WWII Gloster Meteor

While the Me 262 pilots were putting up a gallant but futile fight against overwhelming numerical odds, another jet fighter was entering service on the Allied side—the Gloster Meteor.

Since the early 1930s, while Ernst Heinkel worked on his jet engine, Frank Whittle had been engaged in a double struggle—with the problems of perfecting a gas turbine driving a series of enclosed impellers, and with trying to interest the RAF in his project. In 1939, Whittle joined creative forces with George Carter, chief designer for the Gloster Aircraft Company, and at about that same time the Air Ministry finally took an interest in the jet concept, issuing a contract to Gloster for an experimental airframe that could be adapted for operational use with minimum modification.

The result of Whittle’s and Carter’s efforts, the single-engine Gloster E28/39 finally flew at RAF Cranwell on May 15, 1941. Although the maiden flight lasted little more than a quarter of an hour, test pilot Phillip E. G. Sawyer emerged from the cockpit praising the plane, declaring that the jet was indeed the way of the future. The RAF was already convinced of that, for by then it had issued Specification F9/40, calling for five hundred twin-engine fighters using Whittle’s engine.

Eight developmental aircraft were built, the fifth of which, DG206, made the F9/40’s first flight from RAF Cranwell on March 5, 1942, with Michael Daunt at the controls. Whittle’s WSB engines were still being built at the Rover plant in Coventry, so de Havilland H1 Halford engines were substituted for the first flight. Although the plane exhibited a few problems, including a tendency to yaw violently as its speed approached 230 miles per hour, the Air Ministry found it promising enough to continue development, starting with redesigned larger tail surfaces. Trials were switched to Newmarket Heath, then to Barford Saint John, and finally to Moreton Valence, once a hardened runway was completed there. Policemen closed the roads whenever the Meteor, as the new jet was then being called, flew. Test flights were usually conducted when there was low cloud cover, to reduce the odds of unauthorized eyes seeing the top-secret fighter.

Meteor DG205/G, fitted at last with the Whittle-developed W2B engine, made its first flight on June 17, 1943. Development continued at a rather slow pace until the first production Meteor F Mark 1, EE210/G, flew from Moreton Valence on January 12, 1944. The production aircraft used Rolls-Royce-built W1B Welland I engines, but apart from a modified canopy and the installation of four 20mm Hispano Mark V cannon in the nose, it differed little from the prototype. Rated at 1,600 horsepower, the Welland I was a reliable and tractable power plant, but because of the Meteor’s size, rather than its modest weight, the plane was only able to reach a speed of about 390 miles per hour at sea level and a maximum of 415 miles per hour at higher altitudes, with a service ceiling of 40,000 feet. Given that less than exhilarating performance, some RAF people suggested that it was fit only to serve as a trainer. By then, however, the Air Ministry was aware of the Me 262 and of its imminent introduction to service, and consequently judged it psychologically important that the RAF have a jet of its own in frontline squadrons.

Another psychological factor arose that would serve as the ultimate call to arms for the Meteor. On June 12, 1944, the first V-1 (Vergeltungswaffe, or Vengeance Weapon) was launched against London. A pilotless flying bomb packing a ton of high explosive in the nose, powered by a simple, externally mounted pulse-jet engine, guided by gyros, and made to fall on its target when its predetermined allotment of fuel ran out, the V-1—or “Buzz Bomb,” as it came to be called by its intended victims—was meant to terrorize the British home front for the first time since the Battle of Britain, in reprisal for the Allied landings in Normandy six days earlier. To the RAF, it seemed almost a matter of destiny that its first jet should be among the aircraft mobilized to defend England against these swift, small, jet-propelled flying robots.

The unsuspecting first recipient of the Meteor was No. 616 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, which in June 1944 was flying Spitfire Mark VIIs from Culmhead, Somerset, on escort missions for bombers striking at German tactical targets in France. Rumors had been rife since the spring that the squadron was to be reequipped, but most pilots believed that the replacements would be Rolls-Royce Griffon-engine Spitfire Mark XIVs, two of which arrived at Culmhead in June. Shortly afterward, Squadron Leader Andrew McDowall and five other pilots were summoned to Farnborough to acquaint themselves with the new aircraft, but when they returned, they announced that 616 Squadron’s replacements would be jets—and unanimously added that once they had gotten accustomed to their tricycle landing gear, they were delightful machines to fly.

The first two Meteor Is, EE213 and EE214, began flying with 616 Squadron on July 12, 1944. Five more Meteors arrived on the fourteenth, and by the twenty-fifth squadron strength had reached a dozen, completely replacing its Spitfire VIIs. On July 21 two of the Meteors, escorted by the squadron’s Spitfires, flew to Manston airfield in Kent, followed two days later by five more jets. From there, newly promoted Wing Commander McDowall, Wing Cmdr. Hugh J. Wilson, Squadron Leader Leslie W. Watts, Flying Officers William H. McKenzie and T. J. Dean, and Warrant Officer Wilkes commenced operations against the V-1s.

At 1430 hours on July 27, 1944, Bill McKenzie flew the first Allied combat mission in a jet, patrolling around Ashford without incident. More “diver patrols,” as the RAF code-named its efforts to stop the flying bombs, were flown that afternoon by Dean and Watts, the latter catching up with an incoming V-1 over Ashford. With the “doodlebug” in his gunsight, Watts pressed the trigger button on the control column, but nothing happened. His guns had jammed, and the V-1 escaped and went on to hit its target. After that setback, it was decided that patrols against the vengeance weapons should be carried out by pairs of aircraft, since the odds of both Meteors’ guns jamming were unlikely. In order to increase their time in the air, the squadron moved its Meteors to a dispersal aerodrome near Ashford, reducing the distance they had to fly to reach the V-1s’ expected routes.

Finally, on the evening of August 4, “Dixie” Dean was only minutes from takeoff at Ashford when he spotted a V-1 ahead of and below him, heading toward Tunbridge Wells. Going into a shallow dive, Dean increased his speed to 385 miles per hour, then got in a brief burst of his guns before they jammed. Dean then brought the Meteor alongside the V-1 as close as he felt safe, slid his wing under the V-1’s and slowly pushed his control column to the left. As Dean’s plane banked, the force of air lifted the robot’s wing, unbalancing its autopilot until it abruptly flicked over on its back and dived into the ground, exploding harmlessly in the open countryside. Contrary to popular belief, the Meteor’s wingtip did not actually touch the V-1 during these “tip-and-run” tactics, since there was too much chance of damaging the fighter or even the loss of valuable pilots and aircraft. Air pressure sufficed to do the job.

Within minutes of Dean’s success, Flying Officer J. K. Rodger closed on another “diver” over Tunbridge and opened fire with his four 20mm cannon. This time, the weapons did not jam, and the V-1 went down in open countryside near Tenterden.

After that, 616 Squadron relayed two-plane patrols throughout the day, each flight lasting about thirty minutes. By August 10, Dean had added two more divers to his score. On August 16 and 17, the Meteors accounted for five more of the robot bombs. A total of thirteen V-1s were destroyed in one way or another by 616’s “Meatboxes”—modest in number, but a great boost to public morale.

Aside from its guns, the Meteor gave no trouble, and its two engines needed less servicing than the single engine of a Spitfire. Indeed, the only thing bad that happened to No. 616 Squadron was when one of its Meteors was almost shot down in error by a Spitfire and had to land under control of the elevator trimmers.

For the remainder of 1944, 616 Squadron’s Meteors operated from Debden, where they were used to acquaint RAF and USAAF units with the characteristics of jets, and to help them develop tactics to counter the Me 262As that were starting to take their toll of bomber formations. After being subjected to hit-and-run strikes by the Meteors, the American P-51 and P-47 pilots concluded that the only way to protect the bombers was to increase their numbers 5,000 feet above them, allowing the fighters time to build up speed to intercept the German jets. Such tactics required split-second timing at high speeds, but they paid off, as a number of Americans added Me 262s to their scores while on escort duty.

On December 18, No. 616 Squadron received its first two Meteor F Mark 3s, EE231 and EE232, which were powered by Rolls-Royce Derwent engines in revised nacelles. In addition to improved performance, the F3 had a larger fuel capacity, which gave it an hour’s longer endurance; an enlarged, more streamlined windscreen; and a rear-sliding bulged bubble in place of the F1’s side-hinged canopy. Three more Meteor 3s were on strength by January 1945, when the unit moved to Colerne, Wiltshire. There, the squadron exchanged the last of its Mark 1s for the newer type, and on January 20 one of the flights was dispatched across the Channel to Melsbroek, near Brussels, Belgium, to join No. 84 Group of the Second Tactical Air Force. For some weeks, the Meteors flew patrols over local Allied airfields, primarily to acquaint them with the new jet’s silhouette. While there, the squadron had its closest brush with its technological counterparts on March 19, when the air base was raided by four Arado Ar-234B-2 jet bombers of II Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 76. The rest of the squadron arrived on March 31, and in early April it resumed offensive operations from Gilze-Rijen in the Netherlands as part of No. 122 Wing.

As was the case with the German jet fighter units, 616 Squadron’s personnel now included some skilled veterans, including Wing Cmdr. Warren Edward Schrader from Wellington, New Zealand, who had previously flown Hawker Tempests in No. 486 Squadron and had eleven victories, plus two shared, to his credit. An identical victory tally had been scored by Wing Commander McDowell from Kirkenner, Scotland, but he had done so in Spitfires with No. 602 Squadron. Much to the disappointment of the pilots, however, no contact was made with the Luftwaffe in the course of their short patrols, and in consequence they were employed in the armed reconnaissance and ground-attack roles.

On April 13, No. 616 Squadron moved to Nijmegen, and on the fourteenth, Flt. Lt. Mike Cooper became the first “Meatbox” pilot to fire his guns in anger over the Continent when he spotted a large German truck near Ijmuiden and in a single firing pass sent it careening off the road, to burst into flames seconds later. On the twenty-fourth, McDowell, flying Meteor F1 YQ-A, led four others on a strike against an enemy airfield at Nordholtz, Germany. Diving out of the sun from 8,000 feet, he destroyed a Ju 88 on the ground and shot up a vehicle. Flying Officer Ian T. Wilson set two petrol bowsers on fire and used up the rest of his shells on other airfield installations. Flying Officer H. Moon roamed the perimeter of the field, strafing a dozen railway trucks and destroying a flak post. Flying Officer T. Gordon Clegg attacked a large vehicle full of German troops who, thinking the twin-engine jet to be one of their own, waved and cheered until Clegg opened fire.

