El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part I

General Erwin Rommel and staff in North Africa.

On November 4, the time had come for Eighth Army to pursue a crippled and defeated Axis force. Montgomery was well aware that Rommel’s army was now gravely damaged and in retreat. He launched two armored divisions, the 1st and the 10th, and the New Zealand Division, with an attached armored brigade, in pursuit. The Panzerarmee’s withdrawal presented Montgomery with a priceless opportunity because, according to many German sources, it was poorly conducted. Afrika Korps’ War Diary reported:

Officers of all ranks had lost their heads and were making hasty and ill considered decisions, with the result that confidence had been lost, and in some places panic had broken out. Some vehicles were set on fire on or beside the road, and guns were abandoned or destroyed because there were no tractors for them. A large number of vehicles had left their units and were streaming back without orders.

The Diary also recorded with some surprise, “No contact with the enemy all day.”

The War Diary of the 90th Light Division chronicled similar conditions, admitting that there was “very little discipline during the withdrawal.” It also claimed German transport and supply units were “fleeing in wild panic.” As a result, its withdrawal from Alamein was “very difficult.”

The pursuit phase of the Alamein battle has been strongly criticized by many writers who believe that Montgomery acted with undue caution. The British official history made a perceptive observation that, “Whether they could have captured or destroyed more of the Panzerarmee than they did will be argued as long as military history is read.” This has certainly happened. Alexander McKee accurately stated, “There was no pursuit, merely a follow up.” Correlli Barnett has been one of Montgomery’s harshest critics, believing that Montgomery “signally fail[ed] to take advantage of this astonishing flow of precisely accurate intelligence, which removed all guesswork from generalship” and that his failure to destroy Panzerarmee at Alamein “calls in question Montgomery’s generalship at this stage of his career.” Johnston and Stanley wrote, “The pursuit was poorly planned and confused, a fact Montgomery never acknowledged.” As early as the evening of November 3, Freyberg had warned Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden, 10 Corps commander, that Rommel “will slip away if they are not careful.” The cautious pursuit, including by Freyberg, ensured that this happened.

There was one overriding factor, however, that explains and perhaps excuses Montgomery’s caution. This was the state of his armored corps, his prized corps de chasse. So far in the Alamein battle, 10 Corps had failed in every task it had been allocated, had demonstrated excessive caution, and an inability to follow even the simplest directives. His trust in his armored commanders, especially in 10 Corps commander Lumsden, was “at an all time low.” As it was, this Corps that would be used during the pursuit, it was only natural that Montgomery wanted to keep it on as tight a leash as possible to ensure that it did in fact accomplish even the most limited of tasks assigned to it. John Harding, commanding 7 Armoured Division during the pursuit and “in favour of pressing on all-out, hard as I could go,” thought at the time that Montgomery was being “overcautious” in restraining his armored formations. Harding later changed his mind. “Montgomery was very conscious of the fact that we had already been twice up and twice back and he was determined not to be pushed back for a third time,” Harding said. A third defeat could have prolonged the war in North Africa. “Looking back on it all, I think he was right to be cautious,” was Harding’s conclusion.

And, as John Keegan has pointed out in his history of the Second World War, with the exception of the Soviets’ Operation Bagration, the Allies were never able to encircle and destroy retreating German armies. Montgomery cannot be judged too harshly for not achieving something other British or American commanders were also unable to do when given the opportunity.

Montgomery initially planned to use the New Zealand Division, augmented by an armored brigade, as the main pursuit force. He directed them to the Fuka escarpment some 45 miles to the west. As the New Zealanders set off for Fuka, the British armor of 10 Corps made a series of shorter wheels to the coast of some 10 to 15 miles. But there was a considerable delay before the New Zealanders could get moving. Freyberg recorded about the lull, “The congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies.” Montgomery’s fears about his armored formations soon proved justified as the armor “swanned” about the desert out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements. Nor did the New Zealand Division, which de Guingand described as Montgomery’s “mobile shock troops,” demonstrate much dash or daring. Freyberg was especially concerned not to let his division get mauled by the Afrika Korps for the fourth time. He still erroneously estimated Rommel to have a powerful armored force under command. To his subordinate commanders, Freyberg had stated that “the policy is not to fight but to position our force to bottle him.” Freyberg, the commander of the three left hooks carried out by the New Zealand Division, was in no doubt as to the purpose of a left hook and tended to view it as a substitute for heavy fighting—a way of achieving a victory with minimal casualties. The New Zealanders made three attempts to entrap Panzerarmee using the wide encircling “left hook.” All three failed. Kippenberger informed the New Zealand official historian:

You have one or two tricky questions to deal with in this volume, particularly the conduct of the three “Left Hooks” which seem to me to have been clumsily and rather timidly executed. I thought so at the time and am inclined to the same opinion still.

Ironically, both Montgomery’s and Freyberg’s caution, though understandable, was to prove more costly in the long run. As Rommel pointed out, if Montgomery had abandoned his restraint after Alamein, it “would have cost him far fewer losses in the long run than his methodical insistence on overwhelming superiority in each tactical action, which he could only obtain at the cost of his speed.” The failure to prevent Panzerarmee from withdrawing, especially after the Alamein battle, meant much hard fighting ahead with the North African campaign dragging on for another six months.


There were many reasons for the defeat of the Axis forces at Alamein, not the least important being their weakness in logistics and firepower. Rommel devoted nine pages of his papers analyzing “the decisive battle of the African campaign,” which he had lost. He did this primarily to counter accusations from the armchair strategists that the Axis troops and their commanders had performed poorly at Alamein. Rommel wrote that these accusations came from those whose military careers were “notable for a consistent absence from the front.” Rommel attributed his defeat at Alamein primarily to his weak logistics, especially in weapons, fuel, and ammunition and to British air supremacy. The “extreme concentrations” of Eighth Army’s artillery fire and “locally limited attacks” by infantry with an “extremely high state of training” was also important. He was especially impressed with the British infantry’s ability to attack at night, writing that “Night attacks continued to be a particular speciality of the British.” Rommel finished his analysis by stating that the bravery of all German and many Italian troops “was admirable.” Alamein had been a struggle and a defeat but it was still “a glorious page in the annals of the German and Italian peoples.” But in the end, the enemy was just too strong and their own material resources too small. In this imbalance “lay destruction.”

Other German accounts placed considerable stress on their material weakness at Alamein when compared to the resources available to Eighth Army and the DAF. They seldom gave credit to the performance of Eighth Army’s commanders or soldiers. The War Diary of 15 Panzer Division was especially critical:

The English did not win the battle of Alamein by superior leadership or dash. On the contrary, after their original plan of attack failed they worked their way systematically forward, always probing ahead with the greatest care choosing limited objectives. Often, particularly after our withdrawal from the Alamein line, the enemy failed to perceive or take advantage of good opportunities to destroy German troops.

The main reasons given for the British victory were Eighth Army’s overwhelming artillery firepower and the DAF’s air superiority. The War Diary did admit, though, that Eighth Army’s infantry were stronger and rested and that this infantry was “superior to the Germans, and still more to the Italians, in night fighting.” But Panzerarmee, it stated, had been crushed by the sheer weight of numbers brought against it. Eighth Army’s successful deception plans had convinced Panzerarmee and German military intelligence that its opponents were more than 40 percent stronger than they actually were.

The secretly recorded conversation of a German infantry officer captured on the night of October 29 was particularly revealing about the state of Panzerarmee’s logistics. The lieutenant from 2 Battalion, 125 Infantry Regiment told his cell mate, an officer from submarine U-559:

We’ve been in FRANCE, in the BALKANS, and in CRETE. Throughout the whole of the French campaign my Company only had thirty-five killed and seventy-five wounded. This time there was no way out for us, it was either death or capture. I was right in the front line, about fifty metres behind my platoons. When the infantry came along there was practically nothing more I could do with our 7.65 guns. As for our M.P.’s [Machine Pistols: the German Schmeisser submachine gun], none of them would fire because of the magazine. We’ve had them since 1940. All the springs were bad and we couldn’t get replacements. You can fire one round and that’s all. Our lack of supplies in AFRICA is appalling.

German intelligence officer Hans-Otto Behrendt believed that Ultra intelligence “played a major part” in the defeat of the last German-Italian offensive at Alam Halfa and had played “a crucial part in the sinking of Rommel’s oil tankers and supply convoys.” For the final October battle, though, “The decisive factor now was quite simply the sheer British superiority in tanks, artillery and aircraft for which no amount of tactical skill and self-sacrifice could compensate.”

Certainly, Eighth Army had superior logistics and firepower, tanks that could match the Germans, and the DAF dominated the skies above the battlefield. But it was the way these assets were used that made the critical difference. The Eighth Army’s artillery was concentrated and its firepower coordinated with infantry and armor in a master fireplan. In the twelve days of the battle, Eighth Army’s artillery fired more than one million rounds of twenty-five-pounder ammunition and throughout the battle “some artillery action was occurring all the time, and heavy action for most of the time.” The DAF made extraordinary efforts to support the troops on the ground and was most effective at disrupting enemy concentrations and their communications. During the October battle, the DAF flew 10,405 sorties and their American allies flew 1,181. This compares with just 1,550 German and 1,570 Italian sorties. It made a telling difference and the effect on morale on both sides was critical.

An American study compiled in 1947, written by the German officer Generalmajor Hans-Henning von Holtzendorff, was adamant that Eighth Army’s success at Alamein was primarily through its use of tanks. Von Holtzendorff wrote, “El Alamein was decided by the numerically far superior Panzer forces of the British, which were not dispersed as before, but were now concentrated and to some extent were equipped with American material.” All of these elements made vital contributions to Eighth Army’s victory.

In infantry, though, Eighth Army’s margin was not so pronounced as many historians have claimed, and the October Alamein battle was primarily an infantry battle. While it was a considerable advantage having a materiel superiority over the enemy, it still needed skill, courage, and determination to effectively apply what you had. One thing Eighth Army did in this October battle was to keep the fight going for over a week, which ultimately wore down the Panzerarmee. This was an old-fashioned battle of attrition, but it produced a decisive outcome. The 9 Division’s Report on Operations believed that this was the most crucial “lesson” of the battle. It began this section of the Report with the heading Maintenance of Pressure. Under this heading it perceived:

So often in military history, the battle has gone to the side which had the will or the strength to hang on just long enough to outlast the opponent. By maintaining offensive pressure, the enemy is forced to use his reserves and if this pressure can be maintained until these reserves are used up and he has insufficient resources to meet the new threat, defeat follows.

In this battle, by maintaining pressure by a series of attacks to the north and to the west, the Axis reserves were drawn in and steadily worn down until on 4 November—11 days after it had been planned to occur—penetration was effected.

This pressure was maintained throughout the battle by the numerous sorties of the DAF, the interdiction of Rommel’s supply line by the Royal Navy, and the cooperation of all arms of Eighth Army. An Air Ministry Report recorded that the Alamein battle “demonstrated untold value of good cooperation between all arms and services.” It was an old lesson to learn, but this cooperation between arms and services was a critical development. It signified, as Alexander McKee noted, a crucial shift. He wrote of the battle: “At long last the British were learning how to make war—which is not the same thing as fighting.”

There was little doubt, though, that the primary responsibility for breaking the Alamein position had been with the infantry divisions backed by heavy artillery and air support. Freyberg’s report on the El Alamein operations concluded that the “value of well-trained infantry, capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence, was fully proved.” Jonathan Fennell was correct in his assessment that the infantry units of Eighth Army were “Montgomery’s main offensive force.” Fennell also observed that in winning this last Alamein battle, “many of the frontline battalions of Eighth Army suffered over 50 per cent casualties.” Being the Army commander’s main offensive weapon came with a heavy cost.

It has been argued that Alamein could not have been won without the contributions of the two elite infantry divisions in Eighth Army identified earlier by Rommel—9 Australian Division operating in the north, and two brigades of New Zealand infantry plus supporting units in the center, and later in the pursuit. That the New Zealanders played a vital role was uncharacteristically recognized by Montgomery:

The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of all these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand…. Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory.

Montgomery sent the Australian commander a similar message of praise on November 2, just as Operation Supercharge was underway. Montgomery wrote to Morshead that, “Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played in this battle is beyond all praise.” General Alexander was also effusive in his praise of the 9th Australian Division when he addressed them at a parade on the Gaza airstrip on December 22. He pointed out that “The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory.” Alexander concluded his address by telling the Australians that “one thought I shall cherish above all others—under my command fought the 9th Australian Division.” Churchill too acknowledged in his history of the war that it was the “ceaseless, bitter fighting” that the Australians had endured at Alamein that “had swung the whole battle in our favour.” Twenty-five years after the battle, Montgomery wrote that “it would not be right to single out any for special praise” when all had performed well. But then Montgomery did exactly that, stating, “I must say this—we would not have won the battle in ten days without that magnificent 9th Australian Division.”

It was heady stuff and it was entirely appropriate that the Australians and New Zealanders received high praise for their efforts in the October battle. No historian could ever dispute their key roles. But Montgomery was correct when he gave credit to the fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire, although he perhaps should have mentioned the Empire airmen as well. Throughout the battle Eighth Army had “complete protection from serious air attack and, at the same time, had the benefit of such close co-operation and continuous air support as never before.” There were, of course, other formations and corps that contributed significantly to the outcome of the battle. All German accounts comment on the weight and effectiveness of Eighth Army’s artillery. No infantry division made more attacks nor suffered heavier casualties than 51st Highland Division. And while the armored divisions may not have performed as well as Montgomery and the infantry commanders wanted, no formation did more to win the battle than the 9th Armoured Brigade. The New Zealand official history was correct when it stated that “Finally, tribute for the victory should be bestowed on all those Allied troops who had a share in the fighting and behind the lines.”

El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part II

It was surprising that General Alexander, in his Despatch published in 1948, was somewhat dismissive of the casualties incurred in this third battle. Alexander claimed that Eighth Army’s losses at El Alamein “were not unduly severe” and later that: “Our casualties were a negligible factor as far as the pursuit was concerned.” But Alexander was comparing Alamein to the attritional battles of the First World War. As he pointed out in his Memoirs, there was “one rather big difference.” At Alamein, casualties averaged just over 1,000 a day. On the first day of the Somme they had numbered “some 60,000.”

As with any battle of attrition, the cost of success was high. Eighth Army suffered 2,350 men killed in action; 8,950 wounded; and 2,260 men missing—a total of 13,560. In addition, 500 tanks and 111 guns were put of action and the DAF lost ninety-seven aircraft during the battle. These are not negligible figures and prove, as the British official history stated, “the battle was anything but a walk-over.” Panzerarmee losses were high too. An estimated 1,149 German and 971 Italians were killed in action, with a further 3,886 Germans and 933 Italians wounded. A more precise figure was recorded for the number of Axis prisoners taken during the battle. By November 11, it had reached 30,000.

