Caesar Defeats the Gauls

52 BC

After ten years, Julius Caesar finally managed trap the Gallic leader Vercingetorix in a hill fort and surrounded him. He then fought off a second Gallic army that had come to break the siege.

In the winter of 53–52 BC the Carnutes rebelled in Gaul, a region that had recently been annexed by Julius Caesar and his legions. The Carnutes were a Celtic tribe who gave their name to Chartres, which had been their Druidic headquarters. In their oppidum (fortified town) of Cenabum (now Orléans) they rose up and massacred all the Roman citizen traders, together with Caesar’s supply officer. To the Senone people in the northeast this was a signal to form guerrilla forces and begin disrupting the Roman army’s food supply.

Elsewhere other Gallic forces moved against the Roman legions in their winter quarters. At the time, Caesar was performing his magisterial duties in Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy). However, in late February he hurried across the Alps, defying heavy snows in the Cevennes mountains, to arrive unexpectedly at Agedincum (now Sens in Burgundy) where he mustered his legions. Titus Labienus was sent with four legions to suppress the Senones and the Parisii to the north, while Caesar himself led six legions towards Gergovia, the hilltop stronghold of the Arverni near what is now Clermont-Ferrand.

The Arverni’s leader, Vercingetorix, was not just a formidable fighter. He was also a skilled politician and had secured the support of the Aedui tribe, Caesar’s former allies, who had served for years as auxiliaries and were highly valued by Caesar as cavalry. While Caesar was besieging Gergovia, the Aedui rebelled and massacred some of the Roman troops and all of the Roman citizens in Cabillonum, now Chalon-sur-Saône, to his rear. With his siege of Gergovia now placed in peril, Caesar attempted to take the hill fort by storm but was repulsed, at the cost of heavy losses. Vercingetorix had brought about Caesar’s first outright defeat in Gaul, forcing him to withdraw.

Tribal leaders who had been loyal to Caesar switched their allegiance to Vercingetorix, who was elected commander-in-chief: some sources say he was named King of Gaul. It is thought that as many as forty-five tribes joined in the struggle against Rome. They set fire to the army depot at Noviodunum (now Nevers) and massacred the Roman merchants there.

The situation Caesar now found himself in was critical. His tribal allies had deserted him. The Arverni, elated by their victory at Gergovia, were at his rear; the Bituriges, from modern Bordeaux, were on his left flank; and the Aedui barred his front. According to the military theoretician J. F. C. Fuller, one of the pioneers of modern tank warfare: ‘One thing alone saved him – his own invincibility.’

With his supply lines under attack Caesar fell back towards the Loire, where he was reunited with the legions of Labienus. He also replenished his cavalry with German auxiliaries. The Aedui, particularly, viewed their replacements with horror, considering them to be brutal barbarians. Vercingetorix was now in command of superior numbers, but Caesar managed to hold him off with his German horsemen.

That summer, Vercingetorix found it difficult to maintain his leadership without a clear victory. The tribes under his control were accustomed to warring with each other for territory and plunder; they found co-operation difficult at the best of times. However, Vercingetorix managed to persuade the tribal leaders to destroy their grain stores so that the Romans would be deprived of food during their campaign. The Bituriges burnt more than twenty of their own towns in one day but begged that Avaricum (now Bourges) be spared. It was, as Caesar said, ‘the fairest city in the whole of Gaul’ and they thought it could easily be defended. Caesar took it by storm within a month.

Vercingetorix was now on the defensive and he withdrew his huge army to the hillfort of Alesia, the capital of the Mandubrii. This oppidum was on the summit of Mont Auxois, just above the present-day village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, some thirty miles northwest of Dijon.

Caesar immediately grasped the changed situation, so he isolated Vercingetorix from his allies by surrounding Alesia. The key to Caesar’s strategy was his army’s engineering ability. The entire plateau of Alesia was quickly encircled by a series of walls, ten miles long in total. His men dug a ditch that was eighteen feet wide, at the side of which was a trench filled with water. ‘Mantraps’ were dug. A mantrap was a carefully concealed hole in the ground, several feet deep, with a sharpened spike in its centre. Anyone falling into the hole could well be impaled. Then a second wall, nine feet high and capped with breastworks, was built far behind the first line of defence. There were square towers at regular intervals where the awesome siege equipment of the Romans was mounted. This was all designed to keep Vercingetorix and his army trapped inside.

But Caesar also expected other Gauls to rally to the cause of Vercingetorix. So he began constructing an entire second line of fortifications which was parallel to the first and faced outwards. These defences were between thirteen and fifteen miles long. Caesar’s army was now safe between the two rings of fortifications and the Gauls could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw the scale of this feat of military engineering.

Vercingetorix sent out cavalry detachments to harry the building work and the foraging parties while the construction was underway. As the siege tightened, there were cavalry battles in the three-miles-wide corridor between the outer wall of the hill-fort and the inner wall of Caesar’s circumvallation. On the night before the Roman fortifications completely encircled Alesia, Vercingetorix sent out all his cavalry. Their mission was to return to their own tribes and conscript all the men of military age. The lives of 80,000 men inside the fort were in their hands. The horsemen escaped through the last gap in the Roman lines and galloped off to raise reinforcements.

After calculating that there was barely enough corn to hold out for a month, Vercingetorix introduced strict rationing. As stocks ran low all the townspeople who could not bear arms were marched from the hill fortress and into no-man’s-land. The women and children and the aged cried out pitifully as they begged the Romans to take them as slaves, but that would have given the Romans the problem of feeding them. Caesar posted guards to ensure that his troops would refuse the women and children admission and they were left to starve between the lines.

Meanwhile, the other tribal chieftains arrived with what Caesar said was a quarter of a million men. Modern scholars believe that the warriors amounted to somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000. A great cheer went up inside Alesia at the sight of them. Vercingetorix and his men thought they had been saved.

As these fresh troops encamped on a hill that was a mile outside the Roman outer wall, Caesar and his lieutenants, including Gaius Trebonius and Mark Antony, braced themselves for a battle on two fronts.

The fighting began with a cavalry battle on the first day, which ended with a Roman victory thanks to the daring of the German horsemen. After a day’s rest the Roman fortifications were simultaneously attacked from the inside and the outside, but they held firm.

According to Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars:

As long as the Gauls were at a distance from the entrenchments, the rain of javelins which they discharged gained them some advantage. But when they came nearer they suddenly found themselves pierced by the goads or tumbled into the pits and impaled themselves, while others were killed by heavy siege spears discharged from the rampart and towers. Their losses were everywhere heavy and when dawn came they had failed to penetrate the defences at any point…

The besieged lost much time in bringing out the implements that Vercingetorix had prepared for the sortie and in filling up the first stretches of trench, and before they reached the main fortifications heard of the retreat of the relief force, so they returned into the town without effecting anything.

At around midday on the fourth day the Gauls attacked again from both sides. After a terrible battle, the Romans won a great victory. As Caesar charged the relief force from the front the German cavalry hit them in the rear and they were scattered. Completely routed, they were pursued from the field by the German auxiliaries.

On the following day, with no hope of relief, Vercingetorix surrendered. He gathered the tribal leaders and told them that he had not made war for personal reasons but for the freedom of Gaul. Now they must decide whether to kill him in order to appease the Romans or hand him over alive. A deputation was sent to Caesar, who ordered the defeated Gauls to lay down their arms and bring their tribal chiefs to him. Then he sat on the fortification in front of his camp and waited.

Vercingetorix’s surrender to Caesar is recorded by Plutarch:

Vercingetorix, after putting on his most beautiful armour and decorating his horse, rode out through the gates. Caesar was sitting down and Vercingetorix, after riding round him in a circle, leaped down from his horse, stripped off his armour, and sat at Caesar’s feet silent and motionless, until he was taken away under arrest to be kept in custody for the triumph.

J.F.C. Fuller wrote:

Thus this remarkable siege was brought to an end by the simultaneous defeat of two armies by a single army, no greater than the one and incomparably smaller than the other. An army which not only was the besieger but itself was besieged, and which had to hold twenty-five miles of entrenchments in order, at one and the same time, to achieve its aim and secure itself against defeat. In spite of the paucity and frequent vagueness of details provided by Caesar, and the consequent difficulty in reconstructing some of the incidents, the siege of Alesia remains one of the most extraordinary operations recorded in military history.

Some 20,000 Aedui and Arverni were separated from the prisoners and returned to their tribes in an attempt to regain their loyalty. The Arverni also had to hand over some hostages in order to ensure their future good behaviour. The other survivors were divided among Caesar’s soldiers and sold as slaves.

In Rome the Senate honoured Caesar with a twenty-day thanksgiving. Vercingetorix was taken to Rome in chains where he remained as an honoured prisoner for the next six years while Caesar fought Pompey in the Civil War. Once Caesar was in sole control of the Roman world, he had Vercingetorix exhibited in his Gallic triumph in 52 BC. Then, according to custom, the Gaul was strangled in the depths of the Mamartine Prison in Rome.

The defeat of Vercingetorix at Alesia essentially ended any hope of an independent Gaul. Caesar had two more years of mopping up before he had completed the pacification of the province and the Romanization of Gaul remains one of his most enduring achievements.

The ruins of the Alesia fortifications were rediscovered some nineteen centuries later. Mindful of the contribution of German cavalry to the defeat of Vercingetorix, Emperor Napoleon III of France arranged for a massive statue of the Gallic leader to be erected on the site. Vercingetorix had come to symbolize the courage of France in fighting her enemies. Soon after that, Napoleon III fell from power having also been defeated by the Germans, this time at the Battle of Sedan in 1870.


