Boer Forces


Boer militiamen at Spionkop


Transvaal State Artillery

The forces the Boers were able to put in the field in 1899 were largely volunteers, burghers or citizens who were obliged to serve in a commando, their basic military unit. The professionals amongst them were members of the Staatsartillerie (State Artillery) or the Politie (police). In addition, supporters came from overseas to become members of existing commandos or to form their own brigades. On the outbreak of war the Boer forces comprised approximately 55,000 burghers, 1,200 artillerymen, 2,000 police and 2,000 foreign volunteers, plus some 400 support service personnel, of whom perhaps 35,000 were in the field.

Boer military action was based on the commando system. This had been contrived to meet the needs of a farming people extending their land-holdings in the face of opposition from indigenous peoples. The country was arranged in local districts and each district had to provide a commando, manned by its citizens or burghers. Every man between sixteen and sixty years of age was liable to serve, those between eighteen and thirty-four going first, then those up to fifty years and, in the last resort, those up to sixty years. The system created formations of different sizes. Thaba ’Nchu commando numbered 98 men while Pretoria had 2,832. Commandos were sub-divided into wards, each of which elected its commander, a Field Cornet who might have an Assistant Field Cornet to aid him.

The Transvaal (South African Republic) State Artillery was a well-disciplined force, uniformed, and commanded by Lieutenant-colonel S. P. E. Trichardt. It numbered 733 men and was equipped with four 155mm Creusots (Long Toms), four 120mm Krupp howitzers, fourteen 75mm quick-firing guns and five other 75mm guns. There were twenty-two 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt Pom-Poms and another twenty-two guns of various kinds. The Orange Free State Artillery was just as professional but smaller, with 474 men, and much less well equipped. It had fourteen breech-loading 75mm Krupps and seven 9-pounder rifled breech-loading Armstrongs, together with seven other old guns. It was commanded by the Prussian-born Major F. W. R. Albrecht.

The ZARP, Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek Politie or South African Republic Police, were 1,545 strong. The Johannesburg Police were particularly unpopular with the uitlandersor incomers who left to fight on the British side as a result of the oppressive treatment the latter had endured before the war. These men, like the 150 Orange Free State Police, were well-disciplined and professional.

In the course of the war, particularly in the guerrilla phase, the commandos tended to break up because of casualties and departures. The remaining men formed units of their own such as the Afrikander Cavalry Corps which Commandant Malan put together to oppose the invasion of the Transvaal. The scout, Danie Theron, of whom Christiaan De Wet thought so highly, headed a formation known as Theron’s Scouts and there were a number of similar units.

The foreign volunteers were formed partly from men already in South Africa and partly from people who came expressly to fight in the Boer cause. Amongst the former were the German Corps, the Hollander Corps one of the Irish Brigades and the Scandinavian Corps. To these were added the French, Americans, Italians (including Lieutenant Count Pecci, nephew of Pope Leo XIII), Russians and Swiss. Mohommed Ben Nasser, a Muslim, came from North Africa and eventually became a Transvaal citizen. Few corps were composed entirely of the nationals of the country after which they were named, as the story of the Russian volunteers illustrates.


Boer formations were held together more by mutual agreement than by any European concept of military discipline imposed from above and sanctioned by law. This made them difficult to control and command, vulnerable in times of hardship and formidable when the spirit of battle was upon them.

European soldiers had great difficulty in understanding the way Boer commandos behaved. The burgher, the citizen soldier, was commanded by an officer he had had a part in electing; the Field Cornet was simply first among equals and could be replaced in another election. Commanders were the social equals of their men and were often their neighbours or members of their own family, quite unlike the hierarchical structure of a European regiment. A burgher might decline to participate in an action he thought unwise or excessively dangerous, or absent himself from his unit entirely, even knowingly breaking the law, in order to attend to the harvest. When they did fight they did so because they chose to do so. It follows that commanding a commando was always something of a gamble.

Nominally discipline was based on the commando acts of the parliaments of the South African Republic (Transvaal) of 1898 and the Orange Free State of 1899. These laws laid down punishments of fines or imprisonment for breaches of military discipline. In fact many offences were allowed to go unpunished or merely admonished, and imprisonment was rarely used given the shortage of manpower. Various field punishments were devised. Saddle-pack involved the miscreant’s walking around the camp carrying his saddle, rifle and other equipment for a set length of time or number of circuits while his comrades jeered, a tiring and humiliating experience. The oxhide punishment involved being tossed in the air from an oxhide from a newly slaughtered animal manipulated by ten men. Gun riding was more serious. The convict, sometimes trouserless, had to sit astride a gun barrel, with hands and feet tied, in the heat of the day. He might eventually collapse because of the awkward posture and excessive heat. Alternatively he might be tied to a wagon wheel to cook in the sun for a while.

Beatings were administered casually, and a commander might use his sjambok, his whip, in the heat of the moment, but there was also a formal use of corporal punishment. Men might be sentenced to a given number of lashes with a harness or offered the alternative of paying a fine or enduring a given number of lashes with a sjambok.

The American Military Attaché, Captain Carl Reichmann, summed up the situation when he said, “Having complied with the law calling him [the burgher] into the field, he yielded cooperation, not obedience”.

For what were seen as acts of treason the death penalty was exacted. Deneys Reitz reports that a Cape Colonial, one Lemuel Colaine, joined Commandant H. J. Brouwer’s commando on the pretext of having been imprisoned by the British. When Colaine subsequently went missing, Reitz says, “No particular notice was taken of his absence, as the men were constantly riding off to visit farms, or look up friends at distant outposts, and it was thought that he had done the same”. They had a rude awakening when the man led a British raiding party against them. Not long afterwards Colaine was caught in an attack undertaken by Jan Smuts’s men and the General ordered him to be shot. A grave was dug and, after being allowed time with a minister, Colaine was executed.

When peace overtures were being made by the British in January 1901 the Landdrost, or district magistrate, of Griqualand West, J. J. Morgandaal was held captive when undertaking an embassy to Senior Commandant C. C. Froneman. Morgendaal’s action in advocating peace with, or surrender to, the British led Froneman first to beat him and then to shoot him. It was said that Christiaan De Wet looked on, but there is no mention of the incident in his book. Another execution was that of Meyer de Kock who had helped set up the Burgher Peace Committee in Pretoria. He was on a mission to Commandant-general Louis Botha when he was captured. He was shot on 12 February 1901.


Although most of the Boer fighters were conscripts or volunteers, they were not untrained. The ordinary life of the farming Boer demanded competence as a marksman and skill in horsemanship, not just riding but all aspects of caring for a horse as well. In addition, competitions and field days were used to build on these skills and to bring town dwellers up to standard. However, apart from the States Artillery and the Police forces, the Boers were an amateur army.

Marksmanship of a high standard was encouraged by holding Wapenschouwsor rifle meetings, also known as Bisleys after the British rifle championships, at which cash prizes were awarded. Ammunition was issued free for this purpose, as were 200 rounds when, just before the outbreak of war, the Boer government exchanged new Mauser rifles for the burghers’ old Martini-Henrys and wanted to ensure the owners were familiar with their new weapons. These competitions took place two or three times a year as did Field Days on which various martial activities were undertaken. A mock battle might take place or a number of simulated attacks were undertaken on supposed enemy positions. In the period immediately before the outbreak of war the frequency of field days increased and they became common once again during the guerrilla phase when boredom was a problem during the numerous periods of inactivity.


Although the Boers are best known for their mobility and evasiveness, they did change their tactics during the war. At times they carried out lightning attacks, and at others they took up siege warfare. They used trenches in defence and concealment in the field, but also, on occasion, made attacks very like classic cavalry charges. They were versatile and opportunistic which sometimes gave them the advantage, but they were also poorly disciplined and easily discouraged and their lack of staying power let them down.

At the outbreak of the war the Boers moved quickly in a large number of quite small groups, permeating the British defences and eventually surrounding their enemies in Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. From Ladysmith, in Natal, they might have gone on to the coast at Durban, but the determination of their aged leader, Commandant-general Piet Joubert, failed and they fell back to defend the Tugela River against the force seeking to lift the siege. The events in Natal illustrate the first phase of the war.

In siege situations the Boers depended on tactics such as cutting off supplies to the besieged, shelling the towns indiscriminately with their guns and occasionally attacking on foot. They were aware of the dangers of illness and, at Ladysmith, were in the process of building a dam to cut off the Klip River, the supply of drinking water. At the same time they had agreed a neutral zone for the sick at Intombi camp and adhered to their promise to leave it safe. Neither the British nor the Boers appeared to see any inconsistency in doing this while shelling civilians – men, women and children.

In defence the Boers made excellent use of the ground, exploiting natural cover and making it difficult for the British to locate the source of rifle fire when smokeless powder was used. In Natal they made their traditional good use of high ground which, on the Tugela where they overlooked the lowlands from which the British approached, worked well until General Sir Redvers Buller perfected his tactics of giving his infantry limited objectives and close artillery support. On the approaches to Kimberley, on the other hand, the terrain was flat and open with occasional kopjes, mesa-like hills, and a few rivers. Here the flat trajectory of the high-velocity rifle was exploited by firing from concealed positions in trenches. This tactic worked until the British achieved superior mobility and were able to outflank the Boer positions, at which the defenders abandoned their trenches and moved off.

In the guerrilla phase of the war the main aggressive effort went into disrupting communications by blowing up bridges, breaking up railway tracks and intercepting supply-wagon trains. At Waterval Drift on 15 February 1900 Vecht-general Christiaan De Wet captured a supply train with a third of the British oxen and a full four days’ supplies. However, he was so keen to squirrel away his plunder that he was fatally slow in moving to the support of Assistant Commandant-general Cronjé at Paardeberg. As the war continued and Boer supplies by railway from Portuguese East Africa were cut off, the need to acquire clothing, guns, ammunition and even food from the British was added to the incentives to ambush and cut out small contingents of their enemies. By that time, having no permanent territory under their control, the Boers had nowhere to keep prisoners. They therefore took to uitskud,literally ‘shaking out’, that is, stripping the British and releasing them naked to find their way back to their comrades.

On one occasion the attempt to promote disease was purposely undertaken. Bloemfontein was supplied with water from waterworks at Sannaspos to the east of the town. It was to destroy these works and to deny clean water to the town and both civilians and military there that De Wet went there on 31 March 1900 and, by chance, encountered Brigadier-general R. G. Broadwood. The fact that he won a famous victory there and that the waterworks survived should not obscure the fact that the increase of typhoid (enteric) fever in Bloemfontein was De Wet’s primary objective.

On their Field Days, their training days, the Boers practised charging towards an objective and opening fire upon it, either from horseback or dismounted. These tactics were rarely used in the field but some examples exist, such as at Blood River Poort in northern Natal where Commandant-general Louis Botha worsted Lieutenant-colonel Hubert Gough, and at Rooiwal where Lieutenant-colonel Robert Kekewich destroyed a force of 1,500 Boers who charged him. Deneys Reitz gives a graphic account of the foot charge made by the Boers against the Northumberland Fusiliers at Nooitgedacht and the attack on Wagon Hill at Ladysmith also involved Boers advancing under fire, though the terrain precluded a charge as such.


Pretorius, Fransjohan, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1999); Reichmann, C., Report on the Operations of the Boer Army (Washington, 1901); Slocum & Reichmann, Reports by Cpts. Slocum & Reichmann of Boer War,U.S. National Archives file number 858–2, 1900.

