The Successor States and into the Hellenistic Age I

For twenty years Alexander’s generals and governors fought over his sprawling empire. Even after the Battle of Ipsus in 301 when the major successor states emerged, these kingdoms continued to fight each other in the internal wars of succession. They fought rebellious Greeks and natives, they attacked lesser powers who struggled to exist between them, and they repelled invaders from the outside world. A Hellenistic Greek might define ‘peace’ as merely the short break between wars. War became an endemic part of life in the Hellenistic world as the populations of Greece, Asia Minor and Syria had to endure the campaigns of competing rulers. Kings, such as the Seleucids, owed their royal status to victory in war. They had to be active military leaders just to maintain their thrones.

The great irony of the Hellenistic Age, at least for this study, is that although warfare is endemic, and the use of ambush was at its peak, our sources suddenly dry up. We have no Herodotus, no Thucydides and no Xenophon to supply our evidence. If the history of Hieronymus of Cardia had survived, we would have had an eyewitness account of the wars of Alexander’s successors. At least we have Diodorus and Plutarch who used his works, and with Polybius, Polyaenus and Frontinus added we can catch an occasional glimpse of what was going on militarily. What we can say, generally speaking, is that the tendency towards specialisation and professionalisation that had begun in the fourth century was enhanced during the Hellenistic period by the new needs of kings, and the requirements of cities and leagues.

The actual forms of conflict in the Hellenistic Age were varied, and corresponded to the different goals of warfare. Disputes might lead to raiding, seizing cattle and other moveable goods, or the burning of farms and the kidnapping of farmers, women or agricultural slaves. Polis warfare, too, could take on a whole spectrum of variations including different modes of local warfare. In this atmosphere, cities and their citizens needed versatility in their choice of military options. Hellenistic war was not just made up of large battles such as Raphia, where 140,000 men fought, but also ambushes and surprise attacks. Indeed, the majority of the Hellenistic male population experienced warfare not in great tactical battles, but in the form of temporary raids, incursions into the territory of the enemy, surprise attacks against cities and occasional street fights. The professionalisation of military units did not diminish the importance of citizen militias; it simply added a whole new array of soldiers with varied skills that could be drawn up.


Because warfare in the Hellenistic Age became more specialised, it required more training of troops. The contrast between the training of a citizen and that of a mercenary is brought out by the speech of Polydamos at Sparta in 374. He was quoting Jason of Pherae when he said: ‘… there are only a few men in each city who train their bodies rigorously. But in my forces there is not a single man who cannot match me in the capacity for hard work.’ In some Hellenistic cities they dispensed with the mercenary peltast of the late Classical Age and replaced him with trained citizenry, who could play a similar role, but without any of the social and political problems the use of hired peltasts posed.

Angelos Chaniotis, in his study of Hellenistic warfare, gives an overview that suggests that military training had a more or less uniform structure in most areas, ‘the result of mutual interest rather than common origins’. Chaniotis points out that a clear indicator of the specialisation of troops is the use of more technical terminology. A wide range of specific military terms can be seen in Hellenistic literature; some of these go back to the fourth century but they culminate in the Hellenistic period. The specific designations for troops beyond the generic designations for the cavalry, the phalanx of hoplites, light-armed and the fleet reflect the existence of specific weapons, special training and specialised skills. This specialisation was not limited to professional armies, but extended also to citizen armies. Their special skills were sometimes a matter of local tradition. The Cretans, for example, were famous as archers, the Achaians were slingers and the Thessalians were cavalrymen. Improvements could be made on these traditional weapons: for example, a particular type of sling, the kestros, was invented during the Third Macedonian war.

For many boys, military training started earlier than their registration as ephebes; it began in the gymnasium, where exercise and physical conditioning were thought be good training for warfare. The gymnasium was one of the best-documented institutions of the Hellenistic city. Their training gives us a hint about what weapons would be used. In a small place such as Samos, the programme in the gymnasium included prizes for use of the catapult, use of the lithobolos (an engine used for hurling stones), use of the javelin, archery and fighting with shield and lance (hoplite battle or hoplomachia) as well as with small shields of the Galatian type (thyreomachia). The same selection of disciplines is found in Sestos in Thrace.

After their military training, young men were assigned to both military and paramilitary duties. We have evidence from Crete that they performed policing duties, especially in the countryside and they controlled the frontier of the city. In other cities, we see young men manning the forts on the frontiers. Similar troops are known from Athens and Asia Minor. In Athens, the kryptoi (‘the secret ones’) protected the fertile countryside. There is evidence from Caria of groups of young men serving as mounted ‘patrol of the mountains’ (orophylakesantes), and as mounted guards assigned to patrol the borders of Boeotia. These young troops operated on the periphery of the city and have been defined by some as ‘liminal groups’, not unlike foreign mercenaries and, therefore, operating outside of the rules of hoplite battle.

We are particularly well informed regarding the Cretan soldiers who, from the fourth century on, are to be found in almost all armies of the Mediterranean, often on opposite sides. Even Rome enrolled Cretans. Examples of ethnic stereotyping occurred because of this specialised training. Polybius brands the Cretans with the label ‘brigands and pirates’ because of their raiding abilities. This kind of moralising demonstrates Polybius’ prejudice, but says nothing meaningful about how effective or useful such troops were, nor how proud they were of their local traditions. We, know for example, how proud the Arcadians were of their mercenary tradition. Lycomedes, the Arcadian statesmen, said that the Arcadians were chosen for service overseas because they were the best fighters with the sturdiest bodies among the Greek peoples. With the emergence of the widespread use of mercenaries, a number of peoples achieved their moment of renown thanks to their specialisation in the use of particular arms: the bow for the Scythians and Cretans; the sling for the Rhodians; and the javelin for the Aetolians, Acarnanians and Thracians.


As we saw in the last chapter, from the beginning of the fourth century armies already contained significantly higher numbers of light infantry and cavalry than classical ones had fielded. Peltasts and light-armed troops remained important throughout the Hellenistic period, but of all the military developments of the Hellenistic Age the one that has drawn the most attention is the use of mercenary troops. Although mercenaries are documented from the earliest period of Greek warfare, the Hellenistic period saw a huge increase in the number of regions that supplied mercenary soldiers. Greek males had always been able to travel and seek their fortunes a long way from home. Mercenaries were initially drawn from remote, poor or mountainous regions – Crete, Achaea, Thrace, etc. – which is why they were often looked down upon. They were expected to depend for their keep on the success of the campaigns for which they had been enlisted. They took part in various battles in the Peloponnesian war and continued to fight in the service of outside powers such as Egypt or Persia.

With the campaigns of Alexander, thousands more Greeks had the opportunity to serve as mercenaries, and this demand only grew under Alexander’s successors. In fact, mercenaries came not merely to supplement but, in many areas, to displace the citizen hoplites. Hellenistic kings mobilised large numbers of these troops in their wars for the division of Alexander’s empire. The supply of Greek soldiers needing employment thus coincided with this new intra-Hellenic demand. These same men could later be settled as veterans in new cities and military colonies. The job of xenologos, or recruiter of mercenaries, became a lucrative position. The kingdoms that emerged from this process needed trained military manpower in order to man garrisons, avert barbarian invasions, control native populations and fight against other kingdoms.

The mercenary did not become popular among Greek citizens. The profession was usually portrayed as a miserable one, especially by writers of Greek comedy who wrote for a settled, urban population. The average citizen not only scorned the man who had to earn his keep by fighting, but also feared him since the mercenary was a potential threat to his own existence. Gangs of mercenaries threatened the Greek poleis in the fourth century. Aeneas Tacticus reflects the political instability of the times when he warns city authorities of the danger of arms being smuggled inside the city, which could then be used by mercenaries and hostile groups of citizens to overthrow the existing order.

This changeover to mercenary troops was deplored by people such as the Athenian orator Isocrates, who mourned the replacement of a citizen militia by mercenaries in much the same terms as Machiavelli would later write about Florence. Aristotle drew an explicit moral contrast between the citizen hoplite’s preference for death in battle over the disgrace of flight and the professional mercenary’s preference, despite superior fighting skills, for saving his skin. On the other hand, in the defence speeches of the fourth century from Athenian courtrooms, speakers who had served as mercenaries under Iphicrates in Thrace emphasised how honourable their period of service had been.

Moralising aside, as long as Hellenistic states continued to engage in the pursuit of power by force at each other’s expense, they would increasingly turn to mercenary soldiers who would not only pay for themselves but also enrich, even temporarily, their employers. True, such soldiers would not find themselves commemorated for patriotic self-sacrifice if they died in battle the way that citizen-soldiers had been by the Classical Greek poleis. Neither would the panoplies of armour taken from the enemy dead be displayed in the temples of the victors or at a pan-Hellenic sanctuary site in the same way or in the same spirit as before. Their reputation was not helped by soldiers sacrilegiously looting religious shrines such as Delphi, or by plays that held the miles gloriosus up as a stock comic figure.

In one way, Aristotle’s charge was unfair. These new mercenaries were no more or less ready to risk their lives in battle than citizens called away from their peacetime occupations. These men were professional, not only in being full-time soldiers, but also in being more innovative in military technique than citizen hoplites. Demosthenes’ complaint against Philip of Macedon that he campaigned all year-round using mercenaries and cavalry, archers, light-armed infantry and siege engines simply reflects his nostalgia for a past model that was simply gone. The short campaign culminating in the pitched battle becomes increasingly replaced by ambushes, stratagems and sieges of the kind that had existed in the earlier period, but now they came to the fore.

The important feature of these new mercenaries was that they were adept at the new mode of fighting. Griffith believes it was this fighting for which the mercenary was best adapted, especially as the reformed peltast of Iphicrates had become probably the model for mercenaries in general. Mercenaries were not merely auxiliaries now, but the exemplary practitioners of a new mode of fighting. It was not that heavy-armed infantry had become useless, or that Greek morals had declined, but rather that there were more options for the kinds of techniques that could be used in warfare, and a rise in the number of situations where ambush would be appropriate.

Warfare was still regarded as a normal feature of interstate relations, and risking death in battle was still seen by the young Greek male as the supreme manifestation of virtue. A young man could still be brought up to admire the exploits of warriors from the past, but the norms, values and beliefs that had motivated a citizen-soldier were increasingly unlikely to be replicated in an environment where military prowess might require different skills. Greek culture had always accepted lethal violence against fellow Greeks as normal behaviour. As long as assassinations, civil strife, proscriptions and executions were commonplace, and the recurrent themes of murder, revenge, blood-guilt, retribution and even human sacrifice appear as dramatic themes, why would an ambush be so shocking?

Yet, the moralising continued. Polybius rails against the Cretans. He accuses them of specialising in ambushes and treachery:

The Cretans both by land and sea were irresistible in ambuscades, forays, tricks played on the enemy, night attacks, and all petty operations which require fraud, but they are cowardly and down-hearted in the massed face-to face charge of an open battle. It is just the reverse with the Achaeans and Macedonians. I say this in order that my readers may not refuse to trust my judgement, because in some cases I make contrary pronouncements regarding the conduct of the same men even when engaged in pursuits of a like nature.

All these activities were the regular ones of light-armed soldiers. Ambush was exactly what these soldiers were solicited for and everyone was buying their services. The Cretan cities were the objects of frantic solicitations on the part of the Hellenistic sovereigns and many other cities, in particular Rhodes. Rhodes sent ambassadors to the island of Crete to conclude treaties of alliance with individual cities or groups of them. The treaties were aimed principally at ensuring stable supplies of troops for the powers of the Hellenistic world.


The Successor States and into the Hellenistic Age II

Hellenistic Ambush

With only meagre sources at our disposal, we can still document numerous cases of ambush, and they take the usual forms. Even the era of Philip and Alexander, so heavily based on the new Macedonian phalanx, has yielded examples of surprise and deception: for example, Polyaenus tells us about Philip when he was besieging the Thessalian city of Pharcedon in 356. The Pharcedonians surrendered, but as Philip’s mercenaries entered the city they fell into an ambush as many of the inhabitants threw stones and javelins at them from the roofs and towers. Philip, however, had already planned an ambush of his own. He ordered his Macedonians to make an assault on the rear part of the city, which was deserted because all the citizens were participating in ambush at the front. The Macedonians placed ladders against the wall and, when they reached the top, the Pharcedonians stopped hurling things at the mercenaries and ran hurriedly to ward off the men who had seized the wall. Before they could close in hand-to-hand combat, the Macedonians already had control of the city.

The Third Sacred war (356–346), fought between the Delphic Amphictyonic League (represented by Thebes) and Philip II of Macedon with the Phocians, set up the context for a story about diversionary tactics at sea used to set up an ambush. Polyaenus reports that, after ravaging the territory of Abdera and Maroneia in 352, Philip was returning with many ships and a land army. Chares, the Athenian, set an ambush with twenty triremes near Neapolis, a city on the east coast of the isthmus of Pallene, in the Chalcidice between Aphytis and Aegae. After selecting the four fastest ships, Philip manned them with his best rowers in terms of age, skill and strength, and gave orders to put out to sea before the rest of the fleet, and to sail past Neapolis, keeping close to the shore. They sailed past. Chares put out to sea with his twenty triremes in order to capture the four ships. Since the four were light and had the best rowers, however, they quickly gained the high sea. While Chares’ ships pursued vigorously, Philip sailed safely past Neapolis without being noticed, and Chares did not catch the four ships.

Even a clever commander such as Philip could find himself lured into an ambush. Onomarchus, the Phocian general in the Third Sacred war, set up such an operation against a Macedonian phalanx. He put a crescent-shape mountain in his rear, concealing men on the peaks at both ends with rocks and rock-throwing engines, and led his forces forward into the plain below. When the Macedonians came out against them and threw their javelins, the Phocians pretended to flee into the hollow middle of the mountain. As the Macedonians pursued with an eager rush after them, the men on the peaks threw rocks and crushed the Macedonian phalanx. Then Onomarchus signalled the Phocians to turn and attack the enemy. The Macedonians under attack from behind, and being pelted with rocks from above, retreated rapidly in great distress. During this flight Philip, no doubt covering his own reputation, said: ‘I do not flee, but retreat like rams do, in order to attack again more violently.’

