Wolfe’s Deception 1759

Over time, most western European countries engaged in wars with one another, forming assorted alliances, settling old scores, and always looking for ways to gain wealth, power, and land. Fought on North American soil, the French and Indian War (1756–1763) pitted the British against the French and their Native American allies in an extension of hostilities between the two nations that also played out in Europe and on the high seas.

The British wanted to drive the French from North America. After many successes by the French forces in the Ohio Valley and in Canada, the tide of the war changed when William Pitt became England’s new secretary of state and adapted English battlefield tactics to fit the New World terrain and environment. In addition, some of the Native American tribes changed sides and fought with the British. The French found themselves with two outposts: Fort Carillon (later called Ticonderoga), in upstate New York, and the city fortress of Québec. When Carillon fell to British forces, Pitt’s men turned their attention to Québec, an “almost impregnable fortress” on the cliffs of the St. Lawrence River.

The generals in charge of both armies were highly decorated soldiers. General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, a career soldier, commanded the French troops in the fortress. His opponent, General James Wolfe, was fresh from an inspired victory over the French at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, off Canada’s Atlantic coast.

The armies were evenly matched with about 4,500 to 4,800 soldiers each. The French, however, had several advantages. First, they were stationed safely within the walls of the city, perched on a fifty-foot cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Second, the weather favored the French, who believed that they could wait out the British. With winter approaching, threatening to ice over the river, the British would not be able to keep their ships in the water much longer. And with the British ships gone, supplies would again flow freely to the garrison at Québec. Wolfe knew he had to do something to draw Montcalm from the fortress. If he could meet the French army on an open field, he believed that his highly trained, veteran army would easily defeat the French, who were mostly militia forces.

In Wolfe’s first attempt to draw the French out, he landed his troops at Point Levis, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, opposite Québec. He began a bombardment of the fortress, hoping that it would force the French to leave. Although “most of the lower town was destroyed, Montcalm would not be drawn Wolfe’s next effort also failed to achieve the result he wanted. He landed some troops upriver of Québec, hoping that this would draw troops from the garrison. Montcalm did send out six hundred men, but only to guard the paths from the river to the fortress. With French soldiers now protecting the paths, Wolfe’s men would never be able to reach the top of the cliffs.

Then British scouts returned with news. There was a small French camp at Anse-au-Foulon, about a mile and a half west of the city. With this intelligence, Wolfe believed that he could now use a deception strategy sometimes called “uproar east, attack west” to lure the French into a battle that would be their undoing.

He ordered Admiral Charles Saunders to move the British fleet to a position opposite one of Montcalm’s main camps east of the city. The fleet needed to give the impression that it was preparing for an attack. Montcalm fell for the demonstration deception, moving troops to guard against a British assault from that point in the river.

In the meantime, Wolfe launched his main action. He sent a small “band of eager volunteers” ashore near Anse-au-Foulon and eliminated the soldiers encamped there. Now one of the roads to the heights near Québec was open, and Wolfe brought as many troops as possible up it. Before long, he found the open field he had been hoping for: a farmer’s field just west of Québec that would become known as the Plains of Abraham. In the early morning, he deployed 3,300 regular soldiers in two lines that stretched across the field for a little more than half a mile. His instructions to his men were emphatic: do not fire until the French are within forty paces. This time the French did come. Alerted by a French soldier who had escaped the assault at the camp, Montcalm marched his troops to face the British on the Plains of Abraham. As one historian wrote, “It was a time to defend not to attack. . . . But Montcalm did exactly what Wolfe wanted.” He put his undisciplined soldiers against the professional soldiers of King George.

The British held their fire as the French approached. Wolfe had ordered his men to charge their muskets with two balls each in preparation for the engagement. Some of the French soldiers fired random shots. Then the British line launched a withering volley, instantly cutting down many of the French soldiers. The British soldiers stepped forward a few paces before unleashing another deadly volley at the stunned enemy. The British pressed on, firing as they advanced. More French fell. The army was “disintegrating, falling back in disorder into the town.” Wolfe’s success came at a high price: both he and Montcalm were mortally wounded in the battle. Wolfe died on the battlefield; Montcalm died in Québec that night.

The fall of Québec was the turning point in the French and Indian War, and it was Wolfe’s deception that gave the British the opportunity they needed to defeat the French. One historian calls it “one of the most momentous battles in world history” because it drove the French from the territory that was to become Canada and “produced the political circumstances in which the United States of America emerged.”

First French Army in west Germany (March–April 1945) I

Formation

General de Lattre de Tassigny, that animal of action, struggled to whip his quarter of a million men into an army rather than a mob. “Our African soldiers felt lost in the dark forests,” De Lattre later wrote. Colonial troops still wearing summer uniforms were “unsuited to the winter climate,” he added, and cruelly susceptible to trench foot; some French troops wore wooden shoes. On De Gaulle’s orders, many colonials were sent to the rear to make room for untrained FFI irregulars. This blanchiment, or whitening, was intended to nurture French national unity; De Gaulle also wished both to relieve the African troops, who had carried a disproportionate burden of France’s fight in the Mediterranean, and to bring some 400,000 Resistance fighters—many of them communists—under military control. The colonials had once made up more than half the manpower of the French army; now that share would decline to about one-third. Senegalese and Cameroonians shambled from the Vosges front, handing their rifles, helmets, and greatcoats to white Frenchmen trotting into the line. This “crusade” for French self-respect, as De Lattre called it, would add to the French First Army some 137,000 maquis, a “vibrant and tumultuous force” with thin combat skills and paltry logistical support. De Lattre found himself waging what he called “a battle against shortage, anarchy, and complaisance.”

Base 901, the French supply organization, in late fall consisted of twelve hundred men with two hundred vehicles. American logisticians calculated that an eight-division army should have more than 100,000 support troops, but De Lattre would never have even a third of that number. Consequently he relied on the Americans—with all of the pathologies that dependency engendered—for everything from the one-third liter of wine included in French rations to the ten pounds of crushed oats, fourteen pounds of hay, and two ounces of salt needed each day for a mountain mule. For every French soldier in Europe, the U.S. Army billed De Gaulle $6.67 per day in support costs.

Franco-American frictions intensified as winter approached. When only 25,000 uniforms could be found for French troops, in a Canadian warehouse in Algiers, De Lattre announced that unless his men received wool clothing he would be “forced to withdraw them from combat.” To the 6th Army Group headquarters, he wrote: “This army has been discriminated against … in a way seriously prejudicial to its life and to its capabilities for action.” The French First Army, he charged, received less than a third of the ammunition, fuel, and rations provided Seventh Army, causing an “asphyxiation of the front line.” U.S. quartermasters bitterly denied the allegation and countered that reckless French troops had ruined three thousand pyramidal tents at a time when canvas was “extremely critical.” An American general wrote of De Lattre, “He goes into these tirades at least twice a week, at which time he seems to lose his balance.” One ill-advised tantrum, launched in the presence of a visiting George Marshall, included allegations that Truscott’s VI Corps had pilfered gasoline allocated to the French. The chief of staff walked out. Later, he rounded on De Lattre with pale fury. “You celebrated all the way up the road. You were late on every damn thing. And you were critical of Truscott, who is a fighter and not a talker,” Marshall said. The chief finished with the worst epithet he could conjure: “You are a politico.”

“It was our duty,” De Lattre subsequently explained, “to be dissatisfied.”

Into Germany

In southern Germany General Devers’s Sixth Army Group – consisting of General Patch’s Seventh Army and the French First Army under General de Lattre de Tassigny – was pushing across the Black Forest. Its left flank advanced into Swabia. After the capture of Karlsruhe, they moved towards Stuttgart. Eisenhower, still concerned about an Alpine Fortress, wanted the two armies to head south-eastwards for the area of Salzburg and meet up with Soviet forces in the Danube valley.

On 27 March 1945 Sixth Army Group issued orders for a continuation of the offensive. Seventh Army was instructed to encourage aggressive independent action by its corps and to be ready to advance in several directions, depending on the situation. French First Army was directed to regroup, cross the Rhine in the Germersheim area on order, and then seize Karlsruhe and Pforzheim. Three days later, Devers ordered de Lattre to speed up preparations for a crossing of the Rhine near Speyer. Anticipating this order, de Lattre had already set his forces in motion for a crossing the next morning. This came as a surprise to Sixth Army Group, but it was possible because de Lattre took advantage of the German disarray caused by Seventh Army’s advances farther north. The French crossings took the Germans completely by surprise, although the enemy fought stubbornly to defeat them.

De Lattre’s decision to accelerate his assault over the Rhine came in response to de Gaulle’s order to cross, “even if the Americans are not agreeable and even if you have to cross it in boats.” De Gaulle feared that France would not get into Germany before the end of the war and therefore would not be assigned an occupation zone. By having French First Army advance at least as far as Stuttgart, he believed he would be in a stronger position with the Anglo-American Allies over the issue of a French zone. De Gaulle’s desire to use French First Army to achieve strategic political goals would badly complicate Devers and de Lattre’s relationship in the final weeks of the war.

The French assault on Easter morning, 31 March, 1945 succeeded in spite of a severe shortage of bridging and assault boats and fierce German resistance. Brooks helped de Monsabert with bridging and boats and allowed French armor and artillery units to cross on bridges in VI Corps’ sector.63 Devers and the other American leaders of Sixth Army Group were more than willing to let the French take part in the heavy fighting inside Germany. Over the next five days, the French expanded their bridgehead and pushed south to capture Karlsruhe. More than 130,000 French troops in four divisions had joined Seventh Army in southern Germany.

Just as his army succeeded in crossing the Rhine, de Lattre created unnecessary friction when he issued a notice “requiring all German military personnel within the zone” occupied by his army to surrender by a certain date or face draconian measures. Devers took exception to the notice because it stated that every German soldier who did not surrender “would be held responsible as a partisan . . . without regard to his clothing, open carriage of arms or other circumstances.” He also found it unacceptable that “every German soldier in civilian clothes will be considered a spy and shot.” Devers ordered de Lattre to amend his notice to fit the rules of land warfare and to conform to Sixth Army Group’s “Directive for Military Government of Germany,” dated 2 December 1944. De Lattre did so grudgingly.

First French Army in west Germany (March–April 1945) II

On 16 April 1945 the 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions encircled Nuremberg and began to probe its defenses. In the words of the official history, “It was a grueling fight for Nuremberg, made all the more difficult by deadly antiaircraft fire directed against the men on the ground. Once the ring of flak guns was broken, the fight developed into the slow, often costly, business of clearing one crumbling building after another.” It took two days for the 3rd Infantry Division to reach and breach the medieval walls of the inner city. On 20 April, Hitler’s birthday, the “Rock of the Marne” Division defeated the last German counterattack and cleared the city.