Hall, Darrell, ed. Fransjohan Pretorius and Gilbert Torlage, The Hall Handbook of the Anglo-Boer War (Pietermaritizburg, University of Natal Press, 1999); Wessels, André, “Afrikaners at War”, Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image,ed. J. Gooch (London, Frank Cass, 2000).

Marix Evans, Martin, The Boer War: South Africa 1899–1902 (Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 1999); Pretorius, Fransjohan, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1999).

Hitler Supports Franco


Junkers Ju 87A with Condor Legion markings


“Condor Legion” infantry training school in Ávila, Spain.


Condor legionnaires celebrated on cover of the Nazi air ministry’s magazine, June 1939

The remilitarization of the Rhineland profoundly altered the balance of international relations in Europe. Up to this point, as had been made abundantly clear in 1923, the French were potentially able to enforce Germany’s obligations by marching across the Rhine and occupying the country’s biggest industrial region, the Ruhr. From now on, they were no longer able to do so. The French position from 1936 onwards was a purely defensive one. It left the Third Reich a free hand in moving against the small countries of Eastern Europe. Shocked by a development that left them dangerously vulnerable, many of them, previously allied to France, moved to try and improve relations with the Third Reich. Austria now felt particularly at risk, given the new-found friendship between Germany and Italy. Before long, too, Hitler and Mussolini’s relationship drew even closer. For, following a left-wing victory in the Spanish elections held in February 1936, right-wing army officers in various parts of the country launched a concerted uprising on 17 July 1936 to overthrow the Republic and create a military dictatorship. The uprising failed to achieve its objectives in most parts of the country, and soon Spain was plunged into a desperate and bloody civil war. German officials and businessmen in Spain urged on Hitler the support of the rebels, and one of the leading figures in the uprising, General Francisco Franco, appealed directly to Hitler for help. It was not long in coming.

Even before the end of July 1936, German planes were in Spain ferrying rebel forces to the key fronts and thus helping to ensure that the uprising did not fizzle out. From this modest beginning, German intervention was soon to reach startling proportions. The main reasons were both military and political. As the political situation in Spain polarized with unprecedented intensity, Hitler began to be concerned about the possibility that a Republican victory would deliver the country into the hands of the Communists at a time when a Popular Front government, backed by the Communist Party, had just come to power in France. A union between the two countries might create a serious obstacle in Western Europe to his plans for expansion and war in the East, particularly when this encompassed the Soviet Union, as it eventually would. Beyond this, he soon realized that the war would provide an ideal proving-ground for Germany’s new armed forces and equipment. Soon, Werner von Blomberg, the German Minister of War, freshly promoted to Field-Marshal, was in Spain telling Franco that he would get German troops and matériel provided he agreed to prosecute the war with more vigour than he had displayed to date. In November 1936, 11,000 German troops and support staff, supplied with aircraft, artillery and armour, landed at Cadiz. By the end of the month, the Nationalist regime had been officially recognized as the government of Spain by the Third Reich, and the German forces had been organized into an effective unit under the name of the Condor Legion.

Hitler and his generals were clear that German assistance to Franco could not expand indefinitely without attracting the hostility of the other European powers. Britain and France had agreed on a policy of non-intervention. This did not stop supplies from the United Kingdom in particular from reaching the Nationalist side, but it did mean that if the fiction of general neutrality was to be preserved, other powers would have to be careful about the extent to which they intervened. Mussolini’s assistance to the rebels was far greater than Hitler’s, but both were countered by the aid that the Soviet Union gave to the Republican side. Volunteers from many countries flocked to the Republican banner to form an International Brigade; a rather smaller number went to fight for the Francoists. In this situation, preventing the conflict from escalating into a wider war seemed to be in everybody’s interest. The stakes scarcely seemed overwhelming. So Hitler kept the Condor Legion as a relatively small, though highly trained and professional, fighting force.

Under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, however, it played a significant part in the Nationalist war effort. Soon the Legion was testing its new 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns against Republican planes. But its most effective contribution was made through its own bombers, which took part in a concerted advance, undertaken at Sperrle’s behest, on the Basque country. On 31 March 1937 the Legion’s Junkers aircraft bombed the undefended town of Durango, killing 248 inhabitants, including several priests and nuns, the first European town to be subjected to intensive bombing. Far more devastating, however, was the raid they carried out, in conjunction with four new fast Heinkel III bombers and some untried Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, on the town of Guernica on 26 April 1937. Forty-three aircraft, including a small number of Italian planes, dropped 100,000 pounds of incendiary, high-explosive and shrapnel bombs on the town, while the fighters strafed the inhabitants and refugees in the streets with machine-gun fire. The town’s population, normally not more than 7,000, was swollen with refugees, retreating Republican soldiers and peasants attending market-day. Over 1,600 people were killed and more than 800 injured. The centre of the town was flattened. The raid confirmed the widespread fear in Europe of the devastating effects of aerial bombing. Already a symbol of the assault on Basque identity, it gained a worldwide significance through the exiled, pro-Republican Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who dedicated the mural he had been commissioned to produce for the Paris World Exposition a large painting, Guernica, depicting with unique and enduring power the sufferings of the town and its people.

The international furore that greeted the raid led the Germans and the Spanish Nationalists to deny any responsibility. For years afterwards it was claimed that the Basques had blown their own town up. Privately, Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, who had organized the raid, concluded with satisfaction that the new planes and bombs had proved their effectiveness, though he was less than satisfied with the failure of the Spanish Nationalist generals to follow up the raid with an immediate knock-out blow to their Basque opponents. But the Condor Legion did not repeat this murderous experiment. Later on, its bid to use fast-moving tanks in the concluding phase of the war was vetoed by the traditionalist Franco. Nevertheless, thanks to German and Italian help, superior resources and generalship, internal unity and international neutrality, the Francoists completed their victory by the end of March 1939. On 18 May 1939, led by Richthofen, the Legion marched proudly past in Franco’s final victory parade in Madrid. Once more, international inaction had allowed Hitler free rein. The Spanish Civil War was one more example for him of the supine pusillanimity of Britain and France, and thus an encouragement to move faster in the fulfilment of his own intentions. In this sense, at least, the Spanish conflict accelerated the descent into war.

More immediately, however, it cemented the alliance between Hitler and Mussolini. Already in September 1936 Hans Frank visited Rome to begin negotiations, and the next month, the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano went to Germany to sign a secret agreement with Hitler. By November 1936 Mussolini was referring openly to a ‘Rome-Berlin Axis’. Both powers had agreed to respect each other’s ambitions and ally themselves against the Spanish Republic. At the same time, behind the backs of the Foreign Ministry, Hitler arranged for Ribbentrop’s office to conclude an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, pledging both to a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. For the moment, it was of little value, but together with the Rome-Berlin Axis, it completed the line-up of revisionist, expansionist powers that was to take such devastating shape during the Second World War. The attempt to bring Britain into the Anti-Comintern Pact, spearheaded by Ribbentrop’s appointment as Ambassador in London in August 1936, was never likely to succeed; it foundered almost immediately on the new envoy’s tactlessness and his use of the threat of undermining Britain’s overseas empire as an instrument of blackmail – a threat taken all too seriously by the British. As far as Hitler was concerned, moreover, nothing less than a global arrangement with the United Kingdom would by this stage have been worth the price of alienating the Italians, given the substantial British presence in the Mediterranean. He did not abandon the idea of some kind of arrangement with the British and continued to believe that the United Kingdom would stand aside from events in Europe, however they unfolded. For the moment, however, such calculations took second place to the pursuit of his immediate aims on the European Continent.

Battle of Cape Ortegal


Bringing Home the Prizes – aftermath of the battle by Francis Sartorius


Although the storm that followed the battle of Trafalgar, coupled with Collingwood’s aversion to anchoring on the evening of 21 October, left his ships with only four prizes to be escorted to Gibraltar, it was not long before another British force doubled this number of gains by the Royal Navy. Rear-Admiral Dumanoir le Pelley had headed his four sail-of-the-line, the Formidable (80), Duguay Trouin (74), Mont Blanc (74) and Scipion(74) away to the south, instead of returning to Cadiz, with the intention of complying with Villeneuve’s original plans for the Combined Fleets: he hoped to work round the British fleet and pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, then steer for Toulon. However, on the morning of 22 October, when he was satisfied that he had eluded pursuit by Collingwood’s ships, Dumanoir had second thoughts. The wind was against him; and any attempt to pass Gibraltar would risk an engagement with Rear-Admiral Louis’s stronger force of six ships-of-the-line which he knew to be in or near the Rock. He altered course to the west, to round Cape St. Vincent and steer north for Rochefort.

All went well until soon after Dumanoir’s four ships entered the Bay of Biscay, when they were some 40 miles to the north-west of Spain’s Cape Ortegal. There, on 2 November, they were sighted by the frigatePhoenix, one of many British vessels searching for Rear-Admiral Allemand’s squadron which was still at large after leaving Rochefort in July. Dumanoir gave chase: Captain Thomas Baker ran south, leading the enemy towards a British squadron of five ships-of-the-line which was cruising off Ferrol, under Captain Sir Richard Strachan in the 80-gun Caesar. Helped by the frigates Boadicea and Dryad, Baker managed to contact the Caesar at 11 pm and warn Strachan of his pursuers. Although he could not count on any immediate support, because the other four British vessels were somewhat scattered, Strachan headed his ship for the enemy. But as soon as Dumanoir saw the approaching Caesar, he ordered his force to bear away, so that when the moon set around 1.30 am, and the weather thickened, Strachan lost sight of his adversaries.

He seized this opportunity to shorten sail and allow the Bellona (74), Courageux (74), Hero (74) and Namur (74) to come up with him. And by 9.00 in the morning he again had the French ships in sight to the north-north-west. Ordering his squadron to set all possible sail, Strachan gave chase, but by noon his ships were still as much as 14 miles from their quarry. Realizing the extent to which they were handicapped by the slow sailing Bellona, he decided to press on without her — four ships against four. He was nonetheless unable to come up with Dumanoir’s force before darkness again fell. Fortunately, Strachan had the benefit of four frigates; these fast sailers were able to keep in touch with the enemy throughout the night.

Dawn next day, 4 November, revealed the rearmost French ship, the Scipion, only six miles ahead of the Caesar. It also disclosed that Captain L. W. Halstead’s Namur had been unable to keep up and was now well astern of her consorts. This was Dumanoir’s opportunity: with a fair wind from the south-east he could have tacked his four ships-of-the-line and fallen upon only three opponents. But, in the light of his pusillanimous conduct during the battle of Trafalgar, it is scarcely necessary to say that he did not do so. He held his course until, helped by the wind backing to SSE, Strachan in the Caesar, followed by Captain the Hon. A. H. Gardner’s Hero and Captain R. Lee’s Courageux, were seen to be approaching so rapidly that a fight was inevitable.

At 11.45 Dumanoir ordered his ships to form line ahead on the starboard tack in the order Duguay Trouin, Captain Touffet, Formidable, Captain Letellier (flag), Mont Blanc, Captain Villegris, and Scipion, Captain Bellanger, on a course NE by E to meet a British attack. At noon Strachan ordered the Caesar to head for the Formidable, the Hero for the Mont Blanc and the Courageux for the Scipion. And at 12.15 the action between these six ships began.

