Keith Ferris‘ painting, Nowotny’s Final Encounter, depicting the event over Achmer on Nov. 8, 1944, when 1st Lt. Edward R. “Buddy” Haydon [1] of the 357th Fighter Group surprised Major Walter Nowotny, the 23 year old Kommodore of his own operation jet unit, Kommando Nowotny.

At the start of November 1944, no fewer than seven P-47 Thunderbolt pilots had achieved success against Me 262s: Joseph Myers and Manford Croy on August 28; Richard Conner and Ben Drew on October 1; Huie Lamb on October 25; and Walter Groce and William Gerbe on November 1. The newly arrived P-51 Mustang was marking its mark in profound ways, but had not yet bagged a jet.

This would be no easy task for the Mustang men. In early 1944, German defenses were formidable. Under the command of Gen. Gunter Korten, the Luftwaffe pulled back many of its far-flung fighter squadrons to defend the Reich. The Eighth Air Force’s primary targets, German centers of production and operation, were ringed by hundreds of deadly 88mm antiaircraft guns. The morale of the German citizenry on the ground was high.

On November 6, 1944, some P-47s were still in the air—one piloted by 1st Lt. William J. Quinn who was the next Thunderbolt pilot to be credited with a kill of an Me 262. But most of the action took place when four combat groups of the newly arrived P-51 Mustangs escorted B-24 Liberator heavy bombers near Minden, Germany. Although one Mustang was lost near Minden, it was not in air-to-air combat. Major Robert Foy of the 357th Fighter Group, “The Yoxford Boys,” was leading the Mustang formation. When the Me 262s arrived in force, the Mustang men were ready for them. Foy tangled with them inconclusively.

Air ace Capt. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager of the 357th Fighter Group—who had been previously shot down, evaded capture, and returned to combat—became the first P-51 Mustang pilot to chalk up a score. In his after-action report, Yeager wrote: “I was leading ‘Cement White Flight’ when north of Osnabrück we spotted three Me 262s going 280 degrees to us at about two o’clock, low. We were at 10,000 feet. I and my flight turned to the right and headed the last man off. I got a hit or two on him before he pulled away. They were flying a loose V-formation and they did not take any evasive action, but seemed to depend on their superior speed. They pulled out of range in the haze.

“We were flying along in overcast, which was very thin and the edge of it was over to the right, altitude about 5,000 feet. I went under it and flew along for a minute or two and I met them head-on again only they were now flying at about 2,000 feet. I split-S’ed on the leader and they all separated. I fired a high deflection burst from above on the leader, got behind him and was pulling 75 inches of mercury and indicating 430 miles per hour. I fired two or three bursts and got hits on the fuselage and wings from 300 yards, then he pulled away and went into the haze where I lost him.

“In this engagement I lost the rest of the flight and found myself alone. I climbed to 8,000 feet and headed north. I found a large airfield with black runways about 6,000 feet long and started flying around it. [He was referring to the base at Achmer.] I got a few bursts of flak, but it was very inaccurate.

“I spotted a lone 262 approaching the field from the south at 500 feet. Flak started coming up very thick and accurate. I fired a short burst at him from about 400 yards and got hits on the wings. I had to break off at 300 yards because the flak was getting too close. I broke straight up, looked back, and saw the enemy jet aircraft crash-land about 400 yards short of the field in a wooded area. A wing flew off outside the right jet, but the plane did not burn.”

Yeager’s opponent appears to have been one Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Freutzer, whose first name is lost to history, although Fruetzer survived the encounter and walked away from his wrecked jet.

Yeager, of course, would go on to serve as a postwar test pilot flying dozens of aircraft types that were strongly influenced by wartime German designs. Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight at Muroc, California, in the Bell XS-1 rocket plane is the first recorded supersonic flight, although an Me 262 pilot named Hans Guido Mutke, whom we will meet soon, did not think so. Yeager’s success against an Me 262 in the airfield pattern brought a visit to Achmer the next day—November 7, 1944—by the ubiquitous and often angry Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland. The German fighter leader had cordial talks with Maj. Walter “Nowi” Nowotny, whom he’d hand-picked to lead history’s first fighter jet unit, but was annoyed that Kommando Nowotny hadn’t followed the practice of keeping a patrol of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in the air to protect the Me 262s during their vulnerable period when taking off and landing. For various reasons, the long-nosed Fw 190D-9 “Dora” fighters never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Galland believed that many in the fledgling Me 262 force were unaware of how big a target they’d become, or how important the Fw 190 support mission was.

The FW 190D-9s were stationed at Achmer and nearby Hesepe. The idea was that the Focke-Wulfs would prowl above the airfields and form a shield between marauding Mustangs, Tempests, and Typhoons, and the Me 262s when taking off and landing. But the Fw 190D-9 pilots were in a separate unit and underestimated their adversary. Nowotny and others initially believed they needed as few as six Fw 190D-9s in the air to provide adequate protection and that the Focke-Wulfs could achieve their purpose flying very short sorties. In one air battle shortly before Galland’s arrival, P-51 pilots of the 78th Fighter Group, who outnumbered the Focke-Wulfs forty to six, shot down several of the “Doras,” and damaged others. The plan wasn’t working. Galland made it clear he wanted larger numbers of the Focke-Wulfs in the air for longer periods to coincide with jet operations in the airfield pattern.

Over coffee in Nowotny’s hut, Galland expressed his concern that the Allies had identified Me 262 bases and were singling them out for attention. Galland also had to tell his handpicked wing commander that he could do little or nothing about a serious shortage of J-2 jet aviation fuel. The bombing campaign was disrupting the flow of all fuel, everywhere, and the jet force would continue to be directly impacted.

Both sides were making a maximum effort in the air battles over Europe on November 8, 1944. To the German side it was part of what the Luftwaffe called “The Big Blow,” a maximum effort to put as many as one thousand fighters into the sky to confront oncoming American bombers. Galland followed the action from the radio shack at Achmer.

Oberleutnant (1st Lt.) Franz Schäll engaged 1st Lt. Warren Corwin and mixed it up in a close-quarters maneuvering contest. Corwin made the mistake of pulling a sharp turn in front of the Me 262, and his Mustang was torn apart by shells from Schäll’s guns. Some of his wingmen heard Corwin cry out, “This jet job got me!” First Lieutenant James W. Kenney, nearby, should have heard the transmission but didn’t. Neither Corwin nor the wreckage of his Mustang has ever been found.

