In the course of the fourteenth century the main forum of crusading warfare in the eastern Mediterranean became Constantinople and the Balkans, a shift prompted by the remorseless rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a nomadic tribe from northwestern Asia Minor who had emerged under the leadership of Osman, a frontier warlord, at the very start of the fourteenth century. Their origins are somewhat hazy but early on the presence of large numbers of ghazis (volunteers dedicated to the holy war who fought in the expectation of booty and who were treated as martyrs on their death) and Sufi mystics gave them a strong religious drive. A series of victories against Muslim and Byzantine Christian opponents convinced them that God was on their side. By the middle of the century they had established a strong territorial base in northwestern Anatolia and begun to push through the Dardanelles and into southeastern Europe. In 1389 the Ottomans destroyed a Serbian army at Kosovo, another battle that has remained strong in modern regional consciousness. The immensity of the Turkish threat began to concentrate minds in Catholic Europe in a way not seen for decades. Coupled with a rare window of peace in the Hundred Years War, and inflamed by the crusading enthusiasm of John of Nevers, son of the duke of Burgundy, and Marshal Boucicaut, this generated a substantial army ready to turn back the Ottoman menace. Boucicaut’s biographer evoked the spirit in which the French nobility joined the crusade: “he [John of Nevers] was then in the full flower of youth, and wanted to follow the path sought by the virtuous, that is to say, the honour of knighthood. He considered that he could not use his time better than in dedicating his youth to God’s service, by bodily labour for the spreading of the faith . . . several young lords wanted to go along, to escape boredom and employ their time and energies on deeds of knighthood. For it really seemed to them that they could not go on a more honourable expedition or one more pleasing to God.” The results of the expedition were, however, catastrophic.

In July 1396 the French linked up with King Sigismund of Hungary at Buda and a combined army of perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand men began to march down the Danube intent upon the recovery of Nicopolis, a strong defensive site in Bulgaria. After this the crusade planned to move on to Constantinople and relieve the city from a siege led by Sultan Bayezid I (1389–1402), known as Yilderim, or Thunderbolt. Early successes lulled the Christians into a sense of complacency and as they blockaded Nicopolis their camp became a scene of indiscipline and licentiousness; Bayezid, meanwhile, had gathered his troops and was approaching fast. On September 25 the two sides met in battle. The French impetuously hurled themselves against Bayezid’s infantry and light cavalry who were carefully positioned at the top of a hill. Stakes in the ground tore the crusaders’ horses to pieces, but although they fought on foot, so great was their momentum that they succeeded in cutting their way up past the Turkish infantry to face the light cavalry. At this point they discovered Bayezid’s trap: waiting on the other side of the hill, fresh and rested, were his heavy cavalry. The Ottomans charged and the crusaders, from being convinced of their success, collapsed: “the lion in them turned into a timid hare,” commented one contemporary. Thousands of men were killed or taken prisoner, an earlier massacre of Turks was avenged by the summary execution of countless Christians, and Count John and Marshal Boucicaut were imprisoned. The debacle of Nicopolis was a massive blow to crusading morale in western Europe and it gave the Turks free access to continue their conquest of the Balkans. In 1402 their momentum was briefly stalled by defeat at the hands the Turcoman ruler Timur (also known as Tamerlane) at the Battle of Ankara, and a period of dynastic infighting checked their progress further, but within a couple of decades they were looking to expand again.

The Turks’ prime target was clearly Constantinople, in part because of its immense wealth and importance to Christianity, in part because it lay directly between Ottoman lands in Anatolia and their possessions in the Balkans. The Greeks had regained the city from the Latins in 1261, but only a pale shadow of past glories survived; that said, it did survive blockades and sieges from 1394 to 1402 and in 1442. So great was the Ottoman menace that Emperor John VIII was persuaded to grasp the nettle of Church unity and in 1439 he led a delegation to Florence where, after centuries of division, the union of the Catholic and Orthodox—with the former as the senior partner—was finally proclaimed. This provoked outrage among some of the Greeks: “We have betrayed our faith. We have exchanged piety for impiety.” John, however, received the reward he was after with a new crusade in 1444. This saw another heavy defeat for the Christians at the town of Varna on the west coast of the Black Sea (in modern-day Bulgaria) when Ottoman troops, fighting under the banner of jihad, entirely crushed their opponents.

In 1451, Mehmet II, known to posterity as Mehmet the Conqueror, became sultan at the age of seventeen (he had held the title briefly between 1444 and 1446). Two years later this remarkable character struck Christendom an enormous blow with the capture of Constantinople. He was a brave, secretive, and utterly ruthless man; he was also a scholar and a superb strategist. He is described as having a hooked nose and fleshy lips, or “a parrot’s beak resting on cherries” as a poet so colorfully expressed it. Two actions early on in his sultanate—one a combination of the private and the political, the other strategic—give a sense of the man. First, as soon as he became ruler, he ordered his infant half-brother to be drowned in his bath (the perpetrator was then executed for murder); thus he enshrined fratricide as a means of preventing civil war. Secondly, he commissioned the construction of the castle of Bogaz Kesa, the Throat-Cutter, a few miles east along the Bosporus. This fine fortress (known today as Rumeli Hisari) has four large and thirteen smaller towers and was completed in a matter of months, testimony to the superbly efficient Ottoman war machine. As the name of the castle suggests, it was designed to block the passage of Christian shipping along the Bosporus and thereby to close the net around Constantinople.

Within the city, Emperor Constantine IX (1449–53) viewed these developments with understandable trepidation. He appealed to the West for help, but other than some support from the Venetians, who still retained an interest in Constantinople long after their part in the 1204 conquest, no major forces arrived. The Genoese held a colony at Galata, just across the Golden Horn, and while they professed neutrality, their men and shipping also came to play a vital role in the defense of the city. Even with such limited outside assistance the sheer strength of Constantinople’s fortifications made it a formidable site. The emperor commanded ditches to be cleared while the dilapidated outer walls were restored and covered with huge bales of cotton and wool to try to cushion them from cannon fire. He also ordered the fabrication of a huge boom, made from massive sections of wood and iron links, to span the Golden Horn and protect the more vulnerable walls on the inlet—the area where the Fourth Crusade had broken into the city. Contemporaries indicate the defenders’ great faith in this construction and their confidence that, in conjunction with the mighty city walls, it would enable them to endure once more.

It is interesting to compare the two great sieges of 1204 and 1453. Aside from the obvious contrast of the latter episode being Muslim against Christian, rather than Catholics versus Orthodox, the size of the opposing forces was strikingly different. In 1204 the crusaders were massively outnumbered by the Byzantines; in 1453, however, the Christian troops in Constantinople totaled perhaps ten thousand. Notwithstanding the defensive efforts of the citizenry—and even monks were pressed into service—in military terms, at over eighty thousand men (plus tens of thousands of laborers) the Ottoman army was a vastly bigger fighting force, mighty enough for a Venetian eyewitness to describe the defenders as “an ant in the mouth of a bear.” The 1453 siege was also more multifaceted with a significant part of the fighting taking place on water. During the earlier campaign the besieging Venetians had enjoyed almost a free hand at sea, but in 1453 an Ottoman fleet of up to four hundred ships frequently tussled with a small but powerful Genoese and Cretan force based around the defensive boom. Finally, technology had moved on: by 1453 the emergence of gunpowder (during the late thirteenth century) meant that cannon came to play a hugely prominent role in the later campaign.

The siege began on April 6. Mehmet’s engineers had constructed a massive palisaded rampart that ran from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn while a similar structure overlooked the city from the Galata side. With siege guns and catapults the Turks soon began to bombard the “queen of cities.” Teams of workmen had strengthened roads and bridges to allow the transportation of several colossal cannon—one required sixty oxen to pull it—from their base at Edirne, 250 miles to the northwest. Most of the firepower concentrated on the gates of Saint Romanus (now known as the Topkapi Gate) and Charisus, both toward the middle of the land walls. The Turks’ largest gun burst, but one of the others remained a monstrous piece of weaponry, capable of firing a shot of almost 550 kilograms. Mehmet had over fourteen batteries of cannon, most of which could launch balls of between 100 and 200 kilograms. Day after day these machines generated a lethal hail of stone that crashed and smashed against the walls of Constantinople, splintering its defenses and demoralizing the defenders. Mehmet was canny enough to continually reposition his cannon to best advantage, and at times he triangulated three guns on a single point to maximize their effect. The Byzantines had artillery of their own but these were far smaller devices and used mainly against troops and siege engines; lack of powder and shot were further restrictions on the Christians’ firepower: by contrast, Mehmet’s biggest cannon consumed 1,100 pounds of gunpowder a day! A contemporary noted: “He devised machines of all sorts . . . especially of the newest kind, a strange sort, unbelievable when told of but, as experience demonstrated, able to accomplish everything.”

Nicolò Barbaro, a Venetian eyewitness, described the debilitating effect of living in continuous anticipation of a major assault. Such tensions were increased by a series of night attacks, usually heralded by the harsh cracking and snapping of castanets, but all were successfully resisted. On April 20, however, the Christians scored an unexpected victory. The appearance of three large Genoese vessels bearing papally sponsored troops and supplies prompted a sea battle. Mehmet’s admiral engaged the galleys but the greater size of the Genoese boats gave them a crucial advantage over the oared Turkish ships and the Christians used their superior height to pour down arrows and small-arms fire onto their enemy. As Mehmet watched from the shore he grew increasingly enraged at the lack of progress and, famously, he mounted his horse and plunged into the sea to bellow inaudible advice to his admiral. Once the wind turned, the Christian vessels were able to reach the safety of the boom and this duly opened to bring them sanctuary. The defeat was a massive blow to Ottoman pride and caused consternation in the Muslim camp. Mehmet was beside himself with rage and summoned the admiral to answer for this failure—the sultan was said to have wanted to execute the man, but his colleagues persuaded their ruler that the loss of rank and a flogging would suffice.