‘Revolutionary War’ beneath the Nuclear Shield I

Operation Linebacker II

‘Operation Linebacker’, as titled by President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, lasted from May to October 1972, and would be the most massive bombing campaign in the history of air warfare. In six months, the United States dropped almost 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, more than five times what the Allies had dropped on Germany during the Second World War. Twenty-six million bombs shredded the soil of the country, which at the time had between 35 and 40 million inhabitants. The scale of human losses is impossible to assess precisely. On the lowest estimates these were up to 1.3 million, while others estimate the number of victims among Vietnamese combatants at 1 million, out of a total of 2 million killed and 4 million wounded. It is likewise impossible to know how many civilians perished, but one thing is sure: the proportion of civilian victims was particularly high, between 46 and 66 per cent.

Operation ‘Linebacker II’, also called the ‘Christmas bombings’, took place from 18 to 29 December 1972. Its express aim was to strike the morale of the civilian populations of Hanoi and Haiphong – only 12 per cent of the attacks aimed at military targets. ‘Now there’s nothing more to lose. Nothing. We’ll hit them, bomb them, exterminate them!’ we hear Nixon shout in the Oval Office.4 This political line decided in the White House was soon translated into military terms. The air force general Curtis LeMay had long argued for a still more massive use of bombing: ‘My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age with airpower or naval power – not with ground forces.’

The Vietnam war was particularly deadly, as it fell at the intersection of two genealogical lines of twentieth-century warfare: ‘asymmetrical’ conflict in the tradition of colonial wars, with their potentially limitless violence; and conflict overdetermined by the specific global configuration of the Cold War. The Vietnamese defined their struggle as one of ‘national liberation’, conceiving it after the European model of the construction of a nation state. As for the United States, they saw the anticolonial aspiration to self-determination as a feint designed to camouflage Soviet and Chinese expansionism: behind the Viet Cong stood the Kremlin with its tanks and missiles. The guerrillas were part of the Communist bloc, embodied by a state that was itself perceived as monolithic.

In sum, there was an odd combination of symmetry and asymmetry in the perceptions of the two adversaries, and the Vietnam War combined the worst of two traditions: that of total war between nation states, and that of the ‘small war’ of insurrectionary or colonial type. These contradictory tendencies – statization and fragmentation – continue to characterize the conflicts that haunt us today. Moreover, the importance of this war for the development of the US army’s strategic doctrine cannot be overstated. For all these reasons, the Vietnam War constitutes a fundamental link in the genealogy of twentieth-century warfare.

The US military leaders drew a conclusion from the Second World War that was both deeply rooted and mistaken: according to them, aviation had been the key agent of victory. The reasons for this misinterpretation are many, and partly connected with a situation of inter-service rivalry, in which a very large share of the defence budget was allocated to an air force that had not yet acquired institutional independence. To present aviation as the decisive factor of victory was thus, as we saw, a way for the USAF to better position itself vis-à-vis other branches of the armed forces. It is clear that the atom bomb helped fuel the imaginary of aerial omnipotence. For the state, the most important question was to justify the exorbitant cost of the ‘Manhattan project’, explaining that not only had nuclear weapons played a key role in the war that had just ended, but that they would also be in future the pillar of US defence policy. Finally, in strategic terms, nuclear weapons fitted perfectly into the framework of Douhetism that was then hegemonic in the Anglo-Saxon world, the atom bomb being simply a larger bomb than any other.

After the war, US defence policy was thus essentially focused on the combination of nuclear weapons and aviation. In 1945 the Strategic Air Command was established and became the nerve centre of the US military system: ‘The Strategic Air Command is the soul of our defence,’ said Thomas Finletter, secretary of state for the air force. This orientation was further strengthened under Eisenhower’s presidency. Because of budget constraints, the ‘New Look’ strategists believed that nuclear weapons were the only way of responding to threat: they should be used anywhere in the world, against any initiative that impinged on US interests. This doctrine was clearly based on the mistaken assumption of a ‘Communist bloc’ that was homogeneous in all respects, and whose ardour could only be inflected by pressure on the Kremlin.

Although this policy became considerably more flexible under Kennedy, it still weighed heavily on the military apparatus at the time of the Vietnam War. Maxwell D. Taylor, author of a thorough critique of the ‘New Look’ who was appointed chief of the general staff by the new president, sought from the early 1960s to rebalance US strategy by rehabilitating the concept of ‘limited war’, placing the concept of ‘flexible response’ at the centre of his analysis. The idea was to escape the strategic trap intrinsic to Douhetism and the nuclear strategy of the 1950s; it was certainly possible to destroy the world, but not to win a real war. According to the New Look strategy, centred on strategic aviation and nuclear weapons, the United States represented a potentially immense threat to any adversary; yet it seemed hardly credible that it would embark on a nuclear war for such a limited goal as countering the national liberation movements in what was then called the ‘Third World’. For this reason, from the 1960s US strategy would consist in defending limited interests by limited wars, below the threshold of global nuclear war. The ‘response’ now had to be ‘flexible’, which also meant unpredictable for the adversary. This unpredictability also lay at the centre of the ‘madman’ theory proclaimed by Nixon, who saw it as useful for the world to imagine a US president mad enough to risk the very existence of the planet for the sake of his anti-Communist obsession. The dialectic immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove – that of the total unpredictability of the madman theory and its opposite, the automatic triggering of nuclear weapons – thus had a very real strategic foundation.

Unpredictability was combined with a further strategic requirement, that of credibility. The whole world had to understand that the United States was ready to defend its interests, however limited and located in distant regions, and that it would not let down its allies. If the message sent from the Vietnam jungle was addressed to the world as a whole, it was also addressed to the ‘home front’ of American society, which had to be mobilized for this type of war of intervention. According to Defence Secretary Robert McNamara,

the greatest contribution Vietnam is making … is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without arousing the public ire … because this is the kind of war we’ll likely be facing for the next fifty years.

These developments explain to a certain degree why the Americans did not draw the lessons of the French defeats in Indochina and Algeria. Despite these precedents, which suggested that aviation could at best play only a very secondary role in this type of conflict, they deployed tremendous military and aviation resources in Vietnam, including the heaviest bombers, the mythical B-52s, built for intercontinental strategic bombing against the Soviet Union and quite unsuited for guerrilla warfare in the jungle.

As for the Vietnamese Communists, their strategy was based on two pillars: a guerrilla war waged in the south of the country, and control of the state in the north. Their combat closely followed Mao Zedong’s precepts on ‘revolutionary war’, which has three successive phases: defence, equilibrium, and offensive. The first phase, strategic defence, is dedicated to the construction and strengthening of the party: recruiting new members, initially from the margins of society rather than from among the ‘masses’, placing cadres in key positions at the local level, getting the party identified with popular causes, such as agrarian reform, in order to win the affection of the population.

The second phase, that of equilibrium, corresponds to guerrilla warfare: conducting sabotage operations, establishing parallel administrations in ‘liberated’ areas, but also placing demands on the civilian population, with a view to intimidating ‘neutrals’ and forcing them to support the insurgents. In this second phase, civilians are deliberately taken hostage and held in a vice between the colonial power and the Maoist rebels. The point for the latter is to rally the population to their cause by recourse, on the one hand, to a mixture of proto-welfare and nationalism, and on the other hand, to terror, for example by forcing the population to provide them with assistance, so as to trigger reprisals which will in turn increase the sentiment that their only salvation can come from revolution and national liberation. This strategy was an integral part of the strategy of ‘revolutionary war’. Between 1957 and 1972, the Viet Cong killed at least 37,000 Vietnamese suspected of supporting the enemy, and kidnapped at least 58,000 persons for various political reasons, particularly to send the political signal that neither the US forces nor the Saigon government could protect them.

The third and final phase is that of an almost conventional war. Until the end of the conflict, the Vietnamese political and military leaders continued to believe that they were still in the second phase, while remaining determined to abandon the guerrilla strategy when the right moment came (which clearly shows that their political perspective was that of a nation state with a monopoly of violence). The rare attempts to launch large-scale operations, such as the Têt offensive in early 1968, which approached conventional warfare, met with military defeat for the insurgents, who learned to their cost that they could not win a conventional war against a US army with crushing superiority. But the main lesson of the Vietnam War was that it was not necessary to seek to obtain victory in the classic sense of the term.

In an asymmetrical conflict, time inexorably works in favour of the weaker party, who ‘wins’ as long as the enemy does not triumph. For this it must be prepared to accept considerable losses at every level: ‘the [Vietnam Communist] Party has been guided by the principle that it is better to kill ten innocent people than to let one enemy escape.’ To be clear: it was acceptable for ten Vietnamese to perish against a single US soldier killed. In the same logic, the insurgents launched attacks from inhabited zones, which incited the United States to bomb their villages by way of response. At the height of their power, the Viet Cong counted close to 200,000 fighters and more than 40,000 auxiliaries; while between 1964 and 1974, they lost at least 440,000 soldiers, amounting to twice the total strength of their army. The number of US troops killed was 56,000 – if the sacrifice had been equivalent on both sides, then a million American soldiers would not have returned home.

Losses of this scale are an integral part of the strategy of revolutionary war, the insurgents being convinced that they are strong enough to endure such blows. Not only were such sacrifices accepted, they were even seen by many anticolonial leaders as desirable, the necessary means for cementing a national people made up of former colonized subjects. The most remarkable formulation in this respect was in fact offered by the apostle of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi, who declared in 1942 that a million deaths were needed in order for India to become a viable nation:

[I]t would be a good thing if a million people were shot in a brave and non-violent rebellion against British rule. It may be that it may take us years before we can evolve order out of chaos. But we can then face the world. We cannot face the world today. Avowedly the different nations are fighting for their liberty. Germany, Japan, Russia, China are pouring their blood and money like water. What is our record? … We are betraying a woeful cowardice. I do not mind the blood-bath in which Europe is plunged. It is bad enough, but there is a great deal of heroism – mothers losing their only children, wives their husbands and so on.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese guerrilla forces correctly believed that American society’s spirit of sacrifice was limited, given that the country’s vital interests were not at stake. To sum up, the insurgents banked on two factors: time and the escalation of violence. They could well sacrifice a large section of their population, and two entire armies, yet they would win as long as the enemy had not succeeded in eliminating them politically. In the good old tradition of guerrilla warfare, going back at least to the Napoleonic Wars, the insurgents had recourse to forms of extreme violence, often highly ritualized: GIs caught in ambush were often tortured, and their mutilated bodies exposed publicly – flayed, gutted, and castrated. The American rear was vulnerable, Colonel Bui Tin explained: ‘The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favour. America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.’

