Project 949 (NATO Oscar)

The first third-generation nuclear “attack” submarine was Project 949 (NATO Oscar), the ultimate cruise missile submarine and-after Project 941/ Typhoon-the world’s largest undersea craft. 47 Development of the P-700 Granit anti-ship missile system (NATO SS-N-19 Shipwreck) was begun in 1967 to replace the P-6 missile (NATO SS-N-3 Shaddock) as a long-range, anti-carrier weapon. The Granit would be a much larger, faster, more-capable weapon, and it would have the invaluable characteristic of submerged launch. The missile would be targeted against Western aircraft carriers detected by satellites.

A short time later design was initiated of an associated cruise missile submarine at the Rubin bureau under Pavel P. Pustintsev, who had designed earlier SSG/SSGNs. 48 The possibility of placing the Granit on Project 675/Echo II SSGNs also was considered, but the size and capabilities of the missile required a new submarine.

The Granit would be underwater launched and have a greater range than the previous P-6/SS-N-3 Shaddock or P-70/SS-N-7Amethyst missiles. Being supersonic, the missile would not require mid-course guidance upgrades, as did the earlier Shaddock. The decision to arm the Project 949/Oscar SSGN with 24 missiles-three times as many as the Echo II or Charlie-meant that the new submarine would be very large. The missiles were placed in angled launch canisters between the pressure hull and outer hull, 12 per side. As a consequence, the submarine would have a broad beam-giving rise to the nickname baton (loaf). The 592/3-foot (18.2-m) beam would require a length of 4721/3 feet (144 m), providing for nine compartments. Although the submarine was not as long as U. S. Trident SSBNs, the Oscar’s greater beam meant that the submarine would have a submerged displacement of 22,500 tons, some 20 percent larger than the U. S. Trident SSBNs.

Beyond 24 large anti-ship missiles, the Oscar SSGN has four 533-mm and four 650-mm torpedo tubes capable of launching a variety of torpedoes and tube-launched missiles. 49 The submarine has the MGK-500 low-frequency sonar (NATO Shark Gill), as fitted in the Typhoon SSBN, and the MG- 519 (NATO Mouse Roar) sonar.

The large size of the Oscar and the need for a speed in excess of 30 knots to counter U. S. aircraft carriers required a propulsion plant based on two OK-650b reactors powering turbines and twin screws. The twin-reactor plant produces 100,000 horsepower, according to published reports. This plant and the similar Typhoon SSBN plant are the most powerful ever installed in submarines.

The keel for the lead ship of this design was laid down on 25 June 1978 at the Severodvinsk shipyard. The submarine was commissioned on 30 December 1980 as the Minskiy Komsomolets (K-525).50 Series production followed. Beginning with the third unit-Project 949A/Oscar II-the design was lengthened to 5081/3 feet (155 m). The additional space was primarily for acoustic quieting and the improved MGK-540 sonar, with a tenth compartment added to improve internal arrangements. These SSGNs-as well as other Soviet third generation submarines-are considered to be extremely quiet in comparison with previous Soviet undersea craft. The changes increased the surface displacement by some 1,300 tons.

The large size and cost of these submarines led to some debate within the Soviet Navy over the means of countering U. S. aircraft carriers. As many as 20 submarines of Project 949 were considered, although according to some sources, the cost of each was about one-half that of an aircraft carrier of the Admiral Kuznetsov class. Two naval officer-historians wrote: “It is obvious . . . the ideological development of the [SSGN], namely Project 949, overstepped the limits of sensible thought and logic.”

Project 949/Oscar SSGNs posed a major threat to U. S. aircraft carriers and other surface forces because of their missile armament and stealth. The massive investment in these submarines demonstrated the continuing Soviet concern for U. S. aircraft carriers as well as the willingness to make massive investments in submarine construction.

Through 1996 the Severodvinsk yard completed 12 Oscarclass SSGNs-two Project 949 and ten improved Project 949A submarines. The 11th Oscar II was launched in September 1999, apparently to clear the building hall, and is not expected to be completed. These submarines periodically undertook long-range operations, a concern to the U. S. Navy because their quieting made them difficult to detect and track. On 12 August 2000, as Soviet naval forces held exercises in the Barents Sea, reportedly in preparation for a deployment to the Mediterranean, the Kursk (K-141) of this class suffered two violent explosions. They tore open her bow and sent the submarine plunging to the sea floor. All 118 men on board died, with 23 in after compartments surviving for some hours and perhaps a day or two before they succumbed to cold, pressure, and rising water. The cause of the disaster was a Type 65-76 torpedo fuel (hydrogen-peroxide) explosion within the forward torpedo room, followed 2 minutes, 15 seconds later by the massive detonation of 2 torpedo warheads.

The Kursk, ripped apart by the two explosions, sank quickly. The four previous Soviet nuclear propelled submarines that had sunk at sea had also suffered casualties while submerged, but were able to reach the surface, where many members of their crews had been able to survive. They were able to do this, in part, because of their compartmentation and high reserve buoyancy; the explosions within the Kursk were too sudden and too catastrophic to enable the giant craft to reach the surface.

The End of Granada I

High up against the steep walls dropping straight down to the river Darro, to the north of the palatine city of the Alhambra, the palaces occupied by Boabdil as reigning sultan were well protected by the nearly vertical embankments. Next to these was the mexuar, or administrative area for the Nasrid kingdom, which was entered from the public square and is described for us by Ibn al-Jatib, the vizier of sultan Muhammad V, in 1362. The mexuar had two patios, one where the council of viziers met, and another which housed the royal chancellery, where the royal secretariat’s writing office was located. This office occupied a place of great importance in Granada’s political and cultural life, as the court secretaries were a group of luminaries who wrote not only documents of propaganda and legitimisation but also literary works in prose and verse. All correspondence, official letters, legal and diplomatic documents and private communications were written on the legendary red paper of the Nasrid chancellery. Although white was the most usual colour for paper, as it is today, medieval Muslim craftsmen knew how to make paper of different colours. Red represented the Nasrid dynasty, and documents issued in this shade were appropriate for the lord of the Alhambra, the red fort.

On 16 December 1489 Boabdil wrote a letter on the crimson paper, signed in his own hand and sealed with his seal, addressed to the viziers, sheiks and dignitaries of the settlement of Ugíjar and the farmholdings of the Alpujarran village of Picena, asking for their support. What happened at Baza, he wrote, was the will of Allah, and its loss filled Muslims with pain and diminished western Islam. But now, he stated, Muslims must consider the consequences of how they behave, and reflect with all their good judgement on their situation and future. They must cease their changes of heart and hasten towards what is good with strong resolve and diligence. Boabdil told them that he had agreed an amnesty with the Christians for two years extending to all his people, and urging them to recognise his authority. He encouraged them to exalt their holy cause and confess their absolute unity in private and in public. The sultan’s tone is persuasive and moralising, but also inspiring and affectionate, as he instructs them to accept what he calls ‘goodness and peace’. Just over a month after this letter had been sent, something happened to change his opinion about the amnesty. Early in January 1490, Boabdil sent his trusted vizier, al-Mulih, to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella to enter into talks with them. The subject of those talks is not specified, and it may have related to the recently agreed truce, although some believe it related to the potential handover of Granada. Al-Mulih returned with a letter from the royal couple, and accompanied by two young officers, who seem to have been charged with the task of negotiating for the city itself. One of the men was Gonzalo de Córdoba, aged thirty-seven, who had been inside Granada before when he had provided support for Boabdil against El Zagal, and had also been at the Battle of Loja, where he had apparently persuaded the sultan to surrender the town. Gonzalo had patched up relations between Ferdinand and Boabdil and renewed the secret pact in which the latter was to be rewarded for fighting against his uncle with the gift of a dukedom or a high-ranking title. The other man was Martín de Alarcón, who had been in charge of the arrangements for Boabdil’s imprisonment at Porcuna when he was first captured by the Castilians in 1483, from which time forward Boabdil had been the pawn of Castilian policy. Both men were well known to the sultan, although they were both associated with very negative experiences for Boabdil, which should have made him suspicious.

In his letter of reply to Ferdinand and Isabella, dated 22 January 1490, Boabdil suggested that it would be best to send his representative back to court to speak in person to the monarchs. According to Hernando de Baeza, the sultan realised that the Castilian negotiators were shifting the terms of their agreement and sent a nobleman from his household to the Castilian court at Cordoba to clarify matters. Boabdil was horrified at their response, which we can deduce was along the lines that the Muslims must surrender their arms and the city at once. This, of course, broke the pact of peace and contravened the truce signed with the Christians. Boabdil, now a man of thirty who knew his own mind, was no longer the inexperienced young sultan of 1482. He had been betrayed, imprisoned and maligned, and his son was still held hostage by the Castilians. The new demand must have seemed one betrayal too many. His immediate reaction was to provoke war, but his closest advisers warned against this, and suggested he should send his messengers back a second time. He heeded their advice and sent Aben Comixa, the senior constable of Granada, accompanied by a very good friend of Hernando de Baeza, a merchant called Abrahim Alcaiçí. They returned very unhappy, and confirmed that the Christians had no intention of keeping their word over what had already been agreed twice with the sultan. The news got out and the city was in an uproar. The stage was set once again for war.

The perception of Boabdil as the covert friend and ally of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile has done much to foster the idea that the Muslim leader was a traitor to his people, but it is not borne out by the textual evidence. At no time in their long association did either man pay anything but lip service to the idea of an affectionate, chummy relationship between the two. In their lengthy official correspondence, Boabdil’s letters begin and end with effusive expressions of subservient respect, admiration and solicitude which might lead us to think that he was overly compliant with the wishes of the Catholic Monarchs, until we realise that this flowery rhetoric was a standard part of formal letter-writing style in Arab tradition. The communications sent by the Christians were only slightly less demonstrative and familiar, again in keeping with the habitual language of official letters in the more sober Castilian language.

