Pictish Warfare

Warfare was a major and regular component of early historic life. Heroic literature, such as the Gododdin, paints a picture of an aggressive society in which petty kings and their personal warrior retinues were ‘nurtured on wine and mead’ and fought to obtain personal glory and material wealth. Contemporary poetry acted to reinforce heroic concepts of behaviour. Many of their campaigns, which followed a ritualistic formula, may simply have been to plunder or exact tribute, rather than being in pursuance or defence of territorial ambitions. Acquisition of slaves may have been an additional motive. Slave-trading was common in the Roman period, if not before: Patrick (later a saint) is the best-known victim, kidnapped from western Britain and taken to Ireland. Northern British kings also enslaved some of those they conquered. There was a Dál Riata slave-girl at the Pictish court of Bridei son of Mailcon when Columba visited it. Regardless of the purpose, fighting generally took place between leaders of different territories, such as kindreds of Dál Riata, or between the different peoples of north Britain. Gildas, admittedly a biased observer, described both the Picts and Dál Riata in the 6th century as ‘wandering thieves who had no taste for war’ and ‘in perfect accord in their greed for bloodshed’. But from the annals we can begin to piece together a different picture in which kings sought to both extend and formalise the extent of their territories. Aedán mac Gabráin is a classic example of a warlord. Overlord of Dál Riata from 574, by land and sea he successfully campaigned against Pictland for many years (as far north as Orkney) and against the Angles, until in 603 he was defeated at Degsastan, somewhere in Northumbria. Clearly sea-routes, waterways and Roman roads were commonly employed to transport large forces over considerable distances. At the height of their powers the Pictish authorities must have been able to call on significant nautical abilities to retain their authority, but these proved to be no match for the superior nautical technology of the Vikings (Lamb 1993).

The inheritance of kingdoms was usually hotly contested by rival kin groups, which, due to intermarriage, might also include eligible foreigners. Power centres had a defensive capacity and were targeted for siege, capture and burning, and the terse accounts of these events – for example, ‘683 Siege of Dundurn’ – may be scribal shorthand for shifts in the distribution of authority and peoples associated with these power centres. Certainly, it is hard to imagine that monks would have recorded anything less significant, unless it was simply to catalogue the iniquities of their secular contemporaries for their own, sanctimonious, purposes. However, most combat is likely to have taken place away from the power centres, where the space was available for set-piece battles, whether at sea or on land, both of which are documented.

Pictish currach

Battles at sea

The Romans described both the feared Picts and Dál Riata as sea-raiders, and the latter clearly continued to use the seaways for communication, trade and attack. Vegetius, a 4th-century Roman writer, describes camouflaged scout-boats – with sails, ropes and 20 rowers – which have sometimes been attributed to the Picts, although the evidence is slender. The earliest specific reference to a sea-battle in the British Isles refers to a battle between the Cenél Loairn and Cenél nGabráin in 719. Yet as early as the 580s Aedán mac Gabráin was already campaigning in Orkney and the Isle of Man. Both the Picts and Dál Riata could clearly muster large fleets: 150 Pictish ships were wrecked in 729 and Burghead is a strong contender for a naval base. Seafaring was therefore both a normal and an essential component of life, as testified by Adomnán’s reference to at least 55 separate journeys in his account of Columba’s life. We are also frequently reminded of the perils of the sea: ‘Failbe … the successor of Maelrubai of Applecross, was drowned in the deep sea with his sailors, twenty-two in number’. The Dál Riata would also have been familiar with merchant ships from southern Britain, Gaul, and perhaps the Mediterranean, which were bringing imported goods to their shores. The use of and familiarity with boats can be easily under-estimated because no ships survive. Yet the few documentary sources, in tandem with wider evidence for the long-distance contacts that people clearly had at this time, suggests that travel over considerable distances, and presumably in well-constructed ships, was fairly commonplace.

On the basis of Adomnán’s descriptions, some of the Dál Riata ships could be large (carrying more than 20 people) and, while all used oars, the largest could also be fitted with a mast and sail. As to the construction of the boats, the monks of Iona acquired pine and oak for a longa navis, (‘long ship’). We do not know if any boats were made exclusively of timber, but this seems likely to have been the case. Skin-covered currachs, a form of construction that by then already had a pedigree in Ireland of about 4,000 years, were undoubtedly common.

Far less is known about Pictish boats (Crumlin-Pederson 2010). For travel in inland waters, the occasional early historic log-boat has been recognised. In contemporary Ireland there is evidence for the heightening of such dug-outs by the addition of timber strakes. Otherwise, boats may have been skin-covered, although the double-ended, mastless rowing-boat carved on the St Orland’s cross-slab (89) appears to be clinker-built – with overlapping planks – and the boat carved on the cave wall at Jonathan’s Cave, East Wemyss, also looks to be wooden. Competent sketches of boats, including masted examples, are also found on various stones from Jarlshof, Shetland, possibly also Burness, Orkney (Johnstone 1988; O’Meadhra 1993; Ritchie 1997).

Battles on land

When it comes to the nature of fighting on land, we know almost as little. There are no detailed accounts to match that provided by Tacitus of Agricola’s victory over the Britons at Mons Graupius in 83. Here the allied forces of the British tribes included chariots and foot-soldiers (who fought with huge swords for slashing and carried small shields). The Gododdin gives little away about early historic battle tactics or weapon-handling and few weapons themselves survive (unlike in neighbouring Bernicia, where pagan warriors were buried with them). Fraser (2002) has vividly reconstructed within the limits of available evidence the finer details of the Battle of Dunnichen, in a historical, political and physical sense. Few weapons survive, although there is a notable collection from Dunadd and manufacturing evidence for knobbed spearbutts is now assigned to the mid 1st millennium (Heald 2001). The sculpted stones provide greater detail, with their depictions of spears, axes, decorated shields (both square and round) and swords. Crossbows, as shown on a number of sculptures, were probably only used in hunting. The St Ninian’s Isle chapes and sword pommel and the evidence from Norrie’s Law for silver-mounted ceremonial weapons demonstrate just how richly embellished such objects might be. The association of kings with such high-status objects is reinforced by the imagery of kings on the St Andrews Sarcophagus, the imposing mounted warrior on Constantine’s Cross with his possible sceptre, and on the Forteviot arch, where Joanna Close-Brooks suggests that the main figure may be holding a sword across his knees. The last reference to the use of chariots was in the early 3rd century, but carefully bred horses are likely to have been an essential component of warfare: for transport to and from battle, for the military posturing that undoubtedly preceded action, and for battle itself. The majority of soldiers probably fought on foot, with battle on horseback limited to kings and nobles, as illustrated in the cartoon-like battle scene on the back of the Aberlemno 2 cross-slab, in which one warring side apparently chases another, they meet, and one leader on horseback kills the other: glory for the Picts, whoever their enemy (Henderson and Henderson 2004).