There is a dispute among historians over whether Alexander the Great would actually use deception or whether he was above such tactics. A pair of passages in Arrian’s Anabasis provide a good illustration of a double standard concerning surprise and ambush. On the eve of Gaugamela, Arrian presents the story of Parmenion suggesting to Alexander that a surprise attack by night should be considered.55 Alexander replied that it was a dishonourable to steal the victory, and that he had to win his victories openly and without stratagem. The entire scene was probably invented to show that Parmenion was not as confident of a victory on the battlefield as Alexander. In 326, in contrast, during the campaign against Porus on the Hydaspes river, Alexander had to come up with a way to bypass Porus and his elephants, which were blocking his passage. Alexander used a feinting tactic to induce Porus to stand his ground and then he successfully crossed, under cover of night, some seventeen miles (twenty-seven kilometres) upstream. No one has suggested that this successful night operation was sneaky or morally dubious.

A similar example is told about Alexander when he took Thebes in 335 by hiding a sufficient force, and appointing Antipater to command it. He himself led a diversionary force against the city’s strong points. The Thebans went out and fought nobly against the force they saw. At the critical moment of the battle, Antipater led his force out of hiding, circled around to where the wall was unsound and unguarded, captured the city there and raised a signal. When Alexander saw it, he shouted out that he already had Thebes. The Thebans, who were fighting fiercely, fled when they turned around and saw the city captured. Both Philip and Alexander pioneered the successful use of the Macedonian phalanx and mixed contingents, yet both of them understood the use of deception and ambush when the situation called for it.

Surprises, ambushes and deception continued in Greece proper during the era before the complete Macedonian take over. Diodorus complains about the wars in the 350s being characterised by all forms of knavery including false truces. He reports a night attack on a camp in Greece by the Boeotians in 352/1. The Phocians were assaulted by night near Abai, where many were slain.61 In the same year, the Phocians made a night attack upon the Boeotians and slew 200.

From 323 to 301 we follow the struggle for power between the successors of Alexander. Cassander, king of Macedonia from 305 to 297, provides an example of a stratagem designed to take a city by stealth. When returning from Illyria in 314, being a day’s march from Epidamnus, he hid a force in ambush. He then sent horsemen and infantry to burn villages high in the mountains of Illyria and Atintanis that were clearly visible to the Epidamnians. The Epidamnians assumed Cassander had left after the destruction, and came out of their city to tend their farms. Cassander sprang the ambush and captured 2,000 of the men outside the city. Finding the city gates open, he entered and occupied Epidamnus.

Rather than just appearing on the battlefield expecting a fair fight, it was now common for each general to try and out-trick the other. The Greek general Eumenes of Cardia, who participated in the wars of the Diadochi as a supporter of the Macedonian Argead royal house, staged a surprise in the autumn of 317 at the Battle of Paraetacene. Eumenes and Antigonus met in a battle in Asia at an unknown site in the province of Paraetacene. The armies were camped close together, but a deep riverbed separated them. Supplies were short on both sides. Antigonus sent messengers to tamper with the loyalty of Eumenes’ army. The deserters came from Antigonus’ side with the intelligence that he was going to march his army away by night into the unplundered province of Gabiene. The cunning Eumenes, however, sent pretended deserters the other way: Eumenes would attack his camp during the night, they lied to Antigonus, to confine him to his camp so that Eumenes could reach Gabiene first. Sending his baggage on ahead, Eumenes had a lead of two watches before Antigonus detected the ruse and set out in pursuit. Leaving his infantry to make their slow way, Antigonus led on his cavalry. At dawn, Eumenes saw the horsemen on the ridge behind him and thought that all of Antigonus’ army was there. He ordered his forces into battle formation and so wasted his lead.

In 290, the Aetolians took possession of Delphi, a position of prestige that was enormously enhanced when they defended it against an attack by the Galatians, referred to in the sources as Gauls, in the winter of 279/8. It did not hurt the Greek cause that night operations seemed to have spooked the Gauls much in the same way that it occasionally spooked the Greeks. They encamped where night overtook them, and during the night they fell into a panic. They imagined they heard the trampling of horses riding against them and the attack of enemies, and after a little time the panic spread through the camp. Taking their weapons, they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither recognising their mother tongue nor one another’s forms or the shape of their.shields The victory over the Gauls established the Aetolians firmly in north central Greece.

Cleomenes III, king of Sparta, waged a war against the Achaean League led by Aratus of Sicyon from 229 to 222. This is the context of the story told in Polybius. When Aristoteles of Argos revolted against Cleomenes’ supporters, Cleomenes sent a force under the command of his general Timoxenus to help him. We are told that these troops made a ‘surprise attack’ and succeeded in entering and capturing the city. We are not told how Cleomenes took Argos back in spite of a gallant Achaean resistance or whether it involved subterfuge. Cleomenes eventually defeated Aratus in a battle by Mt Lycaeum in 227.

The third century produced a number of examples of ambush and complaints about them. The raids and plundering of the Aetolians, and their predatory habits, kept them constantly embroiled with Macedon. In 219, Philip V called the deputies from the allied cities to assemble at Corinth, and held a council to deliberate on the measures to be taken with regard to the Aetolians. Polybius says that, in addition to such charges as plundering a sacred temple in time of peace, the Arcadians entered a complaint that the Aetolians had attacked one of their cities under cover of night. The deputies of the allies, after hearing all these complaints, decided unanimously to make war on Aetolia.

Polybius reports the ambush of a force attacking a rearguard during a march near Thermon in 218 during the hostilities with Philip. The Aetolians had gathered to defend their country and numbered about 3,000. As long as Philip was on the heights, they did not approach him but remained hidden in strongholds under the command of Alexander of Trichonium. As soon as the rearguard had moved out of Thermus, they entered the town at once and attacked the last ranks. With the rearguard thrown into some confusion, the Aetolians fell on them with more determination and did some execution, emboldened by the nature of the ground and this opportunity. But Philip, having foreseen this, had concealed under a hill on the descent a picked force of peltasts. When they sprang up from this ambush and charged those of the enemy who had advanced farthest in the pursuit of the rearguard, the whole Aetolian force fled in complete rout across the country with a loss of 130 killed and about as many taken prisoner. It was a serious defeat at the hands of the Macedonians in 219 that finally drove the Aetolians into the arms of the Romans, who eventually stripped them of their powers and let the League die a quiet death.

Taking a city by stealth and trickery continued to be a major activity in the Hellenistic period. For a city, a foreign attack and a long siege were costly. It not only meant the temporary loss of its countryside with all its resources, but also the substantial destruction of the urban centre, especially as artillery devices became increasingly effective at punching through walls.

We are told of an ambush in 219 when Philip V besieged the Aetolian city of Phoetia and it surrendered. During the following night, a force of 500 Aetolians arrived to help, under the impression that the city still held out. The king got word of their approach and placed an ambush in a favourite spot, then killed all the captured troops except for a very few.

Polybius describes the destruction of a marauding army of Eleans under Euripidas in January–February 218. Euripidas, whom the Aetolians had sent to the Eleans to command their forces, made an attack on the territories of Dyme, Pharae and Tritaea and had collected a considerable amount of booty. He was on his way back to Elis when Miccus of Dyme, substrategus of the Achaeans, taking with him the complete levies of Dyme, Pharae and Tritaea, marched out and attacked Euripidas and his men as they were retiring. Pressing on too vigorously, however, Miccus fell into an ambush and was defeated with considerable loss: forty of his infantry and about 200 taken prisoners. A year later in 217, Polybius reports an almost identical situation where Lycus and Demodocus were the commanders of the Achaean cavalry. On hearing of the advance of the Aetolians from Elis, they collected the levies of Dyme, Patrae and Pharae and with these troops and the mercenaries invaded Elis. Reaching the place called Phyxium, they sent out their light-armed infantry and their cavalry to overrun the country, placing their heavily armed troops in ambush near this place. When the Eleans with their whole force arrived to defend the country from pillage and followed up the retreating marauders, Lycus issued from his ambush and fell upon the foremost of them. The Eleans did not wait to charge but turned and ran at once on the appearance of the enemy, who killed about 200 of them and captured eighty, bringing in all the booty they had collected in safety.

Another report from 218 has the Ptolemaic forces defending the city of Atabyrium in the Jezreel valley. Antiochus III and his Seleucid army lured them to their death by means of an ambush. The city lay on a conical hill, the ascent of which was more than fifteen stades. First he hid a force in ambush, then on the ascent he provoked the garrison into sallying out and skirmishing. He feigned fear and began to retreat, enticing the advanced guard to follow his own retreating troops for a considerable distance downhill. Finally, he turned his own troops around and advanced on them, while those concealed in the ambush issued forth. He attacked the enemy and killed many of them, and throwing them into panic took the city by assault.

Aratus of Sicyon [d. 213 BCE], a third-century Greek statesman who brought his city-state into the Achaean League and led the League forces, has an ambush attributed to him by Polybius where the besiegers of a town failed because of a mistake in signalling. Aratus was plotting with elements in the city of Elea to exit the city quietly. One of the men was meant to act as a signaller. He was to reach a certain tomb on a hill outside the city and take a position there wearing a mantle. The others were to attack the officers who kept the gate at midday when they were sleeping. Once they received the signal that this was done, the Achaeans were to spring from their ambush position and make for the city gate at full speed. The arrangements were all made and when the day came Aratus arrived and hid in the riverbed waiting for the signal. But at the fifth hour of the day, the owner of some sheep, who was in the habit of grazing them near town, had some urgent private business with his shepherd and came out of the gate dressed in a mantle and went and stood on the identical tomb looking round for the shepherd. Aratus and his troops, thinking that the signal had been given them, made a rush for the town, but the gate was immediately closed in their faces by its keepers. Their friends inside the town had as yet taken no action, and the consequence was that Aratus’ coup failed. This debacle brought destruction on those of the citizens who were acting with him too, because once they were detected the citizens put them on trial and had them executed. This incident illustrates, once again, that even a well-planned ambush can end in disaster if something goes wrong with the execution. In this case, Polybius was of the opinion that the flaw in the plan was the use of a single signal by the commander who, he claims, was still young and ignorant of the accuracy secured by a double signal and countersignals.

An ambush story comes from Philip V’s taking of the city of Lissus in Illyria in 213. The arrival of Philip was no secret; considerable forces from neighbouring parts of Illyria had collected at Lissus to confront him. But the Acrolissus stronghold had such natural strength that they stationed only a small garrison to hold it. At first, the battle seemed even, but eventually Philip withdrew his forces. Seeing Philip slowly withdrawing his divisions one after another, the Illyrians mistakenly thought that he was abandoning the field. They let themselves be enticed out of the city owing to their confidence in the strength of the place. They abandoned Acrolissus in small groups and poured down using by-paths to the level ground, thinking there would be a thorough rout of the enemy and a chance at capturing some booty. Instead, the troops Philip had placed in ambush rose unobserved and delivered a brisk attack. At the same time, his peltasts turned and fell on the enemy. The force from Lissus was thrown into disorder and retreated in scattered groups running for the shelter of the city, while those who had abandoned Acrolissus were cut off from it by the troops that had issued from the ambush. In this way both Acrolissus was taken without striking a blow, and Lissus surrendered the next day after a desperate struggle.

The same kind of story is told about the mercenaries of Pellene in 200. Their scouts reported the invasion of the enemy, and at once they advanced and attacked the invading Achaeans. The Achaeans, however, had been ordered to retreat and lure them into an ambush. When the pursuit took them to the place where the ambush had been set up, the Achaeans rose up and cut some of them to pieces (katakopeisan); others were made prisoners.


The heyday of mercenaries seems to have been the last thirty years of the fourth century and perhaps the first thirty years of the third. Our principal literary sources end with the Battle of Ipsus in 301. After Ipsus the Hellenistic world slowed down, not to peace but to warfare under a new and more settled system. During this generation, mercenaries were for a short time the most important soldiers in the service of the great army commanders. We would know a lot more about ambushing in this period if we had biographies of some of the great commanders, or even the diary of a common soldier, but nothing of this sort has survived. Men such as Leosthenes the Athenian, the ‘mystery man’ of Hellenistic history, or the Aetolians Theodotus and Scopas could have told us something about their activities in the field. These were generals who lived by their wits and died in the field. They were stars of their profession, but they have vanished from the historical scene.

Ambush took the same forms in the Hellenistic Age as it did in the fifth and fourth centuries. The Hellenistic army was one of professionals, with its many specialised troops. Most of the non-phalangite Greek mercenaries from the Hellenistic period were peltasts. Specialist contingents such as the Cretan archers fought in their own native style. Commanders had a vast array of professional fighters to choose from. The use of these diverse troops is exemplified under the command of Eumenes II at Magnesia, where he broke up the charge of Antiochus’ war chariots with his Cretan archers, slingers and mounted javelin men.

When men ranked commanders in the Hellenistic Age they thought in terms of personal prowess as well as intellectual quality. Cleverness and courage were the qualities that described a good commander. A general’s ability to think quickly and capitalise on the speed and flexibility of his troops to stage an ambush was considered a great asset. And while high social status was never given to peltasts, skirmishers or mercenaries of any kind, no Hellenistic army operated without them. Warfare had become endemic and too complicated to rely on simply the phalanx. The terrain on which an army might have to fight was far-ranging and required the flexibility of highly mobile, light-armed troops. The ever-present possibility of an ambush meant one had to be on guard for the safety of one’s army, one’s city and one’s life. Sometimes, the only way to secure this safety was to ambush the enemy first. Polybius might mourn the loss of a kinder, gentler age, but what he could not conjure up was a past that did not have ambush as part of its military repertoire.