This strategy amounted to a considerable challenge for the stronger side in such a conflict. Conscious that time was working against them, and that they could only win rapidly, the US policymakers mobilized ever greater forces with the hope of crushing the insurgents. According to William DePuy, head of US military operations, ‘the solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm … till the other side cracks and gives up’. At the same time, the configuration of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war also imposed restrictions. There could be no question of invading North Vietnam to cut off the insurgents in the South from their source of supply, as the risk of direct confrontation with China was too great, especially in a situation where the intentions of the Soviet Union did not seem clear.

The United States was thus confined to bombing the north of the country with a ‘coercive’ aim while seeking to ‘pacify’ the south. Aviation played a preponderant role on both fronts. ‘Coercive bombing’ meant the strategy of imposing one’s will on the enemy by inflicting unsustainable losses and threatening him with still greater ones. It is readily understandable why such a strategy has no chance of success vis-à-vis an enemy whose entire strategy precisely involves the acceptance of losses, even colossal ones. Apart from institutional and doctrinal reasons specific to the military machine, the US stubbornness in continuing on a path doomed to failure in advance is attributable above all to reasons of domestic policy.

‘Revolutionary War’ beneath the Nuclear Shield II

In 1972, faced with a public opinion that was increasingly hostile to the war, all candidates in the upcoming presidential election promised to put a speedy end to the conflict. And contrary to popular belief, there were few illusions in Washington about the real situation in Vietnam: the political leaders knew that sooner or later the United States would lose the war. Starting from this premise, three political solutions presented themselves: first of all, send more troops in the hope of winning regardless, and winning quickly; second, postponing the decision until later, which amounted to continuing the war so as to delay defeat; and third, withdraw without having obtained the political results in the name of which the United States had embarked on this conflict, which amounted to accepting a defeat. No president had the political courage to choose this third ‘solution’, and the strategic bombing campaign increasingly followed the logic of the second. In scarcely veiled terms, accordingly, Nixon said that the objective of his ‘Linebacker’ campaign was to give the Saigon government a ‘decent interval’, which clearly meant that the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam should not take place before his re-election in November 1972 or, still better, not before the projected end of his mandate four years later.

It was the second ‘front’, however, that of ‘pacification’ in the south, that saw the most significant developments in the air war on Vietnam. Ever since the First World War, strategic and tactical deployment of aviation had been distinguished, the first being directed predominantly against civilian populations and the second against armed forces. In guerrilla warfare, however, this distinction tended to blur. Such tactical operations as ‘close support’ in an inhabited milieu inevitably killed a large number of civilians. More fundamentally, the United States pursued a strategy of ‘attrition’ in which strategic success was supposed to come from the sum of tactical successes. Instead of seeking to ‘bend the will’ of the enemy, the attempt was to physically eliminate a maximum of insurgents and cut off the survivors from their bases of support. As far as the latter point was concerned, the United States drew on French and British doctrines, developed in Indochina, Algeria, and Malaya, which consisted in the transfer of large sections of the population, the creation of theoretically uninhabited ‘free-fire zones’, and the relocation of civilians in ‘strategic hamlets’ or fortified villages, surrounded with barbed wire, under strict surveillance and cut off from any contact with the insurgents.

The other element in the attrition strategy, which was to kill as many insurgents as possible, was translated into operational reality with the concept of ‘meat-grinder’, which, according to General William Westmoreland, had the aim of decimating the Vietnamese population ‘to the point of national disaster for generations to come’, as well as by the tactic of ‘search and destroy’, which meant using airborne troops, generally sent in by helicopter, to intervene in enemy territory in order to find and massacre the insurgents before rapidly departing. In practice, this meant attacking villages or hamlets where presumed insurgents or their sympathizers were hiding. Added to this were the effect of the ‘Phoenix programme’, conceived after the French counter-revolutionary doctrine developed in the wake of the Indochina war and applied in Algeria. The objective here was to identify and ‘neutralize’ the leading cadres of the revolutionary organization: infiltration, arrest, torture, and assassination.

The Vietnam War was thus the laboratory of a technique of government already tested during the Second World War, which steadily invaded all spheres of society: ‘benchmarking’, in other words the use of numerical indicators to improve performance. In the attrition strategy deployed in Vietnam, the benchmark was the ‘body count’, the number of enemies killed per week by each unit. Enormous pressure was placed on the commanders, who subsequently transmitted this to their subordinates – the effects are not hard to imagine. Whether in the context of the Phoenix programme or in simple ‘search and destroy’ missions, commandos systematically attacked villages or hamlets by helicopter, in such a way that the famous scene from the film Apocalypse Now, which shows an attack to the music of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, does not seem that far from historical reality.

In theory, the real mission began on the ground, after a helicopter attack. If there was a Viet Cong response, artillery or bomber planes were brought in: ‘I could … within an hour get a B-52 strike destroying an entire grid square [one square kilometre] on a map, and we did that’, one officer recalled. If there was no response, troops criss-crossed the ground. Sometimes only armed men or other suspects were arrested; at other times, all the inhabitants were taken to ‘interrogation centres’. According to one US soldier who described these missions, ‘we know they’re Charlie [Viet Cong] – maybe saboteurs, collaborators, and like that … These here are hard-core V.C. You can tell by lookin’ at ’em.’ About 220,000 persons were arrested in this way, more than a quarter of them classified as ‘civilian defendants’, presumed to be spies, saboteurs, terrorists, or collaborators.

These suspects were very likely to be tortured, either in the jails of the Saigon regime or on US bases. A Red Cross report of 1968–69 records torture by electricity or water, sexual humiliation, beatings, mutilation, dehydration, imprisonment with pythons or in small barbed-wire cages. According to the US general Edward Bautz, torture was a military necessity and thus an everyday practice, and the chief of staff Harold K. Johnson even admitted that the treatment of the Viet Cong captured by the Americans was worse than that of GIs who fell into enemy hands. An original technique practised by US troops was ‘airborne interrogation’, which consisted in throwing prisoners selected at random out of helicopters, in order to terrorize others.

Practices of this kind inevitably went together with an image of the enemy based largely on ‘Orientalist’ stereotypes. According to US General Peers, charged with investigating the massacre of 350 to 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in March 1968, the attitude of the incriminated soldiers towards the Vietnamese was ‘the most disturbing characteristic’ of these events. ‘You can’t realize what they are thinking. They seem to have no understanding of life. They don’t care whether they live or die.’ The Vietnamese became the absolute ‘other’: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do to them … The trouble is no one sees the Vietnamese as people … even if when a Vietnamese guy speaks perfect English I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.’ Since Vietnam was a permanent threat, all its inhabitants indifferently became enemies to be killed: ‘They’re all V-C or at least helping them – same difference. You can’t convert them, only kill them. Don’t lose any sleep over those dead children – they grow up to be commies too.’

The asymmetrical strategy saw the disappearance not only of the symmetry that characterized the ‘just enemy’ in Europe, but also of the very possibility of acknowledging the other’s humanity. Churchill still believed that one could ‘treat’ a part of the German population. This did not apply to the Vietnamese. They could not be ‘treated’ and converted to the just cause, they could only be killed. The same premise applied even to children, thus to future generations, which was close to the traditional racism based on the very ‘nature’ of the enemy population. These perceptions were thus the reflection of a colonial and racist imaginary that had long been attached to aviation, and in many respects the Vietnam War did indeed follow the pattern of colonial wars with an exterminatory aim. The American journalist David Halberstam even said that in Vietnam ‘we were fighting the birthrate of a nation’. In this war, too, it was the ‘people’ who became the principal target, but in a sense slightly different from that which could be observed in the traditional colonial wars and in the total war in Europe.

In revolutionary war of Maoist inspiration, as already in the ‘insurrectionary war’ championed by Engels’s ‘Prussian irregulars’ – Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, and Clausewitz – the centre of gravity was nowhere else but in the people. The object of an irregular, insurrectionary, revolutionary war is essentially to win the political support of the population. Conversely, regular armies have long sought to integrate into their ‘counter-insurrectionary’ doctrines the fact that a war of this kind cannot be won without the support of the people. The insurgents have every interest in appearing as an emanation of the people, as this also enables them to define who is part of this people and who, on the contrary, deserves to be brought before a revolutionary tribunal as an ‘enemy of the people’. In a movement of reciprocal definition, the insurgents are the people, in and for itself, both its purest emanation and the power that establishes it.

The people also lay at the heart of the approach of the United States as a great power. The campaigns of strategic bombing against North Vietnam followed the same logic as those at work during total war, whereas in the counter-insurrectionary war waged in the south, everything had to be done to separate the insurgents from the people and present them as mere ‘terrorists’ lacking a popular base. That was precisely the objective of the transfers of populations to strategic hamlets. As a result, the intervening power loses the war if it falls into the trap set by the insurgents, and contributes to assimilating the latter with the people as such. Once the counter-insurrection forces are perceived as waging a war against the people and not just against the insurgents, the latter have in fact won the political battle. This is precisely why it is possible to speak, and not only in relation to Vietnam, of an objective alliance between insurgents and counter-insurrection forces: when both entities are fighting for the people, the population inevitably pays the price.