The aim of much of this aggression was first to acquire a given area and then to assert authority, perhaps extending it to neighbouring territories. In pursuit of this ambition, highly mobile armies and fleets covered considerable distances. The loyalty and/or submission of the pacified local leaders was paramount, by their deaths if need be. If not on the battlefield, this might take the form of drowning, a ritual practice first attested in Gaul. The Pictish kings are recorded drowning enemy leaders in 734 and 739. Decapitation may also have been practised, as depicted on Sueno’s Stone (Moray).

To ensure that these redefined political relationships were maintained and upheld by the regular submission of tribute, high-status hostages were often taken by the victors and presumably detained at power centres. It was also traditional for kings to marry the sisters and daughters of other kings and to transfer the upbringing of their children to foster parents in different lineages, the intention being that concerns about the safety of their children would deter aggression, although this ploy did not always succeed.

One of the key points to note is how such shifts in authority revolved around the personal ambitions of key individuals – the kings and territorial lords – and how unstable and short-lived any political liaisons might actually be. No matter how a king died – whether violently or in his bed – there was always enormous competition among rivals to be his successor.

Dakar 1940

THE BATTLESHIP RICHELIEU, a light cruiser (probably the Montcalm) and a colonial sloop in the harbor of Dakar prior to the Anglo-Free French attack on September 23, 1940.

A major naval base and commercial port, Dakar in West Africa had been in French hands since 1659, although France did not extend its possession to include the interior of the country until 1865 and French West Africa did not become a colonial entity until 1895. In contrast to the situation in the Mediterranean, the British did not simply want to secure the surrender of French warships at Dakar or have them immobilized, they also wanted to ensure that the port itself was not taken over by the Germans or the Italians as that would provide a convenient base from which to attack British convoys on their way to the Cape. The Cape route was important, but became even more so as the war continued after the Mediterranean became all but impassable for convoys from early 1941. Dakar also had the only dockyard between Gibraltar and the Cape.

After their experiences in North Africa, an attack was made on Dakar on 8 July. As at Oran and Mers-el-Kébir, the attack was by aircraft flying from the elderly and diminutive carrier Hermes accompanied by two heavy cruisers providing gunfire. The battleship Richelieu was hit, but was not put out of action.

An attempt to take Dakar was made in September. On 31 August 1940, 2,700 Free French troops and 4,200 British troops sailed from Liverpool under the command of Major General N. Irwin with Vice Admiral John Cunningham in command of the naval force. Accompanying the force was the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle, even though it was known that he would not be welcomed by the Vichy forces holding Dakar who would regard him as a franc-tireur, essentially an outlaw and outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions if taken prisoner.

Perhaps there were some grounds for optimism. The former German colony of Cameroon had been mandated to France under the Treaty of Versailles, and had tried to repudiate the armistice between France and Germany. Vichy forces had intervened, but a bloodless coup d’état in August had seen the French Cameroons aligned with the Free French.

Surprisingly, de Gaulle was not the main instigator of these moves to gather the French colonies around the Free French cause. Instead it was the work of a Major (later Lieutenant General) Philippe Leclerc, the nom de guerre of Captain Viscount Philippe de Hauteclocque, who had been among the first to rally to de Gaulle’s side in London. De Gaulle had promoted Leclerc to major and sent him to rally support for the Free French in West Africa and Equatorial Africa. Leclerc had organized the successful coup in the Cameroons and then in the French Congo.

At this stage in the war, with the Vichy regime still largely an unknown quantity and the Free French still establishing themselves, British intelligence about the new Vichy regime in France was very poor, and far worse almost to the extent of being non-existent about the situation in the French African territories.

The Vichy regime was not content to accept the loss of its African colonies. Unknown to the British, as the Anglo-French force was leaving Liverpool a Vichy French cruiser squadron managed to leave its home port of Toulon in the south of France and slip out of the Mediterranean on its way to the Cameroons. The cruiser squadron was intended to return the Cameroons to Vichy control and support the Vichy authorities in Gabon, but it also put into Dakar. When the British discovered this, Churchill, realizing the dangers, wanted to recall the Dakar force.

Confusion between the naval commander in Gibraltar, Admiral Sir Dudley North, and the Admiralty in London as well as Somerville in command of Force H, had enabled the Vichy cruisers to leave the Mediterranean without being challenged. North had earned a sharp reprimand after he had protested about the action at Mers-el-Kébir, and had then been ordered to avoid incidents with the Vichy French. He allowed the French cruisers to slip through the Straits of Gibraltar believing that had the Admiralty wanted them stopped, it would have ordered Force H to intercept them. The Admiralty, on the other hand, did not know that the French ships were at sea.

By contrast, lax security on the part of the Free French in London meant that the Vichy regime soon knew that a combined Free French and British force had left Liverpool, although they did not know the destination. Before the force arrived off Dakar, on 19 September six Vichy cruisers attempted to escape from Dakar but were confronted by ritish warships. Two returned to Dakar, another two surrendered and were escorted to Casablanca, while the other two escaped.

Churchill had thought that the arrival of the Anglo-Free French force off Dakar would persuade those ashore to join the Free French, but the element of surprise was lost completely when de Gaulle broadcast just before the arrival, alerting the governor and the military commanders. Worse still, when the force finally arrived on 23 September, instead of finding Dakar basking in tropical sunshine, it was shrouded in fog. When Free French officers went ashore to negotiate the surrender of the garrison they were made unwelcome, with the battleship Richelieu opening fire as did the port’s own artillery batteries, badly damaging an elderly British battleship and a cruiser.

Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF)

Military aviation in Thailand (Siam until June 1939) began in February 1912 when the Ministry of War sent three officers to France for pilot training. When they returned with eight French-built aircraft in November 1913, they were formed into the Army Aviation Section. On 27 March 1915, shortly after the airmen moved into their permanent home at a newly constructed airfield at Don Muang, outside Bangkok, the Ministry of War reorganized the Aviation Section into the Army Flying Battalion, under the command of French-trained Lieutenant Colonel Phraya Chalerm Akas.

King Vijiravudh was an enthusiastic supporter of the country’s growing air force. The monarch believed that aviation promoted national unity, fostered a spirit of modernity, and enhanced prestige in the world community. Army Chief of Staff Field Marshal Prince Chakrabonse Bhuvanart also led the way in promoting aeronautical development. In 1983, in grateful memory of his assistance during its formative years, the air force placed a statue of the prince in front of headquarters, inscribed “The Father of the Royal Thai Air Force.”

The government sent an aviation contingent to France in June 1918, but the war ended before the Siamese pilots entered combat. Nonetheless, the decision to assist the French not only increased the kingdom’s prestige but also allowed the air force to gain valuable experience. On 19 March 1919, the Flying Battalion became the Aeronautical Department of the Army, with three operational flying units (pursuit, observation, bombardment). A further reorganization took place on 1 December 1921 when the air component was renamed the Department of Aeronautical Service (more familiarly, the Royal Aeronautical Service). At the same time, the air force was designated as a special service with a separate budget, although it remained under the direct control of the commander in chief of the army.

The air force achieved complete independence on 9 April 1937 as the Royal Siamese (soon Thai) Air Force within the Ministry of Defense. The airmen adopted the blue uniforms and rank designations of the Royal Air Force. Group Captain Phra Vechayan Rangsarit became the service’s first commander.

