It was not until 410 BC that Carthage’s seventy-year sabbatical from Sicilian affairs came to an end, when it was decided to lend help to the city of Segesta in a dispute that had flared up with its Greek neighbour Selinus. The reason for this foreign-policy volte-face probably had more to do with increasing concerns over the growing influence of Selinus’ ally Syracuse than it did with solidarity with Segesta. After the death of Gelon in 478, Syracusan power had quickly waned and Sicily had once more become a patchwork of feuding city states and minor warlords. Economic and demographic decline had quickly followed, with many mainly Elymian settlements in western and central Sicily contracting greatly in size or even being completely abandoned. However, by 410, after spectacularly repelling an Athenian invasion, Syracuse began to re-emerge as a major power on the island–one that might potentially take advantage of the continuing turmoil in western Sicily.

Segesta and Selinus were located in the west of the island, close to the Punic cities of Motya, Solus and Panormus, which, although politically independent of Carthage and neither significant markets for Carthaginian goods nor major exporters to the city, were still of great strategic importance to Carthage, being key coordinates on the trade routes that linked the North African metropolis with Italy and Greece. The sense of a renewed Syracusan threat may have been the stimulus for the construction of a new system of fortifications at Panormus. The Greek cities of Sicily were also important trading partners. Diodorus, taking his information from earlier Sicilian Greek historians, explained that the enormous wealth of the city of Acragas in the late fifth century came in part from supplying olives to the Carthaginians. The Carthaginian economic hegemony in the central Mediterranean appears to have been built around the control of foreign trade. Profit was gained not only through Carthage’s own participation in this trade, but also from taxing foreign merchants who wished to operate in markets for which Carthage increasingly provided ‘protection’, such as the Punic cities on Sardinia and Sicily. Moreover, allies could be rewarded by the grant of trading rights in ports over which Carthaginian influence extended. Initially, at least, Carthaginian intervention in Sicily was driven by the desire to protect this system.

For the Magonids, there were other, more personal, considerations. Carthage might have become the richest and most powerful state in the western Mediterranean under their stewardship, but the disaster at Himera remained a blemish on that proud record. Magonid prestige at home would undoubtedly be boosted by a triumphant return to Sicily. Now that major domestic constitutional reforms had been bedded in, the Magonids may have considered this a good time to act abroad. Unsurprisingly, it was Hannibal, the present leader of the Magonids and the grandson of Hamilcar, the defeated commander at Himera, who was the main advocate within the Council of Elders for Carthage lending assistance to Segesta. When that assistance was agreed, in 410, he was put in command of the expeditionary force.

In an attempt to ensure that the Syracusans did not become militarily involved in the dispute, the Carthaginians sent envoys to Syracuse requesting their arbitration. This strategy delivered the desired result when the Selinuntines refused Syracusan intervention. The Syracusans then decided to renew their alliance with Selinus while maintaining their peace treaty with Carthage, thereby staying neutral. The Carthaginians then sent 5,000 Libyan and 800 Campanian mercenaries, supplying them with horses and high salaries, to assist the Segestans.

After the Segestans with their hired military help had routed a Selinuntine army, both sides turned to their respective allies, Carthage and Syracuse, for help, which was granted, thereby putting the two great powers on a collision course. Preparing himself for war, Hannibal mustered a formidable army made up of Libyan levies and Iberian mercenaries, and started to prepare the necessary sea transportation to carry his army across to Sicily. After these troops, siege engines, missiles and all the other equipment and supplies that were needed had been loaded into 60 ships and 1,500 transports, in 409 the armada set off.

Once it had safely landed, the army was joined by Carthage’s Greek and Segestan allies, before marching directly to Selinus, where Hannibal, aware that the Selinuntines were holding out for the arrival of Syracusan allies, did everything in his power to capture the city as quickly as possible. Giant siege towers were dragged up to the walls, and battering rams were taken to the gates. Archers and slingers were also employed to keep up a constant stream of missiles. (Unfortunately we are almost completely reliant on the extremely hostile (and much later) testimony of the Sicilian Greek historian Timaeus for information on this, and later, Carthaginian military campaigns in Sicily. Though he provides a considerable amount of information on Carthaginian troop movements, much of his analysis needs to be treated with extreme caution.)

The Selinuntines had recently spent so much effort and expense on the construction of a series of magnificent temples that they had neglected the repair of their city walls. The Carthaginian siege engines soon punched holes in these fragile defences, and battalion after battalion of fresh troops were thrown at the breaches. However, knowing how catastrophic the consequences of defeat would be for them, the citizens of Selinus mounted a desperate defence that held the Carthaginians at bay for another nine days. Indeed, it was only when, in a moment of confusion, the defenders withdrew from the walls that the Carthaginians gained access to the city. Despite this piece of good fortune, progress was still painfully slow, as each street had to be taken by fierce hand-to-hand fighting while women, children and old men rained stones and missiles down upon the heads of the Carthaginian troops. The end arrived when the Selinuntines, who had at last run out of options, made a futile last stand in the marketplace. After a fierce fight, they were all cut down. Diodorus (once more following Timaeus’ hostile testimony) then provides a vivid, but one suspects highly partisan, account of the supposed outrages inflicted on the city and its surviving inhabitants by the Carthaginian troops, which he contends left the streets of the city choked with 16,000 corpses and many buildings burnt to the ground.

Hannibal’s next target was surely no surprise to its inhabitants. Using the same tactics that had been so successful at Selinus, the Carthaginian army hit Himera with a sustained, high-tempo assault. However, the Himerans, deciding that attack was the best form of defence, marched out of the city and, as their families cheered them from the walls, attacked the Carthaginian army. Although initially startled by this unexpected tactic, the numerically superior Carthaginian forces eventually managed to drive the Himerans back into their city. There the decision was now taken to evacuate as many of the citizenry as possible on Syracusan ships. Those left behind were instructed to hold out as best they could and wait for the Syracusan fleet to return for them. It never did, and on the third day the city fell. Once more Diodorus provides a lurid account of the outrages committed, on the orders of Hannibal himself, by the Carthaginian troops. Unlike Selinus, which had only its walls destroyed, Himera was to be razed to the ground and its famous temples pillaged. Hannibal then supposedly rounded up the 3,000 men who had been taken prisoner and, in a bloody memorial to his grandsire, slaughtered them at the very spot where it was said that Hamilcar had fallen. After that, rather than pressing on and taking full advantage of the Sicilian Greeks’ disarray, the Magonid general paid off his army and returned to Africa.

Despite the strictly limited nature of Hannibal’s Sicilian operation, there is little doubt that it had set an important precedent for future Carthaginian intervention. Carthage’s extensive use of mercenary troops resulted in the production of the city’s first coinage to pay them. Previously Carthage had resisted the introduction of coinage, which had first appeared in the Greek world at the beginning of the sixth century. However, the Punic cities of Sicily, clearly influenced by their Greek counterparts on the island, had started minting their own coinage much earlier, in the last three decades of the sixth century.

As their chief purpose was to pay mercenaries, who wished to have high-value Greek-looking coinage, the new Carthaginian coins borrowed heavily from western Greek designs and weight standards. They were decorated with two motifs that became increasingly associated with Carthage: the horse and the palm tree. They carried one of two superscriptions: Qrthdst (‘Carthage’) or Qrthdst/mhnt (‘Carthage/ the camp’). The latter term, which basically meant ‘Carthaginian military administration’, is surely confirmation that the coins were only for a specific purpose. Carthage’s lack of a permanent presence in Sicily at this time is highlighted by the fact that the troops were recruited and drilled in Africa, and it appears that the supplies and coinage were also shipped from Carthage.

There were now clear signs that Hannibal’s actions had further destabilized the island. Within two years, in 407, Carthaginian troops were back on Sicily after Hermocrates, a renegade Syracusan general, had attacked the Punic cities of the south-west. Despite Diodorus’ assertion that their aim was the conquest of the whole island, the Carthaginians were wary of taking further unilateral action. The discovery of a partial inscription in Athens shows that the Carthaginians sent envoys there to seek an alliance. The Carthaginian heralds received a warm welcome, and were invited to participate in civic entertainment. The inscription appears to have been a positive recommendation from the Athenian council that steps should be taken to cement such an alliance if the wider citizen assembly ratified it. The council also recommended the dispatch of a diplomatic mission to Sicily to meet with the Carthaginian generals and assess the situation. However, even if this alliance was sanctioned, the Athenians, stretched by long years of conflict with Sparta, provided no practical assistance to Carthage.

After collecting together another sizeable army, made up of Carthaginian citizens, North African allies and levies, Hannibal and a younger colleague, Himilcar, set out for Sicily.66 However, the campaign got off to an inauspicious start. First the fleet was attacked by the Syracusans, with the resulting loss of a number of ships and the remainder of the flotilla having to flee into the open sea.67 Then, after the army had managed to land on Sicily and had started to besiege the exceptionally wealthy Greek city of Acragas, it was struck by an outbreak of plague that killed many men, including Hannibal. Diodorus, taking his cue from Timaeus, records the questionable detail that Hannibal’s fellow general, Himilcar, in order to appease the god’s anger, sacrificed a young boy to Baal Hammon. Subsequently, after suffering a defeat at the hands of the Syracusan army, the Carthaginians managed to retrieve the situation sufficiently that they forced the citizens of Acragas hurriedly to evacuate their city. Diodorus/Timaeus describes how Himilcar and the Carthaginian army then went on a looting session, seizing all manner of works of art and other precious objects from the abandoned temples and mansions. However, this is one of the few occasions when we possess a document–a Punic inscription from the tophet at Carthage–which, although incomplete, provides a Carthaginian view of these events:

And this mtnt at the new moon [of the month] [P] ‘It. year of Ešmunamos son of Adnibaal the i [Great?] and Hanno son of Bodaštart son of Hanno the rb. And the rbm [general] Adnibaal son of Gescon the rb and Himilco son of Hanno the rb went to [H]alaisa. And they seized Agragant [Acragas]. And they established peace with the citizens of Naxos.

Despite the limited nature of the information that it imparts, the inscription stands as an important reminder of how one-sided and partial our usual historical view of these events actually is.

Eventually, in 405, the Carthaginian generals, having lost over half their army to plague but having gained a strategic advantage, offered Syracuse a treaty of peace, which was accepted by their hard-pressed foes. Understandably, the terms were very favourable to the Carthaginians. Their authority over the indigenous and Punic areas of west and central Sicily was recognized, and the payment of an annual tribute to Carthage by a number of cities on the island was ratified.

Operation Prime Chance

An aerial view of the leased barge Hercules with three Mark III patrol boats and the tugboat Mister John H tied up alongside in the northern Persian Gulf.

In conjunction with Operation Earnest Will (Aug 1987 to June 1989) the United States tasked its Special Forces Command with deterring Iran from using naval mines to impede Gulf shipping. In a response to losses in its naval forces, Iran began a new strategy in the Tanker War by using various forms of naval mines to slow Gulf shipping. The use of mines goes back to World War I, with mines being a cheap and effective defensive weapon. Moored mines were common in World War II, yet mines do not need to be moored to be effective. A secondary use is strategic area denial. Placement of mines in strategic passages effectively and cheaply denies passage to ships. The effectiveness of an area denial strategy is increased when the party planting the mines has knowledge of the currents and eddies that are present in shipping lanes. By planting mines in currents that will take them into the shipping lanes the planter can lessen their chances of detection and retaliation (Larson et al. 2004, Krepinevich et al. 2003, Truver 2008). Seeding currents could even be done from one’s own territorial waters making efforts to deter the mining difficult. In order to disrupt Gulf shipping Iran began to use free-floating mines in the Gulf in mid-1987.

Operation Prime Chance was carried out by American Special Forces, with the goal of interdicting Iranian vessels that were seeding the Gulf with floating mines. While the re-flagging operations of Earnest Will were publicized, Prime Chance was secret (Cordesman & Wagner 1990, Crist 2001, Kelley 2007, Selby 1997). The plan was for Army and lesser numbers of Navy helicopters to interdict the mine laying vessels, which were in many instances revamped fishing vessels or the ubiquitous Arab Dhow. Using night vision devices the helicopter pilots operated from land, ships (Navy helicopters only) and barges (the Wimblown and Hercules) known as Mobile Sea Bases (MSBs). Attached to these mobile platforms were two or three US Navy Seal patrol boats that followed up on various contacts, boarded suspicious vessels and provided security for the bases. As floating bases the MSBs were moved from one part of the Gulf to another in response to mining activity. The operation lost its secrecy on September 21, 1987 when American forces staged an attack on the Iran Ajr, a small ship used by Iranian forces for mine laying. Attacking by air and then by sea the ship was seized, intelligence collected, and then the ship was scuttled. The incident demonstrated that Iran was indeed responsible for mining of the Gulf (Cordesman & Crist 2001, Kelley 2007, Selby 1997, Wagner 1990). Video footage of the Iran Ajr laying mines in the Gulf was broadcast worldwide and undermined the Iranian government instance that the mines were planted by Iraq and the United States in order to embarrass Iran.

Operation Prime Chance provided political cover for the re-flagging operation given the mines that were hit in the course of getting the operation going and the lack of mine clearing vessels in the American Navy’s inventory. Having to rely upon third parties to clear the mines was an embarrassment to the Reagan Administration and Operation Prime Chance was a way for the Untied States to stop the mining of the Gulf in a secret and effective manner. Politically the success of the Iran Ajr seizure enabled the Administration to demonstrate that Iran was behind the mining of the Gulf. Undercutting the credibility of the Iranian government at this juncture was important for the United States and the Gulf States because both Iraq and Iran were almost to the point where they were ready to call for a cease-fire in their eight year old war.