In the autumn of 1494 the French King, Charles VIII, launched his famous invasion of Italy, and by February 1495 he was the master of the kingdom of Naples. No one would dispute the importance of this date and these events in Italian history; the political scene was never to be quite the same again. For forty years France and Spain struggled for predominance in the peninsula, and when in the 1530’s Spain emerged as the victor large parts of Italy had already learnt to accept the fact of foreign control. What particularly perplexed contemporary Italian writers was how it had happened so quickly; how had Charles been able to brush aside the resistance of three major Italian states and occupy one of them within six months? The first answer for writers like Machiavelli and Guicciardini lay in the weakness of Italy’s military defence. This was the basis for much of their attack on the condottiere system—that it had failed Italy in its time of need. Italy, sheltered behind the Alps, had lost touch with contemporary European military developments and the condottieri were still living in the anachronistic world of the medieval cavalry charge. Thus, when confronted with the fury of the French attack and the novelty of French military methods, their morale collapsed and they were unable to resist.

These are charges to which we must return in more detail, as they are a key to the whole understanding of Italian fifteenth-century warfare, but for the moment it is important to assess how true the basic premise is. To what extent had Italian warfare developed in a vacuum, isolated from ultramontane developments? How far is it true that since the departure of the foreign companies in the fourteenth century, and the death of Hawkwood, Italy had had no experience of foreign military methods?

There is, of course, some truth in it. There was no major invasion of Italy as a whole by a foreign army during the fifteenth century—until 1494; very few of the condottieri were non-Italians. However, as we have seen, quite a high proportion of the infantry constables were foreigners, and by the 1480’s large numbers of Albanian stradiots and even Turks were being used as light cavalry. Furthermore the history of Naples in the fifteenth century had been one of a constant struggle between Aragonese and Angevins. Several Angevin expeditionary forces had entered Italy during the century and the core of the armies with which Alfonso won the crown of Naples was Spanish. Nor had the activities of these French and Spanish troops been entirely confined to Naples. There was, in fact, a series of encounters throughout the century in which Italians had met foreign troops, from the battle of Brescia in 1401, when the Milanese army had defeated a German force, to the appearance of the Duke of Lorraine with 250 French lances as one of the Venetian commanders in the War of Ferrara.

Brescia in 1401 was the only major intervention by German troops in Italy during the century, and on this occasion the German cavalry was defeated by Facino Cane and Jacopo dal Verme. In 1411 and 1418 the Venetians faced massive Hungarian invasions and successfully countered both of them, and in 1422 Carmagnola with a Milanese army won a notable victory over the Swiss at Arbedo. Four thousand Swiss had crossed the St. Gothard pass in an attack on Bellinzona and Domodossola. They were met by Carmagnola with an army of about 5,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry. The Swiss formed a square of pike infantry in their traditional custom, but soon found themselves surrounded. Carmagnola dismounted his men-at-arms and launched them at the square in a manner reminiscent of Hawkwood. Refusing to accept the Swiss offers to surrender, he succeeded in completely shattering them. This was a blow which was remembered in Switzerland for many years and perhaps contributed in some degree to the relatively few appearances of Swiss troops in Italy for the rest of the century.

In 1447 and 1449 it was the turn of Colleoni to meet foreign invaders. French troops under the Duke of Orleans invaded Milan in alliance with the Venetians attacking from the east, and were met by Colleoni at Bosco Marengo. On this occasion he abandoned his normal Braccesco technique of wearing the enemy down with squadrons used in succession, and threw his whole army into a sudden impetuous charge. The French were taken by surprise and broken, leaving about 1,500 dead on the field. Two years later, another French expeditionary force was met by Colleoni at Romagnano Sesia, but this time he fought a carefully planned tactical battle in the Italian style against them and again won a complete victory. These two battles were the bases of Colleoni’s considerable international reputation and account for the great efforts which Charles the Bold made to obtain his services in later years.

In 1452 an Angevin force joined the Milanese in the war in Lombardy, but completely failed to give a good account of itself. The French troops were reluctant to engage in the slow and uncomfortable siege warfare which characterised this campaign; nor were they prepared to fight on into the winter as Francesco Sforza expected his troops to do. In fact it was only in their cruelty towards civilians that this French army proved itself superior to the Italians. In 1461 the French suffered another major defeat when they attempted to reimpose French rule in Genoa after a revolution in the city. The Genoese aided by a Milanese force repelled the French attack and inflicted very heavy casualties on the French knights from a prepared defensive position.

The record of Italian encounters with foreign armies was not entirely one of victories. In 1478 10,000 Swiss invaded the Ticino and, when forced to retreat by a larger Milanese army, succeeded in luring the Italians into the valley of Giornico, where, surrounded and subjected to a hail of fire from the encircling hills, the Milanese army was badly defeated. This defeat was avenged in 1487 when it was the turn of the Milanese led by Renato and Gian Jacopo Trivulzio to trap a large Swiss force at Ponte di Crevola. On this occasion, the Milanese army was largely made up of light cavalry and the new Milanese conscript infantry, and it proved itself more than a match for the Swiss force of over 5,000 men which was completely routed. The last major frontier battle before 1494 was that at Calliano (1487), north of Verona, when the Venetians, having turned back an Austrian invasion, sought to capture Trento. Roberto da Sanseverino commanded the Venetian army which had the difficult task of moving up the narrow valley of the Adige against heavily defended fortifications. He succeeded in bypassing two castles, but then as he crossed the Adige with a bridge of boats his army was attacked by a mixed force of Swiss and the new German Landsknechte trained to fight in the Swiss manner. Their commander was Friedrich Kappler, a veteran of the Burgundian Wars, and he succeeded in catching the Venetian army as it was half across the river. The centre of the Venetian cavalry was routed and driven back into the river where many, including Roberto himself, were drowned. But the Venetian right wing led by Guido Rossi counter-attacked and forced the Swiss and German infantry to retire. In that they lost their commander and were unable to continue their advance, this encounter must be regarded as a defeat for the Venetians. But both here and at Ponte di Crevola Italians had met, and to some extent gained an advantage over, the troops who were regarded as the masters of the European battlefields at the time.

Finally throughout this period, Italians had the unenviable experience of fighting the Turks. It was not only the Venetian army in Greece and on its own frontiers in Friuli that faced this enemy, since in 1480 a Turkish force occupied Otranto and the Neapolitans under Giulio Acquaviva and the Duke of Calabria had to conduct a protracted siege to evict them. After this 1,500 Turkish cavalry were hired by Naples and put in an appearance in northern Italy in the War of Ferrara.

There is another side to this question of military contacts and that is the appearance of Italian commanders and Italian troops in wars outside Italy. The Genoese had the reputation of being the best crossbowmen in Europe and were hired in large numbers as mercenaries, particularly for the French army. But even more significant was the reputation which Italian captains enjoyed in the second half of the fifteenth century. In 1465 a Milanese expeditionary force took part in the War of the Commonweal in France. It consisted of about 3,000 men led by Gaspare da Vimercate and the Sforzesco infantry captain, Donato del Conte, and was also accompanied by Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the eldest son of Francesco. The army had no artillery with it, but nevertheless was able to do some useful work in the Rhone valley for the royal cause, besieging and taking a number of small castles.

After the final collapse of the Angevin cause in Naples in 1462, a number of leading captains who had fought for the Angevins retired into exile in France and Burgundy. Cola di Monforte, Count of Campobasso, was probably the most notorious of these because his desertion of Charles the Bold before the battle of Nancy earned him the outraged censure of Philippe de Commynes in his memoirs, and subsequent reincarnation in the pages of Sir Walter Scott. ‘There is no treachery which the human mind can imagine for which his body and spirit are not well fitted’, was Scott’s comment, but in fact Cola di Monforte’s desertion of the Burgundian cause was an exceptional moment in the career of an otherwise faithful soldier. He served the Angevins in Italy, in France and in Spain, and only moved to Burgundian service after the death of Jean d’Anjou in 1470. The Burgundian army in the 1470’s was filled with Italians; Charles the Bold in his determination to create a permanent fighting force to match the French had not only recruited exiles like Monforte and his colleague, Jacopo Galeota, but had also sent recruiting agents into Italy to hire the best men available. Colleoni was approached, but Venice refused to release him; Troilo da Rossano was lured from the Sforza army, and Orso dall’Anguillara from the Papal States. The Italians numbered 1,000 lances in Charles’ army at this time, and Commynes regarded them as the core of the army.

After the defeat and death of Charles the Bold at Nancy Galeota took service with the French. For a further ten years he was a leading commander in the army of Louis XI until killed by an artillery shot in the Brittany campaign. With him in French service was another Neapolitan and Angevin condottiere, Boffillo del Giudice. Boffillo, on the death of Jean d’Anjou, had offered his services to Louis XI and for a time was in high favour with the king. He was a royal councillor and principal Italian adviser to Louis, and fought a successful campaign in Roussillon. After the death of Louis, he began to fall from favour, but retained his position of Governor of Roussillon where he maintained a picked company of 92 Italian men-at-arms. Both Galeota and Del Giudice were approached by Venice and offered command of the Venetian army in the late 1480’s, but the death of the former and the declining fortunes of the latter made the negotiations abortive.

In addition to the presence of considerable numbers of Italian troops and Italian captains in northern armies, one must remember also the sophisticated diplomatic reporting of which the Italians were acknowledged masters. Milanese and Venetian ambassadors in France, Burgundy and Germany-kept their governments fully informed of the strength and dispositions of the ultramontane armies. In the light of all this evidence, it is absurd to argue that the Italians were unaware of the military developments beyond the Alps or insufficiently prepared to meet the challenge of the Swiss infantry or the French artillery.

Nor do the events of 1494 and the subsequent years bear out the view that Italian warfare was notably degenerate and anachronistic. The invasion of Italy by Charles VIII was opposed by three of the five major Italian states and halfheartedly supported by one, Milan. The recent and uneasy alliance of Naples, the Papacy and Florence omitted two of the best armies in Italy. The Milanese army with its permanent core of household cavalry and conscript infantry was on the French side, while the Venetian army, perhaps the most experienced and certainly the best organised, remained neutral during the opening campaign. Of the three allies, Naples had by far the largest army with a readily mobilised potential of about 18,000 men. However, the Barons’ War, which had recently torn Naples apart, had damaged the morale and the leadership of the army, and its organisation does not seem to have been highly developed. Nevertheless, the three most experienced condottieri in Italy were in Neapolitan pay: Niccolò Orsini, Count of Pitigliano, Virginio Orsini and Gian Jacopo Trivulzio. It is significant perhaps that two of these men were Orsini, and yet were not leading the papal army. This army had rather declined since the days of Paul II and Sixtus IV and, although Alexander VI was making great efforts to build it up again, its strength was relatively small. The Florentines had done little to put right the years of despite and neglect of a permanent military establishment and had to start recruiting hurriedly to catch up.

These were the armies which faced the French in 1494, and they represented probably less than half Italy’s fighting strength. However, even then the military imbalance was a good deal less than is sometimes imagined. The total French force which crossed the Alps consisted of about 30,000 men, roughly equally divided between cavalry and infantry. The bulk of the cavalry were heavy cavalry organised into lances of six men each; thus the total figures included the usual proportion of non-combatants. The infantry included about 5,000 of the famous Swiss, but these were outnumbered by native French infantry of whom the majority were Gascon crossbowmen. Finally the artillery train consisted of at least 40 pieces of heavy siege artillery, which were both more mobile and had a greater hitting power than contemporary Italian guns. In addition the French had the static and rather lukewarm support of the Milanese army, and were augmented, as the invasion proceeded, by a growing number of Italian ‘deserters’, notably the Colonna and their troops, who abandoned the pope at an early stage.

The French army, when fully assembled, was the largest army that had been seen in Europe for more than a century, but much of its strength was rapidly dispersed in garrisons, and the army actually in the field rarely outnumbered the Italians opposed to it. Indeed, at the first major battle of the wars in 1495—Fornovo—the French were themselves considerably outnumbered.

Charles VIII launched his invasion relatively late in the campaigning season. After being held up by a bout of smallpox at Asti, he did not actually leave friendly Milanese soil until late October. By this time the allied military dispositions were complete and by no means doomed to failure. They were based on the justifiable assumption that the easiest route southwards lay through the Romagna, whilst any attempt to march down the west side of Italy would involve crossing the Apennines and dealing with the powerful Florentine fortresses of Sarzanella, Pietrasanta, and, ultimately, Pisa. Thus the main Neapolitan-papal army was concentrated on the eastern route, while the Florentines were expected to hold the Apennine passes. The chief threat to this comprehensive defensive plan was an amphibious landing further south, but the Neapolitan fleet was strong and could be expected to prevent such a possibility.

Charles and his generals, however, elected to attack on the western side given the lateness of the season and the need to go for the most direct route southwards, and also perhaps sensing that Florence was the weak link in the alliance. The French army, about 17,000 strong at this stage, tackled the Apennine passes and the Florentine fortresses without its siege artillery which had to be sent by sea, while a small detachment with the Milanese kept the Neapolitan main army engaged near Bologna. At this stage, political factors began to play their part. After the French had succeeded in taking the small fortress of Fivizzano by treachery and ruthlessly sacking it, Piero de’ Medici took fright and began to negotiate. He surrendered his major fortresses without a fight and allowed Charles a free passage through Tuscany. The fact that he immediately found himself ousted from power in Florence did not alter the situation that the Neapolitan-papal army in the Romagna was now outflanked and had no alternative but to retreat.

Rome now lay undefended as the pope hurriedly recalled his contingents from the eastern front. To add to his difficulties, the Colonna chose this moment to desert, seize Ostia (another modern fortress which would have been a real test for the French artillery), and thus provide the cover for a small French force to be landed south of Rome. Therefore, although the combined army got back in time to defend Rome itself, the French, now reunited with their siege artillery, were pouring into the Papal States and had already outflanked the city. Alexander VI decided, probably rightly, that Rome was now indefensible and advised the Neapolitan army to continue its withdrawal southwards while he came to terms. On 30 December 1494 Charles VIII entered Rome having scarcely fired a shot.

The Neapolitans still had a chance to defend their own frontiers, but by now morale was low and internal divisions rife. Charles’ army had been joined by some of the most experienced Italian captains, notably Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna, who took the lead in a rapid flanking march through the Abruzzi, which again bypassed the main Neapolitan defences. The French at last unmasked their guns to crush the small fortress of Monte S. Giovanni, and the terror which the ensuing sack produced was sufficient to make the populations of much more powerful cities, like Capua, refuse to co-operate in their defence. King Alfonso had already abdicated in favour of his son, and the will to resist had gone. On 20 February the French entered Naples and the long march was over.