Meanwhile, on the army’s right flank, Brooks’s VI Corps pushed south along the Neckar to cut off Stuttgart. Sixth Army Group’s plan called for the French to finish clearing the Black Forest and, once VI Corps had cut off the German retreat from Stuttgart, to attack Stuttgart from the west and southwest. With these maneuvers, Devers hoped to encircle the remnants of German Nineteenth Army in the Stuttgart area and the southern Black Forest. Jenkins summarized the intent of the plan and the anticipated role of the French: “The original concept of this operation was that the initial effort by First French Army would be more in the nature of a holding effort which would indicate weakness and encourage the German to stay in his position until VI US Corps was in proper position. . . . [This] was explained in considerable detail to General de Lattre personally at a conference in his office on the afternoon of 17 April.”

But de Lattre had other ideas. Believing that such a plan “destroyed all benefits of the maneuver of the last ten days,” he ordered de Monsabert to begin his attack against the Stuttgart area from the west and southwest on 18 April 1945. In Jenkins’s words, “General de Lattre’s premature action to the west of Stuttgart carried his troops across the Neckar into the zone of action of the VI Corps.” The French general took this action in spite of several cables from Devers ordering him to stop. “As a result a goodly portion of the German Nineteenth Army escaped to the southeast.” Without the help of VI Corps, it took the French three days to clear the Germans out of Stuttgart. When Devers ordered de Lattre to turn the city over to VI Corps, the French general refused, based on orders from de Gaulle.

In war, depravity and bestiality affect both sides. After the French seized Stuttgart, they initially failed to establish order among the 800,000 residents and the tens of thousands of newly liberated slave laborers in the city. Reports soon reached Devers that French troops had committed more than 30,000 rapes, and the city was out of control. Devers sent the 100th Infantry Division into Stuttgart to establish order and a military government, and he ordered de Lattre to withdraw the French troops. De Lattre protested the establishment of a U.S. military government and informed Devers that de Gaulle had ordered him to hold Stuttgart as part of a de facto French occupation zone.

After learning of the situation in Stuttgart, Devers “sent a stern cable to General de Lattre” and called Smith to explain the situation. He then traveled to Stuttgart to investigate. He recorded in his diary: “Upon arriving in Stuttgart on April 27th I immediately contacted General Patch and General Burress [commander of the 100th Infantry Division]. . . . I had with me Colonel Lodge. I verified facts and found them to be substantially as stated . . . but greatly exaggerated.” There had been 1,500 to 2,000 rapes and much looting. Devers and Lodge visited the French headquarters, and Devers told the French commander, “I desired very much in the interest of the French nation that he take immediate steps to correct these conditions.” The French executed a few rapists but continued to ignore Devers’s and Eisenhower’s orders to evacuate the city. Devers was forced to accept the situation, and he changed the boundary between the French and Seventh Army, giving Stuttgart to the French. He left Lodge in Stuttgart for several days to ensure that the French restored order.

The French occupation of Stuttgart undermined Allied cohesion. Eisenhower made this clear in a letter to de Gaulle on 28 April:

As you are aware, orders were issued by General Devers to General de Lattre de Tassigny to evacuate Stuttgart. . . . I regret to learn that because of instructions received direct from you General de Lattre has declined to obey the orders of his Army Group Commander. . . . Under the circumstances, I must of course accept the situation, as I myself am unwilling to take action which would reduce the effectiveness of the military effort against Germany. . . . I can do nothing else than fully inform the Combined Chiefs of Staff of this development, and to point out that I can no longer count with certainty upon the operational use of any French forces they may contemplate equipping in the future.

De Gaulle responded by telling Eisenhower that the military use of the city and its administration were not the same thing, and no one was denying Devers the use of Stuttgart for logistical and administrative purposes. The French leader also took Eisenhower’s letter as acceptance, “with regret,” of a French garrison in the city.

De Lattre later excused his disobedience by reasoning that “since all fighting in that region had ceased, we were no longer in the operational circumstances in which I was subordinated to the Allied Command.” Instead, he deemed it a political issue and felt obligated to follow the orders of the French government and de Gaulle, who instructed him “to keep a French garrison in Stuttgart and to establish a military government there.”

While the Stuttgart incident was unfolding, Seventh Army continued south with VI Corps, headed toward Ulm to seize crossings over the Danube. On 23 April, however, Seventh Army notified Sixth Army Group that French armor units were driving east toward Ulm, well inside VI Corps’ sector. Devers again ordered de Lattre to halt his advance into the American zone so that VI Corps could continue south. De Lattre again ignored Devers’s order. Fortunately, when French troops encountered outposts of the 10th Armored Division near Ehingen on 23 April, the American troops recognized the intruders as French and did not open fire. On 24 April the American 44th Infantry and 10th Armored Divisions and several French platoons seized Ulm. Brooks allowed the French to fly their national colors over the city’s old fort, as Napoleon had done in 1805 after defeating the Austrians. With honor satisfied, de Lattre withdrew his troops into his own sector.

Franco-American relations were further harmed by de Lattre’s decision to send forces to Ulm in spite of the boundary between his and Patch’s armies. However, de Gaulle’s insistence on seizing territory in Germany to force his Western Allies to give France a zone of occupation achieved the desired result. In June the French received a zone of occupation in the Rhineland, west of the Rhine. But in the words of Rick Atkinson, “France and the United States . . . would emerge from the war as wary allies, their mutual distrust destined to shape postwar geopolitics for decades.”

In spite of these political setbacks, the campaign continued to its inevitable end. Sixth Army Group’s G-2 intelligence estimate for 28 April noted that German Army Group G, “opposite 6th Army Group failed to receive sufficient reinforcements during the week to aid in either the establishment of a front line or even to replace the approximately 78,600 odd troops lost as prisoners of war during the period.” After crossing the Danube in a number of places, Seventh Army advanced across terrain lacking “any cross corridors of strong natural defensive positions” from which the Germans could reestablish defensive lines. Although rumors flew that the enemy might strongly defend Munich, there was growing evidence that the “hold of the Nazi overlords upon the Wehrmacht and the people is definitely weakening, particularly in Bavaria.”

There was plenty of evidence to support the G-2’s optimistic estimate. During the month of April, Seventh Army captured 265,556 enemy soldiers, and the French captured another 109,393.104 German civilians saw the writing on the wall. In the cities of Augsburg and Munich, they organized resistance groups to force the garrisons to surrender rather than allow the remnants of their cities to be destroyed in house-to-house fighting. In Munich a series of unconnected revolts took place beginning on the evening of 27 April. Although the Waffen SS units in the city fought back, the insurgents succeeded in preventing the die-hard Nazis from destroying the city’s bridges. American troops arrived on 29 April, and by the end of the next day, they had eliminated German resistance.

The final week of the war in Europe saw Seventh Army driving south to the Alpine passes, with its left-hand forces aiming for Salzburg, the center heading toward Innsbruck, and the right-hand corps moving toward Landeck and the pass into northern Italy. De Lattre, hoping to garner additional glory for the French and to occupy more enemy territory, tried to send an armored division toward the Alpine pass into Italy near Landeck. This time, however, “in an ill-disguised artifice not lost on General de Lattre, the 6th Army Group directed a change in the map coordinates” of the boundary between Seventh and French First Armies. This move denied the French access to the passes into western Austria.

At the same time, Seventh Army units controlled the road networks to Austria, forcing the French to continue south to the German-Swiss border. On 2 May the German forces in Italy officially surrendered, and a civilian resistance movement took control of Innsbruck, saving it from house-to-house combat.116 De Lattre then made a last, desperate attempt to get forces across the Alps by sending a ski-equipped French platoon over snow-blocked back roads toward Landeck. The effort was futile, as American forces reached Landeck and then linked up with Fifth Army troops coming from Italy on 3 May. To the east, Salzburg and Oberammergau surrendered, and troops from XV and XXI Corps converged on Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. “It was congestion, not resistance that slowed entry into Berchtesgaden.”

De Lattre was perhaps the only person unhappy with the way the Germans had surrendered in Austria and southern Germany. He believed German Twenty-Fourth Army should have surrendered to French First Army, since de Lattre’s forces had been opposite that army in the line. The Germans refused, saying that Twenty-Fourth Army no longer existed; its forces were part of Nineteenth Army, which surrendered to Brooks’s VI Corps on 5 May 1945. It was clear to Devers that Foertsch’s surrender in Harr applied to all the forces in Army Group G, including Nineteenth Army. Consequently, Devers refused to surrender the former commander of German Twenty-Fourth Army to de Lattre.

Captain William Hoste

Captain William Hoste had a particular distinction in that he was one of those who saw the war through from its first days to its last. He was one of Nelson’s first midshipmen, also at Tenerife, at the Nile, and flamboyantly paraded through Palermo by Emma Hamilton. Just before Trafalgar, Nelson gave him a 36-gun frigate, Amphion. To his everlasting regret, Hoste missed Trafalgar because Nelson sent him on a mission to Algiers. After Trafalgar, Collingwood moved him from one point after another in the Mediterranean, which, by the end of the first decade of the new century, Hoste probably knew better than anyone in the fleet. French activity in Calabria and the menace it represented to Sicily took Hoste into the Adriatic in 1808. Collingwood wanted him there and asked for his return from a brief visit home ‘for he is active, vigilant, and knows the coast, and more depends upon the man than the ship’. In that last phrase Collingwood concisely summarized the character and value of William Hoste.

Battle of Lissa, 13 March 1811 painting by Nicholas Pocock

The re-entry of Austria into the war in 1813 intensified Captain William Hoste, victor of Lissa on 12 March 1811, involvement as the Austrians descended to free Dalmatia and the coast from Trieste to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Cattaro (Kotor). The years of practically uninterrupted activity had begun to tell on Hoste. As his surgeon later said, ‘During the summer of 1813 his health was manifestly declining…yet never was he more actively employed than through the whole of that summer along the Illyrian coast, most of the strong places in which we either reduced alone or assisted others in doing so.’ Then, at the end of the year, Admiral Fremantle ordered Hoste with Bacchante to capture the fortresses of Cattaro and Ragusa.

It was an unprecedented demand, to all appearances unrealistic. Cattaro mounted ninety guns, Ragusa 194. They were mountain strongholds on that high coastline, Cattaro deep inside a difficult inlet. A single 38-gun frigate with its sailors and marines was now required to lay siege to and take both citadels. No such task had ever been laid upon a single ship.