More revealing of Ferdinand’s true motivation is his letter to the Mameluk leader Qa’it Bey, with whom he had made a temporary alliance against the Ottoman Turks from 1488 to 1491. The Spanish sovereigns described the war against Granada as if it had marginal religious motivation. They wrote of Granada as a vassal kingdom, part of the Castilian crown, which had failed to fulfil its obligations to them, and made out that the war was a punishment of the rebels, nothing more. Those who were willing to surrender were guaranteed the preservation of their faith and freedom in their religious practices. This quite blatantly contradicts the way the war was spoken of inside Castile and by the Christian chancellery, who presented it as a crusade against the enemies of the faith. Queen Isabella’s obsession with winning the war was apparently rooted in her deep Christian beliefs and piety. With crusading zeal, she longed to destroy the last remnants of Muslim power, and resented the presence of a potentially hostile kingdom of different race and religion. But her aim was political unity, fuelled by a desire to build a sense of nation and enlist the support of her people. It was obviously helpful for the alliance with the Mameluks not to show hostility towards Islam, and so the Castilians craftily harked back to the original vassaldom of the Nasrids to the Christians approved by Muhammad I in 1236. As no formal peace treaty had been signed between Boabdil and Ferdinand, only truces, this ancient agreement was still legally valid from the Christian perspective. This version of the situation as it was presented to Qa’it Bey implies that one major reason for war was the acquisition of money and power, masquerading as a religious motive. Another strategic purpose was to take the southeast of Spain from a power closely linked to the feared menace of the Turks, who might recover their strength and join with Granada in the future. So Christian Spain was sending a clear message to the Mameluks that they would do well to keep Ferdinand and Isabella as allies and not enemies.

These political and military manoeuvres reveal the cunning and duplicity of Ferdinand. The notorious Florentine diplomat and writer Machiavelli, who was a great admirer of the Catholic king, stated in his work The Prince that great campaigns and striking demonstrations of personal abilities brought great prestige to a prince. He had Ferdinand in mind. As a young man, the Aragonese prince had been clever and likeable, and, like Boabdil, was an excellent horseman and hunter. The historian Fernando del Pulgar spoke of him as having ‘such grace that everyone who talked to him wanted to serve him’. But his shrewdness was obvious even then – his motto was ‘Like the anvil, I keep silent because of the times’. All his life he had frequented the halls of power. Aged just nine, he had been his father’s deputy in Catalonia, and became its lieutenant at sixteen. He was the ideal successor to his father on the throne of Aragon, which he took over in 1477, brought up in that kingdom, but also having Castilian blood as second cousin of his wife Isabella, which made it easier to unite the two kingdoms by their marriage. In spite of this, he was a womaniser and had at least three illegitimate daughters, all relegated to convents. Historians tell us that Ferdinand was easy-going but also ruthless, devious and more cynical than his wife. The modern historian Hugh Thomas states in his book Rivers of Gold that his instincts were those of a calculating machine rather than a man of passion. And there were the prophecies by the clergy that he would be the king who would win back the Holy Land for Christendom. The dramatic impact of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had renewed the crusading zeal of western Europe, reflected in the popularity of the chivalric novels of the late fifteenth-century such as Tirante the White and Amadeus of Gaul, whose mixture of chivalry and violence chimed with contemporary warfare. There was a sense, as we have seen, that Ferdinand was the man for the moment, and his successes at the siege of Malaga and the taking of the seemingly impregnable Ronda had been personal triumphs. His eye was firmly on the big prize of Granada, whose conquest would make him and Isabella rulers of virtually the whole of Spain.

Boabdil was up against a man who was obsessively ambitious, immensely powerful and an expert military strategist. He knew how to take advantage of the newest trends in warfare developed in the mid-fifteenth century, which included new weapon capabilities, tactics and administrative advances. During the course of this century almost every European army had adopted the gunpowder weapons so successful in siege operations during the Granadan war. Siege artillery had been used in Spain before the fifteenth century: Sultan Isma’il I was reported to have captured the town of Huéscar in 1324 and Baza in 1325 using gunpowder artillery, and we know that the Spanish Muslims used cannon against the Castilian army of Alfonso XI at the siege of Algeciras in 1342. One big mistake by the Nasrids was failing to advance the use of gunpowder artillery in their military strategies. Instead, they left this to the Christians. Ferdinand modelled his siege artillery on the French weapons which had been used in the 1450s, and appointed a French Master of Artillery. The triumphs he had in the war up till 1490 would not have happened without gunpowder technology.

At the same time, Ferdinand’s naval blockade on al-Andalus gave him control of the straits of Gibraltar, the narrow stretch of water between Spain and Africa which either allowed or prevented invasion. Regular Spanish patrols made it impossible for the north African Muslims to make contact with Granada. The third prong of the Christian king’s military strategy was the tala, or devastation of crops, throughout the kingdom of Granada, but most cruelly in the vega surrounding the city itself. To besiege a population and destroy their food supplies at the same time is a deadly combination which Ferdinand used remorselessly. The first tala of the year, on 21 May 1490, destroyed the crops of the vega, whose castles at La Malaha and Alhendín had just been taken by his army.

Despite the threatening situation, Boabdil was in no mood to relinquish his kingdom. Granada was still formidable because of its position and defences, shielded to the east by the great mountain range of the Sierra Nevada and encircled by massive towers and walls of great strength and solidity facing the vega. The sultan had a change of heart and abandoned the dangerous diplomatic game he had been playing for years. Courageously, he launched an attack on the town of Padul, recently acquired by Ferdinand from El Zagal, as soon as the Castilians had withdrawn from the tala in June 1490. The assault was successful and, against the odds, he managed to recapture the town and surrounding area, as well as the castle of Alhendín. No doubt elated by these victories, he went to war against the coastal town of Adra, which was won back with the help of north African volunteers, but a further attack on the coastal town of Salobreña failed in September, as the Muslim army had to hurry back to Granada, where the Christian army was reported to be heading. Boabdil was trying to rebuild his kingdom with modest victories, and probably hoping to open up links from Granada to the outside world now that vital food supplies from the vega were practically non-existent. A chain of seaside bases might provide a tenuous life-line to allow food and other supplies to reach them from north Africa, and a link across the mountain tops to the outside world might also enable a limited amount of provisions and men to get through to Granada. During the rest of 1490, a kind of stalemate was reached. The Castilians didn’t launch a full-scale offensive, but raided and skirmished, with minor successes, and destroyed the crops of the vega for a second time in September. Boabdil refused to surrender, although it was now that his uncle decided to leave his endangered estate and cross over to Oran.

By 1491 the writing was on the wall. Granada lived in fear and hardship, while frantic, secret negotiations went on behind the scenes. In April, once the better weather came, Ferdinand led his army once more towards Granada and intended to stay there until the city surrendered. On 26 April, the army camped near the fountain of a small town called Ojos de Huéscar, known as Atqa to the Muslims, just six miles west of Granada. Here they were joined once more by Queen Isabella and her ladies in waiting: the queen supervised the military preparations and inspected the encampment dressed in full armour. There is a story that she wished to get a closer view of the Muslim city, so the king and queen went to Zubia, a nearby village, and sat at a window which gave an unbroken view of the beautiful Alhambra. The feeling of being spied on by an enemy moving ever closer was too much for the Granadans to endure, and they burst out of the city gates, dragging several pieces of artillery with them, and assaulted the lines of Spanish soldiers stationed between the village and the city to protect the king and queen. The Castilians pursued them back to the city gates and a large number of Granadans were killed before they could regain safety.

The Christian army remained within striking distance of Granada throughout June and July, when Ferdinand made a remarkable decision. Seeing they might well still be in the same position as winter approached, he ordered an entire new town to be constructed on the site of the encampment. Extraordinary as this decision seems, Ferdinand was a man who had been undaunted by re-engineering mountain pathways to accommodate his troops and artillery: his plan was put into immediate action, and his soldiers became artisans. Neighbouring villages were razed to the ground to provide materials for the new buildings, which were erected in just eighty days. Where there had been temporary tents there was now permanent stone and mortar in the form of dwelling houses, plus stables for 1,000 horses. The town had the shape of a rectangular gridiron with two spacious avenues intersecting at right angles in the centre in the form of a cross, 400 paces long by 300 wide, with imposing portals at each of the four points. Inscriptions on blocks of marble recorded the relative share of labour of men from various cities in the work.

While the town was under construction Isabella had been lodged in a magnificent silk tent owned by the Marquis of Cádiz. One night a gust of wind blew over one of the lamps, which set fire to the loose hangings inside, and the blaze spread to nearby tents. It happened in the early hours when the sentinels had fallen asleep, but the Queen and her children managed to escape unharmed, although many jewels, precious silks and brocades were lost, and she had to borrow clothes from her friends. When the buildings were finished and painted in gleaming white, a mayor was appointed, a man called Francisco de Bobadilla, a war hero and commander of the military Order of Calatrava, one of the semi-religious brotherhoods whose members had played a key role in the fighting against the Muslims. The army wanted the town to be named after the queen, but she declined the honour and named it Santa Fe, Holy Faith, as a token of trust in their Christian divinity. If you visit Santa Fe today, it looks much the same as it did in 1491. The church of Santa María de la Encarnación, built later, in the sixteenth century, bears the words ¡Ave María! and a lance sculpted in memory of a Christian nobleman, Hernán Pérez del Pulgar, who had gone to Granada at dead of night in the winter of 1490 via a secret tunnel, to pin a parchment bearing those words upon the entrance to the mosque with his dagger. It was an act straight out of the pages of chivalric romance, and suggests that many Christian knights fought for fame and glory as much as anything else. Most of the monarchs’ advisers, secretaries and treasurers also went to Santa Fe, which was set up as a court as well as a military headquarters. In October 1491 Isabella actually summoned Columbus there, where he stayed all autumn, an unintentional witness to the events unfolding in nearby Granada.

The End of Granada II

In the autumn of 1491 the brazen presence of Santa Fe, with its estimated army of 80,000 men, was a huge psychological blow to the Granadans, as it proclaimed the unflagging determination of the enemy to overpower them. The Nubdhat gives us the Arab perspective on what was happening at this time. The author describes constant fighting between Christian troops and the Granadans, with the enemy gaining all the smallholdings in the area except for Alfacar. He describes bitter fighting for this town and its surrounding area, which was defended with great tenacity by the Muslims who feared that if it also was lost to the Christians, the siege of the city of Granada would then be formalised. There was great loss of life here and in other similar localised fighting. What comes over is the courage and ferocity of the Muslim defence – not content with armed combat, they made nocturnal incursions into the enemy camp, taking advantage of the darkness, or they attacked them on the road, stealing all they could find, including horses, mules, asses, cows and sheep. As a result of this, there was a great deal of meat available in the capital, although it was sold at a high price to the few who could afford it. The Nubdhat states that, during these months of fighting, the Muslim nobility all perished save for a handful of men. Around this time many Granadan Muslims departed for the region of the Alpujarras, driven by fear and hunger. The route to and from the Alpujarras across the Sierra Nevada enabled good supplies of corn, wheat, oil, raisins and other foods to reach the capital, yet the situation inside was becoming more critical, with food and manpower scarce. As winter approached, snow fell in the mountains, cutting off the route and with it the food supplies, so many Granadans were reduced to begging. At the same time, the Christians controlled the vega and prevented the Muslims from ploughing and sowing. Their situation was desperate.