For Iran the mining of the Gulf was a rational strategy used to intimidate the Gulf States from supporting Iraq. The American response was perhaps stronger than anticipated and the operations were discovered and publicized before the Iranian strategy had a chance to work. In short, the United States had thwarted the strategy. However, it should be noted that the Iranian government had been seeking a way out of the increasingly costly war. While the war was initially popular, as time dragged on and causalities mounted fewer families were willing to allow their sons to join the Basij, whose human wave tactics left scores dead or maimed. There was political will to end the hostilities, yet the tipping point had not been reached at this point in time.

The various military operations undertaken by the United States demonstrated not only how important the United States regarded free navigation of the seaways but it also revealed how it sought to attempt to use what little leverage it had to get the Iranians and Iraqis to accept some type of cease-fire in order to lessen tensions in the Gulf. The last great incident involving the United States and Iran in the evolution of this low-intensity conflict was the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 on Sunday July 3, 1988, by the cruiser USS Vincennes killing all 290 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A300B2 (Flight 655) (Cordesman & Wagner 1990, Crist 2001, Kelley 2007, Selby 1997).

The Vincennes was providing cover for a heavy lift vessel that was carrying the Roberts back to the United States for repairs. Flight 655 took off from Bander Abass bound for Dubai. The flight path skirts the northern part of the Straits of Hormuz, crossing the shipping lanes that lie closer to Iran than the Emirates, and then into Emirates airspace before landing at Dubai. The airport at Bander Abass is a joint military-civilian airfield, which may have been a factor in the American ship determining that the intent of the aircraft was hostile. Early in the morning the Vincennes’ helicopter received small arms fire from an Iranian gunboat. As the Vincennes moved to engage the gunboats, they noticed the track of Flight 655 was on a bearing directly toward their position. Flying in a regular commercial air corridor Flight 655 took off then climbed to altitude. The Vincennes officers felt that the aircraft could be an F-14 armed with bombs using commercial routes to mask their approach to attack the American cruiser. The warship fired two missiles that destroyed the airliner killing all 290 passengers and crew (Cordesman & Wagner 1990, Crist 2001, Kelley 2007, Selby 1997).

Various factors could have contributed to the tragedy. One factor was the apparent confusion or ignorance of the commercial air routes over the Gulf by the Vincennes crew. Moreover, American warships had no communications that could monitor normal commercial radio frequencies. The only frequencies they monitored were emergency frequencies (Cordesman & Wagner 1990, Crist 2001, Kelley 2007, Selby 1997). The airliner may have thought that the calls to change course were aimed at an Iranian P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft operating in the area. The P-3 is capable of firing anti-ship missiles. With the P-3 in the area, the warship was concerned about having not one but two aerial threats while seeking to disengage from the Iranian speedboats. Perhaps the greatest factor at the heart of the tragedy was the sophistication of the Aegis combat system, a computerized system designed to engage aerial, surface, and sub-surface threats automatically and simultaneously. Initially conceived to protect carrier battle groups in open waters, Aegis was out of its element in the confines of the Persian Gulf where hostile, friendly, and neutral aircraft and ships interact. Another contributing factor was lack of training for the crew, who had little experience working with the Aegis system.

The reported aggressiveness of the Captain of the Vincennes was a concern. Captain William Rogers was reportedly more aggressive than most captains to the point of actually chasing Iranian speedboats with a billion dollar cruiser not designed for that mission (Cordesman & Wagner 1990, Crist 2001, Kelley 2007, Selby 1997). We do note, however, that Rogers waited until what he thought was a hostile aircraft reached within 15 miles of the Vincennes to fire when the rules of engagement called for firing on a hostile aircraft at a range of 20 miles. Given the close quarters of the Gulf, lack of training, the lateness of the flight (27 minutes), other aircraft in the area, unfamiliar computerized combat systems (Dotterway, 1992) and the failure to properly classify the Iranian plane as ascending and the American plane as descending combine to became a deadly mix.

The importance of Flight 655 and Operations Praying Mantis, Earnest Will, and Prime Chance (among others) was that Ayatollah Khomeini reasoned that the game of brinksmanship his government was playing with the United States would eventually lead to an all out American attack. Such an attack would devastate Iran, especially if key defensive installations such as the Silkworm Missile launchers in the Straits of Hormuz or major air and naval bases as are in Bander Abbas were destroyed. Most frightening was the very real possibility that the United States would attack the Kharg or Larrak Islands where Iranian petroleum exporting facilities were located. Loss of revenue would severely undermine the government’s finances and perhaps even undermine the revolutionary institutions that had been put in place. On the other hand, the coalition that put Khomeini in power had grown weary of the strict edicts on dress, speech, and travel. The war, while disproportionally shouldered by the lower classes that tended to support the government more vigorously, would have been in danger of losing subsidies and transfer payments that oil revenue provided. Thus, the social bases of the revolution could have been threatened. The more affluent Iranians, who had not seen financial or social gain under the new regime, would have even less reason to support the regime and indeed may have openly opposed the government if the conflict widened or oil revenues were curtailed. To be sure, Khomeini was confronted with losing his main base of support or even risking open rebellion if the United States engaged in open warfare against Iran and Iranian interests.

Given this situation, he decided—in what must have been a galling decision—to seek a cease-fire with Iraq. Perhaps the best way to look at this reversal is the fact that it was the sum total of small defeats that signaled that the United States was serious in its threats and that it would attack Iranian forces at will. The destruction of Flight 655 may have signaled an escalation by the United States that Iran could not counter, save for closing the Straits of Hormuz, which would certainly result in American military action. If the Iranians saw Flight 655 as a deliberate signal that the United States would now engage civilian targets then Khomeini would be correct in seeking an end to hostilities with both Iraq and the United States. This is in fact what he did, thus saving his governing coalition and setting the stage for a redirection of oil revenues to other economic sectors. If the shooting down of the airliner was a mistake as claimed by the American Navy then Khomeini made a practical decision in seeking a cease-fire with Iraq and de-escalation with the United States, given the increasingly severe American military actions as well as the dwindling of Iranian military assets available to confront the United States.

In sum, Khomeini’s decision to disengage was made on practical political, economic, and military basis; thus, ensuring that his revolution and institutions would survive intact. Indeed recent evidence suggests that Khomeini concluded from the various American military actions, in particular the destruction of Flight 655 that the United States had decided to undertake unlimited military actions against Iran, given the slightest provocation. Knowing that American forces took great care not to involve civilians, the downing of the airliner must have lead the Iranians to believe that the United States would now target Iranian civilians. Having undergone the “War of the Cities” missile attacks in 1985, the leaders in Tehran were clearly concerned that the United States could mount a much more devastating attacks than had Iraq, and they were concerned that their defenses were not capable of defending Iran. Thus, given months of constant and increasing tension with the United States, which culminated in the destruction of Flight 655, Ayatollah Khomeini concluded that full scale war with the United States was a very real possibility. Thus, he decided that it was time to end the conflict with Iraq and deescalate tensions with the United States (Wilson Center).

Mediterranean – German Strategic Options and What If?

With the seizure of Crete, Erich Raeder and his naval strategists came to view the Mediterranean, not Russia, as the pivot on which all of Germany’s future aggressions should turn. The lure of Suez and the Middle East now took definite shape. “The appeal of a Mediterranean campaign lay not only in its objectives but in its economy of force.” The critical Battle of the Atlantic could be sustained without interruption, and the continued raiding cruises by German armed merchantmen and battleships would periodically lure Force H away from Gibraltar out into the Atlantic, preventing reinforcement of Cunningham’s meager fleet at Alexandria. German control of the eastern Mediterranean through Greece and Crete provided Hitler the opportunity to pressure Spain’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, into allowing German troops and air force units to move through Iberia to seize Gibraltar. Spanish Morocco and the Canary Islands would be taken next, effectively flanking and neutralizing any rebel French forces in North and West Africa. At that point, Admiral Darlan at Algiers, without warships but with an army, might be tempted to throw in his lot with Berlin. “Russia, the timid giant, was to be offered concessions in . . . Iran, Afghanistan, and north-western India as the Germans took the Dardenelles.”

Defense of that vast new area would be based on the Mediterranean— with the unassailable Sahara to the south, fringed by a few heavily fortified ports on the rugged and inhospitable western African shore. To the north an “Atlantic Wall” would be buttressed by mobile forces operating on interior lines in western Europe. Mussolini’s “Mare Nostrum” would become an Axis military and commercial highway, and the lower North Atlantic a baseless and dangerous wasteland for the British.

With Joseph Stalin’s unwillingness to fight except defensively and with all the resources of western Europe concentrated against the British Isles and their supply lines, the chances for forcing British capitulation would have been quite good, especially if Hitler’s demands had been moderate.

It is clear now as it was to some then that had Hitler “wanted the Middle Sea as badly as he wanted Russia, he could have had it.” By the beginning of 1942, Axis forces occupied not only the entire northern shore but great stretches of the southern shore as well. All that stood between a successful German pincer movement into Palestine and on to the Persian Gulf was the Eighth Army in the Western Desert and Cunningham’s units at Alexandria. For a brief moment Hitler was tempted to grab the prize that was so nearly in his grasp. He and Mussolini together with their respective staffs seriously considered a combined air and sea assault to capture Malta that would have fairly isolated Cunningham at Alexandria from sufficient reinforcement.

By this time the Italian navy had thrown off its cloak of gloom and cowardice. The duce’s sailors bestirred themselves to cooperate closely with the Regia Aeronautica in securing the vital convoy routes to the Italo-German North African front. Daring Italian “frogmen” penetrated Alexandria Harbor in December 1941 to blast and virtually sink the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant at their moorings, thereby crippling Cunningham’s ability to project power and protect the Malta convoys. They were still run, but by the spring of 1942 Malta was a desperate place to be, as it barely hung on.

Had Operation Herkules been carried out against the island successfully, it would have also precluded the Allied counteroffensive that began in North Africa the following November. American landings inside the Mediterranean would have been impossible given German and Italian air bases on nearby Malta, and the Atlantic beachhead at Casablanca might have been contained. Subsequent Anglo-American assaults on Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio could not have taken place; Italy would doubtless have remained in the war; and the Allies would have never gained the invaluable experiences in mounting combined operations that were an essential prelude to the landings in Normandy. In short, the seizure of Malta might have rendered Germany’s position in the West impregnable.

But the perspective from Berlin between the late springs of 1941 and 1942 did not appear as promising as hindsight would suggest. Despite the marked improvement in his naval and air forces, Mussolini was at best an uncertain and increasingly costly partner. Above all, the British were getting just enough supplies through to Malta to keep the island free and functioning. Through much of its siege, the island remained home to the submarine Tenth Flotilla; its air defenses and bomber forces were never completely destroyed. In November 1941 the Admiralty dispatched to the island Force K—light cruisers Arethusa and Penelope and two destroyers—under the command of Captain W. G. Agnew. The small task force was soon reinforced by other light units and functioned effectively for nearly two months before blundering into the enemy minefield off the North African coast.

Thus, although Malta approached collapse on several occasions—the last as late as the summer of 1942 when outright starvation faced the islanders due to the enemy’s near suppression of convoys from Gibraltar and Alexandria—it never went under. As the crisis approached its climax that May, the Tenth Flotilla was withdrawn to Alexandria. But when the garrison had been strong in previous months, its handful of Wellingtons, Beauforts, Blenheims, Hurricanes, Swordfish, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines were able to massacre several enemy convoys supplying Rommel. In November 1941, “77 per cent of all Rommel’s supplies had been sunk,” and the Eighth Army promptly launched an offensive along the North African shore that drove the Germans back five hundred miles in six weeks. The German General Staff had already concluded after one slaughter the previous September that the situation in the western Mediterranean was “untenable. Italian naval and air forces are incapable of providing adequate cover for the convoys. . . . The Naval Staff considers radical changes and immediate measures to remedy the situation imperative, otherwise . . . the entire Italo-German position in North Africa will be lost.” It was this conclusion that prompted Hitler’s disastrous decision to strip his still small but deadly Atlantic U-boat force of half its active strength in order to destroy the Malta supply convoys. But as desperate as was its eventual plight, Malta would undoubtedly have put up a very stiff and costly fight for survival should Axis forces have ever attempted to seize it.

Hitler’s fatal adventure in Russia precluded such a step. To win the Mediterranean and thereby absolutely secure his southern flank, the führer would have had to postpone Operation Barbarossa indefinitely or, had the Russian campaign already begun, suspend virtually all operations on the vast arc from Leningrad to the Volga. This Hitler was never willing to do. Compared to the lure of the Ukraine and the distant Caucasian oil fields, the Mediterranean held little interest once the great Romanian oil fields at Ploieşti had been protected from British air attacks from Greece. The führer’s essential uninterest and the always growing demands of the Russian front forced Rommel to operate on a shoestring. The Afrika Korps was always weaker and its supplies far less than Allied calculations supposed.

Even if the Russian front had not existed, it is doubtful that the führer would have moved against Malta in the winter or summer of 1942—or against the Canaries and Spanish Morocco the year before. The costly campaign in Crete (General Student’s badly battered German paratroops never again played a major role in the war) reconfirmed Hitler’s long-standing and profound fear of the sea, and Crete had been immediately preceded by the shattering loss of Bismarck. In some way the sea induced in Hitler a feeling he could not abide— the loss of control. Enterprises on and over water apparently possessed for him an inherent uncertainty and instability that did not accrue to land combat. He did make several “feeble” tries at securing his southern flank: strengthening the Luftwaffe in Italy and the Dodecanese in the autumn of 1941 when he believed Russia was on the ropes, ordering Dönitz to virtually close down the Battle of the Atlantic at roughly the same time in order to send German U-boats against both Force H and Cunningham’s fleet, and occasionally devoting attention to getting convoys through to Rommel. But such fitful efforts proved a “no go. Signals inside hemmed him, made him uneasy, unsure,” and he was thus instinctively receptive to Dönitz’s complaints that the Mediterranean was not a decisive theater in which the U-boats could win the war for Germany.