Although the legacy of colonial war clearly affected the conduct of operations in Vietnam, it would be wrong to underestimate their novelty, which is immediately apparent when the American war is compared with that of the French in the same theatre. In both Indochina and Algeria, the French waged a classic colonial war, in the sense that their objective was to preserve their colonial sovereignty. The US approach was quite different: they in no way sought to replace the French by becoming the new occupying power. Their aim was neo-colonial rather than colonial, inasmuch as they fought to support the Saigon regime, which, despite being corrupt, brutal, and dictatorial, was nonetheless Vietnamese, and thus national. The United States’ political objective was not to control the territory but to maintain a geostrategic advantage.

Once again, these historical developments are reflected with remarkable clarity in the history of aviation. Classic colonial ‘police bombing’, that of the 1920s and thirties, was marked by a contradiction between the technical means employed and the political ends: whereas aviation already tended to a location beyond sovereignty, classic colonialism continued to seek local appropriation of a territory. Since the United States precisely did not have the objective of appropriating Vietnamese territory, aviation logically became the privileged arm in their war. However, a war beyond a locally anchored sovereignty is ipso facto a war beyond just a state horizon. By all these features, the Vietnam War prefigured the developments of warfare that we see today. A combatant that seeks to avoid ground occupation is naturally led to focus on air power so as to physically eliminate all those who resist.

Battle of Killiecrankie Pass

The Battle of Killiecrankie (Gaelic: Cath Raon Ruairidh) was fought between Highland Scottish clans supporting King James II and VII and troops supporting King William of Orange on 27 July 1689, during the first Jacobite uprising. Although it was a stunning victory for the Jacobites, it had little overall effect on the outcome of the war and left their leader dead. Their forces were scattered at the Battle of Dunkeld the next month.

When the bloodless Glorious Revolution brought about the end of Catholic James VII and II’s reign in December 1688, the spirit which had produced the National Covenant (1638), then the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) no longer prevailed in Scotland save for a minority of diehard Covenanters. It could be said that the Revolution Settlement which put William of Orange and Mary on the throne of Britain brought a welcome departure from an obsession with religion which had unduly influenced the policies and conduct of government in public affairs, particularly in Scotland. Secular rather than theological matters became uppermost; it was this rather than anything else which marked a turning point in the nation’s history. Of course, episcopacy and Roman Catholicism continued to thrive in the Highlands and Islands but the majority of the Scottish population living in Lowland Scotland was now undisputedly Presbyterian. No longer were questions of religious creed, form of worship and Church government the determining factors and over-riding forces among the Scottish intelligentsia and the political rulers; expediency rather than unwelcome impositions and knee-jerk reactions would henceforth be the way successive governments dealt with ecclesiastical polity. After 1688, Scotland became preoccupied with new and progressive ideals and goals, chiefly in trade and manufactory, which directly or indirectly would benefit Scottish society in general and the middling sort – the merchant middle class – in particular. Economic considerations rather than theological argument preoccupied both government and people; material prosperity was seen by those who governed Scotland as the way to improvements in the standard of living, albeit in the name of the monarch.

Commerce between England and Scotland had always been patchy, the Scots traditionally trading with Europe, particularly the Low Countries. The chief sources of wealth derived from fishing and the export of cured and salted fish, the staple domestic and foreign diet during the winter months. Although Scotland’s manufacturing industries were still in their infancy, the production and export of various kinds of cloth were on the increase; wool fells (fleeces) and animal hides had long been traditional exports for the production of wool and leather goods; salt, soap, cordage and gunpowder were also lucrative commodities both at home and abroad, woollen goods and linen yarn being particularly sought after. In 1688, Scotland was poised on the brink of an age of prosperity and peace not known since the time of Alexander III (1249 – 86). However, on the horizon were dark clouds that would cast a long shadow over Britain in general and Scotland in particular between 1688 and 1746. Those who threatened to upset the apple cart of peace and prosperity were called Jacobites, the followers of James VII and II and his descendants who took their name from the Latin Jacobus (James).

When James VII and II’s wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a baby boy on 10 June 1688 they named him James Francis Edward Stuart; the arrival of the child offered a prospect of the continuation of a Catholic succession. For James’s Protestant subjects on both sides of the Border and William of Orange in Holland, this was seen as nothing short of a calamity; concern was publicly voiced and James began to feel insecure on his throne when he learnt that William of Orange was gathering an army of 70,000 and preparing to invade Britain. William was the son of Charles II’s eldest daughter Mary and was married to James VII and II’s Protestant daughter Mary, making William an attractive Protestant alternative to the Catholic James. For his part, James was consoled by the knowledge that he had a strong ally and friend in John Graham of Claverhouse, known as ‘Bloody Clavers’ by his Covenanter enemies, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ by his supporters. In October 1688 Claverhouse had led an army of 13,000 in support of James whom he saw as the lawful King; for this and the suppression of the Covenanters, James elevated Graham to Lord Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee. In return, Dundee swore to fight in the King’s name from that day, which he would do until his untimely death the following year. Be that as it may, the Catholic King had his back to the wall, his hold on the throne growing ever more tenuous; an apprehensive James was desperate when William of Orange landed at Torbay, Devonshire, on 5 November 1688. Queen Mary of Modena and her infant son were sent to France for safety on 9 December, followed by James himself two weeks later. A dispirited Dundee returned to Scotland and dispersed his army, retiring to his country seat at Dudhope Castle, Dundee. Like the Marquis of Montrose before him, Dundee was unfortunate in the master to whom he offered his loyalty.

The Revolution was made glorious because it was bloodless. By February 1689 the English parliament had passed the Act of Succession which stipulated that no Catholic could occupy the throne. It was offered to and accepted by William and his wife Mary as joint rulers of England. On 13 February they were proclaimed King and Queen of England and Ireland but not Scotland. That was a matter which would have to be decided by the Scottish parliament. On 14 March 1689 a Convention of parliamentarians met in Edinburgh to vote on whether James or William and Mary should rule Scotland. In late-seventeenth century Scotland there were marked political and cultural divisions – Lowlander versus Highlander – and to a lesser extent, religious conflict. The majority of the Gaelic-speaking Clan chiefs were Episcopalians and Catholics who had supported the Stuart dynasty since the reign of Robert II in 1371; the English-speaking Presbyterians – the majority of the population – not surprisingly supported the Protestant William and Mary. John Graham, Viscount Dundee attended the March Convention; his voice was foremost among the dissenters who rejected the House of Orange in favour of the House of Stuart, the others being the Episcopalian and Catholic Clan chiefs. Dundee, a Lowland Presbyterian, strode out of the hall, intent on organizing another Convention at Stirling held in James VII and II’s name. At Stirling Dundee’s associates could not make up their minds, so he left the Stirling Convention in disgust, retiring to his home at Dudhope Castle, near Dundee. The Edinburgh Convention invited him to join the continuing debate or else – somewhat ominously – to ‘lay down his arms’. Dundee replied that he was not under arms and that his wife was about to give birth; he requested leave of absence until a date which was convenient to him.

On 30 March the parliamentary Committee of Estates voted that, on account of his contumacy, Dundee would be declared a rebel and a fugitive from justice. On 4 April the Scottish parliament also declared that James had forfeited his Scottish crown and throne and offered the honours to William and Mary which they accepted. That same month, on hearing the news, Dundee raised James’s standard on the Law Hill of Dundee and began recruiting an army. In the north several Clan chiefs had reason to support James who, when he was Royal Commissioner for Scotland between 1681 and 1682, had cultivated their friendship and rewarded them with lands belonging to the Marquis of Argyll when he was declared forfeit in 1681. However, Argyll’s son, John, 2nd Duke of Argyll had declared for William and Mary and might soon attempt to recover his father’s estates. Those Clan chiefs who had benefited from Argyll’s misfortune were now fearful of losing their newly acquired property and increased prestige, so they readily answered Dundee’s call for support. By now, Dundee had been appointed James’s Lieutenant General in Scotland, although the documents confirming his appointment never reached him; the Irish messenger carrying the papers was intercepted, the incriminating documents being confiscated by government agents. Among the Clan chiefs who joined Dundee were MacDonald of Clanranald, MacDonald of Sleat, MacDonald of Glengarry, MacDonald of Keppoch, MacDonald of Glencoe, Maclean of Duart, Stewart of Appin, Ewan Cameron of Lochiel and Macneil of Barra.

First Jacobite Rising, 1689 – 90

As we have seen, Dundee had been declared an outlaw; the task of bringing him into custody was given to Major General Hugh Mackay of Scourie, an experienced soldier who had led the Scots’ Brigade in William of Orange’s army against Louis XIV of France in the Wars of Alliance to keep the Netherlands free from French domination. William had not trusted many of his British officers but Mackay was an exception. Mackay was a soldier of whom Bishop Gilbert Burnett of Salisbury once said that he was ‘the most pious man that I ever knew in a military way’. With this in mind, William appointed Hugh Mackay as his commander in chief in Scotland.

Mackay immediately turned his mind to crushing Dundee and the rebel Clan chiefs who supported him. Dundee was no easy target; he out-manoeuvered Mackay on his march into the north; Dundee’s objective was Glengarry, where he met the Clan chiefs with 1,800 recruits they had raised. It was Dundee’s hope to confront Mackay on ground favourable to his Highland levies, weaker by far in numbers than Mackay’s well armed, well equipped force of between 3,000 and 4,500.


Dundee considered that the soft underbelly of Scotland which would open the way to the Lowlands was Blair Castle owned by the Earl of Atholl. Learning of the approach of Dundee’s army, Atholl made a lame excuse to absent himself from his castle, leaving it in the charge of his son and heir, Lord John Murray, a supporter of the Williamite forces. Dundee ordered Patrick Steuart [sic] of Ballechin, a relative of the Murrays, to hold Blair Castle for King James; the result was that Lord John Murray found himself in a strange situation – that of besieging his own castle. While the siege was in progress, Dundee learnt that Mackay was in Perth, intent on assisting Murray in the recapture of Blair Castle.