All the time that Ferdinand and Isabella were at Santa Fe, they were pressing Boabdil to hand over the city and leave for the Alpujarras himself, which they had promised on oath that they would grant him for himself and his descendants. The terrible reality of what Boabdil had been forced to agree to eight years before, after his capture at Lucena, resulting in a pact in which his son would be held hostage by the Catholic Monarchs until such time as he handed over Granada to them, was looming large. Perhaps he had thought that it would never happen, that he could put it off indefinitely. That was certainly what he had been attempting to do as the Christians lay in wait on his doorstep, as we can see in a letter to him from Ferdinand in response to the sultan’s latest amendments to the truce, which clearly amounted to delaying tactics. Ferdinand says that he has received Boabdil’s letter and one from his representatives Aben Comixa and al-Mulih, ‘which undoubtedly displeases me because such new demands as you make seem too much to ask and are very unlikely to be granted, and if it was not because I wanted to honour and favour you, I would not have replied to you’. He continues by insisting that Boabdil forget such thoughts, because it is very harmful to be so far from any conclusion, and ‘such delay cannot be of any advantage. I am certainly not pleased, and it is not my responsibility, but rather the blame is yours and those of your city … I would never have believed,’ he goes on, ‘that things would have got to the state they are now in. It has all been uprising and anger and discord, and none of it in my service.’

A parallel correspondence went on between Boabdil’s trusted aide al-Mulih and the influential secretary to Ferdinand and Isabella, Hernando de Zafra. The formulaic language that creates a veneer of mutual respect and care between the two opposing monarchs is echoed in the letters of their representatives, but it can’t cover up the underlying tension between the two parties. The royal secretary tells al-Mulih that his bosses the Catholic Monarchs know he is good and honest, and has the right intentions, while urging him to steer negotiations towards the quickest outcome ‘because otherwise the misfortunes and harm arising for you from any delay will increase’. This letter relates to Ferdinand’s own missive about the sultan’s stalling tactics, and Zafra is trying to get round al-Mulih, although his seemingly friendly tone contains a veiled threat. Al-Mulih is not fooled for one minute, and gives as good as he gets. Addressing Zafra as ‘Special lord and true friend’, he reminds him that when Aben Comixa was in Seville with him, the Christian king and queen were inclined to show great largesse to Boabdil, without any capitulation or obligation to capitulate. The series of letters between the two men are complex and involved. They reveal the intrigues, betrayals and secrecy of this time, when both sides were suspected of treachery, when messengers were liable to present false information, and when conspiracy was rife. Clearly, the correspondence between these two royal officials was deemed to be secret, despite which al-Mulih suggests to Zafra that when he needs to write something really confidential he should ‘put it in a small pocket inside a letter, in case it is necessary to read the letter out before the governor, or in case the sultan wants to know what it says. In this way,’ he says, ‘their secrets will be safe.’ This may have been a ruse to create a sense of confidence and conspiracy between the two, but there is a story that Boabdil distrusted al-Mulih, and almost had him killed. Even the most trusted advisers were liable to be untrustworthy. It is also unquestionable that Zafra used bribery. In a document dated 24 November 1491, just before the capitulations were signed, he recounts an extensive list of fine fabrics given as gifts amounting to over half a million maravedis, to reward minor betrayals by Muslims of their own people. Shockingly, Boabdil’s own siblings and negotiators appear among them.

There is good reason to believe that Boabdil’s mother, who now lived in the Dar al-Horra palace specially built for her in the Albaicin, had some influence on the decisions made in these dark days of the Nasrid kingdom. Hernando de Baeza suggests that Aixa, the queen mother, who had great spirit, fought with all her might against any agreement with the Catholic Monarchs. Whenever a communication from them arrived for Boabdil, she vehemently advised her son to hold firm and die as a king, like his ancestors. As a result, Boabdil began to keep quiet about his dealings with the Christians in case his mother found out. One day the sultan discovered a plot by Ferdinand to draw out the Granadans by starting a skirmish outside the city, which would allow them to enter through the open gates while the guards were being distracted. Luckily, a Muslim spy found out and told Boabdil, who told his knights in turn. They agreed to muster as many men as they could and go out to fight the Christians, rather than let such a great city be taken in such a way.

Boabdil got up early the next morning and anointed his body, which was the custom among the Muslims when their lives were in danger. He called for his arms and put them on in the presence of his mother and sister, then kissed his mother’s hand and asked for her blessing. He hugged his sister and kissed her on the back of her neck, hugged his wife and kissed her on the face, and also his daughter. This was the ordinary routine each time he went to battle, but on that day he asked his mother and the other women to forgive him for any trouble he had caused them. His mother was scandalised and alarmed and asked him why he had spoken like that. Boabdil replied that it was right for him to do so, upon which his mother grabbed him and begged him to tell her where he was going and what he was going to do. She began to cry, and the other women followed suit, and they wept so loudly it was as if he were already dead. Aixa was still holding on to her son, and wouldn’t let go until he told her what he had agreed with the Christians. When he told her she cried: ‘Who are you commending your sad mother, wife, children, sisters, relatives, servants, and the entire city and the other towns under your command to? What account will you give Allah of giving the order for us to die by the sword and lance, leaving the others captive? Think about what you are doing, because great tribulation brings wise advice.’

Boabdil replied: ‘My lady, it is much better to die once, than to live, and die many times.’ ‘That’s true,’ his mother said, ‘if only you die and everyone else is saved, and the city is liberated. But such a grave miscalculation is a very bad decision.’ The sultan asked her to let him go, as his knights were waiting for him, but she wouldn’t release her hold on him until he had sworn on the Koran he carried with him not to put himself in danger and for his men not to leave the city gates. Boabdil went out into the field and ordered the people to be kept inside the city so that what was planned in the Christian camp could not take place. For this reason, says Baeza, many people thought that the queen mother had advised her son to make an arrangement with the Christians to allow his family and all Granadan citizens to cross over to north Africa.

By November conditions had deteriorated in the city owing to food shortages which affected the rich and poor alike, and it was clear to the citizens that the enemy intended to wear Granada down through hunger and not by force of arms. Baeza describes the heart-rending sight of Moorish women with their babies in their arms begging in the streets for food. The suffering became so great that desperate people gathered in gangs, shouting that the sultan must get the help of the Christians, and if he wouldn’t, then they would. All this reached Boabdil’s ears, and he felt it deeply. The Nubdhat tells us that a meeting of all the eminent men of the city was called, both public and private individuals, religious leaders, treasury officials, governors and artisans, as well as what remained of valiant Granadan knights, and many common people – in other words, all those who passed for wise and intelligent citizens. They gathered together and insisted on an audience with the emir, to whom they made clear the dire situation of the inhabitants, describing their extreme hunger and the severe lack of food and other essentials. The city is large, they told him, so if the food that was usually imported was barely enough for their needs, what would happen now that nothing was being imported because the supply routes to the Alpujarras were blocked? They also told him of the great number of brave knights who had perished, the lack of general maintenance, the impossibility of ploughing and sowing crops, and the number of children who had died in recent fighting. ‘None of our Muslim brothers who live on the Moroccan coast come to our aid,’ they added, ‘in spite of the pleas we have sent to them. Meanwhile our enemies have built a whole town to attack us better – their strength is growing and ours is weakening, they get help from their country, while we have no help at all.’

They pointed out to Boabdil that winter was upon them, and the enemy forces were temporarily dispersed and weakened owing to the bad weather, so that hostilities had been suspended for a while. They put it to him that if they entered into dealings with the enemy now, he would accept their proposals and agree to their demands, but if they waited till the spring, when the Granadans would be even weaker and more impoverished, their requests wouldn’t be heard. Boabdil listened carefully, and replied: ‘Do what you think is best, and try to come to a unanimous agreement in line with your interests.’ This was a measured response, unlikely to provoke the wrath of the ulama or the patriots, and shrewdly appeared to give the decision-making power to his people. The last thing the Nasrid ruling class wanted was to be trapped in a destructive conflict caused by the very patriotic spirit they had encouraged among their people. In the end this group of noteworthy men, in consultation with the Granadan inhabitants, agreed to send a request to Ferdinand to open discussions about the fate of their city. What they didn’t know, although some of them suspected it, was that negotiations had been taking place in secret for some time between both parties with a view to surrendering Granada to the Christians. These secret plans meant that Boabdil was able to avoid a much more tragic, bloody and inevitable outcome to the conflict, however much the partisans of resistance militated against them.

The correspondence between Hernando de Zafra and al-Mulih reflects the tense situation between the two opposing sides. Both men underline the importance of secrecy in the negotiations, and it is evident that the Muslims were using every delaying tactic they could think of to defer the final date of any surrender. Zafra wrote to al-Mulih:

Dear brother and great friend, on the basis of what you write about one of your emissaries, I suspect that he may not have the best interests of my king or yours at heart, and is seeking all kind of delays to take things along another path. This will not have a good end, as he is not looking at things as they are, nor remembering that the son of his king is still captive, nor that the latter is in hourly peril of his life.

The ever-present threat of harming Boabdil’s son if the Catholic Monarchs didn’t get their own way resurfaces here; Zafra’s comments show the veiled menace and continual suspicion cast over all dealings between Boabdil and Ferdinand, and their representatives, even when they claim to respect each other.

One Sunday in November Boabdil sent a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in which he answered their request for a firm date for the surrender of the city. His initial suggestion of a date in May 1492 had been greeted with rage by the Christian Monarchs, and with corresponding apparent amazement on the part of the sultan at their reaction. So in this letter Boabdil backpedalled and proffered the end of March instead, when he would hand over ‘the two alhambras’, meaning the palaces as well as the fortress. He knew only too well that at this stage there was no way back, and surrender was inevitable, but he did all in his power to secure the best possible deal for his family and his people. Boabdil’s chancellery prepared a long document on behalf of the sultan setting out his proposals for the surrender of Granada. These replaced any provisional documents drafted previously. The terms, he asserted, were such that when Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to them, he would undertake the handover. First and foremost, on the day that they received the Alhambra, they must release Boabdil’s son, still prisoner in Moclín, and hand him over to his father, along with all the other hostages and their servants, without delay. The release of the prince Ahmed was almost certainly always Boabdil’s central preoccupation and had been so from the time his son became a hostage.

