The Second World War and the Viet Minh

Hồ Chí Minh (fifth from left, standing) with the OSS in 1945.

The Viet Minh led the resistance against the Japanese and the French. During the war, they worked with officers of the OSS who had been sent to Vietnam to help organize guerrilla efforts against the Japanese. The Viet Minh helped rescue American pilots who were shot down over Indochina, and in return received weapons and training. Essentially “a nationalist-front organization” led by the Indochinese Communist Party the Viet Minh attracted Vietnamese patriots “in a common struggle against the Japanese and the French [by] emphasizing … patriotic themes that would appeal to radicals and moderates alike.”

In March 1945, the Japanese overthrew French administrative authorities in Vietnam and imprisoned them and French citizens, and formed a regime headed by the emperor Bai Dai, who had faithfully served the colonial regime. During the period between this takeover and the end of the Second World War in early September 1945, Viet Minh territory “expanded to include six provinces in northern Vietnam. In this ‘liberated zone,’ entirely new local governments were established, self-defense forces recruited, taxes abolished, rents reduced, and, in some places, land that had belonged to French landlords was seized and redistributed.”

By early September 1945, Viet Minh forces had defeated the combined Japanese-French colonialists, and on September 2, before hundreds of thousands of people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). It became the first former European colony to establish a popular democratic government after the war. At this independence celebration, the opening lines of Ho’s speech were taken from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Americans were the only honored foreign guests, and Major Archimedes Patti of the OSS stood next to General Giap, the commander of the Viet Minh forces. Some Americans who were in Hanoi and Saigon during the war supported the Viet Minh struggle; they “warned of imminent cold war and recommended U.S. withdrawal from the area, [and] also argued against providing assistance to France for the purpose of returning to Vietnam.” The Truman administration ignored their recommendations.

At the end of the Second World War, at this moment of independence, David Marr writes, millions of Vietnamese “knew they were making history, not just witnessing it. Many sensed that their lives were changing irrevocably.…” This historic Vietnamese struggle was to be blocked by U.S. allies Britain and France. In late September 1945, the British rearmed some fourteen hundred French soldiers and civilians who “in the name of restoring law and order,” rampaged through Saigon, “cursing, beating up, detaining, and otherwise offending any native encountered.” Vietnamese then retaliated by killing more than a hundred and fifty French civilians; many were women and children. Later that fall, British, French, and Japanese troops attacked the Viet Minh near Saigon. Let this historical fact sink in: Japanese troops, who a few months earlier were killing and wounding British and U.S. troops, now joined British forces trying to destroy Vietnamese resistance against the returning French colonialists.

In early 1950, the Vietnamese resistance against the French was strengthened when the People’s Republic of China became the first nation to formally recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. China sent American weapons and ammunition it had captured in Korea, and this allowed General Giap to arm new divisions in the fight against the French. Chinese aid later included anti-aircraft units that Giap used in the May 1954 victory over the French at the critical battle of Dien Bien Phu. During this period and into the early years of the American war, the Chinese “exerted considerable influence” over Vietnamese Communists until their own Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Relations worsened considerably after President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, eventually leading to war in 1979 when the Chinese invaded Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter supported this invasion, urged on by his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, David Marr writes, “the most important question” was how much assistance the United States would provide France; this was done “above all by facilitating the arrival of French troops, equipment, and supplies … Most French soldiers were outfitted with U.S. weapons and uniforms, and they roared around in U.S. jeeps, trucks, and armored cars—a startling, depressing sight for Vietnamese who had hoped for American neutrality, if not outright support.” As the Cold War heated up in the late 1940s, the Truman administration increased its economic and military support to the French, becoming more generous after the Chinese Communist Revolution in late 1949, “when Indochina came to be seen as a vital segment of the global anticommunist front line.”

Historian Michael Gillen contends that the United States missed an opportunity when its officials did not listen to OSS agents on the ground in Vietnam, such as Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, who wrote from Saigon in September 1945: “Cochinchina [southern Vietnam] is burning, the French and the British are finished here, and we [the Americans] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” Dewey became the first U.S. casualty of the war in Vietnam when he was killed by Viet Minh soldiers at a military checkpoint.

Historians point out that President Franklin Roosevelt was not happy with French colonialism and wished to see it end after the Second World War. Historian Michael H. Hunt argues that Roosevelt’s verbal opposition to French control of Vietnam—something the United States did not oppose during his presidency—was a form of racism that “was common for his generation and that would prove a consistent strand in later U.S. policies.” FDR did not believe that “the peoples of Indochina and other ‘brown people in the East,’ such as the Koreans,” were able “to exercise freedom with wisdom.”

Hunt writes that the August 1945 revolution was “a promising bid for full-fledged independence.” The Viet Minh “commanded the political high ground as the only effective political group … with an untarnished patriotic reputation … and a demonstrated capacity to mobilize rural support. From that position, it had sponsored a government with national pretensions and broad representation.”

Vietnam’s declared independence did not last long, however, as immediately after the Second World War U.S. material support for French colonialism grew dramatically. France desperately needed American troopships and other military equipment to transport its colonial troops to Vietnam. Harold Issacs, a war reporter for Newsweek, was in Saigon as these troops came off American ships: there were “thousands every week, first in French transports and then in a long succession of American ships, flying the American flag and manned by American crews.… They marched past cheering crowds of relieved French civilians and moved out … to restore French order.”

At the time of this image the ship “Red Oak Victory” is the only operational Victory class ship in the world. Used extensively during World War II for transport of various goods it was a faster and longer range successor to the earlier Liberty class, with about the same capacity. The hull was recently refurbished and painted. Image 20 July 2013.

Sailors from the USS Stamford Victory were among the few Americans to see the sight of “fully armed Japanese soldiers, several weeks after [Victory over Japan] Day, being employed by the British in Vietnam.” The crews of this and other U.S. ships witnessed the Vietnamese reaction. One sailor reported that they “all spoke to us of their hatred of the French and their wonder at the Americans [for] bringing the French invaders back.” These members of the National Maritime Union (NMU) protested “the policy of the United States Government in chartering ships, flying the American flag,” to transport French troops “in order to subjugate the native population of Vietnam.” In a stunning shift in history, U.S. vessels brought French troops to Vietnam so they could join recently released Japanese troops to support France’s attempt to crush the Vietnamese independence movement. The sailors’ action was the first organized antiwar protest against Washington’s policy, twenty years before campus protests began in 1965.


The United States of American Invasion of Mexico

Clockwise from top left: Winfield Scott entering Plaza de la Constitución after the Fall of Mexico City, U.S. soldiers engaging the retreating Mexican force during the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, American victory at Churubusco outside Mexico City, U.S. Marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag, Battle of Cerro Gordo

During 1846, even as war with the United States loomed, Mexican politics remained tumultuous. Mariano Paredes had come to power in late 1845 as part of a conspiracy to convert Mexico to monarchy. He backed off of his monarchist pretensions upon becoming aware of how genuinely unpopular the notion of kingship was in Mexico. Still, the very threat of a return to such a despised system was enough to fire up the puros, who believed that a return to the federalist Constitution of 1824 was the ticket to victory in the war with the United States. Confident of this prescription, the puros became by far the most strident advocates of war. Indeed, they have the distinction of being virtually the only group that seemed actually to believe Mexico could win—but victory, in their view, would be possible only under the proper political system. Puro leader Valentín Gómez Farías was the most ardent champion of war and federalism. So intent was he on dumping Paredes that he was willing to deal with the devil. In 1846 he began a regular correspondence with his old nemesis, Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had been exiled from Mexico “for life” in 1845. Santa Anna was presently devoting himself to banquets and cockfights in Cuba. Gómez Farías believed that he and Santa Anna would make an unbeatable governing team: Gómez Farías claimed to have influence over the masses, while Santa Anna held sway with the army.

Gómez Farías was not Santa Anna’s only potential route back to power. At the same time he was parleying with the Mexican puros, Santa Anna was also putting out feelers to their archenemies, the Americans. In February 1846 a U.S. citizen named Alejandro José Atocha visited President Polk claiming that Santa Anna had expressed a willingness, upon being restored to power, to make remarkable concessions: the Rio Grande boundary and all of modern-day New Mexico and northern California, in exchange for a $30 million indemnity. It was an attractive offer, but Atocha was a shady character. Polk was skeptical but was nevertheless persuaded that Santa Anna would be more conciliatory than Paredes. If some subtle way could be found to help Santa Anna make his political comeback, Polk was on board.

Meanwhile, Santa Anna assured Gómez Farías that during his Cuban sojourn he had become a liberal of conviction. Curiously, Gómez Farías seems to have found this plausible. A key feature of Santa Anna’s genius was his impressive ability to persuade people that he was honest and sincere despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Some Mexicans were themselves fairly mystified at their own continued willingness to trust the wily general. Moderate politician José Fernando Ramírez, who was normally of a very skeptical turn of mind, wrote to a friend, “There is no doubt whatsoever that [Santa Anna] is returning as a real democrat, and I can conceive of his being one.” Ramírez, perhaps realizing how absurd that sounded, added laconically, “I cannot tell you on what I base my conviction.”

The liberals launched their rebellion in late July, even as U.S. forces were occupying California, preparing to occupy New Mexico, and plotting strategy in northern Mexico. When General José Mariano Salas joined the revolt in Mexico City, Paredes was finished. Paredes had been heading north to take charge of the army but was arrested en route. Salas became provisional president, but pending Santa Anna’s return, Gómez Farías exercised the real power. In August 1846 the federalist Constitution of 1824 once again was declared to be the law of the land.

Santa Anna landed at Veracruz in August, apparently with the acquiescence of the American fleet that was blockading the Mexican coast. On Mexico’s independence day, September 16, Gómez Farías and Santa Anna entered the capital together in an open carriage. The entry was deliberately low key, for the nation was in grave peril and the two leaders were resolved to appear as sober and sincere democrats. An enormous banner of the recently resurrected federalist constitution fluttered to the side of the carriage, but apart from that there were few decorations, and the two men were dressed in subtle civilian attire—no medals, no frock coats, nothing that might smack of aristocracy. According to Ramírez, they “seemed more like victims than conquerors.”

Ever the man of action, Santa Anna spent only two weeks in the capital before sallying northward at the head of three thousand ragged troops. In his absence he was elected president, and after some ugly politicking Gómez Farías became vice president, with power to govern while Santa Anna fought.

General Juan Alvarez, a caudillo of southern Mexico who was among the few bold enough to openly oppose the war with the United States, sized up the new regime’s chief problem nicely. “Money, money, and more money,” he wrote, “are the three things which are needed in order to recover [Texas], save California … and preserve our nationality.” Mexico’s treasury, as usual, was bare, its normally meager revenues made more meager still by the U.S. blockade. The government decreed a barrage of emergency taxes and demanded contributions from the states and from urban property owners, but it lacked the means to collect such exactions or to deal with the fierce resistance they engendered.