Dundee laid his plans carefully; he was determined to intercept Mackay at Blair Atholl at a point along the road through the hills. The clans had been summoned but only Cameron of Lochiel had arrived with 240 Camerons; he had however sent his son and others to Morven, Sunart, Ardnamurchan and the surrounding districts to raise further recruits along the way to Blair Atholl. Ewan Cameron of Lochiel met up with Dundee before Blair Atholl, where they were joined by 300 Irish led by Major General Cannon. By now Dundee’s army numbered 2,400 and he resolved to march against Mackay, intending to confront the government forces in the Pass of Killiecrankie. There Dundee occupied a ridge above the Pass and when Mackay arrived he saw that the Jacobites occupied ground which was favourable to the clan mode of warfare – the Highland Charge. The two sides were unevenly matched; against Dundee’s 2,400 were Mackay’s 4,500 foot and four troops of horse. Mackay’s force consisted of the Earl of Leven’s Regiment (his own regiment), Lord Kenmure’s Regiment and the regiments commanded by Colonel Balfour, Lieutenant Colonel Hastings and Colonel Ramsay, Lieutenant Colonel Lauder’s fusilier regiment, with James Hamilton, 2nd Lord Belhaven commanding the horse. Mackay’s left wing was commanded by Lauder’s fusiliers, then Balfour’s Regiment, and the regiments of Ramsay, Kenmure, Belhaven and the cavalry and the Earl of Leven’s Regiment holding the centre; the right wing was held by Mackay and Hastings. Dundee’s right wing contained Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie, the Irish and the MacDonalds of Clanranald commanded by Colonel Alexander Cannon, a Lowlander, with Clans Macleod, Grant, the MacDonalds of Glengarry and Glencoe, Clan Morrison and forty horse commanded by Wallace of Craigie, then Cameron of Lochiel; the left wing was held by Clans Maclean of Duart, more MacDonalds and Clan Macneil of Barra. Dundee commanded the right wing. Among the Jacobite army was Rob Roy of Clan Macgregor, renowned for his skill with the broadsword.

The battle began with Mackay deploying his men in a line and ordering his fusiliers to fire on Dundee. Owing to the smaller number of men, the Jacobite line was much shorter than Mackay’s so the Williamite army’s firepower was concentrated and effective. The Jacobites were also disadvantaged by having the sun in their eyes, so they waited until sunset before attacking Mackay. At 7pm Dundee ordered the charge; the clansmen fired what muskets they possessed then threw them away, charging downhill with targe and broadsword. Mackay increased the rate of fire to counter the charge but a depression in the terrain shielded the advancing clansmen – Lochiel’s men to the fore – who slammed into Mackay’s centre. The Jacobite charge was so sudden and fast that the government troops did not have time to fix their plug bayonets into the muzzles of their muskets. Dundee’s men swatted the unhappy government troops aside like flies. The battle quickly turned into a rout, Mackay fleeing the field, leaving 2,000 of his men dead. But victory did not come without a price; John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, ‘Dark John of the Battles’, was fatally wounded. Cameron of Lochiel had tried to exact a promise from Dundee that he would stay back from the fight; Dundee would have none of it, begging to give ‘one shear darg’ [a day’s harvest] to King James. Dundee died along with between 600 and 900 of his Highlanders. As for the defeated Hugh Mackay, he would later return to the Continent to command the British Division in the Dutch-British-German army fighting for William of Orange (now William III); in 1692, Mackay was killed at the battle of Steenkirk, Holland.

Cromwell’s Hooves I

Admiral Sir William Penn, 1621–1670 by Sir Peter Lely, painted 1665–1666, part of the Flagmen of Lowestoft series.

The Battle of Scheveningen, 10 August 1653 by Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten, painted c. 1654, depicts the final battle of the First Anglo-Dutch War
(National Maritime Museum, London)

The establishment of the Protectorate did nothing to solve the underlying dilemma of the military regime. Cromwell had 160 ships, eighteen foot and twelve horse regiments to maintain: too many to pay for by any politically acceptable means, but too few to sustain him in power by naked force. His first, carefully hand-picked, Parliament of August 1654 had to be dissolved when it demanded a reduction in the military establishment. The conquest of Scotland and Ireland called for more troops in garrison than it yielded extra tax revenue, making the overall situation worse. As before, the Navy remained politically suspect to the army, but militarily vital to its survival. By the spring of 1654 the three Generals at Sea (the plural form was first used officially in December 1653) were Colonel Robert Blake (only survivor of the original three), Cromwell’s brother-in-law Major-General John Desborough, and the former vice-admiral William Penn, the first and only sea officer ever to be trusted with naval command by the army. George Monck went to command the army in Scotland in January 1654, Desborough (like Popham before him) concentrated on administration ashore, leaving Blake and Penn as active commanders-in-chief afloat. The new vice-admiral was John Lawson, a sea officer of long experience, but more or less an Anabaptist in religion, and suspected of Leveller sympathies. In October 1654 Lawson and his captains in the Channel squadron received a petition from their ships’ companies complaining of impressment and long-overdue pay. Resolving at a formal council of war that the petition was justified, they forwarded it to Cromwell. Undoubtedly they sympathized with their men’s grievances (as well they might), but in the circumstances this was a political act not much short of a veiled threat. Cromwell dared not dismiss so popular an officer as Lawson (that was how half the fleet had been lost to the Royalists in 1648), but it was all the more urgent to find some employment for the Navy which would keep it out of politics.

‘God has not brought us hither where we are,’ Cromwell informed his Parliament, ‘but to consider the work that we may do in the world.’ For obvious political reasons, he wanted disaffected senior officers and unpaid soldiers and sailors to be found work in parts of the world well away from Whitehall. Once again, war seemed to be the only way out of the regime’s political difficulties. The choice lay between France and Spain, and for much of 1654 Cromwell kept his options open. The unofficial war with France continued. Blake was sent to the Mediterranean with a squadron whose threatening presence forced the from any possibility of effective English help, and required only words.

Once in the Mediterranean, Blake was drawn into war with Tunis. The three North African Regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli – the ‘Barbary States’ as they were known in Christian Europe – were nominally dependencies of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice semi-independent states which kept up a permanent state of war for motives very similar to Cromwell’s. They too had soldiers (their Turkish garrisons) all too apt to intervene in politics if not distracted by a foreign war. The resulting system of warfare, the corso, was not piracy (though the term is still often used by Western writers) but public, declared war waged largely by private interests. Their political situation obliged the Regencies to be always at war against some of the Christian powers, but never against all, for the corso was primarily a system of slave-raiding, in which the profits came chiefly from ransoms and sales, and which therefore depended on commercial relations across the Mediterranean. In practice the Regencies made and observed treaties of peace with some scrupulousness, and were frequently enraged by breaches of faith on the Christian side. Christian naval powers, obsessed with the misleading idea of ‘Barbary piracy’, had been mounting naval expeditions against the Regencies for centuries, but it was extremely difficult to make an impression on populous and strongly fortified cities on a dangerous lee shore. The English had already had some experience of this in the 1630s, but they still understood very little of the strategic, or indeed the moral, situation. In this case Tunis had gone to war because an English merchant ship had sold Tunisian passengers into slavery at Malta. This eminently justified retaliation, described by Blake as ‘the barbarous carriage of these pirates’, was his excuse for attacking them.

Tunis itself was invulnerable, but in the bay of Porto Farina (El Bahira) Blake found nine small warships sheltering under shore batteries, and on 4 April 1655 destroyed them all. The affair was, and usually still is, represented as a triumph against long odds, but a careful reading of the sources suggests that the defence was not formidable. The strategic profit of the victory was less than nothing, as the Dey of Tunis afterwards explained to Blake with sardonic amusement. The ships belonged not to him but to his overlord the Sultan, whose local power he was not sorry to diminish, and on whose goodwill the lucrative trade of the English Levant Company in Ottoman ports entirely depended. Having seriously damaged English interests, Blake was obliged to retreat with no concessions whatever. Visiting Algiers, the only port in the Western Mediterranean where he could buy victuals, he kept the peace and ransomed some English captives, paying well above the market price. Tunis and Tripoli continued to attack English merchant ships until in 1658 Captain John Stoakes, an officer of sense and moderation, was able to negotiate a peace.

While Blake was in the Mediterranean, Cromwell and his Council of State had decided to go to war against Spain rather than France. On his way home he received orders for hostilities, and actually met a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent on 15 August 1655, but his cautious interpretation of ambiguous instructions deterred him from attacking, and he returned empty-handed at the beginning of October. By the army especially, Spain was seen as a more Catholic country than France, therefore a more natural target for Englishmen, God’s chosen instruments for chastising the Anti-Christ. It was also held indirectly responsible for the persecution of the Waldensians. ‘What peace can we rejoice in,’ General Fleetwood and his officers demanded, ‘when the whoredom, murthers and witchcrafts of Jezebel are so many?’ Better still, as the renegade former Dominican friar Thomas Gage advised, ‘the Spaniards cannot oppose much, being a lazy, sinful people, feeding like beasts upon their lusts, and upon the fat of the land, and never trained up to wars’. Spain was well known to be fabulously wealthy, and to derive that wealth from silver and gold mined in the Americas. Nothing would be easier than to cut off that flow, and solve England’s financial crisis at a stroke. The centrepiece of the plan was the ‘Western Design’, a major amphibious expedition to the Spanish Caribbean. With 3,600 regular troops, plus the support of the English colonists of Barbados and New England who, Cromwell believed, would flock to so agreeable a climate, this would suffice to take and hold Santo Domingo, or Puerto Rico, or Havana, or Cartagena, or perhaps all four of them.