Just before 1.00 pm Captain Touffet, leading the French line in the Duguay Trouin, determined to support the Formidable by swinging round to starboard across the Caesar’s bows, to rake her from ahead. By luffing up, Strachan avoided this danger. The other three French ships then followed the Duguay Trouin round in succession on to the port tack, and at 1.20 the British ships tacked in pursuit.

Both sides were now heading for the Namur which was in action with the Formidable by 2.45. And she proved too much for Dumanoir’s already damaged flagship; at 3.50 Captain Letellier struck his colours. Five minutes later the likewise damaged Scipion also struck, Captain Bellanger’s ship being taken in prize by Strachan’s frigates. The Duguay Trouin and Mont Blanc then tried to escape, but were soon overhauled by the Caesar and Hero and, after a further 20 minutes destructive cannonade, were compelled to surrender.

In this action, much of it fought by three British ships-of-the-line against four French, the former’s casualties numbered only 24 killed and 111 wounded, the latter’s all of 750 killed, including Captain Touffet of the Duguay Trouin, and wounded, including Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, and Captain Bellanger of the Scipion.

And while the British ships suffered relatively little damage, all four French vessels had been severely mauled. Nonetheless Strachan was able to escort his opponents in prize to Plymouth where, after being refitted, they were added to the strength of the Royal Navy. The total number of vessels finally lost by the Combined Fleets at and shortly after the battle of Trafalgar was thus brought up to 19 ships-of-the-line (of which theDuguay Trouin, renamed Implacable, continued to fly the White Ensign until after the First World War, serving during her later years as a boys’ harbour training ship at Plymouth).

Strachan’s bold and effective handling of his squadron contrasts sharply with Calder’s conduct when he encountered Villeneuve in the same area in July. To him goes the credit for providing a most effective coda to Nelson’s greatest triumph, one which brought down the last curtain on a drama for which all the north Atlantic and the western Mediterranean had been the stage for seven long months. Begun when Villeneuve slipped out of Toulon on 30 March, the Trafalgar Campaign was finally ended when Dumanoir’s ships surrendered off Cape Ortegal on 4 November. For this success Strachan was rewarded with a Knighthood of the Bath, to add to his inherited baronetcy.

Bronekater BK 1124/BK 1125 – Armored Patrol Boats







Project “161” (large sea-going armored boats/ferry monitors, 20 were built in 1942-1944) – 160.8 t; 36.2×5.5×1.28 m; 2x1200hp engines; 13.6 knots; 450 miles; 12-52 mm armor; 39 crew members; 2 T-34 turrets, 1 37mm AA gun, 2-3×12.7mm MGs DShK, sometimes 2x45mm guns or 1-2x82mm mortars.

Project “186” (large sea-going armored boats/ferry monitors, 8 were built in 1944-1945 + 30 in 1945-1947) – 156.5 t; 36.2×5.2×1.5 m; 2×500 hp engines; 14 knots; 750 miles; 42 crew members; 8-20mm armor; 2 T-34-85 turrets, 1x37mm AA gun; 2x2x12.7mm DShK, 2x82mm mortars.

The Soviet BK1125 boat was used between 1939 and 1945 in all European fronts, from Austria in 1945 to Stalingrad…in all rivers. This armoured ship was used like a tank in a river, in fact Bronekater (BK) means armoured ship. The ship was specially designed to carry different turrets, specially T34, T28 turrets and Dushka turrets. The normal tank factories produced the same turrets for tanks and ships.

Often referred to as the “riverine tanks” or “Bronekater” in Russian, the gun boats of the project 1124 and 1125 series played an important role in securing the large system of waterways of the Soviet Union. Well protected and fielding a variety of heavy armament, the boats fight offensively in almost any battle along rivers and seas during World War 2. Bronekaters also were deployed on the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. 310 of these effective boats have been build between 1934 and 1945.

The Soviets used these ships in frontal attacks against land-based tanks and enemy infantry. These ships were armed with Katiusha rockets and T34 turrets – the effect was terrifying. The BK ships were also used for carpet bombing fortifications or cities (Vienna in Austria was bombed by these ships).

The BK had 10 crew, all of them naval personnel.

The BK ships were transported by train to move the units from a river to other, it was therefore specifically designed to enter tunnels and cross bridges aboard wagon trains.


On those days, whatever we were doing, my thoughts were with Pinsk – this is how Rear-Admiral Vissarion Grigoryev, then commander of the Dnieper River Flotilla, remembered the events of July 1944. Advancing Soviet troops could storm that town, surrounded by rivers and impassable marshes, only from the east and north-east. But there was also the way from the south, which could enable a surprise attack into the enemy rear. The command of the Dnieper flotilla suggested to the command of the 61st Army, which was about to commence the assault, a bold plan: to engage flotilla’s ships, incur into the enemy rear some 18-20 km, boldly storm into the city limits and disembark an infantry regiment right in the middle of the town. Byelorussian partisans had to remove beforehand all the German outposts and emplacements along the ships’ route. The action had to be carried out without an artillery barrage.

At the night to 12 July seven armoured boats and five AA boats with the first landing party set off and in three hours they appeared right in front of the piers of the river port. The Nazis had literally overslept the landing and opened a chaotic shooting after 10-12 minutes, while the Russians had already stormed into the town. In 40 minutes the whole regiment was already disembarked and the armoured boats, having assumed positions on the river, rendered an artillery support. However, in the morning hitlerites counter-attacked with two reinforced motorized infantry regiments and pushed the Russians back to the embankment. Heavy fights flared up in the adjacent park. The landing party needed urgent aid and so the flotilla command decided to organize a daylight break-through.

Three armoured boats – BKA-2, BKA-43 and BKA-92 – each carrying 90-95 soldiers set off to Pinsk. The commander of the armoured boats’ squadron, Senior Lieutenant I. M. Plekhov, who took part in the action later noted: Behind the last turn we saw the town and at the same time we got under the fire of gun-carriers, which came out to the embankment completely unexpected. The boats could neither turn nor speed up. We could clearly see “ferdinands” turning their “trunks” to us, but our guns were helpless against their 200mm armour.

BKA-92 received the main blow. Enemy shells had literally honeycombed the ship, but she fulfilled her task: reached the waterfronts in the city centre and went aground; the soldiers jumped into the water. Also the BKA-2 went aground and only the BKA-43 remained untouched and disembarked her landing party on a pier. The aid came just in time: having the flotilla’s artillery support, infantry could hold its positions in the bridgehead until the arrival of the troops storming Pinsk by land. Ten days later, during a meeting of the flotilla’s crews, Admiral Grigoryev said that there, on the banks of the Pina River, would surely be erected a monument to the sailors and soldiers fallen during the liberation of the town. And such a monument was erected indeed – it is the heroic BKA-92 raised from the bottom to the pedestal. This ship is a representative of an interesting family of riverine boats, which had no analogical constructions in foreign navies. Their role in the Great Patriotic War of the USSR brought them sympathetic nicknames derived from the Russian abbreviation of the name of their class – bronyashki (“armouries”), bychki (“calves”), bukashki (“bugs”), etc.

The necessity to have such “riverine tanks” became apparent yet in 1929 during the armed conflict on the China East Railway. But it was not until 1934 that the project specifications were presented to one of the construction bureaus. The navy wanted to have an armoured boat with two artillery turrets. Since those ships had to enter the service on the Dnieper and its tributaries, their draught was limited to 0.5m. Other dimensions had to be calculated to enable their railway transportation. Already during the works on this project the chief engineer Yuliy Benoit soon came to the conclusion, that it was impossible to build a boat with two turrets and 0.5m draught. Therefore he proposed two options of the same model of the armoured boat – big and small. In both projects turret shafts, engine room, fuel tanks and the bridge were placed inside an armoured citadel. Living space and other cabins were placed in the bow and stern. Originally it was planned to arm the boats with 45mm guns fitted in standard T-26 tank turrets. Later they were replaced by 76mm short-barrelled mountain guns in the turrets from T-28 and T-35 tanks, which at that time were produced for the Red Army. Such a solution enabled supplying boats with the ammunition from the army storages, which was a tremendous advantage in view of the fact, that in case of war they had to report to the army command and co-operate with land troops. Since the tank turrets’ elevation angle was only 26°, shooting at air targets was out of question; for the anti-air defence there were installed machine-guns.

At the end of 1936 first two armoured boats (bronirovannyie katera) were submitted for tests: a big double-turret (Project 1124) and a small single-turret (Project 1125). Also based on those projects was another small one-turret project made, according to an urgent order from the Chief Executive of the Border Guards, in 1937 – S-40 for Amudaria and Syrdaria, the rivers with fast stream and big amount of sand and silt. After successful tests, started serial building of both big and small boats, which were designated to operate in narrow riverine farwaters and closely to the enemy-occupied banks. Before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War the Dnieper, Pinsk and Danube riverine flotillas received 85 boats, and further 68 were being built.

The wartime people’s commissar of the navy, Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov, remembers armoured boats in his memoirs: We experienced the need in armoured boats already in the first months of the war. Several factories switched to their production, but they had troubles with turrets and armour. The extreme need in tanks did not allow to yield to the navy any part of the armour produced by out steel works. In order not to delay the building of the boats so badly demanded by the front, sailors started fitting completed hulls with old, decommissioned from the navy, 76mm anti-aircraft Lender guns. This way on the basis of the Project 1124 and Project 1125 they made quite good AA boats. Meanwhile Kuznetsov again and again nagged the people’s commissar for the tank industry, Vyacheslav Malyshev, with the needs of the navy. I can help only in case of overproduction, argued Malyshev. I am responsible for the tanks with my head. Nevertheless, in spite of that less than optimistic answer, the navy soon started receiving excellent turrets from the famous tanks T-34 with 76mm guns. They were installed on both big and small boats. The turrets were not the only wartime novelty. The shipbuilders had also replaced the hardened steel with the homogenic steel, which enabled welding; in place of the domestic engines they installed American Hall-Scotts and Packards received through the lend-lease program; they fitted the decks with rails, which enabled laying mines; they strengthened the boats’ anti-air defence with additional machine-guns and 37mm AA canons; they even fitted boats with the autonomous heating system so the crews would not freeze while going in pack-ice with engines shut off.

In 1944 there was designed a new model of the boat with 85mm guns in the turrets with 85°; elevation angle. In the new model the 12.7mm-thick armour protected not only the central citadel, but also the whole waterline, which substantially increased boats’ resistance to shells and ice. In 1945 the prototype had successfully past all the tests, but it did not take part in the war. Wrote Kuznetsov:

In all the riverine flotillas, closely co-operating with the land troops, armoured boats proved the most convenient in all the cases. Those small but heavily armoured ships served with distinction, while supporting armies along the inland water routes and passages across rivers. The monitors’ heavy artillery was in practice used more seldom than the 76mm guns and machine-guns designated for operations against the riverbanks. Those “riverine tanks” proved very handy in the battles on rivers; they were small and agile, and were capable to fight tanks on the land and stand their fire. Their agility allowed them to evade the fire of heavy artillery and approach to the target to fire at blank point. For short those were universal ships for riverine warfare.