The breakdown of Eighth Army’s losses indicates its multinational character. Of the total casualties incurred in the October battle, the percentages suffered by various nationalities were: UK troops 58 percent, Australians 22 percent, New Zealanders 10, South Africans 6, Indians 1, Allies (Free French, Greeks) 3.45 Two Australian historians have made much of these figures. They write that:

The Australian Division, although representing just under a tenth of the Eighth Army’s strength, had suffered more than one in five of its casualties. Further reports revealed the scale of the Australian contribution to the battle. Thirteen per cent of the 9th Division’s men had been killed or wounded, which is exactly double the British percentage and three times that of the other Dominion formations.

No one could ever question the contribution of the Australians to the final outcome of the battle and their heavy casualties are just one indication of the hard fighting they endured. But using casualty figures as a yardstick of contribution is misleading. It needs to be remembered that the UK casualties were not evenly spread across all its formations and some UK formations, such as the 51st Highland Division and 9 Armoured Brigade, suffered heavier percentage casualties than the Australians. In fact, 51st Highland Division, with 2,827 killed, wounded, and missing, suffered the highest number of casualties during the battle. The bulk of this Division’s casualties were in its nine infantry battalions, which collectively had a casualty rate of around 40 percent. The 2nd New Zealand Division losses had also been heavy, given that it was well understrength before the battle began. More than 1,700 New Zealanders became casualties during this second battle of El Alamein. More than a third of these casualties, some 651, had occurred in the first twenty-four hours of the battle, the highest number suffered amongst the five infantry divisions used on the opening night. Among the 7,350 graves of Allied servicemen in the Alamein cemetery are those of 1,049 known and fifty-six unknown New Zealanders. After the October battle, the New Zealand Division was now below strength by 3,600 men, a deficiency felt especially keenly in the infantry, the artillery, and the engineer corps. It had commenced the long campaign in June with nearly 20,000 men. In November 1942, its strength had almost reached 13,000 again. Niall Barr was correct in his assessment of the human cost of the last Alamein battle. He wrote that, “Eighth Army had finally crushed the Panzerarmee but the human cost to both sides had been grievous.”

In his later years, Montgomery was acutely aware of this human cost and felt it deeply. In 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, Montgomery went to Egypt on what would be his last overseas trip. With a former staff officer, he visited the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on the ridge near Alamein station, which has a clear view of most of the battlefield. Montgomery had been there on October 24, 1954, when the cemetery was officially opened, but this visit in 1967 was a more poignant and restrained affair. After spending considerable time before the headstones of two brothers killed on successive days, Montgomery quickly left the cemetery. That evening, walking beside the Mediterranean, Montgomery was silent and subdued. He confessed to his concerned companion, “I’ve been thinking of all those dead.” That forlorn feeling, no doubt tinged with a sense of guilt, often returned. In the last month of his life, Montgomery awoke after a troubled night. He told his friend, Sir Denis Hamilton, the reason for his disturbed sleep:


I couldn’t sleep last night—I had great difficulty. I can’t have very long to go now. I’ve got to go to meet God—and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.


At Alamein, Montgomery demonstrated considerable skill fighting “with the army he has rather than the one he wants it to be.” When Lightfoot failed to achieve the break-in and the battle’s momentum was waning, Montgomery, “resilient but resolute, did not hesitate to change his plan.” The new plan, Supercharge, while not entirely successful, did enough to break the will of his skillful opponent. Throughout the battle, despite many anxious moments, Montgomery radiated “confidence and determination amid all the stress and urgency.” It was an impressive performance. But despite achieving a decisive victory, Montgomery never received the accolades, plaudits, or adulation that his defeated opponent did. As Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s sympathetic biographer, noted with some concern:

Author after author would play down or denigrate Monty’s leadership. Not only did Auchinleck acolytes feel duty-bound to do so, but non-military historians waded in, too.

The first book to be thoroughly critical of Montgomery’s performance as a military commander was Correlli Barnett’s The Desert Generals. It first appeared in 1960 and “caused a scandal when published.” It has since been reprinted four times; the last revised edition appeared in 2007, nearly fifty years after its initial publication. Barnett’s book was followed by many others all “intent on chipping away some of the polished marble of Monty’s reputation.”

Conversely, Rommel’s standing as a skilled, daring battlefield commander, maybe even a brilliant one, has endured, especially among British and American historians. David Fraser, for example, described Rommel as “a master of manoeuvre on the battlefield and a leader of purest quality.” He “stands in the company” of other military greats such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Robert E. Lee. Ronald Lewin, not quite as praising, ranked him with Jeb Stuart, Attila, Prince Rupert, and George Patton. For Lewin, who had been an artillery officer in Eighth Army, Rommel’s place “as one of the last great cavalry captains … cannot be denied.” For Martin Blumenson, Rommel’s reputation has only grown since the war. Rommel was “a master of modern warfare” and undoubtedly a military genius; one of the “great captains who epitomized generalship on the field of battle.” In a similar vein, Antulio J. Echevarria II wrote:

Indeed, the decades since the end of the Second World War have seen historians and other writers both add to and clear away substantial portions of the Rommel myth. What remains, however, seems enough to qualify Rommel as one of history’s great, if controversial, captains—perhaps even a military genius. He did, after all, defeat a number of able British commanders before the run was broken by Montgomery at El Alamein.

Rommel’s reputation was not always so high, especially among those he commanded. Reflecting on what had gone wrong in this last battle, the Afrika Korps commander, Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, felt that Rommel deserved much of the blame. He agreed with Ludwig Crüwell that Rommel “never worried about anything apart from his own fixed ideas.” But Rommel had other poor qualities that had contributed to his defeat. He was cocky and overconfident. Von Thoma described the incident that revealed this serious character flaw:

BURCKHARDT interpreted when that NEW ZEALAND General [Brigadier George Clifton] was taken prisoner—I’ve forgotten his name. Field Marshal ROMMEL said: “Tell the General that the war will be over in six weeks and I shall have occupied CAIRO and ALEXANDRIA.” BURCKHARDT told me himself that it would have been most painful for him to have to say such a thing to this General who was standing there so pensively and had had the misfortune to be taken prisoner in the front line, which is no disgrace. So he simply said: “You’ll find you are mistaken, Sir.” I mean later on, if he ever comes to write of his experiences, what will he say about our appreciation of the situation and our over-confidence? Our tanks were nothing but scrap-iron. It wasn’t a Panzer Division, it was just miserable odds-and-ends. To ALEXANDRIA, to CAIRO!

There was more, too. According to von Thoma, Rommel’s battle tactics “were those of an infantryman…. He took no interest … in all the rest, that is personnel or supplies, which are the decisive factors for the whole theatre of war.” Rommel’s reliance on the dense “Minengarten” for protection, especially when they could not be covered by fire, “was fundamentally incorrect.” It was a damning indictment of the man who had recently been von Thoma’s commander, but it was by no means a lone criticism of Rommel. Writing soon after the war, Generalmajor von Holtzendorff felt that Rommel’s forward command and aggression made him an excellent Kampfgruppen [combat team] commander but “seriously impaired his efficiency as an Army commander.” And, according to Holtzendorff, Rommel never understood how armor should be used:

His attitude toward the Panzer arm and its employment suffered from the lack of knowledge of its technical capabilities. This attitude and his constant rejection of material and fully justified objections on the part of the Panzer commanders repeatedly caused heavy losses in material (especially Panzers), which then jeopardized the very idea of the mission.

These criticisms, if valid—and von Thoma was certainly in a position to know what he was talking about—hardly justify the Rommel “myth” or the notion that he was one of history’s “Great Captains” or a military genius. The reality is that Rommel as a military commander was not as exceptional as some of his biographers have described him, nor was Montgomery the disaster he has often been portrayed to be.


On October 23, 2012, a date that marked a significant commemoration of the Alamein battles, the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail ran a story by Guy Walters with a provocative headline. It read: Was Monty’s finest hour just a pointless bloodbath? Historians claim El Alamein—which began 70 years ago today—sacrificed thousands for the sake of propaganda. The headline, which probably caused distress to some veterans of the battle, was misleading. In his article, Walters claimed that “detractors” of the battle’s significance “maintain that it was a pointless battle in a pointless campaign, fought for political reasons to boost morale throughout the Empire, and not from any strategic necessity.” Once again, Montgomery’s generalship was denigrated. He was described as a “hugely over-rated and unimaginative commander” who “should never have been raised to the status of national hero.” Walters’ headline is misleading in that his article, while not naming any of the “detractors,” actually dismisses their arguments. He concludes:

El Alamein may not have been an elegant victory, and Montgomery may have been a ponderous general who was happy to steal much of the credit from the RAF, but it was a battle that gave the British what it most badly needed—confidence with which to go on and win the war.

Correlli Barnett had certainly dismissed the October Alamein battle as pointless. With Operation Torch, the Allied landings in French North Africa, due to commence in early November, for Barnett this raised “the really interesting question … why this bitter battle … was fought at all.” Barnett was emphatic that the “famous Second Battle of Alamein must therefore, in my view, go down in history as an unnecessary battle.”65 The hindsight in Barnett’s judgement is clearly evident. As David Fraser, with the wisdom of experience, has astutely observed: “In war no man can say how an untried alternative course of action would have gone, since in war nothing is certain until it is over.”

Some senior military commanders were also dismissive of the October Alamein battle. The US Chief of Staff George Marshall was one. Marshall was never impressed with the British campaign in North Africa or with Montgomery’s generalship. In some off-the-record comments made in 1949, his interviewers noted:

He [Marshall] explained that our opinion of the British at that time was not very high in that the President thought the 8th Army at El Alamein would lose again in the desert. FDR said to have them attack at night. The General discussed what was wrong with British command in Africa at some length. He said that the British in the Middle East [8th Army] had committed about every mistake in the book. It was no model campaign. The pursuit of Rommel across the desert was slow. The British even laid a minefield in front of them which benefited the Germans more than it did the British. Here Marshall formed an opinion that Montgomery left something to be desired as a field commander. The experience with Montgomery in northwest Europe confirmed Marshall’s opinion about that.

Even the Chief of the German High Command, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, was dismissive of Alamein and the North African campaign. Shortly before his execution at Nuremberg, Keitel reflected on Rommel’s career. During his interrogation, Keitel had expressed “unlimited admiration of Rommel’s military achievements and courage.” While Rommel’s efforts in North Africa had resulted in some “unexpected victories,” this talented commander’s skills had been wasted there. Keitel wrote, “One cannot help wondering what this daring and highly-favoured tank commander would have achieved had he been fighting with his units in the one theatre of war where Germany’s fate was to be determined.” Clearly, Keitel’s delusions continued to the end of his life. Rommel and the units he commanded in North Africa would have made no difference at all to the outcome of Germany’s defeat on the Eastern Front.

The October or second battle of El Alamein was an important tactical victory for Montgomery and Eighth Army. As Stephen Bungay concluded, “However one looks at it, in the third round of fighting at El Alamein Rommel was decisively defeated.” It was “the climax to two years of to-and-fro struggle in the Western Desert.” And there was a strategic effect to the battle as well, which transformed it into one of the turning points of the war. A senior German staff officer at their Supreme Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), recalled after the war that this battle was indeed “the turning point at which the initiative passed from German into Allied Hands.” Generalmajor Eckhardt Christian admitted that the OKW “doubtlessly underestimated Africa’s strategic importance” and that by November 1942, “The realization of the enemy’s strength and our own weakness came too late to avert disaster. The enemy now had the initiative and retained it.” Alexander also wrote of the strategic effect of the battle. There were several reasons why the battle had to be fought:

In the general context of our war strategy in 1942, the battle of Alamein was fought to gain a decisive victory over the Axis forces in the Western Desert, to hearten the Russians, to uplift our allies, to depress our enemies, to raise morale at home and abroad, and to influence those who were sitting on the fence. The battle at Alamein was very carefully timed to achieve these objects—it was not a question of gaining a victory in isolation.

And as Alexander pointed out, both his knowledge of military history and his battlefield experience “convince me that a war is not won by sitting on the defensive.”

Winston Churchill certainly saw the battle as a key turning point. For him, the October–November Alamein battle was “the turning of ‘the Hinge of Fate.’” He explained why in two sentences that have become the most quoted (and misquoted) assessment of the battle’s importance. Churchill wrote that:

It may almost be said, [This first part is often omitted] “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

Little wonder then that on Sunday, November 15, 1942, to mark the victory, the church bells rang all over the United Kingdom. It was the first time in three years that Britons had heard their church bells ring. The BBC made a point of recording the bells of Coventry Cathedral for their Overseas Service. “Did you hear them in Occupied Europe?” a gleeful radio commentator asked. “Did you hear them in Germany?”

The transformation was far more than a tactical and strategic shift. This was alluded to in Guy Walters’ conclusion quoted above. The October–November battle marked a major change in how the British Empire thought and felt about its warfighting capabilities. It was a critical transformation. For British soldier and historian David Fraser, the victory at El Alamein in November 1942 “was the best moment experienced by the British Army since another November day long ago in 1918.” It meant that “the tide had finally and irrevocably turned.” When writing about the British defeat in June 1942 during the Gazala battle, which lead to the “deplorable” loss of Tobruk, Fraser made a profound observation that has often been overlooked by military historians. Fraser perceived that “battles are won and lost in the minds of men, and this one had been lost.” To date, the British armies had experienced few victories and many, costly defeats. There were doubts in the minds of men and women at the highest and lowest levels whether the British could ever defeat an army that included German panzer and motorized formations. That doubt was infectious and had spread to Britain’s allies. The October Alamein battle, inelegant as all Allied victories in this war were, provided convincing and much-needed proof that a British army could achieve a victory over German forces.

After the battle, the Australian commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, wrote a revealing letter to a friend. In it, Morshead highlighted why Eighth Army had won the battle. He also recorded a significant mind-shift in the Australian soldiers:

It was a very hard and long battle, twelve days and nights of continuous and really bloody fighting, and it was not until the last day that the issue was decided. A big battle is very much like a tug-of-war between two very heavy and evenly matched teams, and the one which can maintain the pressure and put forward that last ounce that wins…. I shall always remember going round the line during the battle and a real digger saying to me “Yes Sir it’s tough all right … but we’ve at last got these bloody Germans by the knackers.”