There followed a long series of practical conditions and religious stipulations. In essence, all Granadan Muslims should be allowed to keep their religion, mosques and leaders, and the muezzin’s call to prayer should continue, for all time. No Christian should be allowed to enter a mosque, nor be ordered to stay in a Muslim house, but at an inn, as they did under Muslim rule. Muslim figures of authority should be honoured, and any lawsuits between Muslims were to be judged by qadis and Muslim law alone. There was to be no forced religious conversion of Muslim children, and no married Muslim woman could convert until the statutory legal time had passed; nor could any elches, or Christians who had converted to Islam, be persecuted or forced to reconvert. Nor should any Muslim be forced to bear a distinguishing mark of any kind. Boabdil also stipulated that Jews living in Granada should have the same rights as Muslims under the terms of the surrender.

The practical conditions demanded that all Muslims should be allowed to keep their possessions for all time, including arms and horses; only a Muslim lawyer could pass judgement on their inheritances, and no punishments could be inherited. All Muslim merchants must be able to trade freely as in ‘tiempo de moros’, the time of the Moors, both in Granada and elsewhere in Spain, and Muslims were to live free of taxes for five years. Those Muslims who wished to leave for north Africa were to have freedom of movement overseas, as well as in Spain, taking all their possessions, with a five-year window in which to depart, and within which to return if they wished. Their property was to be sold by procurator after their departure, if necessary. All Muslim captives were to be released upon surrender of Granada, along with the hostages, and all Christian captives would be released at the same time. No Christian would have the right to speak cruelly of the past.

Boabdil’s desire to preserve the religious life and customs of his people, both present and future, and to negotiate a situation which would allow them the greatest possible freedom and tolerance is plain to see. He was sensitive to their feelings and took pains to try to avoid any sense of the inferiority of Muslims under Christian domination, as his stipulation about unkind words shows. The practice of Islam, and its material manifestations of the mosque, minarets and muezzins, were paramount, as was the aljama or Moorish quarter of the city, from where Muslim lawyers, judges and community leaders operated. Boabdil’s inclusion of the minority group of the Granadan Jews in the terms of surrender, where he states that they ‘should benefit like us from these terms’, is particularly poignant when just months later, in the spring and summer of 1492, all Jews, not just those from Granada, would be expelled from their native Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

The sultan’s personal stipulations related to money, land and people. He requested 30,000 castellanos for himself, plus 10,000 castellanos each for his aides, the governors Aben Comixa and al-Mulih. Castellanos were the gold coins minted by the Castilians, especially Ferdinand and Isabella, each worth 485 maravedis, the silver or gold coins used in everyday transactions, until they were struck in copper for distribution in the New World after 1492. The sums Boabdil asked for were substantial. He also asked for all the fortresses within his jurisdiction and that of his two governors. All Muslim captives from the kingdom were to be returned within three months of surrender, starting with one hundred on the day of handover itself. The Christians, who were suspicious of an uprising, had demanded hostages over the period of transition, and Boabdil offered fifty people to act as hostages, to be handed over by Aben Comixa on the agreed day of the surrender for a period of three days while the enemy received the Alhambra and made the necessary arrangements there. He reiterates the obligation of the Catholic Monarchs to hand over his son and the other hostages, as well as the total of 50,000 castellanos, on the fated day. The details of these stipulations were set out in a long document to the Christian rulers by al-Mulih, who was even able to add a touch of humour in asking for some mules, one of which, he wrote, should be tall and broad in order to accommodate Aben Comixa, who must have been a man of generous proportions.

Ferdinand and Isabella’s response to these petitions was to use Boabdil’s text, but to reformulate it, subtly adjusting the terms to suit their purposes. The artfulness of drawing up the terms of surrender lay in satisfying Boabdil’s requirements while leaving the path open for the conversion of the Muslim population, and the reconversion of elches back into the Catholic faith. The devil was in the detail. Boabdil’s version expressly mentions the voice of the muezzin, who climbs the minaret of the mosque five times a day to call the faithful to prayer, maintaining a tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The words of the call proclaim ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger’, a statement of a blasphemous nature to the Christian church. The clause finally approved by the Catholic Monarchs was subtly adjusted and refers to retaining mosques and the call to prayer, without mentioning the voice of the priest. His voice would no longer be permitted to be heard over the city of Granada.

Ambrosius Aurelianus

When the Romans left Britain, they didn’t just take their belongings with them; they took their entire way of life. Over the centuries, Roman rule had civilized Britain. The abrupt departure of the Romans left a vacuum the Anglo-Saxons were happy to fill, but the two invaders could not have been more different. The Romans had introduced government to Britain, central political and economic structures that had created an orderly and prosperous life for most. They had also established long-distance trade, money, taxes, roads, sanitation, pottery, and glass. When the Romans left, they took all of these innovations with them and under the illiterate, “barbaric” Anglo-Saxons the British were reduced to a barter economy and lived in a more primitive state than their ancestors before.

Those who were able to escape fled to Armorica in Gaul (modern-day France) where they settled by the sea in a land that closely resembled that which they had left behind. To this day, inhabitants of the part of France now known as Brittany speak in an unusual Welsh-sounding dialect that is an ancient British tongue. For those who remained behind in Britain, the only option was to run and hide from the fearful barbaric warriors who would kill them on sight.

It is at this desperate juncture in British history that Ambrosius Aurelianus appears and the legend of King Arthur is born. Little can be fact-checked on the life of Ambrosius Aurelianus, but it is thought that he was a Roman general of impeccable lineage who had remained behind in Britain when the Empire fell. Aurelianus may have had a son who was Romano-Celtic and given the same name, and as a result, the British army of resistance against the Anglo-Saxons may have been active under a leader named Aurelianus for two generations.

Under the second Aurelianus, who has been described as a Welsh prince, the first effective resistance to Anglo-Saxon forces was established. Saxons were pushing further and further west, forcing Romano-British deeper into Wales. Aurelianus gathered the surviving Roman-British and organized them into a military force, capable of standing up to the Anglo-Saxons. In a series of battles, the British resistance managed to reclaim important territory, forcing West Saxons out of Dorset and as far as Wiltshire.

These skirmishes reached their climax in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, or the Battle of Mount Badon, which is thought to have taken place around the year 500 AD. We cannot be sure exactly where Mount Badon is. Most of the assumptions historians are able to make about this period of ancient history come from archeological findings. Evidence of a hillfort manned by Romano-British people was found at Little Solsbury Hill in southern England, close to Bath, leading some historians to believe that this is Mount Badon. Others think it more likely that Aurelianus was defending the north of England and that Mount Badon is probably located in Cumbria, known as Camboglanna in Roman times.

What little information we have about Ambrosius Aurelianus and the Battle of Mount Badon comes from just one scant source: the sermon of a sixth-century British priest or monk named Gildas. Gildas, who was known as Gildas the Wise, wrote the sermon De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) as a religious re-telling of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and the aftermath. It is thought that Gildas’ text was written sometime between 510 and 540 AD, meaning Gildas was writing about events as they were happening or at the very least had happened within living memory. As such, Gildas’ text is incredibly valuable to historians studying this particular period of British history. Gildas, for example, offers one of the very first descriptions of Hadrian’s Wall.

On Ambrosius Aurelianus, Gildas says only, “A gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him, our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.”

Gildas account of Aurelianus and his followers’ Christian piety and bravery in this first section of his sermon contrasts with the next two parts in which he condemns contemporary leaders for their sinful ways. Was Aurelianus a real man? And if so, was his life the foundation of the legend of King Arthur? One theory suggests that Arthur was a nickname given to Aurelianus by his men. In early Anglo-Saxon times, Arthur meant “bear man” and alluded either to Aurelianus being a particularly powerful and hairy man or to his habit of wearing a bear skin cloak.

The next mention of the British leader who led his men to victory at Mount Badon comes from the Welsh cleric Nennius, who wrote Historia Brittonum (History of Britain) around 830 AD. Nennius lists twelve battles between the British and the Anglo-Saxons, but unlike Gildas, he names the leader of the battles Arthur. Arthur is briefly mentioned again in the slightly later Annales Cambriae, compiled during the seventh or eighth century. This weighty chronicle was written anonymously and includes references to the Battle of Badon during “year 72” with the detail, “Arthur bore the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were the victors.” Arthur’s death is also listed as having occurred during a battle at Camlann in 539 AD. It’s not much to go on, but it was enough to spark the imagination of subsequent generations who looked to these ancient texts as proof of the origin of the legend of King Arthur.

The Battle of Mount Badon became legendary as it was the first military victory the Romano-British had achieved over the Anglo-Saxons and secured relative peace for 50 years. Peace was disrupted again in 550 AD when a massive and devastating new wave of Saxons descended on Britain and took almost complete control of the land. By the seventh century, there was no such thing as Britain; four distinct cultures were sharing the cluster of islands we now refer to as the United Kingdom.

What remained of the Romano-British stayed in Wales and the southwest, but by now they had taken on the language of the Celts. A culture known as the Gaels lived in Ireland and the northwestern region of Scotland. The Pictish kingdoms kept control of the land north of the Roman Wall. And the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes controlled the vast majority of England, territories they named Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, Wessex, Sussex, and Essex. The very term Welsh is an Anglo-Saxon one, derived from Wielisc or Wyliscand meaning foreign or slave. Even today, the Welsh term used to describe England translates roughly as “the lost lands.”

It’s impossible to say how much of Aurelianus or King Arthur’s life happened, and focusing too much on historical evidence is beside the point. The time period in which King Arthur was supposed to have lived was a real period in British history that later became known as the Dark Ages. Looking back at the Anglo-Saxon invasion their ancestors lived through, subsequent generations needed a hero whose bravery and Christian virtues were something to look up to, and this brings us nicely to the legend of King Arthur in the twelfth century.

T-34/76 and T-34/85 Part I


The heavy tank design bureau In Leningrad had reversed many years of Soviet practice by naming their new tank the Klimenti Voroshilov, or KV after the egregious Defence Commissar. With some courage, Koshkin told Voroshilov that the new tank should not be named after another hero of the Soviet Union; rather they should return to using the traditional designations. Koshkin suggested the designation T-34 to commemorate the 1934 state decree which ordered a massive expansion of the Soviet armoured forces. It was also the year that Koshkin had had his first ideas about the new tank. Accordingly, Koshkin’s proposal was accepted.

Once the team received official sanction to build a purely tracked medium tank, they had returned to their original design for the A-32. The T-34 required thicker armour, but it also needed to be equipped with more firepower as well as a reliable transmission. Morozov and the transmission group devoted considerable time and effort to finding a solution to these problems.