Kenney shot down an Me 262 with short bursts and photographed its pilot dangling from a yellow parachute. Second Lieutenant Anthony Maurice also shot down an Me 262 while 1st Lt. Ernest C. “Feeb” Fiebelkorn Jr. and 1st Lt. Edward “Buddy” Haydon combined their skills to shoot down another. But it was left for 1st Lt. Richard W. Stevens of the 364th Fighter Group to rack up the most important tally of the day. While Galland listened on the radio, Nowotny talked of being under attack by a Mustang—it was Stevens—and of his left engine being damaged. “My god, I’m burning!” were the last four words ever spoken by Maj. Walter Nowotny. Galland burst out of the radio shack in time to see Nowotny’s jet crash. Galland and others rushed to the scene in a car, but it was too late. It was the only sortie on which Nowotny was not wearing his storied “victory pants.” On his death, Galland promoted Hauptmann (Capt.) Georg-Pete Eder to command the unit, but Kommando Nowotny never reached its potential: it claimed twenty-two Allied aircraft shot down in exchange for twenty-six Me 262s before the Kommando was withdrawn for further training and a revision of combat tactics to optimize the Me 262’s strengths. The unit was broken up with most of its pilots going to Jagdgeschwader 7, or JG 7, the first jet line unit. Kommando Nowotny essentially became part of JG 7.

[1] While the evidence is strong that Stevens got Nowotny, some sources credit the kill to Haydon and Fiebelkorn, while British pilots believed for years that Nowotny was bagged by a Typhoon. The credit to Stevens appears to be the best case that historians can make, however.


Swiss Mercenaries in the 15th and early 16th centuries

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”



In Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5, Shakespeare has the king call out: “Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.” Here Shakespeare is referring to the famous Swiss mercenaries, whose courage, reliability, and battlefield skills made them the most sought-after mercenaries during the Late Middle Ages. Their discipline and training even allowed them to withstand cavalry charges. Because they were so good at their work, it is worth saying something here, very briefly, about their abilities.

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.

What Faced NATO in East Germany?

1953 – Demonstrations and riots in East Berlin – Soviet occupation Troops go into action against civilians.

On 9 July 1945, the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces Germany (GSOFG) was formed from elements of the 1st and 2nd Belorussian fronts, becoming an Army of Occupation. These occupation forces were subsequently maintained at close to wartime levels, soon considerably outnumbering the combined Western forces facing them. In 1949 they were renamed the ‘Group of Soviet Forces in Germany’ (GSFG), which remained in being until 1 June 1989 when they became the Western Group of Forces (WGF) as the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe began to unravel. This formation stayed in Germany until 1994 when the total withdrawal of Russian forces was completed. These forces were huge, supplemented until 1990 by the GDR’s own military services.

At the height of the Cold War, GSFG could muster 21 Tank and Motor Rifle (armoured infantry) Divisions grouped into 5 armies and a single front that each possessed its own subordinate units. In total they consisted of nearly 500,000 personnel with some 6,100 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), 8,000 armoured vehicles, 4,300 artillery pieces which included 600 multiple rocket launchers and 200 surface-to-surface missile systems, 1,200 air defence systems (including surface-to-air missile systems), 310 attack helicopters and 350 transport and utility helicopters. The 24 (later 16) Tactical Air Army provided fixed-wing air support to GSFG. Helicopter units were usually subordinated to the relevant Army-level formation, except for one regiment that was a front-level asset. The Tactical Air Army possessed around 610 fighter aircraft, 320 fighter-bombers, 50 attack and 120 transport helicopters.

The huge Soviet presence was supplemented by the GDR’s forces, consisting of the East German Army – the National Volksarmee (NVA). The NVA had six Tank and Motor Rifle Divisions grouped into two Military Districts (MD) and the Ministry of National Defence (MND), each of which had directly subordinate units of its own. There were also five reserve Motor Rifle Divisions. These forces consisted of 180,000 personnel and operated around 2,700 MBTs, 5,400 armoured vehicles, 1,700 artillery pieces (including 200 multi-barrel-rocket-launchers (MBRL)) and 700 air defence systems, including SAM systems. There were also some 40 attack and 110 transport helicopters. The East German Air Force consisted of two Air Divisions and could muster around 450 fighter aircraft, 90 fighter-bombers, 50 attack and 120 transport helicopters. The East German Navy was composed of three flotillas based on the Baltic coast. It was predominantly a coastal force but did have a considerable amphibious warfare capability plus three squadrons of helicopters.

The four Border Guard (Grenz Truppen) commands were in essence another Military District but without heavy armour and self-propelled artillery. The Border Guard had around 47,000 personnel and besides small arms they also operated some obsolescent armoured vehicles and artillery pieces.

The Soviets and East Germans occupied nearly 900 installations at some 400 locations in the GDR. These included over 55 airfields and 150 major training areas and ranges. About 40 per cent of these locations lay either directly beneath or adjacent to (up to 20 miles outside) the Corridors and BCZ. There were also other locations that could be seen from the air along the Baltic Coast of the GDR and near the German–Czechoslovakian border. The installations in the GDR that could be viewed from the Corridors, BCZ and their immediate environs are listed in the appendix. Beyond any doubt this was an intelligence ‘target rich environment’ and for the next forty years both sides conducted an intelligence battle across the IGB using all means at their disposal.
Intelligence Resources

Both sides possessed a formidable array of assets in Germany to acquire the intelligence sought by national governments, military staffs and Germany-based commands. The Western Allies’ assets included HUMINT: the division of Germany presented many opportunities for HUMINT exploitation. West Germans could travel to visit families in the GDR, although reciprocal trips were not possible. Such movements of people provided one source of information. Civilian employees of the Allied forces were required to report any visits to the GDR and on their return were usually debriefed by military or civil security authorities. There was also a constant flow of refugees from the East as well as defectors and controlled sources (spies).

A key and very successful resource was the unique presence of the Allied Military Liaison Missions (AMLMs) created after Allied occupation of Germany by the wartime Allies.

Allied Military Liaison Missions

Because the GDR was diplomatically unrecognised, there were no Western military attachés based there. Their nearest equivalents were the three Allied Military Liaison Missions (AMLMs), which were far more valuable. Established in 1946 and 1947 under individual agreements between the respective Western Commanders-in-Chief and the Soviet Commander-in-Chief, they were accredited with a quasi-diplomatic status. The British Mission’s full title was the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet forces in Germany, mercifully shortened to ‘BRIXMIS’ or ‘The Mission’. The British, Americans and French had Mission Houses in Potsdam, also the home of the Soviet military headquarters until it moved to Zossen-Wünsdorf. The houses were where all Mission touring activity started and generally finished. Although the Mission houses were ‘sovereign’ territory, like an embassy, the locally employed East German staff reported the comings and goings at the houses. Mission members’ activities, both official and personal, were closely monitored and reported, and communications were believed to have been monitored and intercepted and were accordingly regarded as insecure. The AMLMs’ close proximity to Berlin meant that they also maintained HQs co-located with their own national headquarters in West Berlin, which gave them much more security, freedom and flexibility.
Reciprocal Soviet Military Liaison Missions were located in each of the three Western Zones. The Soviet presence in the British Zone was known as ‘the Soviet Commander-in-Chief’s Military Liaison Mission to the Commander-in-Chief British Army of the Rhine’, shortened to ‘SOXMIS’. During its existence SOXMIS was located in Bad Salzuflen, Lübbecke and Bünde in special compounds but these were never sufficiently close to the GDR for them to have a separate HQ like the Allies in Berlin, so they were always rather more isolated in their operations.