Fremantle refused any support, or was unwilling to give it. There is a suggestion in the journal kept by one of Bacchante’s officers that the enormity of the task was deliberate, perhaps vindictive in its expectation of failure: ‘Sensible of the inadequacy of his own frigate to carry on a siege against two fortresses of the strength of which they possessed, and aware that his commanding officer was alive to that in a greater degree than himself, Captain Hoste requested a body of marines, and some guns and mortars, to carry on the siege, but the admiral refused every assistance. No way daunted by an apparent determination on the part of another to prevent the success of an enterprise which himself was projecting, Captain Hoste quitted his presence with the noble determination to perform to his utmost the duty entrusted to him.’

Malice and envy were steadfastly present in that navy, as Nelson ever experienced. Hoste was always conscious that he had no ‘interest’ to back him when necessary, in promotion especially. ‘Lord Collingwood is my friend, and that is all my chance,’ he had written to his father while Collingwood was alive. With Collingwood gone, he was alone.

The broad understanding of the task was that Hoste should give the Austrians any assistance they needed in taking the fortresses. But the Austrians offered no assistance for Cattaro and Ragusa and showed no move or effort of their own in that direction. It was, therefore, not a matter of assisting them. It was doing the job for them. Here, then, was something like a repetition of the circumstances affecting Nelson in his relations with the Austrians on the Ligurian coast and Genoa in 1796, begging Hotham and Hyde Parker for more frigates, instead seeing some of his force actually withdrawn from him by Hyde Parker. As with Nelson, Hoste found himself entirely alone on his mission. Cattaro was in Montenegro, and upon the Montenegrins, Serbs, he would have to depend for any extra help he needed.

Cattaro became the first objective. Passing Ragusa on his way to Cattaro Hoste encountered a small British scouting force, the armed brig Saracen and two gunboats, which he took under his own orders. Cattaro sat at the head of the great roadstead Bocca di Cattaro, whose fortresses commanded the main approach and had to be subdued. They were garrisoned by Croats and Italians under French officers. Bacchante arrived there on 13 December 1813.

Hoste first sent Bacchante’s boats to an island where four French gunboats lay. The gunboats and the island were already in possession of Serbs who, on appearance of the British ship, threatened to kill the French officer unless he surrendered. Bacchante’s boats therefore brought back the island’s armament of twelve brass guns and a mortar. Hoste, meanwhile, had sent a demand to the Bocca fortress to surrender, which followed quicker than he expected. ‘We have been very fortunate in obtaining possession of it so soon,’ he wrote, ‘for the fort is much stronger than we fancied.’ But the assault on Cattaro was delayed for two months when Hoste was compelled to assist the Austrians at two other coastal operations.

At the end of November he was back at Bocca di Cattaro, to be again refused all assistance by the Adriatic commander in chief, Admiral Fremantle. And ‘on the side of the Austrians none came forward to share in the dangers and difficulties of regaining that territory, of which they intended finally to become possessed’.

On 12 December Hoste was trying to get Bacchante up the difficult course from the roadstead to Cattaro, through the narrow channels and against the strong currents that passed among the islands of the inlet. The ascent was achieved laboriously by alternatively warping and sailing. Once anchored closer to Cattaro, Hoste sailed up the rest of the river in his gig and then ascended to the hills adjacent to Cattaro to reconnoitre its batteries. He decided to form a battery on a mountain, Mount Theodore, that completely commanded Cattaro and its fort. The battery was to consist of two 18-pounders, long guns and two eleven-inch mortars.

The artillery was landed the following morning, 14 December, together with fifty-four officers and men. By dusk the first gun had reached the base of the mountain. More height was gained on the 15th. On the 16th a kedge anchor was buried in rock to help get the gun further. So it continued in cold and heavy rain day after day. A tent was raised under a projecting rock for shelter and stores carried up to it. ‘They have sent me here to take a very strong place without the means of doing it,’ Hoste wrote to his mother on 18 December. ‘However I can but do what lies in my power.’

As the struggle with the gun continued so did the effort to get Bacchante further upstream. Most of the crew being on shore ‘the hands were so few on board that it was to the surprise of all that she could even be got under weigh’. Cattaro had now begun to fire on her continually.

The ascent on Mount Theodore had become a desperate struggle: ‘The weather increased in fury; torrents of rain and gusts of wind, so stormy as at times to disable the men from standing up at their work. Yet the indefatigable little party, with their heavy gun, ceased not their labours through all the hardships of severe seasons; the want of shoes, which were destroyed by the rocky soil; the insufficiency of their machinery to perform so heavy a work–still encouraged by their leader, they increased their exertions, and on the 20th their efforts were rewarded by placing their gun on the summit of the mountain.’ The next day it was mounted in the battery. Through this time Hoste frequently slept on the open mountain in all that weather, so that his health grew steadily worse. Hoste’s first lieutenant, Lilas Hood, in a letter in 1830, recalled that ‘frequently for nights would his clothes remain on him, wet as they were, in a climate either at freezing point, or drenching us all in torrents of rain. How the people stood it, God only knows! And from my heart, I believe, with no other man could they have done what they did.’

Another battery, meanwhile, was built on a less precipitous hill overlooking Cattaro. Altogether four batteries of different strength were created, as well as a point for firing rockets. On 25 December all opened fire together on Cattaro, which had already itself opened constant and heavy fire on the British positions. The assault continued until 2 January 1814, when a party of Montenegrins, who had been assisting Hoste, stood ready to make an assault. Terms of surrender had been sent under flag of truce to the French commander, General Gauthier, who first refused but then decided to discuss them.

A military passenger aboard Bacchante, Captain Angelo, went to Cattaro with the flag of truce. Gauthier complained to him of the use of rockets, and described it as unmilitary. Angelo answered, ‘Do you know with whom you are contending? You are not engaged with soldiers, who do all these things in a regular technical manner: you are opposed to sailors; people who do nothing like other men, and they will astonish you before they have done with you.’

Gauthier surrendered on 5 January. Seamen and marines took possession of Cattaro. Gauthier and his garrison of three hundred were embarked. For the next ten days all the armament and stores were brought on board. The seamen and marines were withdrawn from Cattaro and the town left in the hands of its magistrates. The whole operation had taken Hoste five weeks.

Meanwhile, the Austrians had finally arrived at Bocca di Cattaro. Their general, Metutenovitch, asked Hoste to convey his troops to Cattaro, as he was fearful of being attacked by the Montenegrins. For Hoste, who had himself got no help whatsoever from the Austrians, it was too much. He replied that he had accomplished what he had been asked to do, capture Cattaro, and as soon as he had all his material on board he would sail for Ragusa, his other instructed assignment. Metutenovitch himself then decided to withdraw, being too intimidated by the Montenegrins. For that response Hoste was immediately censured by the British ambassador at Vienna, the Earl of Aberdeen, but particularly for having used the Montenegrins who, instead of the Austrians, were now in possession of the area. To that Hoste also forcefully replied: ‘I wrote repeatedly both to the British admiral and the Austrian general, requesting a force might be sent to support their interests; and to the latter particularly, that he would hasten his march…Notwithstanding this, though General Metutenovitch did advance, it was not till the place had surrendered…I do say that it is entirely their own fault that the Austrians are not at this moment quiet possessors of the province of Cattaro. I could not have acted otherwise than I did; I had no force to garrison the place, and the Bacchante was wanted for other service.’ This forthrightness in defence of actions on a lone, unsupported mission was certainly something that Nelson would have understood.

Bacchante arrived off Ragusa on 19 January. Hoste landed and reconnoitred those points from which a successful attack could be made on this town with its one hundred and fifty guns. He decided to establish three mountain batteries, and the same laborious struggle began to get the guns to their positions, six miles from the landing, passing round the back of the mountain and then up it. On the 27th the guns were placed and ready to open fire on the city when the French asked for truce and then surrendered. At Cattaro Hoste had lost only one seaman, and at Ragusa also only one. Only Nelson at Bastia and Calvi could show anything equal to this achievement of the conquest of the two Dalmatian mountain fortresses.

Admiral Fremantle had only just heard of the fall of Cattaro and the intended assault on Ragusa. And, as the memoir of Hoste’s achievement recounted, the admiral ‘struck with astonishment at the performance of what he had considered wholly impracticable with so small a force, he immediately despatched the Elizabeth frigate, Captain Gower, to assist and to supersede the command of Captain Hoste. Fortunately she only hove in sight while the capitulation was going on; and on Captain Hoste coming down from the town to give up the command, Captain Gower very properly declined to pluck away those glories which he could have no claim to, and the terms were signed by those who had conquered.’ Austria did at least express its gratitude. The emperor sent Hoste the Order of Maria Theresa.

Bacchante returned to a previous station off Corfu. Hoste’s health had deteriorated so badly from exposure at Cattaro and Ragusa that he suffered a rheumatic attack and lost use of both his legs to the point that he could barely stand.

Hoste’s last operation was on 26 March 1814, as the war was drawing to an end in Europe. Bearing up to Corfu harbour to reconnoitre the forces there Bacchante ran on to a mud bank in sight of the harbour. Hoste’s extraordinary career appeared about to end in capture. A French frigate lay off the harbour, likely to come out and get the better of the immovable Bacchante. But Hoste said, ‘Let there be no confusion; if the ship will not back off, take in all sail altogether, that the enemy may not suppose us aground, but to have only anchored for the night, for coolness must be the order of the day.’ The ship was then made to all appearances snug at anchor as every effort was made to get her off.

As Duncan had done at Camperdown, signal flags were intermittently hoisted as if in communication with ships out of sight. Anchors were carried out to try and move the ship, provisions were put aboard Turkish shore boats that were in the vicinity, the pumps worked ceaselessly, and Hoste was seated on a chair from where he supervised operations. Even in the chair, his surgeon said, he seemed scarcely able to overcome his own faintness and weakness. Main deck guns were thrown overboard and everything else done to lighten the ship.

At daylight, with high water, Bacchante floated. Then, a strangely appropriate footnote. A gunboat came out bearing a flag of truce. It was loaded with fruit and vegetables, a present from the governor of Corfu. On board the gunboat was a French army captain and his wife. The captain had come out expressly to thank Hoste for his handsome conduct to his wife when she had found herself a prisoner on Amphion in 1808. Bacchante was, of course, familiar in those waters, along that coast, so her commander was known.