The two prototypes were ready by January 1940, and Koshkin took them on a gruelling trial march to prove the hardiness of the design. He drove them from Kharkov to Moscow, and here the tank was presented to the Red Army. Following this presentation, they were sent on to Finland for combat tests against the Mannerheim Line, but unfortunately they arrived too late to see any action. However, Koshkin and his team were able to demonstrate the power of the T-34’s armament against captured Finnish bunkers. There were further firing trials in Minsk, and then it was on to Kiev, and finally back to Kharkov. This round trip had covered a distance of 2880km (1800 miles) in the bitter weather of February and March.

During June the drawings were completed and mass production began. The first production T-34 Model 1940 rolled out of Kharkov in September 1940. During the gruelling winter test-drive, Koshkin had contracted pneumonia, and he died on 26 September 1940. Morozov, now head of conceptual design, took over the T-34 project.


As the T-34 was produced from different factories, models and types varied. In August 1939, the Soviet Main Military Council accepted the T-34 as the Red Army’s medium battle tank. The new design was completed during December 1939 and became known as the T-34 (Model 1940). On 19 December 1939, the drawings and models of the new T-34 were submitted to the High Command, which accepted them for production, even though the prototype had not yet been completed.


The first production-line models were fitted with V-2 diesel engines, but shortages meant that some of these early models were equipped with the older M-17 petrol engine. Problems with transmissions were such that the T-34/76 (Model 40) often went into battle with spare transmission units secured to the engine compartment deck by steel cables.

The Model 40 had a rolled plate turret and a short 76.2mm (3in) L/30.3 (L-11) Model 1938 tank gun mounted in a distinctive cast cradle welded to a flush outside mantle. The Model 40 established a standardization pattern among the T-34 variants of having a great number of interchangeable parts, such as engine, armament, transmission and periscopes. Mechanical simplicity was a prime concern. The hull was of a welded construction throughout, with only three different thickness of rolled plate armour.

The Christie suspension had five large, double road wheels on each side, with a noticeably larger gap between the second and third wheels. The drive sprocket, located for safety to the rear, was of the roller type used on the BT series and powered a cast manganese-steel track with centre guide horns on alternative track links. This first model of the T-34 had a distinctive turret overhang and a clumsy turret hatch occupying the entire rear part of the turret. The Model 40 had one periscope fitted on the front lefthand side. In late 1941, a small number were fitted with the long-barrelled, high velocity 57mm (2.24in) ZiS-4 gun, to engage light armoured vehicles at greater ranges than the 76.2mm (0.303in) L-ll.

T-34 (MODEL 1941)

The second model of the T-34 appeared in 1941 and was essentially a commander’s Model 40 with a rolled plate turret mounting a more powerful Model 1940 76.2mm (3in) L/41.5 gun. The same clumsy turret hatch was retained, but some of these variants had twin periscopes. While there was no change in the layout of the hull, these commander’s tanks had a stowage box on the righthand track guard. The most noticeable feature of the 1941 model was the replacement of the peculiar cast gun cradle by an angular, bolted type. During 1942, a model appeared with a cast turret and it also had new, wider tracks. Some were fitted with a flamethrower (ATO- 41) and had an armoured fuel container on the rear plate of the hull.

T-34 (MODEL 1942)

In 1942 the cast turret (as opposed to rolled plate) became standard in the Model 1942. The new turret weighed 4.4 tonnes (4.32 tons) and had a ring diameter of 1.38m (4.6ft). The Model 1942 had various improvements, taking into account reports from the battlefield. The commander and gunner now had separate hatches, and a new hull machine-gun mounting made the 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine gun more effective in close-quarter battle.

In early 1942 a team designed a new T-34, the T-34M, with a chassis similar to the KV tank (with smaller road wheels), and a completely new hull and turret layout. However, this tank was not accepted for production, and only the hexagonal shape to the T-34/M turret was retained for the next variant of the T- 34, the T-34/76 Model 1943.

The T-34 Model 1943 was manufactured in response to battlefield reports which showed that one drawback of the current T-34 design was the turret overhang at the rear that was vulnerable to attack by Teller mine-armed infantry tank-hunters. The new, cast hexagonal turret with no overhang became the Model 1943 and included other changes, such as improved fuel capacity and welded armour plate components.


Subsequent T-34/76 models are best known by their British classification. The Models E and F were both produced in 1943. While the basic hull and turret structure of the T-34/76E remained the same, it had a more effective air-cleaning and lubrication system. The hull design was also improved by using automatic welding processes with improved materials that gave stronger, higher-quality joins. The Model ‘E’ clearly demonstrated the advances made in Soviet industry. This new confidence in tank construction meant that each new T-34 model was more rugged and better equipped.


The Model ‘F’ had a distinctive appearance as, while it had no commander’s cupola, the model had contoured undercuts around all the sides and the front. The main difference to the F was, however, in its internal workings. The T-34/76F had new, highly efficient automotive components. The old four-speed gearbox was replaced by a five-speed box that made gear-changing easier and increased the speed of the T-34. The air filter was refined further and a level of care and thought went into the mechanics of the T-34/76F that set it apart from earlier models. However, only a limited number of this type were produced as production began to move in a much more radical direction.

By 1943 it was apparent that the 76.2mm (3in) gun on the T-34 was inadequate. The model incorporated many new design features, and had added armour protection, but it was still undergunned. The appearance of the German long-barrelled high-velocity 7.5cm (2.95in) (L/48) and 8.8cm (3.46in) tank guns finally proved that the T-34 had to be up-gunned, and this was to lead to the genesis of the T-34/85.


With its 85mm (3.34in) gun, the T- 34/85-I that appeared in 1943 was basically an up-gunned T-34. The T- 34/85 had a new turret originally designed for the KV-85 tank with a ring diameter of 1.56m (5.2ft). This created the space for an extra crewmember and simplified the tasks of the tank commander, who previously had helped with the gun. The T-34/85-I was first issued to elite Guards Tank units, and the new gun soon proved its worth. Based upon the pre-war M-1939 85mm (3.34in) antiaircraft gun, it had an effective range of 1000m (1100yd) and, it was claimed, was able to penetrate the frontal armour of the German Tigers and Panthers.

T-34/76 and T-34/85 Part II

The front hull, looking forwards into the driver’s and bow gunner’s stations from low down in the loader’s station inside the turret ring. The driver’s steering levers, pedals and gear shift are quite evident; the machine gun has a canvas bag rigged to catch empties, and plentiful spare drums stowed around it – note also its telescopic “peep”. An escape hatch is let into the floor in front of the gunner’s seat.

Looking forward from the loader’s station right of the gun breech: note the floor made up of ammunition bins; drum magazine rack for co-axial machine gun on right of turret; below it, turret traverse lock. This turret has been called cramped; but it appears fairly roomy compared with the M4A1 Sherman, and positively luxurious after the badly designed two-man turret of the old T-34/76.

The T-34 was the most influential tank design of the Second World War. Its revolutionary design gave it a gun, armour and mobility superior to any known medium tank at that time, it had sloping armour 32mm thick, a compact powerful diesel engine less capricious than its petrol predecessors and a turret cast in one piece rather than cold rolled steel.

In January 1940 a prototype T-34, mounting a 76.2mm gun, drove all the way from Kharkov in the eastern Ukraine to Moscow for a demonstration to the leadership at the Kremlin. It then motored on to Finland to demonstrate its firepower against captured Finnish bunkers. Another punishing return drive to Kharkov via Minsk and Kiev underlined its impressive mechanical reliability. It was accepted.

One interesting consequence of the 1939 Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact was the presentation of a Panzer Mark III to the Russians. The German Liaison Officer in Moscow assured his hosts it represented the pinnacle of the German armoured inventory. It was immediately dispatched to the GABTU Russian tank-proving grounds at Kubinka for evaluation and found to be inferior in firepower, armour and mobility. The investigation report derided it as `a pretty toy, over-engineered and needlessly comfortable for the crew’.

Internal wrangling with the military resulted in production delays, and only 115 of 600 planned T-34 tanks were produced in 1940. During the following spring a torsion bar system was introduced to upgrade the Christie suspension, a longer and better 76.2mm gun was fitted and the frontal armour was strengthened to 60mm. Increased space in the turret and hull created better fighting conditions for the crew. By the time the Germans invaded, just under a thousand T-34s had been delivered.

The T-34’s sloping armour meant that only 75mm rounds could get through. It was easier for drivers to get out from beneath the massive hatch at the front of the hull. Powerful engines increased mobility, and the diesel fuel appeared less susceptible to flame when hit.

The problem with the T-34 was that until just days before the invasion few crews had even seen it. Most of the early fighting was not tank against tank but infantry anti-tank versus these inexperienced Russian crews. Tank gunners were especially poor, armoured units performed badly, tanks were not effectively recovered, and there were production defects and a lack of spare parts. Reconnaissance was also poor, and all too often tanks were caught and bombed on flat rail cars before they even got to the front. The 32nd Tank Division, fighting near Lvov in the first month of war, lost thirty-seven out of forty-nine KV-1s and 146 out of 173 T-34s, with 103 dead and 259 wounded.

When the German Panzers first encountered properly handled T-34s in any numbers – those of Col. Mikhail Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade, at Mtsensk, south of Moscow, on 4 October 1941 – the experience was profoundly shocking. Since the launching of Operation Barbarossa in June the German tankers had been massacring their Soviet opponents in enormous numbers. Although much of the huge Red Army tank fleet was technically obsolete or mechanically unserviceable, many hundreds of excellent new KV-1 and T- 34 tanks had in fact been delivered; Soviet weakness lay in the standard of command and control, communications and tactical training. Their repeated easy victories led some Panzer officers to express a puzzled contempt for their enemy that summer. Yet after Mtsensk, no less a leader than Gen. Heinz Guderian would admit the plain superiority of the T-34 over the German Panzer IV – and recommend that German designers should simply produce a direct copy of it, as the quickest solution.

Throughout the terribly costly years of 1941 and 1942, newly promoted young Russian tank officers learned and applied the hard-won lessons; and the factories – some safe far beyond the Urals, some a couple of miles from the front lines in besieged cities – kept on pouring out T-34s. The type was steadily improved; before the appearance in early 1943 of the Panther (inspired by German study of the T-34), the Panzer divisions had nothing which could challenge it head to head. From spring 1944 the up-gunned 85mm model could give Panthers and even Tigers a run for their money – and now the balance of sheer numbers had tipped back in Russia’s favour. Although newer, more powerful designs appeared by 1945, the T-34 remained by far the most numerous tank in Red Army service. It was the faithful tridsatchetverka (“little thirty-four”) which pushed back the ramparts of Hitler’s empire, all the way from Stalingrad to the streets of Berlin.