BRIXMIS’s primary official purpose was, according to the agreements, to maintain liason between the staff of the two Commanders-in-Chief and their military governments in the Zones to prevent incidents or events escalating to higher levels. Although emphasis quickly shifted onto intelligence collection the liaison function remained a core task throughout the Mission’s existence. Because of this liaison function, and some of the personal relationships created, serious incidents, including the detention of Mission staff, could often be resolved without involving respective Commanders-in-Chief, diplomats or politicians.

BRIXMIS’s intelligence collection included military and civil targets. To carry out these intelligence-gathering tasks BRIXMIS personnel were always unarmed, in working, not combat, uniform, and ‘toured’ throughout the GDR in specially marked military cars. They compiled visual, written and photographic reports on the activities they observed. Up to thirty-one British military personnel, referred to as being ‘on pass’, could be accredited to the GSFG Headquarters as being with BRIXMIS at any one time. They had relative freedom of movement within the GDR and their vehicles were regarded as being ‘sovereign’ territory and, in theory at least, inviolable. However, access was far from unfettered. The Missions were forbidden from penetrating designated ‘Permanent Restricted Areas’ (PRA), which theoretically placed the area out of bounds. Unsurprisingly, PRAs protected the high-value intelligence targets, including many of the Soviet and East German garrisons, airfields, major logistics facilities and training areas. PRAs were detailed on published maps. There were also designated Temporary Restricted Area (TRA) that were time limited, usually created to cover major military exercises or troop movements, often linking PRAs together. Unofficial ‘Mission Restricted’ signs, planted in the German countryside, were generally ignored by the Missions because they had no agreed official status and frequently became treasured souvenirs for Mission members. All these restrictions nevertheless inhibited Mission activities. However, the Soviets managed the imposition of PRAs and TRAs carefully because overuse ran the risk of provoking tit-for-tat restrictions on the Soviet Missions in the FRG.

The Missions deployed into the GDR every day, including Christmas Day, to observe activities, equipment and personnel. They recorded details, took photographs and sometimes returned with items of equipment and even, on a few occasions, pieces of ordnance. They had to be experts in military equipment recognition, learn Russian or German to a required standard and develop good photographic and later video skills. The aim was to get as close as possible to the opposition by stealth or using bluster and trickery to obtain the information they sought. For many Mission personnel this posting was often regarded retrospectively as a highlight in their military careers. Some experienced difficulty in returning to ‘regular’ soldiering afterwards. It was certainly a high-stress posting for many. In the early 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when East–West relations were particularly sour, Mission work became particularly dangerous. During this time there were two fatalities. Adjutant Chef Mariotti of the MMFL was killed in a deliberately engineered traffic accident in 1984, and in 1985 Major Nicholson of United States Military Liaison Mission (USMLM) was shot and killed by a Soviet guard close to a military installation at Ludwigslust. Throughout the Missions’ existence there were many incidents of Soviet and East German forces causing physical injury to Mission members by administering beatings if they compromised an observation point, or during the detention of a ‘Tour’.

The Mission’s exploits were truly remarkable and are too numerous to describe in detail, though mention of a few of their intelligence ‘scoops’ gives an idea of what they achieved.
In 1966, BRIXMIS personnel liaised with Soviet military personnel who were trying to access the wreckage of a Yak-28 Firebar aircraft that had crashed into the British part of the Havelsee Lake in Berlin. Officially this meant keeping the Soviets away from the crash site until it and the crew’s bodies could be recovered and returned by British forces. Unofficially, they were co-ordinating the underwater removal of parts, including its then state-of-the-art radar, which were quickly spirited away to the UK for scientific examination. BRIXMIS successfully managed to stop the incident from becoming anything more than a very tense stand-off and illustrates BRIXMIS’s liaison function in an exemplary fashion.

BRIXMIS members were expected to use their initiative and daring to gather intelligence. One Tour came upon a stationary train carrying BMP-2 armoured infantry combat vehicles (AICVs). A ‘current priority intelligence requirement’ was to discover the main armaments’ calibre. A Tour member sneaked onto the train and pushed an apple into the weapon’s muzzle before the train moved off, or he was shot at by a Soviet sentry. In 1987 the British Army tactic of ‘acquisition’ came into play when a Tour ‘acquired’ a sample of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) – ‘it came off in me and Sir’ – removed from a stationary Soviet T-80 MBT when no one was close by. At the time the composition and operation of ERA was a very high priority technical intelligence target.

The BCZ also gave BRIXMIS the opportunity to use the RAF Gatow-based Chipmunk aircraft for airborne observation and photography. There are several books about BRIXMIS and its operations that give comprehensive insights into their activities and modus operandi and they are highly recommended. They include works by Tony Geraghty, Steve Gibson and Major General Peter Williams.

SIGINT: British, French and US forces engaged in significant SIGINT collection activities in Germany and Berlin. They utilised a network of ground-based listening posts, overlooking GDR territory. British airborne SIGINT assets operated peripheral flights mainly from the UK, where the necessary infrastructure existed to process the information collected. The French airborne effort originally flew from Germany before switching to Metz-Frescaty in 1966 when France withdrew from NATO. They too maintained ground-based listening stations. The US effort was largest of all with a major network of monitoring facilities and air assets. Most US airborne SIGINT assets were located in Germany, but they were frequently detached for periods of temporary duty across continental Europe from 1946 until 1974. From then most operations were undertaken by UK-based aircraft.

PHOTINT/IMINT: The existence of the Corridors and BCZ gave the Allies a unique situation that could be used to their advantage for the collection of PHOTINT/IMINT. The Corridors were internationally agreed and controlled airspace. Its rules allowed access to Berlin for some of the Western Allies’ military and civilian aircraft. Aircraft using the Corridors and BCZ belonged to units on the published ORBAT and generally carried unit markings, flown by uniformed crews in airspace they were perfectly entitled to use. Whilst the risks to manned overflights of Soviet territory grew, Corridors and BCZ flights could be executed at comparatively low physical and political risk.

Being able to fly close along the IGB and through an important portion of East German airspace along the Corridors and around Berlin meant airborne intelligence gathering was an irresistible activity. All three Allies mounted their own airborne intelligence-gathering operations of varying scale and scope. The technical aspects of mounting equipment in a suitable aircraft and flying the missions could be difficult enough, but they were relatively straightforward when compared to the sensitive political risks attached to such activities elsewhere. To be at their most effective these flights required proper preparation, co-ordination and integration into the normal transport and training traffic going about its lawful occasions in the Corridors and BCZ.

Thus the stage was set for the execution of some of the most audacious ICFs of the Cold War that provided almost daily surveillance of installations in the GDR.