The experiences of the combat operations prove the Admiral’s observations. Those were the armoured boats of the Danube River Flotilla that carried out the first amphibious operation of the Germano-Soviet war. On 24 June 1941 at 2:30 the guns of the Soviet monitors and land artillery opened fire at the Romanian side of the Danube. Simultaneously four BKA’s with landing parties went to the action. At 2:45 the heavy artillery shifted its fire farther inward the enemy territory. The boats opened artillery and machine-gun fire at the targets within the landing zones and simultaneously soldiers jumped into the water and unfolded the attack against the riverbank. In half an hour the fight was over; the Russians took first POW’s and trophies. But the most important of all was that the direct artillery fire at Izmail was terminated. Two days after in another sector of the Germano-Soviet front fought with distinction three boats of the Pinsk River Flotilla. By night 26 June 1941 monitor Smolensk, and armoured boats BKA-202,BKA-205 and BKA-205 secretly ventured as far as 12km into the enemy-occupied territory, established an artillery range-reckoning outpost and shelled a German passage across the Berezina where the Nazi command was moving reinforcements against the counter-attacking Soviet 21st Army.

On 23 June 1942 fifteen boats of the Volga River Flotilla, armed with the old 76mm Lender AA-guns, assumed their convoy duties. Within one month they repelled 190 air attacks and escorted 128 convoys without losses. This way was frustrated the Nazi command’s idea to hamper by the means of the air forces the most important inland communication route – the Volga River – where was going up to 60% of all the supplies for Stalingrad. Later those ships conducted reconnaissance, shelling targets on the occupied banks, disembarking landing parties and evacuating the casualties. But the hardest service was on the passages across the Volga. The hitlerites, who seized the hills dominating over the city, conducted intense artillery fire on the farwaters, and the whole burden of supplying the Soviet forces fighting in the streets of the city lied on the BKA’s, whose small dimensions, high speed and heavy armour made them irreplaceable in those circumstances. Every night, under the light of German projectors and flares, and the shower of their shells and bombs, small ships were making 8 to 10 sorties across the river, bringing Stalingrad soldiers, weapons, ammunition and food. At rare nights, when the enemy for some reason remained idle, big boats would take up to 200 soldiers, and small boats – up to 100. Years later the commander of the famous 62nd Army, Vasiliy Chuikov, in his wartime reminiscences evaluated the role of the Volga flotilla’s boaters very high: About the role of the sailors of the fleet and their exploits, I would say briefly that had it not been for them the 62nd Army might have perished without ammunition and rations, and could not have carried out its task.

The history of the Second World War has also noted a unique expedition of 24 single-turret boats from the Dnieper River Flotilla to the Bug in September-October 1944. The voyage, which in normal conditions would take 5 to 6 hours, took almost three weeks. There is nothing strange in it. The ships with the draught of 0.6m had to surmount 92 fords of the depth of 0.35 to 0.4 metres. All kinds of methods, all kinds of fantastic ideas were proposed and applied. The makeshift dams had been built. The farwater had been deepened by explosives. Hydro-monitors were brought from Kiev to wash the silt out. A local fisherman was hired, who with interleaved wicker shields regulated the current in such a way, that the water would wash the silt itself. At certain point it was needed to tow the boats on the ground. First with hand-operated cranes, than with artillery tugs the Dnieper sailors dragged their boats, and on 19 October they took part in fights for Serock – an important Nazi stronghold blocking the road to Warsaw.

And in the spring 1945 the forces of the Dnieper River Flotilla already conducted its operations in Germany. On 12 April 1945 “riverine tanks”, together with other boats, assumed positions off the Kustrin bridgehead, established observation posts, reckoned the targets and said their word in the battle for the Oder. They were also supporting the troops in the grandiose battle for Berlin. And after the war in many cities of the Soviet Union “riverine tanks” were put on pedestals as the monuments to men and ships to take part in the war from the first to the last day.


Spain: The Lightning Rod that Attracted the Thunderbolt I


After consulting with his artillery commander, Alexander Dickson, Lieut-Gen Sir Thomas Graham chose to open fire on the coupure’s inner wall, despite risk of killing many British soldiers who lay so close under the barrier. When the British heavy guns first fired over their heads, the survivors of the attack began to panic. But, when the smoke cleared, they noticed that the big guns had wrecked most of the inner wall. With a yell, they charged, reached the top of the breach and spilled into the city. At the sight of their defence lines broken, the French retreated to the fortress on the hill of Urgull and by midday the besiegers had taken over the town. On inspection it was discovered that not a single shot had fallen short into the allied troops, even though they were fired from 600–800 yards (550–730 m) for 20 minutes and that, aided by an explosion of ready grenades and live shells on the wall, few defenders survived uninjured. 700 French were captured in the town which by now was in flames



What a somber and tortuous affair was Spain! Napoleon’s detractors present it, along with the coming war with Russia, as the incontestable proof of his megalomania. One must be cautious about such simplistic judgments. This extremely complex question merits further study.

At the outset, the war in Spain reflected underlying tensions that were awaiting the right moment to erupt.

After Tilsit, Napoleon waited for the next action of Britain, pushed out of Northern Europe, rejected by Portugal, and contained in Italy. London fell back on the “soft underbelly” of Spain to relight the fire. It was vital for France to prevent the opening of a new front at its rear.

In 1808, Spain was allied with France, with whom it had shared the disaster of Trafalgar. It had just expelled the British from Buenos Aires and had provided a military contingent, under the command of General La Romana, to support the French army in Germany. Quite recently, Spain had cooperated loyally with France in the military expedition to Portugal intended to expel the first British bridgehead there. In theory, therefore, everything was well in the best of all possible worlds. All that should have been necessary to ensure the Spanish flank guard would be to maintain the alliance.

In reality, the situation was far different. The Spanish alliance presented all the signs of a disquieting fragility.

First, there was proof that the court of Madrid delighted in duplicity and double-dealing. During his visit to Potsdam in 1806, Napoleon happened by chance upon correspondence between King Charles IV of Spain and the king of Prussia, correspondence that had been forgotten when Frederick William fled in haste. In his letter, the king of Spain offered to attack Napoleon in the back while he was involved with Prussia. Crown Prince Ferdinand, for his part, pretended to be a Francophile while his correspondence overflowed with hatred for France and the French. His entourage included a large number of anti-French aristocrats and clergymen, in particular his tutor, Canon EscoVquiz.

In addition, these Bourbons of Spain, descendants of Louis XIV, exhibited the signs of advanced degeneracy, of which nothing was said for the sake of Christian charity. The painter Goya had no such scruples in his portraits of them.

The members of the royal family were on poor terms with each other. The king was a vaudeville character, Queen Maria-Louisa was a shrew subject to excessive mood swings, and the queen’s favorite and prime minister, Godoy, christened the “Prince of Peace,” formed a ménage a trois. The eldest son Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias, was as aware of this situation as the rest of the country. Ferdinand could not tolerate the situation, feeling contempt for his parents and hatred for Godoy, who more than reciprocated the sentiment.

The family quarrel became more venomous in the fall of 1807, and the protagonists appealed to the emperor to arbitrate their differences. The king accused his son of plotting to overthrow him and to murder his mother. He asked that Napoleon should “Aid me with his wisdom and counsel.” The crown prince, the personification of drabness, implored the emperor to take him under his wing and protect him from Godoy, whom he suspected of wishing to dispossess him. He went so far as to seek a marriage with a Bonaparte princess. Napoleon apparently made no reply to this repugnant offer. But he sent his chamberlain, de Tournon, to the Spanish court to calm things down and report on the situation.

The Franco-Spanish alliance of October 1807 and the conquest of Portugal muted the family quarrel for a time.

What was the attitude of the Spanish population? The presence of the French army in transit to Portugal was very well received. The Spanish people, principal actor in the play that was about to unfold, were less evolved than other European peoples. They had remained under the stifling influence of a clergy not yet completely freed of the “Torquemadian” fundamentalism of the Inquisition. In the short term, the Spanish opinion wanted France to put an end to the unacceptable situation of the royal family. It pitied the king and hated the queen and Godoy. For want of anyone better, it tended to the side of the Prince of the Asturias.

Meanwhile, Napoleon learned that Britain was preparing for a military return to the Iberian Peninsula. London hurried, believing that it could seize the occasion of a palace revolution that seemed imminent in Madrid. This information was no surprise, but it did confirm the necessity to find a quick solution to the imbroglio of the Spanish dynasty.

At this point in the matter, the question was not whether to act in Spain but rather how to act, in accordance with the evolving situation but without waiting too long.

Talleyrand proved to be a very radical advisor. Arguing for a sort of right of national preemption, he urged Napoleon to dethrone these pitiful Bourbons of Spain, orphan descendants of the great Louis XIV. In his eyes, their replacement by a new dynasty stemming from the Imperial family was the sole solution to keep Spain securely. This expedient advice, coming from a usually moderate expert, astonished Napoleon and aroused a horrible suspicion. Having been replaced as foreign minister by Champagny, was Talleyrand seeking revenge by advocating the worst possible policy?

Meanwhile, Napoleon took a preventive military measure. He named Murat his lieutenant general in Spain, at the head of an army corps located north of the capital, Madrid. It is noteworthy that the French Army was welcomed by a population not yet angry against it. At the same time, Admiral Rosily’s squadron anchored at Cadiz. Permitted under the Franco-Spanish accords of October with regard to Portugal, this decision offered the advantage of locating combat power to be deployed rapidly in the country, because the British were clearly up to something.

But events came to a crisis. On March 18 and 19, supporters of Ferdinand fomented riots in Aranjuez. Godoy was imprisoned, and owed his life to the personal intervention of Ferdinand. Charles IV abdicated “in favor of my well-beloved son, the Prince of the Asturias.” This prince was proclaimed king of Spain with the title Ferdinand VII. Without the least modesty, the dethroned queen wrote to Murat to ask “that he obtain from the Emperor sufficient so that the king my husband, the Prince of Peace, and I should live all three together in a place suitable for our health, without authority or intrigues.”

At this critical juncture, a political head was needed on the scene, capable of making the appropriate decisions immediately. Murat took it upon himself to occupy Madrid on March 23, 1808, and prepared to put the former king back on his throne. What a farce! Charles IV wrote to Napoleon,

I was forced to abdicate. However, I am so full of confidence in the genius of the great man who has always shown himself to be my friend that I have decided to conform completely to whatever this great man may decide about my fate and that of the queen and the Prince of Peace. I protest to Your Majesty against the events of Aranjuez and against my abdication. I place myself with complete confidence at the heart and friendship of Your Majesty.

It is unclear whether he was completely sincere, but one thing is apparent: Charles IV reneged on his abdication, obtained by constraint, and he left it entirely up to Napoleon to resolve the Spanish problem.

At this stage, the emperor really did not see how he should proceed. Had Murat not interfered, there would not now be two kings in Spain, and he would have been able to arrange matters with the new one. He was tempted simply to abandon Charles IV, but Talleyrand’s advice continued to trouble him. To achieve his objectives, he considered transferring the throne to a Bonaparte. He thought first of Louis, who arrogantly refused. Joseph showed himself more cooperative, however. In addition, the report of the investigation Napoleon had ordered demonstrated the confirmed Francophobia of the new king and especially of his entourage.

Napoleon needed more time to consider the problem. Just as in preparing for a battle, he decided to inform himself more by arranging a confrontation between the protagonists at Bayonne. He directed Savary to persuade Ferdinand VII to cooperate. That should not have been difficult, considering the prince had recently requested the emperor’s assistance.