It was the spring of 1942 before General der Flieger Student could tackle the task of rebuilding his decimated airborne forces. The first formations were returning from the East, where they had been badly battered. Von der Heydte’s battalion was sent to the Döberitz-Elsgrund Training Area, where it was redesignated as an instructional battalion. Experiments were conducted with night jumps and descents on wooded areas. Efforts were also undertaken to allow the paratroopers to jump with their main small arm instead of having to retrieve one from a weapons container. Trials were also conducted starting in May of that year with a new generation of gliders such as the Gotha Go 242.

There was a purpose to all of those efforts. Von der Heydte’s battalion was earmarked for the initial assault on Malta, where it would jump into the British antiaircraft defenses six hours before the main body arrived and take them out of commission.

The attack plan for Malta and several other operations had recently been discussed in Rome. Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring had summoned Student to Italy’s capital. Student saw Generalmajor Ramcke there as well, as the latter had been sent to Italy to help train that country’s fledgling airborne corps. The airborne division “Folgore” and the air-landed division “Superba” were being formed and trained in accordance with German doctrinal principles.

Together with Ramcke, Student worked out the first draft for an assault on the island fortress. In theory, command and control of the operation was under the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian forces, Colonel General Cavallero. By involving the Italians in this way, the Germans hoped to secure access to all of the Italian fleet to support the operation.

Ramcke and Student came up with an operation that was broken down into four parts:

Part One: After a surprise landing by gliderborne forces from von der Heydte’s battalion on the antiaircraft batteries of Malta and the subsequent elimination of them, the main body of the paratroopers and air-landed forces will arrive as the advance guard under the personal command and control of General Student to the south of La Valetta on the high ground there. It will establish a broad landing zone on the island and attack the airfields and city of La Valetta in rapid, decisive action.

Part Two: Seaborne landings of the main body of the attack forces south of La Valetta, which will advance in conjunction with the airborne forces from that area.

Part Three: In order to deceive the enemy and divert his attention, there will be a deception operation against Marsa Scirocco Bay.

Part Four: The safety of the seaborne transports is the responsibility of the Italian fleet. The securing of the air space is the responsibility of Luftflotte 2. The formations of that tactical air force will conduct massed attacks on the airfields and antiaircraft positions on Malta prior to the airborne landings, defeat the enemy’s air forces and paralyze the enemy’s antiaircraft defenses.

For the operation, 12 of the Gigant transporters were available for planning purposes. The Me 323 had six engines and were able to take a complete Flak platoon or 130 fully loaded soldiers in one lift.

The operations received the codename Unternehmen “Herkules” and lived up to its name, both in size and ambition. The chances for success were good, better than those on Crete had been. The point of debarkation for the identified forces was Sicily. The II. Flieger-Korps of General der Flieger was earmarked to support the airborne forces. In addition, the entire Italian Air Force was designated to support the operations. Mussolini also promised the use of all of the Italian Navy, including its capital ships.

The Italian airborne division “Folgore” was based in Viterbo and Tarquinia and under the command of General Frattini. Thanks to the help received from Ramcke, he was able to imbue the fledging Italian airborne force with true airborne spirit. The air-landed division “Superba” was also a formidable combat formation. In addition, there were four well-equipped Italian infantry divisions to be added to the mix. That was a force that outnumbered the one used to take Crete by many fold.

In the middle of these preparations, a telegram summoned Student to the Führer Headquarters in Rastenburg. Student had just arrived, when Generaloberst Jeschonnek, the new Chief-of-Staff of the Luftwaffe, greeted him with these words: “Listen to me, Student. Tomorrow morning you’ll have a hard audience with the Führer. General der Panzertruppe Crüwell from the Afrika-Korps was just here. With regard to the esprit de corps of the Italian forces, he had delivered a shattering verdict. As a result, the Malta Operation is in danger, since Hitler doubts the resoluteness and devotion of the Italians more than ever.”

Despite that, Student hoped to be able to convince Hitler. In front of a large audience, Student presented the final plans for “Herkules” the next day. Hitler listened attentively and asked a number of questions. When Student finished his presentation, Hitler aired his opinion.

After the war, Student said the following:

A torrent of words flowed from Hitler: “The establishment of one of the bridgeheads with the airborne forces has been assured. But I guarantee you the following: When the attack starts, the British ships at Alexandria will sail out and also those from the British fleet at Gibraltar. Then see what the Italians do: When the first radio messages arrive about the approach of the British naval forces, the Italian fleet will run back to its harbors. The warship and the transporters with the forces to be landed will both head back. And then you’ll be sitting alone with your paratroopers on the island.”

Student was prepared for just such an objection.

He stated: Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring has taken that eventuality into consideration. Then the English will experience what happened to them a year before on Crete when Richthofen came in and sank a portion of the Alexandria squadron. It will probably be even worse for the enemy, since Malta is within the effective range of the Luftwaffe. The air routes to Malta from Sicily are considerably shorter than those from Greece to Crete were. On the other side, the distances for the British naval groups are twice as far as those to Crete. Malta, mein Führer, can thus become the grave of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

Hitler could not make up his mind. With the specter of Crete still haunting him, he vacillated. Malta most certainly should have been a priority in the larger sense, since the British 10th Submarine Fleet operated from the island, which was responsible for sinking so much Axis shipping bound for Africa.

But, in the end, he decided against it, and even Student’s assurances that even in the worst case the airborne forces could take the island all by themselves, because Malta had already been badly battered by the German aerial attacks. In the end, Hitler decided: “The attack against Malta will not take place in 1942.”

As a result of this decision, Hitler cancelled an operation that would have lent an entirely new face to the overall conduct of the war in the Mediterranean and would have decisively influenced the war in Africa in favor of the Germans.

Panzer Corps | Afrika Korps – Malta (1/3)

Air Assault On Crete/Invasion of Malta: 1942 (1977)


The Consequences of Two Defeats – What If?

This is the story of two battles and what might have happened if their results had been reversed—as well they might have been. Both involved powers on the cusp of advance or retreat. In the first, Adrianople (A.D. 378), the Roman Empire suffered a disaster even worse than that of the Teutoburg Forest, and one that went far to send it reeling into its final decline. In the second, Poitiers (probably 732), a Frankish army turned back Muslim invaders near the Loire River at the moment when they seemed ready to spread across Europe—“The Great Land,” as they called it.

Did the Roman Empire—or at least the part of it that dominated Western Europe—have to die and so give birth to the Dark Ages? Did the Dark Ages themselves (which may not have been all that dark) have to happen? As Barry S. Strauss tells us, much of the blame may fall less on Spenglerian fatigue than on the poor judgment of one man, the emperor Valens, who squandered an army in a battle that he should have avoided or delayed fighting. (Adrianople—the present Turkish city of Edirne—has the distinction of being the most fought-over city in the world, Valens’s fatal reverse being one of fifteen major battles or sieges that have taken place there in just short of 1,700 years.) The Visogoths who slaughtered Valens’s troops, and who also killed him, would eventually move west to capture and sack the city of Rome itself. By that time the empire was all but beyond rescue. It did not have to be that way, Strauss argues. What would a world that Rome continued to lead have been like?

The dynamism that had once belonged to the Roman Empire would pass to a new locus of power: Arabia. Less than a century after the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632, the armies of Islam had established rule as far west as Spain—the kingdom they called Al-Andalus. How important was Poitiers? Strauss comes down on the side of those historians who see it as a turning point. It certainly brought us the foremost dynasty of early medieval Europe, the Carolingians: Charlemagne was the grandson of the victor, Charles Martel. But if the battle had gone differently, so might history. As an anonymous Muslim chronicler put it: “On the plain of Tours [as the battle is sometimes called] the Arabs lost the empire of the world when almost in their grasp.” It would have been an empire full of luster: These Arabs were the foremost broadcasters of enlightenment in their time.

Both Adrianople and Poitiers are cases of what might be called first-order counterfactual theory—that is, a major rewriting of history stemming from small changes. How different would our lives have been if only Valens had been more patient. If only Abd Al-Rahman, the Muslim commander at Poitiers, had survived to rally his forces.

In the European early Middle Ages two events took place—the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the Muslim tidal wave of conquest—that might have changed everything had they turned out differently. Had imperial Rome maintained control of Europe or had imperial Islam restored a single, central authority there, Europe would have been spared the chaos of the Dark Ages (ca. A.D. 500-1000). To be sure, even chaos can yield dividends in the long run: Some would say that the Dark Ages sowed the seeds of later Western freedom; others deny that there was anything dark about them. Yet dark or bright, they undeniably lacked the order and stability that an empire brings. The fate of an empire, be it Roman or Muslim, may have hinged on battles—battles whose results could have gone either way.

True, the rise and fall of an empire is a long process, but the heaviest doors pivot on small hinges, and at the battles of Adrianople (August 9, 378) and Poitiers (October 732) the hinges turned. At Adrianople, a Germanic people, the Visigoths, destroyed a Roman army and killed the emperor, thereby setting in motion a century of defeats that would finally bring down the empire in the West. Yet it was a near-run thing. A little patience on the part of the commander, a little rest for the men, a change in the weather—any of these might have changed the outcome at Adrianople and ultimately saved the Roman Empire. At Poitiers, a Frankish force defeated a Muslim army. It was a smaller engagement than Adrianople but it proved a psychological and political turning point, because it blunted the triumphant Arab advance northward and because it propelled the efforts of the Frankish general Charles Martel to establish a dynasty. Under his grandson Charlemagne (r. 768-814), that dynasty governed a far-flung state that laid the foundations for much of what would follow in Europe—from kingdoms like France and Germany to local government by royal vassals to the Christian culture of cathedral schools and decorated manuscripts. Yet had the Frankish army not killed the Muslim commander that day at Poitiers, they might have lost the battle; Europe would have lost the family that built a great Frankish state; and what might have emerged, instead, was a Muslim France or even a Muslim Europe.

Historians no longer think of early medieval Europe outside of Spain as the time and place of the Dark Ages but rather as the seedtime of European greatness. Where historians once saw a sharp break between Rome and its Germanic conquerors, they now find continuities in the “Romano-German” kingdoms; where once they perceived poverty and misery, they now see prosperous trading networks and free farm laborers; where once they saw cultural decline, they now find creativity—in Celtic manuscripts, for example, or the poetry of Beowulf, or the monasticism of the Benedictines. In short, many scholars no longer ask whether the Dark Ages could have been avoided because they don’t believe they should have been avoided.

Yet not even the most sunny interpretation of the fifth to tenth centuries A.D. can dodge gloom altogether, not in Western Europe. Around A.D. 350, a single empire—Rome—governed much of the Near East and North Africa, as well as what is now England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and western Germany. Then violent invasions began to tear that empire apart. In the east, the Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine state for a thousand years, until the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In the West, the last Roman emperor was dethroned in 476, a generation after the Western empire had become little more than a legal fiction. The Western empire had been tottering for years. Roman land was plundered, Roman cities were attacked—Rome itself was sacked in 410 and 455—Roman men were killed and Roman women were dragged off as war booty to marry Germanic chiefs. The central government could not stop foreigners from settling en masse on Roman lands and from eventually carving out separate kingdoms in the Roman state. The population declined enough for Pope Gelasius (r. 492-496) to write of “Emilia, Tuscany, and the other provinces [of Italy] in which nearly not a single human existed.” An exaggeration, but what really happened can be seen in the fate of the city of Rome, which may have contained one million people in the time of Christ, but by the ninth century A.D. had a population of about 25,000. By contrast, in the tenth century A.D. Córdoba, the capital of Muslim Spain, had a population of about 100,000, and Seville perhaps 60,000. In short, a single Roman Empire was replaced by smaller states, and in the process, society became more violent and less urbanized.

Europe would have been spared violence, anarchy, and misery if the Roman Empire could have survived or, once having fallen, it could have been pieced back together again. Which is why the battles of Adrianople and Poitiers are so important and so tantalizing. Each could have had a different result, if just a few changes are imagined. Let us examine each in turn.

Throughout its long history, the Roman state had to face continual military challenges from the warlike peoples on its frontiers. A double threat confronted Rome in the fourth century A.D., with Persia on the rise in the east and various Germanic peoples pushing from the north. In response to frequent emergencies, the empire was divided in two, with one emperor in Constantinople and another at Rome—or rather, at Milan, the de facto Western capital because it was closer to the battle zone.

In the early fourth century A.D. the Visigoths, a Germanic people, had settled north of the Danube in Dacia (modern Romania), formerly a Roman province. About fifty years later they were invaded by other Germanic tribes, who were in turn fleeing from the Huns, a ferocious people who had ridden out of central Asia. Pushed to the point of famine, in A.D. 376, the Visigoths asked the government in Constantinople for permission to cross the Danube to seek refuge—and a permanent home—in Roman Thrace, all 200,000 or so of them, including women and children (to follow a reasonable modern estimate of numbers). It would be mass emigration of a people who gave the Romans the shivers. Yet the Eastern emperor, Valens (r. 364-378) agreed to their request.

He was no humanitarian. Valens knew that the Visigoths were dangerous warriors but he planned to co-opt them and add them to his armies, which already had a Visigothic contingent. He needed more soldiers to fight Persia. He also knew that Visigothic refugees would bring wealth with them, which his officials could skim off if not plunder outright—corruption being a depressing reality of Late Roman administration. In return, he insisted that the Visigoths lay down their arms when they crossed the Danube. The Visigoths agreed, but Valens should have known better.

No sooner did the Visigoths cross the Danube then they came into conflict with Roman officials, who outdid themselves in coming up with creative ways to fleece the refugees. The trouble was, the Visigoths fought back. In early 377 they began a revolt that defeated a Roman army and spread among other aggrieved groups such as miners and slaves. Eventually, with the help of a large cavalry contingent from their allies, they forced a Roman retreat. “The barbarians,” writes the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, “poured over the wide extent of Thrace like wild animals escaping from their cage.”

