Japanese Naval AAA Late War

The 1944 instructions include anti-aircraft fire: barrage fire is to be used both against dive bombers and against low fliers. That is much the British doctrine of this period, and it suggests that, like the British, the Japanese did not expect to use aimed fire against other than high-flying level bombers. Ships escorting carriers were to concentrate on defending the carriers.

All of this meant that, as unpleasant as Midway had been, the Philippine Sea carried the additional message that the enemy would almost always be able to carry out his air attacks unhindered by any long-range Japanese strike. Anti-aircraft weapons suddenly became far more important, because the option of striking first at greater range was gone. That had already happened in 1942, but in 1944 the Japanese could hope to regain their range advantage with new carrier attack aircraft.

After Midway, Admiral Yamamoto issued new orders for ships under air attack. Battleships were taken as the basis for more general practices. The ship in the fleet closest to the attacking aircraft was to turn towards the enemy and emit specified smoke signals, firing its guns so as to direct Japanese fighters towards the enemy. Presumably smoke was to be used because the Japanese had taken from the British the idea that radio silence was golden. However, the orders also included flag and wireless signals to provide data such as the strength of the enemy force. Their list of ways of detecting incoming enemy aircraft consisted of radio intelligence, radio location (presumably radar), scouting aircraft, watching aircraft and fire-control predictors (presumably used to project forward the path of enemy aircraft).

Alternative means of distributing fire among ships of the fleet were given. The rules clearly envisaged British-style barrage fire by the main and secondary (LA) batteries, which could be used against torpedo bombers, long-range bombers, and bombers capable of strafing (presumably a literal translation), but primarily against torpedo bombers. Medium-calibre anti-aircraft guns would be used against bombers and dive bombers. Machine guns would be used against dive bombers and, according to circumstances, short-range torpedo bombers.

Special rules indicated when guns could open fire in the presence either of numerous or few or no Japanese fighters. For example, when there were numerous Japanese fighters, guns could open fire against torpedo bombers out to 15km range. They could open fire against dive bombers when they were running in – at an estimated altitude of 3000m (9840ft) and at a 50° vertical angle. Against low-level bombers, the range to open fire depended on whether there was an adequate patrol on the second warning line. If there was, fire could be opened not more than 5km (plan range) from the second line. When the patrol at the second line was inadequate, fire could be opened 6nm (unit given) from each ship. Fire could also be opened when the enemy aircraft were at an altitude of more than 6km (19,700ft) and 7km (7650 yds) from the ship (plan range).

An appendix warned that sights etc on all types of AA guns were unsuitable for use against fast aircraft moving at 200kts or more, and should be rebuilt.49 Simple unobtrusive sights suited to 300kt targets could be placed alongside the existing sights of 12cm and 7cm AA guns. The ordinary sight of the 8cm AA gun should be improved and a simple unobtrusive sight suitable for 300kt speed should be fitted. Measurement and gradation of the firing table for the Type 89 (12.7cm) AA gun and the time taken for communication were considered excessive; a simple and rapid type of measuring instrument should be made and distributed. Automatic weapon (25mm and 13mm) sights could not match target speed, as their capacity was too limited, and therefore they could not be used in combat. Either a prism should be inserted in the sighting telescope, or a simple 300kt sight should be installed.

A drawing of a typical battleship AA battery clearly showed a Yamato class battleship, but that must not have been evident at the time. Main and secondary gun calibres were not given, but the ship clearly had two main battery turrets forward and one aft, plus four secondary battery mounts in diamond arrangement. The diagram showed three AA guns (actually twin 12.7cm) on each side, numbered odd to starboard and even to port. Also on each side were two ‘concentrations’, each apparently corresponding to a pair of light anti-aircraft mounts, which were controlled together: one each at the ends of the row of medium AA guns. Another machine gun mount was on each side forward of the middle AA gun, for a total of ten machine gun mountings. All were mounted inboard of the medium-calibre guns.

A US Navy evaluation of Japanese AA fire in mid-1944 was that medium-calibre guns were being used for barrage rather than aimed fire. Most aircraft were being damaged by guns in the 20mm to 40mm class, the 25mm Hotchkiss being the most effective. Guns of 20mm to 40mm calibres had caused three times as many casualties as those of heavier calibres and six times as many as many as guns of lighter calibres. That was contrasted with US experience in which 5in guns had overtaken the lighter weapons in lethality. A captured document gave ranges to open fire for various calibres: 9900 yds for the 12cm (4.7in), 7700 for the 3in, 6600 yds for the 8cm, 2750 for the 25mm, and 2200 yds for the 13mm. All but the last were in line with ranges at which the British and the US Navy expected fire to become effective; the 13mm figure was more than twice that adopted by the Allies. It seemed that the Japanese were relying on a course and speed sight (like the Le Prieur sight of the 25mm gun and its director) to an unrealistic degree. The same document stressed the need to conserve ammunition, hence to limit the number of rounds fired at any one target. Limits given were six rounds for a 12cm gun, ten for 8cm, and one magazine (fifteen rounds for a 25mm gun) for machine guns. Automatic weapons were not to fire at retiring targets (a policy also followed by the Allies). The severe restriction on numbers of rounds to be fired reflects production problems even before Japan began to suffer strategic bombing. The figures were far below the RPB estimated for US guns.

After Midway the Imperial Japanese Navy decided that its Type 94 fire-control system was inadequate even with planned improvements, so work began on a new Type 3 (1943) system. Like Type 94, it had its rangefinder in the director, which was arranged to insure that layer, trainer and control officer were all observing the same target. Like many wartime British systems, it had scooter control for rapid slewing by the control officer. Very rapid development, and many system features, suggest that Type 3 was inspired by British systems such as the FKC, details of which were probably captured at Singapore. Like the British systems, Type 3 worked in terms of plan motion, the target being handled as though it was flying at constant altitude. Thus, unlike Type 94, Type 3 used rectangular co-ordinates. Also like the British systems, this one included a height plot intended to allow an operator to estimate aircraft height from a scatter of observed points. Unlike British systems, the director was sufficiently stabilised (by leveller and cross-leveller, not gyros) that it was expected to provide accurate bearing data. The Japanese later said that Type 3 was designed to provide rapid solutions. Initial inputs were estimated target course and speed (as in British systems). Unlike Type 94, Type 3 worked in rectangular co-ordinates, decomposing target speed into across and along components. To avoid the use of three-dimensional ballistic cams, it employed a British-style roller on which firing table data were engraved. The computer turned the roller, and an operator found the appropriate tangent elevation on it, sending it to the guns by means of a follow-up. A similar roller was used to enter wind corrections. Ballistics could be changed simply by replacing the rollers. Type 3 was never completed, although manufacture of a prototype was well underway at the end of the war. It was not related to the Type 3 developed for use ashore.

There was also an attempt to produce a dual-purpose destroyer system to control 12.7cm/50 guns. This Type 2 (1942) system replaced pre-war LA fire-control systems. Unlike Type 3, it entered service, but was never considered satisfactory for HA fire. The Japanese described it as grossly over-complicated, because its designers refused to compromise by emphasising either HA or LA fire (i.e., large or small angular rates). Instead, the same mechanism was used for both high and low angles, with change-over gears and clutches to shift function. Change-over required a complicated lining-up procedure. The associated Type 2 director was fully enclosed and trained hydraulically, but the optics were not cross-levelled (director outputs were adjusted for cross-level). On top it carried a 3m rangefinder which could train independently. In addition to the usual pointer and trainer it carried a target inclination operator (Japanese surface fire-control systems included elaborate inclination devices). The computer maker, Aichi, considered the associated Type 2 computer the most complicated it had ever made. Prediction was based on rate integrators. The computer used a three-dimensional cam to correct LA elevation to super-elevation for HA fire.

By 1944 there was an urgent requirement for a radar director to replace the Type 2 director; the result was the Type 5 (1945) director, which was intended as a minimum modification to Type 2 for destroyers and light cruisers. The Japanese described it as a means of blind fire, but that was not true in Western terms, since their radars did not provide good enough bearing and elevation data. Type 5 never entered service.

The standard Type 95 machine-gun director was modified with scooter control (probably based on British technology acquired when Singapore fell). By the end of the war the associated ring sights provided for target speeds of 900, 800 and 700km/hr (900km/hr equated to 492kts). Given production problems, a simplified version was produced, designated Type 4 (1944) Mod 3. It had range rings only for 800 and 700km/hr (800km/hr is 437kts), with a central area to be used for speeds of less than 600km/hr (328kts).53 Because the new device was simpler, it was available in larger quantities, and it could be used more extensively, and also ashore. Initially it was intended for 12cm rockets (see below) in addition to 25mm machine guns, but use was later extended to the war-built Matsu and Tachibana class escort destroyers.

Massive anti-aircraft rearmament began in the spring of 1944. The two superbattleships had their wing 6.1 in anti-destroyer mounts replaced by anti-aircraft weapons. Many 25mm guns were added. For example, in the superbattleships the original 25mm mountings were in closed shields to protect them from the blast of their 18.1in guns. The new mountings were the standard unshielded type. The big fleet destroyers had their after superfiring twin 5in guns replaced by triple 25mm guns. Note that, unlike fleet destroyers, the Matsu and Tachibana class escort destroyers all had 12.7cm/40 guns, which were truly dual-purpose.

Two new weapons were deployed. After a short development programme, 12cm anti-aircraft rockets were deployed in 28-round launchers on modified 25mm machine-gun mounts, controlled by standard 25mm machine-gun directors. These launchers were installed on board the battleships Ise and Hyuga and on board several carriers including Zuikaku. These shrapnel incendiary weapons were used at Leyte Gulf, but results were not recorded. The Japanese did say that they valued them as a deterrent and as a way of increasing anti-aircraft firepower at relatively low cost – much as the Royal Navy had adopted rocket weapons in 1940.

