer division.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the ‘Flying Tigers’ (American Volunteer Group: AVG)


The AVG, or the ‘Flying Tigers’ as they became known, started operations out of Rangoon and Kunming in the summer of 1941 and brought much-needed expertise to Chiang’s air operations. Having arrived in Burma with the expectation of fighting as mercenaries for the Chinese, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American pilots found that, money apart, they had another reason to fight. As one flier noted in his diary, “We are stunned … we realized that we are in the middle of one hell of a big war! … I wonder when we’ll get a chance at them.” After pilot Eric Shilling painted his engine cowlings as an open-mouthed shark, Chennault adopted this for all his fighter planes, which soon became a familiar and much-loved sight in northeastern China. Within weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the exploits of the ‘Flying Tigers’ became headline news in America. In Chongqing, Graham Peck, working for the US Office of War Information, noted the arrival of the P-40s with their “thick powerful roar, smooth as the tearing of heavy silk.” For Americans, the exploits of the ‘Flying Tigers’ were a welcome propaganda fillip in the depressing weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The Kittyhawks (a variant of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk) arrived via Burma in the spring of 1940 but the whole operation took more than six months to set up. In their first sortie over Rangoon on 20 December 1941 (some two weeks after Pearl Harbor), Chennault’s P-40s surprised a Japanese raid by Mitsubishi Ki-21 ‘Sally’ bombers. Six Japanese bombers and four fighters were shot down, though they lost pilots Neil Martin and Henry Gilbert—the first ‘Flying Tigers’ to lose their lives.

By Christmas 1941 ‘Duke’ Hedman had become the AVG’s first ace with five kills. Remarkably he achieved the rare feat of becoming an ace in a single day—in fact within 15 minutes. Hedman was an “unassuming farm boy from South Dakota” reported the Chicago Daily News. A delighted Chennault wrote to his banker father in rural South Dakota saying, “He is a first rate combat pilot and the reckless bravery of his attacks, both on strafing and bombing missions, and in aerial combat with the Japanese, are something you can well be proud of.” Indeed the ‘Flying Tigers’ became renowned for their exceptionally aggressive tactics, often flying, as Hedman had done, straight into the middle of formations of Japanese bombers, where Japanese fighters were afraid to shoot at them for fear of hitting their own aircraft. Many more aces followed. Charles ‘Chuck’ Older, leader of the ‘Flying Tigers’ 3rd Squadron, the Hell’s Angels, scored eighteen kills. After the war, the squadron gave its name to a San Bernadino motorcycle club, which later became the well-known global Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, on the suggestion of another ‘Flying Tiger’ pilot, Arvid Olsen. As for ‘Chuck’ Older, he became a Superior Court Judge in California and achieved greater fame as the presiding judge in the Charles Manson murder case involving the drug and sex-crazed cult killing of Sharon Tate, the actress wife of movie director Roman Polanski.

The success and aura that surrounded Chennault and his ‘Flying Tigers’ created a groundswell of support for his recall to service in the US Army Air Force. Subsequently, this able leader won the promotions denied to him in the 1930s and was rapidly promoted to brigadier-general. Strangely he would now report to General ‘Hap’ Arnold with whom he had formerly been in conflict over fighter-bomber tactics in the 1930s. From the end of December 1941 the ‘Flying Tigers’ were absorbed back into the regular US Army Air Force and they became the nucleus of the China-based US Fourteenth Air Force in March 1942. Chennault loomed into American public consciousness as a great American hero when his picture was displayed on the front cover of Life magazine on 10 August 1942. Time magazine would also carry his portrait on the front cover of their 6 December 1943 issue. Hollywood was quickly into the act, releasing Flying Tigers [1942] starring John Wayne; the movie even used real footage from the war in China. It was on the set of this movie that Wayne picked up the nickname ‘Duke.’

As in Malaya a key aspect of this early British failure was heavy defeat in the air. Just as in Malaya, as well as by the Americans in the Philippines, the potential threat of Japanese air power had been treated prior to the war with stereotypical arrogance. Sub-Lieutenant Russell Spurr’s father wrote to tell him that: “Their eyesight is so bad they can’t fly fighter planes. That’s assuming the little bastards could even build them.”