In spring 378, the Emperor Valens prepared to counterattack with an army estimated at thirty to forty thousand men. Meanwhile, the Western emperor, Valens’s nephew Gratian (r. 367-383), marched to his aid from Raetia (roughly Switzerland) where, the winter before, he had defeated other Germanic invaders. Unfortunately, Valens “rose to the level of his mediocrity,” as we might say today. He had the opportunity to crush a cornered, but by no means defeated enemy; he turned it instead into disaster. Instead of waiting for Gratian’s reinforcements, Valens insisted on fighting—according to critics, he did not want to share the glory of victory. In his overconfidence he gave credence to intelligence reports that the Visigoths had only 10,000 men (we don’t know how many men they did have but it was far more than that). The battle would take place on the plains near the city of Adrianople (modern Edirne, in Turkey) and it would take place immediately. It was August 9, 378.


Charles Martel, flourishing a battle ax, center, inspires his Christian Frankish troops to defeat the Muslim Moors at Poitiers. Had the Arabs won the battle in 732, would Islam have continued to spread across Europe?

(Carl von Steuben, 1788-1856, Battle of Poitiers. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY)

Barbarians the Visigoths might have been, but their leader, Fritigern, had a sure instinct for the enemy’s weak points, none more important than Valens himself. The emperor sent his men into battle in the broiling heat of an August afternoon in the Balkans (summer temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit are common in the region) with no rest or food after an eight-mile march over rough country. The Visigoths, encamped behind a circle of wagons, were surprised by the Romans, but their men were rested and they used their opportunity well. First, they deftly sent their cavalry to turn the Roman lines and trap the legionnaires between the wagons and the Visigothic infantry. Ammianus Marcellinus describes that fateful ride: “The Gothic cavalry . . . shot forward like a bolt from on high and routed with great slaughter all that they could come to grips with in their wild career.”

Then, having attacked the Romans with their cavalry first on one side and then the other, the Visigoths hit them head on with their infantry. They slaughtered the closely packed enemy troops.

It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the Romans in the battle were killed, including thirty-five high-ranking officers. The greatest casualty was Valens himself. The catastrophe is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it could have been avoided. Had the emperor waited for reinforcements or, failing that, had he attacked with fed and rested men the next morning, the outcome would probably have been different. Nor can we underestimate the role of accident. The Visigothic cavalry only arrived on the battlefield at the last minute; had they been detained further, there would have been no Visigothic victory. Keenly aware of their importance, Fritigern played for time by sending various negotiators to the Romans until the eleventh hour. The Roman high command might even have accepted his offer to parley, but the troops took matters into their own hands. Roman archers and cavalry disobeyed orders and began to attack the Visigoths, thereby forcing battle. So perhaps the fate of the Roman Empire lay in the hands of a nervous skirmisher.

Flush with victory, the Visigoths were now free to roam the Balkans. The loss of perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 men was big enough to imperil Rome’s manpower needs. It was, said St. Ambrose of Milan on hearing the news of the battle, “The end of all humanity, the end of the world.” It was, at any rate, the end of the old Roman ability to bounce back from defeat, so prominent a feature of the empire’s previous history. Far from closing in for the kill, Rome allowed the enemy to settle within the boundaries of the empire, south of the Danube, in the area of modern Bulgaria. Worse still, Rome allowed the Visigoths to keep their arms. They were, in theory, allies of Rome, but in practice they were a rival state. In the 390s, for example, the Visigoths looted Greece and the Balkans, and then, after 400, they did the same to Italy. The height of disaster came in 410, when the Visigoths, led by the wily and aggressive Alaric, took the city of Rome and sacked it for three days. It was a sign of things to come for the tottering empire.

Why did the Romans tolerate Visigothic settlement within the empire? For one thing, they needed the Visigoths as soldiers, and the Romans believed they could co-opt and tame them. Second, as Roger Collins argues, defeatism may have been at work. For many Romans, the lesson of Adrianople seems to have been that Rome could not prevail in battle against the enemy. At least, that may explain why four times between 395 and 405, in Italy and the Balkans, Roman armies fought and beat the Visigoths under Alaric, but each time they allowed them—and him—to escape and fight again. It is hard not to wonder whether Adrianople had done to Rome what the Battle of Verdun (1916) did to France—not in its military outcome, for France won at Verdun, but in its psychological outcome. The bloody battle devastated French morale for a generation and weakened military manpower badly.

Thirty years after Adrianople, Alaric and the Visigoths were in Italy. After sacking Rome, they eventually settled in Gaul and Spain. In the meantime, to save Italy, the Roman government had to withdraw troops from Britain and Gaul, which gave other Germanic tribes the opportunity to invade the empire. Britain was lost to Rome after 407, and within a generation large parts of Gaul, Spain, and North Africa were effectively independent. Now largely dependent on barbarian mercenaries to defend it, Rome had traveled far down the road to 476, when the Germans in Italy deposed the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus (r. 475-476), whose “empire” was mere fiction.

What could have been done? Arther Ferrill maintains that Rome’s best hope would have been to reverse the outcome of Adrianople; that is, to win the battle, kill the Visigoths’ commander, Fritigern, and two-thirds of his men. That would not have ended the security threat, because there was no shortage of barbarians ready to probe the empire’s defenses and attack it, but it would have bought Rome time to regroup. It might, moreover, have generated the confidence and political will to ram through the political and military reforms needed to man the Roman army. Without such reforms, the empire would have remained weak in the long term. With Rome victorious, though, Adrianople might have proved not a Roman Verdun but a Roman defeat of the Spanish Armada, turning back the invader and inspiring assurance and reform.

What if the Roman Empire had survived? What if it had bounced back from the crisis of the years 376-476 the way it had earlier recovered from the crisis of the years 188-284? Like the Chinese Empire, the Roman state would have remained a great power dominating a huge area. With the resources of the Western empire to help it, the East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire might have defeated the Muslims in the seventh century and kept the Mediterranean a Christian lake. Beyond the Rhine and Danube, Germanic and Slavic rivals to Rome would have developed, or perhaps Rome would eventually have conquered them too. There would, of course, have been periods of disorder, inevitable invasions such as China suffered from time to time. But the empire would always have bounced back. It might have even expanded, stretching at its greatest extent from Mesopotamia to Morocco and from Britain to the Elbe, the Vistula or even—who knows?—the Dnieper.

Latin-speaking Europe, governed from a capital in Italy, would have become a more orderly and stable society than the boisterous and freedom-loving Germanic kingdoms that replaced imperial Rome. The emperor, whose office had been around seemingly forever, would have been endowed with a charisma no less potent than the “mandate of heaven” that the rulers of China enjoyed. There would have been no feudalism, no knights, no chivalry, but no Magna Carta either, no doctrine of the right of rebellion, and no parliaments.

The Roman world would have been Christian, but Christianity might not resemble what we know today. It would be Roman, of course, and Catholic—that is, universal—but the pope, if the bishop of Rome had so grand a title, would be strictly subordinate to the Defender of the Faith, that is, the emperor, just as in Eastern Orthodoxy the patriarch stayed under the Byzantine emperor’s thumb. No pope could have made a Roman emperor kneel in the snow outside his door, as Pope Gregory VII did the German monarch Henry IV at Canossa in 1078. There would have been no conflict of church and state, no papal monarchy, and no Protestant Reformation. If Martin Luther ever penned his Ninety-Five Theses, he would have done so in his native Latin. They would have been delivered in executive session at a church council, and if the emperor was not amused, he would have sent Luther straight to the lions. The Romans never had much patience for dissent.

There would, of course, have been no Renaissance since, without the death of classical culture in the early Middle Ages, there would have been no need for it to be reborn. Whether Columbus would have sailed across the Atlantic from Hispania without the scientific and commercial spirit of the Renaissance to inspire him is a good question, but one thing is certain: A new Roman Empire in the Americas would have been far less dedicated to individual liberty than the English colonies turned out to be. Governed by a proconsul resident in the city of Nova Roma (New Rome, perhaps today’s New Orleans), the United Provinces of America would stand as a model of the ideal proclaimed by Cicero: otium cum dignitate: that is, “peace with respect for rank.” Merciless with their enemies but not racists, the Romans might have treated the Indians much as the Spanish did, with a mixture of brutality, missionary zeal, and a surprising willingness to intermarry.

Like the Roman Empire, the U.P.A. would be an oligarchy rather than a democracy. Truth to tell, the American founders had great respect for Rome and thought pure democracy dangerous; to some degree they modeled our government on Rome’s. Yet they admired the Roman Republic and its political ferment, not the Roman Empire and its centralized monarchy. Our constitution contains a Bill of Rights; our culture is founded on a revolution in the name of liberty; our society prizes equality, although it often fails to achieve it. Were America a New Rome, it would have the same inequality of the United States today without a movement to change it; it would have a judicial system without such rights as habeas corpus or the guarantee against self-incrimination; it would have no reason to have abolished the profitable slave systems that grew up in the New World. New Rome would have bread and circuses but no citizens’ assembly in the forum.


All of this assumes that Rome could have survived the great military challenge that ripped through the Old World in the early Middle Ages—the challenge of Islam. As it turned out, the Muslim armies wreaked havoc on the surviving East Roman or Byzantine state, driving the Byzantines out of the Levant and back to their base in Anatolia and the southern Balkans. There the Byzantines were able to regroup and in places even drive back the enemy. Perhaps this is not surprising, because the Byzantines were, after all, Romans. They had inherited a thousand years of military and political skill to call on in a pinch. Had it survived, the Western Roman empire could have come to Byzantium’s help, and together the two of them might have pushed Islam eastward, leaving the Mediterranean and Europe to Rome. What did happen, of course, is very different.

It was one of military history’s most lightning-like accomplishments. Within a generation of the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the armies of Islam had conquered most of the Near East, threatening the Byzantine capital of Constantinople itself. In 711, after conquering Egypt and North Africa, Muslim armies crossed the straits of Gibraltar and attacked the Christian kingdom of Spain, which had been established by descendants of the Visigoths who beat Rome at Adrianople. The Muslims crushed the Visigoths’ army and killed their king, Roderic. In less than a decade, the Muslims conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula. They called their kingdom Al-Andalus. Then, in 720, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains to attack the region known as Septimania. Today part of France (Languedoc), at the time it had been a Visigothic province in Gaul. Furthermore, it was the doorway into what Arab authors referred to as “the Great Land,” a vague term not just for Gaul but for all of Europe. Some even envisioned their armies marching all the way to Constantinople, attacking the capital of the Eastern Roman empire by the back door, as it were.

The Muslims quickly took the city of Narbonne, an old Roman colony and an excellent strategic base. They were defeated outside Toulouse in 721, where their commander, As-Sanh ibn Malik, governor of Al-Andalus, was killed. The presence of a seasoned and disciplined officer, Abd Al-Rahman, prevented the setback from turning into a rout: He led an orderly retreat to Narbonne. Shortly afterward, the Arabs returned to the offensive, slowly expanding eastward into the Rhône valley and attacking cities from Bordeaux to Lyon. By the mid-730s, all of the major cities of the French Mediterranean coast between the Pyrenees and the Rhône were in Muslim hands. Around 730, the governorship fell to the man who had saved the day at Toulouse, Abd Al-Rahman. He was popular with the men for his largesse as well as his cool on the battlefield, but he would have his hands full with threats on both sides of the Pyrenees.

Strong central government was the exception and not the rule in the early Middle Ages. Across the Pyrenees, the “kingdom” of the Franks was more like a collection of quarreling princes. In Al-Andalus, a fault line ran between the Arab elite and the Berber tribesmen of North Africa, recent converts to Islam. The Berbers had formed the bulk of the conquering Muslim army in 711 and later years, but they complained that the Arabs took the best land and booty for themselves. By 732, the Berber leader, Munuza, had carved out a splinter kingdom in the strategic eastern Spanish high plain bordering Gaul. According to one source, Munuza made an alliance with his neighbor Duke Odo of Aquitaine. Although a Christian, Odo was a thorn in the side of his nominal overlord, the Frankish king; like Munuza, Odo aimed at his own independence. In 732, Abd Al-Rahman turned on both men. He led an expedition that captured and killed Munuza, and then he crossed the mountains and marched through Gascony and Aquitaine. We do not know the size of his army, but it was large enough to crush Odo’s forces near Bordeaux, to burn and loot Christian strongholds, and to capture a large number of civilians. An estimate of 15,000 Muslim soldiers in this army, which some historians have suggested, is probably not far off the mark.

Abd Al-Rahman’s men drove all the way north to Poitiers, just short of the great sanctuary of St. Martin of Tours, a kind of national shrine of the Franks, famous for its Christian piety and wealth. Tours is only a little over 200 miles from Paris.

They would go no further. Somewhere between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, perhaps at Moussais on the old Roman road, they met the army of the leader of the Franks, Charles the Pippinid. In theory only “Mayor of the Palace” (r. 714-741), a kind of prime minister, he was the de facto king of the Frankish kingdom, which straddled northern France and western Germany. Although he had made war on the Franks before, a desperate Odo had now sought Charles’s aid.

True, the Franks were not the power they had once been under their first great king, Clovis (r. 481-511), but under the Pippinids they were on an upward trajectory. A bastard son who had to fight for power after the death of his father, Pepin II (d.714), Charles fought well—and often. Charles was a seasoned and popular warrior at the head of a victorious army when he came to Poitiers, but so was Abd Al-Rahman. It ought to have proved a dramatic showdown.