Thailand’s long history of independence had not been free of the occasional conflict with Britain and France as they built and maintained their neighboring empires. During the later nineteenth century, during the reign of King Rama V, also called “Chulalongkorn the Great,” Thailand had fought a long-running war with France over parts of what are now Laos and Cambodia.

Though Thailand still possessed a figurehead monarch, it was ruled by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (also transliterated as Pibulsonggram), who occupied the seat of prime minister. Known generally as “Pibul” or “Phibun,” he was a fan of totalitarian governments such as Hitler’s Germany, and he had turned Thailand into one of Japan’s best friends – “ally” would be too strong a word – in the Far East. Under Phibun, Thailand had recognized Japan’s puppet government in Manchukuo, and had begun equipping its armed forces with Japanese-built ships and aircraft.

Following the Fall of France, Phibun was ready to seize the opportunity to take back what his country had lost. A virtual dictator since he had masterminded the 1932 coup d’état that curbed the power of the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII (aka Prajadhipok), Phibun had fended off revolts and threats to his rule through the years. He felt his army to be up to the task of taking on an overseas detachment of the army that had capitulated to the Germans in the space of a few weeks, and had surrendered a major city and a major port to the Japanese after a few days.

France was plunged into its second war of 1940 with a series of minor skirmishes in October, shortly after the Japanese had occupied the Hanoi–Haiphong area. The fighting escalated, with the two sides trading air raids. Much to the chagrin of French fighter pilots, the crews of the Royal Thai Air Force bomber fleet, which included Japanese-built Mitsubishi Ki-21s and Ki-30s, acquitted themselves very well in strikes against Vientiane and Phnom Penh.

In a major offensive in January 1941, the Royal Thai Army managed to recapture most of their objectives in Laos, and to make serious inroads against the French in Cambodia. The French were defeated in the climactic land battle on January 16, 1941, in the vicinity of Yang Dang Khum and Phum Preav, although French Foreign Legion artillery prevented the Thai forces from pursuing the retreating French troops.

The following day, however, the French won a significant naval victory in the battle of Ko Chang, off the coast of Thailand, near the Cambodian border. Admiral Jean Decoux had ordered the light cruiser La Motte-Piquet and several smaller gunboats to sail from Cam Ranh Bay, north of Saigon, to attack Thai ports near the Cambodian border. The flotilla was opposed by the Japanese-built coastal defense ship, HTMS Thonburi, as well as a pair of Thai torpedo boats. When the battle ended, both torpedo boats had been sunk, the Thonburi was dead in the water, and the French ships were still seaworthy.

France won the battle of Ko Chang, but lost the war. Less than a week later after the naval victory, Japan intervened to impose a ceasefire, which compelled France to leave Thailand in control of what it had captured, and left Prime Minister Phibun owing the Japanese a favor.

The Franco–Thai War (1940–1941)

The Armée de l’Air had, theoretically, around a hundred aircraft available for this conflict. The front-line aircraft amounted to some sixty aircraft of a variety of types including:

• thirty Potez 25 TOEs

• four Farman 221s

• six Potez 542s

• nine Morane-Saulnier M.S.406

• eight Loire 130 flying boats

The Royal Thai Air Force could muster around 140 aircraft, comprising:

• twenty-four Mitsubishi Ki-30 light bombers

• nine Mitsubishi Ki-21 medium bombers

• twenty-five Hawk 75Ns pursuit planes

• six Martin B-10 medium bombers

• seventy O2U Corsair light bombers

During the war with Thailand, the French launched just over 190 day missions and just over fifty night missions. The conflict ended on 28 January 1941. It had led to a number of key servicing problems for the aircraft. There were still nineteen French Moranes, of which only fourteen were serviceable. In addition, the French still had three serviceable Farman 221s, three out of four Potez 542s, only thirty-four of their fifty-four Potez 25s, nine of their twelve Loire 130s and none of their three Potez 631s available.

At the end of the hostilities, the German Armistice Commission allowed the transfer of aircraft reinforcements to Indochina. The Commission authorized the following aircraft to be transferred from Martinique:

• twenty-three Hawk H-75s

• forty-four Curtiss SBC-4s

However, the Japanese resisted this transfer and the plans to move the aircraft from Martinique were cancelled. As a result, Escadrille 2/596 was disbanded due to lack of spare parts for its aircraft and what remained of the unit, including both the pilots and the aircraft, were transferred to Escadrille 2/595. This disbandment and transfer took place in the middle of 1941.

The air force operated, without great enthusiasm, under Japanese direction until it shifted to support Thai resistance in the later stages of World War II. By war’s end, the RTAF had reached its nadir, with less the 50 percent of its aircraft in serviceable condition.

A new era dawned on 17 October 1950 when Thailand and the United States signed a mutual defense assistance agreement. The RTAF was reorganized along U. S. lines and reequipped with U. S. aircraft. It subsequently sent transport contingents to assist the United States during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. By 2000, the RTAF’s inventory consisted of 153 combat aircraft, including one squadron of F-5 A/Bs and two squadrons of F-16 A/Bs. Although not the largest air force in Southeast Asia, the well-trained RTAF stood ready to protect its country’s borders, as it had since its inception.


Young, Edward M. Aerial Nationalism: A History of Aviation in Thailand. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Why Did the Longbow Win Battles?

Mailed or armoured heavy cavalry were the dominant force in military practice in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A major purpose of the feudal system in Europe was to provide the king or prince with as many practised mailed horsemen as possible. The basic building block of the system was the establishment of estates large enough to support such a man on the labours of the peasantry. In Post-Conquest England and France whether service was owed to he king of France or to the king of England, these estates were normally part of greater lords holdings who in turn would owe the king the service of a large number of knights. In the fourteenth century, the English, the Scots, the Swiss and the Flemings all demonstrated very forcibly that infantry armies could humble these usually noble and often near-professional fighting men. But the armoured horseman was not made redundant by these infantry armies. It is worth remembering that in the fifteenth century, the Hundred Years War ended with two bloody English defeats at the battles of Formigny and Castillon, where cavalry charges made important contributions to the French victories. But by the early decades of the fourteenth century, English military practice came to concentrate on armies that fought on foot and used relatively large numbers of archers in comparison to the number of knights and men at arms. The great Scottish victory at Bannockburn resembled Crecy and Agincourt with the English mounted nobility and gentry playing the part of the French making brave but ill-considered and ineffective attacks on stalwart infantry. It was, as the earlier English victories at Maes Maidog and Falkirk demonstrated, something of an aberration in English military development brought about by Edward II’s inability to control his knights in particular, and his army in general.

So, why did English military practice change from the ‘traditional’ European model relying on heavy cavalry to the highly unusual model, which has become known as the English tactical system, of a battle line of infantry, armoured to varying degrees, supported by a greater number of archers using powerful bows?