The second new weapon was the Model 3 incendiary anti-aircraft shell, which was fired by low-angle guns up to and including the 18.1in guns of the two superbattleships. Shells were filled with steel tubes containing an incendiary mixture. The shell was burst by a mechanical time fuse, the tubes igniting about half a second later, burning for 5 seconds. An alternative Model 4 was phosphorus-filled. Much effort was directed at production of these shells during the run-up to the Guadalcanal campaign. Gunnery officers considered these shells more effective than the usual common shells when fire was directed at approaching targets, because the tubes and fragments formed a cone beyond the point of burst. The post-war US view was that the officers were misled by the impressive appearance of bursts; the projectiles were apparently ineffective. Among other problems, the ballistics of the special shells was different from that of standard HE. Moreover, the shells should have been burst higher than HE shell, because shrapnel drops as it is ejected by the shell. Gunnery officers were given special ballistic charts and cards giving the necessary corrections. In many ships, some turrets were loaded with HE and some with incendiary shrapnel, to be prepared to engage either approaching or retiring targets.

There was also an attempt to improve the performance of anti-aircraft guns by improving and streamlining the shells. By the end of the war, tests had been completed on the destroyer 5in shell, the standard 4.7in shell, and the 3.9in shell, of which the 4.7in had gone into production.

Under post-war interrogation, the Japanese professed themselves satisfied with their anti-aircraft weapons. Few records of shipboard performance had survived, so most naval records were of the air defence of Japan itself. The subject is complicated further by the fact that, during and after the Bougainville Island engagement, the Imperial Japanese Navy was extremely short of ammunition. As a result, it shot down many fewer aircraft. For example, 25mm machine guns were limited to ten rounds per plane against diving targets, fire being held until the aircraft closed to 1000 metres. The Japanese claimed that US aircraft were so predictable that such figures were adequate, but it turned out that they grossly overclaimed aircraft shot down. The one ship figure which emerged in interrogation was that the carrier Zuikaku, armed with three twin 12.7cm guns and sixty to seventy machine guns required 150 RPB with her 12.7cm and 1000 RPB with her 25mm at ranges of 1000 to 2000m in the South Seas Battle (presumably Philippine Sea). These were not far from generally accepted figures, which may represent hoped-for rather than achieved standards. The Japanese also stated that effective range for the 12.7cm anti-aircraft gun was 8000m and below 3000m altitude, and for the 25mm machine gun, 2000m range and 1000m height (1500 RPB). Attempts were made to predict the effectiveness of various weapons, but they were not backed by operational data of the sort used by the US Navy. Other remarks made under interrogation were that no planes were claimed by 10cm and heavier batteries for ranges beyond 8000m, and the best results were obtained at 4000m and below. For medium ranges between 4000 and 7000m, the 10cm high-velocity gun was considered the best medium-calibre weapon. No kill claims were made for ‘jinking’ targets.

The Helicopter

That universal work-horse of all the minor, and major, wars since 1945 played little or no part in World War II. Helicopters did exist before the war – Hanna Reitsch flew one of the first practical helicopters in February 1938. This was the Focke-Achgelis Fa61; it was not by any means the first helicopter, nor was Hanna Reitsch its first pilot, but the series of remarkable flights she made gained worldwide publicity for the very simple reason that they took place indoors.

The Fa61 had, during 1937, established several international helicopter records, including the altitude record of 8002 feet and a speed record of 76.15 mph. The record-breaking pilot was Edwald Rohlfs, but in the atmosphere of growing distrust of Nazi propaganda, the reports of the records had been muted and, to gain the international notice which the Germans desperately wanted, a more sensational demonstration was required. According to Hanna Reitsch, who has survived more flying adventures than almost any other pilot, it was General Udet himself who thought up the brilliant propaganda coup that was to force the world to notice the achievements of the German helicopter. He persuaded her, at that time not only an attractive young woman, but also a noted international glider champion, to learn to fly the Fa61 and to demonstrate it for fourteen successive evenings inside the huge Deutschlandhalle in Berlin during the 1938 German Motor Show. Each evening she flew the small helicopter under perfect control before audiences of 20,000, including no doubt the military attachés. It was a sensational début, for at that time most rotary-wing aircraft were autogyros, which are incapable of vertical flight.

The Fa61 was a true helicopter, though by modern standards crude. It was basically the fuselage of a Focke-Wulf FW44 Stieglitz (Goldfinch) trainer biplane, complete with its original 160-hp Siemens radial engine, which drove two 3-bladed rotors carried on outriggers. The small propeller in the conventional position was fitted simply to cool the engine, but it flew well enough. After the Deutschlandhalle flights, a second Fa61 ascended to 11,243 feet, a record that was to stand for some time.

German wartime helicopters included the Flettner F1282 Kolibri (Hummingbird). This was the first military helicopter and it was the only one to be used operationally during the war years. About twenty were delivered to the German Navy, being used principally on board ships for antisubmarine patrols and communication flights, mainly in the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

The F1282 first flew in 1940 and used the intermeshing ‘eggbeater’ technique of two rotors to eliminate torque effects. It was powered by a single 140-hp Siemens-Halske radial engine and had a top speed of 90 mph. It could easily operate from ships and was entirely successful, though like many early helicopters it was limited by the very small offensive load it could carry. Nevertheless, 1000 were ordered for the German Navy in 1944, but by then Allied bombing made the production impossible.

The most advanced wartime helicopter was the Fa223 Drache (Kite). This was a very large machine which could carry at least six people and lift a heavy load. Designed primarily for communications, it pioneered the role of the helicopter as an airborne crane: a short reel of German wartime film in the Imperial War Museum Archives shows an Fa223 lifting the fuselage of a crashed Me109. 400 Draches were ordered, but again Allied bombing prevented production, only a dozen or so being completed. In 1945 a surviving Fa223, flown by a German crew, was tested at the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment at Beaulieu airfield in Hampshire, where it was subsequently destroyed in a crash.

At Beaulieu yet another remarkable German rotary-wing aircraft was test-flown after the war: the Fa330 Bachstelze (Wagtail). This small machine was not, strictly speaking, a helicopter but a rotary-wing kite. It was carried in dismantled form in two watertight compartments on the deck of Type IX ocean-going U-boats; its function was to provide a high vantage point for spotting targets in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic, where isolated ‘independents’ – single merchant ships – sailed these little frequented waters without escorts for protection. The low height of a surfaced U-boat’s conning tower strictly limited the range of search, but, towed by the U-boat, the Bachstelze could climb to some 500 feet, enabling its pilot/observer greatly to extend the submarine’s field of vision. A telephone cable connected the pilot to the U-boat’s commander and, on sighting a ship, he was in theory winched down to the deck. However, if the vessel reported was thought to be a warship, or if an aircraft appeared, the submarine would crash-dive and the unfortunate pilot had then to jettison the rotors, which flew upwards, deploying a parachute as they departed which enabled him to descend into the sea still seated in the simple tubular fuselage. He then released his seat straps and, in the cynical words of a wartime report, ‘drowned in the normal way’. Two Fa330s survive in England: one in the Science Museum, the other in store for the RAF Museum.

A little-known British rotary-wing development was the Rotajeep, one of a number of proposals tested by the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment from 1942, for utilising rotating wings to enable military loads, ranging from a single soldier to a tank, to be towed into battle with the Airborne Forces. The Rotajeep was a standard US Army Jeep with the addition of a simple fuselage and tail unit and a pylon which carried a folding 2-bladed rotor. Test flights were made in 1942, when the Rotajeep was towed behind a Whitley at speeds up to about 150 mph; although the tests were reasonably successful, serious problems of stability arose and no free flights were attempted. Had the problems been overcome and the trials continued, the towing aircraft would have released the Rotajeep which would have drifted down like a sycamore leaf to land at a mere 36 mph. Safely arrived, the crew could then fold the rotors, start the jeep’s engine and drive into action. The Rotajeep idea was not developed. Nor was a similar proposal – the addition of no less than 155-ft rotors on to tanks; one was actually built but, perhaps wisely, not flown.

The Knights of the Sky

Suddenly the guns fell silent. In the trenches, a thousand faces turned hypnotized towards the sky. Two planes, one French and the other German, were clashing in a ferocious aerial duel. Absorbed by the battle in the air, the fighters on the ground seem to have forgotten their role. The French Chaudron rose above the German Rumpler, opposing each of its manoeuvres, turn to turn, plunge to plunge. The German machine-gunner had even stopped firing: was his weapon jammed? For at least twenty minutes, in rotating spirals, the combatants descended to the ground. Finally the German plane landed on a grassy field. Immediately the gunfire started up as fiercely as before.

René Fonck, who related this scene of one of his victories in his memoir of the war, was the son of an ancient Alsatian family, fiercely anti-German. Having opted for French nationality, they had to leave their homeland annexed after the Franco-Prussian war. René’s father died when he was four years old, and as a young man he learned the trade of mechanic before becoming the ‘ace of aces’ of French aviation in the First World War, with seventy-five confirmed victories. In the following years, the aviator’s autobiography became a unique literary genre, and Georges Guynemer, Manfred von Richthofen, Francesco Baracca, and William Bishop would contribute to forging the perception that we have of air operations in the Great War. This established the imagery of the ‘knights of the air’, heroic figures who killed only while braving death themselves, and were imbued with deep respect for their adversaries. This war, in short, was a ‘duel’, a place par excellence for honour and symmetrical battle.

These texts, however, whether autobiographies or hagiographies, were actually governed by a quite different metaphor from that of the duel, in fact that of hunting. The airmen, who very often established a connection between their pre-war practice as horsemen and their aeronautical practice of war, constructed for themselves a character endowed with a sang-froid ready for any test, a predator’s instinct, and the patience to await the right moment to attack. The hunting metaphor is clearly distinct from the imagery of knighthood, inasmuch as it implies an enemy both inferior and dehumanized. Fonck, for example, wrote,

One day we had the good fortune to surprise a reconnaissance plane. It was above the Somme. The river sparkled in the sun, and clouds formed a screen that hid us from the target. Captain Bosc had compared himself a few minutes before to a fisherman waiting to strike. The Boche was unable to fire a single shot, and was killed like many have been since, without having the time to know what was happening. He fell in a tailspin and was lost among the reeds of a marsh.

Far from being honoured as justus hostis, a legitimate adversary, the enemy was simply game to be killed. Oswald Boelcke, a German ace in the First World War, spoke of the ‘game of cat and mouse’, emphasizing the macabre pleasure involved in killing at a distance. In their autobiographies, the figure of the enemy never acquires an individual character, it is determined simply by belonging to the other side, the enemy nation. The airmen of every nation at war describe air warfare as a hunting party, thus a fundamentally asymmetrical relationship, which of course does not exclude the roles of predator and prey being reversed.