Before his departure from Paris, Napoleon wrote a letter to Murat, whom he reproached and gave instructions to avoid aggravating the situation by further intemperate initiatives. He began to doubt the loyalty of the Grand Duke of Berg, who was married to his sister Caroline.

Many mistakes could have been avoided if Murat had taken the time to read this letter carefully. Let us consider these extracts that show the foresight and the wait-and-see policy of Napoleon at that date:

I fear that you have deceived me and perhaps yourself about the situation in Spain. The actions of March 23 have greatly complicated matters. I am greatly perplexed. Do not believe that you are attacking a disarmed nation or that you have only to parade your troops to force Spain to submit…. The Spaniards are full of energy. You are dealing with a new people who have all the courage and enthusiasm of men who have never experienced political passions before. The aristocracy and the clergy are the masters in Spain. If they fear the loss of their privileges and their existence, they may raise up the masses against us and prolong the war eternally. At the moment, I have Spanish supporters, but if I appear as a conqueror I will have none….

It is never useful to render oneself odious or to arouse hatred. Spain has more than 100,000 men under arms, which is more than enough to support a war in the interior…. England will not miss this opportunity to multiply our difficulties. It is sending daily instructions to the forces it maintains off the coasts of Portugal and the Mediterranean. Britain is recruiting Sicilians and Portuguese…

What are the best measures to take? Should I come to Madrid? Should I exercise a great protectorate and choose between father and son? It appears difficult to put Charles IV back into power: his government and his favorite are so unpopular that they would not last three months. Ferdinand is an enemy of France, and that is why he was made king. Placing him on the throne serves the factions that for 25 years have sought the destruction of France. A family alliance would be a weak reed….

I think that we must not do anything rash…. I do not approve of the party that urged Your Imperial Highness to act precipitately in Madrid. The army must remain at least ten leagues from the capital. By disturbing the Spanish, your entry into Madrid had greatly aided Ferdinand. I have sent Savary to visit the new king and determine the situation…. I will eventually advise you as to which party to support. In the meanwhile, this is what I judge appropriate to prescribe to you. You will commit me to meet Ferdinand only if you judge that the situation is such that I must recognize him as King of Spain…. You will act in such a way that the Spaniards will have no idea which party I will support. That should not be difficult for you, because I don’t know myself. You will let the nobility and the clergy understand that, if France must intervene in Spanish affairs, their privileges and immunities will be respected….

You will demonstrate to them the advantages they would gain from a political regeneration…. Do not take any abrupt actions…. I will bear your personal interests in mind, so you need not do so…. Let no personal project occupy you or control your conduct: that would be prejudicial to me and even more so to you…. I order that the most severe discipline must be maintained: no leniency even for the smallest faults. We must show the greatest respect for the inhabitants, and especially for the churches and convents. The army will avoid all contact with Spanish Army units…. Not a shot must be fired on either side…. If war commences, you will be lost. The destiny of Spain must be decided by politics and negotiation….”

This letter perfectly summarized Napoleon’s uncertainty when he left for Bayonne:

(1) He had not yet decided anything because he did not yet see his way clear in the Spanish imbroglio. He had not prepared a trap, as is often (and foolishly) alleged. The two sides had solicited his arbitration—the dethroned king to obtain revenge and the new one to be recognized. Why would he have rejected all possibility of arranging the matter?

(2) He sought a compromise that would satisfy both French national security and the Spanish royal quarrel, with the approval of the Spanish population. He wished above all to avoid war. In any case, he had no intention of conquest.

(3) He did not conceal from Murat that the latter’s conduct had already compromised the possibility of a solution and that he was not deceived by the marshal’s tricks. Murat was not to dream of the Spanish throne for himself!

Napoleon left Paris on April 2, 1808, and arrived at the chateau of Marracq, in Bayonne, on April 20. There he received Ferdinand and his reduced court. Upon approaching France, the pseudo-king had become reluctant to enter that country. At Vitoria, his two principal counselors, Canon Escoïquez (who was also his confessor) and his First Gentleman, Cevallos, advised him not to go any farther, despite the assurances of Savary, who quickly reported to Bayonne. Savary returned to Ferdinand with the following letter from the emperor, which convinced the young king to complete his journey: “I say to Your Highness, to the Spanish people, and to the entire world, that if the abdication of King Charles was a voluntary act, if he was not forced to it by the insurrection and riots of Aranjuez, he will make no difficulty in accepting it, and I will recognize Your Royal Highness as King of Spain. I therefore wish to discuss this topic with you….” Napoleon’s position had not changed: he wished to arbitrate the Spanish royal conflict that had been submitted to him by the interested parties.

At their first meeting, Ferdinand made a terrible impression on the emperor. The man inspired revulsion. The security of France and the well-being of Spain could not be based on such a man. He was obviously a puppet in the hands of a faction of the nobility and the clergy. As the future would confirm, his only influence lay in the disgust inspired in the Spanish nation by his parents. Was Napoleon condemned to choose between cholera and the plague?

That same evening, Napoleon had Savary deliver a deliberately provocative proposal to Ferdinand, a proposal whose purpose was to place a very high bar for the coming negotiations: the renunciation of his crown in favor of his father, in exchange for the modest crown of Etruria. Ferdinand and his counselors loudly expressed their indignation. This was the starting point for substantive discussions.

Negotiations opened under these conditions while waiting for the other party. Escoïquez ardently defended his master’s position. In return for his recognition as king, Ferdinand promised a government “completely devoted to Napoleon.” That would be the best solution. But what assurance did Napoleon have that Ferdinand would fulfill his promises, knowing the hostile sentiments of the prince and his advisors toward France in general and the emperor in particular? When Napoleon did not respond, Escoïquez went so far as to promise that Spain would place one of its northern provinces in French hands as a guarantee of its loyalty.

In order to decide, Napoleon next had to learn the attitude of the other protagonist, Charles IV.

The family reunion that took place on April 30 avoided becoming a fistfight. It was difficult to decide which spectacle was more painful: that of the father hugging his son while calling him by all his names, or his mother outbidding the king. And all this in the presence of Godoy, her paralyzed lover.

Charles IV’s purpose and attitude convinced Napoleon that the only thing that really mattered to the king was to deny the Spanish throne to his son. Charles formalized that position in a letter to the Prince of the Asturias on May 2, in which he stated that Ferdinand’s crimes would disqualify him from succeeding to the throne and that “Spain may no longer be saved except by the Emperor.”

Determined in his mind but continuing to negotiate with Escoïquez, the emperor inclined somewhat toward the replacement of Ferdinand by Joseph Bonaparte, recalled from Naples where Murat had replaced him. Yet, nothing was officially decided. Something still held him back. The affair would come to a brutal crisis on May 5.

Spain: The Lightning Rod that Attracted the Thunderbolt II


The Surrender at Bailén by José Casado del Alisal. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado.


The Madrid Trap

That day, news reached Bayonne of a bloody riot on May 2 in Madrid, the famous “Dos de Mayo” made notorious by Goya. Napoleon’s critics characterize his interview with the Spanish royal family as “the Bayonne Trap.” What a false judgment! In reality, the trap was for Napoleon in Madrid.

Agitators had presented the announcement of the departure of the princes from the capital, summoned to their father, as if it were a kidnapping by the French army. Madrid became inflamed by the news. Those French soldiers who were caught off guard were massacred with stupefying savagery. The Spanish army joined the rioters. The next day, Murat struck back hard at the insurrection. Thousands of deaths occurred.

This bloody event caused Napoleon to commit the greatest error of judgment of his entire reign. Everything suggested that Ferdinand’s partisans had organized the uprising. Brought into the emperor’s presence, the queen went so far as to strike her son in the face, daring to call him a bastard and to speak of sending him to the scaffold.

In this tragic setting, Napoleon also lost his temper. He sternly ordered Ferdinand to recognize his father as the legitimate king by midnight and to let this recognition be known in Madrid. If not, he would be treated as a rebel. Ferdinand did not resist, but accepted the proposition and agreed to retreat in comfort to the chateau of Valencay, offered by Talleyrand.

That same day, Charles IV formally fulfilled his promise to cede to the emperor all his rights to the throne of Spain, in exchange for the chateaux of Compiegne and Chambord and a very comfortable stipend. Thus, on May 5, 1808, the Bourbons of Spain voluntarily renounced their throne.

When Joseph succeeded him a few days later, Ferdinand found everything acceptable and promised “the allegiance that I owe to you, just as do all the Spaniards who are with me.” This was the individual to whom Napoleon was supposed to entrust the security of France!

Instead of calming the situation, Ferdinand’s impulsive decision actually aggravated matters. Neither his proclamation to the Spaniards nor Joseph’s recognition by a committee of Spanish notables changed the spreading agitation. Soon, with the support of the Spanish army, this agitation became a general partisan war, from which the term “guerrilla” took its name.

A spiral of failure began. On June 14, Admiral Rosily surrendered to the Spanish at Cadiz. Two days after Joseph’s entry into Madrid, on July 22, General Dupont surrendered in open country at Bailen. Almost 20,000 French soldiers capitulated to General Castanos without a fight. Joseph had to flee ignominiously from his capital.

The dishonorable surrender at Bailen resounded across Europe. It struck a serious blow to the Grand Armeé’s reputation of invincibility, thereby encouraging France’s enemies who were lying in wait.

Obviously, the British did not delay in sticking their noses in. On August 30, the mediocre Junot capitulated at Cintra to Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, quickly exploiting France’s difficulties. The fatal war in Spain had begun.

One cannot ignore Napoleon’s own responsibility in the Spanish affair. The considerations discussed here are intended only to clarify certain matters.

On that fateful May 5, Napoleon had committed the capital mistake of demanding that Ferdinand renounce the Spanish throne so as to pass it to a member of the Bonaparte house. The thirst for vengeance for the French blood shed on May 2 and the absolute lack of confidence that the Bourbons of Madrid inspired in him might explain a human reaction, but not justify the decision of a head of state, who must never give way to anger.

If the riots of May 2 had not occurred, would matters have turned out differently? It was not impossible that Escoïquiz could be brought to offer convincing guarantees. The negotiations were moving in that direct prior to May 5. Would such guarantees have been reliable? That is impossible to determine, but the outcome could hardly have been worse than the revolt of all of Spain.

The riot of May 2 had become the detonator of the Spanish tragedy. Who had instigated it? The rioters of Madrid had attacked the French soldiers while shouting “death to the infidels!” The monks and priests had preached revolt against Napoleon, “the antichrist.” The soldiers were called “servants of the devil” or “troops of Voltaire.” At Oviedo, the furor of Canon Llano Ponte was striking. At the head of a mob that slaughtered 38 soldiers of the garrison of Valencia was the Canon Calvo, etc.

Those notables who favored France, and there were many such, were not spared. At Badajoz, the Count of Torre was torn to pieces. At Seville, the Count of Aguila was shot while hanging from a balcony. At Cadiz, General Solano was stabbed and decapitated. At Malaga, General Trujillo was burned alive.

Everything pointed to a fanatical local clergy, opposed to progress and leading the people under their influence in a vengeful crusade against the anti-clericism of the Revolution. The hypersensitive Spanish nationalism provided fertile ground for—but not the cause of—this uprising. To give an example, here is an extract from a Spanish catechism of that era:

From whence did Napoleon come? From the inferno and from sin! What are his principal methods? To deceive, to steal, to assassinate, and to oppress. Is it a sin to kill Frenchmen? On the contrary, that action is worthy of merit from the country if, by this means, we are delivered from insults, from theft, and from trickery!