Hoste was too ill to continue. Bacchante took him to Malta to await a ship home. Lilas Hood described the parting at Malta. ‘When it was known to the ship’s company that he was no longer to command them, they appeared to me no longer the same men. The people being about to cheer him, were stopped by me, in consequence of my perceiving his state of agitation on quitting us, until we had, for the last time, lowered him to his boat, when the ship was instantly manned, and I believe no man ever received three more hearty cheers. In a moment, as from sudden impulse, he rose on his legs for the first time in three months, and returned the compliment; then dropping into the arms of the surgeon as if in a fit, was rowed on shore regretted by all.’

Captain William Hoste had a particular distinction in that he was one of those who saw the war through from its first days to its last. He was one of Nelson’s first midshipmen, also at Tenerife, at the Nile, and flamboyantly paraded through Palermo by Emma Hamilton. Just before Trafalgar, Nelson gave him a 36-gun frigate, Amphion. To his everlasting regret, Hoste missed Trafalgar because Nelson sent him on a mission to Algiers. After Trafalgar, Collingwood moved him from one point after another in the Mediterranean, which, by the end of the first decade of the new century, Hoste probably knew better than anyone in the fleet. French activity in Calabria and the menace it represented to Sicily took Hoste into the Adriatic in 1808. Collingwood wanted him there and asked for his return from a brief visit home ‘for he is active, vigilant, and knows the coast, and more depends upon the man than the ship’. In that last phrase Collingwood concisely summarized the character and value of William Hoste.

The re-entry of Austria into the war in 1813 intensified Captain William Hoste, victor of Lissa on 12 March 1811, involvement as the Austrians descended to free Dalmatia and the coast from Trieste to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Cattaro (Kotor). The years of practically uninterrupted activity had begun to tell on Hoste. As his surgeon later said, ‘During the summer of 1813 his health was manifestly declining…yet never was he more actively employed than through the whole of that summer along the Illyrian coast, most of the strong places in which we either reduced alone or assisted others in doing so.’ Then, at the end of the year, Admiral Fremantle ordered Hoste with Bacchante to capture the fortresses of Cattaro and Ragusa.

It was an unprecedented demand, to all appearances unrealistic. Cattaro mounted ninety guns, Ragusa 194. They were mountain strongholds on that high coastline, Cattaro deep inside a difficult inlet. A single 38-gun frigate with its sailors and marines was now required to lay siege to and take both citadels. No such task had ever been laid upon a single ship.

Fremantle refused any support, or was unwilling to give it. There is a suggestion in the journal kept by one of Bacchante’s officers that the enormity of the task was deliberate, perhaps vindictive in its expectation of failure: ‘Sensible of the inadequacy of his own frigate to carry on a siege against two fortresses of the strength of which they possessed, and aware that his commanding officer was alive to that in a greater degree than himself, Captain Hoste requested a body of marines, and some guns and mortars, to carry on the siege, but the admiral refused every assistance. No way daunted by an apparent determination on the part of another to prevent the success of an enterprise which himself was projecting, Captain Hoste quitted his presence with the noble determination to perform to his utmost the duty entrusted to him.’

Malice and envy were steadfastly present in that navy, as Nelson ever experienced. Hoste was always conscious that he had no ‘interest’ to back him when necessary, in promotion especially. ‘Lord Collingwood is my friend, and that is all my chance,’ he had written to his father while Collingwood was alive. With Collingwood gone, he was alone.

The broad understanding of the task was that Hoste should give the Austrians any assistance they needed in taking the fortresses. But the Austrians offered no assistance for Cattaro and Ragusa and showed no move or effort of their own in that direction. It was, therefore, not a matter of assisting them. It was doing the job for them. Here, then, was something like a repetition of the circumstances affecting Nelson in his relations with the Austrians on the Ligurian coast and Genoa in 1796, begging Hotham and Hyde Parker for more frigates, instead seeing some of his force actually withdrawn from him by Hyde Parker. As with Nelson, Hoste found himself entirely alone on his mission. Cattaro was in Montenegro, and upon the Montenegrins, Serbs, he would have to depend for any extra help he needed.

Cattaro became the first objective. Passing Ragusa on his way to Cattaro Hoste encountered a small British scouting force, the armed brig Saracen and two gunboats, which he took under his own orders. Cattaro sat at the head of the great roadstead Bocca di Cattaro, whose fortresses commanded the main approach and had to be subdued. They were garrisoned by Croats and Italians under French officers. Bacchante arrived there on 13 December 1813.

Hoste first sent Bacchante’s boats to an island where four French gunboats lay. The gunboats and the island were already in possession of Serbs who, on appearance of the British ship, threatened to kill the French officer unless he surrendered. Bacchante’s boats therefore brought back the island’s armament of twelve brass guns and a mortar. Hoste, meanwhile, had sent a demand to the Bocca fortress to surrender, which followed quicker than he expected. ‘We have been very fortunate in obtaining possession of it so soon,’ he wrote, ‘for the fort is much stronger than we fancied.’ But the assault on Cattaro was delayed for two months when Hoste was compelled to assist the Austrians at two other coastal operations.

At the end of November he was back at Bocca di Cattaro, to be again refused all assistance by the Adriatic commander in chief, Admiral Fremantle. And ‘on the side of the Austrians none came forward to share in the dangers and difficulties of regaining that territory, of which they intended finally to become possessed’.

On 12 December Hoste was trying to get Bacchante up the difficult course from the roadstead to Cattaro, through the narrow channels and against the strong currents that passed among the islands of the inlet. The ascent was achieved laboriously by alternatively warping and sailing. Once anchored closer to Cattaro, Hoste sailed up the rest of the river in his gig and then ascended to the hills adjacent to Cattaro to reconnoitre its batteries. He decided to form a battery on a mountain, Mount Theodore, that completely commanded Cattaro and its fort. The battery was to consist of two 18-pounders, long guns and two eleven-inch mortars.

The artillery was landed the following morning, 14 December, together with fifty-four officers and men. By dusk the first gun had reached the base of the mountain. More height was gained on the 15th. On the 16th a kedge anchor was buried in rock to help get the gun further. So it continued in cold and heavy rain day after day. A tent was raised under a projecting rock for shelter and stores carried up to it. ‘They have sent me here to take a very strong place without the means of doing it,’ Hoste wrote to his mother on 18 December. ‘However I can but do what lies in my power.’

As the struggle with the gun continued so did the effort to get Bacchante further upstream. Most of the crew being on shore ‘the hands were so few on board that it was to the surprise of all that she could even be got under weigh’. Cattaro had now begun to fire on her continually.

The ascent on Mount Theodore had become a desperate struggle: ‘The weather increased in fury; torrents of rain and gusts of wind, so stormy as at times to disable the men from standing up at their work. Yet the indefatigable little party, with their heavy gun, ceased not their labours through all the hardships of severe seasons; the want of shoes, which were destroyed by the rocky soil; the insufficiency of their machinery to perform so heavy a work–still encouraged by their leader, they increased their exertions, and on the 20th their efforts were rewarded by placing their gun on the summit of the mountain.’ The next day it was mounted in the battery. Through this time Hoste frequently slept on the open mountain in all that weather, so that his health grew steadily worse. Hoste’s first lieutenant, Lilas Hood, in a letter in 1830, recalled that ‘frequently for nights would his clothes remain on him, wet as they were, in a climate either at freezing point, or drenching us all in torrents of rain. How the people stood it, God only knows! And from my heart, I believe, with no other man could they have done what they did.’

Another battery, meanwhile, was built on a less precipitous hill overlooking Cattaro. Altogether four batteries of different strength were created, as well as a point for firing rockets. On 25 December all opened fire together on Cattaro, which had already itself opened constant and heavy fire on the British positions. The assault continued until 2 January 1814, when a party of Montenegrins, who had been assisting Hoste, stood ready to make an assault. Terms of surrender had been sent under flag of truce to the French commander, General Gauthier, who first refused but then decided to discuss them.

A military passenger aboard Bacchante, Captain Angelo, went to Cattaro with the flag of truce. Gauthier complained to him of the use of rockets, and described it as unmilitary. Angelo answered, ‘Do you know with whom you are contending? You are not engaged with soldiers, who do all these things in a regular technical manner: you are opposed to sailors; people who do nothing like other men, and they will astonish you before they have done with you.’

Gauthier surrendered on 5 January. Seamen and marines took possession of Cattaro. Gauthier and his garrison of three hundred were embarked. For the next ten days all the armament and stores were brought on board. The seamen and marines were withdrawn from Cattaro and the town left in the hands of its magistrates. The whole operation had taken Hoste five weeks.

Meanwhile, the Austrians had finally arrived at Bocca di Cattaro. Their general, Metutenovitch, asked Hoste to convey his troops to Cattaro, as he was fearful of being attacked by the Montenegrins. For Hoste, who had himself got no help whatsoever from the Austrians, it was too much. He replied that he had accomplished what he had been asked to do, capture Cattaro, and as soon as he had all his material on board he would sail for Ragusa, his other instructed assignment. Metutenovitch himself then decided to withdraw, being too intimidated by the Montenegrins. For that response Hoste was immediately censured by the British ambassador at Vienna, the Earl of Aberdeen, but particularly for having used the Montenegrins who, instead of the Austrians, were now in possession of the area. To that Hoste also forcefully replied: ‘I wrote repeatedly both to the British admiral and the Austrian general, requesting a force might be sent to support their interests; and to the latter particularly, that he would hasten his march…Notwithstanding this, though General Metutenovitch did advance, it was not till the place had surrendered…I do say that it is entirely their own fault that the Austrians are not at this moment quiet possessors of the province of Cattaro. I could not have acted otherwise than I did; I had no force to garrison the place, and the Bacchante was wanted for other service.’ This forthrightness in defence of actions on a lone, unsupported mission was certainly something that Nelson would have understood.

Bacchante arrived off Ragusa on 19 January. Hoste landed and reconnoitred those points from which a successful attack could be made on this town with its one hundred and fifty guns. He decided to establish three mountain batteries, and the same laborious struggle began to get the guns to their positions, six miles from the landing, passing round the back of the mountain and then up it. On the 27th the guns were placed and ready to open fire on the city when the French asked for truce and then surrendered. At Cattaro Hoste had lost only one seaman, and at Ragusa also only one. Only Nelson at Bastia and Calvi could show anything equal to this achievement of the conquest of the two Dalmatian mountain fortresses.

Admiral Fremantle had only just heard of the fall of Cattaro and the intended assault on Ragusa. And, as the memoir of Hoste’s achievement recounted, the admiral ‘struck with astonishment at the performance of what he had considered wholly impracticable with so small a force, he immediately despatched the Elizabeth frigate, Captain Gower, to assist and to supersede the command of Captain Hoste. Fortunately she only hove in sight while the capitulation was going on; and on Captain Hoste coming down from the town to give up the command, Captain Gower very properly declined to pluck away those glories which he could have no claim to, and the terms were signed by those who had conquered.’ Austria did at least express its gratitude. The emperor sent Hoste the Order of Maria Theresa.