So it did, but we know frustratingly few of the details. Contemporary evidence insists that the battle took place on a Saturday in the month of October and in the year that most would date to 732, although some scholars opt for 733. The preliminaries lasted seven days, each side observing the other and, in skirmishing, looking for some advantage of terrain or timing. This would suggest that the two forces were relatively evenly matched; that is, each side had roughly 15,000 men, to make an educated guess. Although they had some cavalry, the heart of the Frankish army was the infantry, who fought closely massed and wore heavy armor, carried large wooden shields, and fought with swords, spears, and axes. The Muslims were renowned for their cavalry. Their infantry had adopted the European style of heavy armor but perhaps with mixed emotions; after all, a Bedouin curse recalled the Arabs’ origins as light-armed fighters: “May you be cursed like the Frank who puts on armor because he fears death.”

Finally, the great clash came. The near-contemporary continuator of the Chronicle of Isidore implies that the Muslims attacked: At least he emphasizes the point that the Franks held their ground—“like a wall . . . and like a firm glacial mass”—unlike other Christian armies of the day with a reputation for fleeing the battlefield. By contrast, the continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar has Charles charge aggressively, “scattering them [the Muslims] like stubble before the fury of his onslaught. . . .” Fortunately, both sources agree on one point: Frankish warriors killed Abd Al-Rahman. There is reason to think that this proved decisive. True, the continuator of Fredegar has the Frankish victory turn into a rout, but the author worked under the patronage of Charles’s brother Childebrand, so he could hardly make the Franks look less than glorious. The continuator of Isidore tells a more complex story: The battle continued until nightfall. The next day, the Franks approached the Muslims’ tents in battle order, expecting a fight, but the enemy had withdrawn at night beneath their noses. If this account is true, then the Franks had not inflicted an obvious, crushing defeat on the Muslims. They expected that the enemy could still fight—and perhaps he could have, were he not leaderless. The Muslim army withdrew. Tours was saved.

News of the victory at Poitiers (or Tours, as the battle is sometimes called) reached as far as northern England, where the Anglo-Saxon scholar the Venerable Bede heard of it. Later generations gave Charles the surname “Martel” or “Hammer” because of his success against the Muslims. As for the Muslims, never again would their armies reach so far north in Western Europe. To the great historian Edward Gibbon, Poitiers was “an encounter which would change the history of the whole world.”

In his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon envisioned the possible consequences of Arab victory at Poitiers:

A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland: the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.

More recent scholars tend to be less sure that Poitiers made a difference. Even had Abd Al-Rahman and his men carried the day, they argue, they could not have done much more damage, since they were only a raiding party, not an occupying army. Nor could they have made the most of victory, not given the revolts about to burst forth in Spain in the 730s and 740s, revolts both on the part of Berbers and Arabs.

But if it is possible to build too much on the events of that day in 733, it is also possible to build too little. Like the Battle of Britain in 1940, Poitiers had not cut a deep crack in the invader’s armor, but it had deterred him from further advance. The Muslims made Abd Al-Rahman into a martyr, but they smarted from the shame of having left booty behind for the enemy. The raid had failed: safer to stay in the fortified bases in southern Gaul. But what if the Muslims had defeated the Franks on the eighth day at Poitiers? What if the general of the Franks, Charles Martel, lay dead with many of his men? A Muslim victory might have rendered Poitiers a fishing expedition that showed that the water was well stocked and unguarded.

Even if the Muslim expedition of 732 was far from an all-out attack, it is hard to imagine it simply stopping and going home after having faced a challenge from the war leader of the Franks and having killed him. After all, the attack on Spain in 711 also began as a raid; victory whetted the appetite for conquest. No, the victorious warriors of Al-Rahman would have sacked Tours as they had sacked Poitiers, and they would have been tempted by the road to Orléans and Paris.

Meanwhile, the sons of Charles—no longer surnamed Martel—would have quarreled over the succession. No doubt one of them would have prevailed eventually, and the new leader, either Carloman or Pepin the Short, would have had to do what his father, Charles, in fact did after his victory at Poitiers: fight far-flung battles against Frisians, Burgundians, Provençals, and Muslims. That is, if he had the energy to achieve what his father would: expanding the Frankish state to the Mediterranean Sea and the Jura Mountains. But it would have been difficult, because the new leader would not be commanding men made united and confident by their victory at Poitiers, nor facing, in the Muslims, an enemy that feared the Franks: after all, the Muslims had found them wanting at Poitiers. Charles’s successor accordingly might not have retaken Avignon, as Charles did in 737, nor defeated the Muslims in battle again, as Charles did, in the marshes of the river Berre in Corbières in 738. Without these victories to build on, that commander might not have driven the Muslims out of Septimania and back over the Pyrenees, as Pepin did between 752 and 759. And faced with a continued major Arab presence in southern Gaul, Pepin’s successor, Charlemagne, would have lacked a free hand for his campaigns in Italy and the East—that is, if the militarily unsuccessful Pippinids had stayed in power long enough for there even to be a Charlemagne.

As for the Muslims, had they maintained their hold on their province across the Pyrenees, sooner or later they would have given in to the temptation to expand it. After all, even with the expulsion from Septimania in 759, even with Charlemagne’s and his generals’ campaigns across the Pyrenees in 778 and 801, the Muslims continued to raid southern France until 915. With cities like Narbonne and Avignon as bases, there would have been no need to be content with mere raids. The Muslims might have returned to the practice of sending governors of Spain to command their armies, as had been the rule before Charles’s victory at Poitiers. Berbers and Arabs might have put aside their differences in order to win booty and glory in the Great Land. Undeterred by the weakened Frankish monarchy, the conquerors might have gone from strength to strength until they crossed the English channel and planted the crescent, as Gibbon imagined, in Oxford. It would then have been emirs and imams, not dukes and bishops, who faced the challenge of invasion by Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries. Had they been successful, the empire that had once governed Western Europe from Rome might have reemerged—as the caliphate.

What would a Muslim Western Europe—an Al-Andalus stretching from Gibraltar to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the Vistula or even beyond—have been like? Christianity would have survived, but as a protected and ever-shrinking enclave, not as the ruling faith. While continuing to practice their religion, many Christians would have become all but Arabs in their language and customs, just as happened in Muslim Spain. Many would have gone all the way and converted to Islam, as many Christians did in Spain, and more would have, if not for the steady advance of the Christian reconquista. No doubt the vast majority of Europeans would have become Muslims, as the vast majority of North Africans and Middle Easterners eventually did

Nor would Christianity have expanded across the globe. If Western Europeans had crossed the Atlantic in 1492 they would have done so under the banner not of the cross but the crescent. A great naval power in the Mediterranean under the Umayyad Dynasty (A.D. 632-750), a great trading power in the Indian Ocean until the advent of the Portugese, Islam is likely to have taken to the Atlantic with gusto. In the Americas they would have turned the natives into proper Europeans—that is, Muslims. Today there would only be one world religion: Islam.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Muslim elite would have made the most of its new provinces conquered after Abd Al-Rahman’s victory at Poitiers. The Muslims built in Spain arguably the most civilized Western European society since the Roman Empire’s heyday. In Al-Andalus, as the Arabs called their kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula, the tenth century witnessed a world of abundant agriculture and booming towns, of palaces and poetry, of art and enlightenment. Its cities put northern Europe’s to shame, its traders covered wider ground, its philosophers dwarfed Westerners in their knowledge of the classical Greek heritage.

Europe would have gained much had Al-Andalus spread north of the Pyrenees. In Spain, North Africa, the Near East, indeed, wherever they went, the Muslims had the Midas touch. They encouraged prosperity through trade, agriculture, irrigation works, and city building. To be sure, not all had equal shares in prosperity. Muslim society was thoroughly hierarchical and slavery was a standard feature. In the tenth century, for example, Islamic Spanish armies and even government bureaucracies were staffed with captives from northern Spain, Germany, and above all, from the Slavic countries—our word “slave” comes from “Slav.” The city of Verdun, in northern France, was Europe’s greatest slave market. No doubt that market would have moved further east had the Arabs conquered Western Europe—to some outpost east of the River Elbe, maybe even to the future Berlin. In any case, Western Europe, too, would have become a slave society, and perhaps, in time, the slaves would have become the masters, coming to power in Europe as they eventually did in the Middle East.

Servile much of Islamic Europe might have been, but it would never have been coarse. When the first Arab conquerors had encountered the refinements of Persia and Byzantium it was love at first sight; no matter how far their travels took them in later years, the victorious Arabs insisted on bringing along the comforts of home. So Islamic England, France, and Germany would have been filled not just with mosques and military camps but with palaces, baths, gardens, and fountains. Tenth-century Paris might have become a second Córdoba, teeming with prosperous workshops and merchants’ quarters in which every language of the Old World could have been heard; gleaming with gold-roofed, marble-columned palaces; adorned with the colors of dyes imported from India, instead of what it was—a glorified small town. Had Aachen been the seat of a caliph rather than Charlemagne’s capital, it might have been adorned with light and airy mosques instead of heavy proto-romanesque churches. Nor would the improvements have been merely physical. Patrons par excellence of poetry and philosophy, the Arabs would have turned Europe into an intellectual powerhouse. Works of Plato and Aristotle would have been known by the leading minds north of the Pyrenees in the tenth instead of the twelfth century. Poets would have composed the sort of refined verses that might have pleased a courtier in Baghdad instead of the rough-hewn rhythms of Beowulf. No wonder that Anatole France bemoaned the outcome of Poitiers: “It was,” he said, “a setback for civilization in the face of barbarism.”

Yes, one is tempted to reply, but only in the short term. Islam represented the cultivated heritage of the great empires of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, not the raw, new, and semibarbaric mores of Western Europe, under whose Germanic conquerors Roman civilization had been diluted. But in the long run the new society of the West proved more productive economically and stronger militarily than the ancient culture of Islam. Historians have no easy time explaining this paradox: why rude, Christian Europe rose to world power, beginning the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions and inventing capitalism along the way, while civilized Islam lay quiescent economically and fell to Western arms. There are no easy answers, but the most promising line of explanation may have to do with Western pluralism.

Precisely because Western Europe was barbaric it proved ungovernable; no one centralizing authority emerged. Feudal government—if that isn’t a contradiction in terms—never succeeded in reining in individual knights; over the centuries, individualism became democratized and a highly prized Western value. Barons never succeeded in conquering the towns, whose merchant oligarchs pursued profit with the same aggressiveness that medieval knights made war. The Christian church never succeeded in taming the princes. As often as not, church and state were at loggerheads. Eventually, during the Reformation era, individual states opted for independence from the church. The culture that developed in Europe was, compared to Islam, decentralized, secularized, individualistic, profit-driven. It had little respect for the older civilization to the south. No wonder that it was Europe that witnessed the Renaissance, the Reformations, the origins of modern science and industrialism; no wonder that it was Europe that, for centuries, ruled the world.

The irony is that it might never have happened if not for the Dark Ages. A European caliphate after 732, like a revived Western Roman Empire after 476, might have guaranteed stability and cultural resplendence, but it would have nipped modernity in the bud. Neither caliphate nor empire would have permitted the freedom and restlessness out of which the European takeoff eventually emerged. For Europe, the Dark Ages were like a terrible medicine that almost killed the patient but ultimately rendered her stronger.

On top of all this, Europe was lucky. The years 476 and 732 would only be footnotes today if things had turned out differently in 1242. In that year, the most powerful invaders the continent had ever seen withdrew after a lightning conquest of Eastern Europe the year before. If not for the death of their king, the conquerors would have begun an unstoppable ride to the Atlantic. It is doubtful that a revived Roman Empire could have defeated them; it is all but certain that an Arab Europe could not have, given the Arab collapse before the victorious invaders in the Middle East a decade later (the capital city of Baghdad was destroyed in 1258). Those victors may have been, quite simply, the greatest set of warriors the world would ever know. They were the Mongols.


The Moss-trooper; by Thomas Jones Barker

Conjectural dispositions at outset of battle. Note the extremely constricted nature of the battlefield, hampering more conventional deployment.


The term ‘Moss trooper’ is often, but quite erroneously applied to the Anglo-Scots border reiver of the sixteenth century. In fact there was an important difference between them in that most border reivers were otherwise respectable farmers and landowners, who from time to time set forth from their castles to steal livestock from their neighbours – ideally but not invariably on the other side of the border. Moss troopers on the other hand were landless bandits, usually operating in wandering gangs, lurking in the mosses and maintaining themselves by highway robbery and petty thievery as well as cattle rustling. Initially the moss troopers who preyed on Cromwell’s stragglers and despatch riders were just such bandits. But once they began to be organised under the command of regular officers such as Augustine (probably Captain Augustine Hoffman, formerly of Leslie’s Horse), and Patrick Gordon, alias ‘Steilhand the Mosser’, they developed into first-class light cavalry.


For the next ten months of 1648-9, Linlithgow Bridge and the river Avon would form the northern frontier of English-occupied Scotland, but of immediate English concern was the siege of Edinburgh Castle. Despite its having been rather unexpectedly stormed by a handful of men under Alexander Leslie and Sandie Hamilton back at the beginning of the Civil wars in 1639, it was generally regarded as impregnable and the siege was no more than a blockade. Nevertheless, the governor, Walter Dundas, was equally unenthusiastic – having to put up with the numerous kirkmen who took refuge there after Dunbar must have been a sore trial – and the castle’s defiance was more symbolic than real. For a time a far more serious threat was posed by a new army being gathered in the west by Gibby Kev and Archibald Strachan, and by the rise of the Moss Troopers.

Kev at least was soon dealt with. Major General Lambert was sent after him with most of the cavalry, only to be unexpectedly attacked in his quarters at Hamilton in the early hours of 1 December 1650. Very literally caught napping, Lambert was quickly driven out of the town but in the process Kev’s troopers themselves fell into some disorder and when he ordered them back out of the burgh to reorganise in the open, the raw levies jumped to the conclusion he was retreating and began to run. A greatly relieved Lambert then charged forward again, completed the accidental rout and captured Kev into the bargain. Later that day Cromwell himself moved on Glasgow whilst Strachan, whose loyalty had long been compromised by his conscience, disbanded his men and defected to the English.