This was a true incitement to murder, a blend of religious fundamentalism and nationalistic fanaticism.

Yet, the local clergy would not have acted in such an extreme manner if they had not been encouraged to do so by the Roman Curia. Certain high prelates had never accepted the Concordat that had trimmed the power of the Church in France. In their eyes, Napoleon’s greatest crime was to have established the principle of laicism. His recent quarrels with the Pope had not improved his image among Catholics. On May 12, Pius VII decided to refuse investiture to bishops nominated by the emperor, contrary to what had been agreed. Ten days later, he forbad his subjects to swear allegiance to the French government. To top it off, the Pope asked all Spanish bishops not to recognize Joseph, “this freemason king, heretic and Lutheran as are all the Bonapartes and the French nation.”

In reality, Napoleon had accorded great religious tolerance to Spain, especially with regard to the status of Jews, to whom he had just granted freedom of religion in France. In attempting to avoid the English plague and the Bourbon cholera, Napoleon had contracted the Roman rabies. He would now deal with a holy war as well as a nationalist uprising. If one concedes that this war of atrocities was the grave of the Empire, it is no exaggeration to assert that the papacy had dug that grave.

As for military operations, under the circumstances Napoleon had no choice. He had to reestablish order in Spain as quickly as possible.

Ephemeral Reestablishment of the Situation

For Napoleon, the ideal would have been to intervene immediately and in person. A fire is most easily brought under control if it is dealt with quickly. But the emperor’s first duty was to prevent the opening of a second front in Germany. That was the purpose of the Congress of Erfurt in September-October 1808. While this was going on, Napoleon used the time to bring the army in Spain up to a strength of 150,000 excellent soldiers, many of them veterans of Austerlitz, Jena, and Friedland.

As usual, Napoleon’s campaign plan was simple. Starting from the northern bank of the Ebro River, he would defeat the Spanish army then reinstall King Joseph on his throne in Madrid. This first action should entice Moore’s 40,000 British troops from Portugal to the interior of Spain so as to assist the Spanish army. The French army would then attack by surprise, annihilating the British before they had time to react. This plan would be executed almost perfectly. Only appalling weather conditions enabled the British to avoid total destruction.

Napoleon began the campaign on November 4. He struck first at the Anglo-Spanish left under Blake, destroyed the right under Palafox, and then dashed in the center toward Burgos. Fine victories were won by Soult at Reinosa, Victor at Espinoza, and Lannes at Tudela over Castanos. Saragossa was besieged.

At Burgos, the emperor witnessed dreadful excesses of this atrocious war. Although unbearable, these practices of incredible cruelty illustrate the fanatical brutality of the war in Spain. Let us consider a few horrible scenes extracted from an official report:

Captured soldiers were tortured and emasculated, with their private parts placed in their mouths… others were sawn in half between two boards… still others were buried alive or hung by their feet in lit fireplaces…. This unfortunate hussar captain was crucified on a door with his head down over a fire… and again the brave General René, captured with his wife and child, cut in half before his wife after watching her be dishonored… then the child was cut in half in front of the mother who in turn was also cut in half…. At Manzanares the inhabitants cut the throats of 1,200 sick or wounded soldiers in a hospital. A captain was cut up into little pieces and fed to the pigs….

In reprisal, the French army indulged in horrible excesses and had to be taken firmly in hand.

After the capture of Burgos and Santander, Napoleon pursued the enemy toward Madrid. On November 30, the Polish lancers seized the pass of Somosierra after a memorably heroic charge. Madrid capitulated on December 3. Joseph resumed his throne and Napoleon gave Spain a liberal constitution.

As expected, Moore moved from Portugal into Spain with 35,000 men who came to reinforce 5,000 others who had been disembarked at Coruña. Moore linked up with La Romana’s Spanish army. Napoleon’s apprehension of a British intervention in force in Spain was well founded, justifying his preventive action in the peninsula.

The emperor next put the second phase of his plan into operation. On December 22, 1808, he marched north. He planned to destroy Moore in the region of Valladolid.

However, the cold, the snow, and the mud slowed him down considerably, giving him a foretaste of the retreat from Moscow. Moore thus escaped destruction. In his headlong retreat, the British general abandoned to this “henchman of the devil,” Napoleon, a thousand British women and children, found on January 2, 1809, in a large shed at Astorga. They were starving, shivering with cold, and trembling with fear. The mothers threw themselves at the emperor’s feet and begged him to preserve the lives of their children. He made all arrangements to reassure, lodge, warm, and feed these unfortunates before returning them in good health to the British army several days later.

At Astorga, Napoleon received alarming dispatches concerning the situation inside and outside of France. He decided on January 17 to return to Paris at full speed, assigning Soult the task of completing the campaign. Too slow, Soult allowed a major portion of the British forces to reembark at Corona on the 19th. Moore, however, found his death in this affair.

The military situation in Spain was temporarily reestablished. Yet, this was only a remission of the cancer in Spain, a cancer that would never heal. Napoleon never again commanded personally in Spain, an error for which some have criticized him. Too absorbed in other, more menacing wars, he had to dedicate his remaining time to the government of France. In any event, the nature of the war in Spain, which was more a matter of guerrillas than of great battles, demanded decentralization of command. Moreover, how can those who criticize Napoleon for being bellicose also censure him for “deserting” this war?

The Spanish Cancer

After the emperor’s departure, mopping-up operations continued. On March 28, Victor and Sébastiani defeated the Spaniards at Medellin and Ciudad Real, respectively. Soult seized Porto in northern Portugal but did not exploit his success toward Lisbon.

After the indecisive battle of Talavera on July 28, 1809, Arthur Wellesley, the new commander of the British expeditionary force, was made Viscount Wellington and retired toward Portugal. This permitted several French successes. On November 19, Soult won a victory at Ocana and opened Andalusia. In December, Gouvion Saint-Cyr took Gerone in Catalonia while Soult pacified Aragon. In January 1810, Soult and Victor launched an offensive toward Seville and retook control of the south. Yet, they failed before Cadiz.

In May 1810, Suchet seized Lerida and Soult took Badajoz while Massena was the victor at Ciudad Rodrigo in June and at Almeida in August. On September 27, Massena missed a good opportunity to finish Wellington at Busaco.

The victim of misunderstandings with the other generals and of difficulties in resupply, Massena abandoned Portugal in March 1811. For this entire year, the fighting would focus around the fortresses on the Spanish-Portuguese border at Almeida, Ciudad Rodrigo, and Badajoz.

On May 3, 1811, Massena inflicted a serious reverse on Wellington at Fuentes de Onoro. Bessieres’ indiscipline hampered the effort to crush the British. A decisive victory faded away. On May 10, Marmont assumed command of the army in Spain from Massena, who was at the end of his tether.

On the 16th, Soult achieved a significant victory at Albuféra, but again he failed to pursue, instead retiring on Seville. In Catalonia, Suchet took Tarragon by surprise.

Throughout the remainder of 1811, Wellington tried in vain to seize Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo. As winter approached, he again retreated on Portugal, waiting for a shift in the balance of forces.

This shift occurred at the beginning of 1812, when Napoleon was constrained to withdraw some units from Spain to deal with threats from the east. Wellington profited immediately. On January 18, he inflicted a major reverse on poor Marmont before Ciudad Rodrigo. The city suffered unparalleled atrocities. At the same time, the brave Suchet occupied Valencia, permitting the annexation of Catalonia to the Empire on January 26. On April 6, 1812, Badajoz suffered the same fate as Ciudad Rodrigo. Portugal was definitively lost.

In June, battles occurred around Salamanca. Despite a numerical equality of forces, on July 22, 1812, Marmont was severely defeated at Salamanca in the Arapiles Mountains, losing 14,000 out of 50,000 engaged. Wellington entered Madrid on August 1 after it was again abandoned by King Joseph. Clausel replaced Marmont, who had been wounded.

Between September 9 and October 18, Wellington failed to take Burgos, heroically defended by General Dubreton. Threatened by a French counter-attack, the British commander prudently avoided a major battle. Lifting the siege of Burgos and abandoning Madrid, he took up winter quarters in the shelter of the ramparts of Ciudad Rodrigo. In the course of a second retreat, he was severely handled by Soult in a second battle of the Arapiles. Yet again, Soult did not exploit his success.

Still, the prize was already, definitively, lost. The disastrous defeat of the campaign in Russia that had just occurred obliged Napoleon to progressively withdraw more and more forces from Spain, whereas on his side Wellington received a steady stream of reinforcements.

The exiled government of Spain put 21,000 soldiers at the disposition of Wellington, who was named commander-in-chief after his victory at Salamanca. Henceforth, he was able to coordinate the activities of guerrilla bands with his conventional offensive. In addition, he established a new base for maritime resupply at Santander.

Regrettably, the French army could no longer hold Spain, but had to focus on defending the frontier of the Pyrenees.

The emperor instructed Joseph to regroup his reduced armies on a defensive line anchored by the Ebro. Wellington did not allow Joseph time to do this. Overcome by superior numbers on June 21, 1813, after a spirited defense Joseph was knocked flat at Vittoria. The remnants of his army withdrew in disorder toward the frontier.

Soult assumed command of what remained of the French army, with the exception of Suchet’s force in Aragon and Catalonia. After regrouping his meager forces behind the frontier, Soult attempted to relieve the besieged garrisons of Pamplona and San Sebastian. He was able to delay the capitulation of San Sebastian until August 31, after 69 days of siege, and that of Pamplona until the end of October.

On November 8, 1813, Wellington crossed the Bidossa and attacked Soult’s positions behind the Nivelle. Condemned to a hopeless delaying defensive, Soult conducted the retreat brilliantly. His resistance was only part of the general rush to French collapse. The last position in Spain, Lerida, fell on January 25, 1814. On the 17th, Soult was defeated at Orthez. The British entered Bordeaux on March 12. The final battle between Soult and Wellington took place before Toulouse on April 10, 1814.

On December 11, 1813, a treaty signed at Valencay had reestablished Ferdinand VII on his throne, for which the Spaniards would have little to congratulate themselves.

What overall judgment can be made on the conclusion of the disastrous war in Spain? To sum it up in a single word, the most appropriate would be fate. In Spain, Napoleon suffered the longest and most murderous of wars, the war he had intervened in order to avoid. Paradoxically, the lightning rod had brought down the thunderbolt.

Alexander’s Plan Operation Shingle



Operation Shingle was a daring plan of Alexander’s to land troops on the beaches of Anzio, in the rear of the Gustav Line and only 20 miles south of Rome, thus it was hoped forcing the enemy to abandon first one and then the other. On closer investigation in December 1943, the fear that the beachhead could not link up with the Allied armies further south meant that Eisenhower tried to shelve the operation, but it was revived once he had left the Mediterranean command. On 6 January 1944 the Prime Minister tried to persuade Brooke to fly out to visit him in Marrakesh, where he was recovering from pneumonia, saying, ‘We must get this Shingle business settled, especially in view of the repercussions of the new proposals about Anvil which will certainly make the US Chiefs of Staff Committee stare.’