Bacchante returned to a previous station off Corfu. Hoste’s health had deteriorated so badly from exposure at Cattaro and Ragusa that he suffered a rheumatic attack and lost use of both his legs to the point that he could barely stand.

Hoste’s last operation was on 26 March 1814, as the war was drawing to an end in Europe. Bearing up to Corfu harbour to reconnoitre the forces there Bacchante ran on to a mud bank in sight of the harbour. Hoste’s extraordinary career appeared about to end in capture. A French frigate lay off the harbour, likely to come out and get the better of the immovable Bacchante. But Hoste said, ‘Let there be no confusion; if the ship will not back off, take in all sail altogether, that the enemy may not suppose us aground, but to have only anchored for the night, for coolness must be the order of the day.’ The ship was then made to all appearances snug at anchor as every effort was made to get her off.

As Duncan had done at Camperdown, signal flags were intermittently hoisted as if in communication with ships out of sight. Anchors were carried out to try and move the ship, provisions were put aboard Turkish shore boats that were in the vicinity, the pumps worked ceaselessly, and Hoste was seated on a chair from where he supervised operations. Even in the chair, his surgeon said, he seemed scarcely able to overcome his own faintness and weakness. Main deck guns were thrown overboard and everything else done to lighten the ship.

At daylight, with high water, Bacchante floated. Then, a strangely appropriate footnote. A gunboat came out bearing a flag of truce. It was loaded with fruit and vegetables, a present from the governor of Corfu. On board the gunboat was a French army captain and his wife. The captain had come out expressly to thank Hoste for his handsome conduct to his wife when she had found herself a prisoner on Amphion in 1808. Bacchante was, of course, familiar in those waters, along that coast, so her commander was known.

Hoste was too ill to continue. Bacchante took him to Malta to await a ship home. Lilas Hood described the parting at Malta. ‘When it was known to the ship’s company that he was no longer to command them, they appeared to me no longer the same men. The people being about to cheer him, were stopped by me, in consequence of my perceiving his state of agitation on quitting us, until we had, for the last time, lowered him to his boat, when the ship was instantly manned, and I believe no man ever received three more hearty cheers. In a moment, as from sudden impulse, he rose on his legs for the first time in three months, and returned the compliment; then dropping into the arms of the surgeon as if in a fit, was rowed on shore regretted by all.’

First Strike at Truk 1944

Almost two years underway, the war in the Pacific, the Navy’s war, was not yet total. Indeed, some were calling it a phony war. Such a term had been applied to the eight-month period of stasis in Europe between the declaration of war by the Allies and their first major operations on Germany’s Western Front in 1940. In the Pacific, the year 1943 had been, for the Navy, a year of rebuilding and waiting.

The invasion of Guadalcanal, the first Allied offensive of the war, launched in August 1942, had been carried out on a shoestring, using a back-of-the-envelope contingency plan. The six-month campaign of attrition ended in U.S. victory in February, but nine more months would pass before the Marine Corps attacked another Japanese-held island. While General Douglas MacArthur’s troops wore down the Japanese in New Guinea and the Army’s Kiska Task Force retook the Aleutians, the Navy endured an interval of gathering and adjustment, of preparation and planning, recruitment and training, construction and commissioning. Mostly the latter, and the shipyards would tell an epic tale.

The lead ship of the Essex class of aircraft carriers joined the fleet on New Year’s Eve 1942. The 34,000-tonner would emerge as the signature ship of the U.S. Navy’s combat task force. Four more would be launched before 1943 was out. A pair of Iowa-class battleships reached the Pacific that year, too, as four more of the 45,000-ton behemoths took shape in the yards. A horde of new destroyers and destroyer escorts—more than five hundred of them—were launched in the year’s second half alone. But the greatest economies of scale revealed themselves in the building of merchant ships. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed the Maritime Commission to produce twenty-four million tons of cargo shipping in 1943. The surge was so great that it might have strained the wine industry’s capacity to make bottles to smash against prows on launching day. Surprising shortages cascaded through the supply chain. When grease was rationed for the exclusive use of combat units, a shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, found a substitute to use in lubricating the skids of their ramps: ripe bananas. Personnel officers, short on applicants, hired women and minorities to work in the yards and looked inland from the traditional recruitment fields of the coasts on the hunch that farmers with wits enough to survive the Dust Bowl might be useful in building ships. Coming out of the Depression, no one missed the chance to earn a better wage.

It was this outpouring of manpower and industry that enabled the Navy’s long-envisioned drive through the Central Pacific to begin. Since 1909, the “Pacific problem” had been an important object of study, premised upon the Navy’s need to retake the Philippines after a Japanese attack. Since 1933, Ernest King had favored a path through the Marianas, which he considered the “key to the Western Pacific.” As commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, based in Washington, Admiral King had been pressing the Joint Chiefs to approve an invasion of the islands ever since the end stages of the Guadalcanal campaign. The size and difficulty of the island objectives seized to date—mere apostrophes of coral with little elevation or terrain—paled next to the Marianas, which lay within what Japan considered its inner defensive perimeter.

In November 1943, as Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific forces attacked Bougainville, Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Central Pacific Force began its oceanic march, falling upon the tiniest and humblest of objectives: Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Gilberts. The sharp, bloody fight was won quickly by the men of the Second Marine Division. The Marshall Islands campaign was next. Spruance took the fleet there in January, delivering the Fourth Marine Division and elements of the Army’s Seventh Division to conquer Kwajalein, an infamous prison island that had been the site of many executions of captured Allied pilots and sailors.

When Nimitz, delighted, asked Spruance for his thoughts about what to do next, Spruance proposed jumping ahead immediately to capture Eniwetok, an anchorage in the western Marshalls. It would be the farthest advance by American forces in the whole war. Spruance said he could do it, but only if the carriers handled an important preliminary matter first. Any ships assaulting Eniwetok, he said, would come within aircraft striking range of the greatest Japanese base in the Central Pacific. Spruance proposed sending the fast carrier task force to strike it. Its name was Truk.

The stronghold had never before been glimpsed, much less attacked. Located in the Caroline Islands, Truk was a massive, multi-island lagoon. Its gigantic outer barrier of coral heads traced a triangle that held eighty-four coral and basaltic islands, most of which were substantial enough to mount antiaircraft artillery. Four of the inner islands had airfields. The lagoon’s harbors and anchorages were deep enough for major warships, and the base’s capacity to support such assets, and its location on the boundary of the Central and South Pacific areas, recommended it as a forward naval base, fleet headquarters, air base, radio communications hub, and supply base as well. From Truk, the Imperial Navy could muster in defense of almost any point on the perimeter of its so-called Southeast Area, all the way into the deep South Pacific.

The question of how finally to deal with Truk would be decided only after Spruance’s raid was over. Two options were on the table. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved two offensive paths across the Central Pacific: Either the Navy would assault Truk directly and seize it by June 15, to be followed by landings in the Marianas on September 1; or the Navy would bypass it, leaping straight to the Marianas, with D Day on Saipan set for June 15.

Nimitz thought Truk would have to be taken, but his amphibious planners considered it beyond their means. Truk’s barrier reef was a dangerous obstacle to assault, and its enormous radius kept the inner harbor out of range of naval gunfire from outside. The atoll’s principal islands themselves, Eten, Moen, Param, Fefan, and Dublon, were within mutually supporting range of each other and thus formidable objectives. The more Nimitz and his people looked at it, the less they liked the odds.

On February 12, Spruance and Mitscher led nine aircraft carriers to sea from Majuro, an anchorage in the Marshalls. Their mission was to stick an arm into the hornet’s nest that was Truk and rate the potency of its sting. If the raid, code-named Operational Hailstone, went well, no Japanese planes would remain on Truk to interfere with the landings on Eniwetok. The results would bear, too, on the choice of the next strategic objective.

Though Spruance had a reputation as a battleship man, he had won his greatest fame leading carriers. In June 1942, in the Battle of Midway, he exercised tactical control over the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown while their aviators destroyed four Japanese carriers. For the loss of the Yorktown, the United States won a victory that would resound in history. Elevated thereafter to serve as Admiral Chester Nimitz’s chief of staff, Spruance commanded a desk at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until August 1943 that he returned to sea to command the Central Pacific Force. Its fast carrier element acquired its muscular size nearly coincidentally with Spruance’s rise. It dwarfed in every dimension the carrier group he had led at Midway. The Essex-class carriers were made mighty by their association with an air group of ninety planes, made up of a fighter squadron, a dive-bomber squadron, and a torpedo bomber squadron. By 1944 these squadrons used best-in-class aircraft, the F6F-3 Hellcat, the SB2C-1 Helldiver (or the older SBD-5 Dauntless), and the TBF-1c Avenger, respectively.

The argument about how to employ the Navy’s multiplying roster of carriers—singly, as in the past, or in groups—was settled not so much by persuasion or battle experience as by the surging output of the yards. As far as combat tactics went, the standard assumption that they had to hit, then run, because they were impossible to save against a determined air attack, was yielding to a new reality. Quantity was not merely a luxury but a revolution. By concentrating their aircraft and flak defenses, the carrier task force could hold an air attack at bay. Their planes had radio transponders that enabled specially trained fighter direction teams to recognize them and direct them using long-range search radars. New shipboard combat information centers collated and communicated this critical information. With common doctrine governing the use of combat air patrols, ship formations, and air defense tactics, the carrier task force acquired a flexibility that multiplied its reach and staying power. Several groups of three or four carriers, operating together, could quite well take care of themselves. Approaching Truk, Spruance and Mitscher were about to prove it.

They had arranged their nine carriers in three task groups, each steaming just over the horizon from the next. Spruance flew his three-star flag in the battleship New Jersey, riding in a great circle with the carrier Bunker Hill and the light carriers Monterey and Cowpens. Over the horizon to his north was the group built around the Enterprise, the Yorktown,* and the light carrier Belleau Wood. To his south came the Essex, with the Intrepid and the light carrier Cabot. Deployment in groups allowed concentration or dispersion as a mission might require. Typically the force could be seen in its totality only in an anchorage. At sea, such a spectacle required a few thousand feet of altitude.

Ninety minutes before sunrise on February 16, the fleet closed to within ninety miles of Truk and, on order from Mitscher, as tactical commander of the carriers under Spruance, turned into a force-five wind and began launching planes. One by one, with the release of chocks and the roar of Wright radial engines, a swarm of F6F-3 Hellcats took wing over the spray of onrushing whitecaps.