Up to that time, 616 Squadron had taken no casualties, but that unblemished record came to a tragic end on April 29, when Squadron Leader Watts, who had been with the unit since August 1943, collided with Flt. Sgt. Brian Cartmell in a cloud bank. The two planes exploded, and both pilots were killed.

On May 2, Wing Cmdr. “Smokey” Schrader replaced McDowell as commander of No. 616 Squadron. On the same day, one of the “Meatbox” pilots encountered a Fieseler Fi.156 Storch, but the nimble liaison plane was able to outmaneuver the fighter and landed—after which the Meteor strafed it to destruction. On May 3 Schrader, flying Meteor YQ-F, led the squadron in an attack on Schönberg air base near Kiel, during which six aircraft were destroyed on the ground—Schrader personally accounting for an Me 109, an He 111, and a Ju 87. On another occasion, four Meteors encountered some Fw 190s, but their hopes of adding some air-to-air victories to the squadron tally were again frustrated when some Spitfires and Hawker Tempests mistook the British jets for Me 262s and prepared to attack, compelling the Meteors to abandon their attempt against the Germans. On the following day, 616 Squadron’s pilots destroyed one locomotive, damaged another, knocked out ten vehicles and two half-tracks, and strafed a number of installations. At 1700 hours, the unit was ordered to suspend offensive operations. Four days later, Germany surrendered.

It is probably fortunate for the Meteor pilots that they never had to do battle with the Me 262s—all other things being even, neither their aircraft nor their own level of expertise would have matched the performance of the German fighter, nor of the crack Experten who were flying it in the final weeks of the war. Nevertheless, the “Meatbox” proved to have considerable development potential, and on November 7, 1945, a Meteor F3 piloted by Wing Cmdr. “Willie” Wilson reached a record speed of 606 miles per hour. Progressively improved marks were to follow, serving in the fighter, reconnaissance, and night-fighter roles until September 1961, by which time a total of 3,875 Meteors had been built.

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

If you look hard enough, it is possible to find some good in any culture (except, perhaps, in certain candidates from the twentieth century), and in recent years, for the best possible motives, historians of the Vikings have been at pains to dispel the mythology that theirs was a sail-and-slash-burn-rape-and-pillage culture. It is known now that it was pressure of population on poor Scandinavian land that got them into their boats in Norway and Denmark and that they came bearing amber, fur and walrus ivory (as well as a bad attitude), and that their sagas were full of epic heroics. It is certainly true that when the Vikings (in the tenth century, for example) settled down as colonizers (and even as farmers) the dynamism of their trade and the beauty of their artefacts perhaps offset their ferocious belligerence. Cities such as Dublin and York thrived under their overlordship, enough for the latter to have recently invented a ‘Jorvik’ theme park, devoted to projecting a warmer, cuddlier image of the Vikings.

But with the best will in the world, the idea of the early Vikings as speedy Baltic commercial travellers, singing their sagas as they rowed to a new market opening, doesn’t ring quite true. Towards the end of the eighth century the reeve Beaduheard in Dorchester went to meet what he innocently supposed was a fleet of peacefully inclined Norse trading ships. He directed them to the loyal royal estate and was thanked for his helpfulness by an axe in the face. The Vikings were certainly partial to one kind of inventory – people (including women), whom they sold as slaves. A thousand such slaves were taken from Armagh in one raid alone in 869. A burial dated to 879 contained a Viking warrior with his sword, two ritually murdered slave girls and the bones of hundreds of men, women and children – his very own body count to take with him to Valhalla.

So it seems likely that the inhabitants of ninth-century Britain would have had some difficulty in finding the Norsemen ethnographically fascinating, being too busy defending themselves against dismemberment or being dragged off into captivity. Just because so many of the tales of their early impact on Anglo-Saxon life are alarmingly violent, and because they come from Anglo-Saxon, Church sources, does not necessarily mean they were untrue. Gaelic sources tell much the same story. At Strangford Lough, the ancient abbey closely associated with St Patrick’s earliest preaching in Ireland was completely destroyed. In 795 another of the iconic sites of the Christianization of Britain – Iona – was sacked, and in 806 sixty-eight of its monks were killed. Houses, then, which were vulnerable to attack from rivers, loughs or coastal estuaries had very good cause to take the Viking threat seriously. A small cathedral at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, founded in the seventh century by a far-ranging mission from Northumbria, had been built on the foundations of a Roman fortification, and the monks must have been grateful for the solid masonry defences while they waited nervously for Viking raids, which they knew, sooner or later, would strike fast and fierce.

On the positive side, however, there was one thing that the Vikings did manage to do – albeit inadvertently – and that was to create the need for a consolidated kingdom of England and of Alba, too, which eventually became known as Scotland. This was not what they had in mind when their longships sailed swiftly and lethally upstream. What they had in mind, principally, was loot. The Vikings came from a Scandinavian society that was itself a near-anarchy of warrior lords, making gestures of allegiance to their kings in Denmark and Norway, but for the most part being permitted to operate as freebooters, taking as much land, plunder and captives as they wished. Better the marauder away than the marauder at home. The idea, before the Vikings began to settle themselves in occupied areas of eastern and northern England, was to inflict enough violence on a kingdom for its ruler to buy them off, preferably in hard silver. The principle was crude, but the delivery of the violence was efficient, and it hit the Saxon kingdoms at a time when they were themselves divided both between and within each other. The marriage alliances between the Saxon states had proved, under pressure, to be no guarantee of military solidarity, especially when Viking damage might be thought of as a calamity for somebody other than yourself. In fact, some of the Saxon rulers repeated the mistakes of the Romano-British four centuries before, by actually welcoming the invaders as a useful auxiliary.

Before he died in 735 Bede had worried a great deal about whether the Christian tree of belief had been planted deeply enough to survive the threats he saw coming from both pagan resurgence in the shape of the Norsemen and the new militant religion of Islam, which had thrust deep into the heart of Christian Spain and France. But even Bede’s pessimism couldn’t begin to imagine the scale of devastation that the Vikings would inflict on Northumbria, not only on Lindisfarne, but on his own monastery at Jarrow, and at Monkwearmouth and Iona, the capture of York and, most painful of all, the burning of the great libraries of the monasteries. When he heard of the annihilation at Lindisfarne, Alcuin of York, the court scholar to Charlemagne, the great Frankish Holy Roman Emperor, wrote: ‘Behold the church of St Cuthbert, spattered with the blood of the priests of God.’

By smashing the power of most of the Saxon kingdoms, the Vikings accomplished what, left to themselves, the warring kings, earls and thegns in England and the mutually hostile realms of Dal Riata and Pictland in the north could never have managed: some semblance of alliance against a common foe. After two decades of attacks in the north, the Pictish king Constantine I, consciously taking his name from the first Roman-Christian emperor, defeated the Dal Riata and united the kingdoms in 811. Likewise, it took the threat of common, irreversible catastrophe for the rulers of what remained of non-Viking England to bury their differences and submit to the overlordship of a single king, a king of all England. To attract this kind of unprecedented allegiance, such a figure would have to be exceptional, and Alfred, of course, fitted the bill. The Tudors thought him inspiring enough to award him, alone of all their predecessors, the honorific appellation of ‘Great’ in direct analogy with Charlemagne, Charles the Great. And for all the mythology about Alfred, it can’t be said that they were wrong. The Anglo-Saxons called him Engele hirde, engele dirling (England’s shepherd, England’s darling).

When he was born – in Wantage in 849 – the youngest son of King Aethelwulf and the grandson of King Egbert of Wessex, that realm, through the usual combination of war and marriage, had replaced the midland kingdom of Mercia as the dominant Saxon kingdom. The Vikings were still largely thought of as periodic inconveniences, mounting raids, stealing as much as they could from shrines or busy Saxon market towns like Hamwic (the ancestor of modern Southampton), extorting money and then mercifully departing to enjoy the proceeds. But of late their fleets had been getting bigger – thirty, thirty-five ships at a time – and their stays were becoming ominously more protracted. In the 850s they began to stay through the entire winter in Thanet and Sheppey in Kent. In 850 a fleet, which The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put as high as 350 ships, captured Canterbury and London and sent the Mercian king, Berhrtwulf, packing. Nor could silver be relied on any longer to keep them at arm’s length. In 864 the ealdormen (noblemen) of Kent had duly coughed up but the Vikings had decided to put the area to the sword anyway, just for the hell of it. The following year, 865–6, was the year in which the great Christian kingdom of Northumbria was destroyed at the hands of the biggest Viking fleet Britain had yet seen, with York falling in 867. By 876 the Northumbrian lands were being shared out among their principal chiefs. In 869 it was the turn of the king of East Anglia, Edmund, who, sick of making the usual payments, turned to resistance and suffered decapitation and impalement. It was now obvious to Aethelred, the king of Wessex, and to his only surviving brother, Alfred, that they, too, could not avoid confronting the Vikings for very much longer.

Much of what we know about Alfred comes from the biography written by the Welsh monk Asser, invited to the king’s court and doubtless eager to sing his praises. Allowing for idealization, though, the portrait somehow has the ring of truth, even the child already hungry for learning. Asser’s most famous tale of the boy-wonder describes Alfred’s mother offering to give a decorated book of Anglo-Saxon poetry to whichever child could learn the contents. Needless to say, Alfred not only committed the poems to memory but recited them out loud to his mother, half bookworm, half show-off.

But these were not bookish times. In 868, with the Vikings wintering in Mercian Nottingham, Alfred was married, in an obvious tactical alliance, to Eahlswith, whose mother was a member of the Mercian royal family. By 870 the Danes were in Reading, a direct challenge to the kingdom of Wessex. In 871 the two brothers, Aethelred and Alfred, fought a series of battles culminating in the victory of Ashdown. But before he could enjoy the success, Aethelred died, leaving Alfred the kingdom. The news that a second, enormous Viking army had come to Reading was not reassuring. With the collapse ofWessex apparently imminent, the entirety of Anglo-Saxon England seemed about to go the way of Roman Britain.

But then a series of small miracles intervened. The one failing in the otherwise impressive Viking killing machine was its tendency to congratulate itself on victory by splitting itself into pieces; not so much divide and conquer as conquer and divide. Presumably confident it could never be withstood, the great pagan Viking armies of 865 and 871 went their separate ways. In 874 some of the senior class of 865 returned to Norway, the rest settling down in Northumbria for the long term. The junior class of 871, led by a jarl (chieftain) called Guthrum, moved to Cambridge, from where it calculated it would make Wessex, to the south and west, its very own milch-cow. When Guthrum moved on Gloucester, this seemed about to happen.