The Christians’ continued trust in the boom seemed well placed, but Mehmet was not to be resisted. Because he could not break the barrier the sultan devised a quite brilliant way to—literally—get around it. As we saw with Reynald of Châtillon’s transportation of kit-form ships from Kerak down to the Red Sea in 1182, it was possible to move vessels overland. Others had followed his example; more recently the Venetians had shifted galleys from the River Adige to Lake Garda. Mehmet accomplished something similar, although on a jaw-dropping scale. His engineers constructed a shallow trench that ran from the shore of the Bosporus, up over the steep hill (through the modern Taksim Square) and then down to the Golden Horn. This carefully crafted ditch was then covered in boards and greased, allowing ships to be laboriously hauled up the slope and then eased downhill behind the boom and into the heart of the Christian harbor. An incredible seventy-two vessels made this journey and once back in the water their sails were rerigged and they could threaten the weakest walls of Constantinople. The creation of a pontoon bridge to link up the troops near Galata with those by the land walls was another sign of technical flair and a hint that a major assault was brewing.

On April 28 the Christians attempted to seize the upper hand with a bid to destroy the main Ottoman fleet. They filled transport ships with sacks of flammable materials—cotton and wool—to set the Turkish boats ablaze, but the flotilla’s commander, “a man eager to win honour in this world,” raced ahead of the escort vessels and drew the full weight of enemy firepower. The Turks scored a direct hit on only their second shot and “quicker than ten paternosters” the ship sank with all hands to ruin the Christian offensive. Soon the Ottomans regained the initiative and in mid-May heavy bombardment of the gates of Saint Romanus and the Caligaria (near the Blachernae Palace in the north) called for the most desperate resistance.

Around this time the Turks started to use yet another stratagem to break into the city—a contingent of specialist Serbian miners began to dig a series of shafts in a bid to get under the walls and to provide an entry point into Constantinople. As usual with Mehmet’s armies the scale of these works was immense—one of the tunnels was over half a mile long—but one night the defenders heard the sound of digging and their own mining expert, a Scotsman named John Grant, located the shaft. He dug out a countermine, set fire to the Turks’ supports, and caused them to collapse and suffocate the attackers.

Throughout the siege, the Turkish artillery continued to pound away at the walls, parts of which were now filled with a patchwork of earth, rubble, and timber barricades. Barbaro noted the demoralizing effect of the mighty cannon: “One was of exceptional size . . . and when it fired the explosion made all the walls of the city shake and all the ground inside, and even the ships in the harbour felt the vibrations of it. Because of the great noise, many women fainted with the shock which the firing of it gave them. No greater cannon than this one was ever seen in the whole pagan world and it was this that broke down such a great deal of the city walls.” A strange fog caused consternation in the Christian camp when what should have been a full moon appeared as a slim, three-day moon, an event seen as a dire omen because a famous prophecy foretold that Constantinople would fall when the planet gave a sign.

Meanwhile Mehmet considered his next move. Some of his inner circle argued in favor of a peaceful solution and they suggested that Constantine could hand over his city in return for control of the Morea. The Byzantine emperor’s response was curt: “God forbid that I should live as an emperor without an empire. As my city falls, I will fall with it.” Rumors of an approaching Venetian fleet and plans for a Hungarian relief force to march to Constantinople probably underlay Constantine’s continued resistance. By the same token, however, fear of this imminent crusade pushed Mehmet into action. Like Saladin before the Battle of Hattin, the sultan’s campaign had built up so much momentum that he needed to bring it all to the boil or else risk losing support of his own people. The danger of running out of supplies—his enormous army had been outside Constantinople for over fifty days and had utterly stripped the countryside of food—was another important consideration.

On May 26 the sultan ordered preparations to be made for the final assault. Huge fires were lit throughout the Turkish camp and the men fasted by day and feasted by night. Mehmet went among his men to raise morale and the imams told stirring stories of the jihad and of Islamic heroes of the past. The prospect of taking Constantinople had a profound spiritual resonance with Muslims because a well-known Hadith promised the capture of the city. The prophecy had powerful eschatological overtones and claimed this would be a definitive Muslim victory, surpassing all others and representing the penultimate defeat of Christianity before the final Armageddon. Here, then, was a chance to fulfill that centuries-old destiny—and with a leader named Mehmet, the Turkish form of Muhammad. Encouraged by these portents, the Ottoman encirclement of Constantinople grew ever tighter. The troops brought up two thousand scaling ladders, they filled in the ditches, and the bombardment intensified further until, in Barbaro’s words, “it was a thing not of this world.” The defenders knew their supreme test was about to come and while Emperor Constantine deployed his troops as best he could, the clergy paraded relics and led prayers and processions around the city.

A couple of hours before daybreak on May 29 a volley of artillery fire announced the start of the attack. The principal focus was the damaged area near the Saint Romanus Gate, although in the course of the day Ottoman forces also engaged the remainder of the land walls and the defenses along the Golden Horn. First to be sent forward were Christian prisoners and subject peoples—the most expendable of all Mehmet’s troops. The defenders’ crossbowmen and light artillery duly slaughtered most of these hapless souls—in any case, had they retreated, then Mehmet’s Janissaries, his crack troops, had orders to kill them. A second, more organized division made a further foray although they too were driven back. All of this drained the defenders’ energy and resources—it also left the Janissaries fresh and rested, waiting for their turn to move. As Mehmet himself watched, these professional warriors advanced with disconcerting slowness toward the Saint Romanus Gate and, unusually for Muslim armies, without musical accompaniment. This sinister new assault was fiercer than ever—they were “not like Turks, but like lions,” related Barbaro. Still the Christians held them off, but the city resounded with the chaos of battle, the Turks “firing cannon again and again, with so many other guns and arrows without number and shouting from these pagans, that the very air seemed to be split apart.” For all the Christians’ valor they were doomed, “since God had made up his mind that the city should fall into the hands of the Turks.”

The Janissaries at last got a foothold in the Saint Romanus barbican but their determination was colored with good fortune too. Several accounts describe the Genoese commander, John Giustiniani Longo, being wounded, although reports of his reaction vary. Some claim that he sought medical help, although in doing so, he caused the emperor to believe he was deserting his post. Barbaro, admittedly a hostile Venetian, suggested that Longo had retreated, shouting “The Turks have got into the city!,” which made everyone abandon hope. This panic, in turn, gave the Janissaries the chance to make a proper opening in the main walls and from there they poured into the city. In the early morning light the flags of Venice and the emperor were torn down and Ottoman banners began to appear on the skyline of Constantinople. As the Christians lost heart, the Genoese and the Venetians attempted to fight through to their vessels on the Golden Horn and flee. While the Italians rushed out, Ottoman troops poured in from every side and for one day the city was given over to the sack. Across Constantinople, the Turks wrought havoc, killing indiscriminately, whether young or old, male or female, healthy or infirm. Women, girls, and nuns were ravaged and many thousands of Christians were captured to be ransomed or sold as slaves. Barbaro luridly conveys the savagery of the moment: “The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians were thrown into the Dardanelles, where they floated out to sea like melons on a canal.” They tore an inestimable amount of booty from the great religious institutions, as well as from private houses and from merchants. Just as in 1204, the mighty sanctuary of the Hagia Sophia was ripped open and plundered, and Leonard of Chios claimed the Turks “showed no respect for the sacred altars or holy images, but destroyed them, and gouged the eyes from the saints . . . and they stuffed their pouches with gold and silver taken from the holy images and sacred vessels.” Crucifixes were paraded in a mocking procession through the Muslim camp and very soon the Hagia Sophia was turned from a church into a mosque.

The death of Constantine himself is shrouded in mystery. Some writers claimed that as the final onslaught began the emperor begged his courtiers to kill him and when they refused he charged into the fray and died under a hail of scimitars and daggers. Muslim sources indicate that he was close to the walls on the Sea of Marmara, looking to escape by boat, when he was slain by troops unaware of his true identity. Yet once the battle was over Sultan Mehmet did not try to eradicate a Christian presence from his new capital; for a start he realized that the city needed its local population to survive and prosper and soon Muslims, Christians, and Jews mingled freely enough, although the latter two remained subject groups who paid a poll tax according to Islamic law. The sultan even appointed a new Orthodox patriarch, which shows a broad sense of tolerance too.

The loss of Christendom’s greatest city provoked outrage in the West, not least because of the apparent indifference of the major ruling powers. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II) wrote: “For what calamity of the times is not laid at the door of the princes? All troubles are ascribed to the negligence of rulers. ‘They might,’ said the populace, ‘have aided perishing Greece before she was captured. They were indifferent. They are not fit to rule.’”


Within a year of Mehmet’s triumph, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, one of the most powerful men in Europe, made lavish promises to launch a crusade to recover Constantinople and to drive back the infidel. The forum for this was the Feast of the Pheasant (February 1454), an event saturated with chivalric behavior and another superb, if slightly late, example of the intimate connection between noble display and crusading. The year 1453 had also marked the end of the Hundred Years War and this seemed the perfect moment to respond to the catastrophe in the East. Philip’s father had led the forces defeated at Nicopolis in 1396 and although held prisoner for six months he had received a hero’s welcome on his return. Philip summoned the Burgundian nobility to the city of Lille in northern France to attend a sumptuous banquet and to hear his plans. Thirty-five artists were employed to decorate the chamber and, to ensure that the world knew of this splendid occasion, the duke ordered official accounts of the feast to be distributed. The report noted:

There was even a chapel on the table, with a choir in it, a pasty full of flute players. A figure of a girl, quite naked, stood against a pillar . . . she was guarded by a live lion who sat near her. My lord duke was served by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet. . . . Next came an elephant . . . carrying a castle in which sat the Holy Church, who made piteous complaint on behalf of the Christians persecuted by the Turks, and begged for help. Then two knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece brought in two damsels . . . these ladies asked my lord duke to make his vow. It was understood that if the king of France would go on the crusade, the duke would go.

Philip’s vow was made “to God my creator and to the most virgin His mother, and to the ladies, and I swear on the pheasant. . . . If the Grand Turk would be willing to do battle with me in single combat, I shall fight with him with the aid of God and the Virgin mother in order to sustain the Christian faith.” This entrancing combination of revelry and unrestrained excess shows an almost total absorption of crusading into the chivalric ethos. The contrast between the cavorting of naked women and the impassioned preaching of a man such as Bernard of Clairvaux is self-evident, yet the Holy Church was said to be delighted by Philip’s promise—as well it might, given that many of the guests soon followed his example and assumed the cross too.