At the break of morning light, the leaders of each of the five participating fighter squadrons led their flights in a wide turn to the west and circled, allowing the others to join up. After the seventy Hellcats had gathered, they turned out on a heading that would take them west, harbingers of a two-day operation to neutralize Truk as a threat to U.S. ambitions in the Pacific.

The swarm had droned along for less than an hour when their target appeared before them. Illuminated by the sun just above the eastern horizon, it resembled a cluster of mountains contained in a huge coral-fringed tub. Truk’s barrier reef, a round-cornered triangle, encompassed a lagoon. As they came nearer, twelve planes from the Bunker Hill flew high cover at twenty thousand feet, while two divisions of four ranged more widely as scouts. Two dozen Hellcats from the Enterprise and the Yorktown, Mitscher’s flagship, formed the low-attack group. Like-sized contingents from the Intrepid and Essex came in at medium altitude. The boss of the Bunker Hill air group, Commander Roland H. “Brute” Dale, flew separately as the strike coordinator. His job was to make sure the remaining forty-eight planes, his strikers, found the right targets to strafe, assisted by three other air group commanders who served as target observers.

Twelve planes from the Intrepid’s Fighter Squadron Six circled the atoll at a distance, waiting for their high cover to reach its station. A pilot from this group, Lieutenant (j.g.) Alex Vraciu, was mystified to find no Japanese planes in the air to intercept. Little did the U.S. pilots know that the base’s naval commander had just relaxed his guard, a decision that was almost coincident with the arrival of enemy carriers off his shores. For the previous two weeks, Truk had been on high alert, ever since American search planes reconnoitered it on February 4.

Knowing that his pilots were exhausted, Vice Admiral Masami Kobayashi, commander of the Fourth Fleet, had ordered most of them to shore leave in the barracks district located across a causeway from the main airfield at Dublon. The subsequent lapse in air search allowed Spruance to approach Truk undetected and left a sizable portion of the available fighters on the ground when the American swarm arrived overhead before sunrise.

On a fighter sweep, U.S. Navy tactical doctrine boiled down to this: Keep your Hellcats high. Concentrate them in force. Clear out the enemy fighters first. Then get after the airfields. Don’t circle and tarry; it only gives the enemy a chance to scramble. Save for the initial five or so minutes of circling necessary to allow the Hellcats assigned to high cover to take station, this was exactly what Dale and his pilots did, if not necessarily in that order. It wasn’t until Fighting Six was pushing over to strafe that they discovered that some enemy fighters were airborne after all. Pacific Fleet intelligence had estimated that not fewer than seventy-five fighters would be on hand to defend Truk, along with twenty-eight scout bombers, twelve torpedo planes, twelve medium bombers, five large patrol planes, and fifty-eight floatplanes, a total of 190 aircraft. “Not fewer than” proved to be the operative words. The Japanese pilots indeed did in the end get to their planes. U.S. fliers would count more than three hundred of them in the air and on the ground during the day.

As flak puffed the sky around him, Alex Vraciu, with his wingman, Lou Little, found himself in the tail of a spiral of Hellcats bearing down on Moen Island, the site of one of Truk’s principal airfields. Ten Hellcats ahead of him were into their dives when, to be safe, Vraciu looked back over his shoulder. No rookie, he knew the clouds offered nooks and crannies for enemy pilots to use as cover for ambush. His caution likely saved his life. There he saw it at last, the dim form of a Mitsubishi A6M Model Zero, known as a Zeke, diving, its cowling and wings twinkling with gunfire.

Vraciu pulled back his stick, and Little followed him into a climb. Turning sharply toward the enemy plane, Vraciu maneuvered to bring the plane into his gunsight, then fired a burst that forced the pilot to break off and dive. That’s when he noticed the enemy planes above him—a gaggle of dozens that included every model the Japanese flew. The fight was on.

Alex Vraciu was just one among many similarly situated young pilots, full of ambition, in thrall of their tribe, in the grip of their squadron’s logo and mojo and full of stories about the wise old hands who had forged them. He entered pilot training while he was still a senior at Depauw University in Muncie, Indiana. Joining his first squadron at North Island, San Diego, Vraciu was singled out as a talent by the commander, Butch O’Hare, who made the rookie his wingman. The skipper proceeded to hand down the lessons of air combat as they had been taught to him—via the “humiliation squad.”

This powerful pedagogy threw new pilots fresh from training into mock dogfights against a cadre of experienced veterans. As O’Hare had learned from fighter ace legends such as John S. “Jimmie” Thach and Jimmy Flatley, now Vraciu faced his own learning curve. Flying against O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient, Vraciu performed well enough to raise eyebrows. And so O’Hare brought him into a new program to develop night fighting tactics. In a “bat team,” a pair of Hellcats flew with a radar-equipped Avenger to hunt enemy planes flying at night. And it was on just such a mission, one night off the Marshalls in November 1943, that O’Hare was killed while defending the Enterprise task group against a night air attack. His loss stoked Vraciu’s Pearl Harbor fever. The desire for revenge became the driving force of his life wearing wings. He was already an ace by the time the carriers reached Truk.

Sizing up the enemy formation, Vraciu knew that he had enough airspeed, about 250 knots, to lose any enemy fighter that latched onto his tail. The fast and sturdy Grumman fighter could outturn a Zeke at high speed. By diving down to gain speed, he could execute a chandelle, pulling up in a steep climbing turn that would cause his pursuer to shoot past him. By making a barrel roll, Vraciu could pounce down on the Zeke as it flew by. Vraciu had him right where he wanted him, this pilot who settled in on his tail.

As Vraciu’s opponent tried to follow him through the chandelle, the Zeke lost its grip on the air and spun out at the top of the turn. Vraciu was lining up a killing deflection shot when he noticed more enemy fighters turning down on him from above. His zeal gave way to prudence. He declined the shot, letting the enemy pilot dive out and escape while he figured out a better way to win.

Vraciu was pleased to find Lou Little faithfully holding on his wing. By scissoring back and forth in opposite interweaving S patterns, he and his wingman made the enemy think better of getting on their tails. Known as the Thach Weave after its creator, Jimmie Thach, the skipper of Fighting Three, the tactic allowed two fighter pilots to cover each other’s vulnerable six o’clock position against more maneuverable aircraft such as the Zeke. In this way Vraciu gradually coaxed the enemy to descend. Once the Japanese yielded the advantage of altitude, Vraciu noted, they seemed to lose their resolve. Gaining the tail of three Zekes in succession, he set them on fire and watched the brown-and-green-mottled aircraft splash into the lagoon. The morning belonged to the Americans. After a sharp ten-minute engagement, Vraciu noticed more than a few Japanese pilots swinging down slowly, suspended from silk. Some of them were still wearing pajamas.

The fighter sweep swarmed over the great atoll, devouring Japanese planes in the air and on the ground. Led by Fighting Six’s exec, Lieutenant G. C. Bullard, Vraciu’s squadron made twelve passes over the strip, burning row upon row of planes. Firing on a Zeke and setting it afire, Teddy Schofield of Fighting Five followed the enemy pilot in a descent toward the airfield on Eten Island. The Japanese flier was probably wounded, for he didn’t square his wheels on touchdown. His plane rolled enough to catch a wingtip on the runway, then started cartwheeling. Turning over and over, the Zeke rolled across a hangar apron, igniting three parked torpedo planes, and as Schofield watched, rooting hard for a few more turns, the Zeke came to rest, a wreck, just short of a big four-engine plane parked at the end of the flight line.

Lieutenant Bullard of the Intrepid was not among the pilots who joined up at the rendezvous area. En route to it, he had spotted a Japanese light cruiser hustling toward the atoll’s northern exit, North Pass. Rallying his division, he led a low-altitude strafing run. A burst of flak from the ship hit his Hellcat, and his engine lost power. Turning out to sea, the pilot descended and slowed, finally easing his fighter into the wave tops and jerking to a halt in an explosion of white spray. As it began to sink, he struggled free of the cockpit. Another pilot dropped a life raft and winged over to occupy the attention of the cruiser and its gunners. Strafing the ship, he set fire to its floatplane as it sat on a catapult. That excitement gave Bullard enough of a diversion to paddle toward a small islet about five and a half miles west of North Pass. He eventually made it, and he spent his considerable free time there spelling his name in rocks for the benefit of his eventual rescuers. Just a few miles away, several Japanese destroyers could be seen, apparently waiting to rendezvous with the light cruiser fleeing the harbor. These ships meant to make a break for it.

French Naval Aviation 1940 I

From the very beginning of military aviation, the French navy considered using aircraft to further carry the missions it was assigned. In World War I, it used a number of planes for coastal patrol and convoy escorts. Pilot training initially took place at a naval base as well as the French army’s Istres airfield. Soon, however, a new naval air base was set up at Berre. Most machines were hydroplanes from the Georges Lévy factory, which were soon replaced by the float-modified Farman 60 “Goliath” and various other types.

In the interwar years, the navy’s air arm also played a role in enforcing French control over its colonies, for example, by setting up bases in Indochina.

By the mid-1930s, the navy used several squadrons of torpedo-bomber hydroplanes, among them the Levasseur PL 15 and Latécoere 290. These were then replaced by the Latécoere 298, a torpedo-bomber, which first flew in 1936, entered the service in 1939, and remained active until 1950. In the meantime, the navy placed into service the Commandant Teste, a hydroplane carrier, which launched machines from special catapults and collected them through an access hangar near the ship’s waterline. French naval aviation in 1939 consisted of approximately 350 combat planes, manned by picked personnel. At the same time large plane orders, some placed with American industry, were building up the air arm at a rapid rate. The squadrons underwent intensive training, especially in reconnaissance and search, illumination, sea patrol, and anti-submarine warfare.

In World War II, the navy also used the Béarn as an aircraft carrier. Bearn was the only aircraft carrier to be built in France and completed before 1960. She was originally laid down in 1914 as a Normandie-class battleship but suspended incomplete throughout the First World War. Work on her resumed in 1919 and she was launched in April 1920. A short flight deck was erected over the quarterdeck, upon which landing trials were carried out in 1920/21. After the Washington Treaty had been signed in 1922 the French elected to complete her as an aircraft carrier. Work started on her conversion in August 1923 and was helped by the British Admiralty, which made drawings of Eagle’s aviation and island arrangements available. The ship’s side aft was plated up to the flight deck, which was constructed of 1in armour and formed the upper strength deck of the hull. Horizontal armour 2.95in thick was fitted on the lower hangar deck, with 1in armour on the main deck over machinery and magazines. The machinery was unique, comprising two inner shafts driven by steam turbines and two outer shafts driven by steam reciprocating engines, in an attempt to combine the economy of the latter with the highspeed performance of the former. The arrangement was not a success and gave a maximum speed of only 21 knots, too slow for effective operation with the 29-knot battleships of the Force de Raid in 1939. Her gun armament was conventional for the time, comprising eight 6in guns in casemates and a number of smaller anti-aircraft weapons, but unconventionally she retained four underwater torpedo tubes from her original armament as a battleship.