Because the Germans had fiercely defended the Gustav Line that winter, Anvil started to resemble not an associated but a rival operation to the Anzio attack, to both Churchill’s and Brooke’s chagrin as they had never thought its strategic value matched the investment it would require. Although Brooke did not fly out, Bedell Smith, Alexander and Maitland Wilson all conferred with Churchill in early January, and Shingle was resuscitated, in conjunction with an attempt to smash through the Gustav Line to the Liri Valley, which led to Rome. (On his return from Marrakesh, Churchill insisted that a Customs official came to Downing Street in order to assess the duty on everything he had brought home; Lawrence Burgis saw the cheque duly made out to HM Customs and Excise.)

Marshall later acknowledged that the struggles over the size, composition and timing of Operation Anvil had constituted ‘a bitter and unremitting fight with the British right up to the launching’. The mutual suspicion was evident at the time, and even in 1949, when Marshall was asked by Pentagon historians whether the British had attempted to use Anvil in order to secure additional resources for the Mediterranean theatre, ‘although they never seriously considered actually invading Southern France’, he replied that ‘this was the case’ and ‘that’s what the British always were doing.’

As Eisenhower’s Planners in London increased the number of divisions needed in the initial Overlord assault from three to five, so pressure mounted for extra landing craft and naval assault vessels to come from the Mediterranean. Montgomery and Bedell Smith, who both worked under Eisenhower, agreed in early January that Anvil would be greatly reduced in size as a result. Eisenhower, who like Marshall saw Anvil as an important concomitant to Overlord which would hopefully draw away German troops from northern France, complained vociferously to Washington on 17 January, saying that at Teheran the Combined Chiefs of Staff ‘definitely assured the Russians that Anvil would take place’. Since French, British and American troops ‘cannot profitably be used in decisive fashion in Italy’, Anvil must go ahead, although he accepted that it had to be postponed until early June, to coincide with the new date for Overlord.

Both Churchill and Brooke believed that Allied troops could be used more profitably in Italy than on the French Riviera; the scene was thus set for another titanic clash between Marshall and Brooke, and not one in which Marshall would this time accept compromise, not least because January 1944 was the first month of the war when more American than British Commonwealth troops were engaged fighting Germans in the European theatre.

Yet not all Americans agreed with Marshall and Eisenhower. ‘The weakening of the campaign in Italy in order to invade Southern France, instead of pushing on into the Balkans, was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war,’ wrote Mark Clark in his 1951 autobiography, Calculated Risk. His Fifth Army had been trying to break through the Gustav Line for several months, with mixed results.

I am firmly convinced that the French forces alone, with seven divisions available, could have captured Marseilles, protected Eisenhower’s southern flank, and advanced up the Rhone Valley to join hands with the main Overlord forces. The American VI Corps, with its three divisions, could then have remained in Italy…and we could have advanced into the Balkans.

The very mention of an Allied offensive in the Balkans, which Churchill saw as the natural next step after the Germans were expelled from northern Italy, was anathema to Marshall. Michael Howard believes that minds in the OPD were completely closed over the Balkans, ‘with its overtones of European subtlety and intrigue’.10 They also suspected British neo-imperialist designs there, rather as they did in the Far East, however absurd that might have been for the area north-east of the Adriatic Sea in the mid-1940s.

Where did Roosevelt stand? In October and November 1943, the US Planners feared that Overlord might be lost altogether because the President seemed to be interested in Churchill’s ideas about the Balkans. ‘We were always scared to death of Mr Roosevelt on the Balkans,’ Marshall told Pogue frankly in 1956. ‘Apparently he was with us, but we couldn’t bet on it at all.’11 There was always the possibility that the President might do over the Balkans in late 1943 what he had done over North Africa in the summer of 1942. It is clear from a telegram Churchill sent Roosevelt in late June 1944–‘Please remember how you spoke to me at Teheran about Istria’–that the two men had been at the very least ‘shooting the breeze’ together about a Balkan campaign. As for Brooke, after the war he wrote of the Americans, ‘At times I think that they imagined I supported Winston’s Balkan ambitions, which was far from being the case. Anyhow the Balkan ghost in the cupboard made my road none the easier in leading the Americans by the hand through Italy!’12 In fact Brooke had on occasion supported a Balkan campaign, whatever his later protestations.

The Anzio landings of the Allied VI Corps on Saturday 22 January 1944–initially comprising one British and one American division–might have succeeded had its American commander Major-General John Lucas got inland fast enough to capture the Alban Hills just south of Rome. He had come ashore with minimal opposition because the Germans had sent two reserve divisions from the Rome area to reinforce the Gustav Line, but he decided to get reserves, equipment and supplies ashore first, which proved a costly mistake. Kesselring despatched troops from central Italy to protect Rome, and then further reinforcements from France, Germany and Yugoslavia hemmed VI Corps into a beachhead of only 8 miles, which was defended gallantly for the next four months as Clark fought northwards to relieve it.

‘If we succeed in dealing with this business down there,’ Hitler told Warlimont, ‘there will be no further landings anywhere.’13 The Führer sent Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army, with its crack panzer, panzer-grenadier and paratroop units, to try to destroy the Allied beachhead, leaving the Tenth Army to hold the Gustav Line. The battlegrounds of Anzio and Monte Cassino were constantly reinforced by Hitler in early spring 1944, thereby denuding himself of divisions that he would need to deal with Overlord three months later. Marshall could not understand why Hitler did not merely withdraw his forces to the impregnable Alps, but it was evident from Ultra decrypts that he wanted to defend every inch of Italy instead.

This was Brooke’s plan for Italy, and disproves Basil Liddell Hart’s theory that it was the Germans who successfully diverted the Allies in Italy rather than the other way around. Throughout 1944, from nineteen to twenty-three German divisions–one-seventh of the entire Wehrmacht–were stationed in Italy, unable to operate in Normandy. In 1943, a full one-third of all Luftwaffe losses were sustained in the Mediterranean theatre, and in all the Italian campaign was to cost the Germans 536,000 casualties against 312,000 Allied.14 It was far harder to supply the Allies, of course, but the campaign was well worth undertaking in its earliest stages. It certainly tied down far more Germans than Anvil ever could have. The problem was that once committed emotionally–and in Churchill’s case chauvinistically–the British carried on fighting for objectives far removed from the central one that had taken them there in the first place.

According to Beaverbrook, who was lord privy seal at the time and had good access to his friend the Prime Minister, Anzio was ‘definitely an attempt to re-open the Mediterranean theatre in the hope that such progress might be made there that the Americans could be persuaded to delay D-Day until it would be little more than a mopping-up operation’.15 He claimed that at Marrakesh Churchill had been talking in terms of ‘driving the Germans headlong over the Alps and capturing Vienna’. It is most unlikely that Churchill referred to Overlord as a mere mopping-up operation, however, a phrase which smacks of Beaverbrook’s ex post facto rationalizations in favour of an early Second Front, of which he had been a chief advocate. For all that, Churchill did write a minute on 25 January saying that it was ‘very unwise to make plans on the basis of Hitler being defeated in 1944. The possibility of his gaining a victory in France cannot be excluded.’

It was not long before the failure of the break-out at Anzio became apparent, along with the failure of the Allied forces in the south to link up with the beachhead. On sending Roosevelt birthday greetings on 27 January, Marshall said: ‘I anticipate some very hard knocks, but I think these will not be fatal to our hopes, rather the inevitable stumbles on a most difficult course.’16 The next day Eden, after he had attended a Staff Conference, noted that ‘Our offensive seems to have lost its momentum.’ When Churchill suspected that he was going to get into a row with the Chiefs of Staff, he used to invite Eden along to give moral support. Even when the Foreign Secretary was recuperating from a cold, sore throat or insomnia at Binderton, he always turned up. Since Churchill had been ill at Marrakesh for as long as a fortnight over the New Year, and Eden was prime-minister-in-waiting, it was a sensible precaution.

On Monday 31 January 1944 Churchill told the War Cabinet of:

Serious disaffection about the Anzio landings. First phase has not yielded brilliant results…German offensive started. Great disappointment so far…Remarkable limitations of air, unable to prevent enemy from flinging his troops from one Front to another…A great opportunity has been lost, but may be regained…We have got a lot to learn in the way of seizing opportunities before we can beat these people.

On the first of twenty days of strong German attacks on the Anzio beachhead, Marshall wrote ‘For Eisenhower’s eyes only’ from Washington: ‘Count up all the divisions that will be in the Mediterranean, including two newly arrived US divisions, consider the requirements in Italy in view of the mountain masses north of Rome, and then consider what influence on your problem a sizeable number of divisions heavily engaged or advancing rapidly in southern France will have on Overlord.’ The fact that there were also the mountains of the Massif Central north of Provence was not mentioned. Instead Marshall concluded: ‘I will use my influence here to agree with your desires. I merely wish to be certain that localitis is not developing and that the pressures on you have not warped your judgment.’ Localitis was cod-Latin for ‘going native’, and since Marshall’s ‘influence’ in Washington was of course enormous, he was effectively advising Eisenhower to stick to his pro-Anvil, anti-Italy position and promising that, if he did, all would be well against Churchill and Brooke.

Eisenhower could not leave the localitis accusation hanging, and replied the next day to say that, although the British were opposed to Anvil, he had to compromise occasionally as part of a coalition. Nonetheless, ‘So far as I am aware, no one here has tried to urge me to present any particular view, nor do I believe that I am particularly affected by localitis.’ That Marshall was indeed worried about pressure being put on Eisenhower by Brooke, and more particularly by Churchill, was spectacularly demonstrated the following month at Malta.

On the same day that Marshall wrote to Eisenhower, Sir John Dill told Brooke that he had been ‘in and out of Marshall’s room lately trying to get him to see your point of view regarding Anvil–Overlord and trying to get his point of view’. He reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had delegated their power to Eisenhower on this issue and were ‘engaged in a great battle regarding Pacific strategy’, which boiled down to ‘King in particular v. the Rest’. Dill believed that Marshall was ‘somewhat afraid that some of their higher commanders had failed in Italy’, doubtless meaning Lucas, who was replaced shortly afterwards, but possibly also Clark, whose progress was painfully slow. Over the post-war occupation zones for Germany, Dill told Brooke that it was, ‘of course, the President who won’t play. The better I get to know that man the more superficial and selfish I think him. That is for your eye alone as of course it is my job to make the most and best of him.’ As for Admiral King, Dill believed ‘his war with the US Army is as bitter as his war with us’.

On Thursday 10 February, Brooke lunched at the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Telegraph with its proprietor Lord Camrose, as well as the National Labour MP and BBC Governor Harold Nicolson and Lord Ashfield, chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board. Teased about the Anzio reversals by Camrose as he entered–‘Well, what about the bridgehead?’–an irritated Brooke poured himself ‘a sulky glass of sherry’ and said, ‘It’s difficult to judge such matters at this distance.’ Nicolson recorded that after they had taken some claret in the dining room, ‘things brighten up, and a slow flush spreads over the handsome face of the CIGS.’ Brooke said that he had first noticed that ‘Winston was on the verge of a great illness’ at Cairo, when he seemed more interested in swatting flies than in listening to him, and ‘then they had great difficulty in preventing him leaving for Italy and were almost relieved when he developed fever.’



Felix Steiner, commander of the Deutschland Regiment, observes the enemy during the invasion of Poland. The regiment was part of Army Group North’s thrust into Poland from East Prussia.