17/25-pounder “Pheasant” Tunisia – 1943

17/25-pounder “Pheasant” caught in full recoil firing in Tunisia – 1943

Before the QF 6-pounder had entered service, the British predicted that it would soon be inadequate given the increasing armour of German tanks. In late 1940, design of a replacement was started, and was largely complete by the end of 1941. A prototype production line was set up that spring, and with the appearance of Tiger I tanks in early 1943 in the North Africa, the first 100 prototype 17-pounder anti-tank guns were quickly sent to help counter this new threat. So great was the rush that they were sent before proper carriages had been developed, and the guns had to be mounted in the carriages of 25-pounder gun-howitzers. These early weapons were known as 17/25-pounders and given the codename Pheasant. They first saw action in February 1943.

When the allies encountered the first Tiger tanks in Africa in 1942 nothing they fielded at that time could effectively take these big cats on. The 17 pounder gun itself was available but the production of its carriage was lagging behind. As a stop gap measure some 17 pounder barrels were fitted onto 25 pounder carriages (incidentally that was also how the 25 pounder field gun concept started out: being fielded on the 18 pounder field gun carriage……): enter the 25/17 pounder, code name ‘Pheasant’. Some 150 units were produced.

At this early stage of the war only AP (solid) shot would have been available, some APC (capped) rounds might have been issued later in 1942 but at that time most Pheasants were probably already converted to ‘full’ 17pdr’s.

Generally the riveted 25 pounder carriage could sustain the abuse of the high velocity gun quite well. The first supplies of ammunition however did seem to suffer from accuracy issues and the solid shot projectiles prone to shatter on surface hardened armor plate. The later introduced cap prevented it from shattering at oblique impact angles.

The ‘Pheasant’ is certainly not the most refined looking gun, but this ugly duckling would profile itself as a potent tank killer and was a great boost for morale.

As one looks closely to the production 17 pounders the barrel slide and cradle are virtually identical. And with some minor adjustments the new barrel and slide could be fitted into the 25 pounder cradle. Main external (visible) change to the 25 pounder carriage was the firing mechanism which, due to the breech being much further backwards, was mounted on an extension arm bolted to the gun cradle.


B7A Ryusei

B7A2 Unit: Kougeki (Attack) 5th Hikotai, 752nd Kokutai Serial: 752-03
Katori Naval Air Base, Chiba prefecture, end of April 1945.

B7A2 Unit: Kougeki (Attack) 5th Hikotai, 752nd Kokutai Serial: 752-53
Kisarazu Naval Air Base, Chiba prefecture, after May 1945.

Aichi’s B7A Ryusei torpedo bomber (‘Grace’) was part of the 16-Shi (1942) programme. It was intended to extend the reach of Japanese carriers and thus to minimise the problem of carrier air defence: if the Japanese fleet could outreach the US fleet, and if its aircraft could penetrate US defences, then it could strike without being struck. The Japanese consistently managed to outrange the US fleet, but the combination of effective fighter control and effective anti-aircraft fire made that outreach useless. The Ryusei was intended to replace both the standard attack aircraft: the B6N torpedo bomber and the D4Y dive bomber. Given enough engine power, an airframe stressed to dive-bomb could lift a torpedo. That was the case with both the US SB2C Helldiver (although it was not used as a torpedo bomber) and the British Barracuda (a torpedo bomber used exclusively as a dive bomber). Manoeuvrability was to be equal to that of a Zero (A6M) fighter, to give the Ryusei reasonable immunity from interception. Normal range was to be 1000nm (maximum 1800nm). The prototype was completed in May 1942. Note that the operational concept considerably predated Midway. Production seems to have been hampered by slow engine development, as it did not begin until April 1944.

In June 1944, IJN Taihō, the only Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier then large enough to operate the B7A Ryusei in its intended role, was sunk during the Battle of the Philippine Sea before enough B7As were even available to embark. Thereafter, the B7A was relegated to operating from land bases, primarily with the Yokosuka and 752nd Air Groups. The Japanese completed only one other carrier capable of operating the B7A, IJN Shinano, but she was sunk by an American submarine.

Aichi B7A1/B7A2 differences

I believe there are some minor differences in the cowling and exhausts because of the difference in the two versions engines.

According to Francillon, just 9 B7A1s were built. I have a picture of one with tail marking “Ko-B7-7”, so this was presumably the 7th built, and it has a retractable tailwheel. I have not found any pictures purporting to be of B7A1s in service, and all in service seem to have had the fixed tailwheel.

The B7A1 was overweight and there were also structural problems in the wings. The wing internal structure was totally redesigned among other things, so there may be differences in panel arrangements.

According to Francillon, the only differences were a slightly improved engine version, and replacement of the rear 7.92mm gun with a 13.0mm.

The same two engine models were used interchangeably in the Ki-84 I (Ha[45]11 and Ha[45]12) with no alteration in outward appearance.

British CAP Interception

The four ‘dusk’ patrol Hellcats from the 1844 NAS detachment embarked in Formidable were airborne at the time, and they were quickly vectored onto a quartet of Aichi B7A ‘Grace’ torpedo-bombers flying at 20,000 ft on a heading for the ships. The Hellcats, flown by Sub Lts Atkinson, Foster, Mackie and Taylor, made short work of the rarely seen B7As, as is described in the official Royal Canadian Navy history;

‘During his attachment to Formidable, Atkinson achieved a rare distinction on the night of 25 July. Four Hellcats were scrambled on a night combat air patrol. These were conventional Hellcat IIs without radar, but their pilots had been trained in night flying. Shortly after assuming patrol, incoming Japan- ese aircraft were detected. Two Hellcats were forced to return to the carrier unserviceable. Sub Lt Atkinson assumed the lead of the remaining two Hellcats and was vectored out on an intercepting course.

‘Under a full moon, Atkinson identified the bandits as big, single-engined “Grace” torpedo-bombers, and took his New Zealand wingman, Sub Lt R F Mackie, into the attack. Atkinson latched onto a pair of “Graces” and shot them both into the water, while Mackie dumped the third. Then, in routing the other bandits, a fourth “Grace” went down and the enemy attack was completely broken up.


An intact and unused cockpit canopy discovered in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, has been confirmed as an Aichi B7A Ryusei (Shooting Star) torpedo/dive- bomber. It is generally believed to be the only known part of the aircraft type, which was also used in kamikaze attacks, to exist in Japan. A spokesman from the local industrial heritage study group, said: “The canopy has historical value as it shows Japan’s aeronautical industry heritage and conveys the tragic reality of war.”