Dealing with the Moss Troopers or ‘Mossers’ was far more difficult. At first they had simply been a nuisance; roving bands of fugitives turned bandits, but in time they developed into a real threat. The most notorious of the bands was led by a ‘heigh German’ mercenary known as Captain Augustine, and on the night of 13 December he crossed the Forth at Blackness with 120 men and made his way to Edinburgh. Swinging his way around to the far side he got in through the Canongate Port by the tried and trusted method of placing an English trooper at the head of the column. Once inside the Mossers then simply galloped straight up the High Street, deposited, by way of supplies, a quantity of ammunition and pickling spices in the castle, then burst out again half an hour later and got clean away. The castle still surrendered ten days later, but the raid was a clear sign that the Scots were regaining their confidence.

Ironically enough, although Cromwell had gained an outstanding tactical victo tory at Dunbar, he had completely failed to achieve his primary political objective of neutralising the supposed threat posed by Charles Stuart. On the contrary, the net effect of Dunbar was to discredit the hitherto dominant Kirk party and so strengthen the position of the King and the increasingly militant Royalist party.

Astonishingly this resurgence of Royalist support actually resulted a brief civil war in the unoccupied part of Scotland. On 4 October the Earl of Atholl openly declared for the King and Charles slipped away from his semi-confinement in an attempt to reach him, only to be apprehended by Leslie in Glen Clova next day. Undaunted, Major General John Middleton also declared for the King shortly afterwards and began mustering substantial forces, including a fair number of regulars with whom he attacked and defeated Sir John Browne in a vicious skirmish at Newtyle in Forfarshire on 21 October 1650. One of Browne’s officers and fifteen troopers were killed, and 120 taken prisoner. Significantly nearly half of Browne’s men then changed sides and joined the Royalists, but when Leslie was ordered north to deal with the rebels they fell back to the Marquis of Huntly’s castle at Strathbogie. There common sense reasserted itself and they agreed to disband their forces on 4 November. A month later however the balance of power changed dramatically and decisively with the defeat of Ker, and Strachan’s defection to the English. Sensing the way the wind was going Leslie re-aligned himself with the Royalists and on 1 January 1651 Charles II was at last formally crowned at Scone, outside Perth.

This roused Cromwell to lead another push against Stirling in early February, but although Leslie was forced to evacuate his outpost at Callendar House and covered the withdrawal with a skirmish on the Carse of Balquiderock, where Bruce had triumphed so long ago, the English army again halted and then fell back to Edinburgh in appalling weather. This time Cromwell himself fell ill and was effectively laid up until June.

In the meantime the Scots recovery went on apace as a new and increasingly confident field army came together at Stirling. Linlithgow had already been raided once in January and on 14 April a large party of horse and dragoons, probably led by Augustine, (who now had a colonel’s commission) mounted another much more successful raid:

taking advantage of an exceeding misty and foggy morning, fell with their horse into Lithgow; they killd only one man, hastned out again: but the major [John Sydenham] with about 30 horse went forth of the town, giving order for the rest to follow. As soon as he was drawn forth, the enemy charged him, and he brake in among them; but his men forsaking him, the enemy pursued both him and them to the town, cutting and hacking them. A fresh party of ours being recollected, the enemy forthwith retreated, and were pursued; in the pursuit our men took 2 or 3 of theirs prisoners, and about 2 or 3 of ours were slain.

In fact the English were far more badly beaten than they first admitted, for not only did Major Sydenham die of his wounds, but a Captain Dowson and eight of his men were captured and then murdered by the Mossers.

The raid was soon followed by a more substantial move back into the South West, which forced the English to evacuate Hamilton. On 19 May Major General Robert Montgomerie won a neat little victory at Paisley. At much the same time Middleton, having reassembled his Royalist forces brought them in to the camp at Stirling and thus reinforced, Leslie essayed a push southwards into the Torwood at the end of June. Cromwell duly came up from Edinburgh to meet him, only for the Scots to take up a strong position behind the river Carron. In a vain attempt to lure Leslie out of this position Cromwell first laid siege to Callendar House and then stormed it, slaughtering the governor, Lieutenant Galbraith and all sixty of his garrison. Despite this provocation Leslie refused to budge and eventually retired again into the defences of Stirling. Baffled, Cromwell cast about for a means of outflanking him.

Back in January Colonel Monck had unsuccessfully attempted a landing at Burntisland on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, but was thwarted by contrary winds. Now, after an abortive attempt to locate a suitable ford above Stirling, Cromwell decided to try another landing, with a much larger force, and early on the morning of 17 July 1651 while the greater part of his army ostentatiously demonstrated in front of Stirling, he embarked:

Colonel [William] Daniel’s regiment of foot, with as many forth of Leith as made them sixteen hundred with four troops of Colonel Lidcot’s regiment, all commanded by Colonel [Robert] Overton. And accordingly attempted landing at Queen’s Ferry, where almost on three sides the sea encompasseth a rocky piece of ground, which, with the loss of about six men, was effected… this done they presently fell to intrenching themselves.

The move was not unexpected. For some time the Scots had been building up the garrison of nearby Burntisland with fresh levies under a veteran officer, Colonel Harie Barclay and he evidently had an outpost at North Queensferry. Not only were Overton’s men shot up as they landed but word was passed back to Stirling so swiftly that notwithstanding Cromwell’s demonstration, Sir John Browne and Major General James Holburne were immediately sent off with their brigades of cavalry and infantry. In the meantime, as Major General Lambert reported, a tense stand-off escalated as those Scots units already quartered in the immediate vicinity turned up, and more English units were shipped across.

The enemy received the alarm the same day about ten of the clock, and sent a considerable party of horse and foot to beat ours back, upon which my lord [Cromwell] had some thoughts of attempting the enemy where they lay, which was not thought fit, but resolved to the contrary; and, in order to the preservation of the forces, his lordship commanded me to march hither with two regiments of horse and two of foot.

Upon Saturday, very early, we came to the water-side, and though I made all possible speed to boat over it, I could not get over more than the foot and my own regiment of horse all that day and the next night: about four in the afternoon on Saturday I discovered the enemy’s body advanced as far as Dumfermling, within five miles of us, being, to my judgement, about four thousand.

And that night they encamped there, and, it seems, hearing more forces were come over, got a recruit of five hundred men the next day. All Saturday night we laboured to get over our horse, and before the last came to shore on the Lord’s day, the enemy was advanced very near us.

By this time Lambert had in total; his own and Colonel William Daniel’s Foot, reinforced by four companies of Colonel George Fenwick’s; Colonel Francis West’s Foot and Colonel Edmund Syler’s Foot; his own regiment of Horse; Colonel John Okey’s former dragoons; and Colonel Leonard Lytcott’s Horse. The quality of this force seems to have been a little questionable. His own regiment of Foot was certainly a good one, but Daniel’s had only been raised the year before, originally for service in Ireland, and had been left in reserve at Dunbar. Nothing is known of West’s Regiment other than it was disbanded a year or two later, while Syler’s may have been a militia regiment from Lincolnshire. As to the cavalry, both Lambert’s and Okey’s regiments were good veteran ones, but Lytcott’s were also newly raised and would perform badly in the coming fight. It is hard to escape the impression that it was very largely a scratch force thrown together from second-line units. All in all Lambert reckoned he outnumbered the Scots by about 500 men. Most of the Scots cavalry belonged to Sir John Browne’s 3rd Cavalry Brigade, which comprised his own, Colonel Charles Arnott’s, the Earl of Balcarres’ and Sir Walter Scott’s regiments. In addition, Lord Brechin’s Horse, which had actually been quartered in Dunfermline at the time, was part of the small force which opposed the initial English landing, and subsequently took part in the battle as did Augustine’s 200 Moss Troopers. Similarly the Scots infantry was primarily comprised of Major General James Holburne’s Brigade, which was one of those to escape more or less intact from the debacle at Dunbar. Both his own and the Laird of Buchannan’s regiments were quite large, mustering 646 and 896 men respectively on 18 July. Stewart’s Regiment, destroyed at Dunbar, had since been replaced by the Master of Grey’s, 610 strong, which will have given Holburne a total of 2,152 regular infantry, exclusive of officers. The ‘recruit of 500 men’ which Lambert reported to have arrived on the Sunday morning was presumably the regiment of Highland clansmen led by Sir Hector MacLean of Duart which was to figure so prominently in the battle. One account of the affair credits the Scots with having five regiments of foot and it is likely that the otherwise unidentified fifth unit was a detachment of Barclay’s men from Burntisland, but there is no indication of their number.

Both armies drew up facing each other, the English on the Ferry Hills and Scots on the lower slopes of Castland Hill, with their right anchored on Whinney Hill and their left on the Hill of Selvege, or Muckle Hill, a little to the south of Inverkeithing. Some of them may have been dug in, for Lambert afterwards spoke of burying some of the Scots dead in their trenches.

On the one hand Holburne was understandably leery of assaulting the strong English position with a single brigade of infantry, while Lambert had no intention of going anywhere until he had brought across all his troops. However the arrival of the last of Okey’s Horse was the signal for Holburne, who by now was outnumbered, to order a withdrawal.

In his report Lambert described how Holburne ‘began to wheel, as if he meant either to march away, or take the advantage of a steep mountain’. The ‘mountain’ was of course Castland Hill and this indicates that Holburne, having originally been facing south, was now wheeling backwards, preparatory to retiring on Dunfermline. Sensing he might have them on the run Lambert immediately sent forward Okey’s Regiment to engage the Scots rearguard, whereupon Holburne halted again and drew up his men in order of battle.

Duart’s Highland regiment was apparently posted on the right, and probably Buchannan’s as well, while Holburne’s and Gray’s regiments were on the left . Where Barclay’s men were posted is unclear. They too may have been on the left, but Lambert says that a ‘pass’, in front of Holburne’s right, was “lined by the enemy’s musketeers”, and this is perhaps a more likely location. From subsequent events it would appear that Sir John Browne’s cavalry brigade was on the right, and that an ad hoc one comprising Brechin’s Horse and Augustine’s ‘Mossers’ was on the left.

As for the English:

We were more in number, in my judgement, by at least five or six hundred, but on the other side the enemy had the advantage of the ground, our left wing of horse being upon a very ill ground, where was a pass lined by the enemy’s musketeers;

Upon consideration whereof, we placed our greatest strength in our right wing, consisting of my own regiment of horse, and two of colonel Lidcot’s, and two of colonel Okey’s troops; the charge of that wing being left with him; and in the left only four troops of colonel Okey’s and two of Lidcot’s, to whom the charge of that wing was committed.

The battle [centre] consisting of mine and colonel Daniel’s regiment of foot, and reserved by colonel west and colonel Syler’s regiment, being commanded by colonel Overton.

Both sides were now deployed in order of battle, but nothing happened for another hour and a half. Lambert tells us he was still expecting the Scots to attack him ‘being come so far to seek us’, while Holburne, having been prevented from retreating, was similarly expecting to be attacked.

At length the stalemate was broken when Lambert received word from Cromwell that reinforcements were marching from Stirling to Holburne’s assistance and that as he himself was pulling back to Linlithgow it was likely that even more would be sent shortly. Rather disappointingly Lambert, having described his initial movements and deployment in some detail, then rather blandly states that it was therefore ‘resolved we should climb the hill to them, which accordingly we did, and through the Lord’s strength, put them to an absolute rout’.

There was of course a little more to it than that. Browne, leading the Scots cavalry on the right (or western side of the battlefield), charged forward and with the advantages of the slope and their lances, broke some of the English cavalry opposite. These were presumably Lytcott’s raw troopers, but Browne may have had to put in everything he had to achieve this, and had no reserves to exploit his initial success. Certainly the upshot was that Lytcott counter-attacked with his own reserves and routed the lot, capturing Browne in the process. Similarly, on the left (Inverkeithing side) Augustine and Brechin were initially successful, but the Moss Troopers were pretty undisciplined and Brechin’s men scarcely less so. Once again they were completely routed by Okey’s reserve – probably led in by Lambert himself, who collected two pistol balls lodged between his armour and his coat.

With the Scots cavalry well scattered, it was the turn of the infantry. There is no real evidence of a serious fight at this stage of the battle. Indeed Lambert states that it was all over in a very short time. This, taken with a curious statement in the Fraser Chronicles that ‘Hellish Hoburn came not up, which if he had the Scotch had carried it but doubt’, suggests that the Scots cavalry either charged to cover the retreat of the infantry, or, more likely, that Holburne, seeing all was going to pot, simply made off leaving them to their fate.

Either way, just as at Dunbar, their retreat must have been prolonged and nightmarish experience. Holburne’s own veterans and Gray’s regiment both seem to have escaped more or less intact, although an oral tradition relates that the Pinkerton Burn ran with blood for three days afterwards. Both Buchannan’s and Duart’s regiments on the other hand, fleeing across the open valley to the west of the burn were effectively destroyed after a four hour running battle. Afterwards Lambert, claiming to have taken 1,400 prisoners including Browne and Buchannan, commented that more were killed than taken because ‘divers of them were Highlanders, and had very ill quarter; and indeed I am persuaded few of them escaped without a knock’. Be that as it may, however the numbers might be computed, their long retreat ended on the hill-slopes around Pitreavie Castle, some two kilometres due north of their original position on Castland Hill.