Within Army Group B, the Germania Regiment was dispersed. Its units were attached to different sections within the 14th Army. In addition, the ‘Dresden’ Pioneer Battalion served in southern command and was attached to XV Corps. Meanwhile, the Der Führer Regiment remained in the Black Forest. With its recruits still in training, it would not see any action in Poland. Although Hitler and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler were both excited to see their SS formations prove themselves in battle, Hitler had chosen to divide them under different commands. This was done as a concession to the Wehrmacht, which was opposed to the formation of an autonomous SS-VT division. Moreover, the sudden need for rapid mobilization for the upcoming invasion forced the Führer into postponing the creation of such a division, however determined he was to see it come to life.

At first, Hitler planned to launch Fall Weiss (Case White, the codename for the invasion of Poland) on 26 August. However, he abruptly postponed the date of the operation because he believed that Great Britain, France and Poland might agree to a last-minute diplomatic settlement over the Danzig issue. When this prospect proved impossible, he ordered his two army groups to resume their preparations for the invasion. By this time, the Polish Government noticed the threatening deployment of German forces along its borders and ordered a general mobilization of its own forces.

Across the border from East Prussia, the Deutschland Regiment and other units attached to the 3rd Army faced three major Polish formations, which were obstructing their advance to Warsaw. To the east, the Narew Army was arrayed in an area stretching from Suwalki and Bialystok to the River Bug. Its strength consisted of the 18th and 23rd infantry divisions and the Suwalki and Podlaska cavalry brigades. Along the east bank of the River Narew, the Wyskow Group occupied an area north-east of the capital and contained the 1st, 35th and 41st infantry divisions.

West of the River Narew, the Modlin Army covered an area that stretched from the German border at East Prussia to the town of Modlin, situated on the north bank of the River Vistula, with Warsaw directly on the other side. Well-entrenched in a network of fortifications, the army included the 8th and 20th infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades: Mazow and Nowogrod. In the north-west corner of Poland, from the Danzig Corridor to the River Warta, the Pomeranian and Poznan armies defended the region with nine infantry divisions and three cavalry brigades. Within the port of Danzig, a Polish garrison with fewer than 5000 men remained in a location that was vulnerable to isolation and encirclement by enemy forces.

In southern Poland, the Germania Regiment and other units attached to the 10th and 14th armies had to contend with three large enemy forces covering an area between the River San and the town of Wielun. Above eastern Slovakia, the Carpathian Army held a region west of the town of Przemysl with the 11th, 24th and 38th infantry divisions, along with the 2nd and 3rd mountain brigades. In the south-west corner of Poland, the Krakow Army occupied the city of Krakow and surrounding areas. Its strength included the 6th, 7th, 21st, 23rd, 45th and 55th infantry divisions, along with the Krakow Cavalry Brigade. Further north, the Lodz Army straddled both banks of the River Warta. Another large force, it possessed the 2nd, 10th, 28th, and 30th infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades, the Wolhynia and the Border.

Within the Polish interior, two more armies took up positions and prepared to block the German 10th and 14th armies in their march northwards to Warsaw. Between the Bug and Vistula Rivers, the Pyskor Group had a force consisting of the 39th Infantry Division and the Warsaw Armoured Brigade. At the city of Piotrkow, the Prussian Army occupied an area due south of the capital. This organization contained the 3rd, 12th, 13th, 19th, 29th and 36th infantry divisions, along with the Vilna Cavalry Brigade.

Although many of these armies seemed formidable on paper, they were not at full strength by the time the Nazi invasion started. In fact, the Polish Government did not even proclaim a general mobilization order until late morning on 31 August, just a few hours before the start of Case White. When the attack began, 13 Polish divisions were still moving into their concentration areas, while six more had not even finished mustering in their barracks. In addition, a poor communications system within the Polish armed forces prevented any effective coordination of these army groups.

As participants in the invasion of Poland, the SS-VT units became involved in an experimental style of warfare that would be popularly known as the Blitzkrieg (or ‘Lightning War’). Utilizing new fast-moving battle tanks, squadrons of warplanes flying at unprecedented speeds, and motorized infantry formations, the German armed forces used a strategy based upon speed and effective coordination among the diverse service branches. This type of combat was exactly what Felix Steiner and other SS officers wanted. At last, they seemed to have the opportunity to unleash their battalions of hunters and athletes to help demolish the Polish war machine before it could organise itself and mount an adequate defence against the invaders.

Thus, on the morning of 1 September 1939, the Germans launched their attack on Poland. From East Prussia, Steiner and his Deutschland Regiment crossed the border with the Kempf Division. From the start of the invasion, the terrain and weather of Poland created problems for the Deutschland Regiment and other German units. In the daytime, the weather was unbearably hot and arid. At night, heavy rainfall and sharp drops in temperature forced the SS-VT soldiers to endure cold and damp conditions.

Lacking adequate roads, northern Poland was covered with crude tracks that were embedded into soil that had a loose, sandy texture. As a result, trucks and other vehicles were liable to get bogged down during the campaign. When the night rains soaked the landscape, this problem only worsened, as the dry, dusty trails became streams of mud puddles. Not surprisingly, the sandy terrain also caused mechanical problems for vehicles. Frequent breakdowns – along with fuel shortages – forced SS and regular Army soldiers alike to abandon their transports and advance into Poland on foot. Marching through the loose soil under the hot, summer sun, many of them began to feel tired and worn down even before they had engaged in combat.

Despite these hardships, the men of the Deutschland Regiment were eager to play their part in the Kempf Division when the organization reached its first objective. This was a group of defensive positions arrayed along the northern outskirts of the border towns of Zavadski and Dvierznis. At this site, the SS regiment received the honour of spearheading the attack. On the left, 1st Battalion was to assail enemy positions at Zavadski while to the west, 3rd Battalion received the order to strike Polish forces at Dvierznis. After taking these towns, the two battalions were to proceed further south, attack enemy positions at the town of Mlava, and converge at a hill called Point 192.


In the wake of an artillery barrage that pounded enemy positions, the soldiers in 1st Battalion moved up a ridge leading to Zavadski. Georg Prell, a soldier in the battalion’s No. 3 Company, noted, ‘on the enemy side of the village there were barbed wire barricades and beyond that high ground from which the Poles had good observation’. Despite these obstacles, he asserted that ‘the tempo of our attack could not be slowed down’. During the course of the battle, Prell recalled, ‘Unterscharführer Luk Krieger worked his way through the barbed wire and stormed upon the heavily defended ridge. In the murderous enemy fire Luk was mortally wounded and we could not at first recover the body of … the first comrade of our Company to be killed in action.’

After assailing another area within the Polish defence lines at Zavadski, the forward companies pushed through the Polish defences in a determined attack and seized the town. The men killed and wounded in this action were some of the first casualties of the Waffen-SS. On the right, 3rd Battalion experienced similar success at Dvierznis. With these border positions thus captured, the SS soldiers proceeded south down a road leading to Mlava.


Much to their surprise, the battalions of the Deutschland Regiment faced little opposition during their advance to Mlava, until they came close to a network of permanent fortifications established to the north of the settlement. Marching on a secondary road 2km (1.2 miles) to the west, 3rd Battalion carefully approached an outpost at the village of Bialuty, only to discover that the facility had been abandoned. When the regiment reached the Mlava Line, however, its members confronted a formidable obstacle blocking their drive to Warsaw. At the foot of a steep slope in front of the Mlava Line, the SS battalions found themselves in an exposed position, vulnerable to punishing artillery- and rifle-fire from the Polish defenders occupying the crest of the ridge.

In another show of courageous behaviour, the Deutschland Regiment volunteers charged up the slope of the hill. This time, the Polish defenders were more tenacious, pouring down a hail of bullets that stopped the German advance in its tracks. After launching another unsuccessful attack, the SS regiment received an order from its division commander instructing it to dispatch reconnaissance patrols into the Polish defensive positions in an effort to find weak spots to exploit. Before Steiner could carry out this order, he received another order from I Corps headquarters which countermanded it and detailed a new plan. In the middle of the afternoon, all forces within the corps were to launch a combined assault on the Mlava Line.

In this attack, the Deutschland Regiment carried out its original task: the seizure of Point 192. After a massive artillery barrage on the hill, the SS troops moved up its slopes in a two-pronged assault, with battle tanks from the 1st Battalion, 7th Panzer Regiment accompanying them in the ascent. Unfortunately for the Deutschland Regiment, the artillery batteries proved to be ineffectual. Despite the intensity of the bombardment, the enemy bunkers positioned within the high ground of Point 192 suffered little more than minor scratches. In addition, the Luftwaffe failed in its promise to send a squadron of Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers to soften the Polish defences

The tank crews did not fare any better during the assault. After travelling only short distances, most of them became ensnared in railway lines that had been implanted into concrete to act as anti-tank obstacles. Because the armoured battalion was operating PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II light tanks that were not large or powerful enough to roll over these obstructions, it became an easy target for Polish artillery batteries, and withered under heavy shelling. During the course of the day, 39 German tanks were destroyed, heavily damaged or broken down.

Frustrated with the results of this assault, and alarmed at the amount of devastation inflicted upon his battalion, the commander of the 7th Panzer Regiment gained permission from I Corps headquarters to order a withdrawal of his remaining tank crews. The attack on the Mlava Line constituted an inauspicious beginning for tank warfare in World War II. During the Polish campaign, the tendency of these vehicles to break down frequently, as well as the lack of firepower mounted within their hulls, prevented them from performing as decisive a role in battles as OKH had expected them to accomplish. The PzKpfw I contained only two machine guns within its turret, while the PzKpfw II had only one small 20mm cannon and one machine gun. Both tanks also had fairly thin armour, and did not have a particularly high top speed.


Despite the lack of support from artillery crews and armoured formations, and unable to use their motorized capabilities due to fuel shortages, the SS men of the Deutschland Regiment still acquitted themselves rather well during the battle for Mlava. Under constant fire from sharpshooters and artillery batteries, they travelled a good distance up Point 192, reaching a position less than 150m (164yd) from the first row of Polish bunkers, before their superior officers ordered them to retire at the end of the day. In its first day of battle, the SS formation was one of the few German units to do its job properly, and it did so under adverse circumstances.

The following day, the Kempf Division left the Mlava Line and headed towards Chorzele, a town situated 40km (25 miles) to the east. In this area, the fighting went well for the Germans. After another Army Corps had punched a gaping hole in the Polish lines, the combined strength of the Deutschland Regiment, a detachment from the 7th Panzer Regiment and other battle groups poured into the breach, routing enemy forces. In a furious pursuit, the Germans followed a corps-size group of Polish men, which was retreating to the River Narew. More than 48km (30 miles) south-east of Chorzele, at an area around the town of Rozan, the Poles took up positions within a complex comprising four old forts which had been built by the Russian Tsars.

Within these ancient fortifications, Polish resistance stiffened. In the ensuing battle – similar to the one fought at Mlava the previous day – the Polish defenders decimated the SS battalions and other German units which had been sent to attack them, relentlessly hitting these assailants with enfilade- and frontal gunfire. In addition, the Poles knocked out 11 battle tanks, while another 20 suffered from mechanical malfunctions. Although both sides sustained heavy losses, the Germans were getting the worst of it. Moreover, the battalions of the SS regiment eventually became too depleted to dislodge the Poles from their positions. After repulsing this offensive, the defenders launched a series of cavalry charges that forced the Germans to retire.