The Ryusei, which served the Imperial Japanese Navy, is sometimes referred to as the ‘last suicide attack plane’ because naval records show that two Ryusei aircraft departed on kamikaze missions on August 15, 1945, the day Japan surrendered to the Allies. Ryusei production began in April 1944 and its cockpit canopies were manufactured in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture. Around 110 Ryusei aircraft were completed. The relic is considered a precious historical record because most Japanese wartime equipment was destroyed. The only remaining Ryusei is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour I

Warlord Games

All three kingdoms, England, Scotland, France, used the same types of arms and armour; it was just that each favoured the use of some particular types more than others. This came from each of three kingdoms having different types of soldier as the core of their armies. Archers, for example, were raised by English, Scottish, French, Gascon and Burgundian captains, but the most sought after were the English and Welsh. Why? They certainly had more experience and had lived in a country which had actively encouraged military archery for at least three generations by the time of Verneuil. But England and Wales were not the only countries which developed some tradition of hand bow archery. William Wallace had archers from Ettrick Forest at the Battle of Falkirk, although it was their absence rather than their presence that had an effect on the outcome of the battle. The Counts of Foix in Aquitaine used archers, both local recruits and English hirelings, in their wars with their noble rivals in the area from about 1360 onwards. The Burgundian army throughout the fifteenth century included archers, perhaps initially in imitation of their English allies. The Burgundians were both enthusiastic hirers of English and Welsh archers and employers of ‘home grown’ archers. So the question remains, why were the English and Welsh the dominant archers on the battlefield for two centuries? While they were not invincible, indeed they were on the losing side in a number of battles, they were never defeated by archers of another nation. But, while we always think of the English and Welsh as longbow archers, the English at least also used crossbows to a limited degree. Unlike the practice in Continental European armies, there is no evidence that they used them in field armies, but only in garrisons.

Men from all three kingdoms wore plate armour, but again the proportion of men using part or full plate armour varied in the three kingdoms. There were two significant stages in the development of plate armour that happened around the beginning of the fifteenth century which have great importance for the Battle of Verneuil. These were the manufacture of full suits of plate armour and advances in iron and steel production. Taken together, they meant that a man wearing the best quality plate armour could be reasonably confident that war-bow arrows presented no fatal threat until they were shot at point-blank range (about 40–60yd) or found one of the gaps in a suit of plate armour necessary to allow movement.

Protecting these openings in a suit of armour was a challenge to armourers which they met with increasing success in the fifteenth century. Just as the English tactical system was unique in military history, so the western European development of full suits of rigid plate armour is not found in any other culture. In the Moslem world, India, China and Japan, robust helmets, chainmail, scale armour and relatively small plates that overlapped or reinforced chainmail were the norm. All of these cultures had sufficient metallurgical skills to make effective plate armour if they wished, it was just that they seemed to prize the flexibility of their style of armour over the arguably higher level of protection offered by full plate armour. Why western Europe military culture developed suits of full plate armour which were extravagantly expensive in their use of materials and skilled time is difficult to explain for certain. The Classical Greek tradition favoured rigid breast and back plates while the Roman tradition went for smaller overlapping plates or even scales. It is likely that the use of powerful crossbows in Continental European warfare and the use of the English and Welsh longbow were a powerful stimulus for this development. Advances in iron and steel production in the late fourteenth century made the development of full suits of plate armour worthwhile because they made it likely that the plate would be more or less impervious to missiles. It was in north Italy where ‘a certain sophistication in manufacturing techniques is apparent by 1400 when higher quality iron and steel were produced by new carburising processes and the use of the blast furnace’. These technological improvements, particularly surface hardening, enabled armourers to improve the impenetrability of their products without necessarily increasing the weight of the suit of armour. This was a significant improvement to field armours, which were tiring to wear while engaging in demanding physical activity like advancing across a rough battlefield or hand-to-hand fighting. If men wearing armour designed for fighting on horseback were fighting on foot, they would find this more tiring than if they had been wearing a foot armour, because a mounted man would tend to wear heavier leg protection. This would have a noticeable effect on the way they walked and on their sustained agility. This may explain in part the behaviour of the Lombards in the Battle of Cravant (see the account of this battle below). Also, most plate armours, whether designed to be worn on foot or horseback, restricted how deeply the wearer could breathe, which in turn affected the wearer’s stamina. In addition to these technological developments, by the second decade of the fifteenth century the armourers of north Italy had come to the final stage of the development of the various pieces of a full body armour, and the way they fitted together.

The developments of the rest of the century were aimed at improving the functionality and appearance of the armour. This armour had been developed to meet the needs of the professional mercenary soldiers in Italy. They had concentrated on ensuring that a mounted man could charge in battle with confidence that he was unlikely to be fatally wounded by the opposing mercenaries. As a result the shoulder pieces or pauldrons were large and asymmetrical (the left being larger than the right to remove the need for a shield) to protect a common weak point in most earlier armours, and the helmet (known as an armet) was shaped like the bow of a ship to deflect arrowstrikes and other blows as the owner charged. These developments led to armour from north Italy being the most sought after for perhaps two generations until the German armourers caught up with the technology. It also meant that mercenaries from north Italy who were equipped with this armour were much sought after, as the account of the Battle of Verneuil below will show.

In the fifteenth century, the design and shape of armour, particularly the pieces protecting the body and the head, developed to improve the protection it offered. Two major helmet types developed: the bascinet, a close-fitting helmet often tapering to a point at the top of the head to provide glancing surfaces; and the sallet, which looked a bit like a smooth, steel baseball cap worn back to front with a tail to protect the back of the neck. Both types were used with or without visors.

A fundamental problem with good suits of plate armour was that, to be as comfortable to wear and effective as possible, the armour had to fit the wearer well. In other words they were made to measure. This made the suits very expensive and time-consuming to obtain. If the armour was made to measure this presented the owner with a major problem – he couldn’t change shape much. This problem is made clear by the armours of Henry VIII in the collection of the Royal Armouries, which show that he gained weight as he aged.

As a result it was difficult for anyone other than the original owner of the armour to wear the suit without alterations, which might include modifying or replacing some parts. But armour was like modern men’s suits: not all are made to measure. There are records of merchants carrying bales of armour and numbers of helmets of differing styles to England, France and Spain. This armour was not designed to make full suits but provide a good level of protection for men who could not afford bespoke armour. Since armour needed to fit well to be comfortable and effective, this had an effect on its value as booty.