Charles VIII had indeed ‘conquered Italy with the chalk of his billeting officers’ as Alexander VI put it, but this was not the fault of the soldiers. The chances to resist had been undermined by political indecision and civilian weakness. The Swiss, who only made up about a third of the French infantry, had played no part in the campaign; the artillery had scarcely been used. No reasonable chance of a genuine military confrontation had offered itself. It is true that the Italian armies did not hurl themselves into forlorn counter-attacks as they might have done, and it is also true that the strategic conceptions of the combined army were over-elaborate for forces which were not used to collaborating. Defensive and unduly complex tactics were weaknesses of Italian warfare, and the Italian Wars now starting were to prove over and over again that a new concept of war was emerging. The desire to seek final conclusions on the battlefield, to conquer rather than to manoeuvre for the preservation of the balance of power and the acquisition of small political counters, was to be the spirit in which the Italian Wars were fought. To what extent this attitude was introduced by French and Spanish armies hardened in the Hundred Years’ War and the atmosphere of the Reconquista, and to what extent it emerged during the course of the Italian Wars as very large armies fought many miles from their bases for exceptionally rich prizes, is hard to decide. Suffice it to say that the contrast between warfare in Italy before and after 1494 was not a simple one of effete Italian mercenaries versus battle-hardened national armies.

These points were abundantly proved and some of the lessons of the previous year repeated when the first full scale battle of the wars was fought at Fornovo in July 1495. Charles’ triumph in conquering Naples was short-lived. Those internal elements which had contributed to the overthrow of the Aragonese dynasty soon realised that French rule was not a satisfactory alternative, and increasing unrest made the position of Charles’ army a difficult one. The Italian states, with the exception of Florence, which was now permanently committed to the French cause, came together in an alliance to evict the French, and began to receive increasing encouragement from Spain and the Empire. At the end of May, Charles decided to return to France with the core of his army, leaving a skeleton force under Montpensier to defend Naples. The armies of the Italian League began to gather to oppose this return march, but there was still little real political unity, as some thought it best to let the French pass on their way out of Italy rather than risk a confrontation with them. However, the opportunity, as Charles marched northwards with a relatively small army, was too good a one to be missed and Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, Venetian captain general and commander of the combined army, elected to bring the French to open battle rather than simply hold the Apennine passes against them. The latter course would have involved little risk and could well have led either to the eventual surrender of the army as it was cut off from its base, or at least to a hazardous transhipment by sea. It would have been a strategy very much in the Italian tradition, but Gonzaga felt both sufficiently confident and sufficiently determined to achieve the personal glory of defeating the French, to go for a crushing victory.

The French retreated along the route they had come in the previous year. This meant crossing the Apennines between Sarzana and Parma by the Cisa Pass, and coming down into the valley of the Taro at Fornovo. Here, below the town where the valley widened out, the huge Italian army was waiting for them in a camp fortified with a ditch and a palisade. Gonzaga described his army as ‘the finest and most powerful that has been seen in Italy for many years’. It numbered about 25,000 men of whom about 5,000 were in Milanese service and the remainder in that of Venice. Two thousand two hundred heavy cavalry lances of five men each formed the core of the army, but there were also about 2,000 light cavalry, mostly stradiots, and 8,000 professional infantry. Four thousand Venetian militia had also arrived, although the bulk of the militia forces were still on the march, as was most of the Venetian heavy artillery. The French numbered about 900 lances of heavy cavalry, 3,000 Swiss infantry, 600 archers of the royal bodyguard and 1,000 artillerymen, a total of about 10,000 men.

When it reached Fornovo, the French army crossed the Taro and began to move down the left bank of the river in front of the Italian camp. Its left flank was thus protected by the hills and its right by the river. In the circumstances the French not surprisingly expected the main assault on them to come from straight up the valley, and to counter this the Swiss marched in a tight square close behind the cavalry advance guard. Two further large columns of cavalry completed the order of the march with the King commanding the centre himself and the rear led by Gaston de Foix. The baggage train laden down with loot from the campaign was placed towards the rear and close to the line of the hills; the artillery moved on the right flank along the river bank.

The Italian battle plan was drawn up by Ridolfo Gonzaga, uncle of the Marquis and himself a veteran of the Burgundian wars, with just these dispositions of the enemy in mind. The tactical conception was masterly, although the details for its execution were over-elaborate. Basically the plan was to block the French advance with a holding force and launch the main attack across the Taro on the flanks of the centre and rear columns. This would have the effect of pinning the enemy against the hills, splitting his extended line of march, and destroying the columns in detail. To carry out this operation the Italian army was divided into nine divisions. The Count of Caiazzo, with the main body of the Milanese cavalry and supported by a mixed infantry force and a large cavalry reserve, was to cross the Taro in front of the French and engage the vanguard. Gonzaga himself with his personal troops was to cross in the centre, engage the French centre, and split it off from the vanguard. Bernardino Fortebraccio had command of the third prong of the attack, made up of the leading Venetian cavalry squadrons, and was to attack the rearguard. In close support to Gonzaga and Fortebraccio came the cream of the Venetian infantry, and then in reserve two further columns of cavalry. The first of these comprised the lanze spezzate known as the Colleoneschi and commanded by the son-in-law of the legendary Colleoni, who had died nearly twenty years earlier. The second reserve column was led by Antonio da Montefeltro, the illegitimate son of that other leading figure of the preceding generation, Federigo. While all these divisions were attacking directly from across the Taro, the stradiots were to pass right around the rear of the enemy and attack the vanguard downhill, thus causing further confusion and preventing stragglers from escaping into the hills. Finally a strong guard of cavalry and militia was left in the camp.


The Battle of Fornovo in the Gallery of Maps (Vatican Museums)

The intelligent use of reserves has sometimes been described as one of the distinguishing features of modern military tactics, and the concept was certainly one that had been widely explored by the condottieri. But in this case there was too much emphasis on reserves. Whether this was because Gonzaga had more men than he knew what to do with or whether it was a sort of natural caution is hard to say. However, part of the intention was clearly to prevent the reserves being committed too early or all at once, and the leaders of the various reserve divisions had strict orders not to enter the fray until called forward by Ridolfo Gonzaga and no one else.

The battle opened in mid-afternoon with a brief artillery duel across the Taro. But heavy rain had dampened the powder and the guns on both sides were more than usually ineffective. The rain had also swollen the river suddenly, and this was seriously to affect the Italian plan. When the signal to advance was given the three spearhead columns began to cross the river. The Count of Caiazzo attacked the van with indifferent success; his infantry were badly cut up by the Swiss who outnumbered them, and elements of his troops were soon fleeing towards Parma. However, he achieved his task of keeping the French vanguard occupied. The stradiots also reached their first objective and harried the French left flank. But when two of their leaders were killed, they drew off and began to plunder the baggage train, which their encircling movement had placed at their mercy. In the centre Gonzaga found it impossible to cross the river where he had intended and moved further upstream to cross close to Fortebraccio’s troops. This led to delay and some confusion; but above all it meant that instead of striking the gap between the French centre and the already committed vanguard, he crossed between the centre and the rearguard, thus exposing his flank to the full weight of the French centre. Here in the space of less than an hour the battle was decided. The element of surprise was lost by the delays, and Gonzaga and Fortebraccio found their squadrons depleted by the difficulties of crossing the river. They bore the full brunt of the counter-attacks of the French and no reserves came forward, as Ridolfo Gonzaga was mortally wounded at the height of the battle. Thus more than half the Italian army never got into action at all. The heavily mauled divisions of Gonzaga and Fortebraccio gave almost as good as they got; the two leaders particularly fighting with exceptional gallantry. At one point they came close to capturing Charles, but so furious a battle could not last for long. Both armies drew back to regroup, and then approaching darkness prevented a resumption of fighting.

The outcome of the battle appeared uncertain, and both sides claimed a victory. The French had achieved their aim of opening a road northwards, as they were able to resume their march stealthily the next night. They had inflicted the heavier casualties on Gonzaga’s army which lost over 2,000 men, including a number of captains. The Italians could claim to be the masters of the field as the French drew off, and they captured the French baggage, including Charles’ personal illustrated record of his many amorous conquests. They also took more prisoners. These perhaps, in terms of Italian warfare, were indications of victory; but Fornovo was fought for specific objectives, and Gonzaga failed to achieve his objective; so he can be said in real terms to have lost the battle. But he lost it not because the Swiss infantry and French artillery were invincible; neither of these elements played much part. Nor did he lose it because the French fought better or with more determination. He did not even lose it because a part of his army got out of hand, notably the stradiots, and another part, the Milanese, did not press their attack (perhaps on instructions from Milan), although these were the excuses given for the lack of success. Three factors really contributed to the Italian failure. First there was the sudden rising of the Taro which badly disrupted the Italian plan and caused last minute confusion. Secondly both Francesco Gonzaga and his uncle elected to lead the army, and thus no one was really in a position to direct the whole battle. Gonzaga, although he showed great personal bravery and many of the ideal qualities of a subordinate commander, had not appreciated that so large and complex an army needed to be directed from behind. This was by no means a typical Italian mistake; neither Braccio nor Sforza would ever have allowed themselves to make it. Finally the sheer size of the army and complexity of the battle plan frustrated success. This sudden attempt to translate tactics which could work well with a small army used to cooperation to a large composite army which had come together for the first time, was bound to run into difficulties. More traditional tactics would probably have won the day by sheer weight of numbers, which is a curious reflection on the theory that Italian methods were outdated and superseded.

Fornovo was one of the two major battles in the whole period between 1494 and 1530 when a largely Italian army met the invaders in the open field. It is therefore one of the few occasions when one can seek to assess the relative merits of Italian and ultramontane military methods. For the rest of the time the political disunity of Italy and political weakness of most of the states made combination against the invaders and a real trial of strength impossible. Italians fought, sometimes distinguished themselves, and occasionally disgraced themselves, on both sides in the wars, but the warfare was increasingly becoming international rather than Italian. It only remains therefore to analyse briefly the Italian contributions to the changes which were taking place during these protracted wars.

Battle of Fornovo, 1495

Charles VIII did not renew his attempts to dominate Italy, and the forces which he left in Naples were gradually overrun with the help of increasing numbers of Spanish troops. The Aragonese dynasty was re-established in Naples, but a Spanish army led by Gonsalvo de Cordoba, the Great Captain, became a permanent part of its defences. The next French invasion of Italy came in 1499 after Louis XII had succeeded Charles and added the Orleanist claim to Milan to the Angevin interest in Naples. The four year lull between the two invasions was filled by serious fighting in only one part of the peninsula, and this was the long war fought by Florence for the recovery of Pisa.

Pisa had declared her independence following Florence’s surrender to Charles VIII in 1494, and for fifteen years its recovery was the main preoccupation of Florentine policy. This war was an interesting one in a number of respects. It saw two states totally committed to war for a protracted period; not only the Pisans, subjected to almost continuous siege, but also the Florentines found that every aspect of the life of their cities was subject to the effects of war. In this situation Florence became to some extent reconciled to the problem of standing forces, but her suspicion of the condottieri remained. It was the sort of war in which condottiere cavalry could not be seen to best advantage. Paolo Vitelli, who was executed in 1499 for failing to take Pisa, was no more unsuccessful than the French troops hired two years later for the same purpose. The problem was of course not just a military one; the Pisans received support in turn from every state in Italy, together with France and Spain, as each struck at Florence through this running sore in her side. The solutions were therefore diplomatic—to avoid offending potential allies of Pisa and isolate her diplomatically—as well as military. In the latter sphere Florence turned to increasingly permanent companies of infantry, and eventually to Machiavelli’s militia, to surround Pisa and starve her into submission. But she still failed to build up the comprehensive military organisation which had long existed in Venice. She was still at the mercy of a military attack, such as those mounted against her by Cesare Borgia in 1501 and 1502, and even more conclusively by the Spanish in 1512. The sack of Prato in the latter year, and the complete humiliation of Florence’s new national militia by the Spanish troops, was not so much an indication of Italian military weakness as a justification for the faith which continued, for many years to come, to be placed in professional mercenary troops rather than embryo national armies.

Nor was the success of Cesare Borgia in winning control of the Romagna in a series of campaigns between 1499 and 1503 an example of the effectiveness of militia troops as Machiavelli seemed to think. Cesare’s army was essentially a mercenary army. He relied heavily on contingents of French and Spanish troops, and even in July 1502, when he was said to have assembled the best troops in Italy, his army was made up largely of the condottiere companies of men like Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo and the Orsini, and his own Romagnol mercenaries. Cesare, like a number of other Italian commanders, was experimenting with mounted arquebusiers and, with the aid of Vitellozzo, he had assembled a fine artillery train, but the Romagnol militia, paraded briefly in the last weeks of 1502, contributed little to his military success.

Cesare Borgia’s army was an effective military weapon for his limited purposes; he had some troops who would have undoubtedly given a good account of themselves against the French or the Spanish, and the French in particular went to considerable trouble to secure his assistance. But he did not have a monopoly of the good Italian troops or the effective Italian captains in the first years of the sixteenth century. The second French invasion of 1499, having absorbed Milan easily, led to a confrontation with Spain in Naples. On both sides in this war Italian commanders played a considerable role. In April 1503 at Cerignola the French and Spanish armies met for the first time in a major battle. In the French army were considerable numbers of Italian troops, but acting only in a supporting role to the French cavalry and the Swiss. On the Spanish side Gonsalvo de Cordoba relied heavily on Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna, who not only led his cavalry forces but also designed the powerful field fortification which contributed greatly to the Spanish victory. Cerignola was one of the most significant battles of the Italian Wars in that it demonstrated in the most complete fashion the answer to the problem of how to deal with the Swiss infantry square. Machiavelli was still obsessed by this problem twenty years later when he wrote his Arte della Guerra, but this was only an indication of the unreality of the theoretical framework within which he was writing. The Swiss were never the masters of the battlefields of the Italian Wars as they had been twenty years earlier; Spanish strength linked to the tactical conceptions of the Italian condottieri saw to that, and Cerignola was the turning point.