Firstly, King John’s reign saw the breaking up of the cross-Channel combined realm of the kingdom of England and the Dukedoms of Normandy and Aquitaine. Philip Augustus of France was a powerful, able opponent for the Plantagenet kings of England. When the king of France was powerful, and Philip was perhaps the first French king for nearly two centuries who had the ability to bring his magnates under his control, the king of England’s feudal position became very difficult, since he was the French king’s vassal for the dukedoms of Normandy and Aquitaine. The problem of conflicting loyalties affected the magnates of England and Normandy regardless of whether their landholdings were wealthier in England or France since they were in the bind of owing fealty to two opposing kings. In the century and a half after the Conquest the large body of county knights in England had tended to have fewer landed interests on both sides of the Channel. In part this happened through the very understandable practice of dividing the inheritance, and so establishing separate English and Norman strands to the family. In the twelfth century only 10 per cent of the leading families in Warwickshire and Leicestershire had lands on both sides of the Channel. However, among the much smaller number of major magnates in England a high proportion still had valuable landholdings in Normandy at the end of the twelfth century. An even higher proportion of the Norman tenants in chief seem to have hung on to their cross-Channel property until the beginning of the thirteenth century.66 The dispute between Philip Augustus and John led to these men having to make an often uncomfortable calculation as to which king they would swear fealty to, knowing that the other king would confiscate their holdings in his kingdom. John may well have found it difficult to inspire whole-hearted support from his magnates in England regardless of this circumstance, but at the start of his reign a number of the great Earls of England were half-hearted in their support for his campaigns in Northern France just because of their concerns about their Continental landholdings. Philip of France’s achievement in dispossessing John of his lands in Northern France substantially reduced the revenues of the king of England and some of his magnates. Although the English king held on to much of Aquitaine through the thirteenth century it never raised revenues to replace those lost when Normandy was seized by Philip. As a result the revenues John’s son, Henry III, could apply to military activities were much more limited in comparison with those which John had used to so little effect, and more importantly much less than those available to the French kings.

Secondly, by the end of the thirteenth century, the kings of England could not raise a force of knights and men at arm to rival in numbers those that could be raised in Continental Europe. In the 1200s there were perhaps 4,500 knights whose individual wealth varied greatly. The biggest group were the lords of single manors, the men who were the basic building blocks of feudal society. Their annual income ranged between £10 and £20 per year, the minimum qualifying income for the knightly class. By the 1300s there were many fewer knights, possibly only between 1,250 and 1,300, or around a quarter of those available to the king a century earlier. Why? This was not a time of population decline but it was a time of inflation, the price of wheat doubling in the first four decades of the thirteenth century. The income of the nobles, both the great magnates and the lesser knights, did not rise to match inflation. Those knights with small estates would have very little spare produce to take advantage of the rising prices. As a result knightly status with its expensive military burden became much less attractive.

Another consequence of the loss of Normandy was that the king and the nobility became ‘English’ regardless of the language they continued to speak. While the king retained Aquitaine, Henry III for one rarely visited it, and his travels became much more a sequence of progresses round his estates in England. At the same time England became very important to the nobles since they had only lands in the British Isles to concentrate on. Meanwhile Magna Carta was issued and regularly reissued. This not only attempted to define the limits of arbitrary royal authority, but also, extended the involvement of the knights and the free men of England in national government through Parliament and in local government and justice. Without getting romantic about Magna Carta, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, combined with loss of the lands in Normandy, it brought about a singular change of focus within the kingdom of England wherein the problems of England and the English king, could only be resolved by relying on English resources, including the population at large. For example, it was no longer possible for the English king to be militarily effective by following the Continental military traditions imported by William the Conqueror. This did not mean that in the fighting within the British Isles in the thirteenth century that mailed horsemen ceased to be the primary battle-winning force, particularly in the battles between Henry III and his barons led by Simon de Montfort. But it meant that successful English campaigns in this century involved a combination of forces, mailed horsemen, infantry and archers, and that this was a step along the path to the fourteenth-century practice of English armies being very successful fighting on foot with substantial numbers of archers. Part of this transition was the increasing use of English archers using hand bows as opposed to crossbowmen whether English or foreign mercenaries. This was encouraged by the developments in the Assizes of Arms in the thirteenth century, and by a development for which there is little direct evidence, the increasing use of heavy bows, what were later known as the English longbow or warbow. One small piece of evidence which shows up the increasing use of archers is a record of the pay of the garrison of Norwich Castle in 1269, in the period when Henry III and his vigorous son Edward (soon to be Edward I) were consolidating their position in the aftermath of the wars with the barons. This shows that the garrison was made up of the following men at various times in that year: six men at arms, six crossbowmen and eighteen archers; eighteen men at arms, two crossbowmen and eight archers; five men at arms, four crossbowmen and six archers. So, while it was never a large force, the garrison consistently included more archers than crossbowmen.

The garrisons of some of the Welsh castles in the years after the death of Llewelyn the Last also show the rising importance of the archer over the crossbowman. In 1295 during the rising led by Rhys ap Maredudd, the English garrison of the newly captured Dryslwyn Castle was two knights, twenty-two men at arms, twenty crossbowmen and eighty archers. Of these, four of the men at arms and forty of the archers were Welsh. Four years later as the situation appeared more peaceful the garrison was reduced to a few men at arms, twenty crossbowmen and thirty archers. During the Welsh risings of 1294–5 in which Madoc ap Llewelyn was a major figure, Reginald de Grey reinforced the garrisons of Flint and Rhuddlan Castles so that one stood at twenty-four knights and men at arms, twenty-four crossbowmen and 120 archers, while the other had four knights and men at arms, twelve crossbowmen and twenty-four archers. In the same time of unrest, Builth town and castle was held by a garrison six knights and men at arms, twenty crossbowmen and forty archers for six weeks against blockading Welsh. These figures suggest that the ordinary archer, whether levied or hired, was attractive to a commander because he was effective and cheap to equip and pay. The consistent number of crossbowmen at Dryslwyn may suggest that the crossbowmen were still professional soldiers whereas many of the archers might not yet be so.


At the time of the Arab-Israeli War of 1947-1948, the Arab Legion was the most effective and best organized Arab fighting force. Established by Great Britain in 1920-1921 when the Emirate of Transjordan was formed, the Legion was funded, trained, and commanded by British officers. Until 1939, it was led by Lt. Col. F. G. Peake; he was followed by Sir John Bagot Glubb (Pasha) (1897-1986).

When Jordan became an independent country in 1946, the Legion became a regular army but continued to receive British subsidies, supplies, and advice. During the conflict in 1948, under Glubb Pasha, it was instrumental in King Abdullah I’s military successes in areas that the Partition Plan had allotted to the Arab Palestinian state as well as in East Jerusalem. Other Arab countries and Palestinians blamed the Legion for its failure to prevent the formation of the Jewish state and for the limited and restricted Arab advances on the eastern front.

Bowing to nationalist and anticolonialist elements in the region, on 1 March 1956 King Hussein of Jordan dismissed Glubb Pasha. Thus the leadership fell into the hands of Jordanian commanders and, in 1969, the Legion was renamed the Jordanian Armed Forces.

The Arab Legion (al-Jaysh al-Arabi), also known as the Transjordan Frontier Force, was the regular army of Transjordan and then Jordan. In 1921, the Hashemite Emir Abdullah I of Transjordan formed the Transjordan Frontier Force as a police force to keep order among the tribes of Transjordan and to guard the important Jerusalem-Amman road. The name was changed to the Arab Legion in 1923.