All the features incorporated in the T-34 were originally embodied in the T-32 experimental tank built in 1939, prototypes of the T-34 itself being built in 1940. Production followed quickly and in May 1941, on the eve of the German invasion, there were already 967 T-34s. Compared with 517 Pz. Kpfw. IV the T-34 was not only more numerous but was superior in terms of fire power and mobility. It also had superior protection, even though the thickness of the Pz. Kpfw. IV armour had increased to a maximum of 50 to 60mm. raising its weight to 21 tons against 26.3 tons of the T-34.

After most of the older tanks were lost in 1941, the T-34s became the basic Soviet tanks in 1941 and 1942, when they were usually assigned by battalions or brigades to infantry divisions. Subsequently they were used increasingly within the framework of tank and mechanised corps, which were recreated in 1942. To meet the demand for it, the T-34 was produced on a very large scale. In fact, throughout the whole of the war its annual rate of production exceeded that of all the German tanks taken together, attaining a peak of 15,812 in 1943, and by the end of June 1945 its production reached a total of 53,497 tanks.

Production of theT-34/85 continued after World War II, not only in the Soviet Union but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia; one source states that it may not finally have ceased until 1964. Exact figures are unknown, but authorities estimate wartime production of all T-34 models at around 40,000, with about the same number built post-war. The T- 34/85 was supplied to many foreign armies after 1945; it saw action with the North Korean, Egyptian, Syrian, Hungarian, North Vietnamese, Cuban and Angolan forces, and small numbers lingered on in Africa and Asia until the more modern T-54/T-55 series became cheaply available in the Third World. The T-34 shares with the M4 Sherman, and the British Centurion, the record for the longest service life of any AFV in history – so far… Crewing the T-34/85 Inside, the T-34 is noticeably roomy compared to the Sherman. There is no turret basket providing a separate floor for the fighting compartment, revolving with the gun; the gunner, loader and commander sit on seats attached to the turret ring or to the gun, or stand on the ammunition bins which form the floor of the hull – and when the turret traverses, you’d better be ready to traverse yourself along with it, or you can get snagged in the works.

As is common in Soviet tanks, the gunner (who on earlier models of the T- 34 had to double up as the tank commander) works from the left side of the gun. The controls for the superb D-5T 85mm gun are elegantly simple: hand wheels for elevation and traverse, a single periscope for a wide field view of the area in front of the gun, and a telescopic sight for alignment with the target. The gunner uses an electric drive to traverse the turret rapidly into rough alignment with the target, then shifts to the handwheels for precision gun laying.

The TC has a flip-down seat behind the gunner, and a cupola with all-round-vision optics and a large forward-opening hatch. He operates the radio, which is mounted on the turret wall to his left. The gunner shares his hatch for entry and escape.

The loader works from the right side of the turret; it must help if he’s left-handed, because serving the gun is awkward for a right-handed man. He feeds the gun initially from a ready rack holding nine rounds, stowed against the hull. Most of the ammunition – officially, another 51 rounds – is stowed in the protected bins which form the floor of the hull interior; getting it out and up to the gun, while the tank was rocking and rolling across country, must have been quite a challenge. He has his own hatch in the right side of the turret roof, but no cupola.

The driver and bow gunner sit side by side up front, with limited headroom; but because the final drive is at the rear of the tank they don’t have a big transmission tunnel filling up their space. The driver uses a conventional pair of track braking levers for steering control, just as in most other tanks of the period. These are notoriously stiff, and cross-country navigation requires considerable brute strength; it is a longstanding joke that T-34 drivers must have been recruited (or deliberately bred…) about five feet tall, with ape-like arms of roughly the same length. Stirrup-type pedals are provided for the clutch (left) and parking brake (right), and a pedal operates the foot throttle (far right); the hand throttle and gear shift lever are to the driver’s right. An extremely Spartan array of instruments to the driver’s left and front report on basic engine conditions. A high pressure compressed air tank is attached in front of or left of the driver, part of an ingenious and very efficient system for starting the engine in cold weather; the primary starter motor is electrical.

When out of battle the driver enjoys much better forward vision (and ventilation) than most of his contemporaries: a hatch large enough for him to enter and leave the tank is set in the glacis ahead of his station, and can be hinged up and fixed open when conditions allow. When it is locked down for combat forward vision is as mediocre as in other tanks of the time, through two periscopes set in the hatch.

In early model T-34s the bow gunner/radio operator often didn’t have much to do, since only the tanks of platoon commanders and above were even fitted with radios – the rest had to communicate by waving signal flags…. In the T-34/85, which saw the radio moved up into the new three-man turret, he was still not over-employed unless the driver got killed or wounded, when he was supposed to drag him out of the seat and take over.

His ball-mounted 7.62mm DT machine gun was aimed (in a rudimentary fashion) through a small x2 telescopic sight; it was useful against any infantry foolish enough to position themselves directly in front of the hull. The DT is fed by drum magazines, and a plentiful supply of spare drums are provided in racks to the bow gunner’s front and right. The gun has a telescoping shoulder stock and a separately stowed bipod mount; it was the bow gunner’s job to dismount it for ground combat if the crew abandoned the tank. He had plenty of time: unless by some miracle the floor hatch had enough ground clearance, he wasn’t going anywhere until either the driver or the loader had made it out of their own hatches.

T-34 Road Report:

“The T-34 is crude, basic, noisy, smoky, smelly – a very charming, very Russian tank! I like the T-34; it is simple, without frills, designed to fight and survive, without any consideration for crew comfort. Working in the turret could be dangerous. Visibility isn’t great, particularly for the bow gunner, who can’t see anything unless it’s directly in front of his little ‘scope. But it will take off and run really well – it is a fast, reliable tank.

“The driver has to be built like a horse to drive it, but once you’re out in open country it rides very well; the tracks are wide enough to give it good floatation. You are surrounded by fuel and ammunition, but the armor is thick and beautifully shaped – the shape of the vehicle was well ahead of its time.

“The V-12 engine is a great powerplant, very well designed and highly dependable. I’ve never had a problem with Soviet engines, anyway. They do burn oil, but the Russians planned for that, and you’ve got a big tank to keep the crankcase filled – if you aren’t burning oil in a T-34, it means there’s no oil in the engine. And the air start system works really well – the engine fires up every time.

“The gunner’s sight is pretty good for its time – good field of view and a pretty bright sight system. The turret traverse system is simple but effective. The real problem is communication between the commander and the gunner, which has to be good, because the gunner doesn’t have a wide field of view.

“You can’t really sneak up on somebody with them, but they weren’t designed for that – they were designed for the attack. And if they’d gone up against our American tanks of the time, we’d have lost: it’s a much better design than the M4 Sherman, with a lower silhouette, much better gun, better armor, better slope, a great suspension system, simpler, easier to maintain – a superior machine.


The origin of the term Schiltron, also variously spelled schiltrum or schiltrone, is obscure. A strong body of opinion holds that it translates as a shield-round or shield-ring, but whilst at first sight attractive this interpretation is not supported by the evidence.

Shield-rings as used by Saxon and Norse warriors were a defensive formation protected by an interlocking ‘wall’ of large round shields. Scots pikemen on the other hand sometimes carried a small round shield or target, but this was very much a secondary weapon to be used with a sword when pikes were broken or discarded. Moreover with the notable exception of Wallace’s debacle at Falkirk, the schiltron was not a ‘round’ defensive formation at all, but rather a dense line or column. Contemporary writers in fact use the term indiscriminately to describe any formation of infantry drawn up in close order.

A far likelier interpretation of the term therefore is that it is a composite of the old Scots word schilt or sclut which means to tread slowly and deliberately as men in formation must, and rone, which is an old term for a thicket.The moving forest or thicket of pikes is a frequently encountered similie, used to describe such formations in English sources, and may indeed also echo the famous advance of Birnam Wood on Dunsinane.

From the very beginning the Scots were spearmen. The nobles, knights, bonnet lairds and burgesses who led them might have had more and better armour, and swords as well, but that merely fitted them to stand in the front ranks of the schiltrons; this evocative term which has been variously interpreted but which best translates as moving thickets – a veritable forests of pikes.

Scots law required every man between the traditional ages of sixteen and sixty to turn out in time of war, but most of them probably got no further than the local wapinschaw – weapon showing – where only those adjudged fit to bear ‘arms defencible’ were entered on the rolls – hence the term fencibles. Then, depending on the scale of the levy, one man in four or even one man in eight would actually be picked, thereby ensuring minimal disruption to the local economy and leaving a substantial reserve which could still be called upon in an emergency. In theory those men who were actually levied out were only bound to forty days’ service. There was no question of course of their simply turning around again and heading for home at the expiry of those forty days. But if the campaign continued beyond that time the responsibility for feeding and maintaining them passed from the sherriffdom or royal burgh which had levied them out, to the Crown.

It is important to draw a distinction between what might be termed local and Royal levies, for only the latter were maintained in service long enough to receive proper training at unit level. The normal size for a body of infantry throughout military history has always been about 5-600 men whether it be called a schiltron, a regiment or a battalion, and, until the advent of the musket, they were normally formed up in six ranks, which was the optimum depth for both stability and manoeuvrability. Three or four of these self-contained units could be brigaded together under a single commander, but if they were then to move, let alone manoeuvre effectively without dissolving into a rabble, it was necessary to drill them – intensively.

Scots infantrymen were primarily armed with 3.6 metre (12 foot) spears which eventually evolved into long pikes. Their English counterparts on the other hand were generally armed with bills. These were relatively short weapons with large blades, whose resemblance to tin-openers was far from co-incidental, and which were extremely effective in hand-to-hand fighting. The Scots also used to them to a degree, but the evidence suggests that for so long as the momentum of the attack could be maintained the ordinary Scottish spear was more than effective enough to quite literally push back the opposing formation.