For the moment, Alfred had no choice but to temporize, making treaties and exchanging hostages with Guthrum in an attempt to get the Vikings out of Wessex and into Mercia. For a while, the tactic seemed to work, even though Alfred must have been pessimistic about holding a pagan like Guthrum to any kind of sworn oath. Sure enough, on Twelfth Night, January 878, in the dead of winter and knowing that Christians like Alfred were distracted with celebrating the Epiphany, the Vikings launched a surprise attack on the royal Wessex town of Chippenham. The plan must have included the capture of the king and it very nearly succeeded. Virtually defenceless, Alfred was forced to take flight.

What happened next is the heart of Alfred’s legend. A fugitive in the bulrush-choked swamps of Athelney, he began to turn the tide against the enemy, using the inaccessible bogs as a defensive stronghold. Asser describes the prototype of the guerrilla fighter, leading ‘a life of great distress amidst the woody and marshy places of Somerset [with] nothing to live on except what could be foraged from raids’, reduced to begging hospitality from peasants, including the swineherd’s wife, who gave him such a bad time for burning her cakes. The stories, both then and later, have the tone of scripture (or at least apocrypha): a proud king reduced to abject destitution and stoical humility (especially when dressed down by an indignant woman); but then, when flattened by misfortune, blessed with the inspiration to take hold of his and his country’s destiny. In one of the many later stories surrounding the wandering king on the run, no less a person than St Cuthbert (who else?) appears and asks to share his meal. The king obliges. The stranger vanishes only to appear in full saintly get-up, promising eventual success and urging Alfred, like Gideon, to trust in God and blow blasts on his battle horn to summon his friends.

By the spring of 878 Alfred had managed to piece together an improvised alliance of resistance, and at King Egbert’s stone, on the borders of Wiltshire and Somerset, he took command of an army that, two days later, fought and defeated Guthrum’s Vikings at Edington. It was a victory so complete that Alfred was able to pursue them all the way back to Chippenham and besiege them for two weeks before the Viking chief capitulated. And this was no ordinary surrender. Guthrum was sufficiently impressed by the power of Alfred’s battle-god that he decided forthwith to enrol in the ranks of the Christian soldiers along with thirty of his warriors. He accepted baptism at the church of Aller in Somerset, where Alfred stood as his godfather, raising him from the font. The hitherto fiercely pagan Viking lords were now clad not in armour but, head to foot, in the soft white cloth of converts; their baptismal garments removed on Alfred’s royal estate at Wedmore as the solemn ceremonies were completed. So the victory over Guthrum was both martial and spiritual. Alfred had made a believer of him and received him into the community of the English Church, so it was now possible to make a sacred, binding treaty (so the king must have hoped anyway) in which Guthrum agreed to be content with his mastery of East Anglia and desist from attacking Wessex, Mercia or the territories of Essex and Kent, also ruled from Wessex proper. And this seems to be more or less what happened. Guthrum withdrew to Hadleigh in Sussex where perhaps he spent a bucolic retirement pottering about in un-Viking-like harmlessness.

Alfred was much too intelligent to be carried away by a premature sense of triumph. A single jarl and his army had been defeated, not the whole of the Viking power in England. By the end of the ninth century it was more than ever clear that the Norsemen were in the island for the long haul, no longer as raiders and pirates but as colonists. Alfred’s best hope was containment, for a modus vivendi with a Christianized and, therefore, relatively peaceable Viking realm. And although it was not quite the epic of historiographical legend, Edington did make the Viking kings pause in their sweep across the island and bought Alfred fourteen years of priceless respite, a period in which he constructed a formidable chain of thirty defensive forts called burhs, permanently manned garrisons, strategically based on the accumulated military wisdom of generations of ancestors: Iron Age hillforts, Roman roads, and Saxon dykes and ditches. His part-time army of the fyrd, raised from the thegns who owed service to his senior lords, was now equipped with horses, and put on rotational shifts of duty, so that whenever and wherever the Vikings appeared, they would always have a serious opposing force to contend with. When the Vikings did return in the early 890s, as Alfred had anticipated, they no longer had the operational freedom they had enjoyed in their marauding heyday in the middle of the ninth century. Alfred’s campaign forced the Vikings to settle for much less than half of the country, and a border running through East Anglia, eastern Mercia and Northumbria hardened into a frontier between Danish and Saxon England.

It was, at best, a stand-off. But when in 886 Alfred entered London (which he had refounded on its old Roman site, rather than the Mercian-Saxon Lundenwic sited near present-day Aldwych and the Strand), something of a deep significance happened. He was, as Asser wrote, acclaimed as the sovereign lord of ‘all the English people not under subjection to the Danes’. And it was at this time that he began to be called ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’. Some coins of the period actually go further and style him rex Anglorum (king of the English), the title with which his grandson Aethelstan would be crowned in 927. So there can be no question that during Alfred’s lifetime the idea of a united English kingdom had become conceivable and even desirable. The exquisite ‘Alfred Jewel’, which was found not far from Athelney, bears an extraordinary enamelled face, perhaps like the similar Fuller brooch, its staring eyes symbolizing Sight or Wisdom, a wholly apt quality to celebrate an omniscient prince. The ‘Alfred Jewel’ is inscribed on its side with the legend Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan (Alfred caused me to be made). The same perhaps could be said of his reinvention of an English monarchy.

In truth, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England was still as much a work in progress as was the mac Ailpin kingdom in Scotland under Kenneth I. But by the time he died in 899, Alfred certainly had transformed the office of kingship itself. What had been a warrior chieftaincy, the giver of rings (and Alfred was still celebrated as the greatest ring-giver of all), was now also an institution of classical and biblical pretensions. The king who was the translator of the psalms could never have been far from thinking of himself as a new David or Solomon. Like David, he would be the right arm of the Church of God – and a sword found at Abingdon suggests just how seriously he took this role. Like Solomon, Alfred assumed that the authority of the king should rest on something other than the arbitration of force, namely justice. So he was the first of the kings to set about combining the different law codes and the penalties for their infraction into a single, coherent whole and having them written and translated so that his subjects (or at least the half of them that were free, for it must always be kept in mind that Saxon England was a slave society) could have access to royal justice as a matter of course. To be sure, the justice that Alfred offered was kept well within the bounds of realism. Aware of the hopelessness of attempting to outlaw the blood vendetta, Alfred merely insisted that the king should regulate it, giving a grace period, for example, to the attacked party to come to terms before he was set upon. Pained by the memory of the Viking burning of monastic libraries, Alfred also saw the king as an educator. In his translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) Wisdom gets the best lines, but Alfred’s commitment to instruction was also of a practical kind. Establishing schools, not just for his family and the court but for all his nobility too, was a statement of intent that henceforth those who presumed to govern in the name of the king should do so as literate, educated men, rather than as the bearers of swords and the takers of purses.

It was an extraordinary thing that Alfred’s most fervent conviction was that the condition of exercising power was the possession of knowledge. Of how many other rulers of British realms could that truly be said?

The Saxon kings had come a long way from the ferocious pagan axemen of the adventum to the makers of libraries! Of course, this vision of a peaceful, studious Anglo-Saxon Wessex was more of a noble ideal than an imminent reality. More than half the country was securely in the grip of the Vikings, and although in the tenth century the sovereignty of the Wessex-based kings of England would extend to the border of the Tweed, it was on condition that the Viking zone of control, the ‘Danelaw’ as it came to be known, would enjoy its own considerable autonomy. By the end of the tenth century a second coming of aggressive Viking raids would once again attempt to reach deep into the territory of Anglo-Saxon England, and early in the eleventh century a Danish king, Cnut, would reign over the whole country south of Hadrian’s Wall. But he would reign largely as the beneficiary of the Anglo-Saxon government established by Alfred and his successors.

Although the dynasty of the house of Wessex was battered and bloodied through all these years of tribulation, and was often on the point of being wiped out altogether, the ideal of English kingship that had crystallized under Alfred persisted. And it is one of the most profound ironies of early British history that it was, at heart, a Roman ideal of rule, which was implanted in the breasts of the Saxon cultures usually thought of as having buried the classical tradition. This was equally true north of the Tweed, where the kings of Alba (as they called the old Pictland after 900) named their sons alternately with Gaelic and Latin names – so that a Prince Oengus would be brother to a Prince Constantine. Alfred had, in many ways, been the most Roman of Saxons. When he was just a child, in 853, his father, Aethelwulf, had sent him on a special mission to Rome where Pope Leo IV had dressed the little fellow in the imperial purple of a Roman consul and set around his waist the sword-belt of a Romano-Christian warrior. In 854–5 he had spent another whole year in Rome with his father, collecting the kind of memories, even of the Palatine hill in ruins, that an Anglo-Saxon would hardly forget. Learning Latin in his adult life and translating Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care finally set the seal on this ardent Christian Romanism. And during the pontificate of Pope Maximus II, Alfred inaugurated the tradition by which every year, in return for freeing the English quarter of the city from taxes, the alms of the king and people of England would be sent to Rome, a tradition that ended only with the reformation of Henry VIII.

Of course, the Rome to which Alfred was evidently devoted was not the pagan empire from which Claudius and Hadrian had sent their legions into the island, inventing Britannia. It was, rather, the new Roman Christian empire. If Alfred had had a model in mind for his own exalted concept of kingship it surely would have been Charlemagne, and Alfred’s policy of bringing learned clerics to court seems to have been in direct emulation of the Frankish emperor. All the same, when his great-grandson, Edgar, was crowned, twice over, in 973 with solemnities designed by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who must have known something about antiquity), the rituals that remain at the heart of English coronation to this day – the anointing, the investment with orb and sceptre, the cries of acclamation, ‘Long live the king, may the king live forever’ – owed as much to the Roman as to the Frankish tradition. And where did those two coronations take place? In the two places in England that most profoundly embodied the fusion of Rome and ancient Britain: Bath and Chester.

For whatever else he understood about this, Edgar was bright enough to know that, if he were to survive, the one thing a king of England could not afford was insularity.