In 1939, John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha, became the legion’s commander and transformed it into a well-trained Arab army. He served in this position until 1956. During World War II, the Arab Legion took part in the British war effort against proAxis forces in the Middle East theater. By then, the force had grown to 1,600 men. The legion was also the most successful of the Arab armies during the 1948-1949 Israeli War of Independence. There was considerable embarrassment from the British government that British officers were employed in the legion during the conflict, and one British member of Parliament called for Glubb Pasha to be imprisoned for serving in a foreign army without the king’s permission.

Until 1948, Transjordan had never faced an external threat and thus had no need for a system that would provide it with military intelligence. The Arab Legion received intelligence from the British army, which was responsible for Jordan’s security in case of war. The British decision to evacuate Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel forced the Arab Legion to establish a combat intelligence unit. This intelligence unit was built according to the British model and received assistance from the British. The Arab Legion’s intelligence section was a subsection of the Department of Operations, and the intelligence unit was comprised of subunits attached to each of the legion’s battalions for gathering information and conducting research. The intelligence subunits of each division conducted specific investigations on officers, units, targets, and forces of the Israeli Army. If the collected intelligence received was considered of great importance, it was passed upward to the commander in chief in Amman and, in some cases, discussed at the political level of the state.

There was a strong tie between British intelligence and the budding Jordanian intelligence. The British shared information with the Jordanians about the newly established state of Israel and preparations for the war. However, the intelligence that the British passed on to the Jordanians was generally limited to information that could serve British interests in the region. When the Arab Legion was deployed in their major base of Shunna prior to the invasion of Israel, the officers received booklets prepared by Jordanian intelligence containing basic information about the target country and the expected battlefield.

Jordanian military intelligence gathered information by several methods, such as OSCINT (open sources) from the Israeli press and radio broadcasts, as well as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) communications. Listening to IDF communications proved to be problematic, however, due to the lack of Hebrew-speaking agents. Attempts by Jordanian intelligence to recruit Hebrew-speaking agents were not successful, and their failure to do so caused the Arab Legion serious difficulties throughout the 1948-1949 War of Independence. The IDF made it even more difficult by adopting the method of flooding the transmissions.

The Arab Legion’s intelligence also conducted observations and reconnaissance, the importance of which was evident in the first battle at Latrun on 25 May 1948. When the Arab observation post reported the movements of the IDF prior to the attack, the legion blockaded the Jerusalem highway. The efficiency of the legion’s intelligence and the results of their cooperation with the British were also demonstrated by the successful attack they conducted on Gush Etzion, during which they avoided the minefields and bypassed the fortifications prepared by the IDF. The attack was preplanned by the British, who gathered the information and passed it over to the Jordanians. On 28 May 1948, they conquered the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, expelled the Jews who lived there, and took part in the destruction of the synagogues therein. The legion also secured the West Bank for Transjordan.

The Arab Legion’s counterintelligence was aimed at thwarting Israeli efforts to obtain information about Jordan and the Arab Legion through document supervision, communication security, facility guarding, and the use of codes and ciphering. Soldiers were under strict orders not to speak with civilians in order to prevent information from leaking out. However, protecting the Hashemite regime of Jordan from inner opposing factors was considered a higher priority, and most of the effort of this section of the intelligence mechanism was directed to that cause. Although the Arab Legion received some information from collaborators throughout the 1948-1949 War of Independence, the Arab Legion did not have spies in Israel. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it did not need spies there, as it received information on a regular basis from the British army units that had remained in the newly established state of Israel.

Armor Employment by VC/NVA Forces I

Prior to 1968 there were few, if any, in Vietnam that even imagined the VC/NVA forces in South Vietnam were equipped with tanks. A few in the intelligence system exercising hindsight, made “I knew it all the time” claims but these statements deserved and received little attention. Events of 24 January to 7 February 1968 provided these enlightened ones will their information.

On 24 January a Forward Air Controller (FAC) spotted five enemy tanks only a few kilometers from the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam. An air strike was called and one of the tanks was reported destroyed.

That same day the 330 Royal Laotians were reportedly attacked by NVA forces utilizing tanks. Survivors of this engagement, along with their families, retreated into South Vietnam and were allowed to occupy old Lang Vei Camp previously abandoned by the Special Forces. A new camp had been established further to the west.

Late in the evening of 6 February a force approximately 400 infantry and twelve Soviet built tanks attacked the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. (Figures 32 and 11). Some of the tanks were identified as the PT-76 Amphibious Tank. Antitank weapons available to the camp defenders were M-72 LAW’s and two 106 mm Recoilless Rifles. Three enemy tanks were destroyed by the recoilless rifles before the guns were destroyed by tank fire. Performance of the M-72 LAW proved disappointing since many of them malfunctioned and would not fire or when they did fire did very little damage to the tanks with few exceptions. Armor thickness on the PT-76 is roughly comparable to the U.S. SM-551 Sheridan. Both are relatively thin-skinned and are easily penetrated by light antitank weapons.

Lang Vei was completely overrun and destroyed by the NVA tanks and infantry. Surviving American Special Forces were forced into hiding in an underground bunker and most of the South Vietnamese were killed, captured or forced to flee. American air force and artillery provided support throughout most of the battle, but could not prevent the NVA from talking the camp. American armor was not readily available to support the Special Forces. Only the Marines had tanks in the I Corps zone. It was this battle which caused Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam, to move an armored cavalry squadron and a tank company from the III Corps zone to counter any further enemy armor threat.

Results of the battle of Lang Vei were ten of the twenty four Americans and 209 South Vietnamese were killed or missing. An additional 77, including 13 of 14 Americans, were wounded.

Estimated losses to the NVA were seven tanks destroyed and 250 infantry troops killed.[61] With nearly a two week warning of enemy tanks operating in the area, no attempt was made to reinforce the camp with U.S. tanks. This is unfortunate since the M48A3 completely outguns the PT-76 and could have prevented the camp’s destruction and the high casualty rate suffered by the defenders. A costly lesson had been relearned. This was the first, but by no means the last, was time the enemy to employ armor in Vietnam.

Ben Het Special Forces Camp was the location of the next NVA armor attack. (Figures 33 and 11). Ben Het overlooked the Ho Chi Minh trail in an area where the borders of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam met. A battery of U.S. 175 mm artillery was located in this camp and the NVA had made numerous attempts to destroy the guns and blind the camp occupants to their movement by almost incessant artillery, rocket and mortar barrages.

Having failed to destroy the camp by indirect fire, an NVA armored unit launched a ground attack against the base on 3 March 1968. This battle was not to be a one sided affair like Lang Vei because a U.S. tank platoon from Company B, 1/69 Armor, was part of the camp defenses. An estimated seven enemy tanks participated in the attack, two of which were destroyed by the U.S. tanks in addition to an armored personnel carrier. None of the U.S. tanks were destroyed. This attack was not supported by infantry and was not of the magnitude of the attack against Lang Vei. This battle marked the only time U.S. tanks engaged in a tank versus tank engagement in Vietnam.[62]

June 1969 signaled the beginning of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam. Only one U.S. tank battalion, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, was operating in the I Corps area and these units were scheduled to leave the country in mid-1971. General Creighton W. Abrams, Commander, U.S. Forces in Vietnam, wisely authorized the formation of the 20th ARVN Tank Regiment to provide some armor capability to the I Corps zone.