The feeling towards the end of the Alamein battle was that the Germans were on the ropes and losing the battle. The British Eighth Army, after a hard fight, did at last have “these bloody Germans by the knackers.” While this sentiment wasn’t expressed in quite so colorful vernacular, it certainly became infectious. The Alamein battle “was crucial to the morale of the free world.” The news of Rommel’s defeat at Alamein electrified that free world. Nigel Hamilton wrote that “the sense of a change in the fortunes of democracy was palpable.” It signified, as many noted at the time and after, a crucial shift. The spell was broken and the Germans could be beaten. As the New Zealand official historian wrote, the battle of Alamein deserves its place in military history “because it was the first victory of any magnitude won by the British forces against a German command since the Second World War began.” That victory transformed the British forces. Instead of doubt, bewilderment, confusion, and a feeling of inferiority, there was now the strong belief that your side could fight hard and win. It at last had all the tools to do the job. The long string of defeats, what Churchill called the “galling links in a chain of misfortune and frustration,” was finally over. The British army, with its allies, had turned a corner and it was to experience a string of victories, albeit marked with some setbacks. It had taken a very long time for the Hinge to turn.

Homer: Weaponry and Command

The most distinctive and unusual item of military equipment mentioned in the Iliad is the Mycenaeans’ boar’s tusk helmet. Nothing like it had ever been seen by anyone living when the Iliad was written down in the eighth century; it was a genuine bronze age artefact, described in the Iliad just as it would have looked in the bronze age, yet no longer available for the poet to see for himself. The description of the helmet must therefore have been handed down by oral tradition from the bronze age. It was made principally between 1570 and 1430 BC, but was still in use two hundred years later.

Boars’ tusks were not easily come by, and many were needed to make just one helmet; it was only the aristocrats who could afford the leisure to go boar-hunting often enough to collect the number of tusks needed to make a helmet. A boar’s tusk helmet was a very expensive item and, once made, it became a family treasure. Homer confirms this; the boar’s tusk helmet belonging to Meriones was stolen from Boeotia by Autolycus, given by Autolycus to Amphidamas of Kythera, and then by him to Molos, the father of Meriones. By the time Meriones gave it to Odysseus it was a priceless heirloom. Only a few aristocratic warriors would have been able to afford these helmets; they were not exported, and must have been made to commission for specific princes, who were probably expected to supply the trophy tusks themselves. The helmet became a visual boast of the wearer’s prowess as a huntsman.

The vogue for making boar’s tusk helmets was over long before the Trojan War, yet remarkably there were some still in circulation then, two hundred years later. By then they must have been priceless heirlooms, whose origins were lost in the mythic past – and these are exactly the terms in which Homer describes them.

The ordinary Mycenaean foot soldier would have had nothing so elaborate as the boar’s tusk helmet, nor even the cone-shaped bronze helmet that other élite warriors wore. Most common soldiers at the time of the Trojan War probably wore simple leather helmets. These had a prominent ridge crest; they were made out of two pieces of leather sewn together to make the keel running over the top of the head. Some leather helmets may have had bronze disks or plates sewn onto them: that, is what we are being shown on the Warrior Vase.

The cone- or bullet-shaped bronze helmets were sometimes decorated with horse-hair plumes sprouting from the crown. An ivory depiction of a boar’s tusk helmet shows that it too had a socket for a plume. Schliemann found the remains of two bronze helmets at Troy. Although their lower parts had disintegrated, the corroded crests had survived well enough for him to be able to reconstruct them. They were made in two pieces, one permanently fixed to the crown of the helmet, the other, holding the horse-hair plume, attached to it with a pin; the plume was detachable.

In the Iliad we read of heroes duelling with spears, and though swords were definitely in use – every lancer would have had a short sword at his side for hand-to-hand fighting – the thrusting spear was still the weapon of choice. Some of these bronze-headed spears were very long and must have required a great deal of training and practice to handle effectively. Hector is described as wielding a spear ‘eleven forearms long’.

Homer gives us relatively little about tactics or the nature of command. The generals conferred at various points during the war. We are told that early on the Trojan leaders gathered outside Priam’s house to discuss strategy. We hear that when the Trojans were in disarray, having reached the Greek ships, the Trojan Polydamas persuaded a headstrong Hector to draw back:

Call the best of our captains here, this safe ground.

Then we can all fall in and plan our tactics well.

Hector saw the sense in this, told Polydamas to muster the captains:

I’m on my way over there to meet this new assault –

I’ll soon be back, once I’ve given them clear commands.

Even so, what followed seems little more co-ordinated than what went before, as Hector ranged among the ships looking for his captains, and stopped to rage at his brother Paris. Paris’s riposte in effect restates the prevailing spirit of command. He emphasized that all the Trojans were ‘right behind’ Hector and that he would not find them ‘short on courage’. There is no strategy here at all, just an injection of adrenaline. This runs parallel to accounts of Ramesses’ behaviour at the Battle of Kadesh. Instead of giving specific, rational orders, he inspired valour by example and shouting inspirational encouragement: ‘Take heart, my soldiers! You see my victory! Amon is my protector and his hand is with me.’

There is nevertheless a hint that though the commanders-in-chief shouted only inspirational generalities the generals gave more specific directions. At one point Agamemnon toured his generals, giving them and their troops a pep talk, first the two Ajaxes, then Nestor, and so on. After Agamemnon had passed, Nestor gave more specific commands to his combat units, each under captains (Pelagon, Alastor, Chromius, Haemon and Bias), who were responsible for carrying out Nestor’s tactical orders.

The Trojan attack on the ships caused Agamemnon to lose his nerve; several leaders were wounded and the defensive wall was breached. It was Nestor who gathered the Greek generals together to discuss tactics. Agamemnon advocated retreat. Odysseus questioned the quality of leadership, telling Agamemnon bluntly, ‘You are the disaster. Would to god you commanded another army.’

We also hear through the Trojan scout Dolon that Hector, the Trojan commander-in-chief, discussed plans for the next day’s battle during evening meetings. The Greeks held similar meetings; in some of them, Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, put forward ideas that the other Greek leaders disapproved of, and he was ready to back down. These ‘evening councils’ are very credible.

Homer nevertheless supplies little information about tactics during the battles. We hear of the two armies colliding and clashing; we hear of the Greeks sometimes advancing to the walls of Troy, and being beaten back to their camp at others. A great deal is left to brute force, courage and chance. There is little information about command, apart from the occasional shout of encouragement. The warrior élites are portrayed as taking all the initiative in hand-to-hand fighting, but there is no description of generals or other officers giving orders for the rest of the warriors to move forward or back, or adopt a specific formation. The general soldiery is described as moving forward or back, but moving as if in a tide rather than on instructions or commands from officers. If this is the way the battles were fought, with no commands given once battle was joined, the commanders were using their armies as blunt instruments, and, if so, it could explain why it took the Greeks a long time to achieve their goal. It seems that it was only in lulls in the fighting that the commanders could confer and decided on changes of tactic.

There is just one occasion, when things were going very badly for the Greeks, when a decision was made – evidently a revolutionary one – that the commanders should tour the battlefield and encourage and inspirit the warriors rather than losing themselves in hand-to-hand fighting. This is a look forward to a later style of command; eventually generals would watch battles from vantage points to get an overview and send officers onto the battlefield with instructions.

What Homer describes – the exploits of a handful of heroes – would be more appropriate to a small-scale raid in which perhaps a hundred men could act entirely individually. But the huge numbers involved, the 130,000 Mycenaean warriors implied in the Iliad, means that the commanders would have been far more usefully employed guiding and directing their troops. If, in fact, once battle commenced, there was an incoherent mêlée of hand-to-hand fighting, the style of fighting would have been similar to the one the Romans encountered when they invaded Britain; indeed it may be that the use of chariots and shouted insults during the Boudiccan revolt was a backward look to this earlier, bronze age way of fighting. I suspect that the warrior-heroes did in fact lead, encourage and direct those of their countrymen who were within earshot, so that there would have been patches of co-ordinated action, oases of purposeful (or foolhardy) action within the general mêlée.

What is missing from the Epic Cycle is any credit for the efforts, exploits and achievements of the huge numbers of ordinary soldiers involved. The official Egyptian accounts of the Battle of Kadesh praised the heroic exploits of Ramesses, who overcame enormous odds single-handed. It was Ramesses who commissioned the history and was in a position to inflate his own personal contribution to the battle, frequently at the expense of that of his own armies. After Troy, it was, of course, the Mycenaean officers who commissioned the poets and bards, and this socio-political fact is enough to explain the very high profile the princely heroes acquired in the Epic Cycle record of the war. The bards were merely boasting on their patrons’ behalf, and inevitably inflating the parts they played in individual actions and the outcome of the battle.


Knights of Christ by Jan van Eyck

So much for the ideals of chivalry. It is now time to come to the difficult question of their influence on the conduct of the war. Exponents of chivalric theory saw warfare as a series of equal engagements conducted in such a manner as to test and show the prowess of the individual knightly participants. As late as the sixteenth century it was normal to propose the settlement of wars by individual combat. Such schemes were never effective, although the elaborate plan to resolve the Sicilian dispute by a personal combat at Bordeaux between Charles of Anjou and Peter III of Aragon (1283) was not entirely insincere and came somewhere near to fruition. Similar proposals were sometimes made for contests between small teams representative of the two sides; thus marshal Boucicaut suggested during the siege of al-Mahdiya (1390) a combat of one, or 10, or 20, or 40 representatives of the king of Tunis and of the crusaders, who were to advance on each other from the two sides of a closed field. This view of warfare also entailed the elimination of any form of unjust advantage which might vitiate the verdict of battle as a test of military prowess. It was by some considered unfair to set ambushes or even to make use of side-roads in campaigning. A head-on clash was the most impartial trial, and during the English siege of Calais (1346–7) William of Hainault suggested that a truce should take effect for three days while a bridge was built which would conveniently enable the English and French armies to meet in battle.

The chivalric virtue of ‘courtesy’ implied kind treatment of knightly prisoners of war, and the well-known passage in which Froissart describes the Black Prince’s generosity towards the French nobles after Poitiers shows that this could be effective in practice:

That evening the prince of Wales gave a supper in his lodging to the French king, his son Philip, and the most part of the counts and barons that were prisoners. The prince seated king John, the lord James of Bourbon, the lord John d’Artois, the count of Tancarville, the count of Étampes, the count of Dammartin, the count of Joinville and the lord of Parthenay, at one high table … and other lords, knights, and squires, at other tables; and the prince always served the king … very humbly, and would not sit at the king’s table, although he requested him: he said he was not qualified to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was. Then he said to the king: ‘Sir, for God’s sake, make no bad cheer, though your will was not accomplished this day; for, Sir, the king my father will certainly bestow on you as much honour and friendship as he can, and will agree with you so reasonably, that you shall ever after be friends. And, Sir, I think you ought to rejoice, though the battle be not as you wish, for you have this day gained the high renown of prowess, and have surpassed all others on your side, in valour. Sir, I say this not to mock you, for all our party, who saw every man’s deeds, agree in this, and give you the palm and chaplet.’

Therewith the Frenchmen whispered among themselves, that the prince had spoken nobly, and that most probably he would prove a noble man, if God preserved his life, to persevere in such good fortune.

The Black Prince’s courtesy was of course assisted by his fluency in French, which remained the first language of the English court, and was in a sense the international language of chivalry. Moreover, this generous treatment of fellow aristocrats in the hour of victory should not be taken as a typical occasion. The Black Prince and the English nobles would naturally have felt generous after gaining a decisive victory which put the French kingdom at their mercy and promised to win fortunes for many of them in ransom money; yet the very fact that many went to war to seek financial gain rather than glory was incompatible with chivalric ideals. Treatment of the non-noble classes was quite another matter. The Black Prince himself was responsible for the sack of Limoges in 1370, when the city was burnt and more than 3,000 of its people put to death. Infantry taken in battle were entitled to none of the consideration granted to the nobility and no ransom could be expected for them; they were often slaughtered rather than being suffered to become a burden on the victor’s food resources.

In so far as it affected warfare, then, the chivalrous outlook detracted from the efficient conduct of war; its emphasis was on the manner of accomplishment rather than the thing accomplished, on glory rather than ‘results’. To be chivalrous was to be unbusiness-like in the matter of achieving victory, and thus to be handicapped. We have seen that the French met defeat in the three great actions of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt at least in part because they employed the conventional chivalric mode of attack, the cavalry charge, against armies whose strength lay in a non-noble weapon, the longbow. Does it follow from this that the English won their victories because they were more sceptical of the noble mirage of chivalry and, specifically, were less inhibited by chivalric notions of warfare?

Certainly the English were unashamed to proclaim the unaristocratic longbow as their characteristic weapon. By Edward I’s Statute of Winchester (1285) it became an obligatory weapon for English foot-soldiers and Edward III made compulsory the holding of archery contests on holidays. The great folk hero of later medieval England, Robin Hood, was a renowned archer with the longbow, a man who could ‘slice the wand’ again and again from a range of many hundred yards:

I was com[p]ted the best archere

That was in mery Englonde.

If the English archery and tactical combination of archers with other arms suggest a professional approach to war which contrasts with French dilettantism, the explanation of this must be sought in the constant wars of the English with their Celtic neighbours, from whom, indeed, the use of the longbow had been learnt. Frequent campaigning in difficult terrain against the Welsh and Scots compelled the English to give much thought to strategy, tactics, weapons and the other problems of war; the consequences of military conservatism for them would have been expensive and humiliating and there was constant need for inventiveness. Throughout the 80 years of war the English had their eyes on the serious proposition of gaining the French kingdom rather than the pageantry of chivalric pomp: it is symbolic of this that Henry V, when he married Princess Catherine in June 1420, refused to hold any tournament but instead hurried off his knights to besiege Sens.

The French had indeed had opportunities to learn the dangers involved in launching knights against well-disciplined infantry—as witness their defeat by the Flemish in 1302 at Courtrai—but the lesson had not been learnt. In all the three major engagements the French cavalry was unleashed in a courageous but rash charge, and such tactics were not confined to their wars with the English. It was the French and Burgundian element which insisted on a headlong assault against the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396, despite the warnings of the king of Hungary who was accustomed to warfare against the Ottomans and refused to commit his own troops to mass suicide. Du Guesclin was able to show that successes could be won if only battle was not made the occasion of an undisciplined display of valour, but in opposition to him was a strong and respected tradition which reasserted itself at Agincourt. Such a tradition is exemplified by the reported refusal of the French to accept the services at Agincourt of 6,000 archers offered by the city of Paris: ‘what need have we of these shop-keepers?’ they proudly enquired, and it was suggested that the principles of knightly honour would be contravened if the French army thus came to outnumber the English. It is not altogether just to adopt Froissart, who was a native of Valenciennes in Hainault and spent several years at the English court, as the characteristic representative of the French chivalric attitude to war, yet nowhere outside his pages are these campaigns depicted in such chivalrous colours as a series of knightly deeds in which the nobles of the contending sides were joined by a common devotion to valorous and ‘courteous’ enterprise. For Froissart, who set out to describe feats of arms and wondrous deeds as an encouragement to valour, the bowmen who actually won the decisive battles were an insignificant rabble of boors. Yet Froissart’s stupid snobbery must not blind one to the nobler side of chivalry, the side that is seen in king Jean’s decision to return voluntarily to imprisonment in England when his hostage absconded.