It is worth emphasising this pushing business, for while it might be expected that the pikes or spears might transfix those getting in their way it seems to have been a rare occurrence. Indeed if it were otherwise it would have been very hard to find anyone willing to stand in the forefront. Instead, a contemporary account of the Battle of Langside in 1568 provides an interesting description of what really happened when two bodies of pikemen met head on:

‘…He and Grange, at the joining, cried to let their adversaries foot lay down their spears, to bear up theirs, which spears were so thick fixed in the others jacks, that some of the pistols and great staves, that were thrown by them which were behind, might be seen lying upon the spears… Grange reinforced that wing which was beginning to fly; which fresh men with their loose weapons struck the enemy in their flanks and faces, which forced them incontinent to give place and turn back and long fighting and pushing others to and fro with their spears… the only slaughter was at the first rencounter, by the shot of the soldiers which Grange had planted at the lane-head behind some dykes…’

It is also worth noting the emphasis placed on the fact that there were few casualties in the encounter, first because instead of transfixing the opposing soldiers, the pikes were lodged in their jacks – padded coats or jerkins – and secondly because Grange allowed the defeated side to get away. Ordinarily, if the scrum collapsed the victorious side would mercilessly set about the losers as they struggled to rise and flee. The fact of the matter was that despite its dramatic potential relatively few men were ever slain in hand-to-hand combat, but a great many were killed running away from it.

Should the momentum of the attack be lost however, as described at Langside, the handier bill then came into its own and from the English point of view therefore it was vital to bring the schiltrons to a halt as quickly as possible. At first it appeared that the natural solution was to ride them down with cavalry, of which English armies were always well provided, but it soon proved to be a chasteningly one-sided encounter and unless the schiltron was already in disorder the English cavalry invariably came off worse.

Indeed in looking at the relative effectiveness of pikemen and cavalrymen, the conclusion has to be that it was no contest. In theory a heavily armed knight should have no trouble whatever in riding down any number of infantrymen, but a formation of pikemen six ranks deep will quite literally present a veritable hedge of about a dozen spear-points, which a horse will invariably ‘refuse’. A good rider might be still able to force a well schooled mount forward, but not with sufficient momentum to seriously disrupt the formation – as a surprising number of English knights time and again discovered the hard way.

A far more effective way of stopping the schiltrons soon proved to be the English longbow. Although the Scots also employed longbowmen they were never as effective as their southern counterparts, but it is important to note the near uniqueness of the English article. It is all too easy to see him as a humble peasant bringing down the mighty chivalry of France at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, but in reality he was a well trained and equipped professional soldier. He had to be, for archery was certainly not a part-time occupation. Mastering a yew bow with a draw-weight of some 100lb required long training from boyhood and constant practice thereafter. He had to be in superb physical condition, well fed and possessed of sufficient time to dedicate to developing and maintaining his skill. For that reason archers were drawn from amongst the sons of yeoman farmers and they expected, and received, high wages commensurate with their services.

Those services at their most basic level boiled down not to displaying individual feats of marksmanship, but upon laying down a heavy indirect fire upon the target; shooting rapidly into the air in order to create an arrow storm which dropped with considerable velocity on to the schiltrons from above, sowing death and dismay on the unarmoured men in the rear ranks rather than the better protected men in the front.

For the Scots then, winning battles meant attacking, marching forward and then maintaining the momentum of the assault long enough to break the enemy formations in front, while conversely for the English it was all too often a matter of simply standing their ground and shooting down enough Scots to stop them.


The Battle of the Masts – 655 AD

Roman Emperor Constans II personally commanded a fleet of 500
ships. He sailed south meeting the smaller Arab fleet off of the province of
Lycia in the southern portion of Asia Minor.

In spite of the rapidity of the Roman military collapse in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the 630s and early 640s, the strategic outlook for the imperial authorities c.652–3 was not entirely bleak; there were still a number of cards that the Emperor in Constantinople could hope to play. First, although the Eastern Roman Empire of the late sixth and early seventh century does not appear to have possessed much by way of a standing navy, the Romans were far more experienced than the Arab high command in operating at sea, and could take advantage of the huge stretch of coastline that the Arabs now had to police to cause the invaders problems similar to those which Rome’s extended desert frontier had posed emperors in the sixth and seventh centuries. The frontier, in short, could not be defended in its entirety, and the Romans could attempt to destabilise Arab rule by striking almost anywhere along it.

Second, although the resources of Asia Minor were severely depleted, the empire still controlled extensive and economically highly productive territories in southern Italy, Sicily, and north Africa, which could be harnessed to finance a Byzantine counter-strike. Third, in spite of Christological differences between Constantinople and leaders of the Church in Armenia, Syria, and Egypt, with one or two exceptions, there was little sign of anything but hostility towards the Arabs on the part of the Christian clergy, members of which, if properly handled, might yet be turned to in order to mobilise broader bodies of support in the occupied territories, especially in the Transcaucasus. It is instructive that the authors of both the Armenian History and the Egyptian Chronicle of John of Nikiu, although rabid anti-Chalcedonians, regarded the Arab invaders with palpable animosity. Fourth, it was highly likely that the leaders of the Arab armies of conquest, flushed with tribute and the spoils of war, would fall out amongst themselves, opening the way to a restoration of Roman rule. It was thus a matter of the utmost importance that the imperial authorities remain in contact both with key figures among the inhabitants of the occupied territories in Syria and Palestine, in order to identify potential allies and clients should Arab rule begin to fragment, as well as with the lords and churchmen of the Transcaucasus, so as to be in a position to piece together a Heraclian-style ‘grand alliance’ capable of striking down from the north and sweeping the Arabs before them.

The imperial authorities’ ability to emulate Heraclius in this respect was severely impaired, however, by the aftermath of the crisis on the steppe orchestrated by the T’ang rulers of China. A newly stable nomad state, the Khazar khaganate, was only just taking root to the north of the Caucasus in place of the Turks, and was yet to be fully integrated diplomatically by Constantinople. In 642 the Arabs had struck across the Caucasus and defeated the Khazar khagan on the lower Volga and momentarily forced him to accept Islam. Although this initiated over a century of intermittent hostilities between the Khazars and the Arabs, the Romans were not yet in a position to take advantage of the situation militarily.

Constantinople also faced a number of other difficulties with respect to putting any grand strategy against the Arabs into place. A Roman counter-strike, as we have seen, would need the active support of the leaders of Miaphysite communities in both the Transcaucasus and the occupied territories. It was thus important that the imperial government adopt a pragmatic and conciliatory stance with respect to Christology. In his attempt to hold together the East, Heraclius had permitted a modification of the Christological position adopted at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 and reached out, with some success, to Miaphysite communities. This had been done by examining ways in which one could describe the human and divine in the person of Christ to have been galvanised by a single unifying energy (a policy known as monoenergism) or will (monotheletism), thus avoiding discussion of His natures. This attempted compromise had enunciated shrill condemnation from hard-line supporters of the Council of 553 (known as ‘Neo-Chalcedonians’), such as the Patriarch Sophronius in Jerusalem, but, of necessity, their voices were not those to which the ear of the Emperor had inclined.

The same imperative to reconcile Miaphysite opinion was incumbent upon the regime of the young Emperor Constans II. For Constans, however, the situation was complicated by the fact that, whereas Heraclius’ war effort had depended upon the resources and population of Asia Minor and Anatolia, the war machine that the new Emperor now needed to put in place was dependent upon the resources of southern Italy and north Africa; however, episcopal opposition even to Justinian’s attempted engagement with the Miaphysite leadership was intense there, and had almost broken the authority of the Pope in Rome, sparking a schism with the north Italian churches that had only recently been healed. Robbing Peter while cutting a deal with Paul would be no easy matter.

Moreover, neither the imperial government nor what remained of the East Roman army appeared to be fit for purpose. Upon Heraclius’ death in February 641, the throne had initially passed, in accordance with the late Emperor’s will, to his eldest son, the twenty-nine-year-old Heraclius Constantine, ruling jointly with Heraclius’ eldest son by his second wife (his niece Martina), the fifteen-year-old Heraclonas. Just three months later, however, Heraclius Constantine had died of tuberculosis, leaving a boy on the throne under the care of his mother, who now became regent. Many in court and ecclesiastical circles had regarded Heraclius’ marriage to his niece as an incestuous abomination and the children as degenerate bastards. Rallying support around the regime of Martina and Heraclonas was thus fraught from the start, and opinion began to strengthen in favour of the late Heraclius Constantine’s ten-year-old son, Constans.

The commander of the Eastern field army, Valentine, marched on Chalcedon trumpeting the young prince’s claims, while rioting directed against Martina and her entourage broke out on the streets of Constantinople. In September, Valentine entered the city. Martina and Heraclonas were deposed, although, as an act of kindness, they were not executed. Instead she had her tongue slit and Heraclonas’ nose was sliced open, such physical disfigurements traditionally being regarded as incompatible with imperial office. Valentine was now the dominant political figure in the empire, but as the military situation deteriorated, opinion had in turn hardened against him. In 644, as the Arabs raided deep into Asia Minor and, in Italy, as the Langobards defeated and killed the Byzantine governor, or ‘exarch’, and occupied Liguria, Valentine was himself strung up by an angry mob. This had secured Constans’ place on the throne, but it had also left a youth of barely fourteen years of age in charge of affairs. Critically, during the political paralysis resulting from these court intrigues, the Arabs had been able to secure their grip on Egypt and Alexandria.

A further round of infighting in Constantinople, of uncertain date but presumably aimed at deposing the young Emperor, is recorded in highly colourful and clearly exaggerated terms in the Armenian History. As in the reign of Phocas, the result was a purge of the Senate and court:

What more shall I say about the disorder of the Roman empire, and the disasters of the slaughter from which the civil war was never free, and the flowing of the blood of the slaughter of prominent men and counsellors in the kingdom who were accused of plotting the emperor’s death? For this reason they slew all the leading men; and there did not remain in the kingdom a single counsellor, since all the inhabitants of the country and the princes in the kingdom were totally exterminated.

This crisis of political leadership had coincided with a crisis in the administration of the army and the state. The war-torn remnants of the East Roman field army as it had been pulled back into Anatolia and Asia Minor appear to have been in utter disarray. Maintaining and supplying the troops in the field—even billeting them—is likely to have posed near insurmountable problems, given the cash-starved nature of the state and the fact that already under Heraclius there are signs that the administrative machinery of the Praetorian Prefecture, on which the fiscal system and the army depended, was in a state of collapse and had effectively had to be dismantled. In 638, as noted in Chapter Seven, a Roman counter-attack against the Arabs in northern Syria had alienated the local population by virtue of the fact that the imperial army had been obliged to forage for supplies: the units under the command of the Armenian general David, we are told, had had ‘no scruples at all about plundering the population down to their last possession. They also tortured men and women cruelly to discover where hoards of treasure had been buried.’ By the early 640s matters would have deteriorated further. In such circumstances, the army could barely be relied upon even for the defence of Anatolia and the land approaches to Constantinople, let alone an aggressive campaign to regain lost ground. The imperial army and its system of supply needed to be dramatically overhauled, and a navy had to be put in place so as to attack the Arabs, defend Asia Minor, and secure the lines of communication and supply to the west.