Plate armour was worn with various types of soft or flexible protection, and many fighting men wore very little plate – maybe only a helmet. In the main, men who had little if any plate armour couldn’t afford it and would hope to get some as booty. However, some men, what proportion we cannot know, deliberately relied on the more flexible forms of protection because they were lighter, less draining of stamina and relatively effective. These soft, flexible armours included gambesons, chainmail, and brigandines. The gambeson (commonly known as an aketon or actoun in Scotland) was usually made of linen, quilted and padded in vertical strips, commonly long enough to reach the wearer’s thighs. The quilting was usually stuffed with folded linen, woollen fibres or other cheap frayed cloth. When sleeves were part of the gambeson they were separate pieces laced to eyelets in the armholes of the gambeson. The impenetrability of the gambeson depended on how tightly folded the stuffing was but it was an efficient protection much favoured by the English and Welsh archers and Scottish fighting men. Shorter versions were worn under plate armour to cushion the wearer. Chainmail was no longer worn on its own by this time in western Europe but was used with plate armour to protect the spaces necessary for limbs to be able to move freely and often the undersides of arms and backs of legs. The brigandine was like a gambeson with much less padding, having small, overlapping plates like scales sewn onto the garment. These scales were often covered with at least one layer of fabric, sometimes quite showy material. A brigandine was quite heavy, less flexible than a gambeson, but provided better protection. The point has already been made that it is possible that the development of war-bow archery, with its advantages of range, penetration and relatively rapid shooting, encouraged the development of full suits of plate armour, rather than flexible armour such as mail with plates worn to protect particularly vulnerable areas. Even good mail worn over a gambeson will not reliably keep out war-bow arrows if they are fitted with the appropriate head. This last point is key; there was an ‘arms race’ between medieval English arrowsmiths who continued to develop types of military arrowhead between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries to penetrate armour, while the armourers improved the arrow resistance of their products. At the beginning of the period the specialist military arrowheads in use were types whose development can be traced back to Viking times. These included long needle-pointed bodkins that would go through an individual ring in chainmail and quite probably penetrate the gambeson worn underneath. However, as the wearing of armour plates over the mail became more common in the fourteenth century, this type of arrowhead became obsolete. It just bent against plate. While this may not have been a problem for the English archers fighting the Scots in the 1330s, because the great majority of the Scottish soldiers would have no plate at all, it was a problem fighting the knights and nobles of France in the following decades. As a result, shorter, more triangular heads were developed with bigger sockets for the heavier arrowshafts required as bows gained in draw weight. Edward III’s administration made a significant contribution to this development in 1368 when it issued orders to the sheriffs of twenty-six English counties for a large number of arrows. These orders were very specific about the quality of the arrows necessary, not only requiring that seasoned wood be used for the shafts, but saying that the arrows were to be ‘fitted with steel heads to the pattern of the iron head which shall be delivered to him (the sheriff) on the king’s behalf’. These orders were not the first time that military arrowheads made of steel were mentioned in royal orders, but it is the first time that all the heads were to be steel. This, and the supplying of a design pattern, shows that the royal administration wanted a standard, good-quality military arrow with the capability to penetrate plate. However, recent tests suggest that the arrowheads developed later in the fifteenth century to penetrate plate armour may, paradoxically, have been less effective at penetrating gambesons and brigandines.

The types of hand-to-hand weapon used in all three kingdoms were much the same. Every fighting man carried at least one knife, ranging from the specialised misericord through to an everyday eating knife. The misericord, later known as the rondel dagger, had one purpose in war – finishing off an armoured knight. They had long, stiff, slim blades, not uncommonly 12in (30cm) long, and were designed to fit through the gaps in armour. The handles of these daggers often had flat ends to allow them to be driven through mail and padded jackets by a hammer blow from the hand. These were perhaps more commonly owned by wealthier fighting men, although they would be popular battlefield booty. By the fifteenth century they were worn by better-off citizens, aping the military style. The bollock dagger, so named from the shape of its handle, has been found widely in England and parts of northern Europe, and was used by ordinary men. Many bollock daggers found in England are single-edged with blades up to about 13in (335mm) long. They would serve well as fighting knives, although less effective for subduing an armoured man than a rondel dagger, and should be regarded as part of a man’s personal property in peace and war.

Ownership of a sword was almost as widespread among the soldiery of all classes as was ownership of knives and daggers. These varied widely in type and quality depending on the standing of the owner. As a result of the long run of relative military success for the English and Welsh soldiers from 1415 onwards, many of the ordinary archers and men-at-arms probably owned better quality swords than might be expected for men of their social status. From the thirteenth century onwards, knightly swords came in two broad types, the great (or war) sword and the arming sword. The blade of the great sword was about 48in (122cm) long with a grip long enough to allow it to be used two-handed as well as one-handed. Most surviving examples are well enough balanced to allow effective one-handed use. Originally, the great sword had a blade for both cut and thrust, but by the second half of the fourteenth century the blade shape changed noticeably. It was longer, narrower and stiffer, and its manufacturing probably placed greater demands on the skills of the swordsmith than had the earlier type. It is generally considered to have been developed in response to the increasing use of plate armour, which not only provided protection against the arrows of the upstart English archers, but also slashing blows from swords. This new blade shape shows that sword fighting techniques were changing to incorporate more thrusting moves to attack weak points in armour. In the first half of the fifteenth century, if Talhoffer’s manual is any guide, these swords could be used ‘half sword’, with one hand holding the blade halfway down, so that the point could be thrust into the weak points of the armour with force at close quarters. It is difficult to know how attractive great swords would be as booty for the ordinary archer and soldier of the various nations fighting in France at this time because of their specialised design, which required special training to use effectively. The arming sword was smaller, the blade being about 28–32in (71–81cm) long, and was worn as a secondary weapon by most fighting men and as a dress weapon marking social status. This is not to denigrate its real utility as a one-handed fighting sword for both cut and thrust. Most arming swords were light and well balanced so that they could be used in a fast, agile style of fighting which would contrast with the popular image of medieval battles, namely lines of armoured men bludgeoning each other with heavy weapons. The archers and other ordinary infantrymen would often use arming swords.

Lightly armoured men such as archers could take on more heavily armoured men-at-arms with the arming sword because it was easy to manipulate. They also used the more brutal falchion, which had a short, wide, heavy blade with a curved edge and straight back and was used for hacking blows. Besides the inevitable buffeting effect of being hit by a brawny archer using a falchion, the blow could distort or crack individual plates in a suit of armour.
This was also the period when the use of the shield declined, whereas the use of the buckler continued. It has been suggested that this decline came about because of the improvements in the quality of armour and the move to using two-handed weapons like the poleaxe and the great sword. This was despite the undoubted value of a shield against an arrowstorm of war-bow arrows.

Otherwise, the hand weapons used by the men of the various nations involved in the fighting in France in the first three decades of the fifteenth century varied according to the type of fighting they were trained for, their financial and social status, and to some degree which nation they came from.

Finally, in this general summary of the arms and armour used by the men fighting in the wars in France in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, there is the matter of training. Nobles and knights were well trained in use of arms; being an effective fighting man was still one of their major roles in society. Since English armies were made up of paid soldiers it is reasonable to expect that they all had some level of skill with their weapons. Similarly, the French urban militias would have practised. The Scottish soldiers also seem to have had some skill. The legal requirements for ordinary English and Welsh men to practise archery have been noted above. But the question remains, how did all these men gain their weapon skills? For the ordinary men of all three nations there is almost no evidence.

No doubt experienced soldiers led the practice but they have left almost no trace. There are tantalising references in the Register of Freemen of York to two men who may have played a part in this training. In 1298 Robert of Werdale, who was described as an archer, was enrolled in the register, and in 1384–85 Adam Whytt, a buckler player, was enrolled.