A difficult question remains to be answered. Should the French reliance on cavalry and preference for bravery over tactics be ascribed to mere military conservatism, or is this anachronistic emphasis on the aristocratic arm symptomatic of a more profound difference between the two countries? Did the French suffer merely from bad generalship or was their exaggerated respect for the horse-soldier and contempt for the infantryman indicative of a more hierarchical society? Certainly the English governing class was more content to recruit assistance in war from the lower ranks, and co-operation in war would in turn tend to foster a stronger feeling of community. It may well be that for England, like Switzerland, an unusual reliance on infantry had consequences for social and political structure (more developed representative institutions, greater potential for revolt) that were not present in France. But if the question of differences in social structure is answerable, it is certainly not through sources such as those that have been under discussion. Froissart, and others mentioned here, give the chivalric, aristocratic viewpoint, mostly in literary form. The social realities cannot be measured in this way. Even military realities are more complex. The persistent myth that the three famous English victories demonstrated the superiority of longbow infantry over cavalry may be congenial to a particular brand of English national sentiment, but it is an oversimplification. For one thing, as has been seen, position and timing played even more determinant roles in the battles than weaponry. For another, the English archers, too, ‘remained firmly grounded in a military context that was dominated by horseback-riding aristocrats’. Chivalric accounts, with their natural interest in glamourising the role of cavalry, do not tell us much about the close co-operation between mounted and foot soldiery that is in evidence on both sides and over a long period. Finally the subsequent history of warfare should make us wary of exaggerating the significance of these battles. The appearance of the longbow was quickly met by better protective armour and more flexible tactics, and the role of the cavalry as shock troops capable of breaking formations persisted long into the era of gunpowder. The French military revival of the mid-fifteenth century, is a reminder of how rapidly the balance of fortunes could change.

A case could be made for the statement that the war was embarked on in a spirit of chivalry on both sides and that this view of warfare prevailed for a whole generation—until the Peace of Brétigny or perhaps the death of Edward III (1377) —to perish thereafter except in its disastrous revival by the French at Agincourt. King Edward, the founder of the Order of the Garter, was the very soul of chivalry and would have been puzzled at the argument that the English waged war less chivalrously because they relied to a greater extent on archery. For Froissart the great days of knightly feats of arms ended with this phase of the war, and when he returned to England in 1395 he found that there were Englishmen who shared his point of view and asked:

What has become of the great ventures [entreprises], the valiant men, the fine battles and the fine conquests? Where are the knights of England now, to accomplish such things? In those days the English were feared, and spoken of everywhere. Since good King Edward’s death things have gone from bad to worse … and now King Richard of Bordeaux only seeks rest and pleasures.

It must be remembered, of course, that the sentimental Froissart was then an elderly man who would easily fall prey to nostalgia.

By the time that Richard II ruled England (1377–99) the French had begun to reflect on the causes of their defeats. Honoré Bouvet’s Arbre des Batailles (issued in 1387) is a practical handbook on war, not a treatise on chivalry and honour; it advocates defensive tactics in battle and suggests that the French should make more use of their peasantry, who are accustomed to a rigorous life. By the middle of the following century such views were commonplace, and similar warnings against indisciplined impetuosity and advice in favour of reliance on infantry and defensive warfare are to be found in Jean Juvénal des Ursins’ ‘Remonstrances’ (1453) and Jean de Buell’s Le Juvencel. The latter work (c.1466) went directly against chivalric doctrine by forbidding any form of fraternisation with the enemy: the author makes his hero reject a suggestion from the enemy commander that 12 knights from each side should pick out a convenient and impartial site for battle, on the ground that ‘there is a common saying, and it is thought to be a very old one, that one should never do anything on the enemy’s initiative’.

In the 1370s an anonymous author presented to Charles V of France a weighty book of advice in the form of a dialogue entitled Somnium Viridarii or Dream in the Pleasuregarden (better known under its French title as Le songe du vergier, quiparle de la disputacion du clerc et du chevalier). The cleric who is a participant in this dialogue remarks sarcastically that ‘The knights of our day have foot-battles and cavalry engagements painted on the walls of their rooms, so that through their eyes they may take delight in imaginary battles, which they would not dare to witness as members of an army, or even to be present at in person’. This suggestion that there was now a strong vicarious element in chivalry, that its reality was a thing of the past, contains much truth. Every such ideal must look back to a golden past that can never have existed in reality, but it is particularly true of chivalry that the less of it there was the more it was talked about and the more strenuous were the attempts to revive it. Characteristic of this late, formalised, self-conscious chivalry is the highly organised and pedantic pageantry of heraldry, with its learned glorification of noble descent, and such chivalric foundations as Edward III’s Order of the Garter (c.1348) and Philip the Good of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece (1430). The Golden Fleece was inaugurated by Duke Philip

from the great love we bear to the noble order of chivalry, whose honour and prosperity are our only concern, to the end that the true Catholic Faith, the Faith of Holy Church, our Mother, as well as the peace and welfare of the realm may be defended, preserved and maintained to the glory and praise of Almighty God our Creator and Saviour, in honour of His glorious Mother, the Virgin Mary, and of our Lord, St Andrew, Apostle and Martyr, and for the furtherance of virtue and good manners.

Membership of this order was restricted to 24 (later 30) noble knights. Four officers and a chancellor, secretary and treasurer served under the master and sovereign, who was always the reigning duke. Naturally France was most prolific of these orders. Among the French foundations may be mentioned King Jean’s Order of the Star (1352), whose 300 members took an oath never to flee in battie (and which ceased to exist after only one year when more than a quarter of the knights were killed in a single engagement), and Boucicaut’s Order of the White Lady, founded in 1398 for the defence of ladies and maidens in distress.

William Caxton, in the epilogue to his translation of Lull’s Order of Chivalry, expressed his conviction that chivalry was decadent in his day:

O ye Knights of England, where is the custom and usage of noble chivalry that was used in those days? What do ye now but go to the baths and play at dice? And some not well advised, use not honest and good rule, against all order of knighthood. Leave this, leave it! and read the noble volumes of Saint Graal, of Launcelot, of Galahad, of Tristram, of Perseforest, of Perceval, of Gawain, and many more. There shall ye see manhood, courtesy, and gendeness. And look in latter days at the noble acts since the Conquest, as in King Richard’s days Coeur de Lion, Edward the First and Third and his noble sons, Sir Robert Knolles, Sir John Hawkwood, Sir John Chandos and Sir Walter Manny; read Froissart, and also behold that victorious and noble King Harry the Fifth and the captains under him, his noble brethren, the Earls of Salisbury, Montagu, and many others whose names shine gloriously by their virtuous noblesse and acts that they did in the honour of the order of chivalry. Alas! What do ye but sleep and take ease, and are all disordered from chivalry?

Not all Caxton’s heroes, it will be noted, came from the distant past. It has already been suggested that attempts were made in their own lifetime to raise on to a chivalric pedestal such figures as marshal Boucicaut (1366–1421) and Jacques de Lalaing (1421–53), the latter of whom was denied a knightly end in that he was killed by a cannon ball. In the following century the same treatment was accorded to Bayard, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche who met his death from arquebus fire in Lombardy in 1524. In Bayard’s day the emperor Maximilian strove hard to revive chivalry, writing a verse autobiography (1517) in which his adventures in the tourney and chase were recounted in the tradition of chivalrous literature, and assisting in the preparation of Der Weiszönig, a similar work on his father Frederick III and himself. Throughout the sixteenth century, jousting, though it had lost much of its utility as a form of military training, remained the aristocradc sportpar excellence. King Henry II of France was killed jousting in 1559 and in the half century after this the English court fêted its queen in the annual accession-day tilts.

The brief account given here of the splendours and miseries of chivalric warfare has no claim to constitute a description of the phenomenon ‘Chivalry’. Almost nothing has been said of chivalry and ‘courtoisie’ as literary genres—or one should perhaps say as a literary Zeitgeist witnessing to a Zeitgeist general among the classes of society who read or were read to. Th e Adventures of Don Quixote, that ‘light and mir ror of all knightly chivalry’ (1604–14), bears witness to the fact that the valour of knights and their ‘courtesy’ to ladies remained the favourite topic of Europe’s fiction readers long after the armoured knight had ceased to be the characteristic figure of the battlefield. Don Quixote, it will be remembered, ‘filled his mind with all that he read in his books, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic’. And so it came about that Don Quixote repaired his ancestor’s rusty armour and fitted it with a pasteboard visor because ‘he thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the state, to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures, following in every way the practice of the knights errant he had read of, redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to changes and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown’.

Don Quixate is not merely a satire on chivalry but also the great prose poem of the sunset of chivalry. In Elizabeth I’s England, Cervantes’ contemporary Edmund Spenser was writing in his Faerie Queen of another ‘gentle knight’, ‘for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt’. As in architecture there was no clear break between the last of ‘true’ Gothic and the beginning of the Gothic revival, so in literature there was no interruption between this prolongation of medieval romance and the Romantic revival of medieval taste as witnessed in the ballad collections of Bishop Percy and J. G. Herder and the European popularity of Macpherson’s Ossian and Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Even today international law enshrines the chivalric notion of warfare in the clauses of the Geneva Convention which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. The terms of these provide that ‘other ranks’ who are captured may be forced to work for the imprisoning power, but it is illegal to compel officers to work; they are the heirs of the nobles who dined with the Black Prince after Poitiers.


Jericho is a general designation given to a loosely related family of deployed ballistic missiles developed by Israel from the 1960s forward. The name is taken from the first development contract for the Jericho I signed between Israel and Dassault in 1963, with the codename as a reference to the Biblical city of Jericho.

As is true for most Israeli unconventional weapons systems, exact details are highly classified though there is observed test data, public statements by government officials, and details in open literature especially about the Shavit satellite launch vehicle. The later Jericho family development is related to the Shavit and Shavit II space launch vehicles believed to be derivatives of the Jericho II IRBM and which preceded the development of the Jericho III ICBM.

Additional insight into the Jericho program is given by the South African series of missiles which the RSA-3 are believed to be licensed copies of the Jericho II/Shavit and the RSA-4 used part of these systems in their stack with a heavy first stage, after the declaration and disarming of the South African nuclear program the RSA series missiles were offered commercially as satellite launch vehicles where the advertised specifications became part of the public knowledge. The civilian space launch version of the Jericho, the Shavit has been studied in an air launched version piggybacked on a Boeing 747 similar to a US experimental launch of the Minuteman ICBM from a C-5 Galaxy.

It is believed that the Jericho III is a nuclear armed ICBM which entered service in 2011. The Jericho III is believed to have a three-stage solid propellant and a payload of 1,000 to 1,300 kg. It is possible for the missile to be equipped with a single 750 kg nuclear warhead or two or three low yield MIRV warheads. It has an estimated launch weight of 30,000 kg and a length of 15.5 m with a width of 1.56 m. It may be similar to an upgraded and re-designed Shavit space launch vehicle, produced by Israel Aerospace Industries. It probably has longer first and second-stage motors. It is estimated by missilethreat.com that it has a range of 4,800 to 6,500 km (2,982 to 4,038 miles), though a 2004 missile proliferation survey by the Congressional Research Service put its possible maximum range at 11,500 km.

According to an official report which was submitted to the American congress in 2004, it may be that with a payload of 1,000 kg the Jericho III gives Israel nuclear strike capabilities within the entire Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia and almost all parts of North America, as well as large parts of South America and North Oceania. Missile Threat reports: “The range of the Jericho III also provides an extremely high impact speed for nearby targets, enabling it to avoid any Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defenses that may develop in the immediate region.” On 17 January 2008 Israel test fired a multi-stage ballistic missile believed to be of the Jericho III type, reportedly capable of carrying “conventional or non-conventional warheads.” On 2 November 2011, Israel successfully test fired a missile believed to be an upgraded version of the Jericho III at Palmachim; the long trail of smoke was seen throughout central Israel. Israel’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers are believed to be buried so far underground that they would survive a nuclear attack.


Israel also has short range precision guided ballistic missiles like the LORA with a range of 300 km, it flies at altitude of 50 km, above that of the S-400 for instance, with speed of 6 mach (faster than the S-400) and has a maneuvering warhead, meaning it’s almost impossible to intercept for the S-400 from any aspect, it carries ~600 kg warhead and hits its target with precision better than 10 meters.

Israel also has many other types of missile. Like air to air or anti ship missiles (as well as anti anti ship missiles like Barak 8 which can intercept even mighty anti ship missiles like the Russian Yakhont), air launched cruise missiles. And air defense or anti missiles and anti satellites missiles. One of them is the Arrow-III that is meant to precisely hit all types of ballistic missiles with success rate of >90%. This is a good testament for missile technology.

Intelligence in the Era of the Sun King Part I

John Wallis had been close to the Parliamentarian party, perhaps as a result of his exposure to Holbeach at Felsted School. He rendered them great practical assistance in deciphering Royalist dispatches. The quality of cryptography at that time was mixed; despite the individual successes of mathematicians such as François Viète, the principles underlying cipher design and analysis were very poorly understood. Most ciphers were ad hoc methods relying on a secret algorithm, as opposed to systems based on a variable key. Wallis realised that the latter were far more secure – even describing them as “unbreakable”, though he was not confident enough in this assertion to encourage revealing cryptographic algorithms. He was also concerned about the use of ciphers by foreign powers, refusing, for example, Gottfried Leibniz’s request of 1697 to teach Hanoverian students about cryptography.[

Louis XIV is far better remembered for self-glorification than for secret intelligence. When moving his court to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, he confined God to the chapel. The rest of the largest and grandest palace in European history was devoted to the cult of the Sun King, Louis’s favourite image of himself. By the end of his reign the resident devotees numbered about 10,000 nobles, soldiers, priests, officials, tradesmen and servants. Versailles was second only to the army as France’s largest employer. But Louis also regarded secrecy as essential to his royal authority. A medal struck to commemorate the beginning of his personal rule after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661 had a portrait of the King on the front and, on the reverse, Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence and secrecy, raising a finger to his lips. A painting on the ceiling of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, the most magnificent room in the palace, shows Louis ordering a simultaneous attack on four Dutch strongholds. By his side is an allegorical figure also holding a finger to his lips. Another figure puts his hand over his mouth as the King prepares to take the city of Ghent.

Louis XIV paid some interest to intelligence collection as well as official secrecy. He took a personal interest in the work of the cabinet noir. Like his father, Louis XIII, he honoured Antoine Rossignol, France’s leading codebreaker until his death in 1682, by visiting his château at Juvisy. Neither of the two great seventeenth-century English codebreakers, Thomas Phelippes and John Wallis, received any sign of royal appreciation from the Stuart kings. Lord Hollis, the English ambassador in Paris, complained in 1665 that his despatches were always opened and read before he received them. His successor, Ralph Montagu, made the same complaint in 1669. Their awareness, like that of some French courtiers, that their correspondence was intercepted must have diminished the value of the intelligence obtained from it by the cabinet noir. The celebrated letter-writer Madame de Sévigné sometimes made personal appeals in her correspondence to those who opened it during the second half of the seventeenth century: ‘Alas! I beseech those who take this trouble to consider the little pleasure which they gain from reading it and the sorrow they cause to us. Messieurs, at least take the trouble to put [the letters] back in their envelopes so that, sooner or later, they reach their destination.’