This delightful strategic prospect did not distract Cromwell from the political requirements of the operation. Though the army officers seem to have been good, the troops were made up by drafting from the regiments of the New Model Army those who would least be missed, on military or political grounds. The naval command was given to Penn, but he was subordinated to General Robert Venables, and both of them were limited by the authority of two ‘civil commissioners’, who secretly reported to Cromwell on their activities and loyalty. None of this made for mutual trust, or simplified the command structure of the expedition, and experience was to prove that in moments of crisis Venables was very willing to defer to other authorities – not least his wife, who accompanied him. The administrative preparations were entrusted to a committee led by General Desborough, which left both services scantily equipped and victualled.

The expedition approached the coast of Hispaniola in April 1655, alarmed to discover it ‘rocky, and a great surf of the sea against it in so much that in many places we saw the beatings of the water appear afar off like the smoke of ordnance, the wind being but indifferent’. On the 14th they got ashore at a place thirty miles from their target, the city of Santo Domingo. The country was almost waterless, and the soldiers had no waterbottles. Approaching the city four days later through thick bush, they were routed in an ambush by a few hundred local cowboys (vaqueros). Some of the officers died gallantly, and the ‘sea regiment’ of sailors preserved their discipline, but otherwise the affair was a disgraceful fiasco. Penn’s ships had meanwhile bombarded the city, but its seaward defences were strong, and the ships kept a respectful distance. Having re-embarked the survivors of the army, Penn urged another attempt, but the army officers, Venables in particular, were too dejected to try.

In one afternoon the invincible reputation of the New Model Army had been thrown away. The commanders dared not return to Cromwell without something to show for their labours, so they resolved to attack Jamaica. The island was apparently valueless, but for that reason the Spaniards had hardly settled or fortified it. On 11 May the English landed, and this time Penn personally took charge of the operation, ‘for after the miscarriage at Hispaniola,’ one of the civil commissioners reported to Cromwell, ‘I have privately heard him say, “he would not trust the army with the attempt, if he could come near with his ships;” and indeed did, in the Martin galley, run in till she was aground before their breast-work in the bottom of the harbour…’ The Spaniards surrendered in six days, but this was only the beginning of the English difficulties. Jamaica was ideal for guerilla warfare and easily accessible from Cuba. It was almost uncultivated, and the troops were soon sickly and starving. To relieve the shortage of victuals Penn (and Venables) took the bulk of the fleet home, arriving on 31 August 1655, when Cromwell put both commanders in the Tower.

For some time it was doubtful if the English would be able to hold on to their new possession in the face of disease, starvation and Spanish attack. In the late 1650s, however, the infant colony discovered a means of livelihood and defence: buccaneering. The Spanish government still held to its original colonial policy, according to which all seas and lands west of the Azores and south of the Tropic of Cancer were Spanish property in which the very presence of any foreigner (indeed, strictly any non-Castilian) was punishable by death. All Spain’s treaties with foreign powers explicitly excepted this area, so that there was literally ‘no peace beyond the line’, even with countries with which Spain was at peace in Europe. Though there were now permanent French, Dutch and English settlements in the Caribbean, no trading vessel, however peaceful her intentions, could safely enter these waters without being prepared to defend herself. Yet there was much trade to be done, particularly with Spanish colonies which were very poorly served by the official shipping system. This situation generated a mixture of trade, smuggling and low-level hostilities, and gave ample opportunities to pirates and others who hoped to make their fortunes without the necessity of hard work. The buccaneers were originally a mixed collection of non-Spaniards who inhabited unsettled parts of the islands, living by hunting wild cattle. By the 1640s many had settled on the island of Tortuga, off the north coast of Hispaniola, and taken up a more active and lucrative life of raiding Spanish towns. Some buccaneers were also pirates, but the two trades were distinct, for most buccaneers were not seamen, and used ships chiefly as transport in their essentially amphibious warfare. Both groups depended on access to ports where they could sell booty and buy supplies, and the new English settlement of Port Royal, Jamaica, rapidly developed as their leading base in the Caribbean. Successive governors of Jamaica were very willing to legitimize their activities by granting privateering commissions against Spain. Their attacks were the island’s best form of defence, and almost its only livelihood. The few warships of the State’s Navy which remained on the station after Penn went home took a leading part in the same business. Its most notable exponent was Captain Christopher Myngs of the Marston Moor, who in the spring of 1659 returned from a raid along the ‘Spanish Main’ (the north coast of South America; modern Venezuela and Colombia) with booty worth £2–300,000, most of which was never declared to Governor D’Oyley’s improvised prize court, but disappeared into the pockets of Myngs and his men.

In England, meanwhile, Cromwell was faced with a war with Spain which had yielded nothing but shame and expense. Some of his illusions were gone, but he needed money more than ever, and still believed that ‘six nimble frigates’ would suffice to blockade the coast of Spain and cut off the flow of bullion. Blake, the expert on that coast, and the only senior commander left in the Navy whom Cromwell could trust, was seriously ill. Lawson was appointed as his second-in-command, but however much Cromwell wanted him out of home waters, he was clearly alarmed that he might succeed to the command. Blake was therefore provided with a colleague, Colonel Edward Mountague, a reliable young Cromwellian who had never been to sea. His job was to remind Lawson and the sea officers (perhaps Blake too) who was master. Some of the captains expressed moral scruples about a war of unprovoked aggression, and about taking their unpaid men to sea again, leaving their families to starve. For Cromwell and Mountague, this was plain evidence of subversion, no doubt linked to a Leveller conspiracy which they had just suppressed in the army. ‘It is not for us to mind state affairs,’ Mountague warned the seamen bluntly, ‘but to stop the foreigner from fooling us,’ Lawson and three captains, however, persisted in thinking for themselves, and resigned rather than serve in such circumstances.

Blake and Mountague sailed without them, arriving off Cadiz on 20 April 1656. Briefly considering the possibility of taking Gibraltar (impracticable for want of troops), they were able to establish a base at Lisbon. Blake now settled to the exhausting and dispiriting business of blockade which he knew so well. ‘The Spaniard uses his buckler more than his sword,’ commented Philip Meadowe, English agent in Portugal, in July 1656. ‘In the Dutch war we were sure of an enemy that would fight, besides good prizes to help to pay charges; but the Spaniard will neither fight nor trade.’ Occasionally the monotony was varied by Spanish galleys which looked out of Cadiz, ‘but do no damage,’ Captain Thomas Pointer wrote,

unless it be in rousing us to expend a great deal of powder to no purpose, they always keeping without the range of our guns and English gunners are so unskillful – that they have spent in two days time above 3 or 400 shot – there has been no damage done on either side, but only expense of powder and shot.

Then in September, while Blake and Mountague were at Lisbon, the news arrived that Captain Richard Stayner of the Speaker, left on watch off Cadiz with eight ships, had intercepted an inward-bound Spanish silver convoy. Two ships were taken, and three burned or sunk. Much of the treasure went down with them and the richest ship escaped, but an estimated £200,000 in silver was taken. When it heard the news, a euphoric Parliament believed the prizes might be worth £600,000 or even a million, sufficient to pay for the war. In fact only £45,000 ever reached England. The rest stuck to the fingers of Stayner’s unpaid officers and men (not excepting Stayner’s own). After this triumph Mountague came home with the bulk of the ships, leaving Blake at Lisbon. The ships needed a refit, and a Leveller-Fifth Monarchist rising (followed by the imprisonment of Lawson among others) persuaded Cromwell that he needed a strong force in the Channel. Mountague was also able to get essential supplies sent to Blake, who had repeatedly requested them in vain.

Cromwell’s Hooves II

Robert Blake’s flagship George at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657.

Admiral Robert Blake led the attack at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Stayner’s lucky success helped to confirm Cromwell in the idea that the naval war could still be made to pay. Unaware how difficult it is to intercept anything in the vastness of the sea; unaware that most of Spain’s foreign trade was now in foreign ships, which ‘we cannot hinder unless we should fight with all the world’, as Mountague warned; still dreaming of Gibraltar as a base from which to prey on Spanish wealth, Cromwell determined that Blake should keep up his blockade. As usual he was expected to do it with completely inadequate support. On 11 March 1657, after a storm off Cadiz, he set out his situation:

some of the ships having lost their masts, boltsprits, and others are so broken and shattered in their works within, that they have spoiled a great quantity of their bread and powder, and are forced to keep their pumps continually going: And the frigates that came out last are so ill provided in twine, canvas and such like necessaries, that presently after their arrival they resorted to us for supplies, which we must buy at Lisbon or elsewhere as we can… I have acquainted you often with my thoughts of keeping out these ships so long, whereby they are not only rendered in a great measure unserviceable but withal exposed to desperate hazards, wherein though the Lord hath most wonderfully and mercifully preserved us hitherto, I know no rule to tempt Him…

‘We are all together and behold one another’s face with comfort,’ he assured Mountague, but in truth his situation was precarious, and he himself was dying.