How and why, then, did air war come to be represented as a chivalrous duel? At the start of the First World War, the high commands of the warring powers were very reticent at according airmen any particular recognition. Aviation, seen as a sporting practice, aroused above all the suspicion of an army whose pillars were discipline, camaraderie, and esprit de corps. War was not a game, and aerial combat was simply one form of combat among others. But as the Great War was par excellence a confrontation between nations, it was also urgent to offer the population images with whom they could identify, heroic figures who could embody the spirit of the national struggle. This led General Foch, in a communiqué of 4 April 1915, to salute in the aviator Roland Garros ‘a pilot both modest and brilliant, [who] never ceased giving an example of the finest courage’.

This led to the forging of the mythical figure of the airman in books and newspapers: ‘mythical’, as a ‘fable’, plot, or story could be organized around an individual hero, but also emblematic of the nation to which he belonged, for which he fought and sacrificed himself. This figure contrasted all along the line with the ‘tommy’ with his steel helmet and hardened muscles, trudging through the mud with very little heroism to escape the industrialized butchery. The airman, for his part, was young, calm, and self-assured, facing with cool irony the mortal dangers to which he was exposed. The myth of the airman thus made it possible to render a new experience intelligible, that of a dehumanized field of battle completely governed by technology, by associating it with an older imagery.

The images of which these aviators’ autobiographies are so full, however, stand in flagrant contradiction with the reality of the Great War, in which individual aerial combat was in fact only a very brief episode. When the war broke out, aviation was a new weapon, and no doctrine for its use had yet been laid down. Nonetheless, it played a remarkable role already in 1914. In September of that year, the crucial point in the war, French reconnaissance aircraft confirmed that German troops had been diverted from their advance towards Paris to engage in the valley of the Ourcq. Thanks to this information, the French high command was able to launch the manoeuvre that would lead to the Battle of the Marne and thus the arrest of the German advance, then to the stabilization of the front and finally, after four years, the exhaustion of the Central Powers’ resources. Once the front was stabilized, the belligerents used reconnaissance planes, tactically in this case, to photograph the terrain and map out the front lines, forts, trenches, and barbed wire, and to fine-tune artillery fire.

Given the importance that aerial observation had acquired, the adversary necessarily sought to prevent this. Reconnaissance planes confronted one another with the aid of rifles, pistols, and still more old-fashioned weapons, before a regular system was developed that enabled a machine gun to be placed at the front of the plane, synchronized with the propeller in such a way that bullets passed through the blades without damaging the machine. This was the birth of aerial combat: from the need to prevent the enemy conducting information missions. Starting in 1915, the warring armies established aeronautical services, within which they formed chasseur units to combat enemy aviation, though these units still lacked a coherent doctrine. According to Manfred von Richthofen, the words of Oswald Boelcke were ‘gospel’ for the German aviators – which amounts to saying that their tactics remained largely improvised.

This experience led to a number of conclusions that were gradually applied in the course of the conflict. It appeared that air operations had acquired such importance that no large-scale operation on the ground could now be envisaged without freedom of movement in the air. The sky was a contested space, and so tacticians began to emphasize the concepts of air ‘supremacy’, even ‘domination’, after the ‘command of the seas’ so dear to naval strategy. To render the enemy unable to fly in certain zones, even unable to fly at all, thus became a military objective in itself. As a result, individual air combat was gradually abandoned in favour of manoeuvres in large formations, which made it possible to command the sky above the battlefield. The ‘knight of the sky’ once again became a soldier like any other. Discipline and esprit de corps, the characteristic qualities of the soldier, took the upper hand over the honour and individuality of the ‘knight’. Paradoxically, it was for this very reason that a mythical figure was needed. The aviator was a possible embodiment of this need for chivalry.

At the same time, the war on the ground had run into the sand, the front had stabilized, and there would be only insignificant advances and retreats until the armistice. As Jean de Bloch had already foreseen before the war, the tremendous firepower of modern artillery favoured the defensive, and soldiers began to shelter in fortresses and trenches and behind barbed wire. The military doctrines of all the warring powers, however, continued to promote the tactical offensive as the only way to victory on the battlefield: ‘to win is to advance’, in the words of the Italian tactical manual of 1915. The other high commands followed more or less the same line. The essential challenge now was to ‘motivate’ soldiers to emerge regularly from their trenches, simply to get killed by the tens of thousands by machine guns and artillery fire. Heroically braving death now meant consenting to being butchered like a sheep.

The myth of aerial combat emerged at a time when the absence of any tactic of air warfare was combined with military despair: on the one hand, aerial reconnaissance gave rise to combats which were initially duels between two aircraft that encountered one another more or less by chance; on the other hand, all attempts by ground troops to break the front failed in the face of deadly fire. In these conditions, salvation could only be hoped for with a later development, the ability to overfly the no man’s land between the trenches and in this way break the paralysis that had seized the battlefield. The infantryman had no better friend than the earth to protect them from a danger that might arrive from anywhere at any time: he pressed against it, it welcomed him, and for a few seconds gave him the sentiment of being protected from mortar shells, a situation well described by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front:

The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else. When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and with his limbs, under fire and with the fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety, the earth absorbs it all and gives him another ten seconds of life, ten seconds to run, then takes hold of him again – sometimes for ever.

Aviation thus crystallized a series of dichotomies: between earth and sky, man and machine, above and below, movement and paralysis, boldness and fear, power and impotence. The experience of trench warfare was more than men were capable of enduring. They began to fantasize the arrival of a saviour to redeem the earthly creature clinging to the soil, revenge him, and raise him to the stars; the aviator fitted this role.

The airman, for his part, can know, the airman is capable of so many things. He is superior to the enemy, or rather, he is a being of superior order, a further step in the slow evolution of that vertebrate we call man. And while he is there, rooted in the earth – for where to take refuge from the bullets that he only hears whistle? – while his ankles are stuck in the ground, while water fills his boots, while he is there stretched like a marten ready to leap, an idea takes hold of him: ‘No, it is not the sky that is the obstacle, it is the earth, this dunghill on which we are born, on which we are condemned to crawl until we die and fall back into it.’

In another great novel of the First World War, Outside Verdun, Arnold Zweig sums up his Lieutenant Eberhard Kroysing’s delirium of aerial omnipotence:

And in that moment he reached a firm decision: he’d become an airman. Just wait until this mess was over and everything was cleared up, until an iron fist had knocked the French flat for daring to stick their nose into German territory, and a certain someone would throw in this sapper business and join the air force. Crawling around in the dirt was good enough for the likes of Süssmann and Bertin, men with no fighting instinct, no fire in their punches, old men, He, however, would metamorphose into a stone dragon with claws, a tail and fiery breath, which smoked little critters out of their hideaways – all the Niggls and other such creatures. He’d have a fragile box beneath him, two broad wings and a whirling propeller, and hey ho, up above the clouds he’d soar like a Sunday lark – admittedly not to sing songs but to drop bombs on the people crawling around below, to splatter them with gas and bullets as part of a duel from which only one person returns.

Better than any other sources, literature makes visible the dichotomies that structured not only perception but also, to a large degree, strategic and doctrinal thinking. It also shows us another use of aviation of which the hagiographic sources only rarely speak, being in flagrant contradiction with the chivalrous image of the duel: bombing. There are exceptions, however, such as the ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, who describes the pleasure he felt in dropping bombs and machine-gunning humans on the ground. It is clear that Richthofen, at least, saw himself not as a knight but rather as a soldier practising his trade of killing without reservation.

Given the rather unsuccessful results of the first bombs dropped before 1914, one may naturally wonder why the idea of aerial bombing was not dismissed right from the start. The answer is a double one, relating to two types of bombing, ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’. Tactical bombing was first practised empirically, with bombs dropped more or less randomly. It soon appeared that planes could be used as an extension of artillery, to strike targets situated far behind the front, inaccessible to the largest of guns. Since military success on the front depended largely on rail communication and the ability to rapidly bring up men and materiel, the idea of attacking the logistic infrastructure behind the front – storage facilities, railway stations, encampments – was a logical conclusion. Nonetheless, the difficulties in striking precisely were underestimated. To take just one example, between 1 March and 20 June 1915, the Allies tried 141 times to bomb German railway stations, but only hit their target three times. Other attempts were abandoned on account of anti-aircraft fire, were blocked by enemy fighter planes; or failed due to technical problems, or indeed, more commonly, because the airmen simply missed their target. The bombs then landed in the countryside, leaving craters in the Flanders mud.

This tactical use of aviation, known as ‘interdiction’, was supplemented, particularly from 1917 on, by another use that was also tactical: ‘close support’, in other words simultaneous attacks by ground troops and aircraft. These operations were both hard to coordinate and dangerous, since the planes had to fly at low altitudes, and the targets, i.e., enemy troops, were in a position to respond. It was the German army that counted particularly on this tactic, which would become the basis of the blitzkrieg strategy after the First World War; the British air force, however, generally rejected subordination to the needs of land troops.


Persian King Darius’s successors showed markedly less interest in their Egyptian satrapy. They ceased even to pay lip service to the traditions of Egyptian kingship and religion. Commercial activity began to decline, and political control slackened as the Persians focussed their attention increasingly on their troublesome western provinces and the “terrorist states” of Athens and Sparta. Against such a backdrop of political weakness and economic malaise, the Egyptians’ relationship with their foreign masters started to turn sour. A year before Darius I’s death, the first revolt broke out in the delta. It took the next great king, Xerxes I (486–465), two years to quell the uprising. To prevent a recurrence, he purged Egyptians from positions of authority, but it could not stop the rot. As Xerxes and his officials were preoccupied with fighting the Greeks at the epic battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, members of the old provincial families across Lower Egypt began to dream of regaining power—a few even went as far as to claim royal titles. After less than half a century, Persian rule was beginning to unravel.