Louis’s first direct involvement in an intelligence operation, crucial to the establishment of his personal rule in 1661, was the plot to overthrow Mazarin’s superintendent of finance, Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île and vicomte de Melun et Vaux, who hoped to step into Mazarin’s shoes. Fouquet was a classic example of an overmighty subject whose power and prestige threatened royal authority. At his magnificent château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, he lived in greater opulence than the King. On the island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, with the assistance of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the foremost military engineer of his age, he sought to construct an impregnable private fortress with its own garrison.

Fouquet’s nemesis was the shrewder and less ostentatious Jean-Baptiste Colbert, whose chilly exterior led Madame de Sévigné to give him the sobriquet le nord (‘the north’). Colbert came from a family of Rheims merchant bankers, trained as an accountant, and helped Mazarin amass the greatest private fortune in the history of the Ancien Régime. On his deathbed Mazarin recommended Colbert to Louis XIV. It was not long before Colbert succeeded in involving Louis in a plot against Fouquet, which, because of Fouquet’s numerous informants in the court and administration, had to be conducted in great secrecy. One of the first steps was to send a spy, disguised as a fisherman, to reconnoitre Fouquet’s Belle-Île fortress. The spy returned with a map of the fortress and details of its 200-man garrison, 400 cannon and the fortifications being built by 1,500 labourers to Vauban’s design. Colbert’s agents also reported that Fouquet had plans to take over the Caribbean island of Martinique and export its produce to Belle-Île. ‘In short, Fouquet was building a miniature kingdom and a small empire.’

Colbert devised a secret plan, approved by the King, for Fouquet to be arrested without warning after a meeting of the provincial Estates in Nantes, well away from his strongholds of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Belle-Île. Louis went out of his way to allay Fouquet’s suspicions by giving him repeated signs of royal favour before his sudden arrest in Nantes immediately after a meeting with the King on 5 September 1661. Since the commander of the royal bodyguard, the Garde du Corps, was an informant of Fouquet, he was arrested instead by Charles d’Artagnan, leader of the musketeers who accompanied the King on his travels. The fictional d’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’s celebrated mid-nineteenth-century novel The Three Musketeers, famous for the cry ‘All for one, one for all!’, has become far better known than the elusive and less romantic figure of the real musketeer. There is some evidence that the real d’Artagnan had carried out espionage missions for Mazarin and thus had the experience required for the secret operation which culminated in his arrest of Fouquet.

Colbert arranged for the simultaneous seizure of Fouquet’s files, chief among them the Cassette, a massive folio volume hidden behind a large armoire in his office containing financial secrets, evidence of corruption, and details of his agents, informers and mistresses. After a controversial three-year trial, Fouquet was sentenced to life imprisonment. Louis was proud of his own role in the sophisticated intelligence operation orchestrated by Colbert. The King later claimed that ‘the whole of France’, as well as approving the overthrow of Fouquet, ‘particularly praised’ his success in keeping secret the plan to arrest him for three or four months, despite the fact that Fouquet’s informers were all around him. Colbert’s critics said privately that his family crest of a climbing snake had proved highly appropriate.

From 1665 until his death in 1683 Colbert was Controller-General of Finance and First Minister in all but name. He regarded the royal account books, financial reports and all other state financial information as classified intelligence for official use only, believing that all ministers and government officials should take oaths of secrecy and lose their jobs if they broke them. Colbert’s ultimate aim was to assemble a classified audit of all the local resources and administrative systems of the French kingdom, sending officials to obtain information on population numbers, land holdings, economic activity, local regulations, laws and important individuals. He expanded the audit to include neighbouring states, drawing much of his inspiration from the sixteenth-century trading and banking empire of the Augsburg Fugger family, whose sophisticated filing system included regular reports from a far-flung network of correspondents. Colbert told his son (whom he hoped would succeed him) before sending him on a mission to Italy in 1671:

In each state, look at . . . its situation, its military forces, the size of its population, the greatness of the state, the number and size of cities, towns, and villages . . . ; the form of State government, and if it is aristocratic . . . the names and status of noble families that have taken or will take part in governing the Republic; their different functions; their general and particular councils; who represents the State, in whom the sovereign power lies and who resolves peace and war, who makes laws; etc . . . the results of elections; the particular councils for the militia, the admiralty, justice, for the city and for the rest of the State; the laws and the customs . . . Visit the public works, maritime and on land, all the palaces, public buildings, and generally all that is remarkable.

Faced with this demanding agenda, Colbert’s son had more than once to apologize to his father for failing to live up to his high expectations.

Colbert, concludes a recent study of him, aimed to construct a ‘secret state intelligence system’. Though only fragmentary evidence of Colbert’s use of the cabinet noir survives, his intelligence system involved the interception (and, where necessary, decryption) of correspondence. Colbert wrote to the Intendant of Toulouse in 1682 that letters from Flanders to Toulouse had revealed the existence of an important plot (possibly involving the spread of Jansenist heresy) which it was ‘very important to clarify’. Other intercepted correspondence to and from Toulouse revealed (unspecified) commercial ventures in Rome, which Colbert declared ‘prejudicial to the service of the King’.

Apart from its ambitiousness, a major obstacle to the development of Colbert’s state intelligence system was his rivalry with the marquis de Louvois, Secretary of State for War from 1662 until his death in 1691.† From 1668, Louvois was also superintendent of the posts, a position which brought him an income of about a million livres a year, as well as giving him greater authority than Colbert over the operations of the cabinet noir, which he used for military as well as political intelligence.‡ In 1668, at the request of the French military commander, the prince de Condé (‘le grand Condé’), who was in Dijon, preparing for the invasion of Franche-Comté, Louvois postponed the delivery of the post to Dijon until the invasion had begun, to prevent correspondents in Paris giving advance warning of it.

Louvois attached more importance to intelligence than any other European War Minister of his time. The growth in the size of armies in the age of Louis XIV, as well as of the munitions and rations they required, combined with the immense improvements in fortifications pioneered by Vauban to increase the importance of military intelligence. In the forty years after 1667, Vauban directed the construction of thirty-seven new fortresses and fortified harbours, as well as upgrading the fortifications of about 300 cities in France and the Low Countries. Before beginning his victorious advance along the River Meuse at the start of the Franco-Dutch War in 1672, Condé sent a fortifications expert to reconnoitre enemy fortresses. This reconnaissance probably contributed to the rapid conquest of four fortresses on the Rhine, for which Louis XIV claimed personal credit: ‘I hope no one complains that I disappointed public expectations.’ In 1673 the King’s army, after a siege conducted by Vauban, also took the Dutch fortress of Maastricht. French victories and Vauban’s fortifications increased the priority of military intelligence among France’s opponents. French military archives in the château de Vincennes contain an intelligence questionnaire given by his superiors to a military engineer in the Rhine army of the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I who was also working as a French agent. He was asked to collect intelligence on French fortifications from both their designers and builders. In addition to identifying French military units and their commanders (later known as battle-order intelligence), the engineer was also asked for details of their stocks of munitions and rations, as well as information on their finances and how recently their troops had been paid. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century such an attempt to collect this kind of military intelligence would have been very unusual.

Improved military intelligence contributed to the superiority of French armies over their foreign opponents in the 1660s and 1670s, though the fact that, thanks largely to Louvois, Louis XIV had both the largest European army of the era (possibly the largest since the fall of the Roman Empire) and the greatest generals – Condé, the vicomte de Turenne and the duc de Luxembourg – contributed far more. Louvois acted as his own intelligence chief. In dealing with Louis XIV, however, he had to face the classic problem of ‘telling truth to power’. This problem presented itself in an acute form in the autumn of 1673, when, following a Dutch and Habsburg offensive, combined with declarations of war on France by Spain and Brandenburg–Prussia, Louvois favoured a strategic withdrawal by French forces from some conquered territory. Louis, however, regarded retreat as incompatible with gloire. ‘In the King’s present mood’, wrote Louvois gloomily, ‘he would rather give up Paris or Versailles than Maastricht.’ French forces were thus pinned down defending conquests of the previous year while Dutch and Habsburg forces advanced to the Rhine.

Over the next decade Louis XIV lost both his greatest generals and his leading intelligence experts. Turenne died in battle in 1675. Soon afterwards the 64-year-old Condé, worn out by the exertions of his long military career and tortured by gout, retired. In 1682 the death of Rossignol, regarded by Colbert as one of the ‘most illustrious Frenchmen’ of the century, deprived France of the greatest codebreaker of the French Ancien Régime. With Colbert’s sudden death (probably from a kidney stone) in 1683, his still unfinished project to create a classified database was abandoned. Louis XIV gave up the attempt to centralize official information and dispersed responsibility for its collection and management to ministries and officials who lacked the accountancy skills required to conduct serious audits. Claude Le Peletier, who became Controller-General of Finance on Colbert’s death, complained to Louis XIV that he was unable to understand the state’s financial workings, for Colbert had kept them secret – ‘enclosed in his very self’.

After Colbert’s death, Louis XIV also lost interest in state finance and gave up the attempt to balance the books. He retained an active interest, however, in the operations of the cabinet noir. Louvois wrote to the French military commander in Alsace, Baron Joseph de Montclar, during the formation in 1685 of the anti-French League of Augsburg: ‘The King has been informed that in a few days’ time a courier of the Emperor [Leopold I] is due to return from Spain [through Alsace]. H[is] M[ajesty] judges it important in present circumstances to seize the courier’s valise and take possession of the despatches.’ On royal instructions, the attack on the imperial courier was to be disguised as a robbery: ‘Make sure that those whom you instruct to seize the courier’s valise do not fail to take all his money in order to strengthen the belief that they are robbers . . .’ Louis XIV also took a personal interest in what the cabinet noir revealed about gossip at court. The main topic for gossip in the mid-1680s and beyond was the King’s morganatic marriage to his mistress, Madame de Main-tenon. The marriage remained so secret that its exact date (possibly in October 1683) will probably never be known. Three young members of leading noble families were banished from Versailles in 1685 after their intercepted letters were found to contain satirical references comparing the royal couple to a decrepit provincial noble and his ageing mistress. Maintenon, who was fifty in 1685 (slightly older than Louis) and sensitive about her age, was outraged by ‘the very great irreverence’ of such gossip, which she denounced as an ‘abominable vice’.

The expulsions from Versailles in 1685 and other sanctions against ‘irreverent’ gossip must have inspired greater prudence in courtiers’ correspondence. Among those at court who were indignant about the invasion of their personal privacy by the cabinet noir was Louis XIV’s sister-in-law the Princess Palatine, who regularly corresponded with her German relatives. In one letter to a female relative, intended to shame those who opened it, she described how, while answering an urgent call of nature, the earthenware chamber pot on which she was sitting had broken. But for the fact that she clung on to a nearby table, she believed that the jagged fragments of the broken pot would have lacerated her derrière. This ‘fine story’, the princess added for the benefit of the letter-openers, would no doubt be considered ‘worthy of the attention of the Secretary of State [for foreign affairs] and I am sure that M. de Torcy will make a report on it to the King’.

Thanks chiefly to Charles II and his successor, James II, Louis XIV’s best foreign intelligence came from Britain. Charles II concealed the Treaty of Dover, secretly negotiated with Louis in 1670, from all but two of his ministers. The French ambassador in London from 1677 to 1688, Paul Barillon, marquis de Branges, reported that Charles was ‘so secret and impenetrable that even the most skillful observers are misled’. Barillon found James II, who succeeded his elder brother in 1685, much easier to deal with. James had received military training in the French army, was converted to Catholicism by a French Jesuit, and was strongly influenced by Louis XIV in his choice of the Catholic Mary of Modena as his second wife. Sir William Trumbull, James’s ambassador in Paris, later recalled that ‘all matters of moment were to be transacted by Barillon’, who was in close contact with Louvois as well as communicating directly with Louis XIV. James, Trumbull believed, ‘no doubt communicated to Barillon all that he knew’. Louis XIV’s special envoy, Usson de Bonrepaus, was also taken into James’s confidence. But James’s often expressed hopes to Barillon and Usson de Bonrepaus of returning England to the Catholic faith proved hopelessly optimistic. Given the difficulty of telling truth to power at the court of the Sun King, it is highly unlikely that any of Louis’s advisers dared tell him, even if they realized it, that James’s impossible project of a Catholic England risked putting his throne in jeopardy.

The English ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was, in part, an anti-Catholic revolution. James II was overthrown by an invasion led by the Dutch Stadholder and Protestant hero William of Orange. Until 1688 William’s wife, Princess Mary, the Protestant daughter of James II by his Protestant first wife, Anne Hyde, had been James’s heir. On 10 June, however, Mary of Modena gave birth to a son and heir, James Francis Edward, thus threatening the Protestant succession. William sent his close friend William Nassau van Zuylestein (later 1st Earl of Rochford) to London, ostensibly to convey his congratulations to James and Mary of Modena on the birth of their son. Zuylestein’s real mission, however, was to continue secret talks with James’s leading opponents which he and others had begun in the previous year. He also reported to William a widespread belief that James’s alleged son was a baby who had been secretly smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan. On 30 June, at William’s private request, seven of James’s opponents, later known as the ‘Immortal Seven’, sent a letter assuring him that, if he landed in England to protect English liberties, his forces would receive widespread support.

The timing of William’s landing was influenced by top-secret intelligence (‘secretum secretorum’) which he received from the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, Leopold I. William kept the identity of his informant in Vienna so secret that he refused to reveal it even to the leading Dutch supporters of his invasion of England. Recent research shows that the informant was the Emperor himself. Leopold warned William that Louis XIV was planning an attack on the Dutch United Provinces and other Protestant states, and was trying to persuade him to join an alliance against them. Though Catholic, Leopold had hitherto been an ally of the Protestant Dutch, but he now informed William that, if Louis XIV defeated the United Provinces and James II crushed English opposition to his rule, he would be obliged to change sides. The Protestant nightmare, shared by William, of a Roman Catholic grand alliance of Bourbon France, Habsburg Austria and Stuart England would become a reality. We now know that Leopold’s claims that the French were offering him the cession of Alsace and other inducements to form an alliance were fraudulent – part of his successful campaign to win Dutch support against Louis XIV. William, however, was completely taken in by the false intelligence he received from Vienna, and used it repeatedly from July 1688 to demonstrate the urgency of intervention in England.