To be eligible to be a Freeman in York, these men would have become established in the city by following their trade in their own right for a number of years. They would also be reasonably prosperous since there were fees to pay to be registered. In short, they would have been respectable citizens of York, not just rough, skilled fighting men. They are the only two men on the register who might have been instructors in fighting arts. However, for men who were prepared to pay for training there were manuals of fighting and no doubt masters of arms to train them. In noble households the training was led by experienced members of the household. Some of these may have had access to one of these fighting manuals. But the fact that these manuals were written at all suggests very strongly that there were professional teachers of fighting skills. The earliest manual (Royal Armouries Ms.I.33) dates to around 1300 and was created in south Germany. This German tradition continued when Liechtenaur created his manual somewhere between about 1350 and 1389, when his work was incorporated in another manual compiled by Dobringer. In about 1410 Fiori de Liberi produced the first surviving Italian manual. Evidence of an English tradition of fighting manuals is found in two fifteenth-century manuscripts on swordplay.

The existence of theses manuals shows that the medieval warrior was interested in developing his skills; medieval battles were not just two lines of meatheads battering each other. As Liechtenaur put it, ‘above all things you should learn to strike correctly if you want to strike strongly’. While it would be a mistake to suggest that the majority of the professional fighting men in the wars in France during the early fifteenth century had access to a fighting manual, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many benefited from training or demonstrations by men with skill and experience, some of whom had access to such a manual.

Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour II

A period illustration of the Battle of Crécy. Anglo-Welsh longbowmen figure prominently in the foreground on the right, where they are driving away Italian mercenary crossbowmen.

Our picture of arms and armour in medieval England is dominated by images of archery. The English war-bow was about 6ft (1.83m) long, made from a self stave, that is a naturally occurring stave with no gluing or laminating. This bow was used with a long draw; the largest group of the arrows found on the Mary Rose suggest a draw of about 30in (c.760mm). Modern replicas of these bows made from similar woods to those available to the medieval bowyers have a draw weight up to maybe 170lb. These bows were able to launch heavy arrows (about 2¼ oz or 64g min) up to about 270yd (c.247m) if the performance of modern replicas is any guide. We have very little archaeological evidence from the medieval period in general for the bows or arrow shafts, although a good range of arrowheads have survived. The main find of bows and arrows was made in the wreck of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. The date of this find means that these bows and arrows come at the end of over two centuries of development driven by real experience of using the war-bow in battle. As a result the performance of the modern replica bows which are made according to the evidence from the Mary Rose may well be better than the majority of bows in use at Crécy and Poitiers but not necessarily of those in use at Agincourt and Verneuil. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards, French, Breton and Burgundian allies of the English kings often bought war-bows in England rather than developing a local bow-making industry. One example of this practice contemporary with the Battle of Verneuil was when Hugh de Lannoy, the Burgundian captain of Meaux, along with four other men, whose names sound French or in one case Italian, were given a licence to ship a number of bows from England without paying duty. Why import rather than make locally?

1. English bowyers had about a century of experience of making war-bows. Their understanding of what wood could do and the efficient design of war-bows would have been unrivalled.

2. England had already established an international timber trade to supply good quality bowstaves to the bowyers.

Despite these two points, there is no doubt that local bowyers in western Continental Europe made longbows and war-bows.

English and Welsh archers in the fifteenth century were expected to turn up at the muster properly and completely equipped, so the English royal administration only had to supply replacement bows. Significant efforts were made to ensure that supplies of these, all of excellent quality, were available for the military archers. As a result there was probably very little variation in the bows the archers used, and no incentive for them to spend money on buying a bow. It is quite possible that some military archers may have had their bows altered to suit them by a local bowyer. Indeed, some of the archers would have the skill to do this themselves. There are occasional references to bowyers being part of a retinue or garrison.

The skill to use these heavy bows effectively does not come easily and the men of England and Wales practised from childhood to develop it. In part they did it because they wanted to but from 1363 onwards they did it because the law said that they should practise archery. There is one question that remains very difficult to answer: is it that only the English and Welsh developed the ability to use this weapon effectively before the fifteenth century? Even after the military reforms of Charles VII in the 1440s, there is no evidence of French archers defeating the English and Welsh archers. The French left the English to their ‘old’ technology and made greater use of gunpowder weapons than the English did, particularly those that could be used in the field rather than purely for sieges or defending fortifications.

The development of arms and armour in England followed the western European traditions as the effigies in many parish churches showing knights and nobles in armour make clear. English armourers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries could not compete with their Continental rivals for quality and design of armour but they produced perfectly serviceable plate. ‘Soft’ armour rather than plate armour became well developed in England, possibly because of the dominance of the archer in English military thinking. It is also probable that since the English knights and men-at-arms expected to be fighting on foot, they wore lighter armours in general, probably with less plate on the legs than was the practice with some of their enemies, particularly the north Italian mercenaries employed by the French. The archers needed to wear protection which allowed their arms and bodies the easy movement necessary to draw a heavy war-bow. These movements are different from those made in hand-to-hand fighting, particularly the way the shoulders and back have to work (a sort of backward curving motion which can be seen in illustrations in many western European medieval manuscripts). As a result the archers tended to wear gambesons, or to a lesser degree brigandines, because these had a degree of flexibility. They would have had limited arm protection, since whatever they used would have to be close-fitting so that it didn’t interfere with the bowstring. This meant that the best protected archers probably wore a sallet, a brigandine which would be sleeveless and short enough to allow the movement necessary and chainmail sleeves and leggings. As with everything else concerning military equipment in the English armies of this time, except for the war-bow, the type and quality of hand weapons owned and used by the individual soldiers depended on their wealth, social status and military experience.

While all the knights and men-at-arms would own and carry a sword and dagger into battle, many had a preference for some other weapon as their primary means of attack. Because they expected to fight on foot some may have used the great sword, but English knights and men-at-arms often preferred the poleaxe. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, this weapon seemed to have a standard length of about 5ft (1.5m), including the head. (The halberd was a parallel development but commonly less ‘stylish’ than the poleaxe, often up to about 9ft (2¾m) long overall, and was widely used by European infantry.) The head of a poleaxe had an axe blade on one side and a hammer head on the other which was spiked like a big meat tenderiser, and a spike on the top. The head often had long, iron fastening strips which provided the wooden haft with some protection against cutting blows. A modern author described this weapon as ‘… to all intents and purposes a can opener, each blade, spike and face designed to crush and pierce armour plate’. This was a devastating close quarters weapon which was used with both hands, the user relying on his armour, skill and ferocity for survival. Shorter battle axes and battle hammers designed for one-handed use, which could be used mounted or on foot, were also used, often with a shield. How much the English knights and men-at-arms used lances or spears on foot is not clear. The English and Welsh archers demonstrated in most battles that they were good close quarters infantry when necessary. Indeed, they seemed to think that this was as much their job as shooting arrows, and enthusiastically took part in close fighting. They did this for a number of reasons: professionalism, loyalty to their comrades, the chance to take ransom-worthy prisoners or other booty and, in many of the battles, survival. Victory was the only way to ensure this; although there is evidence of archers being captured and ransomed, their prospects were very uncertain in defeat. Every archer would have at least one knife, most likely a bollock dagger, and many would have an arming sword or a falchion. Some muster records show that a sword was regarded as part of the basic equipment of an archer, that he must have to be accepted at muster by the late 1420s at least.83 Many may have used a buckler with their sword, showing skills in the traditional English fighting art of sword and buckler play. The buckler is a small shield 6 to 18in (15 to 45cm) in diameter, held in one hand by a grip made behind the central boss. In addition archers may have used weapons that could be hung in their belts like axes and maces.