Two months later Philip repeated his intention at Regensburg where he spoke of his Christian duty and of “the crisis in which Christianity finds itself. If we wish to keep our faith, our liberty, our lives, we must take the field against the Turks and crush their power before it becomes any stronger.” Centuries of crusading hyperbole had preceded this statement, but it was a rare occasion when the gravity of the threat seemed to match the claims being made. Philip pushed ahead with his plans and engaged in serious and extensive preparations that included the manufacture of new pennons and banners, as well as signing up over five hundred gunners: an indication that Mehmet’s use of heavy artillery had been noticed in the West. Mehmet heard about the crusade and riled the duke with use of his spectacular title: “true heir of King Alexander and Hector of Troy, sultan of Babylon,” and he promised to do to Philip’s army the same as his predecessor had done to the duke’s father at Nicopolis. By the summer of 1456, however, the duke’s enthusiasm had begun to wane. His stipulation that the king of France should crusade remained unfulfilled as national rivalries became ever more important in frustrating the chances of holy war.

Mehmet, meanwhile, inspired by his triumph, advanced toward the Balkan town of Belgrade. In spite of his recent successes the determined resistance of Hungarian troops led by John Hunyadi and the seventy-year-old Franciscan friar John of Capistrano held off the Turks for three weeks and then, in a pitched battle, utterly defeated them. This feat of virtuosity, achieved without the crowned heads of western Europe, did much to stem the Ottoman advance for the next fifty years at least. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, the final large-scale crusading campaign of the medieval period was about to take place in Iberia.


Simon Stevin, (c. 1548–1620)

Simon Stevin (1548-1620), the country’s leading mathematician, was an important collaborator in Maurice’s army reforms. He introduced the decimal system, applied rigorous accountancy to the army’s bookkeeping, produced standard designs for camps and fortifications, and, to ensure reliable maps for the army, in 1600 he founded a chair for land-surveying at Leiden University. Stevin was also an avid inventor, though neither a folding spade-pickaxe that he devised for the infantry, nor the `sailing carts’ that Maurice enjoyed riding on flat beaches (his only known leisure pastime), were in fact adopted for the army.

In 1597, Maurice of Nassau advanced in the Lower Rhineland capturing a number of fortresses including Moers, west of Duisburg. His objective was to give the Dutch room for manoeuvre, create a buffer zone of fortified positions, and cut Spanish supply and communication links, particularly along the Rhine and with the north-eastern Low Countries. Dutch siege warfare, directed by Simon Stevin, who was the Quartermaster-General of the army, was both well-organised and successful.

Flemish scientist who, in physics, developed statics and hydrodynamics; he also introduced decimal notation into Western mathematics.

Stevinus was born in Bruges (now in Belgium). Until 1570 he worked as a merchant’s clerk in Antwerp before travelling extensively in Germany, Poland and Norway. He then settled in Holland and took up a teaching position at Leiden University; one of his students was Prince Maurice of Orange-Nassau, stadholder of the United Provinces after 1584. As a mathematician, Stevin helped to standardize the use of decimal fractions, ideas which he published in La Thiende (1585) and La Disme (1585). He made important contributions to the science of fluid mechanics and assisted in the refutation of the Aristotelian notion that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter bodies. After about 1590, Prince Maurice frequently consulted Stevin on matters relating to fortification and castramétation. He is mentioned as quartermaster-general and engineer of the Dutch army in 1592 and additionally held the post of commissioner of the public water works. Stevin planned entrenched camps and drew up instructions for the building of fortifications and the conduct of sieges. More importantly, Stevin designed the series of sluices and inundations which became the basis of Holland’s `Water Line’. His ideas were encapsulated in Sterctenbouwing (1594), in which he advocated a number of mathematical rules for the design of fortifications. This book was the theoretical expression of the `Old Netherlands’ System’ of fortification whose principal exponent was Adriaen Anthonisz. Stevin frequently attended at sieges to advise on the methods of attack.

On 9 January 1600 Maurice and Stevin set up a chair of surveying and fortification at Leyden University. The instruction to the university stipulated that each period of teaching in surveying is to last half an hour, and it is to be followed by a further half hour in which the lecturer will answer questions and elaborate on any points which were not understood in the first session. In their daily engineering business the pupils are to converse in the ordinary local speech, and speak little or no Latin. For that reason the lessons are to be held in Dutch, and not in Latin, French or any other foreign language (Duyck, 1862-6, II, lxxix). Aspirant engineers attended the Leyden school in some numbers until a pedantic professor reintroduced Latin in 1668 and drove them away. Lectures were delivered in Dutch rather than Latin. Stevin inspired many military engineers, especially A. Freitag and M. Dogen; the nineteenth-century Belgian engineer Henri Brialmont was profoundly influenced by Stevin’s work.

Field Engineering

The 80 Years’ War changed the craft of war into a science, and this is perhaps best illustrated by the development of field engineering. The problems facing commanders did not differ much between the beginning and the end of the war: rivers always had to be crossed, cities had to be secured, camps protected and fortifications overcome. Yet the early approach differed vastly from the later resources and techniques.

When William of Orange had to cross the Meuse in 1568, his opponents guarded all known bridges and forts. Eventually William found a suitable ford for his 8,000 cavalry, but the current was too strong for his 18,000 infantry. Instead of looking elsewhere or building a bridge, he improvised: he ordered a few hundred cavalry to wade into the river and form a living dam to break the water’s speed, so the infantry could cross safely in their lee.

Some 25 years later, when Maurice was seeking to impose order and control in his army, engineering offered him a perfect platform. Every engineer had his own ideas on how to lay a siege; to remedy this, in 1604 Maurice asked Simon Stevin, the leading mathematician, to design a `blue print’ for future fortifications and siege works. Stevin had also introduced bookkeeping to the army, allowing budgets to be set. Combining budgets, standardization and known attrition rates meant that the outcome of sieges could be more or less calculated.

Maurice set up a new hierarchy of officials to supervise the progress of all engineering works. The commies van de fortijicatien stood at the bottom of the ladder, and the successive rungs were represented by ingenieurs (who received 300 florins per year) and controlleurs (who got one hundred more).

The whole machine was directed by Simon Stevin of Bruges, who had once been Maurice’s tutor in mathematics and fortification, and was now appointed Quartermaster-General of the army. Stevin originated and directed the attacks in all the sieges at which he was present. Otherwise, as ‘even Master Stevin cannot be everywhere’ (quoted in Ten Raa, 191 I, 11,284), the siege projects were put forward by the engineers on the spot and the most suitable scheme selected by the commanding general.

Stevin’s work was not confined to the field. As well as composing valuable textbooks, he helped Maurice to draw up the engineer regulations of 1599 and 1606, and he worked out the exact and permanent dimensions of the Rhineland foot, a unit of measurement which remained in wide currency in northern European fortification well into the nineteenth century.

Many a stretch of ground, which seemed eminently suitable for siege approaches, could be flooded without warning when the defenders cut a dyke or opened a sluice, as happened to Mondragon’s battery when he was attacking Fort Lillo at Antwerp in 1584. Stevin, defined two categories of sites which were particularly suitable for ‘water manoeuvres’ of this kind. The first embraced towns which stood beside the sea or on rivers which had a large tidal variation (Ostend, Sluis, Ijzendijk, Antwerp, Veere, Zierikzee, Willemstad, Geertruydenberg, Enkhuizen, etc.). The second consisted of places that stood on non-tidal stretches of river, but owned a tributary which flowed through or close by the walls (Doesburg, Zutphen, Deventer, Zwolle).

Armies would try to situate their camp or battlefield position with flanks protected by terrain or wagons. Under Maurice these aspects also became regulated and standardized, and with good reason: on several occasions camps of both sides had been overrun by unexpected attacks. In 1600 Maurice appointed the mathematician Stevin to direct the construction of army camps. After reaching a new location, a regiment would be shown where to start digging and setting up huts according to Stevin’s plans, and drummers had a special signal to summon the men for this task. Even an overnight camp had to have a ditch 3ft (1m) wide and 4ft (1.2m) deep, preferably with a palisade (a clear echo of the ancient Roman marching camp). In the 1630s the army train carried 60,000 pointed stakes for this purpose, each around 4ins (10cm) thick and 6ft (2m) long. Another quick defence were Xs of spears stuck in the ground, called Friese ruiter (`Frisian riders’, chevaux de frise). As a ready-to-use alternative, two-wheeled carts fitted with six spears could march with the army and be swiftly deployed; in 1644, 800 of these carts were sent to assist the French army on its coastal campaign in the Spanish Netherlands. When these standard means were not available local commanders continued to improvise, as on Sao Tome in 1641; there six big anchors were hauled ashore and put in front of the artillery to shield it from enemy fire.

Accounting Debates and Accounting Practices in the Dutch Republic

No transition in the history of accounting has drawn so much attention among historians as the introduction and spread of double-entry bookkeeping (DEB) with separate capital accounts. This, of course, is due to the special place this system of accounting holds in the grand narrative of modernization, ever since Werner Sombart and Max Weber singled out DEB as the hallmark of capitalist rationality. At first glance, the Dutch case bears out the theory. In the highly commercialized context of the Low Countries, instructive texts on the use of DEB aimed at merchants were already circulating in the first half of the sixteenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Simon Stevin held a famous discussion with Stadtholder Maurice on the applicability of `merchant style accounting’ to the princely domains, as well as state accounting more generally. After this, he wrote an innovative treatise on accounting, including a model DEB-based account for Maurice’ domains. This text is considered the most advanced treatise on bookkeeping of its time, and DEB instructions such as this were very popular in the Dutch Republic. No doubt, the spread of knowledge on bookkeeping infused the minds of the Dutch ruling classes and political elites. As Jacob Soll pointed out: `The ars mercatoria was a rich part of everyday urban life and an essential element of state government. The Dutch ruling elite was familiar with the minutiae of finance, industry, and trade.’