Tradition relates that the Highlanders sought refuge in the castle, but the owners, a family named Wardlaw, not only refused them admittance but actually threw stones down on them from the roof. With Lambert’s men closing in fast, Duart and his men turned at bay. He himself was killed, but not before seven of his clansmen had interposed themselves one by one, crying ‘Fear eile airson Eachainn!’ ( ‘Another for Hector!’). Legend has it that all but thirty-five out of 800 [sic] of the Highlanders were killed, though, more realistically, Sir James Balfour records that the Scots lost about 800 men in total, of whom no more than 100 were Duart’s clansmen.

It was by any reckoning a quick and decisive victory won by Lambert at the cost of ‘not above eight men, but divers wounded’. More importantly it secured the bridgehead and, over the next two days, Cromwell shipped over another four regiments, and then followed himself with virtually his whole army. By 26 July he reported that he had 13-14,000 men across and on 31 July he marched on Perth which surrendered to him on 2 August. Shy of fighting in the open ever since Dunbar, Leslie had made no attempt to engage him, and now with his lines of communication very firmly cut, he fell in with the King’s desperate notion of marching into England in a vain attempt to rally the English Royalists for one last throw of the dice. With the army gone, and soon to be destroyed at Worcester, Scotland was all but powerless to resist the last English invasion. Stirling Castle surrendered on 15 August 1651, Dundee was stormed and sacked on 1 September and Aberdeen was occupied without a fight a week later. The last of the field armies, commanded by the Marquis of Huntly and the Earl of Balcarres had surrendered by 3 December, and, with the surrender of Dunottar Castle on 24 May 1652, it was all over.

Operation Market-Garden I

The airborne part of Operation `Market‑Garden’, the descent by British and US forces on Arnhem and the corridor stretching up to it from the Allied front line, was the largest Allied airborne effort of the war, and the only attempt at a semi‑strategic airborne gyration, but failed in its efforts to secure a Rhine bridge because of poor planning and intelligence.

The strategic potential of airborne forces was neither fully developed nor exploited during World War II. Such forces are extremely expensive in men and material. Large numbers of picked men have to be given special training and kept out of battle for long periods; a great many parachutes, gliders and other specialist equipment have to be provided and men trained to operate and maintain them; hundreds of four‑engined bombers to tow the gliders and transport aircraft to drop the paratroopers had to be diverted from other tasks and their crews given special training; and a large base organization is necessary to launch and maintain the force

Among senior Allied commanders’ opinions were divided on the proper use of airborne forces. Some, such as Lieutenant General George Patton, believed that airborne forces should be confined to the tactical role with airborne brigade groups assigned as corps troops for quick reaction. Others believed that the great cost of such specialist forces could only lie justified by their being used to carry out deep and strategically significant penetrations of enemy territory, though the threat which airborne forces held in reserve posed to the enemy was also a valuable bonus.

High level disputes

To promote planning for the strategic use of airborne forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, established in August 1944 the 1st Allied Airborne Army Headquarters, under Lieutenant‑General Lewis H. Brereton, United States Army Air Force. The raw material for their planning was provided by three American and two British airborne divisions, the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade and the 52nd (Lowland) Division as an airtransportable follow‑up and consolidation formation. For air transport they had the United States IX Troop Carrier Command and Nos 38 and 46 Groups, RAF.

The establishment of this headquarters did not immediately alter the essentially tactical nature of the tasks assigned to airborne forces. Of these the most successful, so far as British forces were concerned, were the set-piece operations of 6th Airborne Division in Normandy invasion and at the Rhine crossing. Because the 1st Airborne Division, in general, and the lst Parachute Brigade, in particular, had had greater operational experience prior to the invasion, they were held in reserve for use against targets of opportunity. By the time of ‘Market‑Garden’ the 1st Airborne Division had been involved in the plans for 16 abortive operations. This had led to a great deal of frustration, best summed up by the men who had the arduous task of loading their heavy equipment, jeeps and guns, into Airspeed Horsa gliders by small side doors, an operation which became known as ‘into the ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ gliders, out of the ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ gliders!’.

Trying times

The cancellations were nearly all the result of the Allies advancing more rapidly than expected or from the strength of the enemy, for one reason or another, appearing too great for the risk involved to be acceptable. The main limitation on the rapid launching of airborne operations was the time required to collect and disseminate briefing material and orders down to the level of the individual soldier. The air photographs provided for one cancelled operation were largely of month old clouds, while for another there were only nineteenth‑century French hachured maps with only the dolphins missing!

The British 2nd Army crossed the Seine on 30 August and were in Antwerp and Brussels on 4 and 5 September respectively after an advance of some 250 miles (400km). On 1 September Eisenhower took over command of all the forces in the field in North‑West Europe. The very rapid advance had put a tremendous strain on the logistic system. While the initial delay in enlarging the Normandy bridgehead had assisted the administrative planners, once the breakout started the rates of advance on which they had been told to plan proved wildly pessimistic. The Seine was reached 11 days ahead of schedule, and Allied forces were approaching the German frontier by D , 96 days while the logistic plans were based on their doing so about D ~ 300 days. Moreover, until the lower Scheldt had been cleared and Antwerp opened as a port, the armies were still being supplied through Cherbourg and over the Normandy beaches.

Narrow or broad front?

These important logistical considerations entered into the disagreement between Eisenhower, who favoured an advance on a broad front, closing up to the Rhine along the whole front before crossing it to break into the heart of Germany, and General Sir Bernard Montgomery, who advocated an advance on a narrow front launched from the 21st Army Group area and designed to carry the Allies deep into the North German plain with the chance of ending the war in 1944.

Montgomery tried to persuade Eisenhower to give the 21st Army Group absolute priority in additional formations and in logistics to support this single‑front thrust. Eisenhower was not to be persuaded, but was sufficiently impressed with the advantages of a northern advance to give Montgomery what was in effect the whole of the strategic reserve, the forces available to the 1st Allied Airborne Army. ‘Market‑Garden’ was the child of this concept and of Montgomery’s singleness of purpose.

‘Market‑Garden’ and its immediate predecessor ‘Comet’ were brilliant in concept. After occupying Antwerp and Brussels, XXX Corps, under Lieutenant‑General Sir Brian Horrocks, had reached the Meuse‑Escaut Canal. Montgomery aimed to use airborne forces to seize the bridges over the Maas, Waal, and Neder Rijn, at Grave, Nijmegen, and Arnhem respectively, and establish an airhead at the Deelen airfield just north of Arnhem into which to fly an airportable division and supplies (Operation ‘Market’), thus enabling XXX Corps to ‘bounce ‘ the Rhine and advance to the Zuider Zee (‘Garden’).

The tactical prizes for the success of such an operation were great: the German 15th Army and its forces in Holland would have their lines of communication cut, as would the V‑2 missiles sites, the elimination of which was of high priority, and the Siegfried Line would have been turned to the north.

The strategic prize was yet more glittering: the ending of the war in 1944. Not only would this have saved enormously in lives and money, but it would have altered the whole pattern of postwar Europe. The occupation zones in Germany had yet to be agreed. The Russians were advancing in the Balkans but were halted east of Warsaw, refusing even to aid the Allies in aiding the citizens of Warsaw who had risen against the Germans. The outstanding courage of the citizen army of Warsaw was not finally overcome until 2 October. Had ‘Market‑Garden’ been successful, the Western Allies would have entered Berlin and Prague and the Yalta Conference would have been a very different affair from that which it turned out to be. But strategic concepts can only be sealed through tactical success. In ‘Market‑Garden’ this was denied the Allies and it is with the causes of this failure, in particular that of the British 1st Airborne Division, that we are here concerned.

Abortive plan

The prevalent optimism at the beginning of September is well illustrated by the plans for Operation ‘Comet’, which was to have been put into effect on 8 September. This operation had the‑same objectives as Operation ‘Market’ but was to be executed by the 1st Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade alone. The 4th Parachute Brigade was to drop south of the Maas and capture the bridge at Grave, the 1st Parachute Brigade was to drop north of the Neder Rijn (or Rhine) and capture the bridges at Arnhem, and the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade were to drop and land between the Maas and the Waal and capture the bridge at Nijmegen.

Major‑General Roy Urquhart, GOC 1st Airborne Division, has been accused by some of showing a lack of imagination in his `Market’ plan, in not planning to take the Arnhem bridges by glider coup‑de-main, as had been done by the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. It is therefore of interest that his plan for `Comet’ included provision for a reinforced company from each of the airlanding battalions (1st Borders, 7th KOSB and 2nd South Staffords) each being allotted six Horsa gliders with the task of taking the bridges at Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem by coup‑de‑main.

New optimism

The forces were all assembled at Harwell where were the author’s regimental tactical headquarters (1st Light Regiment, RA), and the author well remembers getting ready to take off on this adventure, only to have it postponed for 24 hours just before midnight on 7‑8 September and finally cancelled about the same time on the 9th. When for `Market’ three instead of one airborne divisions were assigned for the same task, it is not surprising that optimism prevailed.

Another effect of the very rapid advance of the 2nd Army from the Seine was the increasing difficulty of getting reliable intelligence of the enemy. Successive postponements of “Comet’ were partly due to the realization that the enemy resistance was again hardening and that not only might the 1st Airborne Division find the enemy too strong for it to carry out its very dispersed mission, but that it would need a deliberate attack, strongly supported by artillery, to enable XXX Corps to breakout across the Meuse‑Escaut Canal to the north.

The plans for Operation ‘Market’ were very similar to those for ‘Comet’, but used divisions where before there had been brigades to seize five major bridges three over the Maas, Waal, and Neder Rhine, laying what was called an airborne carpet, more accurately a series of mats that would enable XXX Corps to `bounce’ the Rhine.

Operation `Market’

I British Airborne Corps (Lieutenant General F. A. M. `Boy’ Browning) commanded the airborne force until it had landed and came under British 2nd Army (Lieutenant‑General Sir Miles Dempsey). The forces available were: the British 1st Airborne Division, the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, the last under command of the 1st Airborne Division. Aircraft and gliders were provided by Nos 38 and 46 Groups, RAF, and the US IX Troop Carrier Command. The last also provided the pilots for gliders towed by American aircraft, those towed by British aircraft coming from the Glider Pilot Regiment.

Air support and air escort was provided by the 2nd Tactical Air Force, Nos 2 and 11 Groups RAF and the US 8th Air Force (fighters and bombers), all under the control of Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Air Force. The 1st Allied Airborne Army made all arrangements for air escort and for air/sea rescue and dummy parachute drops.

Operation `Garden’

`Garden’ was to be carried out by XXX Corps, under Lieutenant‑General Sir Brian Horrocks (Guards Armoured Division, 43rd and 50th Infantry Divisions) with VIII Corps on its right and XII on its left keeping up what pressure they could with limited ammunition supplies. The Guards Armoured Division was to lead on what was virtually for much of the way a one tank front along the main road EindhovenUden ‑ Grave ‑ Nijmegen ‑ Arnhem ‑the Zuider Zee. Distances in miles from the start line being: Eindhoven 13 (21km); Uden 32 (52km); Grave 43 (69km); Nijmegen 53 (85km); Arnhem 64 (103km); and Zuider Zee 94 (151km).

The 52nd (Lowland) Division was to be ready to be flown in north of Arnhem. On the assumption that Operation `Market’ was successful, it was estimated that XXX Corps might reach the Zuider Zee between two to five days after crossing the Belgian Dutch border. The corps was expected to join the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem between D + 1 and D +3 days.

In drawing up its plans XXX Corps gave too little credence to Dutch warnings on how easy it would be for quite small parties of Germans to hold up the advance or interrupt the lines of communication along the single road, much of it on an embankment from which, along considerable stretches, tanks could not deploy. Nor do the warnings of the Dutch resistance of increasing German strength in the area seem to have been given the weight they deserved. On the other hand, the 1st Airborne Division in its planning paid too much attention to Dutch advice that much of the low‑lying parts of the area were too marshy and intersected by ditches and canals to be used for parachute drops or glider landings. Let us turn now from the general to the particular and consider the task of 1st Airborne Division and its plan to fulfil it.

Brigadier W.F.K Thompson   CO of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery with 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.

Operation Market-Garden II

Browning’s briefing

On 10 September, immediately after the cancellation of Operation ‘Comet’, the commanders of the three airborne divisions were summoned to Montgomery’s headquarters to be briefed by Lieutenant General Browning, who was both deputy commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army and commander of the British Air­borne Corps, and in the latter capacity in charge of the planning for Operation `Market’.

When given his orders by Montgomery, Browning was told that the 2nd Army would be up to Arnhem in two days. Feeling some reservation about this optimism he made the reply made famous by Cornelius Ryan’s `best seller’: `We can hold the bridge for four days but I think we may be going a bridge too far’ (editor’s italics).

This reply should not be interpreted to mean that Browning favoured an air­borne operation which stopped short after crossing the Waal at Nijmegen. That would have been to forgo the prize of ending the war in 1944 at which the whole operation was aimed, and to have turned a potentially decisive strategic stroke into yet another airborne operation for limited tactical ends, a use to which at this juncture the author feels sure airborne forces would never have been put, for if the Rhine was not to be `bounced’ the 2nd Army would surely have been directed to clearing the estuary of the Scheldt, opening up the port of Antwerp.

The concept of ‘a bridge too far’ meant That the Allies were paying the penalty for not having a strong advocate of the strategic use of airborne forces at sufficiently high level of command to ensure that when the opportunity arose, those forces were adequate to seize it. The belated formation of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, a planning organization outside the normal chain of command and planning, was no answer.

Too little airlift

The problem of making a success of ‘Market‑Garden’ was not that there were too many bridges but rather too little airlift. This meant, as will become clear, that the 1st Airborne Division’s plan had of necessity to run counter to the two most important principles of airborne operations: the achievement of surprise and concentration of force. Had it been possible to put the 1st Airborne Division down in one lift success would almost certainly have been assured; had it been possible to use a fourth airborne division success could have been guaranteed, for in the planning it had been recognized that it was unlikely that the US 82nd Airborne Division would be able to take the Nijmegen bridge as well as the bridge at Grave and the vital high ground south of the Waal and east of Nijmegen. This proved correct and when the Guards Armoured Division reached Nijmegen the carpet had yet to be extended beyond the Waal.