There are indications that by the mid-640s those around Constans II were beginning to take matters in hand, and the boy-Emperor himself was asserting his authority to ever greater effect, demonstrating that it really was Heraclius’ blood that flowed through his veins. It was on the reorganisation of the army and the piecing together of a specialised naval capability out of the empire’s extensive merchant fleet that attention was necessarily focused. At some point in the early 640s, the surviving units of the Roman field army in Anatolia, presumably bolstered by local levies, had been organised into newly consolidated regiments called ‘themes’, or themata; those of the ‘Anatolikon’ (comprising survivors of the Eastern regiments formerly under the magister militum per Orientem); the ‘Armeniakon’ (from the forces under the magister militum per Armeniam); the ‘Thrakesion’ (from the Balkan field army); and the ‘Opsikion’, probably built up around a core of privately armed retainers, Transcaucasian volunteers, and men-at-arms who, like freedmen (ex-slaves) in Roman law, had an obligation of loyalty and service (obsequium) to their masters.

Growing Roman naval confidence had been revealed when in 646, the expeditionary force under Manuel had set sail for Egypt, where a dispute between the new amir al-mu’minin Uthman and the general Amr ibn al-As had led to the latter’s removal from office and subsequent disaffection on the part of the Arab rank and file. Presumably operating out of Cyprus, Roman marines had been able to occupy Alexandria and fan out across the Nile Delta. This was a serious challenge to which Uthman had responded with forthright pragmatism: Amr ibn al-As was immediately restored to his command and, from his base at Babylon, the Belisarius of the Arabs was able to prevent any Roman advance up the Nile Valley. Defeating the Roman expeditionary force near the town of Nikiu, he retook Alexandria after a short siege. A retaliatory attack was then launched on Roman Africa where, in 647, the Exarch Gregory was defeated in battle and fell in the field. This was not entirely bad news for Constans, as in 646 Gregory had rebelled against his rule and declared himself Emperor on the pretext of imperial ‘monotheletism’. Amr ibn al-As then withdrew to the Pentapolis on the edge of the Libyan desert, securing the land route to Alexandria.

The Arabs now set about commandeering the resources and labour of the Alexandrian and Palestinian shipyards to put together a navy of their own, something they achieved with remarkable success, which may indicate that they were able to draw upon seafaring traditions on the part of Yemeni and other Muslims from the coastal zones of the Arabian peninsula. In 649 a large fleet under the command of the Governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, arrived off the coast of Cyprus, where the Arab forces were able to land effectively unopposed and amass a great deal of booty. In 650 a second Arab army occupied the island. That same year the small but strategically vital island of Aradus (Arwad) off the coast of Syria was attacked and, in 651, fell after an extensive siege.

Although events were not entirely going the Emperor’s way, we can see Constans II and his regime making concerted efforts to respond to the objective military and political needs of the day. The imperial government also began to sketch the outline of an ecclesiastical strategy aimed at undercutting the theological complexities of the interminable Christological dispute. The solution proposed by the imperial edict, or Typos, promulgated in 648 was disarmingly simple: henceforth discussion of how many wills, energies, or natures Christ possessed was to be prohibited. Christians were to be reminded of the core Nicene faith that all had in common. From a partisan perspective however, silence was unacceptable, as it simply provided a cloak for error and a cover for the path whereby the souls of the faithful were led to perdition. In 649 Pope Martin I convened a council in Rome, attended by the hard-line eastern Neo-Chalcedonian monk Maximus, at which the Typos of Constans was formally condemned. The newly appointed Exarch in Italy, Olympius, was ordered to force Martin to sign the Typos just as, in 553, Vigilius had eventually been compelled to sign the denunciation of the ‘Three Chapters’. Instead Olympius chose to side with the Pope and, in 650, following in the footsteps of the African exarch Gregory, declared himself Emperor.

Fortunately for Constans, Olympius died of bubonic plague before he was able to reach Sicily. His replacement as governor, Theodore Calliopas, proved more reliable. Pope Martin and Maximus were arrested and sent to Constantinople. There both were tried and found guilty of treason. Condemned to death, the Emperor intervened to commute the punishment imposed on the churchmen to exile. Whilst Pope Martin was sent to Cherson, on the northern coast of the Black Sea, where he died in 656, his collaborator Maximus (remembered for his mystical theology as the last Father of the Greek Church) was mutilated and sent to the fortress of Schemarion in Lazica, where he passed away in 662. Constans’ actions made Justinian’s humiliation of Vigilius look like child’s play and spoke of the Emperor’s absolute determination to extricate Constantinople from the crisis in which it found itself.

With the fall of both Cyprus and Arwad, military pressure on the Eastern Roman Empire was renewed and in 651 Isauria in southern Asia Minor was raided. This was ominous for the Romans because, although the new ‘theme’ regiments were now in existence, the reformed systems of remuneration and supply envisaged for them were not yet in place. Accordingly, the Governor of Isauria, Procopius, was authorised to travel to the high command of the Arab western field army in Damascus, where he negotiated a three-year truce in return for tribute. The Arab commander in Syria, Mu’awiya, took advantage of this to direct his army to Armenia where, as we have seen, in 653 he secured the submission of Theodore Rshtuni, the commander of Roman allied forces in the region. Now in his twenties, and capable of providing real military leadership, Constans took charge of the situation. Rather than sit back and observe the collapse of the empire’s client network in the Transcaucasus, on which hopes for imperial survival, let alone recovery, would depend, he led his forces east into Armenia to rally support. At Karin, Theodosiopolis, and Dvin, he secured pledges of loyalty from a number of Armenian princes and was able to send troops into Iberia. He also signed a concord with the head of the Armenian Church. Slowly, the Emperor began to piece back together a Christian alliance across the Trancaucasus, as Theodore Rshtuni lay holed up in his fortress island on Lake Van.

Taking advantage of the Emperor’s Armenian sojourn, and using it as a pretext for war, Mu’awiya massed his forces for a joint land and sea attack on Constantinople, greater even than that which the city had faced in 626. He reportedly wrote to the Emperor inviting him to convert and accept the status of a client and tributary: ‘If you wish to preserve your life in safety, abandon the vain cult which you learned from your childhood. Deny that Jesus and turn to the great God whom I worship, the God of our father Abraham. Dismiss from your presence the multitude of your troops to their respective lands. And I shall make you a great prince in your regions and send prefects to your cities. I shall make an inventory of the treasures and order them to be divided, three parts for me, one part for you. I shall provide you with as many soldiers as you may wish, and take tribute from you, as much as you are able to give. The Emperor hastened back to Constantinople.

The dockyards of the Near East and the cities of northern Syria were thronged with shipwrights, sailors, soldiers, and slaves as the forces of jihad were summoned from throughout the lands ruled by the umma. In the occupied territories the Emperor’s allies attempted to thwart these ominous preparations: in the Syrian port town of Tripoli, we are told, ‘two Christ-loving brothers … were fired with a divine zeal and rushed to the city prison. They broke down the gates and after liberating the captives, rushed to the emir of the city, whom they slew together with his suite and, having burnt all the equipment, sailed off to the Roman state.’ Even such acts of sabotage, however, could not hold back the Islamic juggernaut. As Mu’awiya’s Syrian armada amassed off the shore of Asia Minor, the young Emperor decided to lead the Byzantine fleet against them. A major engagement took place off the south coast in the bay of Phoenix in the summer of 654. The result was a decisive Arab victory after which, we are told, ‘the sea was dyed red with Roman blood’. The Emperor himself narrowly avoided capture, escaping back to Constantinople in disguise. The Arabs now seized the islands of Crete, Rhodes, and Cos before sailing north towards Constantinople.

At the same time Mu’awiya’s armies advanced across Anatolia. Roman resistance beyond the capital crumbled. As the Armenian History records: ‘While he [Mu’awiya] marched to Chalcedon … all the inhabitants of the country submitted to him, those on the coast and in the mountains and on the plains … the host of the Roman army entered Constantinople to guard the city.’ With the arrival of a second fleet from Alexandria, Mu’awiya was ready to initiate his assault on the imperial capital: ‘Behold the great ships arrived at Chalcedon from Alexandria with all the small ships and all their equipment. For they had stowed on board the ships mangonels, and machines to throw fire, and machines to hurl stones, archers and slingers, so that when they reached the walls of the city they might easily descend from the top of the towers and break in. … He ordered the ships to be deployed in lines and to attack.

Within Constantinople, Constans is reported to have ‘lifted the crown from his head, stripped off his purple [robes] … put on sackcloth, sat on ashes, and ordered a fast to be proclaimed’. Prayerful and sober, the Emperor and his subjects awaited the Arab onslaught. It was now that Mu’awiya ran out of luck. According to the Armenian History (our closest contemporary source), a sudden and violent storm blew up that first contained and then wrecked much of the Arab fleet, leaving what remained, it might be imagined, prone to Roman assault, rather as had befallen the Slavs and Persians in 626. ‘On that day’, the History declares, ‘by his upraised arm God saved the city through the prayers of the pious king Constans.’ With no means of crossing over to the European side of the Bosphorus to assault the Land Walls of Constantinople, the Arab expeditionary force was obliged to withdraw in haste before winter set in. A second Arab army was defeated by Roman forces in Cappadocia. Driven back into Armenia, an attempt was made by the Arabs to save face by launching an assault on the Romans’ allies in Iberia. The Iberians, however, held firm, and ‘beset by snow’, the Arabs were obliged to retreat south.

For the first time in a generation, the Arabs’ foes sensed blood. ‘The Armenian princes’, we are told, ‘from both Greek and Arab territory … came together at one place and made a pact with each other that there should be no sword and shedding of blood among them … for the lord of Rshtunik [the Arabs’ client Theodore] had fallen ill and withdrew to the island of Altamar [in Lake Van]. He was quite unable to come out or form any plans. They divided the land according to the number of each one’s cavalry.’ With Theodore isolated, Arab authority over the Transcaucasus—always precarious—collapsed. Further east, in the old Parthian territory of north-west Media, ‘the Medes rebelled from submission to Ismael. They made their refuge and retreat the fastness of the land of Media, the deep forested valleys, the precipices, the rocks … and the strength of those active and intrepid peoples who inhabited them. … They began to bring together the surviving militia and to organize battalions, in the hope that they might be able to escape from the teeth of the dragon and from the cruel beast.’ In 655 the Romans launched an offensive in Armenia. Although this campaign was successfully contained, there was little the Arabs could do to prevent revolts from flaring up across the Transcaucasus. Recriminations soon broke out amongst the Arab high command.