At Cerignola the Colonna brothers prepared a long ditch and rampart in front of the Spanish position. Behind this were placed the infantry made up of Landsknechte in the centre and large numbers of crossbowmen and arquebusiers on the flanks. Further out on either flank were stationed bodies of light cavalry, while the heavy cavalry was held in the rear in reserve under Prospero Colonna. The French attacked this position without fully reconnoitring it. First the heavy cavalry and then the Swiss were held up by the ditch and caught in a murderous crossfire from the arquebusiers. Confusion quickly spread, and, when the Spanish and Italian cavalry charged in on both flanks, the Swiss square was already broken and defenceless. The combination of field fortifications, hand firearms and light cavalry had proved the answer, and Cordoba and the Colonna brothers in finding that answer were profiting from the experiments of earlier condottiere warfare.

Cerignola was also the turning point in this war in Naples. The French, demoralised, began to retreat and were badly defeated again at the battle of the Garigliano later in the year. On this occasion Francesco Gonzaga had command of the French army, and proved no match for the tactical skill of Cordoba, the Colonna, and now also Bartolomeo d’Alviano, who proved himself a master of light cavalry tactics.

Most of the Italians involved in this campaign were Neapolitan and papal troops; the army of Venice was still waiting on the sidelines, committed to a war with the Turks until 1503. Venice had supported the French invasion in 1499 and still remained allied to France, although taking no serious part in the wars, until in February 1508 her northern Alpine frontiers were invaded by an imperial army anxious to participate in the spoils of a division of Italy. The imperialists were weak and the invading army contained no more than 5-6,000 Swiss and German infantry. It was completely out-manoeuvred and utterly defeated by Bartolomeo d’Alviano near Pieve di Cadore. This was a notable victory for an Italian army largely composed of infantry and light cavalry, and it established d’Alviano alongside the Colonna brothers and Gian Jacopo Trivulzio, who now commanded the French forces in Milan, amongst the leading captains of the day.

But this humiliation of the Emperor and Venice’s refusal to accept foreign control of Italy brought down on her in the last months of 1508 a combination of all the foreign powers together with the pope, Julius II, in the League of Cambrai. The decision to partition Venice and her large mainland empire was put into operation with less alacrity and determination than might have been expected, so that in the spring of 1509 it was only the French army attacking from the east which posed an immediate danger. This led to the second and final confrontation between a completely Italian army and the invaders at Agnadello.

The opposing armies at Agnadello were fairly evenly matched. The Venetians, commanded by Pitigliano and d’Alviano, had 10,000 cavalry and 22,000 infantry in the field; the infantry consisted of 9,000 militia dressed in their uniforms of red and white, and a core of Romagnol pike infantry trained in the manner of the Swiss. The French began to cross the frontier line of the Adda with almost 40,000 men including 15,000 heavy cavalry and 8,000 Swiss. The opportunity to attack the French while they were crossing the river was lost, as Pitigliano, the supreme commander, preferred to dig himself in and await the French assault in a powerful fortified camp. Pitigliano was an experienced condottiere of the old school; he lacked the confidence and the panache of d’Alviano, but there is no reason to suppose that, had he been allowed to keep to his plan, he would not have made the French pay dearly for an attack on his position. The French were certainly aware of this and hesitated in their advance; d’Alviano was all for ignoring the French army and making a swift counter-move against Milan itself. But this daring idea was rejected and, on orders from Venice, Pitigliano began to move his army cautiously forward, intending to occupy new fortified positions in a more commanding position. The move from one fortified camp to another was the undoing of the Venetians because it enabled the French to attack them in the open. In fact it was the Venetian rearguard, commanded by d’Alviano himself, which took the brunt of the French attack, and initially repelled it with heavy losses. However, the Venetian army was too spread out to take advantage of this situation, and the column next to d’Alviano’s, commanded by Antonio Pio da Carpi, did not move to his assistance. Indeed, when it was itself attacked by the ever-increasing concentration of French forces, the newly arrived militia from Brescia which made up a large part of the column, broke and fled. This left d’Alviano and his rear-guard completely isolated with Pitigliano still some two kilometres away and reluctant to commit the remainder of the army to this dangerous situation. D’Alviano was now in a hopeless position; he and his small force of cavalry were surrounded and captured; his infantry fought on desperately. Surrounded by overwhelming numbers of Swiss and Gascons, their leaders soon all killed, they were eventually annihilated.

The defeat at Agnadello had some similarities to Fornovo. In this case the Italian army was caught in a disadvantageous position, but again it was the failure to coordinate properly a large army which materially affected the result. Most of the troops actually involved gave a very good account of themselves. The flight of the Brescia militia was decisive, but other militia elements fought with outstanding heroism, and the condottiere troops stood equally firm. D’Alviano did all that could be done by one man to retrieve the situation; Pitigliano’s judgment and caution could certainly be questioned, but his action had some justification, and the fact that half the army was saved was to be an important factor in the subsequent campaign. The heroic defence of Padua two months later was made possible because so much of the army, and particularly the Romagnol infantry, had been preserved intact.

In the remaining battles of these wars, Italian troops and Italian leaders were heavily involved, but never again as a complete army. At Ravenna in 1512 the Ferrarese artillery of Alfonso d’Este played a major part in the French victory, while a large contingent of papal infantry, led by Ramazzotto da Forlì, fought gallantly on the Spanish side. The commander of the Spanish light cavalry at this battle was the Marquis of Pescara, an Aragonese-Neapolitan nobleman who was to become one of the most famous leaders in the later campaigns.

At Marignano in 1515, when the French recovered Milan, it was Trivulzio, who had been a decisive leader at Agnadello, who still led the French army, and d’Alviano with the Venetian cavalry who delivered the coup de grace to the Swiss. At Bicocca in 1522, the victorious Spanish army was commanded by the Marquis of Pescara and Prospero Colonna, and owed their victory to Colonna’s field fortifications and massive numbers of Spanish arquebusiers. On the French side, between two enormous squares of Swiss in the front line, were the mounted arquebusiers of yet another Italian leader, Giovanni de’ Medici, the famous Giovanni delle Bande Nere. But by the time of Pavia in 1525, the last of the major battles of these wars, the battle at which French hopes of Italian conquest finally faded and at which the French king, Francis I, was captured, the role of the Italians was somewhat reduced. There were probably 3,000–4,000 Italian troops on each side, of whom the most notable were the Black Bands of Giovanni de’ Medici, who were described as being amongst the finest troops in the French army. But Giovanni himself was wounded just before the battle and his companies, although they fought gallantly, were overwhelmed and largely destroyed by German Landsknechte. With Francis I was Teodoro Trivulzio, cousin of the more famous Gian Jacopo but a far less experienced commander. On the imperialist side was still Pescara, and his nephew Alfonso d’Avalos, Marquis del Vasto, with a few Neapolitan troops. But it was many years since any of these men had fought for an Italian state, and the links with the military scene of limited numbers and limited objectives before 1494 were becoming more and more remote.

Italian soldiers and Italian traditions had contributed much to military developments during these wars, but the only field in which they still predominated was in that of military engineering and architecture. Most of the fortifications built were the work of Italian architects. Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who had designed fortresses and siege works for Federigo da Montefeltro, was still active in Naples in the 1490’s. With him was Fra Giocondo, the Veronese architect who later designed the Venetian fortifications at Padua. The successor to Fra Giocondo in Venetian service was Sanmicheli, who was trained in Rome in the tradition of Bramante and the Sangallos and whose fortification work can still be seen all over the Veneto and the Venetian overseas empire. In central Italy the fortresses built by the Sangallo family stretch from Poggio Imperiale (1488) and the Fortezza del Basso (1534) in Tuscany to Civita Castellana (1494) and Nettuno (1502) in the Papal States. Leonardo da Vinci was inspector of fortresses for Cesare Borgia, and Michelangelo strengthened the fortifications of Florence in 1529.

But the only Italian army which remained intact in 1530 with traditions reaching back into the fifteenth century was that of Venice. Milan and Naples were now Spanish. Florence, besieged in that year by an imperialist army, had little or no army with which to defend itself. It relied on a hastily formed militia and the mercenaries of Malatesta Baglioni, employed for the occasion. The pope still had an army, but it was small, its components fluctuated, its traditions were few; it had been able to do little to save Rome from sack by the imperialists in 1527. While it would certainly be wrong to end a history of Italian warfare in the Renaissance in 1494, it would be equally wrong to try to continue it beyond 1530.

The Penkovsky Era

Each man here is alone.

—Oleg Penkovsky quoted in the Penkovskiy Papers

Bad news, like every secret communication from Moscow, arrived at CIA Headquarters encrypted. The news that arrived mid-morning on November 2, 1962—as the Cuban Missile Crisis was winding down—was particularly bad. Colonel Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, a career Soviet military intelligence officer and the Agency’s most spectacularly successful spy, was, in all likelihood, lost. Penkovsky had held a senior position in the Glavnoye Razedyvatelnoye Upravlenie (GRU), the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff while secretly reporting to U.S. and British intelligence. In the colorful parlance of espionage, he had almost certainly been “rolled up.”

At the new Agency compound at Langley, Virginia, the paint was barely dry on the walls when the Communications Center on the ground floor—Headquarters’ sole secure link to Moscow personnel—received the super-enciphered message. It arrived as an “IMMEDIATE” cable, a long, narrow strip of paper snaking out of a bulky machine, much like a price quote from an old-fashioned stock ticker. The encoded message was contained in an intricate pattern of perforations that ran along the paper’s length. When the transmission was complete, the paper was torn off by the communicator, and then run through a printer that produced a neat array of seemingly random numbers and letters on a sheet of standard letter-sized paper. A second level of decryption was needed to render the message into plain text. This phase of decryption guarded against the potential for security failures along the transmission path, whether over the air or via land lines. Like placing a strong, small safe inside a larger safe, this last layer of decryption could be performed only by one of a handful of authorized officers from the Soviet Russia Division (SR) of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans.

Although the DDP sounded like the dullest of bureaucracies, its name veiled the most secretive directorate in the Agency. Hidden beneath the vague acronym resided the responsibility for the CIA’s “cloak and dagger” work. Within the DDP, SR was particularly shrouded with “cloak.”

If asked about their job by neighbors or friends, SR personnel would repeat a carefully rehearsed cover story of working for one or another government department, but never the CIA. It was not unusual for DDP operations officers to remain undercover even after retirement, and maintain their cover stories until their deaths. Even the top-secret clearance, required for employment at the Agency, did not authorize someone to know rudimentary details regarding SR or its personnel. If an Agency colleague asked about an SR staffer’s job, they would receive only generalized replies and most knew better than to probe for details. Secrecy within the Agency was both enforced by official policy and expected as part of professional etiquette.

Virtually no one, with the exception of SR personnel, was allowed into SR spaces. A no-nonsense secretary immediately confronted any visitor who opened the unmarked, always closed, hallway doors that led into the division’s suite and friends of SR officers from other parts of the agency did not drop in to plan weekend activities or for office gossip. When SR officers left the area, even for a short time, security procedures mandated that desks be cleared and all work secured in one of the division’s high-security 500-pound black steel safes.

SR Division applied strict need-to-know compartmentation through BIGOT lists that restricted access to what many would consider routine information coming out of the Soviet Union. Within the division information was distributed like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Only a very few ever saw an entire operational picture. Those outside of SR could only assume that a puzzle existed. Within CIA’s instinctively tight-lipped security environment, SR’s added multilayered security cloak created a mystique that some viewed as arrogant and unnecessarily obsessive.

The term “BIGOT list” existed—and still exists—as a holdover from World War II when the most prized stamp on the orders of personnel traveling from England to Africa was “TOGIB,” meaning “to Gibraltar.” To reach Africa, the majority of personnel made the dangerous journey by ship through seas controlled by German U-boats. However, for a select few, there were the highly prized seats on a flight to Gibraltar. For these lucky individuals, the stamp on their orders was reversed to read BIGOT and the term thus acquired its special meaning in intelligence circles, carrying with it the inference of not only rarity, but also safe passage and a valued mission.

There were other levels of compartmentation as well. A top-secret clearance did not provide automatic access to specific operations or programs. TS, a security clearance level required for all CIA staff employees, only made one eligible for potential access to a compartmented program. The BIGOT access was granted based on responsibilities and an individual’s demonstrated need to know about the operation.

SR’s security policies extended to written communications within Headquarters. SR did not rely on the CIA’s usual interoffice mail couriers nor were its officers permitted to use the 1960-era state-of-the-art pneumatic tube system that carried classified documents to every corner of the 1.4 million-square-foot building. Everything regarding Soviet operations was hand-carried from office to office by either an SR operations officer or one of a dedicated cadre of women known as Intelligence Assistants.

It was standard operating procedure for the communicator to place the encrypted message in a heavy manila security envelope, securely seal it, and call SR to advise that a cable had been received from Moscow. On the morning of November 2, the young SR officer who walked to the communications vault, accepted the sealed envelope, and, without opening it, retraced his three-minute route to SR’s small warren of offices, could not have known that he now had a role in one of history’s most significant espionage events.

At his desk, the officer opened the envelope, removed the single sheet of paper, and, with painstaking care, began deciphering the message by hand. He used a one-time pad, or OTP, whose printed columns of numbers and letters exactly matched those used by the person who had composed the brief message. After the message was deciphered, the page of the one-time pad used was destroyed. The Soviet Union paid a heavy price during World War II when they reused one-time-pad pages for communicating with agents in different parts of the world. This seemingly innocuous error provided an advantage to U.S. code breakers who were able to unravel many Soviet ciphered communications that had been intercepted from Washington, D.C. and New York City. This secret would become known as VENONA and remains one of the notable achievements of the Army Security Agency and later the National Security Agency.

The cable did not mention Penkovsky by name. Rather, it reported that Richard Jacob, a CIA officer in Moscow, was apprehended while clearing a dead drop. After a nerve-shattering but relatively brief interrogation, the message continued, Jacob was released to the custody of the U.S. ambassador and returned to the safety of the U.S. embassy. Because he was a diplomat, Jacob could not be formally charged with a crime. Instead, he was “PNG’ed,” declared persona non grata by Soviet authorities and ordered out of the country.

Penkovsky’s arrest by the KGB was not confirmed during those first few hours, but it did not seem realistic to hold out much hope for the agent. As in the immediate aftermath of any roll-up, there were more questions than facts, but for those few who knew about the case, it required no imagination to conclude that Penkovsky either was dead or would be very soon.

The officer delivered the decrypted cable up the chain of command to the SR Division Chief. The Chief took the bad news to the Deputy Director for Plans who in turn briefed John McCone, the Director of Central Intelligence. Within twenty-four hours, McCone would personally inform President Kennedy. That so few understood the enormous impact Penkovsky’s arrest would have on America’s national security was partially due to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the nearly eighteen-month operation and the care given to the handling of the remarkable intelligence he single-handedly supplied.

Intelligence reports based on Penkovsky’s information had been structured to suggest that the intelligence originated from multiple sources. To reinforce this illusion, the Penkovsky product circulated under two code names, IRONBARK for that material that was scientific or quantifiable and CHICKADEE for material that included his personal observations. For anyone outside the small group who knew the truth, the vast quantity of intelligence flowing from the Soviet Union looked like the work of an extensive spy network, coupled with mysterious and advanced technical collection, rather than the efforts of a single spy.

A small team of CIA and British intelligence officers ran Penkovsky. He was alternately known as HERO to his American handlers and YOGA to the British. Jacob had been chosen to service the dead drop because he had recently arrived in Moscow and had a strong cover in a traditionally non-alerting, low-level administrative position. As such, he was less likely to be identified as a CIA officer and draw KGB surveillance.

According to later accounts, Jacob entered the dingy hallway of an apartment house at 5/6 Pushkinskaya and removed an ordinary matchbox wrapped in a short length of wire that formed a hook to secure it behind a radiator. As Jacob was placing the matchbox in his pocket, the KGB team jumped him from their hiding places in the vestibule. During the ensuing scuffle, he managed to drop the matchbox to the floor through a slit in the lining of his raincoat pocket, ridding himself of incriminating evidence and avoiding the nasty legal and diplomatic problems arising from having Soviet state secrets on his person. The technicality did not matter to the KGB team, since it was obvious why the American was in the building. Once subdued, Jacob was hustled into a waiting car and whisked off to a nearby militia station.

The final act of the Penkovsky drama had begun that morning with two voiceless phone calls—silent calls—to a phone answered by a U.S. official. The silent call was a signal activating the communication plan issued to Penkovsky by his handlers when they had met outside the Soviet Union. Arguably the most critical piece of any operation, the commo plan provided agents, such as Penkovsky, with precise contact instructions and schedules to establish secure communication under both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.

Because the CIA assumed that the KGB monitored all telephone calls to and from the U.S. officials, the silent call represented a clever piece of tradecraft that allowed a message to be sent, even if the call was monitored. Penkovsky had been instructed to go to a remote public telephone and call a specific number. When the phone was answered, he said nothing, but waited ten seconds before hanging up. The call to the specific number and the length of silence before hanging up were the message that directed intelligence officers to a telephone pole marked with a symbol written in chalk, an X. The simple chalk mark announced that the dead drop site at the Pushkinskaya apartment house had been loaded.

These standard pieces of tradecraft—the silent call, followed by a signal site marked with an X and dead drop—were part of a commo plan, code-named DISTANT, designed specifically for Penkovsky to provide an early warning of imminent Soviet attack on the West. The small matchbox that Jacob found tethered by wire behind the radiator might have contained information signaling the start of World War III.

With the silent call, Penkovsky, who had not been heard from or seen since early September, had apparently, reemerged. It was possible that nothing serious was wrong. If it was a trap—a provocation on the part of the KGB—then it was worth the chance. “We had been worried about him, it had been quiet for quite a while,” said the case officer who decrypted the message and whose memories are still vivid after more than four decades. “But in the past he had come up again. To my knowledge we had no warning, nothing to indicate they’d caught him.”

Now, with Jacob’s arrest, whatever glimmers of hope that might have existed with Penkovsky’s reemergence, seemed far-fetched. It was possible that a bystander had seen Penkovsky suspiciously fiddling behind the radiator as he loaded the dead drop and called authorities who then laid in wait. It was also possible that the KGB had not been fooled by Jacob’s cover and defeated his countersurveillance maneuvers en route to the dead drop site. Any number of other scenarios about Penkovsky’s fate was possible, but only a single distressing conclusion was probable.

Penkovsky’s handlers had grown increasingly troubled by recent events surrounding the operation. Penkovsky had vanished from operational sight for several weeks prior to the silent call and his GRU superiors abruptly canceled his scheduled trip to Seattle in the autumn of 1962. Additionally, the sheer volume of intelligence he was providing on his Minox film cassettes suggested a level of clandestine activity that could not continue undetected indefinitely. So voluminous was Penkovsky’s productivity during the first half of 1962 that his handlers decided to discontinue temporarily tasking him for new intelligence collection.

The operation would refocus on supporting his work for the GRU by providing comprehensively written technical articles to be published under his name and supplying harmless intelligence products he could take back to Moscow from trips to the West. The intent was to strengthen Penkovsky’s credibility among superiors, raising him above suspicion and moving him into circles of even greater access to Soviet secrets.

During a three-month period between October 1961 and January 1962, Penkovsky met with his contact in Moscow, Janet Chisholm, the young wife of British MI6 officer Roderick Chisholm, eleven times in public locations. During these brief encounters, she received thirty-five rolls of film containing hundreds of images of top-secret Soviet documents. In January, Penkovskyreported what he believed was surveillance on Mrs. Chisholm but showed no personal alarm. Rather, he suggested that dead drops replace their contacts “on the street.” Early successes, it seemed, emboldened Penkovsky but, in his handlers’ opinion, the agent’s level of productivity was alarming as well as gratifying.

Had Penkovsky dropped his guard or grown careless as the inherently dangerous work became routine? It was possible. Had he grown to feel invulnerable and above suspicion? That, too, was possible. It only became known much later that George Blake, an MI6 officer who spied for the Soviets, alerted the KGB that Janet Chisholm was actively supporting her MI6 husband in operations. Consequently, when the couple arrived in Moscow, KGB surveillance teams were waiting for them.

Confirmation of the disaster arrived a few hours after the first message with news of the arrest of Greville Wynne, a British businessman traveling in Hungary. A sometime contact between Penkovsky and his handlers, Wynne was arrested by a KGB team in Budapest, also on November 2, and flown back to Moscow.

The final curtain fell a month later. On December 12, a notice in the Soviet newspaper Pravda announced Penkovsky’s arrest in late October, more than a week before Jacob’s apprehension. Six months later, on May 7, 1963, Penkovsky stood in a courtroom before the same judge who had presided at the trial of Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down in May 1960 over Sverdlovsk. 

The trial lasted four days. Penkovsky, in an attempt to save his life, admitted that he had passed secrets to the Americans and British. Prosecutors cited “moral degradation” among the reasons for his traitorous acts, while a witness bolstered this claim by testifying that he had seen the defendant sipping wine from a woman’s shoe during a night of heavy drinking.

On May 17, a public notice appeared that Penkovsky had been executed.

Rumors about his death eventually began to leak out. While the Soviet press announced an execution by firing squad, another, unconfirmed report, claimed that he had been burned alive in a crematorium and the grisly episode filmed as a warning to new GRU officers who might someday consider cooperating with the West.

Wynne was also tried, found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released in 1964 as part of a spy swap for Gordon Lonsdale, a Soviet spy convicted in Britain.

Like a silent explosion, the capture, trial, and execution of Penkovsky sent shock waves of uncertainty, recrimination, and retribution through American, British, and Soviet intelligence circles. While the badly burned Soviets restructured the GRU, the British and Americans, uncertain about when and how Penkovsky was first identified, faced a flood of questions. If Penkovsky was under KGB suspicion as early as December of 1961, or January of 1962, did this mean the Soviets manipulated the information he provided? If so, when did he begin reporting controlled information designed to mislead American and British analysts? For that matter, could anything he reported be trusted?

Material long disseminated by analysts to policy officials was recalled and painstakingly reexamined. The eventual conclusion was that the Soviets had not played Penkovsky back against the Americans and British, but that left unanswered the mystery of why, if Penkovsky was suspected as early as December 1961, the Soviets continued to allow him access to secret files and materials.

Over the next several years, the Penkovsky case would become a cottage industry within the CIA as every aspect of the operation was analyzed to determine what was accomplished and what went wrong.

The Penkovsky operation had produced an astonishing amount of material. During his year and a half as an active agent, he supplied more than a hundred cassettes of exposed Minox film (each containing fifty exposures or frames). The more than 140 hours of debriefings in London and Paris produced some 1,200 pages of transcripts and reams of handwritten pages. He identified hundreds of GRU and KGB officers from photos, and provided Western intelligence officials with their first authoritative view of the highest levels of the post-Stalin Soviet Union. In fact, he supplied so much information that both the CIA and MI6 set up teams dedicated exclusively to processing the material, which resulted in an estimated 10,000 pages of intelligence reports. 

More than the quantity, the substance of the documents on the Minox film and his knowledgeable debriefings impressed both CIA and MI6. Penkovsky appeared at a crucial time during the Cold War when tensions and the potential for nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West were at an apex. This volatility was heightened by a lack of certainty on each side about the intentions and capabilities of the other. 

The failed Soviet attempt to isolate the British-, French-, and U.S.-controlled sections of Berlin by blocking all ground and rail transportation and shipments into the city during 1948 and 1949 was still a fresh memory when the United States was caught off guard by unpredicted assertive Soviet technological, military, and political actions beginning in 1957. The USSR launched Sputnik in 1957; shot down Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 reconnaissance plane on May Day, 1960; and built the Berlin Wall in 1961. So anemic was U.S. intelligence access to the plans and intentions of the Kremlin that the text of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 came to the CIA via a third party, an Israeli source operating behind the Iron Curtain.

Through the late 1950s, Khrushchev’s seeming obsession with the United States was rising to dangerous levels. His fixation with U.S. objectives was fueled first by an alarmist 1960 KGB report that falsely described the Pentagon’s intention to initiate war against the Soviet Union “as soon as possible” followed by a failed attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961. Then, in 1962, two erroneous GRU intelligence reports warned of an imminent nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union by the United States.

“Our production of rockets is like sausages coming from an automatic machine, rocket after rocket comes off the assembly line,” bragged Khrushchev.  

Penkovsky’s assignment to the State Committee for the Coordination of Scientific Research Work granted him access to the highest levels of military circles. He, in turn, provided the West with a contrasting view of both Soviet capability and Khrushchev’s belligerent stance. “His [Khrushchev’s] threats are like swinging a club to see the reaction. If the reaction is not in his favor, he stops swinging,” Penkovsky explained to the team in a Paris hotel room in 1961.

For the Kennedy administration, Penkovsky’s reporting put the lie to the Soviet leader’s braggadocio, while the intelligence he provided, combined with overhead intelligence, influenced downward revisions of Soviet missile production in National Intelligence Estimates.

Penkovsky also revealed the real dangers of diplomacy without independent and timely intelligence. As the Cuban missile crisis heated up, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin used back-channel communication through Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and other White House officials to assure President Kennedy that only short-range defensive, rather than offensive, missiles were going into Cuba. Similar false assurances also flowed through the back channels of diplomacy from GRU Colonel Georgi Bolshakov, working under cover of the TASS news agency, through Robert Kennedy.

However, the technical manuals provided by Penkovsky for the Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles allowed CIA photo analysts to identify and match the deployment pattern or footprint with U-2 reconnaissance photos taken over San Cristobal, Cuba. Far from being defensive and of short range, the missiles were armed with 3,000-pound nuclear warheads and a range of some 1,000 nautical miles, and were more than capable of reaching Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Finally, Penkovsky’s information provided analysis of the Soviets’ overall lack of preparedness for war, allowing President Kennedy to face off against Khrushchev during the crisis. His insights, derived from personal access to Kremlin leaders, added independent weight to technical evidence that Soviet military threats were overstated, if not hollow. The American President was emboldened to act and denied the Soviets a nuclear missile foothold in the Western Hemisphere. For that brief and critical moment in time, history turned on the material provided by one man, Oleg Penkovsky.

In the wake of the Penkovsky case, the CIA undertook the unprecedented measure of bringing to press in 1965 The Penkovskiy Papers [sic]. The Agency, working with journalist Frank Gibney and the publisher Doubleday & Company, publicly exposed many of the operational aspects of the GRU revealed by Penkovsky. An immediate bestseller, the book presented most Americans with one of the first in-depth looks at Soviet intelligence operations in the West.

The Penkovskiy Papers offered remarkable details of Soviet tradecraft, from tips on American personal grooming and social customs (“Many Americans like to keep their hands in their pockets and chew gum”) to evading surveillance and selecting dead drop sites. One section warned of the dangers presented by squirrels running off with small packages left at dead drop sites in New York’s Central Park.

For American readers, the book confirmed their worst suspicions that Soviet spies were active and successful in the United States. It may have also implied an equally aggressive and thriving U.S. espionage capability in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The few who understood how dependent American intelligence had been on HERO’s production knew the time had come to change the game plan. The case had revealed grave deficiencies in the tradecraft needed to handle long-term agents inside the Soviet Union. America’s technology and the CIA’s Technical Services Division would become key players in a new operational strategy.

BA-64B Light Armored Car

In the summer of 1942, work began at GAZ on an improved version of the GAZ-64 light vehicle, which had several mechanical improvements and a wider wheel track. The replacement model was designated GAZ-67. Consequently, the BA-64 was modified to accommodate the new chassis and several other design changes were also incorporated in the new BA-64 model, which received the designation BA-64B. As with the original BA- 64, the new BA-64B was also developed by senior designer V. A. Grachev with modification and development under the direct control of A. A. Lipgart. The new BA- 64B, on its new GAZ-67 chassis, was field trialed under the designation GAZ-64-125B or BA-64-125B. The trials were successful and were followed by full factory tests which commenced on 24th November 1942. The new vehicle was given its first major trials at the GABTU proving grounds at Kubinka near Moscow over the week of 2-8 March 1943, covering 400km. The BA-64B finally entered series production on 1st September 1943, with chassis number 7336 being the first vehicle produced.

The BA-64B was based on the new GAZ-67B chassis with its wider 1.446m track. This seemingly minor design change was a major improvement for the high BA-64, which had been known for instability on slopes due to its narrow track; the wider track increasing side slope angle to 25°. Other major automotive improvements included the provision of a new K-23 carburetor which gave better performance on low-grade fuel.

Some of the first BA-64Bs produced on the GAZ- 67B chassis were mated to the early production Vyksinskiy BA-64 armored hull, without vision ports. However, a modified hull had begun to be produced at Vyksinskiy simultaneously with the replacement of the GAZ-64 by the GAZ-67 series in production at GAZ. The later armored hulls supplied by Vyksinskiy and assembled at GAZ were provided with pistol ports, which were fitted on all hulls supplied to GAZ from early 1943. The firing ports introduced on the front faceted hull plates were the primary distinguishing feature of the BA-64B, though the last of the GAZ-64-based BA-64s also had this feature due to production changeover at both plants. The mix of hulls may have been due to the stockpiling at GAZ of hulls delivered by Vykska. Many BA-64 vehicles were also significantly reworked in the field.

All small details such as lights were taken from the GAZ-67B, though some BA-64s were fitted with headlights taken from the ZiS-5. A 12RP radio station was mounted in some vehicles. The BA-64B became the definitive model of the BA-64 series. It was produced from September 1943 until 1946 and saw extensive use with the Russian Army in Europe, Hungary, Austria, Romania, and Germany. The BA-64 took part in the victory parades in Berlin and Moscow.

The Polish Army had eighty-one BA-64Bs in service, which were ex-Russian Army vehicles delivered to Poland after repair by Remontzavod N°2 (Repair Factory N°2) in Moscow. Of the eighty-one issued to the Polish Army, sixty remained in service in 1944 with fifty-three surviving until the end of the war. Czechoslovakia also had ten BA-64 series armored cars in service.

The BA-64B was a particularly reliable vehicle, achieving an average 6,000-7,000km of combat service between capital repairs or major breakdowns. Further polygon reliability tests conducted in 1944 achieved a figure of 15,000km without major repair or rebuild being required.

From the start of BA-64B series production on 1st September 1943 to 31st December 1943, 405 BA-64Bs were produced, 214 of which were fitted with radio. In 1944, production was increased again to 250 vehicles a month, with 2,950 BA-64Bs produced in that year, of which 1,404 were fitted with radio. By comparison, a total of 1,824 BA-64 and BA-64Bs had been produced in 1943, due to several German bombing raids on the GAZ plant in Gorkiy during that year. From January 1945 to the end of April 1945, another 868 vehicles were produced (420 being fitted with radio) with 1,742 BA-64Bs being completed to the end of the year.

During the wartime period, 8,174 BA-64 and BA-64Bs were manufactured (3,390 being fitted with radio) of which 3,314 remained in service in 1945, mainly the BA-64B model. Production was severely reduced after May 1945, and by 1946 the Russian Army no longer had a need for such large numbers of BA-64s, the last batch of sixty-two BA-64Bs being produced slowly during 1946.

When production ceased in 1946, a total of 9,110 BA-64s of all types had been manufactured during the period 1942-46, of which 5,209 were of the later BA-64B model and 3,901 of the earlier BA-64. GAZ Factory records state 5,160 BA-64Bs were built, which may not include prototypes and evaluation vehicles which were not produced on the main assembly lines.

Spares for the BA-64 series were manufactured until 1953, the last year in which the BA-64 was in operational service with the post-war Soviet Army. The BA-64 series was stockpiled for many years after 1953.

Post-war Poland continued to use its Soviet-supplied BA-64Bs, while the vehicle was also supplied to East Germany (which developed its own SK-1 on the basis of the BA-64B), Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and China (post 1949). It also saw extensive service with the Korean Army during the 1950-53 Korean War and at least one of these vehicles was captured by U. S. Forces and returned to the United States. Many BA-64s were reworked by the BTRZ-121 repair plant before export.


    BA-64: Standard production model from 1942 to 1943, built on the chassis of a GAZ-64 jeep. Armed with a single 7.62mm Degtyaryov machine gun in an open-topped turret.

    BA-64B: Standard production model from 1943 to 1946, built on the chassis of a GAZ-67 jeep and incorporating a new carburetor, air intakes, and firing ports. Armed with a single 7.62mm Degtyaryov machine gun in an open-topped turret.

    BA-64D: Fire support variant of the BA-64B armed with a single 12.7mm DShK heavy machine gun in an enlarged, open-topped turret.

    BA-64-126: Turretless staff car variant, did not progress beyond the concept phase. Seated a driver and two passengers. A very similar vehicle was created independently by the Red Army; this modification entailed removing not only the turret but part of the hull roofline. Fitted with windshields salvaged from captured Volkswagen Schwimmwagens.

    BA-64ZhD: Railroad patrol vehicles with their wheels either replaced by flanged rail wheels or supplemented by miniature auxiliary rail wheels. Two prototypes were built. A very similar vehicle was created independently by the Red Army through field modifications, incorporating the flanged wheels and used for escorting armoured trains.

    BA-64 PTRS: Anti-tank variant of the BA-64 armed with a frame mount for a PTRS-41 anti-tank rifle in place of its turret.

    BA-64Sh: Command variant of the BA-64 with a raised superstructure and increased hull roofline. It was rejected for service because it could not accommodate the radio equipment necessary for a command vehicle.

    BA-64Z: Half-track variant of the BA-64 with skis in the front and a rear track assembly for navigating deep snow. Rejected for service due to its high fuel consumption and slow speed. Also known as the BA-64SKh.

    BA-64B SG-43: Variant of the BA-64B which replaced the Degtyaryov light machine gun with an SG-43 Goryunov medium machine gun in the same turret.

    BA-64E: Turretless armoured personnel carrier variant of the BA-64, capable of accommodating six passengers who debarked through a rear door. Nine prototypes were built in 1943 and later pressed into combat service.

        BA-64KA: Turretless armoured personnel carrier variant of the BA-64, derived from the BA-64E. This was designed as a lightweight transporter for paratroops and featured a raised hull very similar to the BA-64Sh.

        BA-64E-37: Anti-tank and fire support variant of the BA-64E. It carried a 37mm anti-tank gun and was designed as a complement for the BA-64KA in the airborne role. Only one prototype was built.

        BASh-64B: Command variant of the BA-64E, which resolved the previous issues with the BA-64Sh by having sufficient room in the hull for the installation of a radio transmitter.

    BA-69: BA-64 built on the chassis of a GAZ-69 jeep. Only one mock-up was created before the project was cancelled.

Blind Man’s Buff, 19 August I916 – Jutland Redux I

The Germans did their own stock-taking after Jutland. Although the High Seas Fleet could feel that it had performed very creditably indeed, there was even less desire than there was before 31 May for a stand-up fight with the Grand Fleet. Scheer was prepared to carry on with his defensive fleet strategy, incorporating into his plans the lessons of Jutland. He detached from the main fleet the old, slow 2nd Squadron (the pre-dreadnought ‘Deutschlands’), which had been a hindrance at Jutland. There being only two battle cruisers available in the 1st Scouting Group, the Moltke and Von der Tann (the Derffiinger and Seydlitz were still under repair), he attached three of the dreadnoughts to it, including the newly commissioned Bayern. The most important lesson of Jutland to Scheer was the need for extensive and efficient reconnaissance, if he were to achieve his ideal of defeating the British Fleet in detail, meaning, above all, the Battle Cruiser Fleet.

If at some future date we should still encounter the enemy fast forces separated from their main fleet, we must make every endeavour to drive them into an unexpected clash with our own main fleet. . .. The first essential for this tactic is to be as secure as possible against surprise from the unexpected approach of superior enemy forces. The reconnaissance necessary to ensure this can no longer be undertaken by our surface forces, once our battle cruisers are in contact with the fast-advanced forces of the British. This must therefore be the task of the airships. For this reason, provision in principle is to be made for reconnaissance by airships for more distant operations. And this all the more so in the future, since we must expect that the British will now operate their main fleet in closer contact with the fast force, and will therefore intervene much sooner than on 31st May.

In other words, the High Seas Fleet must not again suddenly find itself up against the full might of the Grand Fleet!

Scheer’s plan for an operation on 19 August was, essentially, the original Jutland plan. It called for the 1st Scouting Group to bombard Sunderland, with the battle fleet operating in close support. Scheer’s operations order stated his intentions: ‘The enemy is to be brought to action under conditions favourable to ourselves. To this end the entire High Seas Fleet (without II Squadron) is to advance behind extensive airship reconnaissance in the direction of Sunderland, and in the event the enemy is not encountered earlier, or does not depart from his main bases early enough to cut off our retreat with superior forces, Sunderland is to be heavily bombarded, in order to force him to come out and in order to parade before the eyes of England and the world the unbroken might of the German Fleet.’ That is, the sortie was partly intended to restore the morale of the Fleet after its recent shattering experience. To protect himself from a surprise appearance of the British battle fleet, Scheer would have his front and flanks guarded by airships and submarines. The High Seas Fleet U-boats were disposed in two lines, of five submarines each, close to the English coast—one line off Blyth, the other off Flam-borough Head. In addition, nine boats of the Flanders Flotilla were disposed in two lines in the Hoofden (the southern part of the North Sea), west-north-west of Terschelling. Finally, there was to be a line off the Dogger Bank to cover Scheer’s withdrawal, although it was not ordered to be in place until the morning of the 20th. In all, 24 submarines were to participate in the operation. Whether the battle fleet pushed on, or had to retire if the Grand Fleet threatened to cut it off, Scheer hoped that the submarines on either side of his line of advance would have opportunities not only for reconnaissance, but for attack on the British forces which would certainly be drawn towards the German fleet when they heard of the bombardment. There was also the ever-present hope that he might catch a part of the British main fleet. Scheer and the German Naval Staff were still obsessed with the notion that a U-boat concentration off British naval bases would provide a good chance of reducing the British preponderance in capital ships. For long-distance reconnaissance Scheer would depend on Zeppelins, four of which were to operate on a line between Scotland and Norway, with four others to be spread between the latitude of the Firth of Forth and the North Hinder lightship. That is, one airship detachment was to operate to the north and the other was to be spread ahead of him to cover his line of advance while he was moving across the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet (18 dreadnoughts, 2 battle cruisers, and light forces) sailed at 9 p.m. on 18 August, steaming boldly towards the East Coast, the battle fleet preceded by the 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups, which were 20 miles ahead. The last thing Scheer had reckoned on was a swift response to his movements. But, sighs the German Official History, the Grand Fleet was at sea ‘unpleasantly soon as usual’. Through a German signal intercepted at 9.19 a.m. on the 18th, Room 40 had quickly divined that the High Seas Fleet, less the 2nd Squadron, would leave harbour at 9 p.m. that night. No objective was indicated. The British machine reacted promptly. At 10.56 a.m. the Admiralty ordered the C.-in-C. (Burney, pro tem.) to put to sea and concentrate in the Long Forties, east of Aberdeen. The main fleet was away from Scapa by 4 p.m. and on its way south—a few hours before the High Seas Fleet was at sea! The Battle Cruiser Fleet left the Forth at 6.20 p.m.4 The combined Grand Fleet included twenty-nine dreadnoughts (1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th B.S.) and six battle cruisers (1st, 2nd B.C.S,). The seaplane carrier Engadine was with the battle cruisers, but, as at Jutland, the Campania did not go out, her machinery being under repair. All that the former accomplished in the way of air work was an unsuccessful attempt in the high sea to get a seaplane up (2 p.m., 19th) to attack a Zeppelin. Campania’s kite balloon, which had been transferred to the battleship Hercules, was too far back to be useful for reconnaissance. Beatty afterwards recommended that ‘the balloon should be flown from a ship in the advanced cruiser screen in order to increase the range of vision ahead of the Fleet. Had the kite balloon been well forward during operations, I am of opinion that the enemy might possibly have been sighted.’

Jellicoe had been in the south of Scotland since 7 August, taking a sorely needed rest. He was ‘quite played out’, owing to ‘the incessant strain’, as he informed the First Sea Lord (31 July). At about 9 p.m. on the 18th he was able to board the Iron Duke (it had proceeded independently from Scapa) at sea from the light cruiser Royalist, which had been lying off Dundee for just such an emergency. Burney, who was in command until then, had ordered the fleet to rendezvous at 5 a.m. on the 19th about 100 miles east of the River Tay. The entire force would then turn southward and enter ‘L’ swept channel, which ran south-eastward from the approaches to the Forth towards the southern shore of Heligoland Bight, passing the Tyne about 60 miles to seaward. (This, and another 20-mile-wide swept channel, ‘M’, lay between the German Dogger Bank and Humber minefields.)

At 11.37 a.m. on the 18th the Admiralty ordered the Harwich Force (5 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and a flotilla leader) to assemble by early dawn on the 19th off Brown Ridge, in the Hoofden, about 50 miles east of Yarmouth. It sailed at 10.30 p.m. In addition, twenty-five submarines were involved in the dispositions: three were patrolling off Terschelling, watching the southern exits of the Bight, and two more were ordered to the Heligoland area at midday on the 18th; five were in the Hoofden; eight were off Yarmouth and six off the Tyne for coast defence; and one was on patrol off Shouwen Bank, near the Dutch coast. E-23, northernmost of the three boats off Terschelling, was the only one that got within range of the High Seas Fleet. The British submarines were for the first time equipped with long-range wireless. (This was a by-product of the Admiralty conference of 25 June, at which the C.-in-C. had stressed the great disadvantage under which the British Fleet laboured owing to the inefficiency of the wireless arrangements in the submarines. He had pointed out that, whereas the German submarines were able to communicate at a distance of 400 miles, the range of the wireless of the British boats scarcely exceeded 60 miles.)

At 5 a.m., 19 August, the battle fleet passed through its rendezvous. With the lessons of Jutland fresh in mind, the battle cruisers were in station only 30 miles ahead, in touch with the battle fleet through linking cruisers, so that Jellicoe and Beatty could exchange messages by visual signals. The 5th Battle Squadron was under the C.-in-C.’s direct control. Eight miles ahead of the battle cruisers were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Light Cruiser Squadrons. The whole fleet was, by 5.40, moving south at 18 knots. At 5.57 a.m. the Nottingham (2nd L.C.S.), while zigzagging at 20 knots off Holy Island, was shaken by two violent explosions, the result of two simultaneous torpedo hits. They had been fired by U-52, one of the boats of the northern submarine line. A half-hour later the U-boat registered a third hit on the Nottingham. She sank at 7.10. There being no trace of the periscope or tracks of a U-boat, the first signal from the Senior Officer, 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron (Goodenough), to Beatty, which the latter passed on to the C.-in-C., suggested that she had been ‘struck by mine or has been hit by a torpedo’. The C.-in-C. did not receive this information until about 6.50. Ten minutes later he took in an important Admiralty signal of 6.15 which placed the German fleet at 5.25 a.m. about 200 miles to the south-eastward of him, or some 170 miles eastward of the Humber. No course was given. On the basis of these two pieces of information, the first in particular, Jellicoe decided to turn 16 points (i.e., to northward) ‘till situation re Nottingham is clear’, that is, whether she had been mined or torpedoed. The battle fleet altered course at 7.03, and Beatty followed at 7.30.

What Jellicoe feared was steering the Grand Fleet into a minefield trap, ‘and, until it was clear that a mine-field did not exist, it was prudent for the Fleet to avoid this locality . . .’ His defenders say that it would have been ‘foolhardy’ (Altham) or ‘lunacy’ (Dreyer) to have led the fleet into a minefield. Churchill has contended that, even on the assumption that a mine had sunk the Nottingham, ‘a comparatively slight alteration of course would have carried the Grand Fleet many miles clear of the area of the suspected minefields, and the possibility of getting between the German Fleet and home presented itself.’ Perhaps the C.-in-C. felt, on the basis of the Admiralty message, that he had plenty of time in hand and should await more information before committing the fleet to a course of action. Anyhow, it is a fact that four hours were lost, since it was not until after 9 a.m. (Beatty, at 9.30) that the C.-in-C. resumed his advance to the southward. We should not exaggerate the consequences of Jellicoe’s movement to the northward, for, as Newbolt says,

Had it never been made, that is, had Admiral Jellicoe pressed on to the southward, his advanced forces might have come in contact with Hipper’s squadron between twelve and one ; but only on the supposition that the British advance was not held up by the submarines of U-boat line No. 1 [the Blyth line], and that Admiral Scheer held on for Sunderland, in ignorance of the tremendous force which was steadily approaching his communications with [i.e., his line of retreat to] Germany. But it is in the last degree improbable that the German Commander-in-Chief would have known nothing of our Grand Fleet until it was close upon him. . . . It is certain that never, if he could possibly have avoided it, would he have joined battle with the Grand Fleet to the eastward of him, and with the prospect of an eight-hours’ daylight battle before night could bring him a chance of breaking away.

As matters developed, when Jellicoe again turned towards the enemy, he still had time to bring them to action, despite the lost hours.

At 9.08 a.m., having definitely learned that the Nottingham had been sunk by torpedoes, the C.-in-C. turned south again, shaping course S.S.E., steering for a position about 25 miles to the eastward of where the Nottingham had been torpedoed. His original intention had been to proceed down ‘L’ Channel, but in view of the possible presence of U-boats there (submarines had been found in the upper part of the channel, and he suspected that they would also be found in the lower part), he elected to cross the centre of this channel and then move to the eastward down the safer ‘M’ Channel. Clearly, this was a course which gave the Grand Fleet less chance of interposing itself between the High Seas Fleet and its base. Had he adhered to his original plan, he would have been about 20 miles farther to the eastward and might have made contact with the enemy late in the afternoon, perhaps too late for anything more than an indecisive action. The explanation for the change in plan lies in Jellicoe’s suspicion of a trap— that Scheer was using his battle fleet as a bait to draw the Grand Fleet south into his submarines and/or newly-laid mines. At 10.21 the Iron Duke received E-23’s report of 9.16 on the torpedoing of the Westfalen (see below). Although the message was mutilated in transmission and did not fit in with the information of the enemy’s position in two signals received from the Admiralty at 7 and 8 a.m., it did confirm the C.-in-C. in his belief that the High Seas Fleet was making for the English coast.

With the information available after the war, which could not of course have been known to Jellicoe on 19 August, it is possible that a course down ‘L’ Channel would have carried the fleet away from the sphere of the U-boats. At 12.34 Jellicoe altered course for ‘M’ Channel, steering south towards the centre of the channel. An important Admiralty signal of 1.15 p.m., received in the Iron Duke at 1.27 but not seen by Jellicoe until about 2 o’clock, placed the German flagship (from directionals) at 12.33 p.m. in Lat. 54° 32′ N., Long. 1° 42′ E. This was at the time when, as we shall see in a moment, Scheer was about to turn. This was not known to the Admiralty or the C.-in-C. The message indicated that there were about 60 miles between Beatty and the High Seas Fleet at the time of observation, or no more than 40 miles at 2 p.m., if the Germans had stood on. The two fleets were apparently converging at right angles on each other, with early contact inevitable. At once Jellicoe increased speed from 17 to 19 knots and turned the fleet directly towards the (presumably) oncoming enemy. At 2 p.m. the Iron Duke made the flag signal: ‘Raise steam for full speed. . .. Assume immediate readiness for action in every respect.’ And towards 2.15: ‘Prepare for immediate action. High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment.’ At 2.15 there followed the Nelson-like signal: ‘High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment. I look with entire confidence on the result.’ The weather was clear. There was ample daylight. The odds greatly favoured the Grand Fleet— and this time Beatty was within visual touch of the battle fleet. Everything was ready. But unknown to Jellicoe, fate had yet again intervened to dash the great expectations of the Grand Fleet.

We must turn to Scheer’s movements. He had steamed across the North Sea without incident until 5.05 a.m., when E-23 (Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner), patrolling in the Bight 60 miles north of Terschelling, torpedoed the battleship Westfalen, last ship in the German line, at 1,200 yards. At 6.30 Scheer sent the struggling, though not seriously damaged, ship back to harbour under destroyer escort. (It was the Westfalen’s wireless signal reporting the hit and the damage, in violation of Scheer’s orders, that had given Jellicoe important information, via the Admiralty message received at 8 a.m., on the position of the High Seas Fleet.) As the morning wore on, Scheer found himself mystified by the reports he was receiving from his reconnaissance forces. The Zeppelin L-13, in the Hoofden, at 6.30 reported two enemy destroyer flotillas, and behind them two cruiser squadrons (really one), about 120 miles to the southward steering south-west. It was the Harwich Force. (Tyrwhitt had reached the rendezvous off Brown Ridge by 4.02 a.m. and continued to cruise in the vicinity. At 10 a.m., on the basis of E-23’s signal, which had been made at 9.16 to all ships, he turned north to get in touch with the enemy.) At 7 o’clock and at 8.10, U-53, on the eastern end of the northern submarine line, made reports, the first of battle cruisers, the second of battleships, all steering north. At 9.50 the Zeppelin L-31 sent in the inaccurate report that at 9.50 (a mistake for 8.50) the main British fleet was steering north-east. Scheer later reported that this intelligence failed to give him ‘a unified picture of the enemy’s counter-measures’, as all the enemy forces appeared to be moving away from him, instead of converging on his line of advance! Unruffled, and probably concluding that the Harwich Force was merely patrolling, while a concentration of the main British forces was taking place well to the northward, he stood on for Sunderland. At noon he was 82 miles east of Whitby.

Then came the crucial moment. At 12.03 Scheer received a report from L-13 (whose pilot, incidentally, was a reserve officer not well trained in reconnaissance work), which had been shadowing the Harwich Force, that ‘a strong enemy force of about 30 units’, including five heavy ships, 60 miles east of Cromer, was coming up from the southward at 11.30 a.m. (This was about 60 miles south of Scheer’s position at 11.30.) A second report from L-13, received at 12.22, reported this enemy force as consisting of ‘about 16 destroyers, small and large cruisers, and battleships’. (A third report, received at 12.50, located this force at 12.30, 75 miles E.N.E. of Cromer on a N.E. course. This report assured Scheer that he had made the correct decision.) A thunderstorm caused L-13 to lose contact with the British force at 1.30. But for these airship reports, especially the second, Scheer might well have pressed on towards Sunderland—another hour and Jellicoe would have been between him and his base. Instead, believing he had part of the British battle fleet within reach, he abandoned his original plan of bombarding Sunderland. At 12.15 he ordered the fleet to turn around. The battle fleet had to mark time while the 1st Scouting Group got into position ahead on the new course, and then, at one o’clock, the whole fleet shaped course to the south-eastward to engage the reported force—away from the Grand Fleet, coming down from the north. Scheer’s dream since becoming C.-in-C., of destroying a detached, weaker force, seemed on the point of realization! Alas for his hopes, L-13’s reports were mistaken ones, and Scheer was chasing a phantom battleship squadron—actually, the Harwich Force, which, of course, had no battleships with it. Moreover, not having sighted the German fleet, it had turned south at 12.45 to return to its station in the Hoofden, and was, unknowingly, steaming away from the High Seas Fleet.

At 2.35 Scheer abandoned the chase and turned to E.S.E. He gives these as the reasons. ‘The bulk of the fleet continued to advance until stopped by the minefields in the south. [He was within 25 miles of the Humber field.] . . . There was no further prospect of coming up with the enemy in the south, and it had grown too late to bombard Sunderland.’ The dominating factor in his decision must have been U-53’s report at 1.15 (received by him at 2.13) that the British main fleet was approaching, steering south, in a position some 65 miles to the north of the High Seas Fleet. This, the first precise report of the British battle fleet, must have shocked the German C.-in-C.

The German Official History rather severely criticizes L-13 for her blunder, and Scheer claims that ‘there was a possibility that we might have joined battle with the enemy fleet at 4 p.m. [2 p.m., G.M.T.], if the report of “L 13” had not induced me to turn south with a view to attacking the ships sighted in that direction.’ The Chief of the Operations Section on Scheer’s staff remarked after the war that if the C.-in-C. had only continued on towards Sunderland for another hour, instead of turning against the reported force, they would have scored ‘a substantial success. The fate of the war turned on this battle, which was the last chance to end the war by a naval success.’ To the disinterested historian

[and wargamer]

it seems that L-13’s error was in reality a blessing in disguise for the High Seas Fleet, which might otherwise have run into the vastly superior Grand Fleet—and probable disaster.

The Grand Fleet was meanwhile pressing on in an expectant mood. At about 2.30 Jellicoe received an Admiralty message of 1.36 that the High Seas Fleet was turning to starboard at 12.30. By 3 o’clock he knew that the prospect of a meeting was virtually dead. He now advanced into the centre of ‘M’ Channel. At 3.46 he learned from an Admiralty signal of 3.22 that Scheer was well on his way home. At 3.53 Jellicoe ordered the fleet to turn north, and so began the retirement.

The return passage, up ‘M’ Channel, was something of a nightmare until darkness set in, as U-boats of the Flamborough Head line, and then the Blyth line, repeatedly attacked. ‘The signal “submarine in sight” was flying almost continuously at the yard-arm of one or the other of the British ships.’ There was only one hit. The light cruiser Falmouth, on the battle cruisers’ screen, was zigzagging at 23 knots when struck by two torpedoes fired by U-66 at 4.52. She was hit twice more by U-63 at about noon, 20 August, as she was proceeding towards the Humber in tow, and finally sank the next morning when only miles from Flamborough Head.

After several abortive sweeps from its station on Brown Ridge, the Harwich Force finally made contact with the High Seas Fleet at about 6 p.m. and reported it. The fleet at that time was distant at least 20 miles, as only the control tops of a few heavy ships could be seen above the horizon, but its presence was confirmed by a heavy cloud of smoke and the Zeppelins overhead. Tyrwhitt at once started to close the enemy, but at 6.32 p.m. received a signal from the C.-in-C. saying he was too far off to support him. In fact, he had actually abandoned the pursuit and was making for home. That signal gave full discretion to attack or withdraw, but Tyrwhitt did not hesitate to take the risk of attacking a powerful and strongly escorted fleet in its own waters, without any hope of support and at least 150 miles from his base. His only chance of a successful attack was to get well ahead of the enemy and to come down to the attack at high speed, and, accordingly, with this object, he increased to full speed. Unfortunately, after an hour’s steaming it became clear that he could not reach the desired position before the moon rose, which would have made any attempt disastrous; and he therefore withdrew, reporting to the C.-in-C. at 7.32 p.m., ‘Have abandoned pursuit. Night attack conditions unfavourable.’

Commander Frost (U.S.N.) is highly critical of Tyrwhitt’s decision. ‘To be in plain sight of 20 capital ships at dark is a wonderful opportunity for any destroyer commander. Any situation, except possibly a full moon, would be favorable for a night attack. . .. That the British deliberately refused the opportunity for a night attack and that Scheer was perfectly willing to risk it disproved the claim that the British had gained a moral ascendancy over the Germans as a result of Jutland.’ The German Official History is just as unflattering. ‘The reasons which caused him and Admiral Jellicoe not to attack the heavy German forces. . . and to leave them entirely unmolested stand in basic opposition to the German conception of the use and independent attack of torpedo-boat forces.’ We cannot leave the incident there. Tyrwhitt, who was anything but a faint-hearted commander, had a good reason for not closing, one with more validity than Frost admits: he expected that the moon would make an attack both useless and too hazardous. His Navigation Officer writes,

I am sure that the risk of being able to attack only after the moon had risen made us feel quite happy about having to abandon the pursuit. The moon did not rise till about midnight, but the H.S.F. was probably retiring at high speed, and we could only have caught them up and got ahead for the attack after the moon had risen, which with our small force would have been suicidal and useless against a powerful and well-protected fleet which had not been brought to action. When the moon did rise, when on our way back, this was confirmed without a doubt, as it was as bright as day.

There never was, nor could there be, the slightest official criticism of Tyrwhitt’s action on this occasion.