Scotland had its own traditions in arms and armour. These were influenced both by native traditions in the Gaelic areas of the country, particularly those described in chronicles, histories and other accounts written in medieval Scotland and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Continental traditions imported from England and from France as part of the Auld Alliance. However, the development of arms and armour in Scotland was restricted by the relative poverty and lack of surplus income throughout the medieval period in comparison with England and France. By the start of the fifteenth century, soft armour was the Scottish standard for nobles, knights, chieftains and elite soldiers (Gallowglasses in Irish and West Highland military affairs). This comprised a long-sleeved knee-length aketon made of linen or leather vertically stitched into long, stuffed strips. A full-length mail shirt might be worn over this by the better-off warriors. If grave slabs are any guide, the head was protected by an open-faced bascinet with a chainmail cowl attached to reinforce the protection on the neck and shoulders. It is difficult to know how much reinforced protection for arms and legs was worn. Chainmail leggings or metal splints on forearms and lower legs, if used at all, were more likely among men from the lowlands than among those from the west and the Highlands. Members of the royal family and the high nobility used suits of plate armour by the beginning of the fifteenth century, which were usually imported from Europe. Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, who died in 1405, is shown in full armour on his tomb in Dunkeld Cathedral, while Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas, was allegedly wearing armour three years in the making at the Battle of Homildon Hill. At this battle Douglas was wounded five times, including losing an eye and a testicle, which shows that even very good armour (allowing for some exaggeration over the manufacturing time) was not impenetrable in the press of a medieval battle. Ordinary fighting men wore just an aketon, sometimes coated with pitch or covered in leather, and simple open-faced helmets. In 1385 Jean de Vienne, Admiral of France, reported to the French royal council after an expedition to Scotland that he had seen the whole of the Scottish military array and that there were no more than 500 men-at-arms equipped to the standard expected in France. The rest of the men (he thought about 30,000) he considered to be poorly armed and trained and not to be relied on once the enemy was sighted. This comment shows three things. One is the relative poverty of Scotland reflected in the arms and armour that its people could afford. Secondly, since we can assume that a good number of the men he dismissed wore aketons, he was ignorant of how effective a good one could be. Thirdly, by showing his knightly disdain for many of the Scots, he showed no understanding of their fighting spirit, particularly when facing the English. It is probable that over twenty years later, when the Scots were preparing to send men to fight in France, there were more men with better armour because of the profits made from some substantial cross-border raids in the intervening years. But it would remain the case that a good number of the Scottish men-at-arms would be more lightly armoured than their opponents.

The weapons used varied not only with the wealth and status of the individual, but which tradition he belonged to. As with the English, every man carried a knife. In the Lowlands these might be bollock daggers, but specialised ‘anti-armour’ daggers like the rondel dagger seem to have been rarer, no doubt because there was less need for them in most Scottish warfare. In general, Scottish fighting knives were single-edged and the blade could be as long as 18in (46cm). Men from the west of Scotland (possibly including Galloway, which had a long tradition of being different from the rest of southern Scotland, in part because Gaelic survived there longer than in other parts of southern Scotland) and the Highlands used both one- and two-handed swords, axes of varying sizes, spears, and bows and arrows. The men from the rest of Scotland at this time were less likely to be using two-handed weapons, although the knights and nobles who followed the European tradition of arms probably used the great sword. Arming swords, small battle axes and maces would have been used by the better-off soldiers of all types, or infantrymen who had gained battlefield booty. Spears were common among all classes, almost always for use as hand weapons in the schiltron rather than as javelins. There was some tradition of military archery but it is difficult to know now how widespread it was across Scotland.


The use of plate armour developed rapidly in France in the fourteenth century for a number of reasons. There was a large number of men-at-arms including many nobles and knights who had sufficient resources to keep up with developments in military equipment. It is likely that, since France was a much richer kingdom than England or Scotland, there were more men who had excellent imported armours made to more up-to-date standards than could be found in the other two kingdoms. But such men would still be a minority. French nobles, knights and men-at-arms not only fought the English, and amongst themselves in the Orléanist/Armagnac struggles, but also took part in major international adventures like the ill-starred ‘crusade’ that ended at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. The French knew from bitter experience the dangers the war-bow posed to them and were determined to nullify it if possible by improving their personal protection. Because they hoped to fight on horseback more than English knights and men-at-arms did, and because of their expectation that they would be facing the war-bow, French knights and men-at-arms may have tended to carry shields more than their opponents. In turn, this would have meant that they were less likely to use poleaxes.

The arms and armour of the non-noble troops are less well described. It is reasonable to assume that the urban militias had gambesons and open helmets at least, and that whatever their main weapon, they carried daggers and possibly swords. It has been noted above that an important role for these militias was providing practised missile troops – most commonly, but not exclusively, crossbowmen. These militias had two major roles; they could defend their own walled towns and cities, and they could provide missile troops in field armies.

Other nations

Men from other nations served in these wars, mainly as part of mercenary companies, although some individuals served, maybe bringing some retainers for support. These individuals can be found in both the French and English armies, but most commonly were men-at-arms from Flanders and the Rhineland serving the English king. While there were never large numbers of these men, they were drawn by the prestige of serving such a renowned soldier as Henry V. They were also drawn by the opportunity to earn pay and booty. The French armies included many mercenaries, mainly from Spain, northern Italy and Scotland. With the exception of the Scots, whose arms and armour have been discussed above, these men wore both plate armour and soft armour according to their status, very much within the military traditions of western Europe. It is quite possible that the Spanish troops may have worn less plate, reflecting their experience of fighting the Moors.

The most advanced mercenary troops in terms of equipment were the armoured horsemen from Lombardy. They benefited from the rapid technical advances made by the north Italian armourers noted above and wore high-quality full plate armour with similar quality protection for their horses. Sometimes a north Italian captain would be hired with a number of men-at-arms, but on a number of occasions it is recorded that these men were hired in ‘lances’. The Italian lance at this time was made up of three men: a man-at-arms wearing full armour and often riding an armoured horse, a valet who wore light armour and fought as a light cavalryman, and a page who was primarily non-combatant.