American advantages

The shortage of airlift capacity presented the corps planners with a problem. While the 1st Airborne Division was clearly going to be in the most exposed position and would need to hold out the longest, to deprive the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the necessary forces to capture the bridges which alone would ensure their timely relief by XXX Corps would be doing them no service.

In the end the allocation of aircraft to divisions was as follows: 481 to the 1st Airborne; 530 to the 82nd Airborne; 494 to the 101st Airborne; and 38 to the Airborne Corps headquarters. All the aircraft allotted to the American divisions were American‑piloted Douglas C‑47s. The British lift was made up of 149 American and 130 RAF C‑47s, and 494 converted RAF bombers, mostly four‑engined. Although the 1st Airborne Division had fewer aircraft, the capacity of their Horsa and Hamilcar gliders gave them a larger lift in men or tons of equipment.

This allocation meant that each division could fly in only about two‑thirds of its strength with the first lift ‑ in the case of the 1st Airborne Division, which had the Polish Parachute Brigade under command, only half. To reduce this handicap as much as possible, the soldiers pressed for two lifts on the first day but this was turned down mainly because there was no moon and the American pilots were not considered to have the capability of carrying out airborne operations at night under these conditions.

As soon as Urquhart had received his orders, planning for ‘Market’ started in the stately club house at Moor Park which was the headquarters of the British Airborne Corps and the tactical headquarters and briefing centre for the 1st Airborne Division when operations were in course of preparation. Units of the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade remained at their airfield assembly camps after being stood down from Operation `Comet’. The division’s administrative tail with, among other things, personal kit had already crossed to the continent by sea.

Triple tasks

General Urquhart translated the divisional aim into three tasks. The primary task was to capture the Arnhem bridges or a bridge; the secondary task was to establish a sufficient bridgehead to enable the follow‑up formations of XXX Corps to deploy north of the Neder Rijn; lastly, during operations immediately following the landing of the first lift, everything was to be done to ensure the safe passage of subsequent lifts by destroying antiaircraft positions in the vicinity of the dropping and landing zones and of Arnhem.

To accomplish these tasks the battle experienced 1st Parachute Brigade, under Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, was given the job of seizing the rail and road bridges at Arnhem. The 4th Parachute Brigade, under Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett, was to occupy the high ground on the northern outskirts of Arnhem with the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, under Major‑General Stanislaw Sosabowski, holding the eastern perimeter, and the 1st Airlanding Brigade, under Brigadier ‘Pip’ Hicks, the western.

But what of the enemy? Ever since a, fortunately abortive, plan to drop the 1st Airborne Division in the Orleans gap in the path of German armour escaping from the Falaise‑Argentan pocket, the redoubtable and experienced commander of the Polish Parachute Brigade, which first came under command of the 1st Airborne Division for that operation, showed a good deal more concern about enemy strengths and dispositions than did the British. His realism in this has rightly been praised, but it was also coloured by a strong desire not to get his brigade pinned down in western Europe, for he was dedicated to the liberation of Warsaw. The British 1st Airborne Division, on the other number of anti‑tank guns should on no hand, had a natural tendency to play down the enemy in its intense desire to get into battle.

The expectation at the time of ‘Market-Garden’ was that, though German resistance on the Meuse‑Escaut Canal was stiffening, it was expected that once that crust was broken, there would be little to hold up the advance of XXX Corps. The airborne divisional commanders were led to expect no more opposition, pat most, than a brigade of German infantry with a handful of tanks. Reports of German armour re‑forming in the vicinity of Arnhem began to come through from 10 September onwards, but though these were taken seriously by the intelligence staff they were largely discounted by commanders.

Poles in reserve

Intelligence suggesting that the Germans were beginning to recover from their crushing defeat in Normandy and that stronger resistance might be expected was not allowed to influence the operational account be reduced, when the quantity of aircraft allotted to the division’s first lift was cut.

On the other hand, reports that there had been a 30 per cent build‑up in the German anti‑aircraft defences around Arnhem and the Deelen airfield, north of the city, were taken very seriously by the RAF. It ruled out all thought of a coup‑de-main by gliders on the bridges and led to a disagreement between Air Vice‑Marshal Leslie Hollinghurst, air officer commanding No 38 Group RAF and responsible for the 1st Airborne Division’s air movement plan, and Urquhart as to the position of the dropping and landing zones.

Urquhart was prepared to accept the dry heathland some 7 miles (1125km) west of Arnhem for the mass glider landing, but he pressed Hollinghurst hard to drop the 1st Parachute Brigade on both sides of the river and as near to the Arnhem bridges as possible. The RAF, however, believed that to do so would invite unacceptable losses and it was decided that the drop should take place in the same area as the glider landing but with different zones.

This decision seriously prejudiced the tactical success of the division. Short of airlift, members of the division begrudged the 38 glider loads allotted to the Airborne Corps HQ, for this already meant that only half Urquhart’s command would be available to exploit the initial surprise. On top of that the decision to drop and land 7 miles (11~25km) from the objective again divided the remaining forces as one brigade would be needed to hold the DZs and LZs until the second lift came in, leaving only one brigade to go for the Arnhem bridges.

Intelligence ignored

It was decided that the 1st Parachute Brigade would on landing go for the final objective, the bridges, leaving the 1st Airlanding Brigade to guard the landing area until the fly-in of the 4th Polish Brigade on D+1. The Polish brigade would be held in reserve with the expected role of being dropped immediately south of the Arnhem road bridge on D+2, provided that the anti-aircraft fire covering the area around the bridge had been eliminated. A landing zone east of the main divisional landing zone had been selected for the gliderborne portion of the Polish brigade due to land on D+2.

This plan, forced on the 1st Airborne Division’s commander by circumstances, ran counter to the principles of war of greatest importance in airborne operations surprise and concentration of force. These required that the force be landed on or as near as possible to their objective, taking into account enemy strength and dispositions. The plan as it stood was a perfect receipt for defeat in detail.

The author has heard General Jim Gavin, the dynamic commander of the American 82nd Airborne Division, say that the British should have been prepared to accept a 10 per cent increase in casualties in order to land nearer their objectives. He was, however, unaware that the RAF had at the briefing at Moor Park, predicted up to 40 per cent casualties on the fly‑in according to the adopted plan. Urquhart can hardly be expected to have suggested making it 50 per; cent.

Divided command

In any case there was no way in which Urquhart could have influenced the RAF plan except by persuasion, the War Office and the Air Ministry having formally agreed that ‘Airborne operations are air operations and should he entirely controlled by the Air Commander‑in‑Chief.’ Why then, ask some critics, did Urquhart not refuse to go’.?

The author believes there were two fundamental reasons. Firstly, given the correctness of higher commands’ estimate of the strength and condition of the enemy, and given that all went according to plan, then despite the plan’s very serious weaknesses there was still a reasonable chance of success, and success held out the best hope of ending the war in 1944. In these circumstances it would not seem reasonable to expect the 1st Airborne Division’s commander to refuse to carry out his superiors’ orders.

There was, however, a second reason which those who were not directly involved may find difficult to comprehend. The morale of the 1st Airborne Division was high, but it had become increasingly brittle as a result of the frustration felt from planning and getting ready for 16 abortive operations. Officers and men had joined airborne forces to see action in novel and exciting circumstances, but instead they had been held back on the side lines, spectators while others fought.

Limited experience

There were units in the division that had seen hard fighting in North Africa and Sicily but a considerable part of the division had only seen limited action in Italy and some none at all. In September it looked as if the war would be over without their having heard a shot fired in anger, let alone demonstrated the élan which had come to be associated with the Red Beret. It is significant that when the RAF predicted up to 40 per cent casualties on the fly‑in, no one appeared to be listening. In these circumstances another cancellation would most probably have destroyed the division’s morale, it would certainly have destroyed the acceptance of Urquhart’s leadership.

As we now know, things did not go according to plan, nor was luck on the side of the 1st Airborne Division. Before turning to a broad consideration of the `Market Garden’ operation as events unfolded, attention should be drawn to one more serious weakness from which the 1st Airhorne Division suffered and which, like others, stemmed largely from the failure at the highest levels of command to appreciate the strategic potential of airborne forces and the organization and equipment required to exploit it.

Light artillery only

The organic artillery of an airborne division was strictly limited by the airlift required for carrying guns and ammunition, particularly the latter. The 1st Airborne Division’s field artillery consisted of only 24 75mm pack howitzers, firing 151b (6‑8kg) shells, and organized into three batteries, each affiliated to one of the brigades. For the 1st Parachute Brigade’s operation in Sicily, ad hoc arrangements were made to enable an airborne gunner officer to control the fire of the artillery of the link‑up forces as they came within range, so no field artillery accompanied the brigade.

Between Sicily and the Normandy invasion the Royal Artillery paid great attention to this problem, and the two British airborne divisions were each supplied with a FOURA (Forward Observation Unit, Royal Artillery) made up of officers with signallers and wireless sets designed to control the fire of the link‑up artillery and supplement the limited number of OP parties the divisional artillery ‑regiment could provide.

When airborne forces were used tactically in close support of the ground forces, these arrangements were adequate as the airborne forces either landed within range of the longer‑ranged link‑up artillery or would become so very soon after landing. In a strategic role, such as that of the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, it must be expected that a considerable time would elapse before the fire of the divisional artillery regiment could be supplemented by that of artillery from outside the division. Daring this time tit, division would be heavily dependent for close fire‑support on the air forces. One of the unanswered questions about the Arnhem operations is why the arrangements for close air support were so inadequate.

The need had long been recognized and shortly after the Normandy landings a staff officer from divisional headquarters was sent over to study the problem at first hand but no ASSU (Air Support Signal Unit) was developed. In consequence the arrangements for ground to air communications for the support of the 1st Airborne Division had to be improvised. The normal British wireless set used by an ASSU for ground‑to‑air communications was not airportable. The Americans had a set that could be carried in a British General Aircraft Hamilcar or American Waco CG‑4A glider. Unfortunately one of the two sets allotted to the 1st Airborne Division was damaged on landing and no more than one contact was made with the other. The American signallers who accompanied the sets were unfamiliar with them and untrained in operating ground-to‑air communications.

No air support

No 83 Group RAF was responsible for providing the 1st Airborne Division with close air support. In this, apart from the failure of the ground to air communications, the group was severely handicapped by fog over its airfields most mornings and by their aircraft being kept out of the area whenever aircraft of the US 8th Air Force were providing fighter cover for the air transport force bringing in troops or supplies. In consequence, not only were the airborne forces largely deprived of close air support, but also of the salutary effect which the continual presence of Allied aircraft overhead would have had on enemy morale. It was an admitted serious error that all aircraft flying in the battle area had not been placed under the control of the local air. commander, the air officer commanding No 83 Group, with a senior liaison officer having direct communications with the 8th USAAF at his headquarters.

Having cleared out of the way some of the structural weaknesses and inadequacies which militated against the effective use of airborne forces in a strategic role, let us turn our attention to the development of events.

It was decided that Operation ‘Market Garden’ would start on Sunday 17 September, and that the airborne drop and glider landings would take place at about the same time for all three airborne divisions: the 1st Airborne Division at 1250, with the Independent Parachute Company responsible for marking the dropping and landing zones dropped 20 minutes ahead of the main body; and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions at 1230.

RAF fears

A second lift was to go in on 18 September, with the first arrivals at 1000. This lift was held up by bad weather, and finally came in four hours late. For the 1st and 82nd Airborne Divisions there was to be an important third lift on D + 2, bringing in the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade and 325th Glider Infantry Regimental Combat Team for the British and Americans respectively. In all, some 34,000 troops were flown in, 20,190 being dropped by parachute and 13,781 landed by glider: of the paratroopers 16,500 dropped on 1 7 September.

As noted already, the RAF believed that the build‑up of German anti‑aircraft defences on barges as well as on land presented a serious threat to the vulnerable air transport trains. To reduce this to a minimum 821 Boeing B‑17s of the 8th UBAAF dropped 3,139 tons of bombs on 117 sites, Bomber Command attacked German fighter airfields during the night of 16-17 September, and in daylight raids against coastal batteries in the Walcheren area 85 Avro Lancasters and 15  de Havilland Mosquitoes dropped 535 tons of bombs.

The air trains were provided with escort and anti‑flak patrols by 550 8th USAAF Lockheed P‑38 Lightnings, Republic P‑47 Thunderbolts and North American P‑51 Mustangs, and by 371 Hawker Tempests, Supermarine Spitfires and de Havilland Mosquitoes of the Air Defence of Great Britain command, while 166 fighters of the US 9th Air Force gave umbrella cover over the dropping and landing zones.

No concentration

Early on 17 September 84 Mosquitoes, Douglas Bostons and North American Mitchells of the 2nd TAF attacked barracks in Nijmegen, Cleve, Arnhem and Ede. That evening dummy parachute drops were made west of Utrecht, and east of Nijmegen and Emmerich.

Splitting the airborne forces into two or more lifts not only ran counter to the principle of concentration but made the whole operation hostage to the weather, forecast as good for the whole period of the operations. The weather over Holland on 17 September was excellent, though low cloud over England caused some gliders of the 1st Airborne Division to run into slip‑stream trouble and mainly for this reason 24 of those in the first lift parted company with their tug aircraft over England.

The aerial armada of transport and tug aircraft took off from two groups of airfields. The southern group, mainly in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, comprised eight British and six American airfields; the eastern group, in Lincolnshire, eight American airfields. The armada crossed the channel in two streams, each stream being divided into three sub‑streams 1‑25 miles (2km) apart.

Brigadier W.F.K Thompson   CO of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery with 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.