Wallenstein’s Army

It was typical of Ferdinand II that while these ‘Bohemian martyrs’ were brought to the gallows, the Habsburg went on a pilgrimage to the great Marian shrine of Mariazell in his native Styria specifically to pray for their souls. In the years that followed, prayer and sword moved in perfect counterpoint for the Habsburg cause. If Ferdinand was the spearhead of spiritual revival, on the battlefield the corresponding military reawakening was to be organised by Wallenstein.

The Bohemian soldier of fortune Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583-1634) was one of the major figures in the Thirty Years War. His administrative and financial talents made him one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe.

Wallenstein stood out from the newly minted nobility around Ferdinand because of his logistical skills, which he deployed with unrivalled expertise despite his physical disabilities. Plagued by gout which often forced him to be carried by litter, Wallenstein ceaselessly instructed his subordinates to organise his affairs to the last detail. Agriculture was virtually collectivised under his control to ensure that every crop and animal was nurtured efficiently to supply his armies. A fortunate second marriage to the daughter of Count Harrach, one of Ferdinand’s principal advisers, brought him yet more support at court. In April 1625, Ferdinand agreed to Wallenstein raising 6,000 horsemen and nearly 20,000 foot soldiers. Wallenstein’s force gave the Emperor freedom of manoeuvre. He now had formidable forces to counterbalance the armies of the Catholic League led by Tilly, who always showed signs of answering in the first instance to his Bavarian masters rather than to the Emperor Ferdinand.

Count Jean Tserclaes Tilly (1559–1632) was an outstanding product of Jesuit training. First seeing service in Spain, the Walloon learnt the art of war from the age of 15, serving under the Duke of Parma in his war against the Dutch. In 1610, he was appointed commander of the forces of the Catholic League, established in 1609 as a loose alliance of Catholic principalities and minor states. Like Wallenstein, Tilly brought in important reforms, especially from his experience of the formidable Spanish infantry. Nicknamed the ‘monk of war’, he soon proved to be a highly capable organiser of infantry tactics, which were quickly adopted by Ferdinand’s troops.

The infantry at this stage still consisted of pikemen and musketeers. The pikemen wore armour and carried a pike, which at that time was between 15 and 18 feet long, made of ash with a sharp metal point. Their officers carried shorter pikes with coloured ribbons. The musketeers were a kind of light infantry with a light metal helmet, later replaced by a felt hat. The heavy musket they carried needed to be rested on a wooden pole with an iron fork to be fired. The ‘ammunition’ was contained variously in a bandolier, a flask of gunpowder and a brass bottle of combustible material, the so-called Zundkraut as well as a leather bag containing small metal balls. A small bottle of oil was also carried to ensure that the ‘alchemy’ required to fire the weapon functioned smoothly. This was far from straightforward. A hint of the complexity of firing this primitive musket is given by the fact that ninety-nine separate commands were needed to fire and reload the weapon.

A further forty-one commands existed for dealing with the musket at other times. As this suggests, the need to increase the rate of fire and simplify the munitions were priorities for all commanders throughout the Thirty Years War. These problems would only be solved with the advent of the Swedes, who entered the fray against the Habsburg in 1630. They had a modern solution to many of these problems: the introduction of small cartridges wrapped in paper.

The only tactical unit at this time was the company, which was deployed in a large square made up usually of between 15 and 20 companies. This formation was 50 men deep with its flanks protected by 10 rows of musketeers. Despite much practice at marching to form such elaborate formations as the so-called ‘Cross of Burgundy’ or ‘Eight-pointed Star’, it takes little imagination to realise that manoeuvring in such formations was virtually impossible. The idea of marching to a single beat of the drum had still to be widely introduced and cohesive movement was only possible by extended rank.

Where Tilly proved so successful in organising infantry tactics, Wallenstein proved no less formidable in handling cavalry. Cavalry like infantry were divided into heavy and light. The heavy cavalry were cuirassiers and lancers, both armoured down to their boots. In addition to their main weapon, lancers were also armed with a sword and two pistols, symbols of their privileged status as bodyguards to the commanders in the field. The cuirassiers carried the heavy straight sabre or ‘pallasch’, which was designed to cut as well as thrust.

The horsed ‘carabiniers’ were organised as light cavalry as their only armour was a metal helmet and a light breastplate. Equipped with a shorter musket and 18 cartridges, these horsemen also carried pistols and a short sword. The dragoons were also equipped with a short musket and were indeed originally horsed musketeers. As the barrels of their muskets were often decorated with a dragon, they became known as dragoons. Deployed as advance guard cavalry they carried an axe with which, in theory, they could batter down doors and gates.

To these conventional groupings Wallenstein added new elements. An important part of the horsed advance guard was the ‘ungrischen Hussaren’, or Hungarian hussars. Together with the Croats they formed the irregular elements of the army who could be deployed to plunder and terrorise their opponents as well as perform scouting and reconnaissance.

The origin of the term ‘hussar’ to this day is a source of debate. The word most likely stems from the Slavic Gursar or Gusar. Other theories link the word to the German Herumstreifender or Corsaren; this last with its imagery of piracy perhaps being nearer to the truth than many a Hungarian would care to admit. Famous for giving their enemies no quarter, they became the nucleus of what would become the finest light cavalry in the world.

As with the infantry, the cavalry were grouped into companies. Often these were called Cornetten and hence the title of the junior officer of each such company was ‘Cornet’. As these were formed into a square, the custom arose to call four of these companies a ‘squadron’ from the Italian quadra, meaning square. In theory every cavalry regiment consisted of ten companies each of a hundred riders but in reality no cavalry regiment had more than 500 men.

Drill of these formations was aimed at disordering infantry by charging the last 60 paces at the enemy’s pikemen or cavalry. There was to be no firing from the saddle until the cavalry could ‘see the white in the eye of the foe’ (‘Weiss im Aug des Feindt sehen thut’). Led by such Imperial officers as Gottfried Pappenheim, famous for his many wounds and refusal to be impressed by titles, or the redoubtable Johann Sporck, a giant of a man with hair like bronze, perhaps the most feared cavalry general of his time, the Imperial cavalry was trained in shock tactics relying on aggression and surprise to demoralise their opponents.

The artillery remained a strict caste apart. Each unit of artillery was in theory organised to have 24 guns of different calibre. Mortars and other guns were added to each unit. Every gun had as its team a lieutenant and eleven gunners. These were supported by the so-called Schanzbauern or Pioneers, who were organised into units as large as 300 under an officer of the rank of Captain. The unit had its own flag made of silk which displayed as its badge a shovel and its men were also skilled carpenters able to strengthen bridges, not just demolish them.


My Tin Soldier Collection – TYW Imperialists


Russian Strategic Rocket Forces

RS-24 or Yars

The new ICBMs include the SS-27 Mods 1 and 2 (Topol-M and RS-24). The SS-27 Mod 1 is a single warhead missile, known in Russia as Topol-M, that comes in either mobile (RS-12M1) or silo-based (RS- 12M2) variants. Deployment of the SS-27 Mod 1 was completed in 2012 with a total of 78 missiles: 60 silobased missiles with the 60th Missile Division in Tatishchevo, and 18 road-mobile missiles with the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo.

The focus of the current phase of Russia’s modernization is the SS-27 Mod 2, known in Russia as the RS-24 or Yars, which is a modified SS-27 Mod 1 (Topol-M) that carries up to four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Following initial deployment in 2010-2012 of the first 18 missiles in two regiments with the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo, deployment of the mobile SS-27 Mod 2 version is now well underway at the Novosibirsk and Tagil divisions, where the first regiments went on experimental combat duty in 2013-2014. Tagil now seems to have two operational SS-27 Mod 2 regiments and Novosibirsk one with a second under construction, while an upgrade to the first garrison has recently started at Irkutsk. An upgrade at Yoshkar-Ola is expected to begin in 2017. Finally, installation of the silo-based version of the SS-27 Mod 2 is well underway at the Kozelsk division, where the first regiment is operational and an upgrade to a second has begun.

Statements by Russian officials about the operational status of the SS-27 Mod 2 at the various divisions appear to be optimistic, and do not entirely correspond to what we observe in satellite photos. For example, after the first regiment was placed on experimental combat duty at Novosibirsk in late 2013, the Russian plan was for a second regiment to follow by the end of 2014 (TASS 2014). But as of January 2017, there was still only one upgraded regiment at Novosibirsk, with the second being in the very early stages of construction. A third regiment still appears to be armed with the old SS-25. Likewise, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported in December 2016 that the SS-27 Mod 2 had entered service at Yoshkar-Ola (Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2016a), but none of the known garrisons showed signs of having been upgraded yet.

In our 2016 FAS Nuclear Notebook on Russian nuclear forces, we estimated that Russia deployed 63 mobile and 10 silo-based SS-27 Mod 2s for a total of 73 (Kristensen and Norris 2016). Russian officials said the Strategic Rocket Forces received another 23 missiles during 2016 (TV Zvezda 2016b), which would bring the total to 96 SS-27 Mod 2s. But satellite photos at the end of 2016 only showed fully upgraded garrisons for 45 mobile launchers (two at Teykovo, two at Targil, and one at Novosibirsk), and perhaps 12 Kozelsk silos, for a total of 57 deployed missiles. The discrepancy might hinge on the number of launchers for the second Novosibirsk regiment, the first Irkutsk regiment, the first Yoshkar-Ola regiment, and the remaining missiles for the second regiment at Kozelsk, which may have been delivered to the Strategic Rocket Forces for integration but not yet fully deployed in the garrisons.

Russian officials have also described development of a compact version of the SS-27 Mod 2, known as YarsM or RS-26. The 29th Guards Missile Division at Irkutsk was supposed to be the first to be equipped with the RS-26, but deployment has been delayed. A scheduled flight test in 2016 was also delayed. The 7th Guards Missile Division at Vypolzovo was also rumored as a potential location for the RS-26, but officials now talk about the upgrades at Irkutsk and Vypolzovo involving Yars, which presumably refers to the original, non-compact SS-27 Mod 2.

Russian defense officials have stated that a rail-based version of the SS-27 Mod 2, known in Russia as Barguzin, is in early design development. A writer for Jane’s Defence Weekly speculated in early 2016 that the program might have been delayed or even canceled due to Russia’s financial crisis (Novichkov 2016), but Interfax reported an ejection test in November 2016 and the first flight is said to be planned for 2017 (Interfax 2016).

Missile Defense Project, “Missiles of Russia,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, published June 14, 2018, last modified June 15, 2018, https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/russia/.

Mercenaries in the eight Italian Wars I

In 1515, the Franco-Venetian alliance decisively defeated the Holy League at the Battle of Marignano.

Detail from the above Battle of Marignano, Swiss mercenaries and German Landsknechts fighting for glory, fame, and money at the battle of Marignan (1515). The bulk of the Renaissance armies was composed of mercenaries.

“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous”

Mercenaries were used very frequently in the eight Italian Wars (1494 to 1559): the core of the French infantry consisted of Swiss mercenaries, while the Italian cities hired both native and German mercenaries. Although many leaders were eager to hire mercenaries, in his famous work The Prince (1532) Niccolò Machiavelli strongly warned them not to do so. As might be expected, however, his advice fell on deaf ears: during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), marauding bands of mercenaries would lay waste to entire regions of Central Europe.

These wars initially arose from dynastic squabbles but soon evolved into a more general and very repetitive struggle for power and territory. They have many different names: the Great Italian Wars, the Great Wars of Italy, the Habsburg-Valois Wars, and the Renaissance Wars. Whatever name is preferred, however, it basically refers to the same thing, namely, the complicated series of conflicts between 1494 and 1559 that involved, at various times, France, the Holy Roman Empire, the city-states of Italy, England, Scotland, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, the Swiss, Saxony, and other players.

Taking place in southern and Western Europe, the wars finally ended in a Habsburg victory, with Spain emerging as the dominant European power. However, they are such a confusing kaleidoscope of military and political factors, ambitious leaders (mercenaries, nobles, and kings), alliances, counter-alliances, and betrayals they are not described here in great detail. Instead, the focus is very selective, only on those parts of some campaigns where mercenaries were used in a significant way.

The Italian War of 1494–1498: The First Italian War pitted Charles VIII of France against the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and an alliance of Italian powers under the leadership of Pope Alexander VI. In the opening stages of that war, Charles VIII invaded Italy with an army that included 8,000 Swiss mercenaries. At first his forces moved through Italy without much opposition: the condottieri (mercenary) armies of the Italian city-states were much too weak to stop the French forces.

The French reached Naples in February 1495 and captured it without a siege or a pitched battle. The Italian city-states, however, realizing that a foreign monarchy in their midst could endanger their own autonomy, created the League of Venice. This new institution pulled together an army under the leadership of the condottiero (mercenary chieftain) Francesco II Gonzaga. Charles VIII, not wanting to be trapped in Naples, marched north to Lombardy, where he fought the League at the battle of Fornovo (July 1495), using artillery and 3,000 of his own mercenaries. The outcome was both a success and a failure for him: he managed to retreat to France with most of his army intact, but he had to leave behind nearly all the booty he had seized in Italy.

The Italian War of 1499–1504: In 1499, Louis XII of France, having made an alliance with the Republic of Venice and with Swiss mercenaries, invaded the Duchy of Milan. Ludovico Sforza of Milan hired an army of Swiss mercenaries himself. The Swiss mercenaries, however, did not want to fight each other and Ludovico was defeated by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, a noted Italian mercenary who held several military commands during the Italian Wars. (Trivulzio had abandoned Ludovico and, switching sides, had joined Charles VIII.) Ludovico himself was handed over to the French in 1500 and spent the rest of his life jailed in miserable conditions in an underground dungeon in France.

The War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516): The War of the League of Cambrai, also known as the War of the Holy League and by other names, too, was a major conflict during the Italian Wars. The chief participants were at varying times: France; the Papal States; the Republic of Venice; Spain; the Holy Roman Empire; England; Scotland; the Duchy of Milan; Florence; the Duchy of Ferrara; and, last but by no means least, the redoubtable Swiss mercenaries. The final victors were the French and Venetians.

Pope Julius II had wanted to curb the territorial ambitions of the Republic of Venice, so in 1508 he formed the League of Cambrai for this purpose. By focusing only on the role of mercenaries, one can note that in 1509 Louis XII of France left Milan at the head of a French army and invaded Venetian territory. To oppose him, Venice hired a mercenary army under two cousins—Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Nicolo di Pitigaliano. Unfortunately, however, they could not agree how to oppose the French.

As a result, when Louis XII crossed the Adda River, Bartolomeo advanced to attack him. Nicolo, on the other hand, saw no virtue in a pitched battle, so he moved away to the south. When Bartolomeo fought the French at the battle of Agnandello, he found that he was outnumbered and he urgently asked his cousin to send him reinforcements. Nicolo, however, simply ordered Bartolomeo to break off the battle and he then continued on his own way. Bartolomeo, disregarding these orders, kept on fighting until his army was surrounded and was destroyed. Nicolo, for his part, managed to steer clear of the victorious French forces but when his mercenary troops heard of Bartolomeo’s defeat, they deserted in large numbers, forcing Nicolo to retreat with the remnants of his army. The Venetian collapse was complete but Nicolo soldiered on.

In 1509 the citizens of Padua, aided by detachments of Venetian cavalry under the command of the “proveditor” Andrea Gritti, revolted. (A proveditor was a civilian official charged with overseeing the actions of the mercenary captains hired by the Republic of Venice.) Padua was guarded by some Landsknechts but they were too few in number to resist the revolt effectively, so Padua reverted to Venetian control. Relief forces were sent toward Padua but Nicolo had enough time to concentrate his remaining troops there. At the siege of Padua, although enemy artillery fire breached the city’s walls, Nicolo and his men were able to stand fast: the city did not fall. When Nicolo died of natural causes in 1510, Andrea Gritti took his place as proveditor.

Pope Julius II was increasingly worried by the growing French military presence in Italy, so he hired an army of Swiss mercenaries to attack the French in Milan and he formed an alliance with the Venetians, who also feared the French invaders.

The Italian War of 1521–1526: Francis I of France had wanted to become Holy Roman Emperor. When Charles V of Spain got the job instead, this gave Francis the pretext to start a general war. The war, fought in Italy, France, and Spain, pitted Francis and the Republic of Venice against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and the Papal States. The result was a Spanish and Imperial (Holy Roman Empire) victory. From what might be called a ”pro-mercenary” point of view (in the sense that many of the advantages of mercenaries, at least as seen by their employers, have been recounted), the most interesting action of this war was the rout of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Bicocca in 1522.

In this battle, a combined French and Venetian force, led by Odet de Foix, the Vicomte de Lautrec, was decisively defeated, north of Milan, by a Spanish-Imperial and Papal army commanded by Prospero Colonna. Lautrec had wanted to attack Colonna’s lines of communication but his (Lautrec’s) Swiss mercenaries complained that they had not been paid since their arrival in Lombardy. They demanded an immediate battle, threatening to abandon the French and return to their cantons if Lautrec refused to attack. Their demand forced him, against his will, to assault Colonna’s well-fortified position. Lautrec’s Swiss pikemen moved forward over open fields under a fierce artillery bombardment, suffering heavy losses, and had to stop at a sunken road backed up by earthworks. There they encountered the concentrated fire of Spanish arquebusiers and were forced to retreat. Their total losses were more than 3,000 dead.

The net result was that, a few days later, the Swiss mercenaries marched back to their cantons, while Lautrec had to retreat into Venetian territory with the remnants of his army. The significance of this battle is three-fold: it marked the end of Swiss pike-dominance among the infantry units of the Italian Wars; it forced the Swiss to change their policy of attacking with only massed columns of pikemen, i.e., without the support of other troops; and it was one of the first engagements where firearms played a decisive role in the outcome. The Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) remarked on how this battle changed the military attitude of the Swiss. He wrote:

They went back to their mountains diminished in numbers, but more diminished in audacity; for it is certain that the losses which they suffered at Bicocca so affected them in coming years that they no longer displayed their wonted vigour.

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France. The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

  •  A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.
  •  Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.
  •  Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The War of the League of Cognac (1526–1530): This war was fought between the Habsburg lands of Charles V (e.g., Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) and the League of Cognac (an alliance of France, Pope Clement VII, the Republic of Venice, England, the Duchy of Milan, and the Republic of Florence). The result was a decisive Spanish-Imperial victory.

The most interesting mercenary involved in this war was the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466–1560). Orphaned at an early age, when he grew up he became a soldier of fortune, first serving in the Papal guard and then under different Italian princes. In 1503, when fighting in Corsica in the service of Genoa, which was then ruled by the French, he took part in the revolt of Genoa against the French, and forced the French to evacuate the city. This made his name as a mercenary commander.

His next assignment, as chief of the Genoese fleet, was to wage war against the Turks and the Barbary pirates. While he was doing this, the French recaptured Genoa, which was later seized by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor. Doria, however, sided with the French and entered the service of King Francis I of France, who promoted him to captain-general. In 1524 he relieved Marseille, which was under attack by the Holy Roman Empire, and later helped the French return to power in Genoa.

Later, Francis sent an army to Genoa, where Doria, still on the French side, seized much of the Genoese fleet. Doria, however, then turned his back on the French and sided with Charles in 1528. Doria’s subsequent offensive against Genoa ended any remaining hopes Francis had of keeping his hold on Italy. Much later, in 1543, Doria transported a relief army to Nice during the siege of that city by the Ottoman leader Hayreddin Barbarossa. After the Peace of Crépy in 1544, however, he wanted to end his days in peace and quiet in Genoa. His great wealth and power, coupled with the arrogance of his family, had made him many enemies there. In 1550, at the age of 84, he went to sea again to face the Barbary pirates, but without much success. He returned to Genoa for good in 1555 and died there five years later.

Mercenaries in the eight Italian Wars II

Swiss mercenaries and landsknechte engaged in a push of pike (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France. The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

  •  A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.
  •  Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.
  •  Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The first phase of the battle of Ceresole, including the Imperial advance, the rout of the Florentine cavalry, the division of the landsknechts, and the advance and retreat of the Spanish heavy cavalry.

The second phase of the battle, including the rout of the Neapolitan cavalry and the landsknechts, Sanseverino’s withdrawal, Enghien’s cavalry attacks, the retreat of the Spanish-German infantry, and the return of the French and Swiss infantry from Ceresole.

The Italian War of 1536–1538: This war between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France was triggered by the death of Francesco Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and by their conflicting claims to the Duchy of Milan. The Truce of Nice (1538), which ended the war, made no significant change in the map of Italy and left divisive matters unresolved. In fact, this settlement is remembered chiefly because Charles and Francis hated each other so much that they refused to sit in the same room together. Their enmity forced the mediator, Pope Paul III, to shuttle from room to room to work out an agreement. Mercenaries do not appear to have played any significant role in this short war.