Though William had good intelligence from England while planning his invasion, James II had virtually none from the Dutch Republic. Deceived by disinformation from Dutch envoys, he was so confident that William’s military preparations were for war with France rather than the invasion of England that, when Louis XIV offered to place the French Atlantic fleet at his disposal, James assured him it would not be needed. By the time he discovered his mistake in September, it was too late; the fleet had been deployed elsewhere. It also took some weeks for James to discover that William had printed 60,000 copies of a declaration intended to justify his invasion for distribution in England. William declared that his purpose was ‘to preserve and maintain the liberties, laws and customs of England’. Despite the fact that he had earlier congratulated James on the birth of his son and heir, he also declared the need to investigate the circumstances of the birth, thus appearing to give credence to the conspiracy theory that the baby had arrived in the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan.

Obtaining intelligence on where William’s forces intended to land was impossibly difficult. When the invasion fleet first set off in mid-October, storms drove it back to port. Driven west by a ‘Protestant wind’ at the second attempt, William decided at the last minute to land at Torbay in Devon on 5 November.32 Most support for James II quickly melted away. ‘The reason we have so little intelligence’ from the West Country, complained his Secretary of State, Charles Middleton, was that ‘none of the gentry of this or adjacent counties come near the court and the common [folk] are spies to the enemy’. Government spies continued to take Stuart money only to transfer their allegiance to William’s forces at the first opportunity. Among those who changed sides was James’s ablest general, John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough). Even his younger daughter, the future Queen Anne, deserted him.

William could not have predicted that, with a larger army than his own, James would give up without a fight. On 11 December James threw the Great Seal of England into the Thames (hoping thus to prevent the passing of legislation in his absence) and travelled in heavy disguise to the Kent coast, where a small ship was waiting to take him to France. Before he could escape, however, he was caught by fishermen looking for fleeing Catholic priests, and suffered the humiliation of becoming the only British monarch ever to be strip-searched. Not until James had been frog-marched to the nearest town (another unique experience for an English monarch) was he recognized as the King. A crucifix stolen from him by the fishermen was given back. After briefly returning to London, James made a second attempt to flee, which William allowed to succeed. James’s flight to France, where he arrived on Christmas Day 1688, enabled his opponents to claim that he had abdicated and left the throne vacant. In February 1689 William and Mary were declared joint rulers.

William became simultaneously King William III of England and Ireland, William II of Scotland and Stadholder of the Dutch Republic. He immediately embroiled England as well as the Dutch Republic in the Nine Years War (1688–97) between Louis XIV (who continued to recognize James II as King of England and Ireland, and as James VII of Scotland) and a Grand Alliance dominated by William which also included the Austrian Habsburgs, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and Savoy. Among William’s main wartime intelligence assets, little noticed by historians, was John Wallis, by now in his early seventies and in fragile health but still active as an Oxford mathematician and theologian as well as Britain’s chief cryptanalyst. Though Wallis had been distrusted by James II, probably in part because he was an Anglican priest, William was quick to recognize his talents. His correspondence with the leading Dutch statesman Anthonie Heinsius shows his admiration for Wallis as the greatest codebreaker of the era. The King’s personal interest in Wallis was in striking contrast with the distance he kept from most other British officials. He spent much of his time with foreign advisers in Hampton Court and Kensington, away from the great palace of Whitehall, the main seat of Stuart government. Unlike his sociable wife, Queen Mary, William was one of the most reserved and reclusive monarchs in British history. Mary’s death from smallpox in 1694 made the monarchy even more remote from most of its subjects.

Some of the first important decrypts produced by Wallis during William and Mary’s reign followed James II’s landing in Ireland in March 1689 with Jacobite and French forces, who began a siege of the Protestant stronghold of Londonderry (Derry) a month later. The relief of the 105-day siege, which, despite heavy loss of life, failed to starve the defenders into submission, is still celebrated by Unionists every August with the firing of a cannon to commemorate the apprentice boys who shut the city gates against James’s advancing armies. Wallis wrote to the Earl of Nottingham, one of the King’s two Secretaries of State, when sending him a decrypted despatch from an unidentified French commander soon after the relief of Londonderry: ‘I have met with better success than at first I could promise your lordship or myself and with more expedition than I could hope for.’ The decrypt gave William III welcome intelligence on dissension between Jacobite and French forces. The French commander complained that arms suppliers chosen by James II’s staff to provide munitions for his forces during the siege had defrauded him:

Orders were given for a supply of cannon and ammunition for our use, but they took care that, of the two cannon sent, only one would take the cannon balls supplied and the fuses were nearly worn out. Nothing I could do could then remedy these defects. I have made the [Jacobite] general officers understand the state of affairs so that they may inform the King, their master, of it, who I am sure will deal with those who are guilty in a fitting manner. The mistake cannot have been committed in ignorance, because, in my despatch, on which they acted, I particularly directed that the shot was to be tried, to see if it fitted the cannon and the fuses that they fitted the touch holes. If like faults are committed with impunity one cannot feel the same ardour for King [James’s] service. Shame will be acquired and reputation lost, if the public simply hear that supplies have been sent to the [French] camp without being also told that those supplies were useless. It will be thought that nothing was done, because the [French] officers were incapable. I am on my mettle, not being willing to be overcome by their malice.

As well as revealing dissension between French and Jacobite officers, increased by the failure of the Londonderry siege, the decrypted despatches of the French commander also reported disputes within James’s own high command. The Earl of Tyrconnell, commander-in-chief of his Irish army, was said to have faced ‘almost insurmountable resistance’ by James and, it was believed, his Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, to authorizing essential expenditure: ‘I am assured that Lord Tyrconnell’s discontent, as much as his indisposition, has contributed to his retirement to a country house.’ Wallis noted that one of the intercepted French despatches sent to him was in very poor condition: ‘Nor know I how it becomes so rotten and discoloured in so short a time: Unless possibly it may have been thrown overboard into salt water & recovered from thence.’ This was a distinct possibility, since some French despatches were intercepted at sea.

When sending Nottingham the decrypt from a French commander in Ireland, Wallis reported that another intercepted despatch, addressed to Louis XIV, ‘was in a hard cipher . . . I cannot yet see my way to break it.’42 Within a fortnight, however, he had begun to decrypt highly sensitive correspondence between Louis XIV and his ambassador in Warsaw:

I am almost ashamed to tell yo[u]r Lordship how much time & pains on that very perplexed cypher in the Letter from Poland, & have not yet dispatched it. But by what I have done all ready, I find two things (which seem to me) of moment. One is a Treaty (or entreaty rather) of the French King with the King of Poland presently to make a war on Prussia. The other, about a marriage of the Princess of Hanover with the Prince of Poland, promoted by the French King. How far it may be of concernment to us to know it, I am no competent Judge. But I thought it did become me to give this timely notice of it (lest there might be a prejudice by delay) while I am preparing to give a fuller account of that letter . . .

William immediately saw the opportunity to provoke a political crisis between France and Poland by revealing the contents of the decrypted French despatches. Wallis was quick to claim much of the credit: ‘The deciphering some of those letters . . . quite broke off all the French King’s measures in Poland . . . & caused his Ambassadors to be thence thrust out with disgrace. Which one thing was of much greater advantage to his Ma[jes]ty & his Allies than I am like to receive on that account.’ Contrary to his initial expectation, Wallis was given by Nottingham ‘a Present (from the King, I suppose) of Fifty pound. Which I looked upon as a handsome gratuity for the service then done and as a testimon[y] of his Ma[jes]ty’s acceptance (which I valued) and returned my acknowledgements.’ Wallis was anxious, however, that future French decrypts be kept secret in order not to lead France to change its ciphers.

Wallis’s success in revealing Louis XIV’s plans to provoke war between Poland and Prussia so impressed Frederick I, Duke (later King) of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, that he asked Wallis to decrypt further (probably French) despatches for him. Having done so, Wallis was told that Frederick was sending him ‘a rich medal with an honourable inscription, & a gold chain of a great value’. Two years later, Wallis had still received neither and complained to the English ambassador in Berlin of being ‘treated like a child, as if I were to be wheedled on to difficult services by a few fair words, & a promise of a few sugar-plums, which should in the issue signify nothing’. The ‘rich medal’ and gold chain did, however, eventually arrive. Both appear on a small table by Wallis’s side in a portrait of him by the leading court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller, presented to Oxford University by Wallis’s friend and admirer Samuel Pepys. Wallis was the first, and so far the only, British codebreaker to receive an award from a foreign ruler.

By the end of 1689, Wallis had succeeded in breaking a series of French diplomatic and military ciphers used by, among others, Louis XIV’s Foreign Minister, Colbert de Croissy, as well as by Louis himself.48 When sending the Earl of Nottingham the decrypt of a despatch to Croissy in December, Wallis added:

I am very ready to serve his Majesty the best I can, gratis, and to lay [aside] all my own affairs, as I have done this half year, to attend this service. I have been indisposed as to my health all this winter, my eyesight fails me so that I must be forced to quit this service. I have had assistance from my son who with some directions from me could pretty well perform it. I have lost the sight of one eye in the service already this winter.

Nottingham replied:

I . . . am very sorry this service has so much prejudiced your health. I have acquainted the King with it, who is very sensible of your zeal and good affection, and will, I believe, in a short time give you some mark of his favour, wherein my endeavours shall not be wanting to serve you. If I have occasion, hereafter, to send you any more of these letters, I will not press you to despatch them in so much haste as formerly, but leave it to you to do them more at leisure.

In fact, despite his fragile health, Wallis continued breaking ciphers for the remainder of the reign of William III, and outlived him by nearly two years. Wallis, however, continued to resent the fact that he received no regular salary as royal codebreaker and depended on irregular payments. Anxious to provide for his family, he told Nottingham he would be grateful for ‘any kindness’ in finding employment for his son and son-in-law, both struggling lawyers. Despite his age and infirmity, Wallis also declared himself ‘capable of any promotion Ecclesiastical’. Despite complimenting Wallis on his work, Nottingham failed to respond to his requests. As Wallis complained:

. . . Having (for my Lord Nottingham) condescended to do clarks[clerk’s]-work: I might at least expect clarks-wages (without being thought mercenary or ungentle). And I presume there is never a clark his Lo[rdshi]p keeps, but is (one way or other) better payd, for the work he doth, than I am.

He may say perhaps, This is (not his, but) the King’s service. Very true. And so is all the service his Lo[rdshi]p doth as Secretary. Yet he is well payd for it. And, so well, that he may (out of his allowance) afford to gratify those that work under him.

William III’s main military priority in 1690 was to drive James II and his forces from Ireland. Convinced that ‘nothing worthwhile would be done’ to end James’s rule in Ireland unless he took personal charge of the campaign, William crossed the Irish Sea in June 1690. The intelligence provided by Wallis’s decrypts was of great importance. Had Louis XIV sent further forces to add to the French regiments already in Ireland, James’s prospect of victory would have been much greater. Though the French fleet was stronger than those of the British and Dutch combined, William knew from intelligence reports (probably including decrypts) that the French fleet had no soldiers on board, and therefore that no French reinforcements were on the way to Ireland. At the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, on 1 July 1690, William won a crushing victory over James II, who left Ireland never to return, angrily blaming his poorly led Irish troops for having ‘basely fled the field’. His Irish forces conferred on James the nickname Seamus an Chaca (‘James the Shithead’). The victory of the French fleet over the British and Dutch at the Battle of Beachy Head on 10 July did nothing to restore his fortunes.

Intelligence in the Era of the Sun King Part II

William III painted in the 1690s

William III’s understanding of foreign intelligence, and in particular of black chambers (so called after the French cabinet noir), exceeded that of any other ruler of his time – or any other monarch in British history, with the possible exception of George I. As well as receiving decrypts from Wallis, from 1693 William III was also able to make use of a black chamber established at Celle in Lower Saxony, the official residence until 1705 of one of the two branches of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg. William III was a personal friend of the last member of the dynasty, Duke George William of Celle, who had probably been inspired to found a black chamber by William’s diplomatic coup after Wallis’s decryption of Louis XIV’s correspondence with his ambassador in Poland. The two rulers had a common interest in monitoring French diplomacy in Germany and Northern Europe. Copies of intercepted French despatches obtained in Celle were forwarded to London. Inspired by the Celle example, the other branch of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg in Hanover also set up a black chamber, at Nienburg. After Duke George Louis I, the future King of England, became Elector of Hanover in 1698, the two black chambers cooperated closely. By 1701 they even had a joint bonus scheme. When George William died in 1705, George I inherited the duchy of Celle and the two black chambers as well as the two duchies combined. As well as taking over Celle’s codebreakers, George removed the contents of the ducal palace and took them to Hanover. The development of codebreaking in both Celle and Hanover probably owed much to the inspiration of the great mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who, though not a codebreaker himself, had a keen theoretical interest in the principles of cryptanalysis.

Despite the achievements of the black chambers in Celle and Hanover, Leibniz deferred to Wallis, even when Wallis was in his early eighties, as the greatest codebreaker of the age. Wallis wrote in 1701:

I have been solicited by . . . Leibnitz, more than once, in behalf of the Elector of Hanover: who is willing to send hither some young men, whom he desires I would instruct therein; leaving it to me to make my own proposals on what terms I would undertake it. To which I have returned answer, That I shal be ready, my selfe to serve his Electoral Highness if there be occasion: but the skill of doing it, being a curiosity which may be of use to my own Prince, I do not think it proper to send it abroad, without his Ma[jes]ty’s leave.

In 1701, two years before his death, Wallis at last secured the regular salary he had sought for the past decade. While training his precocious grandson William Blencowe, who had just graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford, at the age of only eighteen, to succeed him, Wallis was granted £100 a year, backdated to 1699. At Wallis’s request, the salary was paid to him during his lifetime, ‘which is not like to be long (being now in my 85th year), and thenceforth to the young man during his Majesty’s pleasure’.

William III’s most important foreign agent network was at James II’s court in exile at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. The agent penetration of Saint-Germain became so notorious that the Abbé Renaudot, its French liaison with Versailles, mistakenly concluded that James’s Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, was in the pay of William III. At Louis XIV’s insistence, James dismissed Melfort in 1694 and banished him to the provinces. William’s agents at Saint-Germain enabled him to feel some confidence that, as was to happen early in 1696, he would receive advance warning of any attempt by James to launch a cross-Channel invasion with French support. But William could not hope to keep the whole Jacobite exile community in France under surveillance. Numbering about 50,000, it was much larger, in proportion to the size of the British population, than the membership of the British Communist Party at any time in the twentieth century, as well as a far more diffuse and elusive target. Until the last minute, there was no intelligence warning of a serious plot to assassinate William which had been devised by a group of Jacobite exiles in 1695 and timed to precede the planned invasion of 1696.