The murder of Xerxes I in the summer of 465 provided the opportunity and stimulus for a second Egyptian revolt. This time, it was led by Irethoreru, a charismatic prince of Sais following in the family tradition, and the revolt was not so easily suppressed. Within a year, he had won supporters across the delta and further afield; even government scribes in the Kharga Oasis dated legal contracts to “year two of Irethoreru, prince of the rebels.” Only in the far southeast of the country, in the quarries of the Wadi Hammamat, did local officials still recognize the authority of the Persian ruler. Sensing the popularity of his cause, Irethoreru appealed to the Persians’ great enemy, Athens, for military support. Still smarting from the vicious destruction of their holy sites by Xerxes’s army two decades earlier, the Athenians were only too glad to help. They dispatched a battle fleet to the Egyptian coast, and the combined Greco-Egyptian forces succeeded in driving the Persian military back to their barracks in Memphis, and in keeping them pinned down there for many months. But the Persians were not going to give up their richest province so easily. Eventually, by sheer force of numbers, they broke out of Memphis and began to take the country back, region by region. After a struggle lasting nearly a decade, Irethoreru was finally captured and crucified as a grim warning to other would-be insurgents.

The Egyptians, however, had enjoyed their brief taste of freedom and it was not long before another rebellion broke out, once again under Saite leadership, and once again with Athenian support. Only the peace treaty of 449 between Persia and Athens brought a temporary halt to Greek involvement in Egyptian internal affairs, and allowed the resumption of free commerce and travel between the two Mediterranean powers. (One beneficiary of the new dispensation was Herodotus, who visited Egypt sometime in the 440s.) Yet Egyptian discontent did not evaporate. The prospect of another major uprising looked certain.

In 410, civil strife erupted across the country, with near anarchy and intercommunal violence flaring in the deep south. At the instigation of the Egyptian priests of Khnum, on the island of Abu, thugs attacked the neighboring Jewish temple of Yahweh. The perpetrators were arrested and imprisoned, but, even so, it was a sign that Egyptian society was in upheaval. In the delta, a new generation of princes took up the banner of independence, led by the grandson of the first rebel leader of forty years before. Psamtek-Amenirdis of Sais was named after his grandfather but also bore the proud name of the founder of the Saite Dynasty, and he was determined to restore the family’s fortunes. He launched a low-level guerrilla war in the delta against Egypt’s Persian overlords, using his detailed local knowledge to wear down his opponents. For six years, the rebellion continued unabated, the Persians discovering the impotence of a superpower against a determined uprising with popular local support.

Finally the tipping point came. In 525, Cambyses had taken full advantage of the pharaoh’s death to launch his takeover of Egypt. Now the Egyptians returned the compliment. When news reached the delta in early 404 that the great king Darius II had died, Amenirdis promptly declared himself monarch. It was only a gesture, but it had the desired effect of galvanizing support across Egypt. By the end of 402, the fact of his kingship was recognized from the shores of the Mediterranean to the first cataract. A few waverers in the provinces continued to date official documents by the reign of the great king Artaxerxes II—hedging their bets—but the Persians had troubles of their own. An army of reconquest, assembled in Phoenicia to invade Egypt and restore order to the rebellious satrapy, had to be diverted at the last moment to deal with another secession in Cyprus. Having thus been spared a Persian onslaught, Amenirdis might have been expected to welcome the renegade Cypriot admiral when he sought refuge in Egypt. But instead of rolling out the red carpet for a fellow freedom fighter, Amenirdis had the admiral promptly assassinated. It was a characteristic display of Saite double-dealing.

Despite such ruthlessness, Amenirdis did not long enjoy his newly won throne. By seizing power through cunning and brute force, he had stripped away any remaining mystique from the office of pharaoh, revealing the kingship for what it had become (or, behind the heavy veil of decorum and propaganda, had always been)—the preeminent political trophy. Scions of other powerful delta families soon took note. In October 399, a rival warlord from the city of Djedet staged his own coup, ousting Amenirdis and proclaiming a new dynasty.

To mark this new beginning, Nayfaurud of Djedet consciously adopted the Horus name of Psamtek I, the most recent founder of a dynasty who had delivered Egypt from foreign rule. But there the comparison ended. Ever wary of Persian reprisals, Nayfaurud’s brief reign (399–393) was marked by feverish defensive activity. His most significant foreign policy was to cement an alliance with Sparta, sending grain and timber to assist the Spartan king Agesilaos in his Persian expedition.

In 393, when Nayfaurud’s heir Hagar became king, a native-born son succeeded his father on the throne of Egypt for the first time in five generations. Despite having a name that meant “the Arab,” Hagar was proud of his Egyptian identity and was determined to fulfill the traditional obligations of monarchy. A favorite epithet at the start of his reign was “he who satisfies the gods.” But piety alone could not guarantee security. After barely a year of rule, the internecine rivalry between Egypt’s leading families struck again. This time, it was Hagar’s turn to be deposed, when a competitor usurped both the throne and the monuments of the fledgling dynasty.

As the merry-go-round of pharaonic politics continued to spin, it was only another twelve months before Hagar won back his throne, proudly proclaiming that he was “repeating [his] appearance” as king. But it was a hollow boast. The monarchy had sunk to an all-time low. Devoid of respect and stripped of mystique, it was but a pale imitation of past pharaonic glories. Hagar managed to cling to power for another decade, but his ineffectual son (a second Nayfaurud) lasted barely sixteen weeks. In October 380, an army general from Tjebnetjer seized the throne. He represented the third delta family to rule Egypt in just two decades.

However, Nakhtnebef (380–362) was a man in a different mold from his immediate predecessors. He had witnessed firsthand the recent bitter struggle between competing warlords, including “the disaster of the king who came before,” and understood better than most the throne’s vulnerability. As an army man, he knew that military might was a prerequisite for political power. Therefore, his number one priority, with the country living under the constant threat of Persian invasion, was to be a “mighty king who guards Egypt, a copper wall that protects Egypt.” But he also appreciated that force alone was not sufficient. Egyptian kingship had always worked best on a psychological level. Not for nothing did Nakhtnebef describe himself as a ruler “who cuts out the hearts of the treason-hearted.” If the monarchy were to be restored to a position of respect, it would need to project a traditional, uncompromising image to the country at large. So, hand in hand with the usual political maneuvering (such as assigning all the most influential positions in government to his relatives and trusted supporters), Nakhtnebef embarked upon the most ambitious temple building program the country had seen for eight hundred years. He wanted to demonstrate unequivocally that he was a pharaoh in the traditional mold. In the same vein, one of his very first acts as king was to assign one-tenth of the royal revenues collected at Naukratis—from customs dues on riverine imports and taxes levied on locally manufactured goods—to the temple of Neith at Sais. That achieved the twin aims of placating his Saite rivals while promoting his own credentials as a pious king. Further endowments followed, not least to the temple of Horus at Edfu. Nothing could be more appropriate than for the god’s earthly incarnation to give generously to his patron’s principal cult center.

Nakhtnebef was not simply interested in buying credit in heaven. He also recognized that the temples controlled much of the country’s temporal wealth, agricultural land, mining rights, craft workshops, and trading agreements, and that investing in them was the surest way to boost the national economy. This, in turn, was the quickest and most effective method of generating surplus revenue with which to strengthen Egypt’s defensive capability, in the form of hired Greek mercenaries. So placating the gods and building up the army were two sides of the same coin. Yet it was a tricky balancing act. Milk the temples too eagerly, and they might come to resent being used as cash cows.

A wise student of his country’s history, Nakhtnebef moved to avoid the dynastic strife of recent decades by resuscitating the ancient practice of co-regency, appointing his heir Djedher (365–360) as joint sovereign to ensure a smooth transition of power. However, the greatest threat to Djedher’s throne came not from internal rivals but from his own cavalier domestic and foreign policies. Sharing none of his father’s caution, he began his sole reign by setting out to seize Palestine and Phoenicia from the Persians. Perhaps he wished to recapture the glories of Egypt’s imperial past, or perhaps he felt the need to take the war to the enemy to justify his dynasty’s continued grip on power. Either way, it was a rash and foolish decision. Even though Persia was distracted by a satraps revolt in Asia Minor, it could hardly be expected to contemplate the loss of its Near Eastern possessions with equanimity. Moreover, the vast resources needed by Egypt to undertake a major military campaign risked putting an unbearable strain on the country’s still fragile economy. Djedher badly needed bullion to hire Greek mercenaries, and was persuaded that a windfall tax on the temples was the easiest way of filling the government’s coffers. Hence, alongside a tax on buildings, a poll tax, a purchase tax on commodities, and extra dues on shipping, Djedher moved to sequestrate temple property. It would have been difficult to conceive of a more unpopular set of policies. To make matters worse, the Spartan mercenaries hired with all this tax revenue—a thousand hoplite troops and thirty military advisers—came with their own officer, Egypt’s old ally Agesilaos. At the age of eighty-four, he was a veteran in every sense of the word, and he was not about to be palmed off with the command of a mercenary corps. Only command of the entire army would satisfy him. For Djedher, that meant shunting aside another Greek ally, the Athenian Chabrias, who had first been hired by Hagar in the 380s to oversee Egyptian defense policy. With Chabrias placed in charge of the navy, Agesilaos won control of the land forces. But the presence of three such large egos at the top of the chain of command threatened to destabilize the entire operation. With resentment in the country at large over the punitive taxes, an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia pervaded the expedition from the outset.

The most vivid account of events surrounding Djedher’s ill-fated campaign of 360 is provided by an eyewitness, a snake doctor from the central delta by the name of Wennefer. Born fewer than ten miles from the dynastic capital of Tjebnetjer, Wennefer was just the sort of faithful follower favored by Nakhtnebef and his regime. After early training in the local temple, Wennefer specialized in medicine and magic, and it was in this context that he came to Djedher’s attention. When the king decided to launch his campaign against Persia, Wennefer was entrusted with keeping the official war diary. Words had great magical potency in ancient Egypt, so this was a highly sensitive role for which an accomplished magician and archloyalist was the obvious choice. Yet no sooner had Wennefer set out with the king and the army on their march into Asia than a letter was delivered to the regent in Memphis implicating Wennefer in a plot. He was arrested, bound in copper chains, and taken back to Egypt to be interrogated in the regent’s presence. Like any successful official in fourth-century Egypt, Wennefer was adept at extricating himself from compromising situations. Through some astute maneuvering, he emerged from his ordeal as a loyal confidant of the regent. He was given official protection and showered with gifts.

In the meantime, before a shot had been fired, most of the army had begun to desert Djedher in favor of one of his young officers—no less a personage than Prince Nakhthorheb, Djedher’s own nephew and the Memphis regent’s son. Agesilaos the Spartan reveled in his role as kingmaker and threw his lot in with the prince, accompanying him back to Egypt in triumph, fighting off a challenger, and finally seeing him installed as pharaoh. For his pains, he received the princely sum of 230 silver talents—enough to bankroll five thousand mercenaries for a year—and headed home to Sparta.

By contrast, Djedher, disgraced, deserted, and deposed, took the only option available and fled into the arms of the Persians, the very enemy he had been preparing to fight. Wennefer was promptly dispatched at the head of a naval task force to comb Asia and track down the traitor. Djedher was eventually located in Susa, and the Persians were only too glad to rid themselves of their unwelcome guest. Wennefer brought him home in chains, and was showered with gifts by a grateful king. In a time of political instability, it paid to be on the winning side.

Tactical Use of Static and Mobile Linear Barriers

The distinctions in the case of static barriers can become blurred. For example, in certain locations some linear barriers appear originally to have been temporary in intention, but may have then become long term fixtures. Looking at the Corinthian Isthmus, the stone wall built by Anastasius and rebuilt by Justinian was intended to be permanent and some of it is still there. Other walls which were built to stop Xerxes or Epameinondas were clearly temporary. The site of Artaxerxes’ Trench may have been reused for the Wall at Macepracta, described by Ammianus Marcellinus, and is possibly now the location of the Wall at Umm Raus. Also, while the objective may be different, the working principle was similar – namely, the use of a continuous physical object (a wall) or a void (a ditch) to obstruct the progress of the threat in the direction of the builder.

The use of mobile linear barriers in the context of sedentary states fighting battles against nomads is common. Static linear barriers provided the means to block the progress of mounted nomads and as a defence against their stinging arrows. Therefore, it might be a logical progression, rather than to wait until the threat comes to the fixed barrier, to make the barrier mobile and take it to the threat.

The exercise of looking at the use of temporary and mobile barriers might be valuable in showing how linear barriers fitted into a broad spectrum of such barriers in general.

1: Role of linear barriers on the battlefield and in passes

One-time threats

Many very substantial linear barriers have been constructed across areas where an expected one-time threat would cross. Linear barriers which have already been mentioned include the following: Cnidus’ Reşidiye peninsula canal, which was started but remained unfinished during the reign of Cyrus; the Corinth Isthmian walls, built to block Xerxes’ Persians; Ataxerxes’ Trench, cut before the Battle of Cunaxa (401 BC); and the Wall of the Judean King Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BC), who tried to stop the Seleucid King Antiochus Dionysus.

Other examples include: Crassus’ Servile War Wall, built across the toe of Italy on the Rhegium Peninsula, in order to contain Spartacus and his rebel slave army; Caesar’s earthwork to block the Helvetii who were trying to migrate to Gaul in 58 BC; the Teutoburg Forest Wall, built parallel to the routeway, from behind which the Germans could attack the Romans; and at Hakata Bay where in 1281 the Japanese faced a second attack from the Mongol and Korean forces commanded by Kubilai Khan. (The Japanese had built a stone faced embankment more than twenty-two kilometres along the coast about three metres high and wide, after the first attack in 1274 was broken up by storms and Japanese resistance.)


A clear category emerges where passes were fortified or refortified with linear barriers in order to strengthen the positions of the defenders. A pass is an obvious place for a defending power to force a battle, as the narrowness of the location helps make the task of the defender easier against a larger attacking force.

Thermopylae, where the Greeks delayed the Persian advance in the fifth century BC, has already been discussed. In the following century the situation was reversed. In 330 BC Alexander the Great advanced on Persepolis, leading 20,000 troops across the Zagros Mountains and onto the ten kilometre-long pass of the Persian Gates. The local satrap Ariobarzanes built a wall across the pass and forced Alexander to retreat. Reversing the story of Thermopylae, the Greeks followed a local guide up treacherous paths onto the plateau above the pass, and then crept up behind the Persians who were annihilated in a joint attack from behind and in front. This manoeuvre left open the road to Persepolis for Alexander.

In 192 BC the Seleucid King Antiochus III invaded Greece and was confronted by the Romans, here the invader, rather than the defender, built the wall. ‘There Antiochus built a double wall on which he placed engines. He sent Aetolian troops to occupy the summits of the mountains to prevent anybody from coming around secretly by way of the hill called Atropos, as Xerxes had come upon the Spartans under Leonidas, the mountain paths at that time being unguarded.’ The Romans, under Marcus Porcius Cato, like many others, got round behind Antiochus using the mountain path – forcing him to withdraw. Later in 146 BC the Romans forced their way through Thermopylae in order to put down a Greek revolt.

The Bulgars and the Byzantines had a joint history of battles in barricaded passes. In 811 the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoras I laid waste to Bulgaria and burnt the capital Pliska. On hearing that the Bulgarians were defending the passes, Nicephoras set out for the Vǎrbitsa Pass on the route back to Constantinople where the Bulgars had built a wooden wall. The Byzantines tried to burn the barricade and were either themselves burned or drowned in the moat built behind the wall. Victory went the other way in 1014 when Bulgar Khan Samuil built a wooden wall across the pass at the village of Klyuch, or Kleidion meaning key, in the Haemus Mountains which provided the main invasion route into Bulgaria. In the summer of 1014 the army of Basil II was repelled at the wall. Again, a path behind the wall was found and the Bulgarians were overwhelmed.

A Letzimauer, or Swiss stone wall, played a key part in the Battle of Stoss Pass in 1405 in the Appenzell Wars between 1401 and 1429, when the local populace from the region fought off the Hapsburgs. Appenzell’s force of 400 men defended the wall at the Pass against which 1,200 Hapsburg soldiers were suffocated or halberdiered.


Although many battles have been fought at passes most took place on more open ground. Even here there was a consistent record of the use of linear barriers.

When heavily outnumbered, Caesar built a linear barrier in 48 BC, around the forces of Pompey who were camped on the coast of north-western Greece below Dyrrhachium. The barrier was twenty-two kilometres long and included four forts. Pompey’s forces also constructed a linear barrier. If anything, this was testimony to the wall-building capacity of the legionary which could be put to use making more permanent linear barriers.

In 484 the Sasanian Shah Peroz led an army against the Hephthalite chief Akhunwar who was crossing the Gorgan Plain to the east of the Caspian Sea. Procopius describes how the Persians (Sasanians) ‘gave chase at full speed across a very level plain, possessed as they were by a spirit of fury against the enemy, and fell into the trench, every man of them.’ Peroz was killed and his army routed. The Sadd-i-Iskandar may have been built subsequently by the Sasanians in order to counter the Hephthalite threat.

The nomadic Arabs proved adept users of tactical linear barriers. In AD 627 Mohammed led roughly 3,000 defenders of Medina against a confederate Arab and Jewish army more than three times its number. The Muslims dug a trench – hence the name the Battle of the Trench – which negated the enemy’s superiority in numbers and cavalry; soon the siege was lifted and the confederacy collapsed. Having proved impossible to dislodge from Medina, Mohammed was able to return in triumph to Mecca.

After the ninth century, linear barriers intended for long term use appear increasingly to have fallen out of use in Europe. This might have been because of the improvements in the military technology of point defences, like burghs and castles, and the mobility of mounted men at arms. The technology employed by infantry improved in turn, to the extent that they could fight off heavily armoured mounted knights by using a combination of weapons of extended reach, like pikes. They also used projectile weapons, for example longbows, and battlefield linear barriers which might be either static or mobile. Thus, linear barriers returned to the military repertory in a somewhat different and now predominantly tactical, battlefield form.

By the fourteenth century, infantry had increasingly got the measure of cavalry. Obstacles were built on the battlefield in the form of ditches – often filled with spikes and other horrors to increase the lethality of plunging into them. These served to channel and break up the momentum of mounted men at arms. In 1385, for example, the Castilians invaded Portugal, met an army reinforced by a contingent of English archers, and were soundly beaten. Excavations of the Aljubarotta have revealed a ditch about 240 metres wide across the Portuguese front and numerous pits. In 1387 the English commander of the mercenary White Company in Italy, Sir John Hawkwood, drew up archers behind drainage dykes at Castagnaro. At Agincourt in 1415 the English archers built a barrier of sharpened stakes which they carried with them. These allowed the construction of a mobile palisade. Indeed, when the French declined to attack, the English literally upped their sticks and reformed closer to the French lines, the better to provoke them into attack with a barrage of arrows.

Linear barriers used on the battlefield demonstrate that ancient and Middle Ages rulers and commanders did not suffer from any prejudice against their deployment. The point is that earlier leaders were flexible in their willingness to consider the value of linear barriers in a whole range of situations, both immediate and long term, and tactical and strategic.

2: Defeating nomads on open ground – mobile linear barriers

The armies of sedentary states found it almost impossible to defeat a nomad horde that was well-led on open ground. The combination of mobility and bow-and-arrow power meant that such armies could destabilise and decimate the more static armies of sedentary states. Even if the body armour of elite troops could stop the nomads’ arrows, a terrible toll would still be taken of less well armed soldiery and horses. Nomad armies were, however, occasionally beaten. Crusaders defeated a Turkish force of mounted archers at the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097) where a line of heavily armed dismounted knights defended less well armed compatriots, until reinforcements attacked the Turks in the rear. At Ain Jalut (1260) the Mamluks induced the hitherto invincible Mongols into an ambush by feigning retreat. The Mamluk forces used midfa, or portable hand cannons loaded with explosive gunpowder, to incite fear and disorder among the Mongol cavalry.

These battles anticipated the means to defeat nomad forces – the protected line that blocked arrows, and the explosive energy from gunpowder. If the line could be composed of a solid yet moveable inanimate material, one that obstructed nomad arrows, and incorporated crossbows and firearms that could outrange nomad projectiles on a flat trajectory, then the terms of battle could be more than equalised.

Linear barriers did not need to be static. They could be put on wheels or sledges and taken to the enemy. That way protection could be provided against nomad arrow storms and cavalry attacks. Meanwhile, the mobile barrier could provide a fortified screen through which the defenders’ bows, crossbows, firearms and cannon raked the enemy.

At the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC the Han general, Wei Qing, used rings of heavily armed chariots, or wu gang, first to break Xiongnu charges, and then to launch a successful counter-attack. These vehicles protected infantry and crossbowmen from Xiongnu arrows and gave them the security to be able to shoot back accurately. Han cavalry dealt with any Xiongnu who broke through.

Mobile linear barriers could be improvised of the most obvious available vehicle used by most armies, that is, the wagon or cart, which had always been used to protect camps during halts and to defend camps behind the main battlefield. Mobile defences in Europe were developed first against non-nomad forces. For example, in 1428 at Rouvray, Sir John Fastoff, anticipating attack by larger forces, formed their convoy of carts into an enclosure. By the fifteenth century war wagons were being specially designed so that mobile barriers could be formed. The most famous war wagons were perhaps those of the Hussites, led by Jan Žižka in the early fifteenth century, and known as vozová hradba or wagon walls.

Gulyay-gorod reconstruction.

The Russian Gului-gorod, used in the sixteenth and early seventh centuries, have already been discussed. The Battle of Molodi in 1572 – where the protection afforded by the Gului-gorod was critical – perhaps marked a turning point in the fight between settled states and nomads. It has been seen how static linear barriers built by the Russians played a crucial part in closing down the Pontic Steppe. At the same time the Russians also used mobile linear barriers to defeat the nomads in the field.

These developments in military technology ultimately meant that the fight could be taken to the open ground preferred by nomad hordes of mounted archers, and for them to be defeated there. The importance of Molodi is not perhaps sufficiently recognised in the West – for never again did a major nomad army invade a great empire.

Royal Aircraft Factory SE5/5a

Regarded by many as the best British fighter of World War 1, the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a was less nimble than its frontline contemporary, the Sopwith Camel, but could out-dive and out-climb its `rival’, sustain more combat damage and yet remain intact despite performing high-g manoeuvres. As the fastest British aircraft of its time, it soon became a firm favourite amongst the leading British and Empire aces of World War 1. Indeed, men such as James McCudden, Mick Mannock, Anthony Beauchamp Proctor and George McElroy would all claim more then 40 aerial victories with the SE5/5a.

The development of the RAF SE5/5a and the Sopwith Camel paralleled each other to the point where the prototypes of each machine flew within five weeks of each other. Unlike the squat, light and agile Camel, the SE5 was rakish, angular and heavy in comparison. Yet the latter machine’s tractability meant that it was much easier to fly than the Camel, dived and climbed faster and could withstand severe battle damage.

Royal Aircraft Factory engineers John Kenworthy, Henry P. Folland and Maj Frank W. Goodden designed the SE5 around the promising new Hispano-Suiza 8A V8 engine, the Royal Flying Corps requesting that the scout be robustly built and capable of being flown safely by pilots of limited experience. When the first 21 French-made Hispano- Suiza 8A engines were delivered to the RFC on 20 September 1916, two were used to power the first and second SE5 prototypes, A4561 and A4562. On 28 November the RAF received its first example of the new geared 200hp Hispano-Suiza 8B, which it subsequently installed in the third prototype, A4563, thereby creating the first SE5a.

Tragically SE5 A4562 broke up during a test flight on 28 January 1917, killing its pilot Maj Goodden. Simple modifications corrected the aeroplane’s structural problems, however, and the first production SE5, A4845, cleared its final inspection on 2 March 1917. The first production batch of SE5s did not make a promising impression on their pilots, who complained of poor lateral control – a shortcoming that was alleviated somewhat, but never entirely, by shortening the wingspan and reducing the rake of the wingtips in later production SE5s and SE5as. Engine reduction and gun synchronisation problems also afflicted early SE5s.

The subsequent replacement of the SE5’s 150hp Hispano-Suiza with a more powerful 200hp model, along with further refinements, produced the SE5a, the first of which began arriving at No 56 Squadron in June 1917. Fast, rugged and almost viceless, the SE5a became a mainstay of the RFC and later of the RAF over the Western Front right up to the end of the war. Light on the controls and with innocuous stalling characteristics, the fighter was usefully manoeuvrable yet stable enough for the pilot to shoot accurately at his target. The SE5 was also solidly built, which meant that it could be thrown around the sky during a dogfight without its pilot having to fear the onset of structural failure. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the SE5a was the mount of most of the RFC’s leading aces. The first unit to employ it, `Fighting Fifty-Six’, was also the most successful, being credited with 401 victories by the end of the war, and producing numerous famous aces, two of whom – Albert Ball and James Thomas Byford McCudden – were awarded Britain’s highest military decoration, the Victoria Cross (VC). By the end of World War 1, 2,765 SE5/5as had been built, and some 2,500 more would be completed before production ceased in 1919.

The need for speed

The key to the success of the SE5/5a was its V8 liquid-cooled engine, initially in the form of the direct-drive 150hp Hispano-Suiza 8A. After 77 SE5s had been built with this powerplant, production switched to the SE5a, which was fitted with the geared 200hp Hispano-Suiza 8B engine. Production of this engine under licence by Wolseley Motors Ltd initially proved problematic due to unreliability. Things only started to improve when Wolseley modified a 150hp engine into the high-compression, direct-drive W 4A Viper of 200hp. This engine was vastly superior increasing the SE5a’s top speed by a full 7mph and improving its rate of climb. It was faster, though less manoeuvrable, than the Camel. With the Camel revelling in medium to low altitude combat, the SE5a was the superior aircraft at altitudes exceeding 10,000ft. Therefore, squadrons equipped with the fighter tended to be used more for aerial combat at medium to high altitudes, and much less in the air-to-ground role. Furthermore, the SE5a’s armament of one forward-firing Vickers machine gun in front of the pilot and a single Lewis gun affixed to the top wing made the aircraft ideal for stalking high-flying prey. Pilots could sneak up beneath a hostile machine, ratchet down the gun and fire up into the underbelly of the enemy aircraft.

Specifications (S.E.5a)

General characteristics

  • Crew: one
  • Length: 20 ft 11 in (6.38 m)
  • Wingspan: 26 ft 7 in (8.11 m)
  • Height: 9 ft 6 in (2.89 m)
  • Wing area: 244 ft² (22.67 m²)
  • Empty weight: 1,410 lb (639 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 1,935 lb (880 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 1,988 lb (902 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Hispano-Suiza 8 or Wolseley Viper water cooled V8 engine, 200 hp (150 kW)


  • Maximum speed: 138 mph (222 km/h)
  • Range: 300 miles (483 km)
  • Service ceiling: 17,000 ft (5,185 m)
  • Wing loading: 7.93 lb/ft² (38.82 kg/m²)


  • Guns:
    • 1x 0.303 in (7.7 mm) forward-firing Vickers machine gun with Constantinesco interrupter gear
    • 1x .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun on Foster mounting on upper wing
  • Bombs: 4x 25 lb (11 kg) Cooper bombs, two under each lower wing, to be dropped in 2, 3, 4, 1 order.

British Invention “Tank” I

The first tank to engage in battle, the British Mark I tank (pictured in 1916) with the Solomon camouflage scheme.

WWI. Canadian soldiers aboard a Mark I, the tank invented by the British.

The requirement to be able to move readily across open countryside with ample armor protection drove Richard Hornsby & Sons, developer of a track system for oil-engined tractors, to successfully experiment with a militarized version in 1905. Again, the War Office declined to support the venture beyond that point. Still, with the efforts of Daimler and Benz, and the Hornsby experiment, two key components of the tank, a reliable power plant and a track system to replace wheels, had been put in place. The years before 1914 saw various limited developments in the field in France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain with the resulting vehicles being used in local conflicts with varying degrees of success. The intransigent, reactionary war ministries and general staffs of the time stolidly maintained their hostile attitudes, delaying and sabotaging such developments wherever possible. Their inability to learn from and properly interpret their own battlefield experience, coupled with their persistent delusions about future tactics and requirements, left them essentially confused and generally ill-prepared for the Great War that was coming.

It should have been abundantly clear to most military commanders at the beginning of the First World War that neither massed ranks of infantry nor charging cavalry could survive in the face of fire from breech-loading, rifled weapons. Most commanders, though, refused to even consider any alternative to sending their troops “over the top” to cross a pock-marked, denuded wasteland through a withering hail of bullets. “War is good business. Invest your sons,” wrote a wag of the day.

The armored car was the first fighting vehicle to enter wartime service. It was built by the Belgians and by the British Royal Navy, and was tested and put into action on the Western Front in 1914. In the thick and sticky mud of the battlefields, however, these new and promising wheeled vehicles were largely unsuitable. In an irony ahead of that conflict, an Australian engineer named Lancelot de Mole had designed a practical armored tank vehicle that was, in fact, superior to that which the British Army would field on the Somme in 1916. But, when de Mole submitted his clever design to the War Office there was virtually no reaction. So, in 1915, he tried again to interest the decision makers of the War Office and was again rebuffed.

“Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Nobody has asked for them and nobody wants them. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war. If I had my way I would disband the whole lot of them. Anyhow, I am going to do my best to see that it is done and stop all this armored car and caterpillar landship nonsense” declared Royal Navy Commodore Cecil Lambert, Fourth Sea Lord, in 1915. Lambert clearly disapproved of the Royal Navy Armored Car Division, which had been established in October 1914 with the enthusiastic support of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to develop a new line of purpose-built armored cars.

From a letter in January 1915 from Winston Churchill to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith: “. . . fit up a small number of steam tractors with small armored shelters, in which men and machine-guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof . . . The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements . . .”

Urgent diplomatic intercepts: St Petersburg, 29 July 1914, 1 a.m. Czar Nicholas II to Kaiser Wilhelm II: “I FORSEE THAT VERY SOON I SHALL BE OVERWHELMED BY THE PRESSURE FORCED UPON ME AND BE FORCED TO TAKE EXTREME MEASURES WHICH WILL LEAD TO WAR”.—Nicky



There’s a little wet home in the trench,

That the rain storms continually drench,

A dead cow close by, With her hooves in the sky,

And she gives off a beautiful stench.

Underneath us, in place of a floor,

Is a mess of cold mud and some straw, And the Jack Johnsons roar as they speed through the air

O’er my little wet home in the trench.


After the German defeat in the Battle of the Marne, a few Royal Navy units were sent from England to protect the air base at Dunkirk. They were also ordered to assume the rescue of pilots who had been shot down in the area. To that end, the Admiralty Air Department stepped in and provided some armored cars. They bought 100 of the vehicles from Rolls-Royce and shipped some of them directly to France where they were fitted with a box-like arrangement of armor covering the main unit and rear wheels, and other small, raised armored boxes to cover the front wheels and the driver’s head. The rest of the Rolls-Royce cars were modified in England where they remained until put into action in the autumn of 1914 where they performed relatively effectively, but also demonstrated that their crews were inadequately protected from overhead sniper fire. That led to development of a new version which incorporated a top-mounted machine-gun turret and overhead armor. The early examples of the new vehicle reached France in December 1914 and were immediately seen to be a great improvement over their predecessors. But, they had come into service at a point in the war when all significant movement on the battlefields had stopped. The armies of the two enemies were dug in behind wire barriers and fortifications and, while the new armored cars were promising, they were incapable of crossing the trenches or the wire.

Winston Churchill formed the Naval Landships Committee in February 1915 to design and build a new armored tracked vehicle based on a 1914 idea of Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton, Royal Engineers. Swinton believed that a caterpillar-tracked armored vehicle could be created to destroy machine-gun positions and barbed wire barriers and, most importantly, to cross the great trenches and other obstacles on the battlefield with relative ease. The initial trials of the “Machine-Gun Destroyer” as it was referred to, were hugely disappointing, but Churchill and the committee were determined to continue the effort. They purchased two Bullock Creeping Grip tractors and imported them from the United States, and from them developed a new vehicle they called the Lincoln Number One Machine. They then redesigned the track and suspension units and modified the resulting vehicle which was soon delivering the kind of performance sought by the committee. They named the new vehicle Little Willie.

This time, the interest of the British Army was aroused by the possibilities it foresaw for such a machine. What they required, however, was a machine with about twice the capability of Little Willie. It had to be able to cross a trench eight feet wide as well as climb a parapet four and a half feet high. And then, two of the committee members, William Tritton and Lieutenant W.G. Wilson joined forces to come up with a new design, a combination of the best qualities and characteristics of both the Lincoln Machine and Little Willie, an entirely new fighting vehicle with tracks that ran around the perimeter of its rhomboid sides. Its overall height was kept to a minimum through the use of sponsons on either side of the vehicle, each mounting a six-pounder naval gun, rather than a a top-mounted turret. It had fixed front and rear turrets, with the front turret accommodating the commander and the driver sitting side by side. The rear turret housed a machine-gun. The vehicle contained four Hotchkiss machine-guns and there were four doors behind the sponsons as well as a man-hole hatch in the top of the hull. To the rear of the hull was attached a two-wheel towed steering tail. This new design was known as Big Willie, but more commonly referred to as Mother. It was eight feet in height and twenty-six feet five inches long, not counting the added steering tail. With a weight of twenty-eight tons, Mother was powered by a 105-hp Daimler sleeve-valve engine.

In February 1916, a trial of Mother was held at the Hatfield Park, Hertfordshire estate of the Marquess of Salisbury. The audience included Minister of Munitions Lloyd George, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Minister of Defence, and some other representatives of the Army and the Admiralty. During the trial, Mother was put through her paces over a specially-prepared obstacle course containing a variety of craters, ditches, streams, wire entanglements and wide trenches, and she acquitted herself well according to the Landship Committee members present. Although Kitchener himself was not especially enthusiastic about what he witnessed that day, the Army representatives were quite impressed and by the end of the event, a production order for twenty-five of the vehicles was awarded to Foster’s and one for seventy-five of the machines went to the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company. Fifty Mothers were to be built with the same armament as the prototype. Strangely, they would thereafter be referred to as “males,” with the balance of the vehicles armed with six machine-guns, four of them mounted in smaller side sponsons. These units were called “females.” Their role in combat was to protect the males from being swamped by enemy infantry. After the Hatfield Park trial, the King was given a ride in the prototype and emerged saying that a large number of the vehicles would be a considerable asset to the Army.

In the secrecy of the Foster’s workshops the workers and executives referred to the unusual new vehicles they were building as “tanks,” an odd reference to the new weapons system destined to entirely reform land warfare. They were trying to conceal what they were working on. Swinton and Lt. Col. W. Dalby Jones discussed the matter and they considered calling the thing “container” or “cistern” before finally agreeing on “tank,” which, they thought, implied some sort of agricultural machine . . . something the company might be expected to produce normally. Foster’s personnel even hinted broadly that the new products were to be shipped to Russia. And so the word “tank” entered into common usage and was soon generic for the war machine.

The pressure on the manufacturers to get the Mark I into production inevitably resulted in a vehicle something less than perfect. The makers took this first production tank from drawing board to assembly in just twelve months and, among its many drawbacks was a gravity-fed fuel system which could starve the engine when the vehicle was maneuvering with its front end in a steep, climbing or descending attitude. The fuel tank was positioned inside the vehicle and greatly increased the fire risk. And, in a particularly bizarre design solution, the vehicle required the teamwork of four crew members to steer it, even with the aid of the wheeled steering tail. David Fletcher, Librarian of the Tank Museum, Bovington, England, a leading authority on tanks and author of The British Tanks 1915-19: “Four of the crew served the guns; a gunner and loader on each side. The others were all required to operate the controls. The driver, sitting to the right of the commander, was effectively there to make the tank go. Apart from the steering wheel that was almost useless, he had no control whatever over turning, or swinging the tank, to use the contemporary term. He controlled the primary gearbox, clutch and footbrake which acted on the transmission shaft, along with the ignition and throttle controls. The commander operated the steering brakes and either man could work the differential lock which was above, between and behind them. The two extra men worked the secondary gearboxes at the back, on instruction from the driver, who had to work the clutch at the same time.

“It was, according to the instruction book, possible to steer the tank by selecting a different ratio in each of the secondary gearboxes, although experience soon proved that this would result in twisted gear shafts. Thus, except for slight deviations when the steering brakes were used, the standard procedure for steering was to halt the tank, lock the differential and take one track out of gear. First was then selected in the primary box and the other secondary box, the brake was then applied to the free track and the tank would swing in that direction.”

By February 1917, the Marks II and III had gone to war incorporating only minor improvements over the Mk I, but, by April the substantially improved Mark IV had entered service, protected by much better armor. It also featured a vacuum-feed fuel system, a new cooling and ventilation system, an exhaust silencer and a rear-mounted external fuel tank. While the males had the same armament as the prototype, the females were armed with six machine-guns (five Vickers and one Hotchkiss). A total of 420 male and 595 female tanks were produced before the arrival in May 1918 of the Mark V, by far the best and most dramatically advanced version of this pioneering fighting vehicle. The Mk V incorporated an entirely new epicyclic steering system designed by the former Lieutenant, now Major, W.G. Wilson, as well as an extended hull to increase its trench-crossing capability. With enhanced power from a 150 hp Ricardo engine, the Mk V was capable of 4.6 mph maximum speed, compared to the 3.7 mph top speed of the earlier marks. Mark V production totalled 400 male and 632 female tanks.

The armored strike force of the British Army was forming in 1916 and the Army wisely decided to establish it as a new branch under the overall command of Ernest Swinton. Lt. Col. Hugh Elles, a Royal Engineer officer, was appointed field commander in France. Elles had been GHQ representative for tank development and policy. The new organization was called the Tank Detachment until June 1917 when it was redesignated the Tank Corps and, in 1923, it became the Royal Tank Corps, the award coming from King George V. In 1939, the Royal Tank Corps was renamed the Royal Tank Regiment and became part of the Royal Armored Corps, along with other units, mainly former cavalry regiments.

Elles put together a small staff of officers in 1916 who brought considerable intelligence, enthusiasm and foresight to the war front in France. Realizing the enormous potential of the tank weapon, Elles’s key staff, including Captain G. Martel and Major J.F.C. Fuller, predicted the coming battles between opposing tank forces and other advanced tank tactics that were destined to change land warfare forever. It was Fuller who, in 1917, wrote of the tank, “It is in fact an armored mechanical horse.”

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun, In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun, Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud The menacing scarred slope, and, one by one, Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.

—from Attack by Siegfried Sassoon

Well, how are things in heaven? I wish you’d say Because I’d like to know that you’re all right. Tell me, have you found everlasting day, Or been sucked in by everlasting night? For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain; I hear you make some cheery old remark—I can rebuild you in my brain, Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.

—from To Any Dead Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

Flers-Courcelette 15 Sept 1916

British Invention “Tank” II

Brought to France under the cover of canvas sheets, the first British tanks entered battle against the Germans in September 1916. In his book, Tanks In Battle, Colonel H.C.B. Rogers describes the supplies that were carried into action in the British tanks: “Rations for the first tank battle consisted of sixteen loaves of bread and about thirty tins of foodstuffs. The various types of stores included four spare Vickers machine-gun barrels, one spare Vickers machine-gun, one spare Hotchkiss machine-gun, two boxes of revolver ammunition, thirty-three thousand rounds of ammunition for the machine-guns, a telephone instrument and a hundred yards of cable on a drum, a signalling lamp, three signalling flags, two wire cutters, one spare drum of engine oil, two small drums of grease and three water cans. Added to this miscellaneous collection was all the equipment which was stripped off the eight inhabitants of the tank, so that there was not very much room to move about.”

The training of the crews that went to war in these early tanks had been sub-standard and there had been no instruction in cooperation between the tanks and the infantry. The only point of agreement between the two arms was that the tanks ought to reach their first objective five minutes ahead of the infantry forces and that the primary task of the tanks was to destroy the enemy strongpoints which were preventing the advance of the infantry.

In their initial combat action, it was intended to deploy forty-nine British tanks, but only thirty-two were able to take part. Nine of these suffered breakdowns, five experienced “ditching” (becoming stuck in a trench or soft ground) and nine more couldn’t keep up the pace, lagging well behind the infantry. But the remaining nine met their objective and inflicted severe losses on the German forces. While accomplishing less than had been hoped for, this first effort of the British tank force produced an important and unanticipated side effect. Those tanks that reached the enemy line made a powerful impression on the German troops facing them, causing many to bolt in fear even before the tanks had come into firing range.

Shrieking its message the flying death Cursed the resisting air,

Then buried its nose by a tattered church,

A skeleton gaunt and bare.

The brains of science, the money of fools,

Had fashioned an iron slave

Destined to kill, yet the futile end

Was a child’s uprooted grave.

—The Shell by Private H. Smalley Sarson

When the war is over and the Kaiser’s out of print, I’m going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint; When the war is over and the sword at last we sheathe, I’m going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.

—from A Full Heart by A.A. Milne

For it’s clang, bang, rattle,

W’en the tanks go into battle,

And they plough their way across the tangled wire,

They are sighted to a fraction,

When the guns get into action,

An’ the order of the day is rapid fire; W’en the hour is zero Ev’ry man’s a bloomin’ ’ero,

W’atsoever ’is religion or ’is nime,

You can bet yer bottom dollar W’ether death or glory foller,

That the tanks will do their duty ev’ry time.

—from A Song of the Tanks by J. Dean Atkinson

The following passage from the book Iron Fist by Bryan Perrett describes operational conditions for the crew of the early British tanks in France around the midpoint of the First World War: “Such intense heat was generated by the engine that the men wore as little as possible. The noise level, a compound of roaring engine, unsilenced exhaust on the early Marks, the thunder of tracks crossing the hull, weapons firing and the enemy’s return fire striking the armor, made speech impossible and permanently damaged the hearing of some. The hard ride provided by the unsprung suspension faithfully mirrored every pitch and roll of the ground so that the gunners, unaware of what lay ahead, would suddenly find themselves thrown off their feet and, reaching out for support, sustain painful burns as they grabbed at machinery that verged on the red hot. Worst of all was the foul atmosphere, polluted by the fumes of leaking exhausts, hot oil, petrol and expended cordite. Brains starved of oxygen refused to function or produced symptoms of madness. One officer is known to have fired into a malfunctioning engine with his revolver, and some crews were reduced to the level of zombies, repeatedly mumbling the orders they had been given but physically unable to carry them out. Small wonder then, that after even a short spell in action, the men would collapse on the ground beside their vehicles, gulping in air, incapable of movement for long periods.

“In addition, of course, there were the effects of the enemy’s fire. Wherever this struck, small glowing flakes of metal would be flung off the inside of the armor, while bullet splash penetrated visors and joints in the plating; both could blind, although the majority of such wounds were minor though painful. Glass vision blocks became starred and were replaced by open slits, thereby increasing the risk, especially to the commander and the driver. In an attempt to minimise this, leather crash helmets, slotted metal goggles and chain mail visors were issued, but these were quickly discarded in the suffocating heat of the vehicle’s interior. The tanks of the day were not proof against field artillery so that any penetration was likely to result in a fierce petrol or ammunition fire followed by an explosion that would tear the vehicle apart. In such a situation the chances of being able to evacuate a casualty through the awkward hatches were horribly remote.

“Despite these sobering facts, the crews willingly accepted both the conditions and the risks in the belief that they had a war-winning weapon.”

A British Army corporal said they looked like giant toads. The specter of nearly 400 enemy tanks emerging from the early morning ground fog and mists of Cambrai in north-eastern France on 20 November 1917 must have impressed all who saw it. After years of stalemate and staggering attrition, this first use of massed tanks in warfare was the turning point. British armored commanders had awakened to the possibilities of the tank when imaginatively and skillfully utilized.

For most of 1917 the Allies on the Western Front had been bogged down in their trenches, unable to breach the German defenses. Now in November, the tank commanders saw an opportunity to break the cycle of despair and hopelessness that hung over the Allied armies. They proposed a massive tank raid to be launched against German positions near the town of Cambrai. They liked the prospects. The terrain of the attack was gently rolling, well-drained land. As their plan called for surprising the Germans with a fast and relatively quiet approach, there was to be no conventional softening-up artillery bombardment in advance of the raid. The commanders had intended that the great tank force would arrive quickly, inflict maximum damage and get out fast, having completed their task in three hours or less. They had presented their plan to Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front, in August when he was incurring catastrophic losses fifty miles to the north of Cambrai in the swamps of Passchendale. At the time, the optimistic Haig was still looking for a victory and shelved the Cambrai idea. But by the autumn his Passchendale ambitions had sunk in the mud there and he was forced to accept the proposal of his tank men.

The plan called for the great mass of tanks to force a breakthrough between the two canals at Cambrai, capture the town itself as well as the higher ground surrounding the village of Flesquieres and the Bourdon Wood. They were then to roll on towards Valenciennes, twenty-five miles to the northeast. The tanks were carrying great bundles of brushwood which would be used to fill in the trenches that they would encounter when crossing the German defenses of the Siegfried Line. It was intended that the tanks would advance line abreast while the accompanying infantry troops would follow in columns close behind to defend against close-quarters attacks.

Deception and diversion were employed by the British in the days leading up to the attack. Dummy tanks, smoke and gas were all used to fool the Germans, and the men and equipment that would be involved in the attack were moved up entirely by night and kept in hiding by day. All 381 tanks allocated for the attack advanced toward Cambrai along a six-mile front.

British planning and attention to detail had been thorough and fastidious, but they had failed to factor in the possibility of one of their own commanders, a General Harper of the 51st Highland Division, deviating from the plan. It seems that Harper had doubts about the ability of the new-fangled tanks to breach the Siegfried Line as quickly as the planners required. On the day of the attack Harper delayed sending his tanks and infantry troops forward until an hour after the rest of the force had left. The delay allowed German field artillery to be positioned with disastrous results for some tank crews. Five burned-out tank hulls were found after the action. Elsewhere along the tank line, however, the armor and infantry had moved swiftly through the German lines, advancing five miles to Bourdon Wood by noon. It had been a brilliant achievement for the British tank crews.

The push continued the next day with the British taking Flesquieres and advancing a further 17 miles. In the next nine days, they won and lost the village of Fontaine-Notre Dame and the surrounding area several times. Then, on 30 November, the Germans counterattacked. Like the British, they struck without the usual initial artillery bombardment, hiding behind heavy gas and smoke screens. The British troops, exhausted by their recent effort, were forced to retreat from the rapidly advancing German forces and in just a few days had to relinquish all of their gains. In the action, the Germans took 6,000 prisoners. Blame for the defeat fell on everyone except those actually responsible—the commanders. There was concern in Whitehall that pointing the finger at their Army commanders would crush the faith of the British people in their military leadership. Still, the British had learned the valuable lesson of how effective tanks and artillery could be when properly employed in concert.

The German offensive of March 1918 began on the 21st and saw the first appearance of their tanks in battle. Designed early in 1917, the A7V was much larger and heavier than the British heavy tank of the day. It weighed thirty-three tons and was operated by a crew of eighteen. The armament consisted of one forward-mounted 57mm gun (roughly equivalent to the British six-pounder) and six machine-guns positioned at the sides and the rear. The maximum armor thickness was 30mm enabling the front of the tank to resist direct hits from field guns at long range, but the overhead armor was too thin to provide much protection. The fitting of the armor plating was such that the hull was very susceptible to bullet splash. The tank’s power came from two 150 hp Daimler sleeve-valve engines. Sprung tracks allowed the vehicle to achieve eight mph on smooth and level ground, a high speed for the time. However, the design and the low ground clearance resulted in relatively poor cross-country performance. The Germans built only fifteen A7Vs. In their initial venture into combat, four of the German tanks were used together with five captured British Mk IVs. One month later, thirteen A7Vs participated in the capture of Villers-Brettoneux and in this action the enemy tanks had the same psychological effect on the British infantry as their tanks had had earlier on their German counterparts. Tanks broke the opposing lines.

Shortly after the German success at Villers-Brettoneux, the world’s first tank-versus-tank action took place in the same neighborhood. In the early morning light, one male and two female Mk IVs were ordered forward to stem the German penetration. Though some of the British tank crew members had suffered from gas shelling, they all advanced and soon sighted one of the A7Vs. The machine-guns of the two females were useless against the armor of the German tank and both were put out of action. But the male was able to maneuver for a flank shot and scored a hit causing the German tank to run up a steep embankment and overturn. Two more A7Vs then arrived and engaged the British tank which saw one off. The crew of the second A7V abandoned their tank and fled.

The Cambrai experience undoubtedly saved many lives, influencing the British attack of 8 August1918, the battle of Amiens, in which 456 tanks finally broke the enemy lines. It was the decisive battle of the war, leading to the German surrender. The battle was launched along a thirteen-mile front. The three objectives were the Green Line, three miles from the start line; the Red Line, six miles from the start and in the center of the front; and the Blue Line, eight miles from the start and in the center. The attack was to begin at 4:20 a.m. with the tanks moving out 1,000 yards to the start line. A thick mist helped the British forces to achieve complete surprise and overrun the German forward defenses.

The main attacks were to be delivered by the Canadian Corps on the right and the Australian Corps on the left, both of them being south of the Somme. The Third Corps was to make a limited advance while covering the left flank. Before the Canadian Fifth Tank Battalion reached and crossed the Green Line objective, it had suffered heavily, losing fifteen tanks. It lost another eleven tanks achieving the Red Line, leaving it only eight machines still operable. The Canadian Fourth Tank Battalion was advancing across firm ground and achieved the Green and Red Lines with ease. Heavy German artillery then took a great toll of the Fourth’s tanks, leaving only eleven for the push on toward the Blue Line.

The Australian Corps, attacking with vehicles of the Fifth Tank Brigade, reached the Green Line by 7 a.m., the Red Line by 10 a.m. and they took the Blue Line an hour later. The tanks had eliminated German opposition up to the Red Line. After that, the Australian infantry poured through the weakened enemy defenses and the tanks were unable to keep pace with them.

After the fighting, most tank crews were suffering the ill effects from having spent upwards of three hours buttoned-up for action. With their guns firing, most of them suffered from headaches, high temperatures and even heart disturbances.

Though it was not immediately apparent, the Allies had won a great victory at Amiens, taking 22,000 German prisoners, and the German High Command realized that it had no more hope of winning the war.

In the Reichstag, the German politicians heard from their military commanders that it was, above all, the tanks that had brought an end to their resistance against the Allies. That evening the downcast Kaiser said to one of his military commanders: “It is very strange that our men cannot get used to tanks.” Major (now General) J.F.C. Fuller summed up the result: “The battle of Amiens was the strategic end of the war, a second Waterloo; the rest was minor tactics.”