For example, in his Nieuwe inventie van rekeninghe van compagnie (New invention of company accounts), Simon Stevin himself recommended DEB accounting explicitly for the aim of facilitating the closing of accounts in order to divide profits and losses over participants in a single, short-term venture.

Simon Stevin and the Aims of State Accounting Stevin’s 1604 tract is a stylized rendering of discussions between himself and Maurice around the turn of the seventeenth century. Positing himself (realistically) as Maurice’ teacher in matters concerning mathematics and bookkeeping, Stevin in a rather schoolmasterly fashion explains the advantages of replacing the traditional system of accounting for the princely domains with Italian-style double-entry bookkeeping. Up to that time, bailiffs of the domains had put income and expenditure in a single column, determining the balance by a simple process of adding and deducting. At the start of the fictitious conversation, Stevin gives the reasons why a merchant would prefer the double-entry system over the system commonly used in state administration:

First, so that he always knows how much money his treasurer has, or ought to have, in his cash register, which is now unknown to the Prince and his treasurer (.). Further, the merchant has a handy certainty of all goods handed over by him to the control of his factors, whereas the Prince in all commodities supplied to him must rely on the information of his officers. Third, the merchant always has a clear view, not only of the remainders on the accounts of his debtors and creditors, but also of the stock of all goods that he should have in his possession, the profits or damages incurred on every category of goods. And he obtains all of this with such short shrift that can be held for impossible if the ordinary method of accounting of the bailiffs would be applied to a large trade.

Stevin did not make clear why these advantages could only be reached by the use of a particular style of DEB. Overall, he concentrated on the greater ease provided by DEB in surveying. This emphasis is consistent with Stevin’s main contribution to DEB: the introduction of periodic balancing. Stevin thus laid much stress on the connections between commercial accounting, orderly management of stocks and the possibility of gaining a separate overview of costs and profits for the discrete elements of business brought on the accounts. As an ideal for managing people and goods, this cut two ways. Not only did proper accounting enable administrators to make far more precise economic judgements. It also increased state control over the administrators themselves, diminishing the possibilities for fraud. According to Stevin, `bookkeeping is a well-known means to force unjust people with violence to behave justly, out of shame and fear of what might follow’.

According to his own rendering, Stevin managed to convince Maurice of the usefulness of his suggestions, and, with the help of `an experienced accountant in trade’, he wrote an annotated model account for the princely domains. In 1604 his system of accounting was put into practice for the first time. In 1608, Stevin published his model account, and later he also prepared a second version, including substantial corrections for printing. His own stated reasons for doing so show his concern for the continuation, spreading and further development of DEB practices:

First, because it can serve as an example for those who might be willing to follow its example. Second, to make sure that its improvement – if any is found and made public – could serve to our common enlightenment. Third, and most importantly, to make sure that when some officers who act as auditor or clerk would come to pass away or leave their posts, there could always be found another person who understands this practice.

Contrary to the supposition in much of the older literature, the `modern’ form of DEB with a separate capital account advocated by Simon Stevin in his Vorstelicke bouckhouding op de Italiaensche Wyse was rarely fully applied in practice. Nevertheless, many of the underlying assumptions of the merits of commercial bookkeeping expressed by him did inform state administrators. They left a strong imprint on the attitudes of Dutch naval administrators.

On Religion

The conventional attitude of the Dutch political leadership at the close of the sixteenth century on Religion was summed up by the Flemish immigrant Simon Stevin in his book Het Burgherlick Leven (1590), where he urged those citizens of the United Provinces who privately did not accept the teachings of the Reformed Church to recognize it as their obligation, and as their own interest, to conform outwardly. This was partly for moral and educational reasons, for if the authority of the public Church is undermined, or seen not to be respected, then children will not be in awe of the Church and will grow up without discipline, morality, and respect. But it was also for political reasons, to curb internal dissension. He argues that the pious individual who rejects the theology of the public Church and insists on the practice of another religion should move to another state where his own religion is that of the State Church. If the individual, for whatever reasons, does not move, then it his clear duty to conform outwardly and not to criticize the established Church.

In statics Stevinus made use of the parallelogram of forces and in dynamics he made a scientific study of pulley systems. In hydrostatics he noted that the pressure exerted by a liquid depends only on its height and is independent of the shape of the vessel containing it. He is supposed to have carried out an experiment (later attributed to Italian physicist Galileo) in which he dropped two unequal weights from a tall building to demonstrate that they fell at the same rate.

Stevinus wrote in the vernacular (a principle he advocated for all scientists). His book on mechanics is De Beghinselen der Weeghcoust (1586).


R. Depau, Simon Stevin (Brussels, 1942); Eduard Jan Dijsterhuis, Simon Stevin: science in the Netherlands around 1600 (The Hague, 1970); The Principal Works of Simon Stevin, ed. W. H. Schukking (Amsterdam, 1964), iv, The Art of War.

Leipzig April 1945

A 3rd Armored Division crewman with a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on an M3 “Stuart” light tank fires on enemy troops in the woods flanking a highway near Leipzig, April 17, 1945. Although the war was nearly over, some Germans stubbornly resisted, preferring death to dishonor.

Seemingly being watched by displeased Germanic statues, a 69th Infantry Division soldier stands amid the rubble inside the Völkerschlachtdenkmal shortly after Leipzig was taken.

Leipzig 1938

As the V Corps vanguard approached the Saale River, its northern shoulder came under fire from German antiaircraft weapons, their crews directed to depress their firing angles to hit the American armored formations. The 9th Armored Division lost nine tanks to the accurate fire before the guns were silenced. Apparently, the Germans had concentrated several rings of antiaircraft weapons in the region—not to defend the cities, but to guard synthetic oil refineries and numerous industrial facilities in the vicinity. Reports indicate that 374 heavy flak weapons were in the area, 104 of them around the city of Leuna and 174 around Leipzig.

Since the spring of 1944, the 14th Flak Division had been headquartered in Leipzig. Grouped in batteries of 12 to 36 guns, they ranged from 75mm to heavy 128mm weapons. Early in the war, the German 88mm antiaircraft gun had proven deadly against ground targets, and the flat terrain surrounding Leipzig offered excellent fields of fire. The area had been known to Allied airmen as “Flak Alley” for some time; however, no one had found it necessary to inform the advancing infantry and armor of the menace that awaited them.

General Huebner concluded that the flak guns were the outer band of the defenses of Leipzig. He ordered the 9th Armored Division to move 13 miles southeast, around the city and to the banks of the Mulde River. The 2nd Infantry Division was to continue directly eastward toward Leipzig, while the 69th was ordered to follow the 9th Armored and then enter the city from the south and southwest.

Cutting Off Leipzig

General Leonard’s tanks ran into stiff resistance at the Saale River near the town of Weissenfels and rerouted to cross the waterway on an intact bridge to the southwest. That same day, April 13, the tanks neared the town of Zeitz and rolled over the Weisse Elster River. Breaking through the deadly ring of flak guns, Combat Command Reserve (CCR) of the 9th Armored raced to the Mulde River, 20 miles southeast of Leipzig, on April 15.

On the 16th, CCR entered Colditz and liberated the 1,800 Allied prisoners of the infamous Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, which held a number of famous and high-ranking officers, some of whom had been transferred there because of repeated attempts to escape. With the capture of Halle in the Harz Mountains two days later, Leipzig was effectively cut off.

Meanwhile, the 271st Infantry Regiment, 69th Division secured Weissenfels during some spirited fighting on April 13-14, killing or capturing many of the 1,500-man garrison and then crossing the Saale in small boats. On the 15th, elements of the 2nd Division captured Merseburg and occupied numerous small towns in the area. As one regiment crossed the Saale after dark on a railroad bridge that was damaged though still standing, other infantry units crept close enough to the German antiaircraft guns to radio coordinates to their own artillery and bring accurate fire on the positions, finally destroying many of the enemy weapons.

The Allied noose around Leipzig, Germany’s fifth largest city with 750,000 inhabitants, was tightening. Leipzig had long been revered for its historical significance and as a center of German culture, higher education, trade, and industry. Martin Luther had led the congregation of the St. Thomas Church there; composer Johann Sebastian Bach played the organ in the same church for more than 25 years and was buried on the grounds. Composer Richard Wagner was born in the city. And in Leipzig the Völkerschlachtdenkmal was built to commemorate a great victory. It was inevitable that the monument would become the scene of Germany’s last stand.

Poncet vs Grolmann: A Fanatic Against a Realist

Colonel Hans von Poncet commanded the relative handful of German defenders in Leipzig, which included troops of the 14th Flak Division, some of whom had lost their antiaircraft weapons and were now serving as infantry, 750 men of the 107th Motorized Infantry Regiment, a motorized battalion of about 250 soldiers, some Hitler Youth, and several battalions of the Volkssturm, mostly old men and boys who had been forced into the Army as a home guard when the fortunes of war turned decidedly against Germany.

One sizable unit that Poncet did not control was the 3,400-strong Leipzig police force. The policemen, paramilitary in their own right, were firmly under the command of Brig. Gen. of Police Wilhelm von Grolmann.

Grolmann decried Poncet’s willingness to employ the Volkssturm and considered it tantamount to murder. He saw nothing to be gained in a futile defense of the city. Hoping to spare Leipzig from destruction, Grolmann was particularly concerned about damage to the city’s electrical and water supplies if the bridges over the Weisse Elster River were destroyed to slow the Americans. Poncet couldn’t have cared less; he was determined to fight and fortified numerous buildings around the city hall and later withdrew into the Battle of the Nations Monument with about 150 men, some of whom were later described by the Americans as SS troops.

While Poncet plotted his own Götterdämmerung, Grolmann was trying his best to surrender the city. Late on the afternoon of April 18, Grolmann miraculously made telephone contact with General Robertson of the 2nd Division and offered to capitulate. As the news was passed up the American chain of command from Huebner to Hodges, Grolmann got Poncet on the telephone and was told curtly, just prior to the click of a hangup, that Poncet had no intention of surrendering.