With U.S. ground combat actions at an end, the NVA launched a major offensive operation against the South Vietnamese in April 1972. This major attack was supported by strong NVA tank forces equipped with Soviet T-54 and T-34 tanks.

On 2 April 1972, 20th Tank Regiment, equipped with U.S. M48A9 tanks, met the forward elements of the NVA tank column on the north side of Dong Ha along the Mieu Giang River. (Figures 34 and 11). Six NVA tanks were destroyed by the ARVN tankers in the first few minutes. Combined efforts of 20th Tank Regiment, South Vietnamese Air Force and ARVN Marines stopped the NVA advance at the Dong Ha Bridge. That night the ARVN tanks used their searchlights to illuminate the river and expose boat- loads of NVA troops attempting to infiltrate. All tank weapons were used in conjunction with infantry fire to destroy the boats and NVA troops.

During the period 2 April to 1 May, this newly formed tank regiment accounted for 37 NVA tanks destroyed, one captured and a significant number of enemy infantry killed. While 20th Tank Regiment paid a high price in personnel casualties and equipment losses they were a major factor in delaying the NVA onslaught for manly a month. This time was used by the ARVN high command to reinforce the I Corps area with sufficient forces to stop the NVA drive.[63]

Tanks were also used by the NVA in other part of South Vietnam during this major offensive, most notably in the vicinity of Au Loc and Loc Ninh.

Total victory was denied the VC/NVA farces in this offensive primarily because of the massive air support rendered by U.S. air power to the ARVN ground and air forces. When the next major offensive was launched by the D VC/NVA, South Vietnam forces were on their and were totally routed by the tank infantry drive from the north. Not only had the U.S. forces proven that tanks could be used effectively in Vietnam, but so did the NVA.

Posted in AFV

Armor Employment by VC/NVA Forces II

North Vietnamese Army tanks

The NVA formed its first armoured unit in October 1959 with T-34-85 medium tanks delivered by the Soviet Union. The T-34-85 first appeared in service in 1944 and was the Red Army’s answer to the German Panther medium tank and the Tiger E heavy tank. Weighing 70,547lb (32mt) the five-man vehicle was powered by a diesel engine that provided a top speed of 34mph (55km/h) and an approximate operational range of 186 miles (300km) on level roads. The T-34-85 was armed with an 85mm main gun and two 7.62mm machine-guns, one being the coaxial. Maximum armour thickness on the front of the vehicle was 90mm. The T-34-85 was built post-war in the Soviet Union and license-built in Poland and the then-Czechoslovakia.

From the Soviet Union, in the late 1960s, the NVA began receiving the T-54A and T-54B medium tanks, and the PT-76 light amphibious tank. The four-man T-54 series medium tank was the post-war replacement for the T-34-85 medium tank. It weighed 79,366lb (36mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that provided it a top speed of 30mph (48km/h) and an approximate operational range on level roads of 310 miles (500km.) The T-54 and the majority of the NVA tanks and armoured fighting vehicles were not deployed to South Vietnam until the bulk of American military ground forces had departed the country by 1972. The last American armour units were withdrawn from South Vietnam in 1972, with the remaining American combat soldiers departing in March 1973.

The T-54 series medium tank was armed with a 100mm main gun in a hemispherical turret, and three machine-guns. These included two 7.62mm machine-guns and a 12.7mm machine-gun on the turret roof. The maximum armour thickness on the front of the tank was 205mm. The T-54 was superseded in 1958 in Soviet Army service by an improved version of the vehicle, designated the T-55 medium tank. It was an NVA T-54 that crashed through the gate of the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace in Saigon on 30 April 1975 that brought the long-running Vietnam War to its bloody conclusion.

The NVA also received the T-59 medium tank, which was a Chinese copy of the Soviet T-54A medium tank. The Australian Army compared a captured NVA T-59 medium tank in the early 1970s to a Soviet-built T-54A medium tank and the only difference between the two vehicles that they could discern was that the Soviet tank had a welded, dovetailed joint where the bottom of the glacis plate joined the nose plate, while the Chinese copy had a plain butt weld.

The three-man PT-76 amphibious tank was a post-war design that first appeared in Soviet Army service in 1952. It weighed 30,864lb (14mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that provided it with a top speed of 27mph (44km/h). In water the vehicle could obtain a top speed of 6mph (10.2km/h).The approximate operational range of the PT-76 amphibious tank on land was 155 miles (250km) and 43 miles (70km) in water.

The PT-76 amphibious tank was armed with a 76mm main gun and a single coaxial 7.62mm machine-gun. Reflecting the need to be as light as possible to be amphibious and its reconnaissance role, the maximum armour thickness on the front of the tank was only 14mm.

The first use of NVA tanks against the American military forces in South Vietnam occurred on the night of 6–7 February 1968. An attacking force composed of NVA regulars and eleven (various sources say nine to thirteen) supporting PT-76 amphibious tanks overran the US Army Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. This was accomplished despite American air and artillery support. In the ensuing battle, almost all the Green Berets in the camp became casualties, with ten of them killed and three captured. The indigenous Civilian Irregular Group (CIDG), whom the Green Berets had organized to fight the NVA, lost 219 killed and seventy-seven wounded. The NVA claimed to have lost ninety killed and 220 wounded during the capture of the camp. The Green Berets inside Lang Vei accounted for three of the NVA tanks with a 106mm recoilless rifle before the camp fell. Other NVA tanks were destroyed with American shoulder-fired M74 LAW and white phosphorus (WP) grenades.

On the night of 3 March 1969, NVA PT-76 amphibious tanks attacked the US Army Special Forces Camp near Ben Het, South Vietnam – possibly to destroy a battery of M107 self-propelled 175mm artillery pieces. The NVA seemed unaware of the presence of a platoon of five US Army M48A3s. The resulting engagement was the only occasion during the Vietnam War in which American-crewed tanks directly engaged NVA tanks. It resulted in the NVA’s quick withdrawal from the battlefield with the loss of two PT-76 amphibious tanks and a single BTR-50PK armoured personnel carrier. Total casualties for the American tank platoon was two killed and two wounded, with minor damage to a single M48A3.

The last tank introduced to the Vietnam War occurred when the People’s Republic of China supplied the NVA in 1970 with a modified version of the Russian PT-76 amphibious tank, designated the Type-63. It had an 85mm main gun mounted in cast armour turret and sported a revised hull design to support the weight of the larger gun and turret, whereas the PT-76 had a welded armour turret. Unlike the original Russian PT-76 amphibious tank that had a three-man crew, the Chinese Type-63 had a four-man crew. The vehicle weighed 42,549lb (19.3mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that gave it a top speed of 40mph (64km/h) on roads and 7.4mph (12km/h) in the water. It had an approximate operational range of 230 miles (370km) on level roads and 75 miles (120km) in water. The maximum armour thickness on the Type-63 was 14mm.