Assessing the threat posed by Jacobite conspiracy in England was also difficult. Much public denunciation of William and Mary was simply alehouse talk which posed no significant threat to national security. The usual penalty imposed at the Middlesex assizes for such seditious talk was a fine combined with a sentence to spend an hour at the busiest time of the day in the pillory at Charing Cross, Covent Garden, St James’s Street, St John Street, Bow Street, the Strand or New Palace Yard. Most informers’ reports of Jacobite sympathizers contained nothing of real importance. An informant named James Ormiston wrote, for example, in 1695 to one of the secretaries of state, Sir William Trumbull, to report that a Captain Clifford had mistaken him for a Catholic and told him in an alehouse, under the influence of drink, that preparations for a Jacobite rising were going very well (though he declined to give details) and ‘in a short time we should have home our sovereign King James again’. A more experienced agent told Trumbull that such claims were ‘trumpeted in all [Jacobite] coffee houses’. There were similarly exaggerated reports that many French and other foreign travellers were Jacobite spies. Even John Wallis, not usually an alarmist, feared that many of the ‘great concourse’ of foreign students he saw in Oxford were really Jacobite agents sent ‘to take measure of the inclinations of the Kingdom’.

William III was more concerned with Jacobite sympathies among leading members of his own government and armed forces, some of whom had only recently changed sides in his favour and were quite capable of changing back again. Among them was the man who later emerged as the greatest British general of his generation: John Churchill, Earl (later Duke) of Marlborough. Though Marlborough had defected from James II’s forces a few weeks after William landed in England, in 1691 he began a secret correspondence with both James and the Duke of Berwick, James’s illegitimate son by Marlborough’s sister Arabella, and maintained contact with more than one Jacobite agent. Early in 1692 William dismissed Marlborough without warning. Those close to the King let it be known that Marlborough’s recent correspondence with James II had been intercepted and that he was suspected of revealing a secret plan by William to attack Dunkirk. Marlborough was sent to the Tower of London for six weeks and it took him several years to regain the King’s confidence. His later belief in the importance of ‘getting intelligence of the enemy’s motions and designs’ must have owed something his experience of William’s discovery of his own ‘designs’.

The majority of those with Jacobite connections in the government and armed forces were of what was called the ‘fire insurance’ variety – men who had no personal loyalty to James II but thought it prudent to keep some contact with his supporters in case he unexpectedly regained the throne. Keeping track of more serious Jacobite conspiracies was made more difficult by the diffuse nature of William III’s domestic intelligence system. William himself was partly responsible. He appointed no Scot or Thurloe to coordinate intelligence operations at home and abroad, as had happened during the Interregnum. William’s ministers were guilty of a classic failure to learn from past intelligence experience. In the mid-1650s the exiled Charles II had come to the pessimistic (and exaggerated) conclusion that Cromwell’s spymasters supplied him with ‘perfect intelligence of whatsoever His Majesty resolved to do’. The disorganized surveillance of Jacobites after the Glorious Revolution never approached in efficiency the penetration of royalist opposition by Scot and Thurloe a generation earlier. William’s two (sometimes three) secretaries of state independently ran their own agents, as well as receiving spasmodic reports on suspected Jacobites from local justices and mayors. Two Whig MPs, John Arnold and Henry Colt, ran their own spy networks to track down Jacobites, as did the Earl of Monmouth. Some county lords lieutenant, who led the local militias, took it on themselves to investigate subversive activity and arrest suspects.

The confused domestic intelligence system (far less effective than foreign intelligence), combined with widespread fear of Jacobite conspiracy, created new opportunities for confidence tricksters, much as earlier fears of ‘popish plots’ had enabled Titus Oates (undeservedly rehabilitated after the Glorious Revolution) to embark on a career as a celebrity fraudster. The confidence trickster who made the most sensational use of fraudulent intelligence on Jacobite plots after the Glorious Revolution was William Fuller, who claimed to have been brought up as a Catholic and employed both as a servant to James II’s adviser Lord Melfort and as a page to the Queen, Mary of Modena. By his own unreliable account, Fuller then secretly changed sides and worked as a Williamite agent at James’s court in exile at Saint-Germain. After assisting in the arrest of a Jacobite courier, Matthew Crone, in 1690 and giving evidence at his trial, Fuller extracted large sums of money to finance his supposed intelligence operations from William and his government. Among those deceived by Fuller was Queen Mary, who ordered him to be paid £100. Other sums paid to Fuller of which record survives are £180 ‘by his Majesty’s commands’ and £110 from the Earl (later Duke) of Shrewsbury. Fuller’s conspiracy theories, like those of Titus Oates just over a decade earlier, alarmed a nervous House of Commons. During two appearances at the bar of the House in 1691, he claimed that Louis XIV had spies in both the Privy Council and the offices of the secretaries of state. The truth of these and his other allegations of Franco-Jacobite conspiracy, he declared, could be proved by two witnesses who were currently abroad but willing to return if given safe passage and protection. The witnesses, however, failed to turn up as promised by Fuller. Early in 1692, Fuller claimed to be ‘very ill, with great vomiting and looseness’ of the bowels after being poisoned by Jacobites and unable to return to the Commons to give further evidence. Pretending to be on his deathbed, he gave a group of MPs who visited him a sworn statement directing them to the house of an apothecary where the elusive witnesses were allegedly lodging. But the witnesses were, once again, nowhere to be found and Fuller did not die. Embarrassed by their previous gullibility in taking seriously Fuller’s fraudulent inventions, the Commons angrily resolved that he was an impostor and cheat who had ‘scandalized Their Majesties and the government and abused this House and falsely accused several persons of honour and quality’. After prosecution by the Attorney General, he was sentenced to stand in the pillory, like Oates in 1685, and to pay a fine of 200 marks.

The most serious authentic Jacobite conspiracies uncovered by intelligence operations were linked plans to invade England and to assassinate William III in 1696. According to William’s informants at the court of Saint-Germain, James was confident, despite his humiliating flight from England and defeat in Ireland, that, with French assistance, he could recover his throne. In January 1696 he sent his illegitimate son, the Duke of Berwick, secretly to England to prepare an insurrection. Berwick rashly assured Louis XIV, who ordered troops to assemble on the Channel coast to support the insurrection, that ‘King James has a great party both in England and Scotland who will take up arms as soon as they hear he is landed.’ William’s closest adviser, the Dutch-born William Bentinck, first Duke of Portland, received intelligence reports from Flanders ‘that the enemy had collected a great body of troops at Dunkirk and Calais as well as a large number of transport vessels and ships of war, that the troops were either on board or being embarked and that it was well known there that they were assembled for the invasion of England’. Portland later confided to the English diplomat Baron Lexington: ‘We were on the brink of a precipice and ready to fall. When, by a manifest interposition of providence, we were made aware of the danger which threatened us and all Europe.’

What Portland called the ‘interposition of providence’ was intelligence received on the evening of 14 February 1696 that, in addition to the planned French invasion in support of a Jacobite rebellion, a well-prepared attempt would be made next day to assassinate the King as he returned by coach from a hunting expedition down a narrow street. Portland’s informant, Thomas Prendergast, had been chosen as one of a group of eight assassins led by Sir George Barclay, a Jacobite army officer at James’s court in exile who had travelled to London in disguise. Prendergast’s allotted role was to fire a musketoon repeatedly into the royal coach but, he told Portland, his conscience would not allow him to go ahead. With some difficulty, Portland persuaded William to postpone his hunt until 22 February. On the evening of the 21st, Prendergast went to Kensington Palace to report that the assassins had reassembled and intended to kill the King after the hunt next day. His report was confirmed by a double agent, Francis Delarue. Prendergast was shown into the presence of the King and for the first time revealed the names of his Jacobite associates. When the royal hunt was again cancelled, rumours spread that a plot had been discovered and the would-be assassins fled. Though most, including Barclay, eventually escaped to France, eleven of those involved in the plot – some peripherally – were executed or imprisoned. Plans for a French invasion, which would probably have gone ahead if the assassination had succeeded, were cancelled. The exposure of the plot did great damage to the Jacobite cause and strengthened William’s popularity at a time of economic crisis. The Duke of Berwick, who also escaped to France, despite the offer of a £1,000 reward for his capture, later claimed that ‘he came over to stir up rebellion, but knew nothing of the assassination’. He admits in his Memoirs, however, that he was informed of a plot to ‘kidnap’ the King, which he did not countermand. Since no such plot existed, ‘kidnap’ may have been a euphemism for assassination. After his escape, Berwick never returned to Britain.

The death in exile of James II in 1701 was hastened by an English intelligence coup involving his former Secretary of State Lord Melfort, whom James had allowed back to Saint-Germain from provincial exile in 1697 and restored to favour as gentleman of the bedchamber. In 1701 a French messenger mistakenly delivered a letter written by Melfort to his brother Lord Perth to the English court at Whitehall instead. The letter contained secret details about Jacobite supporters in Scotland and discussed the possibility of a French invasion. Seizing this unexpected opportunity to embarrass both James and Louis, William ordered the publication of the letter. Versailles was so furious that it accused Melfort of having deliberately sent the letter to Whitehall in the hope of provoking another war between France and England. James was so shocked when told of the letter’s publication that he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. At Louis XIV’s insistence, the unfortunate Melfort was once again banished to provincial exile.

Within a year, for reasons unconnected with Melfort’s letter, England and France were once again in conflict with the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–14), a further episode in the long-drawn-out struggle to contain the power of Louis XIV’s France that had dominated European politics for almost half a century. For much of the war the armies of England and its allies, under the leadership until 1711 of the Duke of Marlborough, the British commander-in-chief (‘captain-general’), triumphed over those of Louis XIV. The Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria in 1704 was both the first great English land victory on the Continent since the Hundred Years War and Louis XIV’s first decisive defeat. Marlborough was given the royal estate at Woodstock and a blank cheque to construct on it the great palace named after his victory. ‘For a time’, writes the historian Mark Kishlansky, ‘Marlborough was the most famous man in the world.’ He won further decisive victories at Ramillies in 1706, which enabled him to take possession of the Spanish Netherlands in a lightning campaign, and at Oudenarde in 1708, a battle which ended all prospect of a French invasion of the Dutch Republic.

Good intelligence, as well as Marlborough’s inspired generalship, contributed to Allied victories. Unlike British intelligence successes in the Nine Years War, however, those in the War of the Spanish Succession owed nothing to the monarch. Intelligence was beyond the mental horizons of William’s successor, Queen Anne. As her confidante, the Duchess of Marlborough, complained, Anne’s mind was so taken up with ‘ceremonies and customs of courts and such like insignificant trifles’ that her chief topics of conversation were ‘fashions and rules of precedence’. Though only thirty-seven when she became queen, Anne had to be carried to her coronation in a sedan chair, prematurely aged by seventeen pregnancies, all of which had ended tragically in miscarriages, still births or the birth of babies who died in infancy. Her pleasures were limited to dining and gambling.

The moving force in English intelligence during Anne’s reign (1702–14) was the Duke of Marlborough. The latest and best biography of Marlborough, by the military historian Richard Holmes, concludes that ‘The acquisition and analysis of intelligence underlay everything he did.’ When Marlborough assumed command of the Allied army in the Low Countries in April 1702, he appointed William (later General Earl) Cadogan his quartermaster-general; unofficially, he was also Marlborough’s intelligence chief – the first appointed by any English general. Cadogan was an excellent linguist, fluent in French, Dutch and German. While leading a reconnaissance expedition near Tournai in July 1706, he was taken prisoner by a French cavalry patrol. Aware of Marlborough’s high regard for him, the French chivalrously released him in a prisoner exchange. Lord Strafford claimed that the Dutch Grand Pensionary, Heinsius, had told him: ‘If you want to have a Duke of Marlborough, you need a Cadogan.’

As well as collating tactical intelligence from enemy prisoners and deserters, Cadogan also ran an agent network in France, much of it at the main French ports. The inducements given to his agents were not simply financial. Cadogan told Marlborough’s private secretary, Adam de Cardonnel, in 1705: ‘You will give me leave to remember my good friend the Conseiller Intime. I hope the Tokay and the lady are provided for him as promised.’ Cardonnel also ran an intelligence network through a former private secretary of William III, the Huguenot refugee Jean de Robethon, who had become private secretary and influential adviser to the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I. A few months before Blenheim, Robethon gave him a captured memorandum by Louis XIV’s Secretary of State for War, Michel de Chamillart, which summarized Louis’s instructions to his commanders. ‘We find . . . the utmost designs of the enemy in this memorial’, wrote Cardonnel, ‘and I hope we shall be able to traverse them.’ Marlborough thus knew the French campaign plan – that French commanders were to engage in battle only disunited Allied forces. Before Blenheim, by contrast, the French commander, Marshal Camille de Tallard, professed ‘total ignorance of the strength of the enemy’; he had no idea that the combined forces of Marlborough and his chief ally, the imperial commander-in-chief, Prince Eugène of Savoy (French-born but rejected by Louis XIV for service in the French army), were so close to him. Whereas Marlborough had devised his own campaign plan with the help of good intelligence, Tallard complained to Chamillart that a bad campaign plan had been imposed on him and that his Bavarian allies were impossible to deal with. He also blamed his own forces for his humiliating defeat: ‘The bulk of the cavalry did badly, I say very badly, for they did not break a single enemy squadron.’ Tallard spent the next eight years as prisoner-of-war in relative comfort in Nottingham, teaching his English captors how to make lace, bake proper bread, and grow celery, all skills hitherto unknown to them.

Following Marlborough’s victory at Ramillies and his unopposed entry into Brussels, previously under French control, in May 1706, he and the Dutch acquired a major new intelligence source. In December François Jaupain, who had taken charge of the Brussels post office, offered his services to Marlborough and the Earl of Sunderland, newly appointed Secretary of State. Jaupain gained control of all mail delivery between those parts of the Spanish Netherlands still under French or Bavarian control and Northern Europe. In the summer of 1707 and again in the spring of 1708, he joined Marlborough on his military campaigns, running an intelligence unit which collected information on enemy troop movements and provisioning. Jaupain’s main contribution to the Allied war effort, however, was to provide a regular flow of French intercepted messages to the youthful royal decipherer in England, William Blencowe, who had succeeded his grandfather John Wallis on Wallis’s death in 1703. Blencowe, then a twenty-year-old Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, was paid the salary of £100 a year negotiated by Wallis two years earlier. He initially made slow progress in breaking French ciphers, partly because of the limited number of intercepts sent to him. On one occasion Marlborough sent him a captured despatch from Chamillart, the French Secretary of State for War, but Blencowe failed to decrypt it in time for Marlborough to make use of it. Blencowe’s ‘French Ministers Letter-book’ contains only three decrypts for the period up to 1706. Thereafter, thanks to the intercepts from Jaupain, their numbers greatly increased. There were also a smaller number of letters from the court of James III, ‘the Old Pretender’, son of James II, to Jacobites in Scotland. Ironically, some of the correspondence intercepted in Brussels contained warnings of the dangers of letter interception in London.