Charles MacDonald Attempts to Negotiate the Surrender of Leipzig

By this time, Hodges had responded that only the complete, unconditional surrender of Leipzig was acceptable. Then, an already strange series of events became even more bizarre. Despite Poncet’s intransigence, Grolmann sent a junior officer to the closest Americans he could find. In the gathering darkness, the emissary was shuffled into the command post of Company G, 23rd Regiment, 2nd Division and the presence of its commander, Captain Charles B. MacDonald.

At the tender age of 22, MacDonald was a combat veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, the Hürtgen Forest, and the campaign into the Third Reich. In later years, he became an acclaimed author and deputy chief historian for the U.S. Army, writing and supervising the preparation of several volumes in the official series United States Army in World War II, popularly known as the Green Book Series. Among his other works are the quintessential reminiscences of a young officer in combat, Company Commander, and A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. MacDonald authored The Last Offensive, the volume of the official history containing the story of the fall of Leipzig and downplayed his role in it. In Company Commander, however, he remembered a wild night of cat and mouse, cloak and dagger, and outright comedy.

“Now wait a minute,” MacDonald remembered asking the excited soldiers who had brought in the German officer. “Does he know I’m just a captain? Will he surrender to a captain?”

“A captain’s good enough,” another soldier said. “The Oberleutnant [first lieutenant] here came along so you’d believe us. He’ll tell you.”

“He [the other American soldier] spoke to the German officer in German mixed with gestures, mostly gestures, and the Oberleutnant looked at me and smiled widely, shaking his head up and down,” MacDonald recalled, “and saying, ‘Jawohl! Jawohl! Ist gut! Ist gut!’”

An American MP escorts three German prisoners of war, who had changed into civilian clothing in hopes of evading capture, to a temporary stockade near the main Leipzig railroad station. Note the other prisoners lying on the ground.

Only the regimental executive officer was available for any higher direction, and he told MacDonald to give it a try. The young captain went first to see a German major and several other officers, dressed in clean, neatly pressed uniforms, inside the city. When MacDonald was not convinced, the major offered a bottle of cognac. After a drink, MacDonald, another American officer, the German major, and their chauffeur embarked on a wild nocturnal ride in a sleek Mercedes Benz—to see Grolmann.

MacDonald was fearful of being shot by German sentries and by his own men. Finally, he arrived at Grolmann’s headquarters. In contrast to MacDonald, dressed in a filthy uniform and with a scruffy beard, Grolmann was “even more immaculately dressed than the others, a long row of military decorations across his chest. His face was round and red and cleanly shaven. A monocle in his right eye gave him an appearance that made me want to congratulate Hollywood on its movie interpretations of high-ranking Nazis.”

Grolmann offered to surrender but acknowledged that he had no control over Poncet. Still, he pressed MacDonald for a guarantee that the Americans would not attack. Finally, MacDonald, Grolmann, a staff officer, and the general’s civilian interpreter were on their way in Grolmann’s open-top car to the confused American captain’s battalion headquarters. Once they arrived, the situation was out of MacDonald’s hands. As it turned out, the surrender effort was noble but fruitless. There was already some fighting in Leipzig.

The Battle of Leipzig

Forward elements of the 2nd and 69th Divisions entered Leipzig on April 18. The 2nd encountered some resistance along the Weisse Elster River, but the bridges remained intact. A few Volkssturm and Wehrmacht soldiers made a stand behind a roadblock of overturned trolley cars filled with large rocks but were rapidly subdued. Spearheaded by an armored task force of the 777th Tank Battalion under the command of Lieutenant David Zweibel, troops of the 69th advanced into Leipzig from the south at 5:30 pm and ran into determined resistance at Napoleon Platz, where the monument was located.

As Zweibel’s armor neared Napoleon Platz, the tankers were greeted with a hail of small-arms fire and rounds from panzerfaust antitank weapons. One Sherman tank was disabled, and the supporting infantry took a number of casualties. Eager to get out of the line of fire, the tanks picked up speed and rolled at nearly 30 miles per hour down the streets toward the city hall; some infantrymen riding atop the armored vehicles were actually thrown off. Faulty maps caused the attackers to overshoot city hall and placed them in a precarious position, unable to advance or fire on nearby German positions. After dark, the tanks were withdrawn.

The following morning, Zweibel again assaulted the center of Leipzig, firing at city hall and the surrounding buildings from a range of only 150 yards. Just after 9 am, following several frustrating attempts to secure the area, Zweibel sent Leipzig’s fire chief into city hall with a surrender demand. The note read that the Germans must surrender if they wanted to avoid a heavy artillery bombardment followed by an all-out assault with tanks, flamethrowers, and a division of infantry; the attack would begin in 20 minutes. Nearly 200 Germans walked out of city hall with their hands up. Inside, the bodies of Mayor Alfred Frieberg and his wife, City Treasurer Kurt Lisso and his wife and daughter, and several others who had committed suicide were found.

Standoff at the Monument For the Battle of the Nations

However, Leipzig was not completely subdued. The drama at the monument remained to be played out. On the morning of April 19, Poncet was still defiant. His small force occupied a nearly impregnable position. Heavy artillery shells did little damage to the sturdy walls of the monument, and the Germans inside were holding 17 American prisoners. Because there were Americans inside, General Reinhardt decided against using flamethrowers to burn the Germans out.

As the standoff wore on, Captain Hans Trefousse, an interrogator of German prisoners with the 273rd Infantry Regiment, persuaded his commanding officer, Colonel C.M. Adams, to allow Trefousse to attempt to persuade Poncet to surrender. Trefousse had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1921 and emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 13. He graduated from City College of New York with a Phi Beta Kappa key and joined the U.S. Army when war broke out.

At 3 pm on the 19th, Trefousse, a German prisoner, and the executive officer of the 273rd Regiment, Lt. Col. George Knight, approached the monument under a flag of truce. When Poncet and two other German officers met them, Trefousse pointed out the hopelessness of the situation but Poncet responded that he was under a direct order from Hitler not to surrender. He did, however, agree to a two-hour ceasefire to allow at least a dozen American casualties to be removed.

Throughout the ceasefire, the two argued in front of the entrance to the monument’s gift shop. At 5 pm, the heated discussion moved inside. While celebrations among the American troops were in full swing elsewhere in Leipzig, the grim exchange at the monument continued past midnight.

“If you were a Bolshevik,” Poncet sneered, “I wouldn’t talk to you at all. In four years, you and I will meet in Siberia.”

Trefousse retorted, “If that is true, wouldn’t it be a pity to sacrifice all these German soldiers who could help us against the Russians?”

Terms of Surrender

As it seemed the impasse would never be resolved, Trefousse extended one last option. If Poncet surrendered and walked out of the monument alone, his men could follow one at a time. At 2 am on April 20, the diehard Nazi commander strode out of the main entrance. The pockmarked, damaged monument was secured, but not before some confusion ensued as to the disposition of the newly acquired prisoners.

Word reached Trefousse that only Poncet would be allowed out of the monument and that the rest of the Germans would temporarily remain inside under guard. When Trefousse tried to persuade the captives to accept the change in terms, he offered to try to get them 48 hours’ leave in the city in exchange for a pledge not to escape. One German insisted on the original bargain and was allowed to leave the monument.

Trefousse went to Lt. Col. Knight for permission to grant the 48-hour leave. Knight agreed but insisted that the Germans had to be moved without General Reinhardt getting wind of the compromise. As Knight supervised the disarming of the enlisted prisoners, Trefousse guided more than a dozen German officers through the lines to their homes in Leipzig. When it was time for them to return to captivity, only one failed to appear, although he did leave behind a note of apology.

Leipzig Handed to the Soviets

Leipzig was, at long last, completely in American hands. The infantry of the 2nd and 69th Divisions hurried to catch up with the V Corps armor that was already near the banks of the Mulde River. Garrison troops began to file into the city to initiate its military administration.

For most American soldiers, the fighting was over. They were not going to Berlin. They were simply to wait for the Red Army and extend a tenuous hand to their allies. On April 25, 1945, 1st Lt. Albert Kotzebue of the 69th’s 273rd Infantry Regiment and three soldiers of an intelligence and reconnaissance unit crossed the Elbe in a small boat and met soldiers of a Red Army Guards rifle regiment belonging to the 1st Ukrainian Front. East and West had met amid the ruins of the Third Reich.

In July, the Americans withdrew from Leipzig, retiring westward to the line that marked the designated postwar zones of occupation and the Red Army moved in. For the next half century, Leipzig was one of the principal cities of the communist German Democratic Republic.

Today, after years of neglect and disrepair and the reunification of the German nation, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal has undergone extensive renovation in observance of the 200th anniversary of the first great Battle of Leipzig. It remains an imposing monument, not only to the victory over Napoleon, but also to one of the last battles of World War II.

Oberleutnant Karl Hanke in a Panzerkampfwagen IV, June 1940

Panzerkampfwagen IV ausf D commanded by Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Karl Hanke and assigned to the 25th Panzer Regiment, 7th Panzer Division under Major General Erwin Rommel during the Battle of France. This propaganda photo appeared in Signal magazine in 1940. Hanke was employed by the Ministry for Propaganda until he had an affair with Magda Goebbels.

In July 1939, Hanke was called up for military service, having previously obtained a reserve officer’s commission in 1937. From September to October 1939, he served with the 3rd Panzer Division in Poland under command of Generalleutnant Leo Geyr von schweppenburg.

Hanke and Rommel, who was also a friend of Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels, understood the value of propaganda both for the home front and for their troops. They used each other to further their own aims. Rommel appointed Hanke to the 25th in May 1940. That Rommel was held in high favour had been made plain eight days previously, when one of his own officers, Oberleutnant Karl-August Hanke “acting on behalf of the Führer, ceremonially decorated me with the Knight’s Cross and gave me the Führer’s regards”. It may seem strange that so junior an officer should perform this duty, but Hanke was no ordinary junior officer. Not only had he demonstrated, according to Rommel, exceptional bravery and initiative in action, but he was one of Goebbels’ favourite officials from the Propaganda Ministry, sent quite obviously to keep an eye on one of his master’s proteges and to act as a special Nazi Party link with Berlin. He had brought with him as officers to the 7th Panzer Division several Nazi members of the Reichstag, including Kraus, the Chief of the Nazi Motor Corps (NSKK), and his financial adviser, Koebele, who later succeeded Julius Streicher as Gauleiter of Franken. And there was another man called Karl Holz, who had to remain a sergeant because he had twenty-four ‘previous convictions’-twenty-two of them ‘political’ and two criminal!

But Hanke, was the most important of this liaison team, and to him Rommel extended the greatest favour, awarding him the Iron Cross (without consulting his battalion commander) even though he carried out his duties no more courageously than anybody else. A few days later (again without consultation), he recommended him for the Knight’s Cross-but this application was withdrawn because Hanke refused to take command of a tank company, telling Rommel that he scarcely knew how to lead a troop let alone a company, and that he was not prepared to risk the soldiers’ lives. This snub may well have angered Rommel, for Manfred Rommel inserts a lengthy footnote in The Rommel Papers to explain how unpopular Hanke was with the other officers of the Division, and mentions an incident in the Mess when Hanke boasted that he had, as an official, the power to remove Rommel from command. This, so Manfred says, led Rommel to report the matter to Hitler’s Army adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, with the result that Hanke was posted away (and, much later, found his way to be Gauleiter of Breslau, where he achieved a certain notoriety). Be that as it may, it is unquestionable that Rommel, in furthering his ambition, saw no impediment to using any means to curry favour within the Nazi Party; subsequent suggestions that he was a Nazi, hotly denied as they are and technically correct though they may be, were by no means groundless.

Hanke was awarded the Iron Cross in Second and First Class. He was discharged from the German Army in 1941 with the rank of 1st lieutenant (Oberleutnant).

Popular with Hitler and Party Secretary Martin Bormann, they appointed him Gauleiter (Governor and Region Leader) of Lower Silesia in Poland, where he signed so many execution orders he was known as the “Hangman of Breslau.” When the Soviets attacked in January 1945, Hanke organized the toughest defense (Festung (Fortress) Breslau) in the area, and the city held out until May 7. The defense had no strategic or tactical value, but it won the respect of Goebbels.

Breslau in January 1945 was a fortress in name only. It had not been a bulwark for more than a century, since Napoleon tore down the city walls. “Breslau is no fortress,” Red Cross volunteer Lena Aschner commented. “It is lost. Everyone knows it. The people, the Wehrmacht and the SS.” A Party diehard disagreed. “We must sell our lives as dearly as possible,” he admonished Aschner.

In the third week of January 1945, Karl Hanke and his fortress commander began summoning what forces they could. The Gauleiter drafted every male Breslauer aged sixteen to sixty into the Volkssturm. Johannes Krause went even further, demanding every inhabitant of the city aged ten and above help “the final preparations for the battle for your home city”. Those final preparations meant gnawing at the very vitals of Breslau. Trees were felled, bushes pulled up, rubble, monuments, wrecked vehicles, overturned trams piled up, barbed wire laid across streets to form makeshift barriers. “Even the dead have no peace in their graves,” electrician Hermann Nowack noted as gravestones were uprooted to feed the barricade moloch. “It’s one of those tragicomedies – these barricades actually hinder our movements more than they put a stop to the Soviets,” wrote schoolboy Horst Gleiss. On the right bank of the Oder trams went no further than the Scheitniger Stern. Beyond there, Breslauers needed special passes – and a good deal of agility – to negotiate the forest of fallen trees blocking the streets. Tarmac and paving slabs were ripped up so foxholes five feet deep could be dug for soldiers and Volkssturm to combat Russian tanks with Panzerfaust. “Russian tank crews will need just fifteen minutes to get past such a barrier,” one Landser sneered. “Fourteen minutes to stop their belly laughs, one minute to push the junk away.” All sixty-four bridges over the Oder and its tributary, the Weide, were prepared for demolition, their approaches mined. Slogans were daubed on the walls at every street corner: ‘Every house a fortress’, ‘If you retreat, death will march towards your home’, ‘Today the front is everywhere – fight against the cursed spirit in the rear’

Every day new Volkssturm were sworn in – and almost every day Karl Hanke addressed them, sometimes in a square, sometimes in a courtyard, sometimes on Schlossplatz, sometimes as many as 2,000 at a time. His watchword? “Harm the enemy wherever possible!” The enemy was on foreign soil, men in the Volkssturm knew “every nook and cranny” of Breslau and its suburbs. “Use each night to creep up on the enemy and harm him!” the Gauleiter urged, invoking the memory of Erwin Rommel by repeating the late field marshal’s battle cry. “Meine Herren, there is no shame in dying for Greater Germany. Attack!” The freshly sworn-in soldiers would shout a few ‘Sieg Heils’ for their Führer, sing the national anthem, then march off to the front. Among them was Otto Rothkugel. Having seen his family leave the city, the retired union official reported to his Volkssturm company. An aged Italian rifle was thrust into his hands, plus ten rounds of ammunition. There was no instruction, no order. The company, Rothkugel observed, was “a shapeless mass. Everything looked so disorganised. And on the opposite bank of the Oder were the Russians.”

Hanke escaped Breslau on May 5 by air. He learned he was to replace Himmler at Hitler’s orders and to command the SS. It was light by the time Karl Hanke arrived in the grounds of the Jahrhunderthalle where a young Leutnant was waiting for him. Helmut Alsleben had wheeled a small Fieseler Storch reconnaissance aircraft out of one of the hall’s side buildings and unfolded its wings. The Storch was the only airworthy aircraft in the fortress, held in storage for Hermann Niehoff to use at his discretion. He never did.

The Storch’s only passenger was the Gauleiter of Breslau, dressed in the ill-fitting uniform of an ordinary soldier. Karl Hanke had commandeered Niehoff’s aircraft to reach Hirschberg, sixty miles to the southwest, before crossing the border to join German forces in Bohemia and Moravia. Around 5.30am, Alsleben and Hanke took off, flying south, low over the ruins of Breslau. For the first ten miles, the flight passed without incident. But then the Storch was struck by machine-gun fire. The engine stuttered on for another mile before Alsleben set the aircraft down on the slopes of the Zobten to effect emergency repairs. With the fuel tank patched up, the Storch was airborne again for a flight of no more than a dozen miles to the airfield at Schweidnitz, where a panzer officer was waiting for Breslau’s Gauleiter.

Breslauers were waking to a beautiful spring morning. “A peaceful calm ruled,” recalled chemist Hanns Hoffmann. “No shell fire, no bombs exploding, and Nature had put on her Sunday best.” Pale figures crawled out of cellars and filled their lungs with the fresh May air.

In the basement of the Staatsbibliothek, Hermann Niehoff was feeling harassed. “Have you any idea where the Gauleiter is?” his officers asked him. Then came the telephone calls, finally a visit from one of Karl Hanke’s staff. As officers, soldiers and Party officials searched the fortress for Karl Hanke, a breathless soldier reported to his commander. “Herr General, your Fieseler Storch has gone.” There was further confirmation in the form of a terse signal from Hirschberg handed to Niehoff: Gauleiter Hanke, lightly wounded, has just landed here with faulty machine

Hanke received word of his promotion on 5 May 1945. He flew to Prague and attached himself to the 18th SS-Freiwilligen-Panzer-Grenadier-Division “Horst Wessel”. Hanke chose to wear the uniform of an SS private, to conceal his identity in the event of capture. The group attempted to fight its way back to Germany but, after a fierce battle with Czech partisans, surrendered in Neudorf, southwest of Komotau. His true identity was not discovered by his captors, and Hanke was thus placed in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp alongside other low-ranking SS members. There were a total of 65 POWs when the Czechs decided to move them all by foot in June 1945. When a train passed the march route, Hanke and several other POWs made a break for it and clung on to the train. The Czechs opened fire, with Hanke falling first while two other POWs slumped on the track. They were then beaten to death with rifle butts by the Czechs.

Poland – Fourteenth Century Reunification

Poland under Casimir the Great (1333–70)

The Polish duchies were able by and large to resist efforts to impose the vassalage and dependency that successive German emperors had tried to impose on the Polish lands – lands whose rulers had often welcomed that overlordship to advance their own interests. With the disintegration of political authority after the death of the emperor Henry VI in 1197, Germany began to slide into the same sort of fragmentation as Poland. When, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, bishop Vincent of Kraków was chronicling the mythical successes of the ancient Poles against the Roman emperors, he was not simply engaged in a flight of whimsy: he was asserting the independence of the Polish duchies, no matter how weak they may have been, against the claims of the ideological successors to the mantle of Roman imperial authority, the emperors of the German lands.

The road to even partial reunification was a tortuous one. In 1289, the nobles, knights and the bishop of Kraków chose as princeps Duke Bolesław II of Płock, in Masovia. Bolesław transferred his rights over the principate to his cousin, Władysław ‘the Short’ (Łokietek, literally ‘Elbow-High’), ruler of the little duchies of Łęczyca, Kujawy and Sieradz. This princely thug found that his penchant for brigandage won much support among knights and squires on the up. He was quite unacceptable in Kraków, whose townsmen handed over the capital to Henry IV Probus, the Honourable, duke of Wrocław/Breslau. It was Henry who took the first serious steps towards what would be so symbolically important for any reunification of the Polish lands. He began to negotiate with the papacy and with his patron, the emperor-elect Rudolf, for agreement to his coronation. Just before his childless death in June 1290 he bequeathed the duchy of Kraków to Duke Przemysł II of Wielkopolska. Przemysł was already suzerain of the port of Gdansk and of eastern Pomerania. On paper, he had a stronger territorial power-base than any of his predecessors for over a century. The idea of a crowned head was much more attractive to a more latinized Poland than it had been in the early Piast state. Archbishop Świnka was all in favour: the canonization in 1253 of Bishop Stanisław of Kraków, whose dismembered body had undergone a miraculous regrowth, provided an irresistible metaphor for Świnka’s aspirations. Przemysł’s only serious Polish rival was Łokietek, clinging on in the duchy of Sandomierz. Both men were, however, overshadowed by an ambitious and powerful foreign ruler, Vaclav II of Bohemia.

Vaclav was one of the Middle Ages’ most successful territorial stamp-collectors. His father, Přemysl Otakar II (1253–78) – Přemysl to his Slav subjects, Otakar to his Germans – had built up a glittering court at Prague. Bohemia’s mineral, commercial and agricultural wealth enabled him to support an ambitious programme of expansion, until his bid for leadership of the German Empire came to an abrupt end when he fell at the battle of Durnkrütt on 26 August 1278, against the closest he had to a German rival, Rudolf of Habsburg. The petty rulers of the dis-integrating Piast lands looked abroad for protection: one such focus of attraction was the Přemyslid court of Bohemia; the other was its rival, the Arpad court of Hungary. After the death of Henry Probus, Vaclav’s own ambition to acquire Kraków was abetted by the local barons and patricians. In terms of security, prestige and economic prospects, he offered far more than either Przemysł or Łokietek. Vaclav secured the crucial support of Małopolska by the Privilege of Litomyšl of 1291. He promised its clergy, knights, lords and towns the preservation of all their existing rights, immunities and jurisdictions; he would impose no new taxes on them and fill all existing offices from their ranks. Łokietek’s position collapsed. His unruly soldiery and knightly followers spread alienation everywhere they went. By 1294, he had not only to sue for peace but to receive his own remaining lands back from Vaclav as a fief. It may have been to pre-empt the almost certain coronation of Vaclav that Archbishop Świnka persuaded the pope to consent to Przemysł II’s coronation in Gniezno cathedral on 26 June 1295. The machinations behind this decision are as obscure as anything in Polish history; nor is it clear whether Przemysł regarded himself as ruler of the whole of Poland, or just of Wielkopolska and eastern Pomerania. He did not survive long enough to test his real support. In February 1296 he was murdered, almost certainly on the orders of the margraves of Brandenburg, whose territorial ambitions were blocked by the new king’s lands. He left Poland one enduring bequest, in the shape of the crowned eagle which he adopted as the emblem of his new state.

The nobles of Wielkopolska opted at first for Łokietek as his successor – but his continued inability to control his own men, his readiness to carve up Przemysł’s kingdom with other petty dukes, and a military offensive from Brandenburg drastically eroded his support. In 1299, he once again acknowledged Vaclav as overlord. Even Archbishop Świnka, conscious that the Kraków clergy were behind Vaclav, accepted the inevitable. In September 1300 he crowned him king – although he could not refrain from complaining at the ‘doghead’ of a priest who delivered the coronation sermon in German.

Unity, of a kind, was restored. Łokietek was forced into exile. His quest for support took him as far as Rome, where he won the backing of Pope Boniface VIII, hostile to the Přemyslids. Vaclav’s last serious opponent, Henry, duke of Głogów/Glogau (1273–1309), nephew of Henry Probus, recognized his suzerainty in 1303. Much of Poland, however, remained under the rule of territorial dukes. Vaclav’s direct authority covered mainly Kraków–Sandomierz, Wielkopolska and eastern Pomerania. He left an enduring administrative legacy in the office of starosta (literally ‘elder’). Its holders acted as viceroys in and administrators of royal estates, although his preference for Czechs in this role provoked growing resentment. To Vaclav, of course, the Polish lands were simply a subordinate part of a greater Přemyslid monarchy. Polish reunification for its own sake was of little interest to him.

In January 1301, King Andrew III of Hungary died, leaving no male heirs. Vaclav found the temptation irresistible. His attempts to impose his 11-year-old son, another Vaclav, on Hungary and, in the process, massively expand Přemyslid power, were too much for the Hungarians, the papacy, Albrecht of Habsburg and the rulers of south Germany. By 1304 a Hungarian–German coalition had been formed. To gain the support of the margraves of Brandenburg, Vaclav promised to hand over to them eastern Pomerania and the port city of Gdańsk. His supporters in Wielkopolska, already seething at the harsh rule of Czech starostowie, could not accept this. Early in 1305, revolt shook the southern part of the province. Those not reconciled to Czech rule would have preferred to turn to Henry, duke of Głogów. Vaclav’s Hungarian and German enemies declared for his exiled rival, Łokietek. Hungarian forces supporting Charles Robert of Anjou’s bid for their throne helped Łokietek seize control of almost all the territories of Małopolska, except for Kraków itself. Vaclav II made peace with the coalition, just before he died on 21 June 1305. He agreed to withdraw from Hungary. But to keep the margraves of Brandenburg on his side, the young Vaclav III renewed his father’s undertaking to cede Gdańsk and Pomerania and prepared to enter Poland at the head of an army. If Vaclav had not been murdered at the instigation of discontented Czech lords on 4 August 1306, he and Łokietek might well have divided the Polish territories between themselves. Instead, Bohemia was plunged into rivalries over the succession, until the election of John of Luxemburg in 1310. In Poland, although the townsmen of Kraków reconciled themselves to Łokietek, most of Wielkopolska preferred to recognize Henry of Głogów.

In 1307, disaster struck Łokietek in Pomerania. The German patriciates of the two chief towns, Tczew and Gdańsk, gravitated towards the margraves of Brandenburg; the Polish knighthood of the countryside remained loyal to Łokietek. In August 1308, the castle of Gdańsk was besieged by the troops of margraves Otto and Waldemar. Łokietek called on the help of the Teutonic Knights. The arrival of their forces lifted the siege of the castle – which on the night of 14 November they proceeded to seize for themselves, massacring Łokietek’s men in the process. By the end of 1311, most of Polish Pomerania was in the Knights’ hands.

Founded in the late twelfth century as an offshoot of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, just in time to be forced out by Islam’s counter-attack against the Crusader states of the Middle East, the Teutonic Knights had relocated their military-proselytizing operations to Hungary and Transylvania. King Andrew II threw them out once their ambitions to carve out their own independent state revealed themselves. In 1227, Conrad I, duke of Masovia, settled them in the county of Chełmno on the Vistula in order to defend his eastern borders against the pagan tribes of Prussia, while he devoted himself to feuding with his Piast relatives and meddling in the politics of the Rus’ principalities. Backed by emperors and popes (the Knights proved adept at playing one off against the other), patronized by the rulers and knighthood of Christian Europe (not least by individual Piast princes), they built up a de facto independence. Their most enthusiastic supporters included Přemysl Otakar II (in whose honour they named the new port of Königsberg in 1255), Vaclav II and John of Bohemia. By the late 1270s, they had subdued the Prussian tribes; they could embark on the process of colonization which gave the area its Germanic character for almost 700 years. The Order was also able – precisely because it was a religious organization, bound by a rule, dedicated to the higher goal of the spread of the Catholic faith and the conversion of the heathen – to organize its territories on lines very different from those of contemporary medieval territories. The Order represented the impersonal state – something higher than a dynastic or patrimonial entity. The command structures of what has come to be known as the Ordensstaat were less subject to the whims and favouritisms of individual monarchs. Its Grand Masters were elected from the tried and the tested by an inner circle of superiors who had shown how to combine prayer and aggression, faith and brutality. They and their fellow northern-Crusaders, the Knights of the Sword further along the Baltic coast, in what are now Latvia and Estonia, could suffer setbacks, but, constantly renewed by fresh recruits and enthusiastic part-timers, they could always rise above them. The actual fighting monks, the German Knights of the Blessed Virgin, were, however, few in numbers – this was their weakness. Control of Gdańsk and its hinterland permitted a steady flow of settlers, soldiers, recruits and allies from the German lands. In 1309 the Grand Master, Conrad von Feuchtwangen, moved his principal headquarters from Venice to Marienburg (now Malbork) on the lower Vistula. This was the Ordensstaat’s new capital, rapidly built up into one of the most formidable fortified complexes of medieval Europe, a mirror of the Knights’ power and pride. The fragile entity ruled by Łokietek and his successors could do little more than rail and complain at the Order’s perfidy and brutality – but its rulers could not subdue what they had nurtured.

Łokietek had no realistic hopes of recovering Pomerania. Most of Wielkopolska remained alienated. The dukes of Masovia mistrusted him. In May 1311, only Hungarian help enabled him to subdue a major revolt of German townsfolk in Kraków. Poles replaced Germans in key positions on the town council, Latin replaced German as the official language of town records. True, it was not many years before German burghers and merchants regained their old influence, but the town itself ceased to be the political force it once had been. The repression did little to enhance Łokietek’s appeal to townsmen elsewhere.

In 1309, his rival in Wielkopolska, Duke Henry of Głogów died, leaving five young sons, all more German than Polish. The knights preferred Łokietek to fragmentation and German rule, but it was not until the submission of the town of Poznań in November 1314 that serious opposition was eliminated. In control of Wielkopolska and Kraków, Łokietek could realistically aspire to the royal dignity – were it not for the rival claims of the new king of Bohemia, John of Luxemburg, who had cheerfully taken over the claims of his Přemyslid predecessors. Most of the Silesian and Masovian dukes looked to him. Brandenburg and the Teutonic Knights endorsed him as the supposed heir of the Vaclavs in Poland, in the expectation of satisfying their own titles and claims. Pope John XXII, whose approval was necessary to a coronation in what was technically a papal fief, was reluctant to offend either party. He gave his consent in terms so ambiguous as to suggest that he considered both men to have a legitimate royal title. When Łokietek’s coronation did finally take place on 20 January 1320, it was not in Gniezno but, for the first time, in Kraków. The new venue was dictated not only by a recognition of the greater economic importance of the southern provinces but by a tacit acknowledgement of the still limited extent of Łokietek’s territorial support. He controlled less than half of the territory which Bolesław Wrymouth had ruled: Wielkopolska in the west, Kraków and Sandomierz in the south, the two regions linked in the central Polish lands by his own duchies of Łęczyca and Sieradz. Łokietek was more king of Kraków than king of Poland. He was fortunate that John of Bohemia had his own difficulties with the Czech nobility.