In reality the Royal Air Force (RAF) was quickly overwhelmed. On Christmas Day 1941 twenty-seven Ki-21 ‘Sally’ heavy bombers from the 12th Sentai and a further thirty-six from the 60th Sentai raided Rangoon Airfield. They were escorted by twenty-five Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ fighters from the 64th Sentai. A follow-up attack involved 8 Ki-21 ‘Sally’ heavy bombers, 27 Ki-30 ‘Anne’ light bombers and 32 Ki-27s. In a pattern similar to the invasion of Malaya, British radar was found wanting. Sergeant Beable complained, “Once again because of the inadequate warning system we found ourselves in the unenviable and vulnerable position of having to climb at very low airspeed into the Japanese formation some 5,000 feet or more above us.” Highly optimistic claims were made of Japanese bombers shot down. British fighters took heavy losses, airfield buildings were badly damaged and anti-aircraft batteries destroyed with the bodies of gunners “scattered in a bloody broken mess for hundreds of yards around.” Civilian casualties in Rangoon were also severe with an estimated 5,000 killed. Flight-Lieutenant Brandt reported that “Chaos reigned in Rangoon. The jails were opened, the lepers were let out and a lot of fifth column activity carried out.”

Even the arrival of the first Hurricanes did little to dent Japan’s overwhelming air superiority. Three Hurricane IIB Trops (Tropicalized) were flown in by Squadron Leader ‘Jimmy’ Elsdon. Within minutes of arriving at Mingaladon Airfield warning of a Japanese raid sounded off. Squadron Leader ‘Bunny’ Stone wrote that the Hurricanes were attacked before they reached altitude: “We were promptly jumped by about ten of them [Japanese Army fighters]. Couldn’t do a damned thing with the tanks on, never got a shot while the little buggers queued up on my tail and filled me full of holes … Decided I had had enough and dived down to the estuary, among the shipping.” Given the importance of attacking from altitude, the failure to give timely warnings of approaching enemy aircraft was a very significant factor in the failure of the Allies to stem the tide of Japanese air supremacy. Navigator Sergeant Don Purdon gave a graphic account of the peculiarities of the warning system on which they had to rely:

For warning we had to rely on an outpost in the hills manned by Burma Frontier Force soldiers who spoke little English—communications was by heliograph. I don’t think any of us could read it so we had to rely on a Burma Frontier counterpart first to read and then translate from Burmese! One never knew if the flashes in the hills meant an air raid under way or whether it was a call for rations or other mundane needs.

On 3 February the Allied air forces were struck by an unforeseen disaster. Eighteen fighters that left Calcutta’s Dum Dum Airfield bound for Lashio in eastern Burma, lost their way over the Shan Highlands and crashed one by one. It was a reminder that the hazards of flying in the Pacific War were not all about combat. Interwoven with fierce dogfights were quiet days without bombing raids; pilots on the eastern front played golf at the Rangoon Country Club and swam at the Kokine Swimming Club and generally “acted like rich kids.” For men facing death every other day carousing was almost obligatory. Brawls were frequent. When the owner of the Silver Grills whorehouse in Rangoon tried to eject the American pilots they pulled out their pistols and shot out his chandelier causing panic among the prostitutes. As more of Rangoon’s white population departed taking with them their daughters, the American pilots who had hitherto almost exclusively chased girls in this social strata, began to turn their eyes toward the Anglo-Burman girls who had previously been the preserve of the flight technicians. A disapproving British officer told them, “We don’t mind you sleeping with them but don’t for God’s sake drag them around in our hotels and restaurants.”

The bar at the famous Strand Hotel was the scene of much heavy drinking. After one heavy night, seven pilots missed morning roll call and one of them, Robert Smith, was still too drunk to fly. It was not just the pilots who misbehaved. Rangoon crew chief, George Reynolds, crashed an American Volunteer Group (AVG) car and, fearing attack by two approaching Burman, shot one and wounded the other. Reynolds was jailed but released the next morning with the whole affair quietly hushed up. Houses, abandoned by owners who were fleeing Rangoon, were occupied by pilots and crew who proceeded to loot the properties. Pilot George Burgard purloined a truck and with crew chief Ed McClure filled it with stolen goods. Burgard wrote in his diary that he had acquired “so much stuff it would not be believed if I listed it.” He was clearly an optimist about his chances of survival. On 21 February the AVG met a mission by the whole 77th Sentai (squadron): “There were … Jap planes all over the sky. I tried to shoot them all down myself, but got only two in a full hour of fighting. It was a wild scramble … I got one [bullet] thru my wing that shot out my right tire. Some fun.” Thieving was not just personal. At the ports, the AVG commandeered crates and stole whatever was useful at the base: spare parts, tools, guns and ammunition. Normal logistics had simply broken down. The entrepreneurial Burgard survived the war and eventually became a supplier of parts for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency).