Of all Hannibal’s accomplishments, nothing quite resonates like his passage over the Alps. It was not just audacious, it was unimaginable. The crossing eclipses even his spectacular victories in later battles against the Romans. Although it is often cited as an example of leadership at its best, it also accounted for more casualties and losses than any of the battles that followed. The feat can be viewed as a stunning success, an example of a leader overcoming nature by the sheer force of his determination, or a colossal failure when measured in terms of the cost in human life. In biographies of Hannibal and in histories of the Punic Wars, authors tend to gloss over this part of the story, preferring to focus instead on his battlefield victories in Italy.

The Alps are a natural barrier between France and Italy—stretching over two hundred miles from majestic Mount Blanc in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. They begin as a relatively low range of mountains (three thousand to four thousand feet) just east of the Rhone River, gradually building in height and steepness until they attain their full measure of majesty (twelve thousand to fourteen thousand feet) on the Italian frontier. At the frontier, there is a dramatic change in their contour as they suddenly end in a precipitous drop from the dizzying heights straight down onto the level plains of Italy below. Seemingly a solid wall of rock, snow, and ice between France and Italy, the Alps have a series of depressions or passes which run east to west between their highest peaks. These passes provide the only way over the peaks and make for a convenient division of the range into sections. The lowest and most southern section is called the Alpes Maritimes, beginning at the Mediterranean Sea behind the city of Nice and ending at the Col de la Bonette, at nine thousand feet, the highest pass in the Alps with a hard surfaced road over it. North of the Alpes Maritimes is the section known as the Cottian Alps—named by the Romans after a Ligurian ally, King Cottius. This section is centered on two passes, the Mount Cenis and the Montgenevre, both well-travelled routes over the mountains between Italy and France. The Alpes Graiae, or Greek Alps, are the next section located between the Mount Cenis pass and Mount Blanc. This is the range that the legendary Hercules allegedly crossed on one of his adventures. The final range is the Alpes Penninae or Pennine Alps, which extend from the Swiss frontier and the upper Rhone valley to the most northern and western portions of Italy.

Scholars are generally of the opinion that Hannibal passed over the Cottian Alps, which begin in the Rhone Valley in an area of relatively low mountains known as the pre-Alps or the Alpes du Dauphine. Once over this first low range, Hannibal would have descended into a series of valleys before starting his second and final climb over the higher mountains, the Hautes Alpes, on the frontier with Italy. The only way over the mountains is to follow valleys. Their riverbeds afford level footing, provide ample sources of drinking water, and eventually lead to streams on the mountainsides. These streams in turn lead to passes, which are the only practical way over the peaks. The sources of the streams begin at the highest elevations, where the snows begin to melt and then cascade down the mountainsides. Streams become rivers and the rivers, over millennia, have formed long transverse valleys as they find their way to the Rhone. But even following rivers can be risky, because it is easy to become confused and lost in a labyrinth of blind valleys along the way. Valleys often contain gorges, narrow passages where there is a risk of being trapped and swept away by the torrents of water, mud, and rocks that periodically surge from the heights, destroying everything in their path—something the author has witnessed firsthand in the valley of the Queyras.

There are four principal rivers that flow from the higher elevations of the Alps and make their way to the Rhone. The farthest north is the Isere, which begins as a stream in the glaciers of the high Alps near the Val d’Isere and enters the Rhone as a sizable river at the city of Valence. This riverbed is the preferred choice among historians who have speculated on the route of Hannibal. Below the Isere is a smaller river, the Drome, which begins in the pre-Alps or the Alpes du Dauphine and flows into the Rhone just south of Valence. Another even smaller river just south of the Drome is the Aygues, which also begins in the pre-Alps and enters the Rhone just north of the city of Orange. Neither the Drome nor the Aygues leads directly to passes in the high Alps. The last and longest of the four is the Durance, which begins as a series of streams on the slopes of the highest mountains on the Italian frontier and flows southwest through a broad valley before it reaches the Rhone just south of Avignon. Ruling out the coastal route to Italy because of the risk of encountering the Roman army at Massilia, Hannibal’s best choice among the four options would have been the Durance. The river leads to one of the lowest and easiest passes over the mountains—the Col du Montgenevre. But that route, in its initial stages, had to be avoided as well, because it still brought Hannibal’s army perilously close to the Romans.

In searching for a way over the Alps, Hannibal had no choice but to move farther north along the Rhone than he perhaps originally intended. Then, once he had lost the Romans, he could turn east and make his way into the upper reaches of the Durance River, near the modern French towns of Mont Dauphine and Guillestre. From there it is an easy passage into Italy by way of the Montgenevre—a pass that is less than six thousand feet, and today a principal truck and car route between France and Italy.

The ancient sources indicate that after Hannibal left his crossing point on the Rhone he marched north along the eastern bank of the river for four days in an attempt to lose the Roman army he feared might be following. Based on accounts of the expeditions of Alexander the Great in Asia and Julius Caesar in Gaul, events which bracket Hannibal in time, his army could probably cover ten to fifteen miles a day under ideal conditions. Even allowing Hannibal and his army the more conservative figure of ten miles a day, leaving from the vicinity of Arles would have brought them to a point along the Rhone close to what is today the French city of Orange. Historians speculate that land travel, especially in the interior regions of France, might have been fairly easy because roads were relatively well developed. Those roads followed the river valleys through the mountains and then, through a system of sharply graded pathways, some eventually reached the passes.

On the fourth day, Hannibal and his army came to an area along the Rhone simply referred to in the manuscripts as the “island”—a triangular body of land that resembled the Nile Delta because it was low-lying, subject to seasonal flooding, fertile, and densely populated. The main river that bordered the “island” was clearly the Rhone, while the identity of the second remains uncertain. Polybius, writing in Greek, named this second river the Iskaras or Skaras, while Livy, writing in Latin, called it the Arar or Araros. The tribe that occupied the island was the Allobroges, a generic name for tribes that inhabited a wide section of Gaul from the Rhone River to the Alpes du Dauphine and were loosely bound together by language and custom. This tribe had recently lost its king, and his two sons were contending for the throne. The elder, Brancus, claimed the throne by right of primogeniture, while the younger, whose name is never given, was threatening to depose his brother if he declared himself king. The tribe was on the verge of civil war. According to Polybius, Hannibal sided with the older brother and then used his army to drive the younger one and his followers from the area. Livy, on the other hand, maintains that Hannibal played a much more conciliatory role, serving more as a mediator with the assistance of the tribe’s elders. Either way, the dispute was settled in favor of Brancus, and to show his gratitude the new king provided clothing, weapons, and supplies for Hannibal’s soldiers suitable for the journey ahead of them. Then he furnished an armed escort to guide them as far as the foothills of the Alps.

From the island, Hannibal turned east and began his trek following this second river for ten days and covering about a hundred miles. The march was uneventful and relatively easy until the column reached the foothills known as the Alpes du Dauphine, where the escort provided by Brancus left to return home. The terrain became more difficult in these higher elevations, and the column was now being shadowed from the heights above by local tribes that might have allied themselves with the younger brother of Brancus.

While the Alpes du Dauphine only rise to a height of between four and five thousand feet, they are still a formidable obstacle. The farther the column moved east, the higher the mountains became and the slower their progress. More tribesmen began to appear on the heights above them. When Hannibal’s scouts reported that a particularly narrow gorge lay ahead, he became concerned. That night, exaggerated reports of the dangers ahead circulated through the camp, causing apprehension among the soldiers. The scouts further reported that the tribesmen shadowed the column by day but returned to the comfort of their villages at night. That gave Hannibal an idea. He ordered a larger than normal number of campfires to be built just before dusk, so that when darkness fell the tribesmen would think the camp was settled for the night. The tribesmen withdrew to their villages, and Hannibal slipped out of his camp with a force of lightly armed infantry. They scaled the heights over the gorge and positioned themselves above the ledges usually occupied by the tribesmen during the day. Just after daybreak the Allobroges returned, unaware that Hannibal and his men were lying in wait. The army below broke camp and slowly began moving into the gorge. Once in, the walls seemed to close around them and an ambush seemed certain. By late morning, the vanguard had cleared the gorge and begun to climb to an adjacent pass.

Initially the tribesmen only watched as the column slowly threaded its way into the gorge and then began to move up a track leading to a pass. The track eventually became a narrow ledge with a precipitous drop to the river on one side and a sheer wall on the other. In places, the column had to move nearly single file along the ledge. As the Allobroges watched the column struggling along the ledge, they could no longer restrain themselves. They began screaming and hurling their spears. Their cries echoed and re-echoed through the gorge as they purposely wounded horses with their arrows, causing them to rear out of control. The animals, maddened by pain, either lost their footing and fell off the ledge or pushed blindly ahead, shoving men and animals over the side. Casualties began mounting as panic and confusion took a greater toll on Hannibal’s soldiers than the spears, arrows, and rocks raining down on them. Watching from above, Hannibal continued to restrain his soldiers, even though they pleaded with him to allow them to relieve the pressure on their comrades. But Hannibal hesitated, fearing an attack at this point would only add to the confusion on the ledges below and increase the casualties. Finally, when the Carthaginian column was close to breaking apart, Hannibal ordered the attack. Within a short time the heights were swept of the enemy, and the column slowly regained its cohesion. The remaining elements were now able to climb out of the gorge and make it over the pass safely. Even the most experienced and battle-hardened among the mercenaries were shaken by what they had been through. Only when the last of the soldiers, horses, and pack animals had been brought through safely were the elephants led along the ledge and over the pass. Hannibal’s tactics were similar to what Alexander the Great had done over a hundred years before when the defenders of the Persian capital Persepolis trapped his army in a gorge and began inflicting heavy casualties. Alexander led a small contingent of soldiers up and over a mountain at night, coming down on the enemy just before dawn and winning the day.

Not far from the pass, Hannibal’s scouts came upon a town that belonged to the Allobroges. It was largely deserted as most of the inhabitants had fled to the forests and higher elevations. When the scouts entered, they discovered some of their compatriots, who had been captured while foraging days before, and enough grain and cattle to supply the army for three days. The town was burned, and as a result the other tribes in the area allowed Hannibal’s army to pass through their territory unhampered.

Where was Hannibal’s army ambushed? Based upon this author’s research, it is doubtful it was along the Isere River route—a popular choice among scholars. Having traced the route, the author found that it leads to the Alps without any particularly difficult gorges to march through or passes to climb. There is no place along this valley the author could find that corresponds to the conditions Hannibal encountered. The only possibility is the Gorges de la Bourne, which can only be reached by leaving the Isere at the town of St. Nazaire-en-Royans and following a smaller river, the Bourne, due east. The gorge is admittedly an ideal site for an ambush, but why would Hannibal have left the easier and safer Isere route to follow the more difficult Bourne? Just beyond the gorge is a second smaller gorge, the Gorges du Furon, but no second gorge is mentioned in the ancient sources. Nor could the author find a mountain pass near the gorge. The Bourne route eventually leads back to the Isere River at Grenoble.

A few miles south of the Isere is a more likely possibility—the Drome. This river enters the Rhone just north of the modern town of Le Pouzin, in an area that closely resembles, even today, what could have been the island mentioned in the manuscripts. But the Drome does not lead to the frontier with Italy. Its riverbed leads east, paralleling the D93 highway, but only as far as the pre-Alps. It does, however, come very close to the Durance River at one point, and Livy mentions that Hannibal eventually reached a river named the “Druentia”—a Latin name that is tantalizingly close in spelling and sound to the modern name Durance. While Hannibal would have avoided the lower reaches of the Durance where it flows into the Rhone near Arles for fear of encountering the Romans, farther north the river would have been a safer and easier route to Italy.

Along the Drome River route is the Gorges des Gas, which leads directly to a nearby pass, the Col de Grimone, accessed today by a roadway, the D539. The gorge and pass are less than sixty miles from where the Drome flows into the Rhone, a distance Hannibal’s column could have covered in the ten days the manuscripts say it took to reach the ambush point. Although the manuscripts also tell us there were times when the column lost its way, sometimes simply “wandering,” either because of the treachery of the native guides with them, or when they would not trust the guides, “their own blindness.” Often they had to guess at the route and then retrace their steps when they entered valleys that offered no exit.

After following the gorge for a few miles, the roadway narrows considerably, not far from the village of Glandage. Once through this defile, there is a long climb to the Col de Grimone, a pass at four thousand feet. From there, it is an easy descent to the small town of La Faurie, some fifteen miles away. This town might have been the one looted and burned by Hannibal’s army. From La Faurie, it is twenty miles to the Durance River at Tallard and from there an easy march of less than sixty miles along the level valley floor to the Italian frontier by way of the Col du Montgenevre.

Once Hannibal and his army entered the Durance River valley at Tallard, the route would have been clearly marked and relatively safe. The valley is wide and passes the modern towns of Embrun and Mont Dauphine. As the column entered the valley, a delegation of elders from the surrounding tribes approached, bearing branches as symbols of peace and promising Hannibal his army could pass through their territory in safety. Although Hannibal cautiously accepted their gestures of peace, he demanded hostages to guarantee their word, provisions to feed his army, and guides to lead them over the final barrier of mountains. The elders agreed; hostages were turned over, guides designated, and large quantities of supplies provided. Despite their assurances of friendship and their willing compliance with his demands, Hannibal remained skeptical. His army had survived a particularly bad time, which made him reluctant to accept overtures of peace and friendship from these mountain tribes at face value. While the elders had been very accommodating and were quick to comply with his demands, Hannibal suspected there was treachery afoot, but at the same time, he was careful to avoid any slight that might provoke them to attack.

As the column moved northeast along the valley and reached what is today the fortress town of Mont Dauphine, they were horrified by the view that unfolded before them. The ancient sources describe “a dreadful sight before their eyes; high peaks covered with snow and all around them everything stiff with cold.” They faced the highest and most formidable mountains in the Alps; a barrier so high it seemed to touch the heavens. These mountains were like nothing they had seen so far on their journey, and the sight brought back a hundredfold the fear that had gripped them when they first reached the Rhone. The peaks in this part of the Alps can rise to nearly fourteen thousand feet, and they stand like immovable, unassailable giants—daring anyone to scale their heights. Yet unknown to Hannibal and his army at this point in their journey, they were less than fifty miles from Italy.

Livy tells us that the people who inhabited these high mountains were “ragged and unkempt, more horrible to look upon than words can tell.” Another Roman, Pliny the Elder, writes that many of these mountain people suffered from a disfiguring condition that made them grotesque to look upon, and the Roman Diodorus describes them as living “a hard and luckless life” in huts or caves and because of constant climbing, hard work, and little food they were thin but muscular. Only “half-civilized” and barely able to sustain themselves, the Greek geographer Strabo recounts how they supplemented what little they had by attacking and plundering wealthier villages and towns at the lower elevations where people lived relatively comfortable lives. When they raided, they were without pity, killing not only all the males they found, but also any pregnant women whom their priests divined carried male children within them.

It was now late September or early October; Hannibal was anxious to press ahead as conditions in the higher elevations were deteriorating and becoming more dangerous as each day passed. The longer the delay, the more likely the column would be caught in bad weather. At that point, Hannibal made one of the most disastrous tactical decisions of his career, and at the same time the one that put him in the history books. At the urging of the guides offered by the elders, he led his army away from the safety of the wide valley floor of the Durance at Mont Dauphine and into a narrow gorge known as the Comb du Queyras. These guides assured Hannibal this was a quicker passage over the mountains, and the Boii in Hannibal’s entourage, probably not familiar with the area since they crossed into Gaul by one of the lower and easier passes at the southern end of the range, could not object. The Comb du Queyras is an ominous place, where Druid priests held ritual human sacrifices—hurling young virgins from its cliffs into the river below. Even in summer, when the sun is high overhead, the gorge is covered in dark shadows. Torrents and streams cascade down its cliffs, and today a narrow roadway, suspended over the swift and turbulent river below, clings precipitously to its walls as it follows the bed of an old Roman road.

Suspicious of his guides and concerned by the gorge, Hannibal tightened the formation. When the soldiers marched through territory where they felt secure, they moved in a more relaxed fashion. But in times of uncertainty, Hannibal moved the cavalry and the elephants to the head of the column and positioned the lighter infantry on the flanks to protect the baggage train and the civilians. Last in the column was the heavy infantry, which served as a rear guard under the direct command of Hannibal. As the column moved toward the gorge, the elders who had offered Hannibal their most sacred assurances of safe conduct were dispatching messengers to the outlying tribes with a call for armed men. The call was answered as men crawled out from their crags, caves, and hovels, all with one mind—to ambush the column and loot the baggage train of its weapons, horses, clothing, and food. On the wide, flat expanses of the valley floor, the elders knew their men were no match for Hannibal’s cavalry, his elephants, and his infantry. But an ambush in the gorge was something that gave them the advantage and was more conducive to their style of fighting.

The entrance to the gorge is narrow, so only a few soldiers at a time could get through. This slowed the column, causing it to back up for a considerable distance. Once in the gorge, soldiers found themselves moving along a narrow pathway with a steep wall on one side and a swiftly flowing river on the other. Concealed in the heights, the tribesmen were positioning themselves and waiting their chance to strike. They waited patiently as the column below moved deeper into the gorge. Behind the column, another force of Gauls shadowed at a distance, while at the far end, where the gorge opened into a small valley, a third force was assembling to massacre any survivors who might escape the ambush. The column moved slowly and apprehensively as the sides of the gorge closed in on them. Soldiers became silent as they glanced nervously at the heights above. At the front of the column, the Boii scanned the cliffs looking for any sign that might indicate an ambush, while the local tribesmen who were guiding the column became increasingly restless as they looked for an opportunity to escape before the carnage began. The hostages, like lambs being led to slaughter, marched dutifully in line, bound to their captors and meekly awaiting whatever fate had in store for them.


At one place, midway through the gorge, the track became so narrow and the walls of the cliffs closed in so tightly that Hannibal’s men were only able to walk three or four abreast, “with one foot on land and the other in the river.” The walls on either side were so high that even at midday they blocked the rays of the sun. The first attack came as the baggage train was passing through this section and the rear guard under Hannibal’s command had just entered the gorge. The Gauls had stockpiled small boulders and rocks at key points along the ledges, to be rolled down on the column. The tribesmen charged the rear of the column and Hannibal ordered the heavy infantry to turn in formation and face them. The attacking Gauls were stopped by a solid wall of extended spears and interlocking shields. While the heavy infantry under Hannibal’s command held the Gauls at bay, they could not help those who were already deep in the gorge as rocks and debris rained down on them from the cliffs above. The roar of the falling rocks blended with the terrified shouts and cries of those below who were powerless to shield themselves.

Unable to find shelter from the hail of death, soldiers and civilians alike pressed themselves against the walls of the gorge in desperation—walls which offered little or no protection. The cries of the wounded and dying were smothered by the noise and confusion around them. Officers in the line tried their best to maintain order and encourage the ranks to keep moving ahead as debris and the bodies of the crushed and mutilated, men and animals alike, blocked their path. As bodies and debris piled up, they choked the narrow river passage, yet the waters pushed their way through, indifferent to the slaughter going on as their color changed from the mineral green of pristine mountain streams to the blood-red of the wounded, dying, and dead.

After the boulders and rocks had done their damage, the Gauls let loose with an unrelenting barrage of arrows and spears. Wounded animals reared out of control, thrashing out and causing as much injury to those around them as the weapons of the Gauls. The slaughter in the gorge continued for hours, sometimes lighter in one area and heavier in another. In one place the attack was so concentrated that the tribesmen descended to the floor of the gorge and separated Hannibal and his heavy infantry from his cavalry and elephants at the front. The light infantry and the baggage train suffered the most, while at the front of the column many of the elephants became uncontrollable in the confined spaces as the Gauls from the heights above did everything in their power to torment them. Eventually their handlers regained control and used them to clear the pathway ahead of debris. The defile became a killing ground of unfathomable horror, a murderous gauntlet. Finally, the vanguard broke free onto a wide expanse in the valley ahead. When the tribesmen who were waiting for the survivors to exit saw the elephants emerge, they retreated in fright. Once the bottleneck was broken and cleared, the greater part of the column was able to extricate itself and regroup. By late in the day, only the last elements in the column were still being subjected to attacks, and Hannibal worked his way to the front, where he took command of the vanguard.

The losses resulting from the ambush raise questions about Hannibal’s ability as a leader. Why would an experienced commander have allowed himself to be drawn into such an obvious trap? Not once, but twice. Even some of the ancient commentators expressed surprise that a man of Hannibal’s experience and rank would have allowed his army to be placed in such a vulnerable position. Livy comments that Hannibal “nearly succumbed to the very tactics in which he excelled”—outthinking and outmaneuvering the enemy. Was Hannibal careless? Was he too anxious to get over the last barrier before the passes were sealed by snow and ice for the winter and thus allowed the Gauls to lure him in with the promise of a quick passage over the mountains? Did Hannibal underestimate the Gauls and their potential to mount such a sustained, fierce, and effective attack along the length of the gorge or did he find himself up against an exceptionally skilled rival commander who managed to get the upper hand? The Gauls were particularly effective in guerilla warfare, and after the Punic Wars ended, the Romans would engage them in a series of long campaigns that lasted until Julius Caesar pacified them in the middle of the first century B.C. Finally, Hannibal, because of his youth—he was not yet thirty at the time—might just have made a mistake, a tactical miscalculation that cost him almost half his army.

When the vanguard of Hannibal’s army broke out of the defile, they regrouped around a massive rock on the valley floor. They climbed over every part of it they could, hiding in its fissures and caves and building a crude defensive barrier against what they feared would be another attack. All through the night, soldiers, civilians, and animals, dazed and wounded, slowly made their way to the rock, and it was well into the next day before stragglers finally stopped coming. The location of that rock has figured prominently in efforts by historians and adventurers over the last two centuries to pinpoint the gorge and valley through which Hannibal passed. Only the dead and seriously wounded were left and there was nothing Hannibal could do for them. Unable or unwilling to risk sending a rescue force back into the gorge, he had no choice but to leave them behind. While the dead were beyond pain, it was the wounded who were to be pitied as the Gauls vented their anger on them over Hannibal’s escape.

By late in the second day, Hannibal had the column on the move once more and heading due east along the valley floor. There was no going back into the gorge and no way of knowing if there would be a way out of the valley ahead of them. For the moment, the Gauls were occupied in the gorge, stripping the bodies of the dead of any armor, weapons, or valuables they could find. As the column moved forward, smaller attacks against sections of the baggage train continued until a defensive perimeter was established using the elephants and the cavalry to protect the flanks of the main column. Hannibal was now moving blindly as the guides provided by the Gauls had either been killed in the fighting or run off. The hostages who survived the carnage were executed in retaliation. The column was now alone, hurt and demoralized, trapped in a valley from which they worried there might be no escape.

Where did the second ambush happen? The sources are clear it took place in “a steep and precipitous defile through which a river ran,” where the Gauls held the heights above, and the column was forced to march along a narrow track hemmed in by walls of rock. We know that Hannibal and his column marched for three days, probably thirty to forty miles, after he sacked the town of the first mountain tribe that had ambushed him. Hannibal could easily have covered that distance to the Comb du Queyras. At Mont Dauphin, the valley of the Durance divides. To the left, it continues past the fortified heights of Mont Dauphin, then Briancon, and by the Col du Montgenevre into Italy. To the right is the entrance to the Combe du Queyras, a treacherous, seven-mile-long gorge. The gorge opens into a small valley, which continues for another fifteen miles before it ends in a cul-de-sac framed by a ten-thousand-foot-high wall of precipitous rocks, snow, and ice dominated by Mount Viso, at fourteen thousand feet, the second highest peak in the French Alps.

A small but turbulent river, the Guil, flows through this valley into the Comb du Queyras, and finally reaches the Durance. It begins as a series of streams from the melting snows on the slopes of Mount Viso, which converge at the base of the mountain and form the river, which flows rapidly through the valley. When the river enters the gorge, it become a torrent until it exits, calms, and reaches the larger and slower-moving Durance at Mount Dauphine. This small river can suddenly turn so violent, that several times in the last century it has devastated the valley, destroying villages, bridges, and hamlets along its banks. The author witnessed its destructive power firsthand in the late spring of 2000 when the valley had to be evacuated. Avalanches, which can be equally destructive, are frequent and have made parts of the valley so dangerous that the French government has designated them zone rouge—meaning no one can live there during the winter months.

The valley floor is relatively level, and while not nearly as wide as the valley of the Durance, it has more than sufficient space for an army to pass. But once in, the only way out is by the highest and most difficult pass in the Southern Alps, a narrow ledge nestled in the arms of Mount Viso, known as the Col de la Traversette. The Traversette lies on the current border between France and Italy, and this is probably where Hannibal crossed into Italy.

As the column moved forward along the valley floor, the only resistance it now encountered came in the form of sporadic attacks against sections of the baggage train and the killing of stragglers who lagged too far behind to be protected. The Gauls avoided engaging the main body of the column, since Hannibal’s cavalry and elephants could easily reach any section under attack. Even the scouts who moved ahead of the column encountered only light resistance, and by late in the day they had reached the end of the valley and climbed to the top of the pass. Midway up the mountainside, between the valley and the pass, on a wide stretch of level ground fed by multiple streams, they established a base camp and waited for the remainder of the column to reach them. By the end of the day most of the soldiers had reached the camp and by nightfall the entire army was settled in. The ground on the side of the mountain had a light covering of snow, which was quickly cleared before the tents were erected and the fires started. For the next two days, the column remained in this makeshift camp, resting and tending to its wounds.

The army had suffered a terrible mauling in the gorge, soldiers were exhausted, many were wounded, and despair could be seen everywhere in the ranks. Provisions were in short supply, most having been lost in the fighting, and what remained was rapidly being consumed. Only water was plentiful since there were several streams on the mountainside and the snow, which was everywhere, could be melted. Starvation, coupled with exposure, now took over where the Gauls had left off—moving in first among the wounded and taking the weakest. Then it began to affect even the hardiest among the soldiers. Animals that had been wounded or died were quickly butchered and eaten. The suffering and hunger darkened the mood of despair, a despair that was reflected on the somber and gaunt faces of thousands huddled around the campfires.

Anxious to see the pass, Hannibal was among the first to reach it, taking in the view of Italy that unfolded before him—a view which even today takes the breath away. Visible below was the Po River and in the distance the vast plains of northern Italy. Over the last five months, Hannibal had led his army over a thousand miles, fighting for nearly every mile just to reach this spot—the last barrier to Italy. While his army was weak, it was still intact, and what now remained was to get the soldiers, horses, and elephants down from this mountain and into Italy as quickly as possible with a minimum of casualties.

The engineers began to prepare a pathway from the base camp to the summit and then to plan their descent. Because of the nature of the Alps, climbing to the pass from the French side is relatively easy compared to the descent into Italy. The climb, while steep in some sections, is generally gradual, with no difficult passages. The author has done it on multiple occasions, with a full pack, in less than three hours—admittedly under perfect conditions—while his close friend and guide, Bruno Martin, can do it in half that time. The descent into Italy is another matter entirely. There is nothing gradual about it—it is steep and treacherous, almost vertical in some sections. It is so treacherous that before Hannibal could reach the valley floor in Italy, he would lose nearly as many men as he had in fighting the Gauls.

The soldiers rested while the engineers worked on stabilizing the approach to the pass by widening it. When the grading was completed, they were gradually moved to the pass above. Hannibal was waiting for them with words of encouragement. He urged them to take heart and continue, pointing out the view of Italy below and describing the long-awaited rest that awaited them in the lush valley below. He inspired as many as he could with his optimism and explained to all who had the strength or the inclination to listen how close they were to the end of their ordeal. After this, he promised, it was “all downhill” and after “a fight or two,” the Romans would surrender, the war would be won, and they would all go home rich, famous, and contented.

The worst was far from over. The descent into Italy would be fatal to many, especially those worn out from the fighting, weak from hunger, drained by despair, or just unlucky. Men and animals would be lost in alarming numbers on the ledges before the army would once more feel level ground beneath its feet. Death was far from finished with them, and what the Gauls had not completed in their ambushes, nature would try to finish on this mountain. Periodically, small bands of Gauls appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere, to attack sections of the struggling column, and then withdrew just as quickly, disappearing into the rocks and crevices from which they had so unexpectedly emerged.

As the engineers worked on grading the descent, they discovered what appeared to be a narrow path just below the pass that was partly covered by snow. During World War II, sections of this track were purposely destroyed by the French to prevent its use by invading Italian and German soldiers, and after the war, to discourage smugglers. The going was slow and tedious, made worse by intermittent falling snow, wind, and numbing cold. A fresh layer had settled on top of the old snow from the previous winter, and while the first elements of the vanguard could pass easily over it, those who followed quickly found they were in trouble. The fresh snow, trampled by those who had passed first, turned into a slush that quickly froze into a layer of ice.

Soldiers began to lose their footing. A stumble could result in a slide, and a slide often could not be arrested because a falling body on the steep slopes gains momentum quickly. If a slide could not be arrested within seconds, there was little to be done to stop a man or an animal from going over the edge. At ten thousand feet, there is nothing to hold onto. The unlucky or careless ones who stumbled and slid clawed desperately around them to find anything that might stop their slide to the certain death that awaited them below. Pack animals, burdened with what remained of the supplies and equipment, would often drive their hoofs through the soft top layer of snow and become stuck in the layer below. As they struggled to free themselves, driven by their panic and whipped by their handlers, they would fall, snapping their brittle legs and sealing their fate.

With the engineers leading the way, the column worked its way slowly down the eastern face of the mountain. The farther they descended, the more difficult the pathway became, and accidents occurred with increasingly fatal frequency. Men and animals were swallowed by the yawning black chasms below them. For any who slid to the end of a precipice and teetered there, rescue was often impossible. They had to be left lying by the edge until, weakened by exposure or despair, they simply gave up and slipped into the abyss. After having descended only a few hundred feet below the summit, the column suddenly came to a halt. The track ended—destroyed by a landslide and taken away vertically for several hundred feet. Try as they might, the engineers could not find a way around. As word of what happened was passed back along the column, some soldiers began to panic while others lapsed into so deep a despondency that they simply gave up and, falling upon their packs, waited for death to come for them.

When word reached Hannibal, he worked his way to the front, reassuring the soldiers in line as he passed that it was only a temporary obstacle. When he reached his engineers, all agreed the only solution was to create a new ledge above the old one. Initially they made progress because they could obtain footing in the fresh snow, but they reached a point when the footing became too treacherous because of the angle of the slope, and the column was forced to settle in for the night. Each soldier had to make the best of where he stood. Some were able to turn back, going over the pass and then down to the base camp where the horses and elephants were kept. Nearly thirty thousand men were on the mountain, praying to their gods that the weather would not worsen or the Gauls attack. When temperatures fell that night, death came once more to carry off the weakest in body and spirit.

Construction of the new ledge came to a stop when the engineers encountered a large rock that blocked their progress. So much time and effort had been involved in chipping out the new track that they had no choice but to find a way to dislodge it. The size, weight, and position of the rock made moving it impossible, so they set about to destroy it, using a process which has been utilized by farmers for centuries to clear their land. The engineers would render the rock friable. A relay was set up that stretched back over the pass and down to the tree line. In the heavily forested slopes, dead wood was collected and trees felled. The wood was hauled as far as possible by elephant, horse, and mule and then passed along from there by human relay to the engineers working on the other side.

The engineers used the wood to build an enormous fire around the rock and fed it all through the night. Aided by a favorable wind which fanned the fire, the rock became hotter as the hours passed. When the rock was sufficiently heated, the soldiers passed along their rations of sour wine, which the engineers poured over it. Sour wine is essentially vinegar, and its acetic content caused the hot surface to develop multiple fissures. The engineers then set to work with iron picks and in short order destroyed enough of the rock to continue creating their ledge.

Once the rock had been disposed of, the work went quickly. Within a day, the vanguard of the column was able to safely reach the valley floor in Italy, and by the next day the track had been widened sufficiently to enable the horses and the supply train animals to be led down. It took three more days and nights for the main part of the column to reach the Po Valley below—a descent that under ideal weather conditions the author has done in less than two hours. When it was over, nearly thirty thousand men, horses, pack animals, and elephants had been taken over the pass and then brought down on the Italian side. But the cost was high. Hannibal’s army sustained more casualties than in any of the multiple river crossings and battles they had fought in the five months since leaving Spain. When the soldiers were assembled and a final count was made, the magnitude of the losses was shocking. Hannibal had crossed the Rhone River nearly a month earlier with thirty-eight thousand soldiers and eight thousand horsemen. Now he was down to twelve thousand Africans, eight thousand Spanish, and a small number of mercenaries. His cavalry numbered six thousand, but miraculously, all his elephants survived. The highest number of casualties occurred in the two ambushes and in climbing over the last pass—all this happening in the short space of approximately two weeks.

In Italy, everything was green, the climate was temperate, and the food plentiful. The inhabitants on this side of the Alps, according to the sources, enjoyed a better quality of life than their unfortunate cousins on the French side. Hannibal’s soldiers established a base camp at the foot of the mountain and turned the starving animals out to graze on its lower gentle slopes, lush with vegetation. Thousands of feet above the camp, work continued for two more days as the track was widened enough to lead the elephants down. The army remained in camp, but recovery was not easy for men who had endured weeks of deprivation. They found it, at least in the initial stages, to be difficult both physically and psychologically. Hannibal’s soldiers “had come to look more like beasts than men,” and the sudden change from hard labor and exhaustion at the higher elevations to leisure and rest on the lower slopes, from hunger to plenty, from filth to clean living, affected them in a multitude of ways, not all of them positive.

While the crossing of the Alps has been traditionally regarded as Hannibal’s greatest feat, or at least the one that placed him in the history books and immortalized him in the popular imagination, it can just as easily be classified as one of great failure. The fact that Hannibal made it over the mountains and to Italy tends to overshadow his losses. The Alps are a dangerous place—even today they claim on average some two hundred lives a year according to French authorities. But as this author has learned from firsthand experience, despite their imposing presence, they can be crossed quickly when weather conditions are stable. The author has gone over the Traversette, into Italy, and back to France well over twenty times during the last few years, admittedly under ideal conditions. It is possible to reach the pass from the French side in three hours, enjoy the view, descend to the Italian side in another two hours, have a substantial lunch of pasta and sausage at a nearby farmhouse, then reclimb the pass and return in time for a late dinner—all in one long but fulfilling day.

Hannibal’s losses crossing the Alps hobbled his army and perhaps even compromised his ability to defeat Rome in the end. He lost close to half his army, and to replenish their numbers he now had to recruit among the less dependable Gauls in northern Italy. Now the war between Hannibal and Rome would begin in earnest and in the end it was a war that would be decided not by ability and courage, but by the passage of time and the crunching of numbers—neither of which were in Hannibal’s favor.

“Skunk Works”

The most clandestine entity of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which is officially named Advanced Development Programs (ADP). Of course, ADP is much better known as the Skunk Works.

Close to seventy-five years ago now, on June 17, 1943, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation chief engineer Hall Livingstone Hibbard and propulsive system engineer Nathan C. “Nate” Price attended a top secret US Army Air Forces (USAAF) Air Technical Service Command (ATSC) meeting in Washington, DC. In attendance were Brig. Gen. Franklin Otis “Frank” Carroll; Cols. Marshall S. Roth, Howard Bogart, and Ralph P. Swofford Jr. (Lt. Col. Jack Carter later replaced Col. Swofford on this program); and then Capt. Ezra Kotcher—project officer and senior aeronautical engineer in the engineering division of the ATSC’s Air Materiel Command (AMC). Hibbard and Price were told about gas turbine (turbojet) engine developments during this conference and prompted to submit a proposal for a pursuit (fighter) to be propelled by a single centrifugal-flow type of turbojet engine that had been designed by Maj. Frank Bernard Halford, a propulsive systems designer and engineer serving in the RAF. His engine was being produced at this time by the de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited in Great Britain as the Halford H.1B Goblin. This engine was to be produced as the J36 in the United States under license by the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation had been made aware of the H.1B Goblin engine earlier for use in its single-engine XP-59B derivative of the twin turbojet–powered P-59 Airacomet. The XP-59B was to be built under AMC Secret Project MX-398. It had acquired detailed H.1B specifications and drawings for this program. Bell, however, wouldn’t be able to produce the XP-59B in satisfactory time, so the USAAF turned to Lockheed.

The primary reason the USAAF went to Lockheed was that on February 24, 1942, it had received an unsolicited proposal from Lockheed entitled Design Features of the Lockheed L-133 in a Lockheed report numbered 2571. At that time the L-133 was proposed to be a twin-engine fighter, powered by two Price-designed axial-flow turbojet engines, known in-house as the L-1000. This rather unique airframe and powerplant proposal was turned down, however, and Lockheed continued to manufacture piston-powered and propeller-driven combat and transport aircraft for the war effort.

So, on June 17, 1943, with full knowledge of Lockheed’s interest in producing a turbojet-powered fighter, the USAAF correctly surmised that Lockheed would be interested in taking over for Bell. Hibbard was given the specifications and drawings related to the H.1B Goblin engine and headed back home to Burbank, California, where the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation resided. The program became known as AMC Secret Project MX-409.

Upon his return to Burbank, Hibbard and his chief of experimental design, Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson, set their wheels in motion to generate an appropriate airplane. Two Lockheed reports associated with the MX-409 design—numbers 4199 and 4211, respectively—were entitled Preliminary Design Investigation and Manufacturer’s Brief Model Specification. These were taken to the USAAF, and on June 17, 1943, Lockheed received a green light to proceed. On this very same day the USAAF issued Lockheed Letter [of intent to purchase] Contract Number W535 AC-40680. It called for the manufacture of one experimental pursuit airplane designated XP-80. As Lockheed had promised, and now by contract, the XP-80 was to be produced in about six months.

So secret was the MX-409 program that it couldn’t be accomplished under normal circumstances, on a factory floor or near any production line. Lockheed found a site near the factory and cordoned off the space in which the XP-80 would be built. It would be highly guarded. The building in question was located next to a putrid-smelling factory.

The Skunk Works was born in the early 1940s, but it wasn’t officially called so until a number of years later. Prior to being called Skunk Works it was called Advanced Development Projects (ADP) and then Advanced Development Programs. In the 1940s and 1950s the division generated a number of outstanding aircraft.

The Skunk Works came through again in the 1950s with a number of F-80 Shooting Star spinoffs, including the first dedicated jet-powered trainers—the T-33 T-Bird and the T2V SeaStar—for the US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN), and an all-weather fighter, the F-94 Starfire; the world’s first doublesonic fighter, the F-104 Starfighter; and the world’s highest-flying airplane, the U-2.

In the 1960s the Skunk Works proved that science fiction could indeed become science fact when it reinvented aircraft design and produced the amazing Blackbird series of triplesonic aircraft. These 2,000-mile-per-hour aircraft included the A-12, M-21/D-21, YF-12, and SR-71. All were way ahead of their time—not only in form, but also in function. It also produced an advanced version of the U-2 with its U-2R.

In the 1970s the Skunk Works created the Have Blue Experimental Survivable Testbed and the F-117 Nighthawk. The Sea Shadow and a stealthy cruise missile followed in the 1980s.

Yet another U-2 variant came forth from ADP in the 1980s—a tactical reconnaissance version called the TR-1 that sported improved avionics and engine.

In the 1990s, to answer a call from the USAF for an Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), ADP designed the YF-22, which led to the Engineering Manufacturing Design (EMD) phase and then the production of the world’s first fifth-generation fighter—the F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter.

The 2000s were rife with manned and unmanned ADP creations, including the X-35 Joint Strike Fighter series of concept demonstration aircraft that led to the System Development and Demonstration phase, which then produced the world’s second fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II; the flying-wing Polecat unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV); the P-971 hybrid air vehicle; and several other interesting air vehicles.

From the year 2010 on, the Skunk Works continued to challenge the world of advanced aerospace products. During this time, Lockheed Martin ADP has generated a number of unique air vehicles and concepts for future air vehicles. These include ARES, VARIOUS, UCLASS, LBFD, SR-72, TR, LBFD, and the HWB.


The first year and a half in the life of the Skunk Works gave birth to the first operational fighter in the United States powered by a turbojet engine. By the end of 1944, the P-80A—the first production version of the Shooting Star—had entered into production.

The rather unique design of the P-80 lent itself to the creation of other aircraft types, such as photographic reconnaissance and pilot trainer/transition variants, which the Skunk Works pursued with vigor. But the Shooting Star wasn’t the only aircraft program this new entity of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was working on.

Diversity became a way of life, and in the fall of 1944 a wholly different type of aircraft was in the works. This aircraft, at first known as TDN-146, would evolve into the Model 75 Saturn—a small piston-powered, propeller-driven, feeder-type airliner.

This diversity became status quo within the Skunk Works, a fact that remains true today. The Skunk Works has created a vast assortment of machinery, including manned and unmanned aircraft, missiles and rockets, seacraft and spacecraft. This diversity is the biggest factor in the continuing triumphs of the Skunk Works.

The Skunk Works began in 1943 but took root several years earlier in a number of interesting aircraft programs developed under company security blankets. This was status quo then, now, and will remain to be so throughout the years to follow.

World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, though the war in the Pacific raged on for another four-plus months. In the interim, the fledgling Skunk Works was busy trying to improve upon its P-80 series of aircraft while it delved into new designs. It was a time of discord because the US War Department planned to cut back on its numerous high-volume aircraft orders. Wartime aircraft production was about to come to a screeching halt.

For example, on January 7, 1945, North American Aviation, Inc., received a contract to produce one thousand Lockheed-licensed P-80N aircraft (North American Aviation charge number NA-137) at its Kansas City, Kansas, facility for the USAAF (USAAF contract number W535 AC-7717). But the contract was canceled before any production P-80Ns could be built; the reserved USAAF serial numbers 45-6701 to 45-7700 are believed to have been for these one thousand NAA-built P-80Ns.

In any event, inside Kelly’s lair the design, development, and engineering on various aircraft projects were constant. And since he was chief research engineer, Johnson was responsible for all of its wants and needs.

With the military market dwindling, it came time for Lockheed to reinvestigate the civilian aircraft market. Its large and elegant Constellation would soon ply the skies throughout the world, but there was a need for smaller, feeder-type airliners to shuttle passengers between major cities.

During this particular time period, the still rather fledgling Skunk Works entered into unprecedented territory with the creation of several interesting aircraft projects. Its aerodynamic, aeronautical, electrical, fuel, hydraulic, propulsive, and thermal engineering staff was rampant with genius minds, and they came up with many successful offerings.


Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson joined the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in 1933 at the age of twenty-two. His first assignment was tool maker.

Johnson was born on February 17, 1910, in Ishpeming, Michigan. Some of his school chums teased him about his name, calling him “Clara” on occasion. He got fed up with that girly-sounding nickname and one day, when one of these chums called him “Clara,” he tripped him. The boy fell down so hard he broke his leg. From then on his classmates called him “Kelly,” after a then popular song entitled “Kelly with the Green Neck Tie,” since he had proved he was not a pushover.

In 1989 Johnson’s autobiography, entitled Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, was published by Smithsonian Books. In it he shared, “For some time I had been pestering Gross and Hibbard to let me set up an experimental department where the designers and shop artisans could work together closely in the development of airplanes without the delays and complications of intermediate departments to handle administration, purchasing, and all the other support functions. I wanted a direct relationship between design engineer and mechanic and manufacturing. I decided to handle this new project [the XP-80] just that way.”

Thus, what became the Skunk Works was born.

Irv Culver, a self-taught aeronautical engineer, designer, and inventor, had joined Lockheed in 1938 as a draftsman. He was one of the engineers handpicked by Hibbard and Johnson for the XP-80 program. A few days into the program—the exact date isn’t clear—a telephone rang out. It was a call from the USN intended for Dick Pulver, the project engineer working on the Lockheed XR6O-1 Constitution transport program, but apparently the caller had misdialed. Culver was seated at the desk upon which the telephone was ringing, so he answered, “Skonk Works, inside man Culver.” Surely that caller on the other end of the line didn’t know what in the hell the guy was talking about and most likely hung up on him.

In that era, the “Skonk Works” was a rundown Dogpatch factory in the Li’l Abner newspaper comic strip where “Kickapoo Joy Juice” was brewed from old smelly shoe leather and other putrid inclusions. Al Capp’s comic strip was most likely a favorite of Culver’s. In any case, Culver is credited with the naming of the famed Skunk Works.

Virginia-class cruisers

The need for more nuclear-powered surface warships to provide antiaircraft and ASW defense was clear, as only two of the frigates (DLGN), now known as cruiser (CGN), possessed this propulsion system. In order to take full advantage of the high endurance offered by the nuclear Enterprise, the United States embarked on the construction of new frigates with the same capability. The first of these was the two-ship California-class.

Completed in 1974 and 1975 and redesignated as cruisers, their hulls measured 596 feet by 61 feet and displaced 10,150 tons. Their turbine engines were powered by two nuclear reactors of the D2G type, which were originally designed for destroyers and manufactured by the General Electric Corporation. Each reactor compartment was cylindrical, measured 37 feet high and 31 feet wide, and weighed 1,400 tons. The top speed produced by this propulsion system was 30 knots. These ships represented a step forward in missile technology. In place of the older SAM batteries, these vessels mounted two twin-armed Standard SAM launchers with magazines that could each hold 40 missiles. One each was located fore and aft.

The Standard missile represented a great improvement over those of the “3Ts” and is still in use in the United States Navy. Research and development for this weapon began in 1963 with the object of replacing Terrier and Tartar. First entering service in 1967 and designated RIM-66, this missile measures 15 feet, 6 inches, weighs 1,370 pounds, and possesses a maximum range of 104 miles thanks to its jet engine that can produce a Mach 3.5 velocity. The guidance system is greatly enhanced and allows for better accuracy through faster course corrections in flight. As a result, it can be used against aircraft and helicopters and for defense versus cruise missiles. This latter capability was important at the time given the inability of the “3T” missile systems to effectively combat Soviet antiship missiles. Finally, the Standard missile can also be used against surface targets, which represented the first move toward addressing the paucity of offensive power against enemy vessels that plagued the first U. S. missile cruisers.

In addition to this system and its enhanced fire control and radar array, the California-class also shipped an ASROC launcher and four Mark 32 torpedo launchers for ASW along with sonar. These vessels were also armed with two 5-inch guns in single mounts for the purpose of close-range defense. Unlike guns of the past, these were fully automated, computer-controlled weapons. Each gun possessed a magazine that held 475-500 rounds and could fire 16-20 per minute to a maximum range of almost 15 miles. This gun remains in use in the United States Navy. Four similar frigates of the Virginia-class were completed between 1976 and 1980, redesignated as cruisers at the same time as the California-class. The hull of Virginia measured 585 feet by 63 feet and displaced 11,000 tons. Its propulsion system and armament were identical to the previous vessels. The chief difference was the absence of an ASROC launcher in favor of a Standard missile system that could fire SAMs and ASROC missiles.

Harpoon missile: The naval version of this missile was first deployed in the early 1980s and resembles the French Exocet antiship missile. It is still a primary weapon of the United States Navy and was first deployed on the Virginia-class cruisers when they were retrofitted. A Harpoon weighs 1,385 pounds and is 15 feet long. It carries a 488-pound warhead at a speed approaching Mach 1 and has a maximum range of almost 70 miles. Like Exocet, its guidance system allows it to home in on a target while skimming the ocean surface before striking the hull of an enemy vessel and exploding within.

Virginia ships were refitted to carry two quadruple-mount Mark 143 Tomahawk missile launchers in the stern The Tomahawk launchers carry eight Tomahawk (BGM-109) antiship and/or land-attack missiles More capable than the Harpoon missile, which has a range of 80 nautical miles (92 miles) and carries a warhead containing 510 pounds of high explosive, Tomahawks have a range of more than 250 nautical miles (287.5 miles) and carry 1.000 pounds of high explosive. One SWG-2 Tomahawk fire control system is being installed along with the missiles, which are occupying space that was previously a hangar for the Kaman SH-2F Seasprite Light Airborne Multipurpose System I (LAMPS 1) helicopter. Problems with the hangar elevator mechanism and trouble with maintaining a watertight seal on the elevator doors led to the decision to remove the hangar and replace it with the Tomahawk launchers

Units: Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas

Type and Significance: Together with the California-class, these vessels formed the bulk of the U. S. cruiser force until the early 1980s. They were also the last nuclear-powered missile cruisers built by the United States.

Dates of Construction: All units were laid down between 1972 and 1977, with construction ending on the class in late 1980.

Hull Dimensions: 585′ x 63′ x 21′

Displacement: 11,000 tons

Armor:   1 in (25 mm) Kevlar plastic armor installed around combat information center, magazines, and machinery spaces


2 × Mk 26 missile launchers for 68 missiles

RIM-66 Standard Missiles (MR) / RUR-5 ASROC

8 × Tomahawk missile (from 2 armored-box launchers after a refitting)

8 × RGM-84 Harpoon (from two Mk-141 quad launchers)

4 × Mk 46 torpedoes (from fixed single tubes)

2 × Mk-45 5-inch/54 caliber rapid-fire gun

2 × 20 mm Phalanx CIWS (post-refit)

2 × 25 mm Mk 38 chain guns

6 × .50 cal (12.7 mm) M2 machine guns

Machinery: Turbines powered by two D2G nuclear reactors that delivered 60,000 horsepower.

Speed: 30 knots

Complement: 519

Summary: Like the California-class cruisers, these ships were first designated as frigates until 1975, when they were reclassed as cruisers. All four units were decommissioned between 1992 and 1997 and have been scrapped.

CGN-38 Virginia Class

St Vincent: 14 February 1797

Commodore Nelson in the ‘Captain’, 74 guns, unconventionally fell out of Jervis’s line of battle and threw his ship across the path of the escaping enemy squadron against heavy odds, engaging and capturing by boarding the 80-gun ‘San Nicolas’. When the latter ran foul of the 112-gun ‘San Josef’ in the process, Nelson boarded and captured her as well, the feat being quickly dubbed ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for boarding first-rates’.
It shall be my watchword – Touch and take.


In recent times there has been an attempt to disparage the character of Lord Nelson. He has been called ‘a natural born predator’ whose private life was reprehensible, who was mentally unstable, who allowed prisoners of war to be unjustly executed, who manipulated his own image to the point of outrageous idealization, who circulated stories of his own valour in such a way as to overshadow the exploits of others. This curious vogue for debunking and demeaning our past heroes strikes a sour note to those who, like Nelson, but in a minuscule way by comparison, have spent most of their lives in some sort of military service. Happily, when we contemplate Nelson’s character in the round, it is not difficult to show that these detractors – whose motives must puzzle the most objective of us – are profoundly mistaken, however conscientious they may have been in their search for detail.

Of course Nelson had his faults. He was vain, restless, intense, egotistic. Yet he was also lion-hearted, kindly, paternal, his name to this day the touchstone of naval excellence. He seemed to possess an unrivalled instinct for sensing the feelings of the lower deck. No wonder sailors longed for Nelson to command them. No wonder his captains were a band of brothers. Nelson was said to hold the four aces of leadership: imagination; the ability to inspire; confiding in subordinates and acknowledging their contribution to success; and above all the offensive spirit, the overriding determination to bring the enemy’s fleet to battle and then annihilate it. This last was the kernel of the Nelson touch. When he explained to his captains his intended tactics at what became the battle of Trafalgar, they were overcome with emotion.

Trafalgar was a victory which a few years later would facilitate the deployment of a British army on the south-western extremes of Napoleon’s empire, and keep it there, properly supplied and reinforced, until the Emperor’s own armies had been driven back to France by Wellington. When Nelson sighted the combined French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, he and his captains knew exactly what they were about. Nelson had repeatedly outlined to his subordinates how they would ‘surprise and confound the enemy’, bring about what he always sought – ‘a pell-mell battle’ – and so accomplish the absolute destruction of the enemy’s fleet. When he expounded his plan to sail direct for the enemy centre, then split and divide them, so that each half could be destroyed in detail – the plan which he lightly defined as ‘the Nelson touch’ – his captains were electrified by the sheer beauty of it. ‘It was new, it was singular, it was simple . . . it must succeed.’

Never were Nelson’s four aces of leadership played to more advantage than at Trafalgar. His imagination enabled him to picture the circumstances of a forthcoming battle with such clarity, such boldness and such unrivalled determination to bend the enemy to his will that his spirit permeated the whole fleet. There was no need for further signalling. They all knew what to do, although his last signal, the renowned ‘England expects . . .’ had such an effect on Napoleon, when he heard of it, that he ordered a comparable call to duty – La France confide que chacun fasse son devoir! – to be inscribed in every French man-of-war. Nelson’s second ace, the ability to inspire, was so strong that it animated the whole of his command. His confidence, his enthusiasm, his dedication to duty, and the sheer professional heights of seamanship and gunnery that had been achieved, meant that every captain who served with him aspired to be another Nelson. The third ace, consulting and confiding in subordinates, listening to their views and giving credit to their actions, produced a unique atmosphere of mutual confidence, trust and reliance. The last ace, the offensive spirit, embodied Nelson’s greatness as a fleet commander. It was an absolutely overriding resolution to engage the enemy at the closest possible quarters and utterly destroy him.

Yet it would be absurd to ignore Nelson’s shortcomings. On the one occasion that he and Wellington met – it was on 12 September 1805 in Castlereagh’s ante-room – he at first appalled the victor of Assaye by speaking of himself in trivial and self-indulgent language – ‘almost all on his side, and all about himself, and really, in a style so vain and silly as to surprise me’. Once Nelson had discovered to whom he was talking, however, it was a different matter, and Wellington later commented:

All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked with good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman . . . I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more.

Admiral Sir John Jervis, later Earl St Vincent, was not blind to Nelson’s faults, however much he admired his brilliance in command at sea. ‘Poor man,’ he observed, ‘he is devoured with vanity, weakness and folly.’ It was certainly true that Nelson made a fool of himself over his obsession with Emma Hamilton. But the explanation for it was clear enough. When the two became lovers, it was for Nelson the very ecstasy of love, and Emma was no longer obliged to simulate pleasure for he yielded to her as much as she yielded to him. They both embarked on the adventure of pleasure with the same slight anxiety about their ability to please or be pleased, and the same ease, the same trust. They were equals in pleasure because equals in love. Was not this love indeed? None but the brave deserve the fair, they say. If ever a man of heroic stature deserved the kind of love he longed for and Emma gave him, that man was Nelson. When the detractors already referred to hint that Nelson’s so-called mental instability led to his ‘suicide-in-all-but-name’ at Trafalgar, it is plain that they have not studied the letters Nelson wrote to Lady Hamilton before the battle or have understood the ardent longing he felt to return to the arms of Emma and their daughter, Horatia.

The truth of the matter was that from the very beginning Nelson had something of the poet and the mystic in him. ‘Nelson was the poet in action,’ wrote Aubrey de Selincourt, ‘in his grandest moments he ceased to belong to this world and entered a realm as visionary as Shelley’s.’ It is this which helps us to understand the emotional reaction of his captains when they listened to his exposition of the Nelson touch. It was honour which predominated in Nelson’s mind. He coveted honour in the way that both Hotspur and Prince Hal did. He even misquoted from the Crispin speech in Henry V, substituting the word ‘glory’ for ‘honour’. But the acquisition of honour and glory was not the sole key to Nelson’s character. He desired recognition as well. ‘I am the child of opinion,’ he wrote. And his first real taste of recognition came with the battle of St Vincent.

1797 was a bad year for England, sometimes described until the beginning of the Great War in 1914 as ‘the darkest hour in English history’. Europe was dominated by France, the whole Rhine delta was in the hands of the French, and their armies poised for invasion. Ireland was on the point of rebellion. Discontent was seething at home. The fleets of both Holland and Spain were at France’s disposal. The Royal Navy was abandoning the Mediterranean, and Sir John Jervis, commanding a fleet, fifteen sail of the line, had declared on 13 February 1797 that a victory was essential to England at this time, for everything was going wrong elsewhere. Clearly some striking success for Britain was needed. Admiral Jervis and Commodore Nelson were just the men to deliver such a success.

The engagement off Cape St Vincent, the south-west corner of Portugal, was remarkable for two things: first, Jervis’s admirable indifference to the daunting size of his enemy’s fleet. When the captain of his flagship, Victory, reported twenty Spanish sail of the line, Jervis replied: ‘Very well, sir.’ Then, on the next report’s being of twenty-seven ships, nearly double their own strength, Jervis retorted: ‘Enough, sir, no more of that. The die is cast and if there are fifty sail of the line, I will go through them.’ This splendid spirit so impressed a huge Canadian, Captain Hallowell, who was standing near the Admiral, that he slapped Jervis on the back, enthusiastically endorsing this defiance by saying, ‘That’s right, Sir John, and a damned good licking we’ll give them.’ That they did so was due in large measure to the tactical brilliance and remarkable action of Nelson.

Second, when Nelson in Captain, third from the rear of the British line, saw that his Admiral’s orders to the fleet might allow the two Spanish divisions to join up and bring greatly superior fire-power to bear on the British, he acted with what Arthur Bryant called the ‘instinct of genius’ and contrary to orders; indeed, contravening a cardinal rule of naval warfare, he bore out of the line of battle and headed straight for the main Spanish division. By bringing them to action, he sought to prevent their reunion with the other Spanish vessels. It was an act of the utmost daring to take on five enemy ships of the line. But the tactic succeeded. Nelson was supported by Collingwood in Excellent and he in turn was followed by Troubridge’s Culloden and Frederick’s Blenheim. What transpired was what Nelson always aimed at – a pell-mell battle in which British seamanship and gunnery would triumph. Nelson even went so far as personally to board a Spanish first-rate, the 112-gun San Josef, via the eighty-gun San Nicolas, which Nelson, as always eager for closer action, had rammed with his own ship, Captain.

This further act of cool courage appealed to the British fleet, and the use of the San Nicolas became famous as Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates. The outcome of the battle was eminently satisfactory. Four Spanish battleships were captured; the rest of the enemy fleet, still outnumbering the British, limped back to Cadiz; the junction of the Spanish and French fleets had been prevented; the threat of England being invaded was removed. Nelson himself, longing for recognition and fame, was made a Knight of the Bath and a Rear-Admiral. ‘His sudden exploit’, wrote Arthur Bryant, ‘caught England’s imagination . . . For all men knew him now for what he was. That knowledge was the measure of his opportunity. The years of testing and obscurity were over, the sunrise gates of fulfilment opening before him.’6 Nelson’s next great task would be against the endeavours and ambitions of Napoleon himself.

Yet if by chance Nelson’s Captain had not been where she was near the rear of the British line, if, say, she had been nearer the van, the opportunity to act as he did would not have presented itself. The battle might then have developed very differently. There would have been no doubt about Jervis’s intention to ‘go through them’, but the decisive action of Nelson’s cutting off one division of the Spanish fleet and pulverizing it would have been unlikely to occur. No doubt British seamanship and gunnery would have given the Spaniards something to think about, but in the end numerical superiority alone might have enabled them to avoid such a significant defeat. And then the threat of invasion might have persisted in a more menacing way than it did. After all, Napoleon, following his triumphant victories with the Army of Italy, had been appointed to the Army of England. Not that he thought much of the idea of an invasion when the British navy still enjoyed command of the seas. ‘Too chancy,’ was his comment. ‘I don’t intend to risk la belle France on the throw of a dice.’ Instead, he turned his thoughts once more to Egypt, with the ultimate view of striking a blow at India itself, where an ally, Tippoo Sultan, would be ready to cooperate with him in ejecting the British from India once and for all. So in March 1798 General Bonaparte was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Army of the East, and two months later he set sail from Toulon, himself sailing in the huge 120-gun flagship, L’Orient, taking with him his army of soldiers, scientists, artists and philosophers. With him too went nearly 200 ships, 1,000 guns, plentiful ammunition, 700 horses and some 20,000 men – later this force would be reinforced by another fleet sailing from Italian ports. The idea was to make Egypt a French colony as a preliminary move in the ultimate aim to strike at India, and bizarrely enough ‘to improve the lot of the natives of Egypt’.

In the same month Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson had re-entered the Mediterranean with a powerful squadron, bent on the traditional mission of search and destroy. The consequences of these two expeditions were to be dramatic indeed. If the battle of St Vincent had not been so decisive, if Pitt and his fellow ministers had not felt themselves secure enough to despatch a fleet to the Mediterranean, if Nelson had not distinguished himself sufficiently at St Vincent to demonstrate his eminent fitness to command a fleet, or had not recovered from his dreadful wound at Tenerife, which resulted in the loss of his right arm, we would not have found Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, writing to Earl St Vincent on 2 May 1798 with instructions which led to Nelson’s shattering victory at Aboukir Bay:

When you are apprised that the appearance of a British squadron in the Mediterranean is a condition on which the fate of Europe may at this moment be said to depend, you will not be surprised that we are disposed to strain every nerve and incur considerable hazard in effecting it.

Should St Vincent decide not to command the squadron in person, the task should be entrusted to Nelson. These were Spencer’s instructions. The decisions and actions that Nelson was now to take present us with another great If of history.

On 19 May 1798 General Bonaparte, not yet twenty-nine years old, set sail from Toulon for his great mission in the East and headed with the principal part of his expedition in the direction of Genoa. Nelson, who had sailed from Gibraltar on 8 May with three ships of the line and five frigates, learned from a captured French corvette nine days later that the French were preparing to leave Toulon with fifteen ships of the line and thousands of troops embarked on the transports. It was at this point that the power of nature intervened: a violent storm battered Nelson’s flagship, Vanguard, off the Sardinian coast, and it was only the daring action of Captain Ball in Alexander, who took Vanguard in tow and brought her to safety, that prevented the flagship’s being wrecked. The same storm, however, carried the French fleet out of Toulon and over the horizon before Nelson received both his orders from St Vincent and the reinforcements with which to carry out these orders – to pursue the Toulon fleet and destroy it. At this time Nelson had no information as to the likely destination of Bonaparte’s expedition. The instructions he had received made no mention of Egypt. Yet Nelson’s strategic instinct told him that it must be there that Bonaparte was bound for. His appreciation was strengthened when he further learned that the French had captured Malta and had sailed east on 16 June. He had already written to Spencer saying that he believed the French were aiming to possess Alexandria with a view to invading India, and this latest intelligence – false as far as the date of Bonaparte’s sailing east from Malta was concerned – made up his mind. It was unfortunate that Nelson’s acute lack of frigates precluded his seeking more accurate information. But in his overwhelming desire to destroy the French fleet and transports and acting on the intelligence he had, Nelson set course for Alexandria. Meanwhile Bonaparte had actually left Malta, not on 16 June, but three days later.

The result was that instead of chasing the French fleet to Alexandria, Nelson’s squadron was ahead of it. Yet the two fleets nearly converged. When on 22 June Nelson’s lookouts caught sight of French frigates on the horizon, he concluded that they could not be part of Bonaparte’s main force which, according to his intelligence, had left Malta six days earlier. He therefore sailed on. The night was hazy and during it Nelson’s line of battle sailed across a line on which the French fleet was converging. At dawn the following day neither fleet was visible to the other. It was, Arthur Bryant wrote, ‘one of the decisive moments of history’. There the two men were, England’s greatest sailor, France’s greatest soldier, within an ace of clashing, and had it come to that, the result could not have been in doubt: an early end to one of history’s most eminent stars, either drowned or made prisoner; some of the later Grande Armée’s most brilliant generals out of the running; Nelson’s annihilation of a French battle fleet anticipated by more than a month; no battle of the Nile or cosseting of its victor by Emma Hamilton.

And the cause of it all? Lack of frigates which, said Bryant,

robbed Nelson of a victory that should have been Trafalgar and Waterloo in one. Again and again St Vincent had pleaded with the Admiralty for more frigates: pleaded in vain. He had had to send his brilliant subordinate into the Mediterranean with too few, and these had failed him. Treasury parsimony, the unpreparedness of a peace-loving people . . . had contributed to this fatal flaw. It was to cost Britain and the civilized world seventeen more years of war, waste and destruction.

Yet we must remember that Nelson did catch up with the French fleet in the end and more or less annihilated it. He became the hero of the Nile. Those who relish attacking Nelson’s vanity should recognize his own cognizance of it. His comment on the storm which had nearly wrecked Vanguard was to the effect that he believed ‘it was the Almighty’s goodness to check my consummate vanity’, while a few years later, before Trafalgar, the West India merchants whose possessions had been saved by his vigilance voted him their thanks, and the Naval Chronicle went so far as to suggest that the praise heaped on Nelson was such that he was in danger of being made a demi-god – but for his modesty!

We may perhaps pursue this point by referring again to those who seek to tarnish Nelson’s reputation. That he longed for glory, honour and recognition is not to be denied. Indeed, in quoting Henry V’s admission to coveting honour as applying to himself, he acknowledged as much. ‘I ever saw a radiant orb suspended which beckoned me onwards to renown,’ he confided to Captain Hardy. But it was not just for himself that he sought renown. It was for England too. The most cherished praise that a military commander can receive comes not from his superior officers, but from those serving under his command. And it was from these very men that Nelson received unstinted devotion and admiration. ‘He was a man who led by love and example,’ observed Bryant. ‘There was nothing he would not do for those who served under him. There was nothing they would not dare for Nelson.’ So that when we read that Colin White, director of Trafalgar 200 (the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death), talks of Nelson’s claiming all the glory for himself after the battle of St Vincent instead of sharing it with his fellow officers, we may readily dismiss such insidious calumny. On the very morning after the battle we find Nelson writing to his friend Collingwood, who had supported him with Excellent:

‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ was never more truly verified than by your most noble and gallant conduct yesterday in sparing the Captain from further loss; and I beg, both as a public Officer and a friend, you will accept my most sincere thanks. I have not failed, by letter to the Admiral, to represent the eminent services of the Excellent.

It may, however, be noted that whereas Jervis made no special mention of individuals in his dispatch – for fear of offending by exclusion or inclusion – in his private letter to Lord Spencer he drew attention to the exploits of Nelson, Troubridge, Collingwood, Saumarez, Hallowell and Admiral Parker. Nelson’s own account of the battle, which was signed by two of his fellow officers, Captain Berry and Captain Miller, did understandably outline his own contribution to victory. It was sent to another old friend, Captain Locker, who was given permission to pass it on to the newspapers. His account did not satisfy everyone and indeed it was unlikely to do so, for just as Wellington once observed that it was impossible for a participant to recall every detail of a battle, so Collingwood commented on the difficulty for one who is engaged in it to relate all its circumstances. Jervis, with his customary sense of fairness and justice, wrote to all captains to ‘convey the high sense I entertain of the exemplary conduct of flag-officers, captains, officers, seamen, marines and soldiers, embarked on board every ship of the squadron’. He asked his captains to give his thanks and approbation to their crews.

Thus it was clear that whereas Nelson’s tactical brilliance and personal gallantry had greatly contributed to the victory, the whole fleet had shown its skill and mettle. This spirit of the British navy as a whole was what men like Jervis and Nelson had always striven for. Yet it was Nelson’s part in it all that fired the country’s imagination. Jervis had emphasized beforehand how essential a victory was to England. Now they had one, and in Nelson they also had a hero. In 1775, sailing in Dolphin from Simon’s Town to the Isle of Wight, Nelson, depressed and despairing over the bleak prospects of ever rising in his profession, suddenly experienced a surge of joy and confidence.

After a long and gloomy reverie, in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me and presented my King and Country as my patron. Well, then, I will be a hero, and, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger.

By 1797 he had braved dangers enough and had indeed become a hero. It was this self-surrender, as Bryant put it, that was the real core of the man. Before setting off for Trafalgar he wrote to his friend Davison that in spite of having much to lose and little to gain, he went because it was right to do so and he would serve his country faithfully. The esteem in which Pitt, the Prime Minister, held Nelson was manifested in his honouring him by accompanying him to his carriage after their last meeting. And as Nelson’s barge left Southsea to row him to his flagship, Victory, hundreds of people were there to give him three cheers. ‘I had their huzzas before,’ he told his flag-captain, Thomas Hardy, ‘I have their hearts now.’

Nelson was anxiously awaited by the fleet. ‘For charity’s sake,’ wrote Captain Codrington, commanding Orion, ‘send us Lord Nelson, ye men of power!’ They wanted him not just for his professional mastery, but also for his personal qualities. One of the captains, who made up the Band of Brothers and who had fought with him at the Nile, Alexander Ball, summed up the feelings they had for him:

Lord Nelson was an admiral, every inch of him. He looked at everything, not merely in its possible relation to the naval service in general but in its immediate bearings on his own squadron; to his officers, his men, to the particular ships themselves, his affections were as steady and ardent as those of a lover. Hence, though his temper was constitutionally irritable and uneven, yet never was a commander so enthusiastically loved by men of all ranks from the captain of the fleet to the youngest ship-boy.

Even Nelson, despite his absolute confidence in his own tactical plans and in his ships, captains and crews, was obliged to concede that nothing was certain in a sea-fight. ‘Something must be left to chance,’ he observed. Yet before closing with the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, when Captain Berry asked him what the world would say ‘if we succeed’, Nelson replied: ‘There is no if in the case.’ He was certain of success. Who would live to tell the story was a very different question. His success was absolute, and yet the question may be put: if by chance he had not destroyed the French fleet, what would Bonaparte have done after defeating the Egyptian and Turkish armies? Hauled his fleet across the desert to Suez and descended on India? Followed Alexander’s footsteps through Persia to the north-west frontier? As Napoleon himself put it: ‘Had it not been for the English Navy, I should have been Emperor of the East.’ He would not have been deterred by the hazards of any such venture. As it was, however, he was thwarted at Acre, where the Turks, aided by another sailor, Sidney Smith, put a stop to his plans, and it was by the courtesy of this same sailor in sending Bonaparte the latest news-sheet from Europe, the Gazette Française de Francfort, that Bonaparte learned of the French Republic’s perilous condition. She was at war with England, Turkey, Russia, Austria and Naples. Corfu had been lost, Zurich taken by Austro-Russian forces, northern Italy had been invaded, there was fighting in Holland. France itself was in economic turmoil. There was but one course of action for him – to return to France. Leaving the Egyptian command to Kléber, he embarked in a frigate, Muiron, on the night of 22 August 1799 and with three other vessels sailed for France, taking with him Berthier, Murat, Marmont, Bessières and Lannes. He was never to return to Egypt. Indeed, the whole Egyptian campaign had been futile.

Yet if he had not gone there, Nelson would not have had the opportunity to triumph at the battle of the Nile, and so bring about the circumstances in which Bonaparte was constrained to hasten back to France and begin the political and military intrigues which led to his becoming First Consul. It was not long after his assuming this position of power that Austria was once more in arms against France. This challenge to both the French Republic and his own position at its head led to a battle in which Bonaparte faltered and was saved by the timely action – and as chance would have it brilliant coordination – of three of his subordinates: the battle of Marengo.

WWII Carrier Armored Flight Decks

HMS Illustrious was therefore allocated to the fleet and, after a short work-up in the Bermuda area, she was passed into the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean as part of an intricate reinforcement and replacement operation. Illustrious was the first of the new class of armoured fleet carriers. With up to four inches of flight-deck armour and an armoured hangar deck and walls she was proof against any but the heaviest bombs, while her vertical armour was of heavy-cruiser standard. Fitted from the outset with RDF (radar) she was armed with the fifteen Fulmars of 806 Sqn, a unit which had seen extensive service over the Channel while equipped with Skuas, and which was now taking the Fulmar to sea for the first time. Her TSR squadrons, 815 and 819, were veterans of the anti-invasion strikes against German forces in the Dutch ports, and many of the aircrew had served previously in Glorious’s Swordfish squadrons in the Mediterranean. Among the stores which Illustrious brought to the Mediterranean Fleet were long-range overload fuel tanks for the Swordfish, enabling strikes to be mounted at ranges of up to 200 miles from the carriers.

On 10 January 1941, while Illustrious was covering a convoy entering Valletta’s Grand Harbour, the Sicilian-based Fliegerkorps X carried out a devastating attack, coordinated with an ineffectual Italian torpedo strike. The latter did, however, have the effect of drawing the patrolling Fulmars down to low level as the Ju 87s came to their ‘pushover’ point 11,000ft above, and there was thus little that the fighters could do to prevent the first wave of dive-bombers from bombing the carrier, defended only by the fleet’s AA fire. In this first attack she was hit by six 250 and 500kg bombs, three of which inflicted only superficial damage. The others all hit the flight deck aft, but only one actually penetrated the armour. The other two, and a seventh hit in an attack four hours later, hit on or about the after lift. The after hangar was set on fire and four Fulmars contributed to the blaze, which spread to compartments around the after lift well. Near misses caused a complete steering failure, and Illustrious was out of control for nearly three hours. However, her machinery was intact and her watertight integrity was unaffected, and she was able to keep moving at up to 18kts throughout, as well as being able to maintain power for fire-fighting pumps and communications. Once under control again Illustrious headed for Malta, protected by Valiant, Warspite and those Fulmars which had been able to refuel and rearm at Malta, 60 miles to the east of the scene of the attack. Grand Harbour was reached at dusk and the ship entered with her fires still out of control. They were not finally extinguished until the following morning. There is no doubt that the armoured deck saved her from destruction; no other carrier took anything like this level of punishment and survived.

Illustrious was bombed again while emergency repairs were carried out at Malta, receiving two more direct hits on 16 January and suffering serious damage to the bottom plating from the mining effect of near-misses on the 19 th. The Fulmars joined the few RAF Hurricanes on the island in the defence of their ship, and she eventually broke out on the evening of 23 January, bound for the Suez Canal and virtual rebuilding above the main deck in Norfolk Navy Yard in the USA. She did not return to the UK until the end of 1941.

Remarkably, there was a great debate among naval theorists concerning the need for armor decking, yet their thinking was not completely irrational. The carriers that were built with armored decks fall into two distinct types – those with armor at the flight deck level protecting the below deck hangars, and those that only had armor between the hangar deck and the lower levels of the ship. Armor at the flight deck level would protect the hangar deck and the aircraft stored there from most bombs, but it severely limited the aircraft capacity of the vessel. Armor was also often thinner than was really necessary for protection. This was done especially with aircraft carriers to make them significantly faster in steaming through the seas so that their speed made them much more capable of launching and recovering warplanes. This was always done by steaming the carrier rapidly into any wind that was present to help provide aerodynamic lift. The deck armor also tended to reduce the length of the flight deck. Metal deck armor, exposed to wide changes in temperature, needed complicated expansion joints to be functional. US and most Japanese carriers had their armor placed at the hangar deck level, essentially treating the hangar spaces and flight deck as mere superstructure. These areas proved very vulnerable to the blast from penetrating general purpose bombs and other explosions, which in turn caused massive casualties in comparison to British armored carrier designs.

The British had begun the practice of armoring their flight decks prior to WWII, and in this they were consistent with their belief in the efficacy of level-bombing. The Royal Navy was faced with the particular problem of designing a carrier that could survive under the heavy bombloads of nearby land-based planes to be expected in the confines of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the Channel. These demands resulted in the development of aircraft carriers whose flight decks were armored against 500 lb Armor Piercing bombs and 1000 lb General Purpose bombs.

Sunk February 22, 1942, it seems almost fitting that the first US Navy carrier built was also the first to be sunk in World War II. The unarmored USS Langley, a conversion, was just one of the many victims of the Battle of the Java Sea. Three waves of Japanese aircraft attacked making 5 bomb hits. Langley took a 10 degree list, was abandoned, and sunk by US destroyers with guns and torpedoes.

HMS Hermes, destroyed in the Indian Ocean by IJN dive-bombers and torpedo aircraft two months later, was the world’s first ship to be designed and built specifically as an aircraft carrier. In service since 1924, Hermes spent most of the war patrolling the Indian Ocean with a tiny compliment of bi-wing planes. She refitted in South Africa in February 1942 and then joined the Eastern Fleet at Ceylon. The ship was woefully short of AA batteries. The ship’s waterline belt armor was 3 inches (76 mm) thick, but her flight deck, which was also the ship’s strength deck, was just 1 inch (25 mm) thick—armor similar to that afforded a light cruiser. By way of comparison, HMS Ark Royal deployed in 1938 had 4.5 in (11.4 cm) of belt armor and 3.5 in (8.9 cm) of deck armor over its boiler rooms and magazines. Ark Royal was lost to U-boat torpedo attack in 1941.

The Eastern Fleet had recently been devastated by the IJN whose overwhelming airpower sank the battle cruiser HMS Repulse and battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Together with their escort destroyers, HMS Electra, Express, Tenedos, and HMAS Vampire, these two had formed the so-called Force Z Naval fleet sent out too late to rescue the British base at Singapore. It was hoped that Hermes and other ships assigned to join the fleet (the carriers HMS Indomitable and Formidable) would bolster the airpower necessary to prevent a repeat of such a disaster. The carrier, without aircraft embarked, and its escorting destroyer were quickly sunk by the Japanese bombers and torpedo planes in April 1942. Most of the survivors were rescued by a nearby hospital ship although 307 men from Hermes were lost in the sinking. Allied uncertainty concerning the best configuration for an aircraft carrier had increased to the point, thereafter, that the British Admiralty forbade builders from working above the hangar deck without express permission. The design flaws were rectified in the Illustrious and Implacable class carriers, under construction at the time.

The IJN carrier force during World War II had unarmored flight decks just like the Yorktown and Essex classes of the US Navy. Only at the very end of the war did the IJN attempt to armor its carrier decks. It was thought that the substance of the flight deck was sufficient to ward off penetration by lesser dive-bomber loads. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that dive-bombing was more precise and more effective with the same weight of bombs than any level-flight method employed for this purpose during the war.

The only Allied carrier (built after 1942) lost to deck hits by bombs was the American light carrier, USS Princeton (CVL-23). A IJN dive-bomber dropped a single bomb, which struck the carrier at a weak point between the elevators, crashing through the flight deck and hangar before exploding. Although 1,361 crewmen were rescued, 108 men from the Princeton were lost in the attack. The interior of the ship was said to have been an inferno. Many light and escort carriers were unarmored, with no protection on the hangar or flight deck, and thus they fared poorly against deck hits. The USS Franklin was struck by two 250 kg (550 lbs) bombs, one semi-armor piercing (SAP) and one general purpose (GP) bomb, both of which penetrated into its hangar deck and set off ammunition there, killing 724 and wounding 265 of the crew. The ship survived and was decommissioned in 1947.

The unarmored American carriers of the Essex class suffered very high casualties from serious kamikaze hits for which no one had provided. The kamikaze threat was serious (173 recorded strikes on US vessels alone), but allied AA defences neutralized it somewhat. US carriers and their fighters shot down more than 1,900 potential suicide aircraft. Many kamikaze strikes missed the deck armor entirely, or bounced off the decks of both British or American carriers. After a successful kamikaze hit, however, the British were generally able to clear the flight deck and resume flight operations in just hours, while the Americans in some cases took a few days or even months to affect repairs. The USS Bunker Hill was severely damaged by a pair of kamikaze hits that killed 346 men. In total, four US carriers suffered significant damage from suicide planes.

The Royal Navy and IJN limited their carriers’ aircraft capacity to the capacity of their under-deck hangars, and struck down all aircraft between operations. The US typically used a permanent deck park to augment the capacity of their aircraft carrier’s hangars giving them a much larger aircraft capacity than contemporary Royal Navy armored flight deck carriers.

Trial by Fire

The French invasion of Germany 1688

A rare contemporary depiction from the Nine Years War (1689-1697), this painting has been hailed as Jan Wyck’s masterpiece.

Siege of Philippsburg 1688

The ‘reunions’

As we have seen above, the Turks launched their assault on Vienna just as the Emperor was preoccupied with the situation in the west. After the peace of Nijmegen (1679), Louis XIV sought to construct a militarily rational and defensible frontier. This was to be brought about by legal claims backed by military force. Special courts of justice, so-called ‘chambers of reunion’, took up vague French claims to ‘reunite’ and occupy neighbouring territories, with strong fortresses being built there soon after the French seizure. This policy particularly concerned Alsace (whose situation between France and the Reich had remained unclear after the peace of Westphalia in 1648), but also, amongst others, Luxemburg (a province of the Spanish Netherlands), Montbéliard and parts of the Palatinate where, after the accession of the house of Pfalz-Neuburg in 1685, a line loyal to the Emperor ruled.

In late September 1681, French troops occupied the Imperial Free City of Strassburg and the opposite bridgehead of Kehl on the east bank of the Rhine – both of eminent strategic importance as they commanded the most favourable crossing of the Rhine. At the same time, in Italy Casale, having previously been bought from the Duke of Mantua, was seized. As for Luxemburg, Louis XIV continued his tactics of occupation, bombardment and retreat until Spain declared war in October 1683. In June 1684 the French managed to capture the city and fortress of Luxemburg. The truce of Regensburg (15 August 1684), concluded for 20 years between France, the Emperor and Spain permitted Louis to retain, for the time being, Strassburg, Kehl, Luxemburg and his other ‘reunions’. Primarily concerned with the unsuccessful siege of Buda, the Emperor needed to secure peace in the west.

More recent research has emphasized the defensive character of Louis XIV’s actions: the Sun King was primarily interested in stabilizing earlier gains. But his actions appeared aggressive to his neighbours, who were unwilling to search for deeper motives.

It was with a heavy heart that Leopold I had consented to the Regensburg compromise of 1684; yet, in the long term, Louis’ brutal policy presented the Emperor with a unique opportunity to increase his glory and reputation so that, after vanquishing the Turks, he could also pose as defender of the Reich against French aggression. July 1686 saw the formation of the League of Augsburg, a wide-ranging association consisting of the Emperor, Spain (as a member of the Burgundian Circle), Sweden, Bavaria, Saxony, the Palatinate as well as the Bavarian, Franconian and Upper Rhenish Circles, determined to curb French ambition, if need be by force.

The French invasion of Germany

Permanently anxious about its eastern frontier, where extensive fortification work was begun after 1684, France viewed with growing concern Christian victories over the Turks. This eventually provoked a limited preemptive strike against the Reich. The bishopric of Cologne played a key role since Louis XIV could not push through his candidate as new elector. Thus the strategically important electorate was in danger of slipping from French control. In September 1688 France demanded the permanent recognition of its ‘reunions’; this came shortly after the Turks had lost Belgrade freeing the Emperor to intervene militarily in German affairs. French forces now crossed the Rhine, occupying the Palatinate and important fortresses in the Rhineland. The capture of Philippsburg late in October 1688 was strategically crucial, closing as it did the French defence line and turning it into a veritable iron curtain. Most strongholds surrendered to the French without a fight. In late autumn 1688 French troops invaded Swabia and Franconia, and war was declared on the Dutch Republic.