The Catholic Church, with its apparent opulence, was as always a tempting place to look for funds. As a liberal of conviction, Gómez Farías was famously hostile toward the church, not merely for its wealth but because of the formidable obstacle it presented to the creation of a modern, liberal, secular nation-state. As he had done during his 1832–33 government, Gómez Farías attacked the church frontally. On January 11, 1847, he persuaded congress to authorize the government to raise 15 million pesos for the war effort by mortgaging or selling church property; he made exceptions for church schools, hospitals, and charities. The clergy loudly protested the measure, and they had plenty of support. Demonstrators threw stones at the National Palace, leaflets advocated death to congress and Gómez Farías, the churches of Mexico City suspended services in protest, and pulpits thundered with antigovernment jeremiads. Several states in the center of the country denounced the measure as ruinous not only to the church but to all those businesses, ranches, and farms that had borrowed money from church coffers. Zacatecas went so far as to advocate overthrowing the federal authorities and negotiating a quick end to the war with the United States, while the governor of San Luis Potosí asked the legislature to declare his state’s independence from Mexico. There were even rumors that Zacatecas, Durango, Sinaloa, and Tabasco discussed declaring their independence from Mexico and asking for U.S. protection.

The crisis worsened when the puro governor of Mexico City, boldly declaring himself an atheist, sought to ignore some of the tax exemptions for charities and hospitals that had been mentioned in the January 11 law. In late February, when Gómez Farías ordered a conservative militia battalion—known as los polkos because of their fondness for dancing the polka—to prepare for the defense of Veracruz against an anticipated American invasion, the polkos refused to go. Instead, with moral and financial support from the church, they began a rebellion that plunged Mexico City into a condition just short of civil war. They denounced Gómez Farías for surrounding himself with the “most wretched and despicable [men] from among the dregs of all factions.” They first demanded the repeal of the offensive tax laws and the dissolution of the executive and legislative branches of government but eventually said they would settle for the dismissal of Gómez Farías.

The polkos had little popular support. Many residents of the city did not fail to notice the appalling cynicism involved in sparking such an upheaval at the very moment when Mexican troops were battling the Americans in the north and when American forces were preparing to land at Veracruz for a march on the capital. The church seems to have lost some prestige because of its role in the polkos affair: few people turned out for the Holy Week celebrations later that year, and most did not even doff their hats out of respect as the religious processions passed by.

As had often happened previously in such situations, many looked to Santa Anna for salvation. At a critical moment Santa Anna abandoned the fight in the north and returned to Mexico City. People cheered and threw garlands of flowers in his path as he approached the city in late March. Just as he had done in 1833, Santa Anna now took the side of Gómez Farías’s enemies: he persuaded the church to lend the government one and a half million pesos in exchange for the nullification of the offending tax law, while at the same time he withdrew his support from Gómez Farías. He pressured congress to simply abolish the office of vice president, and the stubborn Gómez Farías had no recourse but to step down. A Santa Anna crony, General Pedro María Anaya, became substitute president while Santa Anna prepared to continue fighting the war.

While the politicians wrangled, the war continued along its disastrous course. In June 1846, only a month after the U.S. declaration of war against Mexico, the Mexicans received the unwelcome news that the United States and Great Britain, after some moments of high tension, had patched up their differences over the Oregon Territory. Many Mexicans had hoped that that dispute might lead to war between Great Britain and the United States, which could conceivably have resulted in an Anglo-Mexican alliance. Instead, Britain rapidly lost interest in Mexico’s plight, and the United States was free to pursue its war with Mexico with one less distraction.

Zachary Taylor’s army won victories at two battles just north of the Rio Grande—Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma—in early May 1846, and his troops took Matamoros without resistance. The Mexican forces withdrew to the city of Monterrey, about two hundred miles west of Matamoros. At that point, hampered by the departure of volunteers serving short-term enlistments and by lack of supplies, Taylor bided his time until fresh troops and supplies arrived. On September 20 Taylor’s forces laid siege to Monterrey, forcing the Mexicans to capitulate after four days of fierce street fighting. A new force under General John E. Wool linked up with those of Taylor in February 1847, even as General Santa Anna was taking over the Mexican war effort.

Santa Anna, upon returning to Mexico, had hastily assembled an army practically without funding. He mortgaged his own property, cobbled together his own resources, and pressed the peons from his own haciendas into service. In San Luis Potosí he seized bars of silver from the local mint, most of which belonged to Spaniards. None of this was sufficient to form a credible fighting force. Santa Anna’s army had no uniforms, little food, inferior weapons, and little training. The lack of artillery and long-range rifles meant they could fight only at close range, but the formidable U.S. artillery was capable of slaughtering them ruthlessly at a comfortable distance, making it nearly impossible for the Mexicans to mount an effective charge—a disadvantage that would cripple Mexican military efforts throughout the war. Statesmen in Mexico City might make much of Mexican “honor,” but for the rank-and-file soldier national honor was a hopeless abstraction that provided scant incentive for wanton self-sacrifice. And if death on the field of battle seemed less than glorious, for many such a death would have been a luxury: of the 20,000 or so troops Santa Anna assembled at San Luis Potosí, nearly five thousand perished of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and exposure during the grueling 240-mile march north to Saltillo. Thousands more would die on the march back.

Even despite the appalling losses, Santa Anna’s forces still numbered some 15,000 upon reaching the environs of Saltillo, where Taylor’s men were encamped at a good defensible position near a hacienda called Buena Vista. The Mexicans—hungry, exhausted, and demoralized as they were—still had a decided numerical advantage, for Taylor had only around 5,000 mostly green troops. Santa Anna was by this time aware that the Americans were preparing an amphibious invasion at Veracruz, and strategically it would have made sense for him to refocus his efforts toward repelling that assault. But Santa Anna could not resist the temptation of enhancing his heroic stature by handing his enemy a glorious trouncing. His army attacked on February 22 and again on February 23, 1847. The fighting was intense and bloody. The Mexicans lost around 2,100 men, the Americans 673 plus some 1,500 desertions. Even with their terrible losses, the Mexicans retained a comfortable numerical advantage. Had Santa Anna chosen to renew the attack on February 24, the Mexicans might well have prevailed. But Santa Anna, persuaded that his army did not have enough food to hold out for another day, decided to withdraw his forces back to San Luis Potosí. The march back was probably as costly as a continuation of the battle would have been. By the time Santa Anna’s army reached San Luis Potosí on March 12, he had lost more than half his original army of twenty thousand. The battle was reckoned an American victory, since it was the Mexicans who withdrew. Santa Anna suffered vicious criticism, including numerous charges of incompetence and treason, for his conduct of the campaign.

While the fighting raged in northern Mexico and political factions clashed in Mexico City, President Polk put into operation the next part of his plan—a move that had been under discussion for some time. Polk was persuaded that diplomacy and reason would not work with the Mexicans and that only a solid and indisputable rout would compel them to negotiate. He therefore appointed General Winfield Scott—a man he held in low esteem but whose military talents he appreciated—to head up an invasion of Mexico from the east. Scott’s force of 12,000 landed south of Veracruz city on March 5, 1847, and invited the lightly defended city to surrender. Upon receiving a defiant reply, Scott ordered a bombardment that visited hellish destruction until the city surrendered on March 29. Anxious to move his forces inland before the heat of summer brought the scourge of yellow fever, Scott and his army set out almost immediately for the highlands.

The Americans, in their march from the coast, followed essentially the same route that the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had followed more than three hundred years earlier. Both Cortés and Scott landed at Veracruz during Holy Week, making the historical parallel a bit eerie. The symbolism was not lost on either side in the conflict. The American soldiers were voracious readers of William H. Prescott’s volume History of the Conquest of Mexico, published in 1843. They seem to have gained from that work a sense of historical and, perhaps, racial destiny, even while learning a bit about the Mexican landscape and archaeological remains. The Spanish conquest was again invoked when, after the war, General William J. Worth presented President Polk with a fine copy of a famous painting of Cortés. Although Polk frequently and vehemently denied that his war with Mexico was a war of conquest, he does not seem to have objected to the obvious symbolism of the gift: it first hung in the White House and currently hangs in Polk’s ancestral home in Columbia, Tennessee.

On the Mexican side, some drew a dispiriting lesson from the conquest analogy. Five hundred years earlier a small crew of Spanish adventurers had been able to lay waste to an enormous empire because the people of Mexico failed to pull together against their common enemy. History seemed to be repeating itself. Other Mexicans sought to use the parallel more constructively: puros did their best to invoke Aztec imagery in hopes of instilling in the Mexican people some sense of racial pride and solidarity and to identify the hated Spaniards with the new conquerors.

Efforts to instill pride and patriotism in exhausted Mexican soldiers were fairly futile given the wretched and onerous conditions under which they were made to operate. Many of the troops who had fought at Buena Vista were now forcibly marched hundreds of miles southward, where, under the command of the indefatigable Santa Anna, they dug in to receive Scott’s forces at a jagged mountain pass near the small town of Cerro Gordo. The position seemed well-nigh impregnable, surrounded as it was by a river, hills, and steep cliffs. The Mexican army had a small numerical advantage, with some twelve thousand troops to Scott’s eighty-five hundred, but many of the Mexican soldiers were sick and exhausted. Others had been recently sprung from prison at Veracruz and pressed into service.

The Mexicans’ numerical advantage counted for little against the Americans’ superior ordnance, morale, and tactics. The Mexicans suffered a quick and decisive rout, as the U.S. forces seized huge quantities of Mexican munitions and took more than three thousand prisoners. Santa Anna’s army collapsed; he himself was forced to flee on foot, losing the six-thousand-peso payroll for the troops in the process. The defeat at Cerro Gordo was especially demoralizing to Santa Anna, for it took place on his home turf, not far from his beloved haciendas.

After the Battle of Cerro Gordo, comparisons to the conquest grew starker and more disheartening. “The troops have come back very much depressed,” wrote moderate politician José Fernando Ramírez. “The leaders and officers declare that the Yankees are invincible, and the soldiers are telling terrible tales that bring to mind the Conquest. Some say that the enemy soldiers are such huge, strong men that they can cut an opponent in two with a single sweep of their swords. It is also said that their horses are gigantic and very fast and that their muskets discharge shots which, once they leave the gun, divide into fifty pieces, each one fatal and well-aimed. Let us say nothing about their artillery, which has inspired fear and terror in all our troops and is undeniable proof of our backwardness in military art.”

In fact, however, Scott’s army had its own problems. Some three thousand of his volunteers had enlisted for a year and were now free to go. On May 6, seven U.S. regiments marched off toward the coast to board ship for home. Another two thousand or so U.S. troops were wounded or gravely ill. Making matters still worse, on April 28, ten days after the Battle of Cerro Gordo, substitute president Pedro María Anaya issued a call for well-heeled patriots to form guerrilla units to disrupt the American supply lines along the Mexico City–Veracruz corridor. Other guerrilla units formed spontaneously and without government sanction. The guerrillas were quite successful in making life perilous for the Americans. Scott’s army now consisted of fewer than five thousand healthy men, with no reinforcements expected and no reliable source of supplies.

General Scott—who, like Cortés, was gifted in both the military arts and those of diplomacy—was well aware of the dangers of widespread guerrilla warfare. He was also aware that the surest way to spawn guerrilla warfare was to mistreat ordinary Mexicans. He therefore carefully cultivated the goodwill of the common people by sternly disciplining any misbehavior on the part of his troops. He also wisely sought to appease the Roman Catholic clergy, ordering his soldiers to salute priests on the streets, requesting that priests celebrate mass with his troops, and personally attending mass in the opulent cathedrals of the cities. This strategy paid dividends: many top clergymen eagerly betrayed Santa Anna and made common cause with the invaders. Scott’s forces were welcomed into the city of Puebla—a city some sixty miles southeast of Mexico City, known for its conservatism and piety—almost cordially, “more like travelers than enemies,” in the words of the Spanish minister.

Scott spent a full three months at Puebla, plotting his assault on Mexico City. While he was there, a new character entered into the drama: upon learning of the seizure of Veracruz, Polk had dispatched a Spanish-speaking diplomat, Nicholas P. Trist, with authority to negotiate peace—presuming, of course, large territorial concessions—with the Mexicans. Trist had impeccable credentials, having studied law under Thomas Jefferson, married Jefferson’s granddaughter, served as Andrew Jackson’s private secretary, and been U.S. consul to Cuba. Even so, Scott resented what he saw as Polk’s effort to undercut his authority. He treated Trist coldly at first, though soon enough the two men became friendly. Trist was intrigued when the British minister informed him that Santa Anna had hinted that he would be susceptible to bribery—his price was ten thousand dollars down and another million once a treaty was ratified. Bribery was not only ethically dubious and sure to anger the administration in Washington; it was also an unreliable method of doing business, especially given Santa Anna’s penchant for duplicity. With many reservations, General Scott approved the plan and provided the ten thousand dollars from his own funds for “secret expenses.”

Nothing came of the bribery scheme. The Mexican congress had greeted news of the Mexican loss at the Battle of Cerro Gordo with a fresh round of defiance: two days after the battle they passed a law declaring it treasonous to so much as discuss treating with the enemy. Santa Anna claimed that this law obliged him to abandon negotiations with the U.S. agents—but not before he pocketed the ten thousand dollars. Santa Anna then told Trist that a U.S. attack on Mexico City would have the beneficial effect of frightening the opponents of peace into submission, enabling him to seize power and make peace. This interesting proposition clearly opened the way for a U.S. assault on the capital; the problem was, neither side was quite sure if the attack would be in earnest or for show.

The siege began August 20, 1847, with a pair of battles on the black craggy lava beds to the city’s south. Once again the Mexican forces, though swelled by militiamen and even some Irish deserters from Scott’s army, gave way before the superior U.S. firepower. The battles were costly to both sides, the Mexicans losing some four thousand men and the Americans more than a thousand. Sentiment among Mexican leaders in favor of surrender was by now considerable, but Santa Anna instead proposed a truce. Scott and Trist agreed and waited to see what sorts of concessions Santa Anna might make. The terms Santa Anna spelled out in a memo of August 26 were surprising: Mexico would recognize the independence of Texas, but with the Nueces as its southern border; the Americans must evacuate all occupied territory and raise the blockade of Mexico’s ports; Mexico would consider granting the Americans some trading privileges in California; and the United States must pay all the costs of war, cancel all Mexican debts, and recognize all Mexican land grants in Texas made prior to 1836. With Mexican military fortunes at their lowest ebb, Santa Anna now proposed to end the war as though the Mexicans had won it.

Santa Anna’s offer was rejected, of course, but negotiations still proceeded desultorily. All the while Santa Anna was allowing himself to be persuaded by those who advocated continued stubborn resistance. Perhaps the crowning absurdity of the matter was the ultimate sticking point: neither side was willing to barter away its preferred boundary for Texas. The virtually worthless territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers—a swath of land so arid it could not even support a cotton crop until the 1920s—was nonnegotiable for both sides. The Americans were determined to own the territory so as to maintain the fiction that the Mexicans had sparked the war by invading U.S. territory. Santa Anna believed the territory was essential as a buffer against future U.S. aggression. When the Mexican negotiators made it clear that they would not relinquish their demand for the Nueces boundary, and also that they had no intention of parting with New Mexico or southern California, the truce collapsed. Santa Anna had used the time to improve the city’s defenses, in violation of the terms of the truce.

The fighting resumed on September 8 when the U.S. forces attacked an old flour mill known as the Molino del Rey, which they erroneously suspected of housing a cannon foundary. The Mexicans put up fierce resistance, engulfing the U.S. troops in a sustained hail of artillery fire, but after a two-hour fight the Mexican resistance collapsed. Before dawn on September 12 the Americans began shelling Chapultepec Castle, an imposing edifice that had once served as a residence for viceroys but that now served as Mexico’s military academy. The castle, which rested on a hilltop some two hundred feet above the plain, guarded the western entrance to Mexico City. After a full day’s bombardment the castle was badly damaged. On the morning of September 13 the bombardment resumed, followed by an assault. Specially selected U.S. troops used scaling ladders to climb the slopes, breach the castle walls, and engage the castle’s defenders in brutal hand-to-hand combat. By nine-thirty in the morning, the castle had fallen to the Americans. The Battle of Chapultepec provided the ultimate symbol of Mexico’s doomed resistance: six teenaged cadets, ordered to fall back, instead chose to fight to the death. One of the boys, according to patriotic legend, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leaped from the castle to his death rather than allow the flag to fall into American hands.

Late on the night after the Battle of Chapultepec, Santa Anna resigned the presidency of Mexico, gathered what was left of his army, and withdrew from the city. Shortly thereafter he besieged the tiny and ailing contingent that Scott had left at Puebla, but his army disintegrated as soon as U.S. reinforcements arrived. Santa Anna’s midnight evacuation of Mexico City made him the object of much scorn and scapegoating. When he was summoned to a military court of inquiry, he resigned his military command and made his way into yet another exile.

On the morning of September 14 the American forces mustered in Mexico City’s main square while a band played martial music and the Stars and Stripes were raised over the National Palace. Around midday General Scott rode into the square, resplendent in full-dress uniform, to accept the formal surrender of the city.

Mexican-American War by JOHN TILLER

Capture of the Taiwan

Japanese troops occupy Taipei, 7 June 1895

The most important territorial gain acquired by the Japanese by the power of the treaty signed at Shimonoseki was the island of Taiwan. The moment it was signed and later ratified at Chefoo, the power was still exercised by the Ch’ing administration, while the Chinese garrisons were stationed in the towns of Taiwan. In that situation the condition of the Treaty of Shimonoseki caused outrage of the native population, which on May 23, 1895, forced the local authorities to declare independence of the island. Tang Ching-sung, the former Chinese Governor of Taiwan, became the President of the self-proclaimed state, while the capable and distinguished General Lu Yungfu, veteran of the war with France, became the commander-in-chief of the military forces.

Preparations to repulse the inevitable Japanese invasion became a matter of the utmost importance for the authorities. However, it soon turned out that this task exceeded the capabilities of the island’s administration, which was led by the old Ch’ing dignitaries, who had no faith in victory and devoted all their energy to ensure a safe escape route to China for themselves, their families and possessions. The officers and a majority of regular army troops were of the same attitude, and therefore two `Black Flag Army’ battalions redeployed to the island in January 1895, along with Lu Yungfu, soon became the only real military force in Taiwan. Admittedly, the formation soon grew in strength to around 12,000 troops. These were, in the main, enthusiastic but poorly trained and armed, and realistically unable to face the Japanese army in an open combat.

The Japanese invasion of Taiwan began at the end of May. Taking into account the likely resistance of the Chinese population, they thoroughly prepared, assigning the select 1 st Imperial Guards Brigade under command of General Prince Kitashirakawa to the task. Naval support would be provided by the cruisers Yoshino, Matsushima, Chiyoda, Naniwa, Takachiho and Sai Yen (the ex-Chinese Chi Yuan, captured at Weihaiwei). The Imperial Guards were embarked on 16 transports. Vice-Admiral Arichi Shinanojo, promoted to a higher post in Vice-Admiral Ito’s General Staff, became the commander of the entire armada. He flew his flag on board the cruiser Yoshino. Rear Admiral Togo, commander of the cruiser Naniwa, became his second in command. One of the transports held Vice- Admiral Kabayama, appointed to the post of a military governor of the island.

On 25 May, after three days of steaming, the leading cruisers, Naniwa and Takachiho, arrived at the mouth of the Tamsui River. They were soon joined by the remaining Japanese forces. The primary objective of the invasion force in the initial stage of the Taiwanese campaign was the capture of the island’s capital town of Taipei. On the following day, in order to find a suitable area for the landing of the Imperial Guards, Rear Admiral Togo took the Naniwa and the Matushima towards the harbour of Keelung. Near Cape Santiaochiao, 55 km from Keelung, he spotted a beach which was suitable for the landing. Togo’s plan was accepted by Arichi and Kabayama and on 1 June, over 6,000 Japanese troops landed unopposed at Santiaochiao. They immediately double-marched towards Keelung, arriving there the following evening. The cruisers Naniwa and Matsushima had been providing cover for the landing at Santiaochiao, after which they arrived at Keelung at around the same time as the troops. On 2 June, they were joined by the Takachiho and the Yoshino.

In the early morning of 3 June, the Japanese attacked the Chinese positions around Keelung. This was preceded by a naval bombardment of the harbour and the coastal fortifications by the Japanese cruisers, which, taking advantage of the darkness, approached to 16 cables (2.9 km) from the shore. Soon thereafter the Imperial Guards attacked, quickly taking the key positions of the Chinese defence. By the evening both the town and the harbour were in Japanese hands. The self-proclaimed president Tang, who remained in the town during the assault, managed to escape at the last moment on board a German steamer along with a group of his closest associates.

Following the capture of Keelung, Taipei became the next objective for the Japanese troops. On 4 June, the Imperial Guards departed for the town while the Japanese cruiser Naniwa and Takachiho arrived at the mouth of the Tamsui River on 7 June, establishing a naval blockade of the capital. The escape of the president and high-ranking Taiwanese dignitaries so disorganised the defenders that Taipei was captured by the Japanese almost without a fight. On 17 June, after pacifying the remains of the Chinese resistance, the new Japanese Governor of the island, Vice-Admiral Kabayama arrived at the capital of Taiwan. Slightly earler, the Chinese delegation, which had accompanied the invasion force from the start, officially handed over power to the Japanese. This was agreed on board the transport Yokohama Maru, anchored in the Keelung roadstead.

The formal takeover of the island by the Japanese administration did not put an end to the ongoing military operation in Taiwan, despite the escape of the civilian authorities of the self-proclaimed republic and the capture of the northern part of the island by the Japanese. The `Black Flag Army’, supported by some regular troops and local people, put up an unexpectedly strong resistance in the south and in the centre. Therefore, the Japanese land troops took the main burden of the military operations. They slowly advanced south, engaging in heavy fights with the Chinese. The offensive was hindered by difficult terrain and climatic conditions, as well as by equipment inappropriate for the hot tropical climate. Combat losses and epidemics of malaria and dysentery soon decimated the forces of the 1 st Imperial Guards Brigade and forced the Japanese command to reinforce the island. In October 1895, the infantry regiment from the Pescadores arrived, followed in January 1896 by the infantry regiment from the 7 th Brigade of the 4 th Division.

The Japanese navy forces stationed in Taiwanese waters were also reinforced. At the beginning of June 1895, they were joined by the cruiser Akitsushima, which arrived from Japan. Both she and the remaining warships mainly conducted reconnaissance missions for the army, repeatedly shelling coastal towns controlled by the enemy and often sending small landing parties to pacify pockets of the Chinese resistance. The final large operation undertaken by the Japanese navy in the Taiwanese waters took place from 15 October 1895, when the cruisers Yoshino, Naniwa, Akitsushima and Sai Yen bombarded Takao, preceding its later capture by the landing troops. On 21 October, the same warships shelled Anping, which was also soon captured by the Japanese landing force.

In the later period, the activities of the Japanese warships around Taiwan were limited to patrolling and providing occasional artillery support to the fighting troops (usually by single warships). At the end of October, Vice-Admiral Arichi was called back to Japan, followed by Rear Admiral Togo in the middle of November. Due to the fact that the military operations had moved deep inland, the majority of warships stationed in the Taiwanese waters were also called back to the home country. Fighting on land continued for some time. Defeated Taiwanese insurgent troops, taking advantage of the support provided by the native population, turned to guerrilla warfare. Finally, by the end of 1896, the island had been pacified.

The Japanese losses in Taiwan were quite substantial. In combat with the insurgents the army lost a total of about 700 killed or wounded. Significant losses were also caused by various epidemics which broke out repeatedly among the fighting troops. It was estimated that a total of almost 20,000 Japanese troops and workers brought to the island either died or were hospitalised due to those causes. The losses suffered by the Japanese navy were less significant by comparison, mainly limited to loss of torpedo boat 16, which sank with all hands in a storm near the Pescadores on 11 May, 1895.

Battle of Świecino

The Battle of Świecino (named for the village of Świecino, near Żarnowiec Lake, northern Poland) also called the Battle of Żarnowiec or in German Battle of Schwetz, took place on September 17, 1462 during the Thirteen Years’ War. The Poles commanded by Piotr Dunin, consisting of some 2000 mercenares and Poles, decisively defeated the 3300 man army of the Teutonic Knights commanded by Fritz Raweneck and Kaspar Nostyc. Auxiliary forces sent by duke Eric II of Pomerania, an ally of the Polish king, did not enter the battle.

The Teutonic Order’s armies in terms of troop types, on this occasion the army was comprised of 1,000 heavy cavalry, 600 light cavalry, 1,300 militia and 400 other infantry.

The battle started in the evening. Adopting a relatively new tactic, Polish units built a fortified camp on the Hussite model consisting of wagons linked by a chain surrounded by a deep ditch (tabor). The units of Raveneck and his subordinate, Kaspar Nostyc (commander from Conitz (Chojnice) also created a tabor. Piotr Dunin decided not to wait for the enemy and attacked first, setting infantry with crossbows on the left, defended by cavalry between the tabor and the coast of the nearby lake of Rogoźnica. Raveneck placed cavalry in front of his tabor, and infantry behind it, without any strategic plan. The first phase of the battle was started by a charge of Polish heavy cavalry under Paweł Jasieński. Fierce fighting continued for three hours and ended without a clear winner. After a short pause at midday, Teutonic units were able to push the Poles back; however, they found themselves under very heavy fire from crossbows of the Polish infantry, which caused huge losses and a withdrawal. During this fight Raveneck was wounded. He stopped his soldiers and tried to attack again, but this charge ended with a total defeat – Raveneck died and the rest of the cavalry surrendered or escaped. The Teutonic infantry tried to defend themselves at the tabor but its resistance was broken by a quick attack of Polish cavalry.

The Teutonic Order’s army lost around 1000 soldiers, including some 300 cavalrymen. Fifty soldiers were captured. The Teutonic commander was also killed in battle and was buried in the Żarnowiec chapter church.

The Poles lost just 100 soldiers, although 150 later died from their wounds. Among the dead on the Polish side was Maciej Hagen from Gdańsk. Piotr Dunin was wounded twice.

War of the Cities (1454–1466)

The leading cities of Prussia (Danzig, Elblag, Torun, Elbing, and Thorn), later joined by 16 other towns, and the Junkers formed the Preussische Bund (‘‘Prussian Confederation’’) in 1440. In 1452 the Bund appealed to Emperor Friedrich III to mediate their grievances with the Brethren. Instead, early the next year Friedrich ordered all Prussians to submit. This forced the Bund to seek help from the Poles. In early 1454, the Bund secretly asked to be incorporated into Poland. Casimir IV signaled that he would support the rebels if they made a public request: his interest was to detach Prussia from the Teutons and annex it to Poland- Lithuania. From February 6, the Bund began taking over and destroying lightly garrisoned Teutonic castles. On March 6 a formal agreement was reached between Casimir and the Bund asserting Polish sovereignty over Prussia and declaring war on the Brethren.

Since most of the Teutonic castles in Prussia had fallen to the rebels even before the war officially started, it was widely expected to be a short campaign. In fact, it lasted thirteen years. Cracks in the Teutonic edifice were offset by initial Polish weakness: despite sharing Casimir as joint sovereign, the Lithuanians refused to send troops or finance the war in Prussia. Other Polish troops were tied down by the threat to southern Poland of a possible Ottoman attack. As a result, an undersized Polish army was sent into Prussia. After a desultory and unsuccessful siege of Chojnice by the Prussians, this force engaged in a major battle outside the city. On the field at Chojnice (September 18, 1454) the Poles and Prussians were soundly defeated by the Teutonic Knights, aided by a large band (9,000 horse, 6,000 foot) of German mercenaries. Teutonic victory at Chojnice ensured that the war would go on. The rebels seized most of the Order’s arsenals and castles in Prussia, but failed in an effort to storm the citadel and Teutonic capital of Marienburg (Malbork). The financial weakness of the Order meant that its Grand Master had to promise the mercenaries control of Prussian cities in lieu of wages. Still, the Knights raised small armies from among loyal Brethren outside Prussia and by conscripting their enserfed peasants. While the Prussian towns remained determined to break free of Teutonic overlordship, the larger Hanse cities allied with the Knights. Nor did the international situation favor either side: most other powers were preoccupied with their own unsettled internal affairs or other wars, and remained neutral.

The Poles were also forced to hire mercenaries, primarily Czechs and Silesians, greatly straining the royal purse which was light in the best of times. Casimir’s repeated call-ups of peasant levies were only agreed to by the Sejm after he made heavy political concessions to the nobility, which started the Polish state down a road that ultimately led to a fatal weakness at the center. The Poles besieged Lasin in 1455, but again their lack of siegecraft and cavalry-heavy army told against success. As war taxes began to bite into the rebel cities the Teutons enjoyed better luck. Their army was better equipped for siege work, and several towns fell to a combination of internal unrest and external military pressure: Konigsberg surrendered on April 17, 1455, and Knipawa gave in on June 14, 1455. When the Brethren again ran out of money, however, some mercenary captains took Prussian towns for themselves and milked them dry. Several companies also negotiated with the Poles to transfer possession of fortified cities. Now, external powers also intervened: the Holy Roman Empire moved to ban the Bund and the pope threatened to excommunicate any who refused to come to terms with the Teutonic Knights. Denmark declared war on Poland and the Bund but that was largely an empty gesture since Denmark was already engaged in a major naval war with Sweden. Still, this emboldened the Knights, who refused terms to the Poles and rebels. The Poles replied by hiring still more mercenaries from Silesia, more mercenaries from Russia, and even Tatars from the Crimea. Fighting resumed, but with both sides suffering internal dissension and bad finances the war settled into a pattern of minor raids and indeterminate sieges.

A Prussian fleet, mostly built in Danzig on orders from Poland, defeated a Teutonic fleet at Bornholm (August 1457). As the war lengthened, the fundamental economic weakness of the Brethren was revealed. They were not as rich as in the past and struggled unsuccessfully to meet the payroll of their mercenary troops. In 1457 Bohemian mercenaries garrisoning Marienburg mutinied, sold the fortress to the Poles, and went home. The loss of the Teuton capital should have ended the war but on September 28, 1457, Marienburg was retaken in a surprise assault by the Knights that was abetted by internal treachery which opened its gates before they were forced. In 1458 the Poles invaded Prussia again, employing Tartar auxiliaries, and besieged Marienburg. Yet again the Poles proved incompetent at siege warfare. The campaign collapsed and a cease-fire took effect that lasted nine months, into 1459. The Danes withdrew from the war, an act almost as little noticed as their entry. Pope Pius II tried to mediate peace, hopeful that he could get all sides to join in a new crusade against the Ottomans. The Poles rejected the pope’s entreaties and his threats of excommunication (eternal damnation was not what it used to be).

The Knights were briefly resurgent: they defeated the Danzig militia and burned part of the city in July 1460. The fundamental weakness of the Polish recruitment system, based still on feudal levies of peasants and independently minded noble cavalry, became apparent in deep resistance to new enlistment drives. Casimir finally persuaded the nobles to turn the fight over to professionals. That meant raising funds to hire a mercenary army rather than raising peasant levies to be led by amateur noble captains. These harder and more skilled troops crossed into Prussia in 1461. At Swiecino (August 17, 1462), the defeat they handed to the Brethren’s field army was so sharp that the end of Teuton rule in the eastern Baltic came into sight. Loss of the Brethren’s fleet at Zatoka Swieza (September 15, 1463) so severely damaged the Order’s maritime interests and profits in the eastern Baltic that the Knights could no longer pay for a war being fought mainly by privateers at sea and mercenaries on land. A complete defeat was only averted by the internal divisions of Poland-Lithuania.

Świecino 1462 (2005)

T-34/85: Sixty Years in Service

The Soviet Union ended World War II with a large inventory of AFVs. The excellent T-34/85 remained in production until the late 1940s. In 1947 the Soviets introduced an upgraded model, the T- 34/85 II, which remained the principal Soviet MBT into the 1950s. Produced under license in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, it was exported widely, and production did not cease until 1964.

The T-34/85 II saw extensive service in the Korean War. The Korean People’s Army (the North Korean Army) had 150 T-34/85 tanks at the beginning of the Korean War. The tank also fought in the succession of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and saw combat as recently as the 1990s in conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Production of theT-34/85 continued after World War II, not only in the Soviet Union but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia; one source states that it may not finally have ceased until 1964. Exact figures are unknown, but authorities estimate wartime production of all T-34 models at around 40,000, with about the same number built post-war. The T- 34/85 was supplied to many foreign armies after 1945; it saw action with the North Korean, Egyptian, Syrian, Hungarian, North Vietnamese, Cuban and Angolan forces, and small numbers lingered on in Africa and Asia until the more modern T-54/T-55 series became cheaply available in the Third World. The T-34 shares with the M4 Sherman, and the British Centurion, the record for the longest service life of any AFV in history – so far…

King Peter’s Crusade

Andrea Bonaiuti’s fresco ‘The Church Militant’ in the Spanish Chapel, St Maria Novella, Florence, portraying the leading lights in crusading at the time (back row, right to left, beginning with the black-bearded noble carrying a sword): Amadeus VI count of Savoy, King Peter I of Cyprus, the Emperor Charles IV, Pope Urban V, the papal legate in Italy, Gil Albornoz; (back row, fourth from far left) Juan Fernandez Heredia, master of the Hospitallers; and, standing in front of Peter of Cyprus, Thomas Beauchamp earl of Warwick, wearing the insignia of the Order of the Garter below his left knee.

King Peter I of Cyprus

There was no dearth of crusading spirit in fourteenth-century Europe. In a delayed reaction to the loss of Palestine, many thousands of townspeople and peasants from England, Flanders, northern France and Germany took the Cross in 1309. They made their way across Europe expecting to be provided with a passage to the East, but in the end a comparatively small expedition sailed to help consolidate the Hospitaller possession of Rhodes. So many crusades to the East in the fourteenth century started well but never got anywhere. In 1319, for example, the Pope diverted a Franco-papal fleet of ten galleys to the papal wars in Italy. The Italian wars were a constant diversion as successive Popes, exiled from Rome and living in Avignon, proclaimed crusades against their traditional enemies in northern Italy. In the early part of the fourteenth century there was a short-lived reappearance of ‘shepherd crusaders’ and in 1334 a three-part plan was set in train for a crusade strategy that had not been tried before: the Venetians, the Hospitallers and the Byzantines agreed to maintain a force of twenty galleys in the eastern Mediterranean for five years. The French king and the Pope added another eight galleys between them, and a naval league was established to rid the eastern Mediterranean of Saracen corsairs. It was an effective force but the other two stages planned in the crusade, an invasion of Asia Minor followed by a full-scale invasion of the Holy Land, faltered as relations between England and France worsened. When Pope John expired at the end of 1334 his strategy to recover the Holy Land died with him. But after an interval of almost ten years another Pope revived the naval league and, in the spring of 1344, a squadron of Christian galleys defeated a Turkish fleet in the Aegean and sailed on to take the port of Smyrna (Izmir), a major Muslim naval base. The Hospitallers’ galleys played an important part in the capture of the Emir of Aydin’s principal port, and after 1374 the Hospitallers took control of Smyrna and held the port until 1402. The Pope was jubilant about Smyrna and there was much talk in crusading circles about the tide turning at last; events in the Aegean inspired Humbert II, Dauphin of Viennois, to change his crusading plans, which were centred on Spain, and go instead to the East. He was appointed ‘Captain General of the Crusade against the Turks and the Unfaithful to the Holy Church of Rome’ and he promised to contribute five galleys and at least 100 men-at-arms. He arrived in the East in late 1345. But by the summer of 1347 Humbert had achieved very little, and on the death of his wife he packed up his crusade and returned to France to end his days as a Dominican friar.

The next big assault on the Saracens switched the focus of crusading from the Turks of Asia Minor back to thirteenth-century objectives – the Holy Land itself and its Mamluk masters. The initiative came not from any European monarch but from the Latin Cypriot King Peter I. His enthusiasm for crusading was almost equal to that of the thirteenth century’s St Louis; the recovery of the Holy Land was an ideal which he had cherished as a young man and, on coming to the throne, King Peter began his holy war in earnest. He first fought the Turks in Asia Minor and won the coastal fortress of Korykos (Kis Kalesi) for his kingdom. That was followed by two years spent travelling around the capitals of Europe to win support for what was going to be the crusade of the century. He saw the Pope at Avignon; King Edward III of England entertained him for a month in London and presented him with 12,000 francs’ worth of ship called the Catherine; King Peter received encouragement from the kings of France, Hungary and Poland, the Duke of Saxony, the Holy Roman Emperor – Charles IV – and from a host of lesser nobles and wealthy merchants from the Atlantic seaboard to the River Danube. He was honoured at banquets, jousts and tournaments wherever he went. Vienna was his last stop, before returning to Venice in November 1364, where a large army had already assembled. Two years on the road spent fundraising had delivered a sizeable force of about 10,000 men to his crusading banner but, apart from the King of France, who had already died by this time, the big names he had so diligently courted made their excuses, and left the challenge to be taken up by lesser nobles. By the time the Hospitallers added their squadron of galleys, however, Peter could count on 165 ships ready to sail from the assembly point off the island of Rhodes. He then deliberately gave the impression that they were bound for Syria – not even the galley commanders knew the truth – but after sailing along the coast of Asia Minor the fleet received orders to alter course – south toward the mouth of the Nile and the important Egyptian city of Alexandria. No doubt many saw that decision as a wise move. If Alexandria could be captured and held, it could serve as a base for future incursions into Egypt, or perhaps, as the Franks had noted in the past, the captured Egyptian city might be exchanged for Jerusalem. It had, of course, not been forgotten that Alexandria, with its warehouses stuffed to the rafters with every imaginable valuable commodity, was the sultan’s richest trading centre.

Peter’s fleet surprised the city’s small garrison when it appeared off Alexandria on 9 October 1365 but the city’s defences were strong, consisting of a double wall system and moats. Peter landed troops the following morning and, after engaging the defenders along the west wall, suddenly switched his attack to the area of the Customs House gate. The wall there was surprisingly thinly defended. Some crusaders burned the Customs House gate while others threw up scaling ladders and scrambled into the city. Seeing the walls breached, the frightened inhabitants surged towards the land gates with whatever they could carry; there was a counter-attack through one of the land gates by the regrouped garrison, but that was quickly repulsed, and within forty-eight hours Alexandria was under Christian control. Sir Steven Runciman, in his History of the Crusades, compared the scene that followed the crusaders’ conquest of Alexandria with the excesses that had occurred during the sieges of Jerusalem and Constantinople: ‘They spared no one. The native Christians and the Jews suffered as much as the Moslems; and even the European merchants settled in the city saw their factories and storehouses ruthlessly looted. Mosques and tombs were raided and their ornaments stolen or destroyed; churches too were sacked, though a gallant crippled Coptic lady managed to save some of the treasures of her sect at the sacrifice of her private fortune. Houses were entered, and householders who did not immediately hand over all their possessions were slaughtered with their families.’ Large numbers of camels and donkeys that had been used to carry the loot to the harbour were also slaughtered and left to rot in the streets; and there was to be no question of holding the city. Once the crusader army had humped its treasure aboard the ships, the galley captains were eager to be off, and the appearance of the sultan’s army from Cairo making its way towards the city was an even greater incentive to weigh anchor. Some historians think that Peter had no intention of holding Alexandria as a crusading base and that his real motive was to limit, or eliminate, Alexandria as a major trading port. Since papal restrictions on trade with the Muslims had been relaxed during the course of the fourteenth century, Famagusta had suffered because merchants, who had previously used the Cypriot port as an entrepôt, were now dealing directly with the Muslims. But if Peter’s only motive was a commercial one his crusade produced a very poor balance sheet. Alexandria was held for only a matter of days; in Europe prices went sky high for exports from the East, the Mamluks persecuted the native Christian population under their control, and in an act of retaliation the Holy Sepulchre was closed for several years.

Peter himself was the victim of a coup d’état, and in 1372, at the coronation of his son as titular King of Jerusalem in Famagusta, a brawl broke out between Venetians and Genoese that ended in commercial ruin for Cyprus. The Genoese, whose shops had been sacked, sought compensation, and the failure of the king to satisfy them actually triggered a war between Cyprus and Genoa which debilitated Cyprus and hastened the fall of another Christian power in the East – the Armenian allies of the Franks in Cilicia. While the Cypriots were struggling to repel the Genoese, the Mamluks and the Turks made further inroads into Cilicia, and in 1375 the Armenian king, Leo IV, fled the country to live out the rest of his life as an exile in Paris. By the third quarter of the fourteenth century, the Turks of Asia Minor had embarked upon a policy of aggressive expansion and Rome was obliged to accept them as a serious threat, not just to Christendom’s reconquest of the Holy Land, but also to the very heartland of Christian Europe. The princely Ottoman state, which had its origins in the north-west of Anatolia, had already caused problems for the Byzantines in the early part of the century, but after 1326 the Ottomans rapidly changed the map of Asia Minor, and the boundaries of former western provinces of the old Byzantine empire. In 1331 Nicaea was taken. The Turks had crashed into Europe by 1348 through Thrace and their unstoppable armies spread like a floodtide into the Balkans and across much of Anatolia. The Popes of the later fourteenth century worked ceaselessly to organize crusades against the Turks, but the great schism of 1378-1417, when there were two, and at one point three, competing Popes, made concerted action difficult. The Hospitallers on Rhodes were themselves divided and there were even crusades launched against the rival Popes. There was, for instance, enthusiasm for crusading in England of the early 1380s – England supported Pope Urban VI in Rome – and two crusading expeditions started out with great enthusiasm. The bishop of Norwich led one of these crusades against the so-called ‘Clementists’ who were the supporters of the Avignon-based Pope Clement VII. The bishop and his followers crossed the Channel in May 1383 and took several seaside towns on the Channel coast but at Ypres the French army confronted the English and the crusade collapsed. John of Gaunt sailed from England in July 1386 and tried to seize the Castilian kingdom, but he withdrew in consideration for a large sum of money.


Although initially hampered by the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, Germany rapidly developed a system of highly effective antiaircraft weapons. An early attempt, adopted in 1928, the 75mm FlaK38 fired a 14-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,730 feet. In the decade following World War I, Krupp arranged with the Swedish arms giant Bofors to allow its engineers to work secretly on new designs in Sweden. One of the most successful artillery pieces of all time came about as a result of that arrangement-the famous German Eighty-Eight. Originally designed as an antiaircraft gun, combat experiences in the Spanish Civil War and early World War II proved the Eighty-Eight’s versatility in other applications. By war’s end, German designers had also adapted it to antitank, tank, and conventional field applications. The first test model was assembled in 1931, and after trials the new gun went into ser- vice in 1933 as the caliber 88mm FlaK18. With a veteran crew it achieved a firing rate of 15 rounds per minute. The FlaK18 fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 26,247 feet, and in a ground role it achieved a range of 9.2 miles.

Krupp engineers continued to improve the FlaK18 and also redesigned it to ease its manufacture. The redesigned Eighty-Eight entered service in 1937 as the Flak36 and saw considerable service with Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. Having proved the gun’s effectiveness as a ground weapon in Spain, Krupp again improved the Eighty-Eight, by adding ground sights and pro- viding high-explosive shells for field use. Firing high-explosive and armor-piercing ammunition, the Eighty-Eight further proved itself against British armor in North Africa in 1941-1942. As the war progressed, it became increasingly necessary to increase German tank armament to match the heavy guns and armor of the new Soviet tanks on the Eastern Front. That necessity resulted in slight modifications to the basic Eighty-Eight design, which resulted in the Kwk36 (Kampfwagen Kanone) and the Kwk43, for use in Tiger tanks and self-propelled guns.

Other German antiaircraft guns included the 37mm Flak18 and 36/37 series, which entered service in 1935 and, at 160 rpm, fired a 1.5-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 15,750 feet. First introduced in 1938 as the Flak38 and improved in 1939 as the Flak39, the semiautomatic 105mm antiaircraft gun fired a 33-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,400 feet. More than 2,000 Flak39s were manufactured during World War II. Adopted in 1941, the automatic 50mm FlaK41 was an intermediate antiaircraft gun effective at 18,000 feet and reaching a maximum ceiling of 59,528 feet firing a 4.8-pound shell. Despite a relatively unstable carriage, the FlaK41 was a good weapon and was popular with its crews. It later became the starting point for a more advanced 55mm gun that incorporated a comprehensive fire control system yet did not reach production by the war’s end. Heavy German antiaircraft weapons also included the semiautomatic 88mm FlaK41, a Rheinmetall-Borsig variation of Krupp’s famous Eighty-Eight designed primarily for antiaircraft use. It entered service in 1943 and, mounted on a revolving base, traversed 360 degrees and fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 36,213 feet. In a ground role it achieved a range of 21,544 yards. Adopted in 1942, the FlaK40 had a 128mm barrel with a semiautomatic horizontal sliding block. The Flak40 fired a 57-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 48,556 feet.

The appearance of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units on the battlefields of Europe and Africa in a conventional artillery role was not due to any personal ambition of the Reichsmarschall, but rather to a sound and admirable flexibility of thought on the part of the German staff. So often ignorantly criticized for rigidness, the Germans, in their willingness to experiment with combat techniques, compare very favourably with certain episodes in the record of the Allied command.

The superb 8·8 cm anti-aircraft gun developed by Krupps in the early 1930s first appeared at the front line in Spain during 1936, equipping Flak batteries of the German expeditionary force. (It was entirely logical that anti-aircraft artillery should fall under Luftwaffe control, not least because of the importance of close technical liaison.) ‘Flak’ has come into common English usage, and will be used throughout this text; it is a contraction of Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone, ‘anti-aircraft cannon’. The version used in Spain, properly termed the 8·8 cm Flak 18, was followed in 1937 by the improved Flak 36 model, which had provision for the speedy changing of barrels, and a new and significant wheeled carriage designated Sonderanhänger 201. The normal ground mounting was of cruciform design; for travelling the side arms were folded upwards and wheeled bogies fitted to the long arms. The 201 mounting allowed the gun to fire on ground targets without being freed from the bogies and winched down to ground level; the brakes were applied, the wheels chocked, the side arms of the cruciform mounting folded down and the ‘feet’ at their extremities winched down to brace against the ground – and the gun was ready for action. It is not known who first suggested that the gun was too versatile to be confined to flying targets, but he was certainly a soldier of some vision; that battlefield use of the gun played a part in staff thinking from an early stage is confirmed by the fact that from 1940 onwards armoured shields to protect the crew during ground combat were fitted to new guns, and fitted retrospectively to many Flak 18s.

The Luftwaffe Flak regiments and batteries operated in great numbers throughout the war, and with enormous success. To detail all these units is frankly beyond the author’s competence and would serve little purpose; but perhaps it is valid to consider one isolated campaign – that in North Africa.

In the mobile desert warfare of which the Germans of Rommel’s Panzerarmee soon showed themselves to be masters, the Flak played a vital part. Supply and replacement problems haunted Rommel almost from the first – his uniquely vulnerable lines of communication lay across a Mediterranean ranged by Allied aircraft from Malta and submarines from Malta and Gibraltar – and although his precious tanks were superior in quality to all Allied equipment until the very end of the campaign, their numbers were never as high as he could have wished. To conserve the PzKpfw IIIs and IVs of 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, he evolved a deadly technique.

It has been said that despite the glamorous image of the tank columns which churned across the Western Desert, the real kings of the African battlefields were the landmine and the anti-tank gun. The greatest of these was the ‘eighty-eight’; it was extremely mobile and could operate well forward with the advanced armoured squadrons. It was normally towed by the heavy SdKfz 7 half- track; this powerful vehicle could accommodate the entire crew of eleven (layer, trainer, breech-worker, fuse-setter, five ammunition numbers, commander and driver) and their personal equipment, a good supply of ammunition for immediate use, and reserves of fuel. Thus, once a target was sighted, the gun could be got into action very quickly. Its impressive rate of fire – between fifteen and twenty rounds a minute – was combined with great range and accuracy. Maximum low-trajectory range was 16,500 yards, and the 21-lb armour-piercing round could kill a tank at up to 3,000 yards – three times the range of the best Allied equipment. Its air-burst high-explosive round was notably effective against infantry. In the ‘eighty-eight’, Rommel had a deadly anti- tank weapon, a fine anti-aircraft gun, and a field-piece capable of augmenting conventional barrages with great speed and accuracy, all rolled into one supremely functional piece of metal.

The most frightening and effective use of the gun was in Rommel’s famous ‘Flak front’. In the face of advancing enemy armour the Luftwaffe regiments would be sent right forward and dug in to ground level; the gun was easy to conceal, as is any relatively small piece of equipment at ground level under the peculiar light conditions of the desert, and its rounds used a flashless propellant. A few troops of tanks would probe forward, making contact with the British armour and then withdrawing, luring the Grants and Crusaders within range of the trap. Once they were comfortably lined up the Flak would methodically decimate them; their own short-range guns were useless, their attackers were virtually invisible, and their casualties were frequently appalling. At its anti-tank debut in the Battle of Sollum in June 1941 the ‘eighty-eight’ is claimed to have destroyed 123 out of 238 British tanks attacking the Afrika Korps position in Halfaya (‘Hellfire’) Pass); according to German sources this represented one ‘brewed’ tank for every twenty rounds fired by the Flak batteries.

Another battle in which the ‘eighty-eights’ distinguished themselves and their Luftwaffe crews was the series of actions near Agedabia in January 1942. Prominent was a crack Air Force unit, Major Hecht’s Flak Regiment 135; the 18th, 33rd and 35th Regiments also did well, as did Major Hartmann’s Reserve Flak Abteilung 114. The 135th, now led by Oberst Wolz, also figures honourably in the records of Bir Hakeim in June 1942; in this hard-fought action he also had under command various detached battalions, notably II./Flak 25, I./Flak 18, I. /Flak 6 and I./Flak 43· The last-named unit won no fewer than three awards of the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) during the desert fighting; they were awarded to Oberleutnant Gellert, Major Gürcke (the commanding officer) and Oberfeldwebel BöseL. At El Alamein the 102nd and 135th Regiments were organized as the main fighting units of the ‘9th Flak Division, under direct army command and led by Generalleutnant Burckhardt; these units, together with the 109th Flak Battalion attached to Graf von Sponeck’s famous 90th Light Division, and various army Flak battalions, had a total strength of eighty-six 8·8 cm guns at the opening of the battle. So seriously did the British take these weapons that Montgomery issued explicit instructions to his armoured brigade commanders concerning the absolute necessity of avoiding the ‘Flak front’ and saving their strength for the final battle with the panzers. Even so, it is said that the ‘eighty-eights’ were largely responsible for the massacre of the first wave of British armour at Alamein.

The Flak fought their way back along the coast with the other survivors of the Panzerarmee, and were still scourging Allied armour as the last stores were burned in Tunis in May ‘943. The remains of the ‘9th Flak Division took up their last firing positions along the Miliane line, in company with the survivors of the’ Hermann Goring’ Division and Koch’s and Ramcke’s paratroopers. The 20th Flak Division, or what was left of it, was at Tebourba; the 3/52 Battery distinguished itself in the last few days of the fighting when Leutnant Happach and Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Voight turned their ‘eighty-eights’ on the American 2nd Armoured Battalion, and killed twenty tanks in as many minutes.

After Bunker Hill…

British Attack on Breed’s Hill: Battle of Bunker Hill on 17th June 1775.

General Washington received details of the Battle of Bunker Hill from couriers as he began a ten-day journey with his staff and an escort of five hundred militia on June 23. Crossing heavily Loyalist New Jersey, he pulled a purple smock over his navy-blue uniform and donned a hat with a plume. At New York City, a crowd turned out to cheer him; one hour later, another crowd, including many of the same people from the first, hailed the British royal governor, General Sir William Tryon, returning from England with orders to suppress the rebellion. Washington’s second-in-command, Hudson River land baron Philip Schuyler, told him that New York would not be safe so long as the British could counterattack down the Hudson. Schuyler, general in chief of the Northern Department, agreed to lead a full-scale invasion of Canada to seize Montreal and Quebec before the British could reinforce from England. Congress had unanimously authorized a preemptive invasion if the intrusion was “not disagreeable to the Canadians.”

Washington arrived without ceremony at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Sunday, July 2, and set up temporary headquarters in a single spare room in the house of the president of Harvard College. Riding the lines, he quickly grasped the army’s weakness. Despite a four-to-one numerical advantage, he had no cannon, no military engineers, very little gunpowder. Washington deplored the conditions he found: 16,000 men living in a shantytown of huts made of sod, planks and fence rails or tents made of linen or sailcloth. Most only had the clothes they had worn when they left home weeks before—homespun breeches, rough linen shirts, leather vests—and carried the family firelock. He found a paucity of nearly everything: uniforms, muskets, gunpowder, cannon, picks, shovels, tents. At his first council of war he was informed by his officers that it was becoming hard to find any new recruits other than “boys, deserters and negroes.” Each New England colony officially forbade black men, indentured white servants or apprentice boys; Washington barred the continued service of Indians. In Virginia, Washington had preached an end to the importation of slaves; in Massachusetts, he now was gratified to see how many freed blacks had enlisted.

Where scores of men had been digging trenches, he put thousands to work. He discovered that there were no trained sergeants and few officers to teach the myriad routines of military life and discipline. Fuming about using the “exceedingly dirty and nasty” New Englanders to oppose the spit-and-polish British professionals a mile away, he blamed an “unaccountable kind of stupidity” on “the levelling spirit” and the “principles of democracy [that] so universally prevail.” Washington saw himself—and the British saw him—as the Oliver Cromwell of the revolution. Like Cromwell, he was an aggrieved member of the country gentry engaging in a civil war, with the virtuous American colonies oppressed by a corrupt court. But in this case, Parliament was choosing to serve an errant king and finding it necessary to put a powerful army in the field to compel his reforms.

When no more attacks came from the British, Washington reasoned that Howe was waiting for reinforcements. In the meantime, he could use his superiority in manpower to take the offensive. He urged Schuyler, with 4,000 Connecticut militia, to accelerate the Canadian invasion. Not the scantest quantity of gunpowder could be found in New York, Schuyler argued. Governor Trumbull scavenged five hundred pounds of gunpowder from Connecticut’s town stocks and managed to send Schuyler £15,000 as well as four hundred barrels of pork. It was August 30 before Schuyler’s forces disembarked on Canadian soil, and there they waited for him—he wrote Washington that he was suffering from an attack of rheumatic gout. Schuyler lost another full month when Connecticut troops at Fort Ticonderoga refused to serve under New York officers and a promised Vermont regiment failed to materialize.

The delays also set back Washington’s plan for a simultaneous surprise attack—led by Benedict Arnold—on Quebec from the rear, which they would approach through the trail-less Maine wilderness. To win Washington and the command over, Arnold had produced the journal of a captured British engineer who had mapped the Kennebec region of Maine.

On the hot gray Sunday morning of September 3, 1775, the Continental Army formed up for Washington’s inspection of the ten-mile cordon of fortifications investing Boston. Washington, his aides and brigade commanders and Arnold, in his red Connecticut Foot Guards uniform, appeared to study every man, every musket. A chaplain later wrote:

The drum beat in every regiment.… All was bustle.… The whole army was paraded in continued line of companies. With one continued roll of drums, the general-in-chief with his staff passed along the whole line, regiment after regiment presenting arms.

Many of the men had tired of the heat, the boredom, the grind of camp life. The prospect of action, especially in a cooler place, excited those who had fought only once in five months. Washington had appointed Arnold a colonel of the Continental Army and allowed him to pick the troops who would march to Quebec before the British could reinforce it—only 775 redcoats held the vast province. After the review, Arnold visited each regiment; forming the men in squares, he explained his need for volunteers. By noon he had 6,000, five times what he needed. He chose men under thirty and above average height. Today, every man was an expert woodsman and boatman. By nightfall, he had a full regiment of 1,050 men.

Washington was happy to see the riflemen go: while their guns could hit a man in the head at a mile and a half, these “shirt-tail men” in hunting shirts and moccasins had been robbing farms and fellow soldiers and violating military etiquette by sniping British officers at long range against Washington’s explicit orders. Washington arranged for a fleet of eleven fishing vessels to take Arnold’s newly minted regiment of rangers from Newburyport, Massachusetts, to the mouth of the Kennebec River. The little army would march overland and then sail up the Kennebec as far as Gardinerstown, where 220 shallow-draft boats were being built to carry men and supplies all the way to within 100 miles of Quebec City. He expected the march to take only twenty days. So confident was Washington that the expedition would succeed, when he finally informed Congress, he grossly underestimated the distance and the difficulty of the march. In his orders, he emphasized that the American invaders were to “consider yourselves as marching, not through an Enemy’s Country; but that of our friends and brethren.” He ordered punishment for “every attempt to plunder or insult any of the Inhabitants.” He gave Arnold a strongbox of gold and silver coins. They were to buy everything with cash, stealing nothing.

From the beginning, everything went wrong. Washington had refused the aid of Penobscot Abenaki guides and the expedition got lost. The captured British map turned out to be a fraud. The bateaux had been made of poorly caulked green wood and had all sunk before the expedition reached Canada—which it did in sixty days, the men nearly starved, not in twenty. Fully a third died or deserted. The entire rear guard mutinied and returned to Cambridge. Washington court-martialed Major Robert Enos but all the witnesses were in Canada. Arnold arrived at the St. Lawrence three days too late. Loyalists, Scots Highlanders from Newfoundland and New York, had reinforced the city and thoroughly defeated Arnold’s assault. Richard Montgomery, who had finally taken over Schuyler’s command and captured Montreal, had been killed in the attack on Quebec on the last day of 1775. Arnold had been critically wounded and all but 150 of his men killed or taken prisoner. Arnold was besieging the walled city with only a few guns and a few French Canadian volunteers. The Canadian expedition could only be rescued with massive reinforcements, but that was impossible until spring. In the meantime, Washington had lost 900 men and his first offensive.

Washington arranged for a fleet of eleven fishing vessels to take Arnold’s newly minted regiment of rangers from Newburyport, Massachusetts, to the mouth of the Kennebec River. The little army would march overland and then sail up the Kennebec as far as Gardinerstown, where 220 shallow-draft boats were being built to carry men and supplies all the way to within 100 miles of Quebec City. He expected the march to take only twenty days. So confident was Washington that the expedition would succeed, when he finally informed Congress, he grossly underestimated the distance and the difficulty of the march. In his orders, he emphasized that the American invaders were to “consider yourselves as marching, not through an Enemy’s Country; but that of our friends and brethren.” He ordered punishment for “every attempt to plunder or insult any of the Inhabitants.” He gave Arnold a strongbox of gold and silver coins. They were to buy everything with cash, stealing nothing.

From the beginning, everything went wrong. Washington had refused the aid of Penobscot Abenaki guides and the expedition got lost. The captured British map turned out to be a fraud. The bateaux had been made of poorly caulked green wood and had all sunk before the expedition reached Canada—which it did in sixty days, the men nearly starved, not in twenty. Fully a third died or deserted. The entire rear guard mutinied and returned to Cambridge. Washington court-martialed Major Robert Enos but all the witnesses were in Canada. Arnold arrived at the St. Lawrence three days too late. Loyalists, Scots Highlanders from Newfoundland and New York, had reinforced the city and thoroughly defeated Arnold’s assault. Richard Montgomery, who had finally taken over Schuyler’s command and captured Montreal, had been killed in the attack on Quebec on the last day of 1775. Arnold had been critically wounded and all but 150 of his men killed or taken prisoner. Arnold was besieging the walled city with only a few guns and a few French Canadian volunteers. The Canadian expedition could only be rescued with massive reinforcements, but that was impossible until spring. In the meantime, Washington had lost 900 men and his first offensive.


When still no British attack came from Boston, Washington pursued other ways to pressure them and ease his own terrible shortages. He issued letters of marque to six privateering ships crewed by soldiers from Massachusetts port towns. At the same time, Congress directed him to commission two ships to interdict British arms shipments from Halifax. The two ships, the Cabot and the Andrew Doria, became the first official U.S. Navy vessels. By year’s end, as Congress authorized more vessels, Washington’s Navy, as it was dubbed, included seven ships with thirteen more scheduled to be built. Congress approved a schedule of prize money to be allotted to officers and crewmen. One-tenth of the money derived from auctioning off captured ships and cargoes was to go to Washington himself for his private use, a typical arrangement for eighteenth-century commanders. The infant navy quickly eased one of Washington’s worst problems, capturing a British ordnance brig carrying 2,000 muskets, 100,000 flints, 20,000 rounds of shot and 30 tons of musket balls.

The nearly universal shortage of munitions, especially gunpowder, proved one of Washington’s more enduring obstacles. Historian Orlando Stephenson notes, “The greater part of the gunpowder stored in the colonial magazines had lain there since the Seven Years’ War, the few powder-mills were in ruins, the manufacture of the explosive almost a lost art.” As Americans’ determination to fight had grown, radical leaders had rushed to procure whatever they could however they could, often by seizing private property or Crown supplies. In December 1774 New Hampshire militia had attacked Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth, seizing 10,100 pounds of gunpowder. In May 1775 the Sons of Liberty appropriated six hundred pounds from Savannah’s powder magazine; in July, they boarded a royal navy ship and carried off 12,700 pounds. In a matter of months, the rebellious colonists secured another 3,000 pounds in New Hampshire, 12,000 in Massachusetts, 4,000 each in Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania and 17,000 in Rhode Island, but heavily Loyalist New York and New Jersey yielded almost none. Under the guise of post office business, Benjamin Franklin, a member of Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety and a delegate to the Continental Congress, smuggled wagons to Washington’s camp loaded with 4,000 pounds of powder gathered in Philadelphia, stopping along the way to berate his son, William, the last holdout as a royal governor, for refusing to come over to the revolutionary cause.

Washington pleaded for even the smallest quantities. Half of the 80,000 pounds procured in the opening weeks of the war had found its way to the fighting around Boston. By the time Washington arrived, half the powder collected in all the colonies had been expended recklessly. He found only thirty-six barrels at Cambridge. When he took an inventory on August 3, he found only enough powder in the whole army to furnish “half a pound to each man exclusive of what was held in their horns and cartridge-boxes.” By the end of August he could no longer employ his artillery, all his cannon silenced except a nine-pounder he fired peripatetically from Prospect Hill. Looking down on Boston from this vantage point, Nathanael Greene wrote back to Governor Henry Ward in Rhode Island: “Oh, that we had plenty of powder; I should then hope to see something done here for the honour of America.”

Not a single powder mill operated in the British colonies at the outbreak of war. On Christmas Day, 1775, Washington wrote, “Our want of powder is inconceivable. A daily waste and no supply administers a gloomy prospect.” By January, after nine months of war, nearly all the powder found in colonial America had been used up. The scarcity of powder impelled the Second Continental Congress to act with unaccustomed celerity to produce or import an adequate supply. While some delegates maintained that the manufacture of gunpowder was the prerogative of colonial governments, Congress pushed through an elaborate plan for producing saltpeter and powder. John Adams wrote James Warren on June 27, 1775, that “Germans and others here have an opinion that every stable, Dove house, Cellar, Vault, etc., is a Mine of Salt Petre.… The Mould under stables, etc., may be boiled Soon into salt Petre it is said. Numbers are about it here,” he added, sending along the proclamation with instructions for processing that Congress was sending to each colony’s government. After Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, Massachusetts needed no urging. Every colony passed legislation, promising financial support and handsome bounties for the first to manufacture specified quantities of gunpowder, saltpeter or both, but all sulphur had to be imported.

In January 1776, at Weymouth, Massachusetts, not far from Washington’s headquarters, a group of fledgling chemists celebrated their production of saltpeter before a committee of the Provincial Congress, who deemed it “very good.” In Pennsylvania, merchant Oswald Eve “established the making of powder in this Province which had not been carried on to any extent before.” By the autumn of 1777, saltpeter extracted in each colony enabled production of 115,000 pounds of gunpowder, nearly all of it in 1776 at the peak of revolutionary enthusiasm. Gradually, vast quantities of saltpeter would be imported, mainly from the Netherlands, until, by late 1777, nearly 700,000 pounds of gunpowder was produced from imported saltpeter. Added to 1.5 million pounds of imported gunpowder, American forces had 2.4 million pounds of gunpowder to draw on during the first half of the war, nearly 90 percent of it imported from Europe through Dutch and French colonies in the Caribbean. America was learning how to arm itself.

At the beginning of 1776—that pivotal year of revolution—George Washington was still gloomy about the prospect of equipping an army “without any money in our treasury, powder in our magazines, arms in our stores … and by and by, when we shall be called upon to take the field, shall not have a tent to lie in.” Had Howe known the Americans’ desperate shortages, he might have rolled over the Continental Army and ended the Revolutionary War. As the colonies went to war, they could only find weapons in gun shops, trading houses and private homes, which held an array of muskets, rifles, fowling pieces, pistols and blunderbusses. Some volunteers had no weapons at all, possessing only pikes or swords. What few iron forges existed lay hidden in remote reaches of colonies. In the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, bog iron turned into cannonballs. In Salisbury, Connecticut, a forge founded by Ethan Allen to produce iron caldrons for boiling potash underwent conversion to produce cannon, some at first dangerous only to the gunners themselves. Connecticut also set up a small musket factory at Waterbury; Pennsylvania expanded its weapons industry, centered in Lancaster County and drawing on iron mines and foundries in Warwick, Reading and Carlisle. More commonly, gunsmiths, in towns or on the frontier, worked alone or with one or two apprentices to make highly individualistic weapons—they could only produce, on average, one gun a day. Very few guns except those seized from royal stores matched.

At one point Washington even considered sending hundreds of unarmed militia home before Congress decided to confiscate weapons from Loyalists. In his memoirs, General William Moultrie of South Carolina remembered with awe that the colonists dared resist British might “without money, without arms, without ammunition, no generals, no armies, no admirals and no fleets.” The people of Charleston lacked weapons and ammunition until they broke into royal magazines and took some 1,000 muskets, then seized an English brig carrying 23,000 pounds of gunpowder. The “want of powder was a very serious consideration,” wrote Moultrie, “for we knew there was none to be had upon the continent of America.” In Pennsylvania the Committee of Safety, chaired by Franklin, advertised for weapons in the newspapers. The few cannon available in New York City lined the parapets of Fort George—until King’s College (today’s Columbia University) students led by twenty-year-old Alexander Hamilton dragged them away under fire from the British man-of-war Asia to arm the first artillery company in the Continental Army.

The revolutionaries’ fortunes improved dramatically in early March 1776, when Washington’s putative colonel of artillery, erstwhile Boston bookseller Henry Knox, appeared in camp with sixty pieces of French field artillery captured at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Waiting until ice and snow paved his route, Knox and three hundred teamsters with their oxen had dragged the cannon first across the frozen Hudson River and then east along the route of the present-day Massachusetts Turnpike. On the morning of March 2, 1776, Washington’s newly acquired artillery opened a booming barrage from the north shore of the Mystic River, diverting British attention away from where 2,000 men were hastily constructing an ice fort out of huge wicker baskets filled with snow and doused with water. By the morning of March 5, the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, American gunners looked down on all of Boston and the entire British fleet. After two days of fierce winds and driving rain, Howe aborted a planned counterattack. By March 7, Howe began evacuating the city, sending off a regiment each day embarked on transports—after the soldiers plundered every shop and house in the town. Crowding onto any vessel they could hire, some 1,100 New England Loyalists and all they could carry joined the retreating British flotilla and sailed into exile at Halifax.

If it hadn’t been for guns and ammunition purchased in Europe and the West Indies, the American Revolution would have collapsed. As early as October 1774, when the British Privy Council banned the importation of weapons to the American colonies, a brisk contraband trade sprang up, centered in St. Eustatius. Gage warned London that colonists were “sending to Europe for all kinds of Military Stores,” some of them from “unscrupulous” British merchants. In the summer of 1775 Maryland’s Convention sent commercial agents to St. Francois in the Caribbean to transship arms purchased in Europe by small vessels. Agents also slipped into France to procure munitions directly from Europe. Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety followed suit in August, ordering munitions from the French and Spanish West Indies. The few guns produced in Pennsylvania cost twelve dollars apiece, French muskets half that.

In July, a full year before the vote on independence, Congress resolved that any ship transporting munitions for “the continent” could load and export produce in exchange, clearly in defiance of the British Orders in Council. Two weeks later Congress appropriated $50,000 for selected merchants to buy gunpowder for the Continental Army—at a 5 percent commission. By September Congress created the Committee of Secret Correspondence, its members—merchants John Alsop and Philip Livingston of New York and Thomas Willing and Robert Morris of Philadelphia—empowered to draw on the Continental treasury to buy 1 million pounds of powder, 10,000 muskets and 40 field pieces.

In September 1775 Congress created the Secret Committee of Trade, putting Morris in charge of the business side of the war and capitalizing on the commercial contacts of Willing and Morris in Europe. Becoming known as the “financier of the Revolution,” Morris wrote to Connecticut merchant Silas Deane, “It seems to me the oppert’y of improving our Fortunes ought not to be lost, especially as the very means of doing it will contribute to the Service of our Country at the same time.”

As the Treasury dried up, Congress voted to allow exchange with Caribbean islands of cod, lumber, tobacco and indigo for arms and ammunition, and they also commissioned agents to order and funnel supplies from Europe and the West Indies to the Continental Army. In May 1776, as Congressmen rode home to ask their conventions for authority to vote for independence, Deane landed in France to negotiate arms shipments. By December he wrote Congress that he had shipped 200,000 pounds of gunpowder and 80,000 pounds of saltpeter from France to Martinique and 100,000 pounds of gunpowder from Amsterdam. By the end of 1776 congressional agents operated openly in all the Dutch, Spanish and French colonies in the West Indies and in European ports.

Historian Peter Andreas writes,

Merchants in France, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Sweden and the West Indies viewed the revolution as an opportunity for expanding their trade and profits. Though the governments of these countries and their dependencies avoided, they seldom interfered with entrepreneurs involved in contraband trade. Some merchants were permitted to remove “outmoded” arms from royal arsenals for a nominal sum even though their destination was obvious. Dutch arms manufacturers were operating their mills at full capacity by mid-1776.

Maryland’s agent in the free port of St. Eustastius, Abraham Van Bibber, reported that, while officially the Dutch had imposed an embargo on selling arms and munitions to Americans to mollify the British, “[t]he Dutch understand quite well that the enforcement of the laws, that is, the embargo, would mean the ruin of their trade.” “Statia,” as it became known, was the first foreign port to salute the American flag; no wonder, Dutch merchants on the island were selling gunpowder to the Americans at six times the going rate in Europe. Their rivals, the French, sent a deputation from a leading Nantes shipping firm to visit Washington at Cambridge; by November 1776 they were covertly supplying his army with thousands of dollars in war supplies.

By mid-1776 a river of arms, ammunition, cloth and quinine flowed through Louisiana into the Carolinas. Gunpowder smuggled in sugar hogsheads arrived in Charleston from Jamaica; from Bordeaux, three hundred casks of powder and 5,000 muskets sailed for Philadelphia—on ships flying French colors—to be hauled overland to Boston. Americans shipped tobacco to England through St. Eustatius; British manufactured goods found their way to New England via Nova Scotia. One Loyalist merchant complained to British vice admiral Molyneux Schuldham in January 1776 that “at most of the Ports east of Boston, [there were] daily arrivals from the West Indies, but most from St. Eustatius; every one brings more or less gunpowder.” By the summer of 1776 many of the several thousand American privateering ships—including six hundred carrying letters of marque from Congress—avidly transported contraband arms and goods and hunted for lucrative prize British merchantmen. Following the British evacuation of Boston, fully 365 privateers operated from this one port.

Privateering offered a high-risk path to overnight wealth. From nine highly profitable voyages, Joseph Peabody of Salem, Massachusetts, climbed from deckhand to investor to the port’s leading shipping magnate in six years, owning eighty ships and employing 8,000 men. Israel Thorndike, once a cooper’s assistant, became a privateer’s captain and one of New England’s wealthiest bankers. The Cabots of Beverley operated one of Massachusetts’ most profitable privateering firms. Washington’s quartermaster general, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, invested in privateering voyages. He asked one associate to keep his involvement secret and proposed using a fictitious name. When Congress tried to investigate Greene for allegedly diverting public money for his own business ventures, Washington blocked the inquiry to preserve military morale. James Forten, the free black grandson of a Maryland slave, served as powder boy—the most dangerous job—on a privateer; captured on his first voyage, he taught marbles to the son of a British admiral and survived to become America’s first black millionaire, owner of a sail-making loft, inventor of the sailing winch and the man who bankrolled the anti-slavery weekly newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.

So profitable was privateering that the Continental Navy and the eleven state navies had difficulty recruiting crewmen. Many sailors deserted Continental Navy ships, lured away by the prospect of a share of a privateer’s loot. One wealthy privateer investor, John Livingston, worried that peace would ruin him “if it takes place without proper warning.” As historian Peter Andreas opines, “The war at sea was at least as important as the war on land, yet for the colonies it was fought almost entirely by what was essentially a profit-driven mercenary force.”

The leading American commercial agent, Silas Deane, sent to Paris in July 1776 to surreptitiously procure arms, posed as a Bermuda merchant. He worked with merchant-playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais through a dummy mercantile house, Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie, created to mask official French cooperation. Openly supplying contraband weapons to the rebellious American colonies would violate French neutrality under international law. By late 1777, eight arms-laden ships transported 2,000 tons of munitions to the Continental Army through Martinique for transshipment by American vessels. The French ships brought 8,750 pairs of shoes, 3,600 blankets, more than 4,000 dozen pairs of stockings, 164 brass cannon, 153 (gun) carriages, more than 41,000 balls, 37,000 fusils, 373,000 flints, 15,000 gun worms, 514,000 musket balls, nearly 20,000 pounds of lead, 161,000 pounds of powder, 21 mortars, more than 3,000 bombs, more than 11,000 grenades, 345 grapeshot, 18,000 spades, shovels and axes, over 4,000 tents and 51,000 pounds of sulphur.