Nine days after writing those words, Blake met the merchantman Catherine of London whose master, David Young, had lost a hand fighting as a lieutenant in the Navy during the Dutch War. Young had left his voyage to bring Blake news of a Spanish convoy he had sighted in the Atlantic. Blake’s captains wanted to send some frigates to intercept it, but there were no victuals for a cruise, and he refused to divide the force in case the main Spanish fleet should come out of Cadiz. Then in early April supplies at last arrived from England, and at the same time they received intelligence that the Spanish fleet was disabled. On 12 April Blake sailed with his whole squadron of twenty-three ships for Santa Cruz in the Canaries, where the Spanish ships had taken refuge. By now he was exhausted and in constant pain. His relations with his captains, whose desire for prize money he continually thwarted, were difficult, and they had trouble persuading him to allow them to attack. The seventeen Spanish ships (all but two armed merchantmen) were moored close inshore under the guns of the shore defences. On the morning of 20 April, Stayner led the attack with twelve ships, while Blake with the remainder provided covering fire. Afterwards Stayner reported:

I knowing it not a time to neglect the business, I only gave them this verbal order, to follow me in a line… I stood upon the forecastle of our ship to seek a good berth for the better doing of our work. I perceived I might get in between the admiral and vice-admiral to our great advantage, which I did…

By coming close enough to the Spanish ships to shield them from the fortifications Stayner’s squadron was helped to a complete victory: twelve ships burned and five towed off as prizes, which Blake with difficulty forced their captors to destroy. Stayner was the last away, and the Speaker suffered badly in her retreat:

We had holes between wind and water four or five foot long and three or five foot broad, that we had no shift to keep her from sinking but by nailing hides over the holes, and nail butt staves along the sides of the hides, for we had eight or nine foot water in the ship that our pumps and bailing would hardly keep her free.

They had barely got out of range at dusk when all her masts fell overboard.

Blake returned to blockade duty off Cadiz, until at the end of June 1657 he received orders to bring the bulk of the fleet home. On 7 August he died as his flagship entered Plymouth Sound. He was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, and left a reputation as high among his enemies as his friends. ‘He was the first man who brought the ships to contemn castles on shore’, wrote the Royalist Earl of Clarendon,

which had been thought ever very formidable, and were discovered by him only to make a noise and to fright those who could rarely be hurt by them. He was the first that infused that proportion of courage into the seamen, by making them see by experience what mighty things they could do if they were resolved, and taught them to fight in fire as well as upon water; and though he hath been very well imitated and followed, he was the first that drew the copy of naval courage and bold and resolute achievement.

Much of this is true. Blake was the first modern English commander to lead his fleet in a series of dose-fought and bloody battles. His courage, endurance and self-sacrifice inspired his own men and were remembered by later generations. Even Nelson reckoned himself inferior to Blake, but this is hardly sustainable. Blake never learned much about naval tactics, during the Dutch War he was repeatedly surprised with his fleet divided, and his strategic judgement was fallible. His loyalty to the military regime of which he was a representative (or at least his silence in the face of its abuses) is perhaps admirable, though it betrayed all the ideals for which he had fought in the first Civil War – but the conduct of Lawson, who stood up to Cromwell on his men’s behalf and refused to serve against his conscience, offers an alternative concept of devotion to duty.

The victory of Santa Cruz was not as unlucky for English interests as Porto Farina had been, but its value was political rather than strategic. No money had been gained for the English war-effort, and the Spanish crown directly profited, as the bullion landed before the battle included the large proportion customarily shipped in secret to avoid paying duty.’ By the summer of 1657 Cromwell’s war strategy against Spain was financially and politically bankrupt. The generals had assumed that Spain was vulnerable and incapable of striking back, and they discovered that the truth was almost the opposite. Though there was little the regular Spanish navy could do, the ports of Spanish Flanders – above all, Dunkirk and Ostend – had a long tradition of expertise in private warfare. Their privateers inflicted heavy losses on English merchant shipping. Having gained 1,200 to 1,700 prizes from the Dutch during the previous war, the English merchant fleet now lost 1,500 to 2,000 ships to Spain (mainly Flanders), many of which were sold straight back to the Dutch. Spanish trade was kept up in Dutch ships, and Cromwell could do nothing about it, for he needed Dutch friendship, and indeed Dutch shipping. He was now in a situation not dissimilar to Charles I’s in the 1630s: he had built a large and expensive fleet to deter foreign powers, but in its absence English trade was exposed to heavy losses, which further weakened his political support.

In strategic terms, a largely unsuccessful Spanish war pushed Cromwell towards France, whose long-term campaign against Spain he was in effect supporting. An alliance in March 1657 committed them to joint action in Flanders. English troops fought alongside the French against the Spanish army at the battle of the Dunes on 4 June 1658 (going some way to redeem the reputation they had lost at Santo Domingo), after which Spain surrendered Dunkirk to the allies. This was the English share of the spoils, while the French helped themselves to the whole of Artois. England eliminated the greatest Spanish privateering base, but most of the ships moved down the coast to Ostend. France was clearly the main gainer from the joint enterprise. The English occupation of Dunkirk lasted three years; the French are in Artois yet.

While the Spanish war continued, Cromwell’s government slid into ever deeper financial and political trouble. In May 1657 his supporters (Mountague prominent among them), hoping it would open the way to a stable regime, strongly pressed him to accept the crown in name as well as in fact. The political Cromwell could see the force of their argument, but the religious Cromwell was obsessed with the Hispaniola disaster as a judgement of God on his iniquity, and dared not risk further wrath. A large part of the army, moreover, including many of his closest colleagues, were already disgusted by the conservative policy of the Protectorate, and threatened open revolt against King Oliver. At the last moment Cromwell drew back, and when he died on 3 September 1658 the future of the regime was as unsettled as ever. His son Richard, an inoffensive man with none of his father’s personal authority, succeeded as Lord Protector. Mountague was one of his strongest supporters, but the army held aloof from the new government. Once again the two services were politically at odds.

Meanwhile England had become embroiled in the war between Sweden and Denmark. It was not in English interests that either should control the Baltic completely, as the Dutch-Danish alliance had done during the Dutch War, and there was satisfaction when Charles X (Karl Gustav) of Sweden invaded Denmark from Germany, marched his army across the frozen Great Belt to Zealand in February 1658, and imposed a peace (the Treaty of Roskilde) by which he gained the province of Scania. This was acceptable to both Dutch and English, for with the north shore of the Sound (the main channel into the Baltic) transferred to Swedish hands, it would be difficult for either Sweden or Denmark to shut foreigners out of the Baltic. Charles X did not stop there, however. By October 1658 his army was besieging Copenhagen and within reach of extinguishing Danish independence, when the Dutch sent a fleet to succour their ally. The Dutch-Danish fleet now cut off Charles X from Sweden, and threatened to transform his triumph into disaster. To balance the scales, an English squadron was sent into the Skagerrak under Vice-Admiral William Goodson, which was very soon driven home by December weather, while Sir George Ayscue (unemployed since 1652) was lent to the Swedish navy. In April 1659 Mountague and the main English fleet arrived in the Sound, where he faced a delicate situation with a high risk of open war against the Dutch-Danish fleet. This was not his only problem: he had barely arrived when he learned that the army had taken advantage of the Navy’s absence to overthrow the Protectorate.

The political clock was now turned back to 1649, with the Rump Parliament recalled, the English Republic re-established, militants and sectaries once more advancing the ‘Good Old Cause’. The new government appointed its friend Lawson to command the fleet at home, and sent Republican commissioners to Denmark in an attempt to keep control over their Cromwellian admiral. Mountague’s diplomatic task was somewhat eased by an agreement between the Dutch and English governments to impose joint mediation on the warring powers (on the basis of the Treaty of Roskilde), which lessened the tension between the fleets on the spot. Politically, he maintained a studied loyalty to the Republican regime, and civil relations with its commissioners, though neither side trusted the other in the slightest, and he was already in secret contact with the exiled Royalists. In July there was a Royalist rising in England, but Mountague took no apparent notice and it was soon suppressed. In September he returned to England with his whole fleet, ostensibly because his victuals had almost run out. This was manifestly true, and the government was unable to back its acute suspicion of his political motives, but it was very happy to allow him to retire to the country, leaving the reliable Republican Lawson in command.

The internal manoeuvres of 1659 did nothing to resolve England’s profound political and financial crisis. One month after Mountague’s return the army staged another coup d’etat, expelling the Rump Parliament and installing a Committee of Safety of army officers (also diverting the Navy’s inadequate income to pay their troops). This was too much for most adherents of the old Parliamentary cause. However little support the revived Rump retained among the political nation at large, it was at least the fragment of a freely elected Parliament and the last symbol of the legitimate grievances which had fuelled the first Civil War. Naked military rule was unacceptable. Both General Monck commanding the army in Scotland, and Lawson commanding the fleet, declared in favour of the Rump. So did the garrison of Portsmouth, which gave Lawson a secure base. For the moment Monck was too far away to do anything, but on 13 December Lawson entered the Thames with twenty-two ships, imposing a blockade on London. With the Navy’s hand on its throat, the military regime collapsed, and on 26 December the Rump was restored. England was now ruled by a naval rather than a military republic, with Lawson as its Cromwell, but the country was deeply weary of all forms of Republicanism, extremism and arbitrary power.

On 1 January 1660 General Monck with his army crossed the Tweed into England and began to march south. Facing him, the troops of General Lambert, leader of the recent military regime, dispersed rather than fight their old comrades. When Monck reached London in early February his political intentions were still cloaked, and Lawson was shocked when he declared for the return of the ‘Excluded Members’ – meaning all the survivors of the original 1640 Long Parliament who had been expelled because they would not consent to Republican or military rule. This restored Parliament appointed Mountague as General of the fleet, over Lawson’s head. The moment was highly delicate. It was becoming gradually clear that Monck, Mountague and the Parliament were sliding towards restoring the monarchy as the only possible form of legitimate and stable government. Lawson was a convinced Republican and the officers of the fleet were as loyal to Republican and military rule as repeated purges could make them. The chances of avoiding civil war between army and Navy turned largely on Lawson’s attitude. On 16 March the Long Parliament dissolved itself and issued writs for a new Parliament, freely elected. Perhaps it was at this moment that Lawson realized that the Republican cause was lost, and that futile struggle and bloodshed to restore it could not be justified. He had always been liked even amongst his opponents as a good-natured man and a plain dealer; now he reluctantly concluded that his duty (and also his own interest) was to work for stable government under the new order. The Navy was bankrupt, the men unpaid and almost starving; only a government enjoying popular support could hope to repair the situation. With great tact, Mountague enlisted Lawson’s co-operation in yet another purge, discreetly removing the more extreme captains – meaning those with views close to Lawson’s own. When the fleet sailed in May to bring Charles II from Holland, hastily cutting out the Republican harp from their jacks and replacing the State’s arms on the sterns with the king’s, the officers accepted the monarchy, and the men welcomed it with enthusiasm. Nine years before Charles had escaped across the Channel in disguise aboard the smack Surprise of Shoreham, to apparently hopeless exile. Now he returned in triumph aboard the Naseby (hastily renamed the Royal Charles) at the head of a great fleet, to ride in triumph through the streets of London to the cheers of his reclaimed subjects.