The Italian War of 1542–1546: This ruinously expensive war—basically a contest pitting Francis I of France and Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, on the one hand, against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VII of England, on the other—was inconclusive. All the players used mercenaries at one time or another: at the battle of Serravalle in 1544, for example, the troops of Alfonso d’Avalos, fighting on behalf of Charles V and his allies, defeated an Italian mercenary army in French service.

A battle worth looking at here is the battle of Ceresole (1544), which took place near Turin, Italy and which is remembered by military historians as “the great slaughter” because of the heavy losses which occurred when columns of arquebusiers and pikemen clashed in the middle of the battlefield.

The belligerents were France, whose forces were led by the Count of Enghien, and the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) under Charles V, whose troops were commanded by Alfonso d’Avalos. On the ground, a wide range of forces of differing backgrounds, i.e., both mercenary and regular, were engaged in this battle. The major combat units were:

On the French side

  •  4,000—Swiss troops
  •  4,000—Gascon infantrymen
  •  3,000—French infantry recruits
  •  2,000—Italian infantrymen

On the Spanish-Imperial side

  •  7,000—Landsknechts
  •  6,000—Italian infantrymen
  •  5,000—Spanish and German infantrymen

What made this particular battle so horrific (the French lost up to 2,000 men dead and wounded; the Holy Roman Empire, up to 6,000 dead or wounded, with more than 3,000 other men captured) was that the columns of each side contained both men with firearms and men with pikes, arranged in a new type of formation. A French nobleman, Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme, the lord of Montluc, took credit for devising this novel strategy. His idea was to put his firearms men very far forward and in a row, i.e., in the second rank of a column, just behind the leading row of pikemen. Presumably on command, the first row of pikemen would kneel down and would place the butts of their pikes in the earth with the points facing the enemy. The firearms men would then fire over the tops of the pikemens’ heads.

Blaise candidly tells what happened when this system was actually tried at Ceresole. He had confidently expected that

in this way we should kill all their captains in the front rank. But we found that they were as ingenious as ourselves, for behind their first line of pikes they had put pistoleers [i.e., men armed with handguns: long-barreled arquebuses would have been too unwieldy at such close quarters]. Neither side fired till we were touching—and then there was a wholesale slaughter: every shot told; the whole front rank on each side went down.

The losses in this battle were so heavy that the ill-fated concept of alternating rows of firearms men and pikemen was never tried again. Instead, in later battles when firearms (generally arquebuses) were used, they were not fired at point-blank range but only from the relatively greater safety of the flanks of large formations of pikemen or they were used for skirmishing.

The Italian War of 1551–1559: In 1551, Henry II of France declared war on Charles V with the twin goals of recapturing Italy and of establishing French domination of European affairs. However, to make a long and complex story very short, the French failed to change the balance of power in Italy or to break Habsburg control. In terms of mercenary involvement, the most interesting aspect of this war was the battle of Marciana (also known as the battle of Scannagallo), which took place in Tuscany in 1554 and was a decisive Florentine and Spanish-Imperial victory.

Here the belligerents were the Duchy of Florence, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, on one side, and the Republic of Siena and France, on the other. Large numbers of troops were involved: 17,000 infantrymen and 1,500 cavalrymen for the Duchy of Florence and its allies; and 14,000, infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen for Siena and France. Many of the fighters were mercenaries. For example, the mercenary chieftain Ascanio della Cornia provided 6,000 infantrymen and 300 cavalrymen; Landsknechts were much in evidence; and at one point a corps of 1,300 hungry mercenaries was killed when trying to collect food to eat. As a result of this battle, Siena lost its independence and was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The modern scholar Michael Mallett summarized the Italian Wars in these words:

It was the scale of the Italian Wars which created their enormous impact on European warfare. The emphasis on size and permanence of armies produced not only more disciplined and extensive use of known weapons and techniques, but also placed a premium on co-ordination between arms. The day had passed when a single arm—whether it was the French heavy cavalry or the Swiss pikes—could dominate the battlefield…. The Italian Wars were a vast melting pot; the heat and flames were new; the ingredients were not. Italy had contributed significantly to these ingredients even though she herself was to be consumed in the flames.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Italian Renaissance figure whose name is still cited frequently today by scholars, politicians, and debaters alike, had negative views on mercenaries.

The son of a legal official, Machiavelli had a good grasp of Latin and the Italian classics when he entered government service in 1494 as a clerk. After the Florentine Republic was proclaimed four years later, he rose to prominence as secretary of the 10-man council which conducted Florence’s diplomatic negotiations and military operations. It was during his diplomatic missions that he became familiar with the political tactics of many Italian leaders. In 1502 and 1503, Machiavelli also became familiar, at first hand, with the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Romagna, who was expanding his holdings in central Italy through a mixture of military prowess, audacity, prudence, self-reliance, firmness, and cruelty. His army was essentially a mercenary army, heavy with contingents of French and Spanish troops. When he faced a revolt by his own mercenaries in 1502, he crushed it brilliantly and ruthlessly. Machiavelli studied closely the methods Cesare employed to trick the rebellious mercenaries and then magnified his achievements in The Prince.

From 1503 to 1506 Machiavelli was put in charge of reorganizing the military defense of Florence. At that time, condottieri bands (i.e. mercenary armies) were common in Italy, but Machiavelli did not think they could ever be relied on to remain loyal to their employers. He therefore argued in favor of citizen armies which, being native to a given state and thus having a personal stake in its fortunes, were much more likely to be loyal. Machiavelli’s thinking here was largely inspired by the citizen armies of ancient Rome.

In 1512, as a result of the rivalry between Spain and France (see the previous section on the Italian Wars), the Medici family returned to power in Florence. The republic was dissolved and, as a key figure in the former anti-Medici government, Machiavelli was placed on the torture rack because he was suspected of conspiracy. After his release, he retired to his estate near Florence, where he wrote his most important books. He tried hard to win the favor of the Medicis but was unsuccessful in this effort and was never given another government position.

Machiavelli’s best-known book—The Prince (Il Principe)—was not printed until l532, five years after his death, although an earlier version was first circulated in 1513 under the Latin title of De Principatibus (About Principalities). The basic and most famous teaching of The Prince is that a leader, in order to survive, let alone to win glory, is fully justified in using immoral means to achieve these objectives. Here the focus is on the two chapters of The Prince that have the most to say about mercenaries. It is worth quoting them at some length to get the full impact of Machiavelli’s thought.

His Chapter XII (“How Many Kinds of Soldiery There Are, And Concerning Mercenaries”), for example makes these forceful points:

I say, therefore, that the arms with which a prince defends his state are either his own, or they are mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed.

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and [one’s own] destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, that they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe….

I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms [i.e., mercenaries]. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain [i.e., the leader of the mercenaries] is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way [i.e., you will lose the war].

And if it be urged [i.e., argued] that whoever is armed will act in the same way, whether mercenary or not, I reply that when arms have to be resorted to, either by a prince or a republic, the prince ought to do in person and perform the duty of captain…. And experience has shown princes and republics, single-handed, making the greatest progress, and mercenaries doing nothing but damage; and it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switzers are completely armed and quite free.

In his Chapter XIII (“Concerning Auxiliaries, Mixed Soldiers, And One’s Own”), Machiavelli provides his considered findings on this subject:

And if the first disaster to the Roman Empire should be examined, it will be found to have commenced only with the enlisting of the Goths [as mercenaries]; because from that time the vigour of the Roman Empire began to decline, and all that valour which had raised it passed to others.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it. And it has always been the opinion and judgment of a wise man that nothing is so uncertain or unstable as fame or power which is not founded on its own strength. And one’s own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependents; all others are mercenaries or auxiliaries.

In making these such statements, however, Machiavelli was certainly not a disinterested scholar. He very much wanted to get another high-level position with the government of Florence, and the only way to do so was to win the support of the ruling Medici family. A letter written by Machiavelli and discovered only in 1810 reveals that he wrote The Prince to impress the Medicis. However, since they were not prepared to pay the very high fees demanded by the best warriors of the time—namely, the Swiss mercenaries—in The Prince he had to fall back on a less-effective but more feasible solution, namely, a rural militia composed of Florentine citizens. Such a force, he argued, would be much cheaper and much more reliable than mercenaries.

Machiavelli clearly hoped that this proposal, coupled with his related ideas on the merits of a strong indigenous government (which was badly needed, in his view, to keep Florence free from foreign domination), would commend itself to the Medicis. It is clear, however, that it did not: Machiavelli never got another job, and mercenaries continued to be widely used by Italian city-states and by other employers.


Battle of Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade

The end of resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, northern Serbia and Bulgaria was to provoke energetic, though belated, action in the west. The Turks were in fact halted by Mongol armies from the east, not by the Christians from the west, but the ‘Crusade of Nicopolis’ of 1396 is an event of sufficient significance to justify a brief excursus on the history of crusading thought in the century after the disappearance of Christian rule in Syria. Throughout this period there was much discussion concerning the methods to be used to regain the territory now lost to Christianity. The ideas of the Catalan Ramon Llull (1232–1315/16) are of interest for their originality, though they had no practical effect. Llull had plans for military reconquest, but his most novel recommendation proposed the foundation of chairs of oriental languages in western universities. Muslims were to be converted by what might now be called ‘brain-washing’. Special linguist-preachers should ‘hold disputations with prisoners to convert them to the Holy Catholic faith’, and they should read certain books which prove that Mahomet was not a true prophet.

Afterwards the ruler-commander [under whom the military religious orders were to be unified] should release these captives. He should pay them their travelling expenses with a fair and friendly expression on his face, and send them off to the Saracen kings and other rulers … so that they should make clear to them (the rulers) what we believe concerning the most holy Trinity … and this will be a way of converting the Infidels and of spreading our most holy faith.

The most fundamental of the many disadvantages of this scheme was that the Christians very rarely succeeded in taking Muslim prisoners.

It was natural that the most active propagandists of the crusade should be those who were most closely threatened by the Moslem advance. Pierre de Thomas, a French Carmelite friar, went to the eastern Mediterranean around 1350 and spent the remaining 15 years of his life as papal legate in Crete and Cyprus. Among Thomas’s disciples was Philippe de Mézières, who became chancellor of Peter I of Cyprus, planned to found a chivalrous order (to be called ‘The New Order of the Passion of Jesus Christ’) and wrote a number of works on the crusade after returning to France in 1369. King Peter (a Lusignan) was a close friend of both these men, and with their energetic encouragement and assistance he raised a fleet of 165 vessels and launched an expedition of which the anticlimactic outcome was the capture—for a single week—of the city of Alexandria.