North Vietnamese Army armoured personnel carriers

From the massive stockpiles of the Soviet Union and later the Republic of China, the NVA received a number of APCs in the mid-1960s to match what the American government was supplying the ARVN. These included both wheeled and tracked versions. Wheeled APCs were the Soviet-designed and built BTR-152, BTR-40 and the BTR-60PB. Tracked APCs included the Soviet-designed and built BTR-50PK and the Chinese-designed and built Type-63.

The BTR-152 and BTR-40 APCs were both simple open-topped vehicles. The BTR-152 first appeared in service with the Soviet Army in 1950 and the BTR-40 the following year. In contrast to the M113, neither vehicle was amphibious. The larger BTR-152 weighed 19,621lb (8.9mt) and rode on six wheels. It was powered by a gasoline engine, which gave it a top speed of 40mph (65km/h) and an approximate operational range of 403 miles (650km) on level roads. It had a crew of two and could carry up to seventeen or eighteen passengers. Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 12mm.

The smaller BTR-40 weighed 11,684lb (5.3mt) and rode on four wheels. It was powered by a gasoline engine that gave it a top speed of 50mph (80km/h) on land and an approximate operational range of 177 miles (285km) on level roads. The BTR-40 had a crew of two and could carry as many as eight passengers. Besides seeing use as an APC, it was also intended to operate as a reconnaissance vehicle. The NVA adapted the vehicle to mount twin 14.5mm heavy machine-guns in its rear passenger compartment and act as an antiaircraft vehicle. Maximum armour protection on the front of the BTR-40 was 8mm thick. Both the BTR-40 and BTR-152 were normally armed only with 7.62mm machine-guns.

Eventually the BTR-152 and BTR-40 in Soviet Army service were replaced beginning in the 1960s by an amphibious APC that rode on eight wheels, designated the BTR-60P. This was superseded by the improved BTR-60PB model in the Soviet Army, which was the version exported to the NVA. This version weighed 22,707lb (10.3mt) and was powered by a gasoline engine that gave it a top speed of 50mph (80km/h) on land and 6mph (10km/h) in the water. The BTR-60PB had an approximate operational range of 310 mikes (500km) on level roads. The vehicle had a three-man crew and could carry eight passengers. Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 14mm thick. It was armed with a 14.5mm heavy machine-gun in a one-man turret on the vehicle’s roof.

As a complement to the BTR-60PB, the Soviet Army took into service in the 1960s the full-tracked amphibious BTR-50PK that weighed 30,864lb (14mt). It was based on the chassis of the PT-76 amphibious tank and was powered by a diesel engine that gave it a top speed on land of 28mph (260km/h) and 9mph (15km/h) in water. An unknown number of BTR-50PK were sent to the NVA by the Soviets.

The BTR-50PK had an approximate operational range of 161 miles on land (500km). Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 15mm thick. The BTR-50PK had a crew of two and could carry twenty passengers. Standard armament on the vehicle was typically restricted to a 7.62mm machine-gun.

The amphibious Type-63 APC first entered service with the Red Chinese Army in 1964 and remains in service to this day. It was the first Chinese armoured fighting vehicle not copied from an existing Soviet design. Weighing 27,778lb (12.6mt), the vehicle is powered by a diesel engine that provides it a top speed of 37mph (60km/h) and 4mph (6.4km/h) in water. The Type-63 has an approximate operational range on level roads of 311 miles (500km). It has a two- or three-man crew and can carry thirteen passengers. Armament is normally a roof-mounted 12.7mm machine-gun. The maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle is 14mm.

Australian Army testing of a captured NVA Type-63 APC in the early 1970s concluded that it was a mechanically simple and robustly built vehicle that was overall fairly reliable. Surprisingly, the Type-63 APC was a better riding vehicle than an M113A1 against which it was compared during testing. This was attributed to the Type-63 APC’s larger road wheels.

North Vietnamese Army AFVs

From the war reserve stocks of the Soviet Army, the NVA was reported by one reference source as having received the entire range of Second World War-era Red Army self-propelled guns, ranging from the small SU-76 all the way up to the massive ISU-152. Except for a single photograph of an SU-100 in NVA service, there is no pictorial evidence that these vehicles were employed during the Vietnam War by the NVA. The ARVN, US units and Allies never reported encountering any of these vehicles in combat.

Based on the chassis of the T-70 light tank the turret-less and open-topped SU-76 had a crew of four men and was armed with 76.2mm gun in a fixed casemate with limited traverse and elevation. It served with the Red Army from 1943 until the end of the Second World War. Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 35mm.

The four-man SU-100 was based on the chassis of the T-34 medium tank, with its 100mm main gun mounted in an armoured casemate on the front hull of the vehicle, with limited traverse and elevation. The vehicle weighed 69,665lb (32mt) and production for the Red Army began in September 1944. Powered by a diesel engine, the vehicle had a top speed of 30mph (48km/h) and an approximate operational range on level roads of 200 miles (320km). Armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 45mm. There was no secondary armament carried on the vehicle.

The NVA received from the Soviet Union two different full-tracked anti-aircraft vehicles; the older of the vehicles was designated the ZSU-57-2 and the newer one referred to as the ZSU-23-4. The six-man ZSU-57-2 first entered service with the Soviet Army in 1957 with the chassis based on components of the T-54 medium tank.

The heart of the ZSU-57-2 was its large, open-topped turret that contained two 57mm antiaircraft guns each capable of firing 120 rounds per minute.

However, typically storage on the vehicle was for only 316 rounds. There was no radar system on the ZSU-57-2, only optical sights that restricted its use to daylight fair weather conditions. The vehicle weighed 61,949lb (28.1mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that gave it a top speed of 30mph (48km/h) and an approximate operational range of 248 miles (400km). The maximum armour protection on the front of the ZSU-57-2 was 15mm.

The ZSU-57-2 was replaced in Soviet Army service starting in the early 1960s by the 30,864lb (14mt) ZSU-23-4. The four-man vehicle was based on the GM-575 tracked vehicle chassis and some components from the PT-76 amphibious tank. Only limited numbers of the ZSU-23-4 saw action with NVA units, and only during the last stages of the Vietnam War.

The killing power of the ZSU-23-4 is based upon an arrangement of four, water-cooled 23mm automatic cannons each capable of firing 800—1,000 rounds per minute. As the vehicle only carries 2,000 stowed rounds, the cannons are typically fired in short bursts of no more than 50 rounds. Unlike, the ZSU-57-2, the ZSU-23-4 is radar guided with a backup optical fire-control system and can be fired on the move. The vehicle weighs 30,864lb (14mt) and is powered by a diesel engine that provided it with a top speed of 27mph (44km/h) and an approximate operational range of 161 miles (260km). The maximum armour protection on the front of the ZSU-23-4 was 15mm.