Blencowe was rewarded for his success in decrypting French despatches by the doubling of his salary to £200 a year. Queen Anne, no doubt at the prompting of her secretaries of state, also took his side in a dispute with his Oxford college. In 1709 Blencowe sought a dispensation to permit him to retain his fellowship at All Souls without, as was customary, taking holy orders. The Warden, Bernard Gardiner, refused and tried to force Blencowe either to take orders or to resign his Fellowship. Queen Anne’s intervention on Blencowe’s behalf led to the abolition of the Warden’s veto on dispensations. Blencowe’s precocious career as royal decipherer came to a tragically early end in 1712 at the age of only twenty-nine. During a bout of insanity following serious illness, Blencowe shot himself. His memorial in All Saints’ Church, Northampton, records his expertise in ‘the art of deciphering letters wherein he excelled, and served the public for ten years’.

Marlborough was so anxious to keep secret Blencowe’s decrypts of the French correspondence intercepted by Jaupain during the War of the Spanish Succession that he did not share them with his Dutch allies. He had good reason to doubt whether the Dutch could keep the secret. Following the death of the ‘Stadholder-King’, William III, day-to-day management of Dutch foreign policy had passed to Heinsius. Heinsius, in turn, had to answer to a supposedly secret committee of the States-General consisting of representatives of all the provinces, who on important matters had to consult their provincial States. ‘This meant, in effect’, writes the Dutch historian Karl de Leeuw, ‘that in the Dutch Republic more people were involved in the making of foreign policy than anywhere in the world and that it was extremely difficult to conduct any form of secret diplomacy.’

Marlborough was unaware that Jaupain was sending copies of French intercepts to Heinsius, as well as to himself, and that Heinsius was sending them on to the Elector George I’s black chamber in Hanover. From 1707 to 1711 he paid Hanover’s leading codebreaker, Ludwig Neubourg, 1,000 guilders a year. ‘This’, Neubourg told Heinsius in 1707, ‘will greatly enhance my enthusiasm.’ Like Heinsius, George I’s mother, Sophia of Hanover, heiress presumptive to Queen Anne under the 1701 English Act of Settlement, was an enthusiastic admirer of Neubourg’s codebreaking expertise, calling him ‘one of the wonders of the century’. George, however, changed his mind about Neubourg’s cooperation with the Dutch after the leak in The Hague in 1711 of a French diplomatic decrypt which personally embarrassed him. The decrypt revealed a scheme by the French court to cause dissension among the Allies by promoting the election of the Elector of Hanover as Holy Roman Emperor after the death of the Emperor Joseph I in April. During a visit to The Hague two months later, George’s influential personal secretary, Jean de Robethon, reported to him that rumours were circulating about the contents of the French decrypt: ‘It is out of the question that these rumours originate from the Grand Pensionary, but one cannot be sure of the deputies of the secret committee of the States-General, who get the intercepts to read as well, after our people [in Hanover] have decoded them.’ The Hanover black chamber ceased work for Heinsius soon afterwards. However, Heinsius’s private secretary, Abel Tasien d’Alonne, believed to be an illegitimate son of the Stadholder William II, had begun to set up a Dutch black chamber, which grew in importance over subsequent decades.

Blencowe’s decrypts provided Marlborough, on occasion, with valuable intelligence about his Dutch allies as well as his French enemies. Correspondence intercepted by Marlborough’s agents in 1709 revealed secret peace negotiations between Heinsius and Torcy, Louis XIV’s Secretary of State. Cadogan provided confirmation in May that Torcy had passed through Brussels, and sent Sunderland as well as Marlborough details of the peace terms which Torcy had secretly offered the Dutch. British pressure on Heinsius helped to ensure the failure of the Franco-Dutch negotiations. Faced with attempts by Louis XIV to break up the Grand Alliance by offering generous concessions to the Dutch and Germans, Britain publicly pledged to make no separate peace.

Cadogan ended 1709 with a strikingly confident intelligence assessment: ‘Great numbers of deserters come in daily, they are half starved and quite naked, and give such an account of the misery the French troops are in as could not be believed were it not confirmed by the reports and letters from all their garrison towns on the frontier.’ Cadogan was too optimistic. Unlike Marlborough’s previous triumphs at Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde, the Battle of Malplaquet in September 1709 was a Pyrrhic victory which left him with double the casualties of the French. For the first time he received no congratulations from Queen Anne. Marshal Claude Louis Hector de Villars, the last great French general of the Louis XIV era, wrote to the King: ‘If God will have the goodness to lose us another battle like this one, Your Majesty can count on the destruction of all our enemies.’ In the aftermath of Malplaquet, a war-weary British government was ready for peace negotiations.

The transformation of the English government in London into a British government by the Act of Union in 1707 had owed much to a domestic intelligence operation run by Queen Anne’s future First Minister Robert Harley, then Northern Secretary of State, who a few years earlier had claimed that he ‘knew no more of Scotch business than of Japan’. During the negotiations which preceded the passage of the Act, Harley had sent secret agents to Scotland to report on, and seek to influence, Scottish opinion. Chief among them was the great writer, polemicist and unscrupulous businessman Daniel Defoe, whom Harley had already used as an agent in England. Defoe, who arrived in Edinburgh in September 1706, was later described by a contemporary as ‘a Spy amongst us, but not known to be such, otherways the Mob of Edinburgh had pulled him to pieces’. When the draft Act of Union was published in October, a ‘villainous and outragious mobb’ threatened members of the Scottish Parliament and judiciary. Despite the street protests, Defoe acquired sources in the Scottish Parliament, the Church of Scotland, and major business and civic groups, as well as gaining control of all the newspapers. Though Defoe publicly denied being a spy, writes the Cambridge literary scholar John Kerrigan, ‘he so liked to cut a dash in coffee houses that he couldn’t resist hinting at his role. This mixture of concealment and showing off is typical of the man . . .’ Economic ‘inducements’ certainly played a major part in winning a majority for the Union in the Scottish Parliament. Harley said cynically of the negotiations which won Scottish support for the Act of Union: ‘We bought them.’

Harley’s most dangerous encounter with intelligence work came in 1711, when, to quote the usually authoritative Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he narrowly ‘survived an assassination attempt by a French spy, the marquis de Guiscard’. Antoine de Guiscard, Abbé de la Bourlie, marquis de Guiscard, was, in reality, a talented fantasist who spent more of his fraudulent career as an English than as a French agent. While living in Lausanne in 1704 Guiscard met and greatly impressed the English diplomat Richard Hill, who reported to the Earl of Nottingham, Secretary of State, that he ‘would engage to raise a revolt in Dauphine and Languedoc among the Catholics, if I would promise him such a protection and assurance as was absolutely necessary to begin the work. I liked the character of the man, and his temper so much, a man of figure, and family, very well known, that I promised him every thing.’ Guiscard claimed to have access to many French secrets and to carry with him a vial of poison in case he was caught by the agents of Louis XIV who were allegedly pursuing him.

Guiscard’s bizarre career is evidence of the vulnerability of Queen Anne’s governments (and, to a lesser extent, William’s) to intelligence fraud and the high-level access which a plausible impostor such as Guis-card could achieve. At the height of his influence, in 1706, he enjoyed the strong support of the Secretary for War, Henry St John, received 600 guineas from Queen Anne and a pension from the Dutch, and was given command of a regiment to land on the French coast and foment the uprising he had promised Hill two years earlier. The landing never took place and Guiscard’s credibility and income steadily declined over the next few years. In 1711 he sought to transform himself into a double agent working for Louis XIV, promising Torcy that, in so doing, he would ‘expiate his crimes towards [His Majesty] and towards his fatherland’. Though aware of Guiscard’s villainous reputation, Torcy was so impressed by his past high-level access to the British government that he sent an agent to England to make contact with him.

Guiscard’s correspondence, however, had been intercepted, and by the time Torcy’s agent arrived he was under arrest in London. On 8 March he was questioned by the members of the Cabinet (meeting without the presence of the Queen). Charged with treasonable correspondence with France, Guiscard at first denied it but was then confronted with his intercepted letters, which until that point had been hidden under a hat on the Cabinet table. He then lunged at Harley, head of the government elected in the previous year, and stabbed him with a penknife from his pocket. According to dramatic contemporary accounts, since many times repeated, though Harley was badly wounded, his life was saved by the heavy gold-thread embroidery lovingly sewn on his coat by his devoted sister Abigail, which broke the blade of the knife. Though the gold embroidery may have been a myth, the knife did break during the attack. A second attempt by Guiscard to stab Harley with the broken blade also failed to kill him, though Harley was confined to bed for the next six weeks. Harley’s attempted assassination by a French spy greatly increased his popularity among a public unaware of Guiscard’s earlier career as a fraudulent British agent. Guiscard died in Newgate Prison on 17 March from wounds sustained after his attack on Harley. Public interest in the assassination attempt was so great that the jailer pickled Guiscard’s corpse in a barrel, put it on display and charged a penny for admission. His remains were eventually interred at Newgate by royal command and the jailer, somewhat undeservedly, given £5 ‘to repair the damages done to the floor and ceilings of 2 rooms by the salt water that ran out of [Guiscard’s] cofin’. No double agent in British history has met a stranger end.

In June 1711 Harley, now Earl of Oxford, decided to begin secret negotiations with Louis XIV. On 12 July the poet and diplomat Matthew Prior was sent to France, travelling on a false passport in company with the French secret negotiator, Abbé François Gaultier, also travelling incognito. After ten days of negotiations with Torcy and an audience with Louis XIV, Prior returned to England with another French negotiator, Nicolas Mesnager. On landing in England he was briefly jailed by a customs official, whose suspicions may have been aroused by his false passport. The secret negotiations suddenly ceased to be secret. The Whig opposition to Harley’s Tory government derisively called the preliminary peace treaties signed on 8 October ‘Matt’s peace’.

Marlborough told Harley that ‘there is nothing on earth I wish more than an end to the war’, but disagreed with him on what constituted reasonable terms. His position was weakened by investigation of his military accounts, which uncovered a large shortfall. Marlborough maintained in his defence, not very persuasively, that he had personally received ‘no more than what has been allowed as a perquisite to the general, or commander-in-chief of the army’ and, rather more persuasively, that he had spent much of the money on ‘getting intelligence of the enemy’s motions and design’. On 30 December 1711 he was dismissed as commander-in-chief. His successor, the Duke of Ormond, was instructed to avoid engaging the enemy. On 11 April 1713 France, England, Holland, Portugal, Prussia and Savoy finally signed the Treaty of Utrecht, ending their involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Emperor and his German allies continued for another year but achieved nothing of significance.

Obsessed by his increasingly unsuccessful quest for glory, Louis XIV ruled France less successfully at the end of his reign than at the beginning. In the 1660s, guided by Colbert, he showed a serious interest in understanding his account books and maintaining national solvency. After Colbert’s death he gave up. On his death in 1715 Louis left a bankrupt France with no effective accounting system and little more territory than at the beginning of his personal rule, despite the ruinous cost of his almost continuous wars in human lives as well as money. Half a century earlier, Colbert had had a broader vision of intelligence than any other European statesman of his time. In the Nine Years War, by contrast, William III made far better use of foreign intelligence than Louis or any of his ministers. During the War of the Spanish Succession, no French general matched Marlborough’s intelligence flair. Louis XIV’s grasp of intelligence, as of much else, did not compare with that of Cardinal Richelieu, who had died when he was only four. Under Richelieu, France had been the world leader in intelligence. It has never been so since.

Russian Project 1241.2 [Pauk]

The Pauk class is the NATO reporting name for a class of small patrol corvettes built for the Soviet Navy and export customers between 1977 and 1989. The Russian designation is “Project 1241.2” Molniya-2. These ships are designed for coastal patrol and inshore anti-submarine warfare. The design is the patrol version of the Tarantul class corvette which is designated “Project 1241.1” by the Russians, but is slightly longer and has diesel engines. The boats are fitted with a dipping sonar which is also used in Soviet helicopters.

The superstructure the Molniya is divided into 3 levels, 3 different types of radar installation.

First, the upper which has installed fire-control radar for anti-ship missile Garpun-Bal-E (in Project 1241 RE Tarantul, radar is located on the top of the mast), followed by the fire control radar MR-123 Vympel for gunboat AK-176 and rapid firing AK-630 guns, on top of the mast to install the target search radar MR 352 positiv-E (note ship missiles Project 1241 RE Tarantul does not have this type of radar ).

Masts of Project 1241 RE Tarantul circle at an angle to the rear has also mast vertical box Molniya and lower,  the second mast column has installed 2 electronic warfare systems.

Weapons of Molniya more powerful than Tarantul, Molniya is fitted to 16 subsonic anti-ship missile Kh-35 Uran-E (NATO name SS-N-25 Switchblade range of 130 km, which is arranged into four launched two sides clusters with 4 missiles each cluster.

Project 1241.8 Molniya gunboat is equipped with AK-176M 76.2 mm, two rapid fire guns AK-630M, low-to-air missiles, Igla-1M, (with Russian weapons, M is used for a variation undergoing modernization).

Power source system of the two ships are the same are used engine CODOG (combined diesel gas turbines). The displacement of Molniya is little more than a little than Tarantul due carrying more missiles (550 tonnes compared with 490 tonnes).

Overall, the combat capability of the Molniya is higher than with Tarantul.

Displacement, tons: 580 full load

Dimensions, feet (metres): 190.3 x 34.4 x 8.2 (58 x 10.5 x 25)

Main machinery: 4 M504 diesels, 16 000 hp, 2 shafts

Speed, knots; 28-34

Complement: 40

Missiles: SAM SA N-5quad launcher, manual aiming: IR homing to 10 km (5.5 nm) at 1.5 Mach, warhead 25 kg, 8 missiles Guns: 1-3 in (76 mm)/60, 85° elevation, 120 rounds/minute to 7 km (3.8 nm); weight of shell 16 kg

1 -30 mm/65, 6 barrels. 3 000 rounds/minute combined to 2 km

Torpedoes: 4-1 6 m (406 mm) tubes Type 40. anti-submarine; active/passive homing up to 15 km (8 nm) at up to 40 knots, warhead 100- 150 kg

A/S mortars: 2 RBU 1 200 5 tubed fixed, range 1 200 m, warhead 34 kg.

Depth charges: 2 racks (12)

Countermeasures: Decoys 2-1 6-barrelled Chaff launchers ESM Passive receivers

Radars: Air/surface search Peel Cone, E band

Surface search Spin Trough, I band

Fire control Bass Tilt, H/l band

Sonars: VDS (mounted on transom), active attack, high frequency

Programmes: First laid down in 1977 and completed in 1979 Replacement for “Poti” class. In series production Soviet type name is maly prottvolodochny korabl meaning small anti-submarine ship.