Like British and Japanese carriers she had a double hangar arrangement, but the lower hangar was intended as a workshop area and stowage for reserve aircraft which were only partly assembled. The upper hangar was intended for operational aircraft, and although she was officially stated to be capable of carrying forty aircraft she could realistically operate only twenty-five. The flight deck ran the length of the hull, having pronounced taper and round-downs at either extremity. Fore and aft of the central hangar block it was supported by pillars over an open forecastle and quarterdeck, but the hangars were enclosed, following standard British practice. Another unique feature was the lift design, which connected the two hangars with the flight deck. The three lifts were electrically operated and had platforms which were normally kept at upper hangar level, leaving a lift well open under them at lower hangar level. In every other navy the lift platforms formed part of the flight deck when in the raised position, leaving a hole when it was lowered. In Béarn the apertures in the flight deck were closed by ‘clamshell’ doors which opened upwards to form fore and aft windbreaks when opened to allow the lift platforms to flight deck level. This cumbersome arrangement was no more successful than the unusual machinery installation.

French naval aviation was inadequately funded between the wars, and by 1939 her operational capability was further limited by obsolescent aircraft such as the Levasseur torpedo bomber and Dewoitine D.37 fighter. After a brief spell of operational duty she was used to ferry aircraft between the USA and France until the Franco/German armistice in June 1940, after which she lay inactive in Martinique for three years. When the island changed its allegiance from Vichy to the Free French Government she was refitted in the USA and used again as a ferry carrier for a number of years before becoming an accommodation ship. She was broken up for scrap in 1967.

French Naval Aviation 1940 II

Development of carrier fighters for the French Navy followed a very distinctive course. The first type embarked on the Béarn in early 1928 was the Lévy-Biche LB2. This wooden biplane had a detachable undercarriage, a boat-shaped lower fuselage, and small floats under the lower wings to allow it safely to alight on water in an emergency. Its 300-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 8Se engine gave it a top speed of 135 miles per hour. It was replaced late in 1928 by the Dewoitine D. 1, a parasol-winged monoplane with an all-metal structure and a monocoque fuselage. With an engine similar to that powering the LB2, it attained 140 miles per hour and had a range of 250 miles. In 1931 another parasol-winged all-metal monoplane replaced the D. 1. The Wibault 74’s corrugated metal stressed skin produced a strong, light, and relatively durable structure. Using a 420- horsepower Gnome-Rhone 9Ady radial engine, its performance was almost identical to its precursor’s, but had the advantage of a much superior rate of climb and greater structural strength. The final French carrier fighter to enter service before World War II was yet another parasol-winged design. L’Aeronavale accepted two versions of Dewoitine’s D. 37 fighter, the D. 373 with fixed wings and the D. 376 with folding wings, in 1938. These aircraft were of all-metal stressed-skin construction, and their powerful 930-horsepower Gnome-Rhone 14Kfs radial engines gave them a top speed of 255 miles per hour and a range of 560 miles. Their engines, however, were unreliable and low-wing monoplanes clearly offered greater performance potential. Consequently, the French Navy ordered an export version of Grumman’s F4F-3 to replace its Dewoitines, but these Grumman Model G-36A aircraft were not delivered before France fell in June 1940 and instead served with the Royal Navy.

The French Navy also came to appreciate the potential of dive bombing. Unsuccessful trials of the prototype Loire-Nieuport LN. 140 in 1936 delayed adoption of dive bombers until just after war had begun in Europe, when the same firm’s LN. 40 entered service, albeit operating from land bases as the Béarn was occupied in transporting aircraft from the United States. It had a 690-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 12Xcrs liquid-cooled engine, giving it a top speed of 238 miles per hour and a range of 750 miles with a 550-pound bomb. As a stopgap the French Navy turned to Vought’s successful SB2U instead. The Vought V-156-F, differentiated mainly from United States Navy equivalent models by its dive brakes, was just entering service as World War II began.

The French Navy after World War I maintained a dozen or more front-line land-based aviation units in metropolitan France and North Africa, seaplane units spread throughout the French Empire, and embarked aircraft aboard battleships, cruisers, seaplane carriers, and its sole aircraft carrier, the Béarn. The majority of its pilots and observers were commissioned officers, graduates of the Naval Academy at Brest, who received flight training and anticipated professional naval careers. Aspiring enlisted aircrew also received specialized training. In general, aircrew tended to remain within their specialized fields (fighters, reconnaissance, etc.) throughout their flying careers. There were some uncertainties, since naval aviation was a relatively small part of the navy and its survival was always subject to political influences.

Naval aviators, both officers and enlisted men, underwent initial flying orientation prior to beginning specialized training at the base d’aéronautique navale (BAN) Rochefort. Successful graduates then proceeded to basic flying training, officers to BAN Fréjus-Saint Raphael (1919-1922), then to BAN Istres or BAN Rochefort (1923-1930), and enlisted pilots to BAN Istres. All those who successfully completed basic flying training and who opted for carrier service then completed advanced training at BAN Fréjus-SaintRaphael. Other aircrew (non-pilots) underwent training at BAN Hourtin as observers, bombardiers, or air-gunners. In 1931 the navy merged its training system with that of l’Aviation Militaire (which became l’Armée de l’Air in 1933). Basic flying orientation took place at Versailles, with flying training at either Villacoublay or Avord, though non-pilots continued to train at BAN Hourtin. In 1933 the government transferred the bulk of the navy’s land-based units, both aircraft and personnel, to l’Armée de l’Air. Consequently, these units retained a strong naval flavor for some years afterwards and some of their members reverted to naval service when the navy was able to reestablish shore-based units in 1938. Furthermore, the French Navy never established a clear career path for its aviation officers.

FRENCH WARS OF RELIGION

French Wars of Religion: Battle of Arques, Henry IV attacks his enemies.

Huguenot Gendarmes 1567

The Battle of Ivry was fought on 14 March 1590, during the French Wars of Religion. The battle was a decisive victory for Henry IV of France, leading Huguenot forces against the Catholic League forces led by the Duc de Mayenne. Henry’s forces were victorious and he went on to lay siege to Paris.

Death toll: 3 million

Type: religious conflict

Broad dividing line: Catholics vs. Protestants

Time frame: 1562–98

Major non-state participants: Huguenot League, Catholic League

Reform

The late Middle Ages had been good to the Roman Catholic Church, which had become a transnational corporation that could stare down secular monarchs and make them blink. In addition to stirring up crusades, Rome could dodge taxes, force arrogant emperors to kneel penitently in the snow, and send out inquisitors to terrify the locals. They had armies of fighting monks such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights. Guilt-riddled noblemen had bribed God with tax-free donations of land, cash, art, and building funds. The details don’t matter here. All you need to know is that by 1500, the Papacy was on top of the world.

With the flood of wealth and power, the Catholic Church had become monumentally corrupted, but it always managed to squash reform movements before they got out of hand. The Czech reformer Jan Hus was captured and burned at the stake in 1415. Although the English reformer John Wyclife died of natural causes in 1384 before the church could get its hooks into him, the church had his corpse dug up and burned a few years later to show its disapproval. Finally, one reformer, Martin Luther, survived its wrath, and the Reformation was launched in 1520.

With the door thrown open, people all across northwest Europe defected from the Catholic Church. Many monarchs took their countries out of the Catholic sphere and established new national churches tailored to local needs; however, the older, more powerful nations—France and Spain especially—had long ago forced the Catholic Church to share its wealth and power with the state. Now, as full partners with a stake in the well-being of the church, these monarchs had no reason to allow the Reformation to undermine its power. In these countries, dissenters had to meet in secret if they wanted to practice the newer varieties of Christianity.

Among the new reformers shouting back and forth across Europe was John Calvin, a Frenchman who was quickly chased out of that country to a safe haven in Geneva. Whereas Lutheranism was Catholicism after the auditors have been through—cleaned up, simplified, and adapted to local needs—Calvinism was Lutheranism squared—austere, populist, and decentralized. Called the Huguenots in France and the Puritans in England, Calvinists believed in the absolute sinfulness of man, which could be redeemed only by God’s mercy. They denounced the frivolity and corruption of the human world and encouraged the godly to live in strict, smug holiness, without compromise.

Wherever Calvinism took root, civil war followed.

France on the Brink

International relations in western Europe at this time were simple: everyone hated his or her neighbor. Spain opposed France, which opposed England, which opposed Scotland. This made alternating countries into allies whose monarchs were occasionally married to each other. King Philip II of Spain was married to Queen Mary Tudor of England, while Prince (soon to be king) Francis of France was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. All of these monarchs were Catholic, although the population of Great Britain was mostly Protestant.

This unusual convergence of ruling queens—especially Catholic queens in countries that God meant to be Protestant—infuriated the Scottish evangelist John Knox into sounding The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in 1558. France was about to join the regiment.

The current French king, Henry II, hated “Lutheran scum.” Crowned in 1547 at the age of twenty-eight, he had the political strength and will to keep his Protestant minority in line. With a young, healthy king raising four sons and three daughters, the future of Henry’s Valois dynasty looked secure, but then King Henry had his eye socket pierced in a jousting contest in 1559. After lingering in agony for several days, Henry died, leaving France to his fifteen-year-old son, Francis.*

First War

Like so many monarchs, King Francis II depended on his wife’s family to help him maintain power. His queen, Mary Stuart of Scotland, was connected on her mother’s side to the Guise family, powerful French Catholics.

In 1560, French Protestants hatched a scheme to kill as many Guises as they could and kidnap the king in order to force him to shed the remaining Guises. The Huguenots were so proud of their plan that they told everybody about it. When the coup was launched, the Guises were prepared. The conspirators were repelled and then hunted down, hanged, and dismembered, sometimes after a trial. The king and court watched fifty-two rebellious heads chopped off in the castle courtyard.