Yet the reaction of the Emperor and the Imperial Estates proved much more resolute than expected. Saxony, Brandenburg, Hanover, the Emperor, Bavaria and the south German Circles were quick to stand up to the French invasion. Internationally, France’s situation was indeed far from rosy: old-style French diplomacy vis-à-vis the Reich was no longer practicable, and traditional allies, such as Bavaria, Brandenburg, Saxony, Sweden or Poland, had joined the Habsburg camp. Even more important, the Stadholder William of Orange invaded England and ousted the Francophile James II in 1688–89, taking over in London and thus uniting the British kingdoms and the Dutch Republic against France. It was this new international situation which, together with the strengthened position of the Austrian Habsburgs, was to end French dominance.

In order to make the enemy’s advance towards the Rhine and the French frontier more difficult, the French army resorted to a scorched-earth policy, which caused an outcry throughout Europe: in the first half of 1689, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Heilbronn, Oppenheim, Worms and Speyer were its initial victims. France’s ceinture de fer was now surrounded by a glacis of devastation where the approaching enemy would be unable to subsist. Against this background, renewed attempts to establish a French-dominated ‘third party’ in northern Germany proved futile.

From stalemate to peace

In May 1689, the Emperor and the Dutch Republic signed an alliance directed against France which England joined in September. This sensational ‘Grand Alliance’ between the Catholic House of Austria and two Protestant powers not only provided Vienna with the backing of a mighty-league against France; it also secured for Leopold specific guarantees from the Maritime Powers concerning the Spanish inheritance. In June 1690 Spain joined the Grand Alliance, followed by Victor Amadeus of Savoy in October of the same year, as well as Brandenburg, Bavaria and other German territories in 1691.

It was the summer of 1689 before the Reich troops rallied to launch their counter-offensive. Despite the ongoing Turkish war the Emperor planned to send up to 45,000 of his own troops to the Rhine. Reality was, as always, different: in May 1689 only a fraction stood by, while, just as in the Turkish war, German princes rivalled for the supreme command. Early in September 1689, the German main army under Charles of Lorraine recaptured Mainz and Bonn in early October. But the main theatre of war eventually shifted to the Spanish Netherlands, where the French gained the upper hand. Imperial troops were not involved there. On the Rhine, however, a stalemate seemed to obtain after 1690. After the untimely death of the Duke of Lorraine in April 1690, Max Emanuel took over supreme command. Eventually, the number of Imperial forces in south Germany had to be further reduced in favour of a new theatre of war: after joining the Grand Alliance, the Duke of Savoy desperately needed military assistance against the French who already controlled Savoy and, from their bases at Pinerolo and Casale, raided Piedmont. The imperial auxiliary corps was commanded by the duke’s cousin, Eugene of Savoy; yet even before its arrival Victor Amadeus risked battle, only to be defeated at Staffarda near Saluzzo (18 August 1690). Military help had hence to be stepped up: the number of Imperial forces alone was to be raised to 12,000 men in 1691, and also most of the Bavarian troops were transferred to the Italian theatre, in return for which Max Emanuel became commander-in-chief of the auxiliary corps before he was appointed Stadholder of the Spanish Netherlands in December 1691. The disastrous setbacks on the Turkish front necessitated further reductions in the Imperial military presence in south Germany. Thus the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ was put into other hands, as many easterners had already recommended at the start of the war on two fronts; in 1692, of a total of 36,000 men deployed on the Upper Rhine, only 9,000 were Imperial soldiers.

Most detrimental was no doubt the lack of an undisputed leader following Lorraine’s death. The appointment of Baden in 1693 remedied the matter somewhat but until the very end, given France’s strong defensive position, the south German theatre of war was characterized by defence and uneventfulness – a drôle de guerre marked only by occasional French forays (Heilbronn, 1692; Heidelberg and the western parts of Württemberg, 1693).

It was in Piedmont that the Imperial effort was greatest, though it remained far below what Vienna had promised. In 1692, the allied troops marched into France from Piedmont and devastated the Dauphiné; though superior in number, they could make no lasting conquests and were even defeated again at Marsaglia the following year (4 October 1693). As a result, the Duke of Savoy, by now war-weary, entered into peace talks with France, eventually leaving the war in 1696. Louis XIV handed back all French conquests in Savoy and Piedmont, notably the strategically important strongholds of Pinerolo and Casale. The allies had to accept the neutralization of northern Italy (October 1696).

After 1695 Imperial troops also went into action in Catalonia, where the French had launched an offensive the previous year. The Emperor sent two regiments, which were unable to prevent the French capture of Barcelona in August 1697.

From the early 1690s France had sought to divide the Grand Alliance by bilateral peace negotiations: secret discussions with Imperial representatives took place in 1692–93 and again in 1694. These talks were facilitated by the absence of a common goal among the members of the anti-French alliance. Spain and the Emperor wanted to see France’s borders reduced to those of 1648–59, as had been laid down at the outbreak of war. England, on the other hand, was prepared for immediate peace, if France would recognize the Revolution settlement and sufficient respect for its colonial and trade interests.

Early in May 1697 a peace congress opened in Rijswijk near The Hague. The more grandiose hopes of the Emperor soon gave way to the more limited objectives of England and the Dutch which were quickly joined by a war-weary Spain. The latter three signed the treaty on 20 September 1697 (with Spain regaining Luxemburg and Barcelona), followed by the Emperor and the Reich on 30 October. Breisach and Freiburg were returned to Austria, while after decades of French occupation the duchy of Lorraine (within the borders of 1670) was restored to its old dynasty. France kept Strassburg, but handed back other ‘reunions’ as well as the bridgeheads of Kehl, Philippsburg and the part of the fortress of Huningue situated on the right bank of the Rhine. Given their considerable strategic importance Kehl and Philippsburg were declared Imperial fortresses where, without prejudice to the possessory rights of the prince-bishop of Speyer for Philippsburg and the margrave of Baden for Kehl, the ius protectionis et praesidii was exercised by the Reich and safeguarded by Circle troops and small Austrian detachments until the second half of the eighteenth century. By and large, then, Rijswijk, which in no way reflected France’s superiority on the battlefields, marked a withdrawal of the French monarchy.

Imperial Russia Battleship Tsesarevich

The French-built battleship Tsesarevich during her trials at Toulon in 1903. This battleship incorporated a “tumblehome” shaped hull, cellular armor and secondary guns in twin electric turrets. This was a very modern battleship for its day.

Antoine-Jean Amable Lagane, director of the French shipyard Forges et Chantiers de la Mediterranee in La Seyne (Toulon), presented the Morskoi tekhnicheskii komitet [MTK] (Naval Technical Committee) with a design for a battleship based on the French Jaureguiberry was aided by the support of the Francophile Grand Duke Aleksei Aleksandrovich, brother of Tsar Aleksandr III and nominally head of the Imperial Navy. In July 1898 the Naval Ministry signed a contract with Lagane to build a 12,900-ton battleship in 42 months at a cost of 30.28 million francs (£1.47 million). Construction began on the Tsesarevich in May 1899 but like Cramp, Lagane failed to meet the schedule and the ship required 51 months to complete. The Tsesarevich had a high-forecastle hull with a curved tumblehome shape – the beam of the ship narrowed from the waterline to the upper deck, in order to reduce the weight of the upper deck – which French designers believed would allow greater freeboard and improved seaworthiness. The Tsesarevich also incorporated a 9.8-in-thick main belt of Krupp armor using Louis-Emile Bertin’s “cellular” approach to protection, which enhanced the ship’s ability to survive damage and remain afloat. The Belleville boilers that the MTK had insisted on proved far more reliable than Cramp’s Niclausse boilers and in trials the Tsesarevich achieved speeds at over 18 knots. In virtually every respect, the Tsesarevich was the best Russian battleship built prior to the Russo-Japanese War.

Tsesarevich was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the Imperial Russian Navy, built in France at the end of the 19th century. The ship’s design formed the basis of the Russian-built Borodino-class battleships. She was based at Port Arthur, northeast China, after entering service and fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Tsesarevich was torpedoed during the surprise attack on Port Arthur and was repaired to become the flagship of Rear Admiral Wilgelm Vitgeft in the Battle of the Yellow Sea and was interned in Tsingtau after the battle.

After the war, the ship was transferred to the Baltic Fleet and helped to suppress the Sveaborg Rebellion in mid-1906. While on a Mediterranean cruise, her crew helped survivors of the 1908 Messina earthquake in Sicily. Tsesarevich was not very active during the early part of World War I and her bored sailors joined the general mutiny of the Baltic Fleet in early 1917. Now named Grazhdanin, the ship participated in the Battle of Moon Sound in 1917, during which she was lightly damaged. The ship seized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution in late 1917 and decommissioned the following year. Grazhdanin was scrapped in 1924–1925.

After the retirement of Bismarck in 1890, Germany cut Russia loose from its system of alliances; Russia and France, both friendless, immediately gravitated toward one another. The French navy visited Kronstadt in 1891, and the Russian navy reciprocated at Toulon in 1893, while the two countries signed a treaty of alliance and military convention in 1892 and 1894. Reflecting the diplomatic realignment, the Russian navy abandoned Krupp artillery for Schneider-Canet guns, the latter, like the former, produced in Russia under license. Eleven battleships laid down by 1895 completed the total of twenty prescribed in the fleet plan of 1882, but these included three 4,970-ton coastal battleships of the Admiral Ushakov class and the 8,880-ton second-class battleship Rostislav, along with seven respectable first-class battleships ranging in size from the 10,400-ton Sissoi Veliki to the first two vessels of the 12,680-ton Peresviet class. Armored cruisers included the 11,000-ton Rurik, obsolete by the time of its launch in 1895, and the more modern 13,675-ton Rossia (laid down 1894) and 13,220-ton Gromoboi (1897). Naval spending rose from £4.3 million in 1890 to £7 million in 1898, a year in which Russia’s Far Eastern ambitions prompted a new seven-year construction program, providing for another eight battleships, seventeen cruisers, and over fifty smaller vessels. Even though construction times for first-class battleships in Russian shipyards still averaged a respectable six years, the navy placed its first foreign orders for armored warships since the 1860s. The highly regarded 12,700-ton Retvisan, built by William Cramp of Philadelphia, was the first Russian battleship protected by Krupp armor. The 12,915-ton Tsesarevich, built in La Seyne, was used as a prototype for four warships of the 13,520-ton Borodino class. The Borodinos were built in Russian shipyards, along with a third ship of the Peresviet class and the 12,580-ton Potemkin. The eight battleships of the 1898 program all were in service by the beginning of the war with Japan in 1904. While focusing on capital ships Russia remained a leader in mine warfare, in 1898-99 constructing the world’s first purpose-built minelayers, the 3,010-ton Amur and Yenisei. Russia also purchased the submarine Protector, launched in 1902 by the American Simon Lake, built additional submarines in St Petersburg designed by Lake, and ordered three more from Germania of Kiel.

General characteristics

Type: Pre-dreadnought battleship
Displacement: 13,105 t (12,898 long tons)
Length: 118.5 m (388 ft 9 in)
Beam: 23.2 m (76 ft 1 in)
Draught: 7.92 m (26 ft 0 in)
Installed power:
  • 16,300 ihp (12,200 kW)
  • 20 Belleville boilers
Propulsion: 2 shafts, 2 Triple-expansion steam engines
Speed: 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)
Range: 5,500 nmi (10,200 km; 6,300 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 778–79
  • 2 × twin 305 mm (12 in) guns
  • 6 × twin 152 mm (6 in) guns
  • 20 × single 75 mm (3 in) guns
  • 20 × single 47 mm (1.9 in) guns
  • 8 × single 37 mm (1.5 in) guns
  • 4 × 381 mm (15 in) torpedo tubes
  • Krupp armour
  • Waterline belt: 160–250 mm (6.3–9.8 in)
  • Deck: 40–50 mm (1.6–2.0 in)
  • Main Gun turrets: 250 mm (9.8 in)
  • Barbettes: 250 mm (9.8 in)
  • Conning tower: 254 mm (10.0 in)