Posted in AFV

December 1915 – Gallipoli

The smouldering remains of an accidental fire which began in the supply dump on North Beach at about 1 am on 18 December 1915, the day before the final stage of the evacuation. The fire, at first thought to have been deliberately started by treachery, threatened to alert the Turks to the evacuation in progress and led to shelling from the Turkish guns at the Olive Grove. [AWM G01302]

HMS Cornwallis, the last ship to leave Gallipoli in the evacuation of 19-20 December 1915, returns fire to the Turkish guns shelling her as she prepares to sail. In the background stores at Suvla Bay, set alight to prevent their use by the Turks, can be seen burning. [AWM H10388]

Escaping Gallipoli was going to be just as dangerous as invading it. The challenge was to remove 80000 men, 5000 animals, 2000 vehicles and 200 guns from Anzac and Suvla. If the Turks found out, tens of thousands of Allied troops could be slaughtered on the beaches.

The soldiers would leave over a number of nights. Boats would creep in, load men, and disappear. Before the dawn mists lifted, the beach had to look the same as it had on the previous day. The Turks needed only to break through at one Anzac point to expose the deception. And we know from Mehmed Fasih’s diary that they suspected something was up.

Allied command estimated losses of between 20 and 50 per cent during evacuation, which would equate to at least 16000 men being killed or captured. The plan was kept from the Anzac troops. Senior commanders feared that the Turks might hear the news. In some places the trenches were so close that the Turks could hear the Anzacs talking. But no orders could stop gossip. Few Anzacs swallowed the official line that troops were being thinned for the winter period.

Some Anzacs relished a potential end to bad food and raging disease. But others now considered Anzac their property, the muddy holes their homes. They had staked their territory and their mates had died defending it. ‘If it were true! God!’ wrote Cyril Lawrence of the rumours on 10 December. ‘I believe that murder and riots would break loose amongst our boys . . . Oh, it couldn’t be; how could we leave this place now after the months of toil and slavery that have gone to the making of it?’

Monash described the news as ‘stupendous and paralysing’. There was talk of disobeying orders to stay in the trenches. The 2nd Brigade was said to beg for one final ‘go’ at breaking the stalemate. Lawrence felt ashamed. ‘Better to struggle and die fighting our way ahead than to sneak off like a thief in the night,’ he wrote.

The evacuation was better planned than any Allied attacks at Gallipoli. Monash issued each 4th Brigade soldier with a card detailing his task, time of departure and route to the beach. Trails marked by salt or flour would guide the men to the beach. The last to leave were to pull across barbed wire behind them.

Tricks were staged to suggest that all was normal. Those silent periods that Fasih wondered about in November? They were ‘silent stunts’, aimed at getting the Turks used to lulls. Most medical staff left early, but their tents remained on the beach. Men were ordered to loaf around and smoke where Turks could see them. On the afternoon of 17 December, Light Horsemen played cricket on Shell Green. A famous photo depicts a soldier belting a front-foot drive while three shrapnel shells burst in the background.

All went well at first. Men and supplies and mules left each night. Some Anzacs may have grumbled but they co-operated with their orders. At least they’d enjoyed decent food, wine and clothing from the stores opened up on the beach. The weather stayed calm and the Turks tried no surprises. On the last two nights, only 20000 men defended Anzac. Now for the tricky part.

The front-line trenches were the last to be evacuated. Trench floors were ploughed or laid with blankets to silence footfalls. Lance Corporal W. C. Scurry, of the 7th Battalion, invented a self-firing rifle to give departing soldiers a head start. A kerosene tin was punctured so that it dripped water into a tin below. After about twenty minutes the lower tin overbalanced, tripping a piece of twine that triggered the rifle to fire.

After dark on 18 December, half the remaining men left on a smooth sea. The situation grew more tense. If the Turks attacked now, they would break through. Men tidied the graves of their mates and bade them farewell. An Australian nodded towards a cemetery and told Birdwood: ‘I hope they won’t hear us marching back to the beach.’ Some smashed what they couldn’t take, so that the Turks couldn’t use anything.

One soldier set a table for four, with jam, bully beef, biscuits, cheese and tobacco. He left a note. ‘There are no booby traps in this dugout’, he wrote. This was not quite true. He had opened some rifle shells, poured out the black gun powder, and mixed it into the packets of ready-rubbed tobacco. Another soldier left a note telling the Turks, ‘You didn’t push us off, Jacko, we just left.’

By 11 pm on 19 December, less than 2000 men held the entire Anzac line. Sergeant Cliff Pinnock had survived the Nek charges on 7 August. Now he was among the last to leave Gallipoli. Pinnock was set to leave the front-line for the beach in a few hours. The moon shone and the temperature dropped. Pinnock’s feet froze. He didn’t think twenty pairs of socks could warm them. ‘The last day was simply awful,’ he wrote. ‘I never in all my life want to go through such another day.’

Pinnock had been instructed not to fire unless he was certain he saw a Turk. The problem was that he thought he saw Turks everywhere. ‘My God, I would have given anything in the world to have been able to open up and let go a hundred or so rounds just to ease my nerves,’ he wrote. ‘At 12 o’clock I was in that state that I dared not look at any object for more than a few seconds, if so I could clearly imagine I saw a man rise and place his rifle to his shoulder.’

At 2.15 am, Pinnock was ordered to march the 4 kilometres to the waiting boats. There had been 36 000 Anzacs here a few weeks earlier. Now there were a few hundred. Some were so exhausted from the nervous strain that they had to be prodded to stay awake. No one spoke as Pinnock’s group trudged to the beach. The men had rigged rifles to fire when trench candles burned down. As they walked, they heard the guns going off. The Turks opposite returned fire.

Men from the 24th Battalion stayed at Lone Pine until the end. The last group was about to leave, at 2.40 am, when an officer found a man on the parapet taking ‘just one more pot at them’. The officer heard explosions and found an Australian throwing the new Mills bombs. ‘It’s a pity not to use them,’ the Anzac said. ‘They’re great.’ An officer thought he saw two Turks emerging from a tunnel, until one man said: ‘A bonzer night. It’ll be a pity to leave the old joint.’

Pinnock clambered into a boat that moved off for Lemnos as spent bullets plopped into the sea all around. A few hours later, he bribed a ship steward and had his first bath in months. He soaped off his lice and threw his stinking clothes out the porthole.

The last boat left Anzac at 4.10 am. Private F. Pollack, of the 13th Battalion, was nearly left behind. He awoke in a dugout to find the area deserted. He raced to the beach. It was deserted. He rushed to North Beach and caught one of the last boats.

Underground explosions, set off at 3.30 am, killed seventy Turks at the Nek, and prompted Turkish fire right across the line. The Turks did not discover the evacuation until after dawn. Only two men were wounded in the Anzac evacuation, including one hit in the arm by a spent bullet as he left the beach. At Suvla, and later Helles, there were virtually no casualties.

Almost every major event had got away from the Allied commanders since 25 April. Only in the leaving of Gallipoli could they claim a triumph. Monash watched from a ship as the Nek exploded like a volcano of dust. He felt that the evacuation was ‘a most brilliant conception, brilliantly organised, and brilliantly executed – and will, I am sure, rank as the greatest joke in the whole range of military history.’