Never healthy, Francis died in December 1560 after only a year on the throne. His ten-year-old brother, the quiet, melancholy Charles IX, took the crown, but Catherine de Medici, his mother and King Henry’s previously subordinate wife, held the real power as regent. Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, the cold and cunning ruler of Renaissance Florence to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince; however, she failed to learn from the master. Over the decades of her dominance, she hatched a series of clumsy schemes and weak compromises that steadily made the situation worse. On the plus side, Catherine was a trendsetter who introduced Italian novelties like forks, snuff, broccoli, sidesaddles, handkerchiefs, and ladies’ drawers to the relatively frumpy nation of France.

In order to cultivate support among prominent Protestant families—the Bourbons especially—and to counteract the growing power of the Guise family, Catherine legalized Protestant worship, which annoyed the Catholic majority of France. She kept it on a tight leash, which annoyed the Protestant minority.

The wars began when another Francis, the duke of Guise, was passing through the town of Vassy and stopped at the local church to hear mass. Protestants were praying and singing at a nearby barn, which served as a church because the Crown forbade the Protestants from building real churches. A scuffle broke out between rival parishioners and drew in the duke’s entourage. The fight escalated, and finally the Catholics ended up burning the Protestant barn and killing as many worshippers as they could catch.

Pretty soon Frenchmen of both religions were fortifying their towns and rushing militia into the region. The sectarian armies fought several pitched battles, but eventually, the duke of Guise was assassinated, and the leader of the Huguenots (Louis de Bourbon, prince of Conde) was killed in battle, which left both sides floundering and ready to negotiate. Gaspard de Coligny, an admiral who had served alongside Conde, emerged as the new leader of the Protestants.

Second War (1567–68)

The rivalry between France and Spain had intensified in 1494 when the heir to the Spanish throne married the heir of the house of Burgundy, uniting Spain with all of the territories that had caused the French kings so much trouble during the Hundred Years War (Burgundy, Flanders, the Netherlands). This put Spanish armies all around the edges of France. Then Calvinists in the Netherlands revolted against Spanish rule in 1567, pushing Spain and France toward a common front against Protestantism.

With the Huguenots jumpy, Catherine de Medici picked the wrong time to travel to Bayonne and visit her daughter Elizabeth, who had recently married the widowed King Philip II of Spain. To the Huguenots, this family gathering looked like scheming. It sparked a rumor among the Huguenots that the large new Spanish army that was moving to put down the Dutch Revolt was actually coming to assist the French Catholics in eradicating them.

The Huguenots launched a preemptive attack, trying to steal the king away from the Guises and keep him among the Protestants, but word leaked out, and the court reached safety. Six thousand Huguenot soldiers camped outside Paris—too few men to bring it under siege, but at Saint-Denis they beat 18,000 men of the royal army that came to chase them away. Even so, as the royal forces swelled to 60,000, the Huguenots pulled back and negotiated a cease-fire.

Third War (1568–70)

Within a few months, royal forces tried to sneak up and surprise the Protestant leaders at home, but the Huguenots escaped north where they could connect with their Dutch and English supporters. The Guises made contact with Spain and set out to crush the Protestant strongholds across southern France. Although the Protestants took a beating in the ensuing war, the Crown couldn’t afford to keep at it. Peace broke out in 1570 and the Huguenots were allowed to fortify and garrison four towns as safe havens in case of renewed Catholic aggression.

Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day

Trying to patch things up, Catherine de Medici married her daughter Margaret to the highest-ranking nobleman among the Huguenots, Henry, head of the Bourbon house and king of the small kingdom of Navarre in the Pyrenees. Catherine de Medici also tried to bring Huguenots into the government, which of course infuriated the Catholics.

When everyone gathered in Paris for Margaret’s wedding, someone tried to assassinate the military leader of the Huguenots, Gaspard de Coligny. As Coligny walked down the street, a sniper shot him from a window. No one really knows who planned it, but history has traditionally blamed Catherine. The wound was not serious, and it did nothing more than make the Huguenots angry.

Even though King Charles and his council had nothing to do with the assassination attempt, Catherine explained to them that now the Huguenots would retaliate, making a preemptive strike the only possible survival strategy. On the eve of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, Guise and his men burst into Coligny’s house and murdered him in his sickbed, while other death squads went hunting. In all likelihood, Catherine wanted only to decapitate the Huguenot cause by killing the leaders, but Paris exploded in hatred of the Protestants. Mobs all over Paris chased down any Huguenots they could find, killing anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 of them by whatever means were handy. Adults were hanged, beaten, hacked, and stabbed; children were pitched out windows or into the river. Over the next few weeks, Protestants were massacred in other cities all over France, boosting the body count tenfold, into the neighborhood of 50,000.

The Bourbon leader and bridegroom, Henry of Navarre, survived only by converting to Catholicism on the spot. He was moved into the palace to be closely watched; his movements were restricted.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre horrified Europe. Even Ivan the Terrible in Russia denounced it. It changed the nature of the French Religious Wars from a gang fight to a war of extermination.

Fourth War

When war resumed, the king’s younger brother, Henry, led a Catholic army to break the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle. A fierce siege stretched for months, from 1572 into 1573. Sappers tried to undermine the fortifications and explode barrels of gunpowder, while artillery pounded the walls without effect. It started to look like the army outside the walls would run out of food and ammunition before those inside would. Then Prince Henry was elected king of Poland,* which gave him an excuse to lift the siege without losing face.

Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Wars

King Charles had been haunted by guilt since authorizing the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and his health deteriorated. When he died in 1574 at the age of twenty-three, the throne went to his twenty-two-year-old brother, King Henry of Poland. Henry snuck out of Poland with the Polish national treasury hidden in his baggage train and escaped to Paris to accept his promotion.

The new King Henry III was Catherine de Medici’s favorite and most intelligent son. He was a devout, cross-dressing Catholic who sometimes showed up at official functions in drag. Henry had an entourage of handsome young men called his Darlings (Mignons). He collected little dogs and hid from thunderstorms in the cellar. Catherine unsuccessfully tried to tempt Henry into heterosexuality by offering him naked serving girls at special parties she arranged for his amusement, but that didn’t work.

More dangerous, however, was Henry’s intermittent tendency toward Catholic fanaticism when he sought atonement for his sexual eccentricities. At those times, Henry endangered his health with extreme fasting and mortification. Finally Catherine had the friend (and suspected Spanish agent) who encouraged her son in these rituals murdered in an alley.

In the manner of most leaders facing civil wars all across history, everything King Henry did seemed to backfire. When the king restored freedom of worship for the Huguenots, Henry of Navarre took advantage of this new climate of legal tolerance to flee the court and reconvert to Protestantism once he was safely out of reach. Meanwhile Henry of Guise, angered at the king’s weakness, formed an independent Catholic League with Spanish support.

King Henry III was running out of money, so the king summoned parliament in hopes of a tax hike. Parliament refused to raise taxes, but King Henry scraped up enough soldiers for a few small campaigns around the Loire River.

War of the Three Henrys

Because the current king was so very gay, the next king would probably not be springing from his loins. The succession pointed to the youngest Valois brother, Francis, but in 1584 he died of fever while plotting against Protestants in the Netherlands. With no further males descended from King Henry II, the law backed up to find some other direct male line branching off from an earlier king. When royal genealogists followed the new branch forward to find the senior-most descendant, it turned out that the next in line for the throne of France was the king’s brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenot Bourbon family.

Thus began the War of the Three Henrys, in which King Henry III and Henry of Guise tried to force Henry of Navarre to renounce his right of succession. Because the throne was at stake, the battles were especially bloody. Two thousand Catholics were killed at the Battle of Coutras, another 6,000 at the Battle of Ivry. The Huguenot losses were comparable, and neither side gained an advantage.

By now the endless wars had cut the population of France by 20 percent. In a report home, the Venetian ambassador described the state of France after a generation of fighting: “Everywhere one sees ruin, the livestock for the most part destroyed . . . stretches of good land uncultivated and many peasants forced to leave their homes and to become vagabonds. Everything has risen to exorbitant prices . . . people are no longer loyal and courteous, either because poverty had broken their spirit and brutalized them, or because the factions and bloodshed have made them vicious and ferocious.”

The Catholic League hated King Henry for not crushing the Huguenots. As far as the league was concerned, a moderate Catholic was no better than a Protestant. It agitated the Parisian citizenry, who piled up barricades and drove Henry III from the city. In rural exile, the king was forced into calling parliament for advice on the succession. When parliament suggested an heir who was obviously a puppet of the Guises, King Henry decided to work out his problems with Guise once and for all.

Two days before Christmas, King Henry III invited Henry of Guise to stop by for a chat, but when Guise stepped in the room, the doors were suddenly slammed and bolted shut behind him. Soldiers rushed up; Guise drew his sword and fought gamely, but the king’s soldiers still cut him down. His brother, a Catholic archbishop also visiting the king, was killed the next morning. They were cut apart and shoved into a roaring fireplace. The king then allied with the Bourbons against the Catholic League.

More War

Catherine de Medici died in 1589, and her last son followed shortly thereafter. In July of the same year, a Dominican friar angered by King Henry’s betrayal of Catholicism stabbed him in the stomach. After Henry III’s slow, lingering death from internal bleeding and infection, the Protestant Henry of Navarre became king of France. “I rule with my arse in the saddle and my gun in my fist,” he declared and rode out to take his capital back from the Catholic League.

The siege of Paris that began in May 1590 was brutal. For month after month, the 220,000 residents of the biggest city in Europe were locked inside with dwindling supplies. As time pressed on, dogs, cats, and rats disappeared from the streets. “Little children disguised as meat” showed up in the markets. Before it was over, 40,000 to 50,000 Parisians had starved to death. Navarre bombarded the city with cannon from the high ground, but in the end the city held and the siege was lifted in early September.

The Catholic League then called a parliament in Paris to pick a Catholic king to set up against Henry of Navarre, but when the Spaniards offered up their own princess, daughter of a Valois sister, many Frenchmen were appalled. It started to dawn on them that being French was probably more important than being Catholic. Maybe a Bourbon king was better than allowing France to become a Spanish satellite.

Suddenly, in 1593, Henry of Navarre, who had led the Protestant armies through many hard battles, announced that, well, if it really meant that much to them, he would go ahead and convert to Catholicism. He didn’t want to cause a fuss.

“Paris is worth a mass,” he is rumored to have explained.

This cleared the way for him to be a properly accepted and consecrated king, and before anyone could come up with any new objections, peace broke out. In 1598, King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, declaring toleration for all Christian faiths. His new Bourbon dynasty wanted to start with a blank slate: “The recollection of everything done by one party or the other . . . during all the preceding period of troubles, remain obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things had ever happened.”