In eleven years of violence and instability, the Commonwealth and Protectorate had never discovered a system of government, or taxation, which was acceptable to the political nation. In political terms the Republican experiment was an unqualified failure. But this political disaster was also the origin of England’s naval greatness. These were the regimes which built the same tonnage of warships in four years (1651–5) as the monarchy had built in over half a century between 1588 and 1642. It was the fear and insecurity of a military dictatorship surrounded by enemies real and imagined which made England a first-class naval power. The soldiers could not do without the Navy, and yet they could not do with it. Repeatedly the fleet opposed the army in politics. Twice, in 1648 and 1659, it was instrumental in blocking the army’s ambitions. Finally in 1660 its refusal to fight for the Republic opened the way for Charles II’s restoration. It was a highly political and politicized service, sharing to the full the divisions of the age, often purged but never trusted by its military masters. Yet it was the Navy, not the army, which made Cromwell feared throughout Europe. ‘His greatness at home,’ wrote the Royalist Clarendon,

was but a shadow of the glory he had abroad. It was hard to discover which feared him most, France, Spain, or the Low Countries, where his friendship was current at the value he put upon it. And as they did all sacrifice their honour and interest to his pleasure, so there is nothing he could have demanded that either of them would have denied him.

All this naval power was exercised to defend the regime, meaning the army. It was not applied on behalf of the people of England, Scotland and Ireland, crushed beneath Cromwell’s hooves on the figurehead of the Naseby, and crushed by the taxes which paid for her. It was not applied on behalf of merchants and shipowners, whose trade was ravaged by Flemish privateers while the fleet was far away. In the eyes of its masters (or at least of some of them, some of the time), it was not applied for any worldly end, but for the building of the New Jerusalem and ‘the ruining and the utter fall of Romish Babylon’. All the purposes for which the new Navy had been created were hateful to the restored Stuarts who inherited it, and to most of their people. But the lesson they drew from the naval record of the Commonwealth and Protectorate was its right effect, not its wrong purpose. More than 200 years after the collapse of England’s last empire – 200 years of precarious survival on the margins of Europe, 200 years of humiliation at the hands of the new great powers – the Navy had made England feared once more. This lesson the English did not forget.

Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.J Control Tank with Borgward IV Ausf.B

Pz.Abt. 301

Here is some data on the unit from Marcus Jaugitz’s book FUNKLENKPANZER.
On 9 September 1942 Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) was redesignated as Panzer-Abteilung 301. The unit participated in the defensive struggle south of Lake Ladoga with the 11. Armee on the northern Front. From 3 October to 30 October 1942 they participated in positional fighting in the area of operations of the 11. Armee and then from 31 October to 16 November 1942 they fought in the area of operations of the 18. Armee.

During this time the unit was re-organized as follows:
• 3./Panzer-Abteilung 302 arrived from Neuruppin on 22 October and was incorporated into Panzer-Abteilung 301 as the 2. Kompanie.
• The former 2./Panzer-Abteilung 301 was taken out of action, re-designated as the 3./Panzer-Abteilung 302 and transported to Neuruppin.
• Kompanie Abendroth was formed as a special remote-control unit. The bulk of this unit came from the 1. Kompamie with additional personnel from the 3. Kompanie and the headquarters kompanie.

During the period from 23 October to 11 December 1942, Panzer-Abteilung 301 remained with Heeresgruppe Nord in the area of the 18. Armee, with the exception of Kompanie Abendroth, which left the abteilung in mid-November.

On 12 December 1942 Panzer-Abteilun began entraining for transport to Arnswalde.

On 20 November 1942 the Heer called for the establishment of 10 radio-controlled armor units. At the same time it was ordered that existing personnel and radio-control equipment be brought together in a radio-control instructional unit of the Panzertruppen-Schule to be based at Neuruppin. In other-words the remote-control units were to be reorganized from existing assets. Hence another re-organization.
The new Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 was formed on 25 January 1943 at Neuruppin from elements from the disbanded Panzer-Abteilung 302 and the elements of Panzer-Abteilung 301 that had returned to Arnswalde in Pomerania.

Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 consisted of the following:
• Headquarters
• Headquarters Kompanie [Oberlt. Stein]
• Maitenance Zug [Lt. Meyer]
• 2. Panzer-Kompanie [Oberlt. Hoyer]
• 3. Panzer-Kompanie [Oberlt. Krämer]
• 4. Panzer-Kompanie [Oberlt. Busse]
Abteilung Commander: Major Reinel
Adjutant: Oberlt. Guckel
Special Staff Officer: Lt. Sickendick
Radio-Control Officer: Oberlt. Voss
Abteilung Surgeon: Oberarzt Dr, Wick

The 1. Panzer-Kompanie was to be formed from Konpanie Abendroth which was employed in southern Russia. It returned to Germany in mid-March 1943 and rather than going to Neuruppin to become the 1. Panzer-Kompanie/Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 it went instead to Eisenach as a replacement battalion. It remained there until 6 July 1943 when it was disbanded and the personnel were used to form Panzer-Kompanie 315 (Fkl).

At the beginning of September 1943 Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 reported they were ready for combat and on 11 September 1943 they received orders to transport to OB West.

As I noted above Panzer-Abteilung 301 had previously been Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk). They had been formed on 9 February 1942 with the following structure:
Battalion Stab with 2 Pz III/J
Commander: Hptm. Weicke
Adjutant: Lt. Dr. Schlüter
Executive Officer: Lt. Dr. Schmidt
Remote-control Officer: Oberlt. Dipl.Ing. Hanke
Battalion Surgeon: Dr. Wirth
1./Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) with 2 Pz III/J Oberlt. von Abendroth
1. Zug Lt. unknown with 4 Pz.III/J and 20 BIV
2. Zug Lt. Schlenzig with 5 Pz.III/J
2./Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) with 2 Pz III/J Oberlt. Fritschken
1. Zug Lt. Fischer with 4 Pz.III/J and 19 BIV
2. Zug Lt. von Rhoden with 4 Pz.III/J
3./Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) with 1 Pz.III/J Oberlt. Senne
1. Zug Lt. Dettmann with 43 Goliath and 7
2. Zug Lt. Sigmund

At the beginning of May 1942 they were ordered to proceed to Sevastapol leaving Cottbus between 11 and 13 May 1942 and arriving in the Crimea a week later. After fighting in the Sevastapol battles on 4 July 1942 they were transported to the Charzyssk area and placed under the control of the 1. Panzer-Armee. Here they took part of breaching the Russia line and pursuit into the Donets Basin and toward the Lower Don until 24 January 1942. Following the Battle of Rostov and Biatsk from 21 to 26 July 1942, the battalion was assigned the task of securing the operational area. neither demo-carriers or wire controlled vehicles saw action in this area in July but the control Panzer IIIs took part in several operations.

After a brief rest period at Uspenskaya area Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) entrained in Amvrosiyevka on 6 August 1942 for transport to the Leningrad Front. After a ten day journey they arrived at Krasnogvardeysk on 15 August 1942. They then road marched to Tishkovitsi, 20 kilometers to the south, where they were billeted. On 9 September they were re-designated as Panzer-Abteilun 301 (Fernlenk). see above. At this point the structure of the abteilung was as follows on 13 September 1942.
1./Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) with 2 Pz III/J
1. Zug with 4 Pz.III/J and 20 BIV and 3 SdKfz. 11
2. Zug with 5 Pz.III/J
2./Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) with 2 Pz III/J
1. Zug with 4 Pz.III/J and 19 BIV nd 3 SdKfz. 11
2. Zug with 4 Pz.III/J
3./Panzer-Abteilung 300 (Fernlenk) with 1 Pz.III/J
1. Zug with 43 Goliath and 7 modified Bren carriers

In the period of October/November 1942 here are some details of their operations in that time and area. In mid-November Kompanie Abendroth received orders to transfer into the area of Heeresgruppe B, They began entraining in Gatchina on the afternoon of 17 November and the trains departed that night. They arrived 8 days later at Oblivskaja on 26 November 1942, about 100 kilometers southwest of Stalingrad. While in this area Kompanie Abendroth participated in the defensive fighting at the Don and in the Kalmuck Steppe and, after further withdrawal, in the defensive fighting in the area of operations around the Donez. Wire and radio-control demolition vehicles were used in various counter attacks and defensive actions. On 30 January 1943 Kompanie Abendroth entrained in Lichaja and departed for Germany. After a journey that lasted almost six weeks because of various interruption they finally arrived in Eisenach on 13 March 1943. This segment completes the story of this element of the unit.

Found an interesting tidbit in a soldiers diary ( Heinz Prenzlin) that I though you would find interesting about Kompanie Abendroth:
11 December 1942: ‘We have been assigned a company of Infanterie-Division ‘Hermann Göring’ [Actually either the 7. or 8. Lw Feld-Division]. We deploy to attack, the Ivans are trying to force a breakthrough with tanks. We use “Goliaths” carried on trucks, results with them are good. Göring’s “Guard” runs away, the old man is furious. We collect the automatic rifles, sub-machine guns and machine guns they threw away. The machine guns are MG 42’s, most of ours are still MG 34’s.