The assault on Alexandria (1365) was the issue of three years’ preparatory work, including a visit by king Peter to the west, where he held discussions with pope Urban V, John II of France, Edward III of England, the emperor Charles IV and the kings of Hungary and Poland. It took its place in a long and uninterrupted series of military failures, a list that includes Clement VT’s league of 1343 (which did, however, capture Smyrna) and Peter’s own earlier expedition against Asia Minor, which also captured a solitary port, Adalia (Antalya). It was followed by the ‘Crusade’ of Count Amadeus VI of Savoy, who took 15 galleys and several mercenary companies to the east in 1366, but was diverted into fighting against the Christian Bulgarians on behalf of the Byzantine emperor.

Almost a generation passed before the next ambitious scheme, the joint Franco-Genoese crusade of 1390 against the Tunisian port of al-Mahdiya. A hundred galleys sailed on this enterprise under the command of Louis II de Bourbon, uncle of Charles VII of France. The attack on al-Mahdiya, like all crusading ventures, was the product of mixed motives, motives which affected both the composition of the force involved and the outcome of the operations. The Genoese—who supplied 1,000 crossbowmen and 2,000 cavalrymen as well as the shipping—were principally concerned with al-Mahdiya as the home of corsairs who hindered their valuable north Africa trade. The French were sincere crusaders, benefiting from the respite afforded by the pacific policy of Richard II of England; they were indeed reinforced by English, Flemish and Aragonese elements. The siege proved a difficult undertaking, the Genoese were naturally the first to feel discouraged and negotiations soon resulted in their agreement to a 10-year truce which offered them all they really wanted. The reluctant French were compelled to follow suit and after three months the siege was abandoned.

The last of the major crusading ventures was the outcome of the great Ottoman victory of 1389. Like the al-Mahdiya expedition, the Crusade of Nicopolis was made possible by the long lull in the Anglo-French war. In 1395 negotiations led to the formation of a league involving France, England, Hungary, Venice and Burgundy: Duke Philip the Bold was the principal promoter and his son John of Nevers (the future John the Fearless) commanded the Franco-Burgundian element. More than half of the very large Christian force involved were Hungarians. In the summer of 1396 this army advanced from Buda along the Danube and besieged Nicopolis. Sigismund of Hungary, experienced in warfare against the Ottomans, favoured cautious tactics, but the French could only think in terms of the headlong chivalric assault which had cost them so dear at Crécy and Poitiers. When Bayezid broke off the siege of Constantinople and came to the aid of Nicopolis the French at once launched an attack (25 September 1396). After winning ground in the early stages of the engagement, they were defeated with the loss of almost their entire force. The Ottomans then turned against the Hungarians, who had held aloof from the French battle, and they too were overcome. Most of the French prisoners were put to death, but Bayezid spared the nobles, who were later ransomed for a fee of 200,000 florins. Among these was John of Nevers, who reached home the following year.

The great military undertaking of 1396 had failed to halt the Turkish advance and Constantinople would almost certainly have fallen within a few years but for the defeat of Bayezid by Timur in 1402. Throughout the preceding century the western Christians had compared unfavourably with their opponents—whom they had consistently underrated—in every respect. Their tactics and discipline had been inferior and they had fought in unsuitable armour. Above all, their efforts had been spasmodic and had been frustrated by internal divisions and conflicting motives. As an old man, Philip of Mézières, the great crusading propagandist of the age, learned the news of the crushing defeat of his hopes at Nicopolis. In these last, sad years of his life he was accustomed to write of himself ruefully as a vieil abortif‘(an old failure).

Bayezid’s defeat and capture near Ankara in 1402 postponed Ottoman domination throughout south-eastern Europe for several decades. During this period both Venice and the kingdom of Hungary were sufficiently powerful to dispute what was left of the Eastern Empire with the Turks—though inevitably they were rivals and not allies. After the death of Sigismund (1437) Hungary lost much of its cohesion, and the eventual successor, Ladislas of Poland, had to struggle for control in Hungary as well as fighting the Turks in Serbia. The campaigns of 1442–4, which probably saved Constantinople from conquest by Murad II, were fought under the virtual leadership of John Hunyadi of Transylvania, a Wallachian noble who had come into prominence in the service of Hungary. Hunyadi was also involved in the attempt to exploit Murad’s absence in Asia during 1444, which culminated in the disastrous defeat of Varna, in which king Ladislas was killed. Surviving this battle, Hunyadi became regent in Hungary for Ladislas Posthumus, the grandson of Sigismund and heir to Ladislas III. Hunyadi in his turn became preoccupied with internal factional strife, and in the following years the main role in opposing the Ottomans was assumed by the Albanian George Castriot, later known as Scanderbeg (born c. 1405). Scanderbeg had been taken by the Turks in youth as a hostage and, as a Moslem, served them for many years before he fled to his native land and set up as the leader of resistance there in 1443.

The loss of Constantinople, 1453!


As early as the 1420s western visitors to Constantinople were startled to find its population much under the influence of Turkish ways. The honour of suppressing the shrunken vestige of the empire founded by Augustus fell to Mahomet II ‘the Conqueror’ (1451–81). The man who achieved the success so long promised by God to the champions of the Islamic faith, and so long denied them, was in every respect worthy of his triumph. Mahomet was born in 1432, the son of Murad II by an unknown slave. An elder half-brother was murdered and Mahomet became heir presumptive as a young child; indeed, his father abdicated in his favour in 1445, but had second thoughts and resumed power in the following year. Mahomet’s first campaign was probably the victorious one against Hunyadi which culminated in the second battle of Kosovo (1448). Murad died three years later, and Mahomet marked his succession by putting to death a young half-brother who was a potential centre of opposition. The same fate was later to befall a series of grand viziers, but Mahomet must be given credit for his punctilious observance of etiquette in such matters: when an important dignitary was executed his head was exposed on a silver plate, whereas that of a lesser official was only granted a plate of wood. The sultan’s favourite method of execution was to order men to be sawn in half, and his whimsical sense of humour permitted him to claim that he had been true to his word when he had 300 Italians killed in this way at Mytilene in 1462 after promising that ‘they might keep their heads’. His methods did little to distinguish him from his Christian opponents, though in his reputation for brutality he was outdone by perhaps only one contemporary, the infamous Vlad ‘the Impaler’, ruler of Wallachia. At the height of his campaign against the Wallachians (also 1462), Mahomet’s army apparently found itself in a ‘forest’ of 20,000 stakes on which Vlad’s Turkish and Bulgarian victims had been impaled.

Mahomet was steeled by an unlimited faith in his own destiny. From childhood he had believed that Constantinople would be his, and later he was to dream of the conquest of Hungary and even of Rome. He had a great taste for Greek and Roman history, as well as for what we should now call medieval chronicles; these works were read to him presumably in Greek (for he knew this language, as well as ‘Slav’), by Italians. A particular favourite was Alexander the Great, and there can be little doubt that Mahomet saw himself as the new Alexander, called by destiny to repeat in reverse the deeds of the old. ‘The times have changed now’, he is reported to have said, ‘and I shall go from east to west as formerly the westerners penetrated the East.’

Mahomet’s best-known military achievement, the conquest of Constantinople, was not his greatest feat of arms. This was merely the last symbolic act in the extinction of an empire which had long survived only by consent of the Turks. On the death of the emperor John VIII Palaeologus in 1448 the rival claimants, John’s brothers Constantine and Demetrius, invited Murad to decide the succession. Not unnaturally Murad declared for Constantine, the despot of Mistra, who two years earlier had become his tributary. The city that Mahomet set out to subjugate in 1452–3 had long been encircled, but he took care to occupy the forces of the emperor’s two brothers by launching a diversionary campaign in the Morea. The final siege began on 6 April 1453. Since the Byzantines were able to muster only some 9,000 men (of whom one-third were Genoese and Venetians) to hold four miles of wall, the outcome of the siege was a foregone conclusion once the sultan had turned his full might against the city. Nevertheless, tribute must be paid to the ingenuity which enabled the Ottomans to drag 70 ships across land from the Bosphorus to the waters of the Golden Horn, thus circumventing the chain which was supposed to protect the harbour against naval assault. The walls were at last breached on 29 May. The emperor Constantine died courageously among his men, and within hours the entire city was in Ottoman hands; inevitably there were appalling scenes of massacre and looting.

Mahomet fought an almost ceaseless series of campaigns in Europe and Asia. To chronicle them would be tedious, but without doing so it is difficult to give a sufficient impression of Ottoman military power at this period. In Asia the emperor of Trebizond, another beneficiary of Byzantine decay, was overthrown, as were a large number of Anatolian rebels and Persian challengers. To the north, naval and military campaigns made of the Black Sea a Turkish lake, with disastrous consequences for western European traders. Mahomet’s onslaught on Europe was checked in 1456 by the heroic relief of Belgrade by Hunyadi and the crusaders of the friar Capistrano. Belgrade was to defy the Turks again, but by 1459 Mahomet had regained all Serbia and within three years of this he held Athens and the Morea. To his conquests in mainland Greece he soon added Mytilene (Lesbos) and various other islands, though the Venetians were able to retain Euboea, with its strategic trading post, Negroponte, till 1470. By that date Bosnia had fallen and resistance in Albania almost come to an end with the death of Scanderbeg (1468). From Bosnia marauding Ottoman irregulars launched annual raids as far to the north-west as Styria and Carinthia, and in 1477 a force pressed so far into Italy that the fires caused by its depredations could be seen from Venice. Three years later the Ottomans attacked southern Italy, captured Otranto, massacred every male in the city, and held it for over 12 months.

When Mahomet died in 1481, at the age of 49, Ottoman strength was still checked in the Balkans by the resistance of Belgrade and in the Mediterranean by that of Rhodes. The growth of Turkish sea-power under Selim I (1512–20) made possible the conquest of Syria and Egypt. Only under Suleiman II (1520 – 66) was the advance into Europe resumed, while Charles V warred with Francis I of France. Then the king of Bohemia and Hungary was killed in the decisive battle at Mohács (1526) and, with the acquisition of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire became a greater power in Europe than its Byzantine predecessor had been, even in its heyday before the First Crusade. Not only had the territorial problems set by Byzantine decline been settled for centuries, but the western European states had to reckon with a mighty neighbour whose weight was to count for much in the balance of power diplomacy of the ‘early modern’ period. By splitting Christian Europe, the Reformation served to make the domination of the Turks yet more secure. The crusading ideal lived on strongly in the ideas of the Counter-Reformation, but even the naval victory of Lepanto (1571) failed to check the Ottoman advance: a century after this the Turks captured Crete and besieged Vienna. The replacement of a stricken Christian empire by an aggressive Islamic autocracy was certainly the greatest change in the map of Europe between the thirteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth.



The Sand Pebbles is an American adventure epic/war film directed and produced by Robert Wise. Based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Richard McKenna, the film tells the story of a U.S. Navy machinist’s mate (played by Steve McQueen) aboard the fictional gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China: a country in the throes of anti-Western fervor and civil strife.


In 1953, following a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy as a chief machinist mate, Richard McKenna (1913–1964) undertook a second career as a writer. After dabbling in science fiction, McKenna wrote his only novel: The Sand Pebbles, a 597-page epic about the travails of an American gunboat on China’s Yangtze River in 1926 (McKenna had served on such a gunboat, but a decade later, in 1936). The book proved to be a huge hit: a condensed version was serialized in three issues of the Saturday Evening Post in November 1962; it won the $10,000 1963 Harper Prize Novel, was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and became a national bestseller. Furthermore, McKenna sold the movie rights to United Artists (UA) for $300,000 ($2.4 million in 2017 dollars). Shortly thereafter 20th Century Fox acquired the rights from UA and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck greenlit the project for producer-director Robert Wise in September 1962. The search for suitable filming locations in Asia, script writing, and other pre-production work would keep the project on hold for another three years. Paul Newman was tapped for the lead role of Jake Holman but turned it down. Teen crooner Pat Boone lobbied hard for it but it finally went to Steve McQueen (who was paid $650,000), after he achieved true stardom in John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). A former Marine with a rebellious streak and lover of all things mechanical, McQueen was perfectly suited to play a feisty Navy machinist mate. When Julie Christie turned down the role of Shirley Eckert, it went to Candice Bergen (who was just 19). Richard Attenborough (an Englishman playing an American who had appeared with McQueen in The Great Escape), Mako (a Japanese American actor playing a Chinese man), and Richard Crenna (in his first major film role) filled out the rest of the main cast. Pre-production work on The Sand Pebbles included the construction of the movie’s most important and expensive prop: the San Pablo, a 150-foot, steel-hulled gunboat closely modeled on the USS Villalobos (PG-42), an 1898 gunboat captured from Spain during the Spanish-American War and used on Yangtze River patrol from 1903 to 1928. Built in Hong Kong by Vaughn & Yung Engineering Ltd. at a cost of $250,000, the San Pablo was powered by reliable Cummins diesel engines, not a period steam engine liable to break down and cause production delays. The San Pablo emitted black smoke from her smokestack that came from old tires and other rubbish burned in a special compartment on the boat. Jake Holman’s beloved engine—a working 20-ton, 1,000-horsepower, triple expansion steam engine built by Vickers in 1920 and salvaged from a Norwegian whaler in Vancouver, British Columbia—was actually located in an engine room set built on Stage 16 at 20th Century Fox studios in Burbank, not on the San Pablo.


Shooting in mainland China, where the novel was set, was out of the question, so much of The Sand Pebbles was filmed on the Keelung and Tam Sui Rivers at Taipei, on the island of Taiwan. The narrow, crowded streets of Taipei were used for street scenes supposedly taking place in Shanghai, San Pablo’s home port. In the Tamsui district of Taipei, 900 of the 5,000 locals were recruited as extras to storm across the “Changsha Bund” and hurl lighted torches at the San Pablo. Po-Han’s poignant death scene was also filmed in Tamsui. Filming on Taiwan lasted four and a half months (22 November 1965–21 March 1966). The company then moved on to Hong Kong to film the movie’s climactic fight between the San Pablo and 30 Chinese junks blockading it, supposedly on the Chien River in mainland China, but it was actually shot on a narrow inlet in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district—the massive 1,000-foot bamboo rope that linked the junks together weighed 25 tons. Filming of the battle scene, which took two months, was completed 15 May 1966. The 135-person cast and crew then returned to California to shoot interior scenes at the studio in Burbank and some additional exteriors at Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas in June and July. The grueling nine-month shoot was finally concluded on 2 August 1966 at the USS Texas, near Houston, where what was supposed to have been the film’s opening scene was shot (i.e., Jake’s departure from an American battleship in Shanghai harbor). Included in a test rough cut, that scene and some other scenes ended up on the cutting room floor in order to trim the film’s running time from 196 minutes down to 182 minutes. Due to production delays, mostly caused by inclement weather but also due to the language barrier in Taiwan, unpredictable tides, etc., the film greatly exceeded its $8 million budget, coming in at $12 million. Steve McQueen was so exhausted that he took a year off to rest.

Plot Summary

In 1926, Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble” and its sailors are dubbed “Sand Pebbles”). The officers have hired coolies to do most of the routine work, leaving the sailors free for military drills or just lounging about. An industrious individualist and avid mechanic, Holman takes over the operation and maintenance of the ship’s engine—inadvertently insulting the chief engine room coolie, Chien (Tommy Lee) in the process. Holman also alienates most of his fellow sailors, who are lazy, but he does become close friends with a watertender named Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough). Holman discovers a serious problem with a crank bearing on the boat’s engine and informs the captain, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), but Collins refuses to have it repaired until his executive officer declares an emergency. Chien asks to complete the repair and is accidentally crushed to death when a jack slips. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing (Henry Wang), blames Holman, believing that a “ghost in the machine” killed Chien. Holman selects Po-Han (Mako) as a replacement for Chien, and the two men soon become friends. Po-Han is harassed by “Ski” Stawski (Simon Oakland), a brutish sailor, and the two box while the rest of the crew places bets on the outcome. Po-Han wins the fight, creating greater friction between Holman and the other crew members. Lt. Collins orders the crew to refrain from any hostilities with the Chinese, as they don’t want to add fuel to the propaganda fire. The boat embarks, but Po-Han is sent ashore to avenge Chien’s death. Po-Han is run down, taken captive, and tortured by Chinese peasants while the crew watches from the boat. The Chinese refuse to release Po-Han, and Collins shoots him to relieve his suffering. The San Pablo moors on the Xiang River due to low water levels, and Lt. Collins begins to fear a mutiny. Frenchy dies from pneumonia after too many swims ashore to visit his new wife Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan). Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) army soldiers locate Holman as he tries to comfort Maily, beat him, and drag the grieving woman away. The next day, the Chinese claim that Holman has “murdered” Maily and her unborn baby and demand that he is turned in as a criminal. The crew worries for their safety and asks Homan to surrender, but then Collins shocks the Chinese with a gunshot to their boat, and Holman is left alone. In the spring, Collins begins river patrols anew, but is then ordered back to the Yangtze River. Before heading to his new post, Collins steams upstream to rescue Jameson (Larry Gates), an idealistic missionary and his schoolteacher assistant, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), from their remote China Light Mission. After a good deal of fighting between the sailors and the Chinese near Dongting Lake, Collins leads three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson does not want to be rescued, claiming that Eckert and he have renounced their U.S. citizenship and are committed to their post. Collins orders Holman to evacuate Eckert and Jameson, but just as Holman declares that he is going to stay with them, Jameson is suddenly killed by Nationalist soldiers in a surprise attack. Collins is killed trying to provide cover for Holman, leaving him in command. He tearfully parts from Eckert and is then fatally wounded right as he goes to join the others on his boat. His last bewildered words are: “I was home [free] … what happened … what the hell happened?” as the San Pablo sails away.


Four years in the works, The Sand Pebbles finally premiered on 20 December 1966. Proving a hit at the box office, the film grossed $30 million ($226.4 million in 2017 dollars). It received seven Oscar nominations, eight Golden Globe nominations, and one win (a Golden Globe for Richard Attenborough as Best Supporting Actor). Reviews were, however, mixed. Philip K. Scheuer called it “a stirring movie … adventure on the grand scale” (Scheuer, 1966). Richard Schickel found The Sand Pebbles to be “a clumsy and lumbering film, but it has a way of haunting the corners of your mind, as historical footnotes are sometimes wont to do” (Schickel, 1967). Many reviewers complained about the film’s sheer length; at 3 hours it was judged too long to be consistently engaging.

Reel History Versus Real History

Having served in the China River Patrol in 1936, novelist Richard McKenna brought a good deal of authenticity to The Sand Pebbles in his rendition of daily life on an American gunboat plying the waters of the Yangtze River in pre-revolutionary China. The novel is set between June 1925 and June 1926, whereas the film is set in 1926–1927, but both settings encompass a particularly volatile moment in China’s modern history: a time when the country was a powder keg, seething with anti-imperialist ardor and internecine political conflict. During the setting of the novel, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party of China) was in the throes of a power vacuum following the death of its founder, Sun Yat-sen, in March 1925. On 5 June 1926 Chiang Kai-shek was named commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Five weeks later he finally launched Sun’s long-delayed Northern Expedition, aimed at conquering the northern warlords and uniting China under the KMT. Chiang disapproved of Sun Yat-sen’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China (CPC) but he still needed Soviet aid, so he could not break up the alliance at that time. The film shifts the novel’s temporal framework forward about a year and distills and streamlines McKenna’s fictional saga, but still manages to capture the politically explosive political climate, an uneasy time for gunboats of foreign powers on the Yangtze, with their very presence stirring intense resentment among Chinese nationalists and communists sick and tired of “gunboat diplomacy,” that is, thinly disguised imperialist intervention. The culminating attack on the USS San Pablo may have been inspired by the so-called “USS Panay incident” (12 December 1937), when Japanese forces invading China bombed, strafed, and sank a U.S. gunboat on the Yangtze River, killing 3 and wounding 43, a sinking that caused a diplomatic rift between the United States and Japan and presaged Pearl Harbor. The plot element involving the killing of missionary Jameson at China Light Mission may have been inspired by the killing of American Christian missionaries John and Betty Stam (8 December 1934) by Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War. Another possible antecedent: the “China Martyrs of 1900”: hundreds of American and European Christian missionaries and converts who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). One final note: a number of film critics erroneously assumed that The Sand Pebbles was meant to be an implicit critique of American intervention in Southeast Asia—the Vietnam War was in full swing when the film came out at the end of 1966—but that was never Richard McKenna’s intention when he published the book in 1962, or the intention of the filmmakers four years later.