Łokietek sought security through marriage alliances: in 1320, he cemented his long-standing alliance with the Angevins of Hungary when his daughter Elizabeth (1305–80) married King Charles Robert (1308–42). In 1325, the king secured his son’s marriage to Aldona (d. 1339), daughter of the Lithuanian prince Gediminas – at the cost of driving the Masovian dukes, perpetually feuding over their eastern borderlands with the Lithuanians, into an alliance with the Ordensstaat. His only recourse against the Knights lay in persuading the papacy to issue legal pronouncements enjoining them to restore Pomerania. Such pronouncements (never definitive) were indeed made, but the Knights paid no attention. John of Bohemia prepared, in 1327, to attack Kraków – and had he not been kept in check by Charles Robert from Hungary, Łokietek’s monarchy might not have survived. Most of the dukes of southern Silesia declared themselves John’s vassals. Łokietek’s offensive against Duke Wacław (1313–36) of Płock only precipitated incursions by his allies, Brandenburg and the Knights. Łokietek bought Brandenburg off in 1329 with the county of Lubusz (Lebus), at the confluence of the Warta and the Oder. In the winter of 1328–9, John of Luxemburg and the Knights undertook a ‘crusade’ against Łokietek’s Lithuanian allies. The Polish military diversion into the county of Chełmno backfired: John and the Knights conquered the northern Polish territory of Dobrzyń, which John, by virtue of his claims to the Polish throne, generously awarded to the Knights. Duke Wacław of Płock declared himself to be his vassal. So did most of the remaining Silesian dukes.

The Knights followed up with an offensive into Wielkopolska in July 1331. They comprehensively sacked Gniezno, although, as a religious order, they felt it politic to spare the cathedral. On 27 September, the Polish and Teutonic armies met at Płowce. The battle lasted most of the day; if, on balance, this pyrrhic encounter was a Polish victory, it resolved nothing. It marked the limit of Łokietek’s military endeavour. The king could raid, but not reconquer; above all, he lacked the resources and the organization to take on the Knights’ strongholds. Had John of Luxemburg also invaded – as he had promised the Knights – Płowce might have been even more irrelevant than it was. In 1332, the Knights more than made up for Płowce by occupying Łokietek’s old patrimonial duchy of Kujawy. In August, he had to agree to a truce which left them in possession of all their recent gains. Through sheer, murderous persistence, he had semi-reunited Poland. But at his death, on 2 March 1333, he left an even smaller kingdom than the one which had acknowledged him at his coronation in 1320. His successor, Casimir III, began his reign by renewing the truce with the Teutonic Knights.

Domestically, Poland needed stability, which could only come about by strengthening royal authority. Externally, the new king had not only to resolve relations with the Ordensstaat and the House of Luxemburg, he had to deal with a power vacuum on Poland’s south-east borders, which threatened to embroil him with the Tatars and with Lithuania. Poland continued to lie in the shadow of the Hungarian Angevins, first, of Casimir’s brother-in-law, Charles I Robert, and then his nephew Louis the Great (1342–82), both of whom had their own designs on the Polish throne. The realm, the ‘Crown’ as it was styled by his jurists – Corona Regni Poloniae – that Casimir ruled, a narrow and irregular lozenge of territory, spilled from north-west to south-east on either side of the Vistula; with probably fewer than 800,000 inhabitants, it contained less than half the territories and population that might plausibly have been called Polish. Against the Knights, Casimir was largely on his own. The Angevins wanted good relations with them in their own struggles against the Wittelsbachs and the Luxemburgs. Poland was to be kept in its subordinate place. The treaty of Kalisz of 8 July 1343 was a ‘compromise’ which benefited the Knights. They restored the vulnerable border territories of Dobrzyń and Kujawy lost by Łokietek, but kept what they really wanted – Gdańsk and Pomerania. Casimir also had to face up to the loss of Silesia. In 1348, John of Bohemia’s successor and heir-elect to the Empire (he was to succeed Louis the Bavarian in 1349), Charles IV, decreed its incorporation into the kingdom of Bohemia. He even contemplated the incorporation of the duchies of Płock and Masovia, by virtue of the claims he had inherited from the Vaclavs and his father. With only faltering support from Louis of Hungary and with a storm brewing in the south-east, Casimir resigned himself. By the treaty of Namysłów (Namslau) of 22 November 1348, he abandoned his claims to the Silesian principalities. There was some consolation in the north-east, where in 1355, Duke Ziemowit III (1341–70), who succeeded in reuniting (albeit briefly) most of the Masovian lands, acknowledged Casimir’s overlordship. He stipulated, however, that the preservation of the relationship after Casimir’s death was contingent on the king’s siring a legitimate male heir.

The troubled situation in the south-east, in the lands of Rus’, helps explain Casimir’s retreat in the west. After the reign of Yaroslav I the Wise (1019–54), the once-great principality of Kiev had undergone its own dynastic fragmentation. The Mongol onslaughts of 1237–40 had savaged these lands far more viciously than Poland. The successor-states of Kievan Rus’ were largely reduced to tributaries of the Golden Horde, established in the Eurasian steppes. The continued raids of the Mongols, or Tatars as they were widely known, carried them periodically into Polish territory. In 1340, Bolesław-Iurii, the childless ruler of the two westernmost principalities of Halych and Vladimir, and a scion of the Masovian Piasts, was poisoned by his leading boyar-advisers, thoroughly alienated by his open contempt for them and his over-enthusiastic support for Roman Catholicism.

No credible claimant to Halych-Vladimir emerged from among the other Rus’ princes. Casimir seized the moment. These fertile Rus’ principalities, straddling the great east–west overland trade route from Germany to the Black Sea, offered pleasing prospects of enriching both the nobility of southern Poland and the merchants of Kraków. They could serve as a buffer zone against Tatar raids. They offered some compensation for the lands renounced in the west and north. They also aroused the appetite of Lithuania and the Hungarian Angevins. If Casimir did not annex them, others would. His invasion of 1340 may have been prompted by the very real fear that the Tatars would impose their direct rule in the ‘regnum Galiciae et Lodomeriae’, the ‘kingdom of Halych and Vladimir’.

It took twenty years of intermittent struggle to impose even partial Polish authority. The Lithuanians established themselves in the north. Casimir satisfied himself with acknowledgement of his suzerainty by Lithuanian princelings. Casimir held the south, centred on the town of L’viv (Lwów/Lvov/Lemberg). But even here he owed his position to Hungarian support. Poland’s Rus’ lands remained separate from the rest of the Crown: in return for Louis of Hungary’s assistance in their subjugation, Casimir agreed in 1350 that they would pass to him on his demise. Divisions in Lithuania, where Duke Gediminas’ seven sons quarrelled among themselves after his death in 1341, worked to Casimir’s advantage. Even the Black Death helped: it left a sparsely populated Poland largely unscathed, but in 1346 it devastated the Golden Horde. Despite all this, the venture cost Casimir dear. In 1352, to raise money for his war effort, he plundered the archiepiscopal treasury in Gniezno. He borrowed from all and sundry, even from the Teutonic Knights, to whom he assigned the county of Dobrzyń as security. Impoverished Dobrzyń could scarcely begin to compare with Rus’ potential prosperity.

Casimir’s principal achievement was to restore strong monarchic rule at home, within the narrow limits open to any medieval ruler. His deliberate patronage of talented lay and ecclesiastical advisers from southern Poland, the advancement of their careers by service on the royal council, created a generation of new men, ready to aid and abet fresh fiscal and administrative initiatives. The king was more aware than his predecessors of the value of more formal means of government. In 1364, he set up, in Kraków, a partial university or studium generale, teaching mainly law, with some medicine and astronomy (the papacy would not agree to instruction in theology). The new institution above all aimed at producing the jurists and lawyers increasingly indispensable to the government of a self-respecting monarchy. Casimir introduced written regulation of judicial procedure and criminal law. In the 1360s, he began to widen the bases of his support to Wielkopolska. He never sought to put an end to the established divisions and differences between his two chief provinces, but instead played their elites off against each other. An extensive programme of revindication of usurped royal lands, often by arbitrary royal fiat, recovered hundreds of properties, though it led to revolt in Wielkopolska in 1352. Casimir made some tactical concessions. In 1360, after the troubles had died down, the revolt’s leader, Maćko Borkowic, was arrested, chained in a dungeon and starved to death, though it seems that his involvement with local brigandage rather than his political past was more responsible – not so much a royal act of revenge as a warning to powerful men not to get above themselves.

It may be that Casimir wished to build up new elements on which he could base royal power. For the first time, the non-knightly administrators of peasant villages, the wójtowie and sołtysi, were expected to turn out in their own right on military campaigns. His confiscational programme was matched by an extensive settlement of peasants under ‘German law’ on royal domain. The king encouraged Jewish settlement, mainly of Ashkenazim from the Empire. While the same baggage of prejudices and misconceptions found across Christendom was reflected in Poland, it was clearly not enough to put a stop to such immigration. He took a Jewish mistress. And although the merchants and guilds of many towns, fearful of competition, secured bans on Jewish residence inside the town walls, they were almost invariably able to settle in the suburbs or in privileged enclaves beyond municipal jurisdiction. Whatever reservations his Christian subjects had about them (and there were occasional anti-Jewish riots), Casimir appreciated that they represented an invaluable asset. The 1338 coinage reform helped boost the circulation of small-denominational silver monies. All this, combined with a flourishing north–south and west–east trade, with Kraków at its crossroads, enabled Casimir successfully to pursue a harsh fiscality. He subjected peasant holdings on lay and ecclesiastical estates to an annual land (‘plough’, poradlne) tax of 12 groszy per łan (about 18.5 hectares). Only land worked directly for the lords was exempt. Such taxation, combined with a reform of the administration of the lucrative royal salt-mines at Bochnia and Wieliczka, first exploited in 1251, enabled him to finance a major defence and reconstruction programme. He built some fifty castles across Poland, and provided twenty-seven towns with new curtain walls (or, rather, they did so on his orders). It was enough to contain the incursions of the Tatars and the ever more frequent raids of the Lithuanians; but none of Casimir’s new fortresses could match the Teutonic Knights’ defensive marvel at Marienburg. The Kraków patriciate was kept sweet by the king’s successful commercial policies and by the enhanced prestige it enjoyed from his ban on all municipal appeals to Magdeburg: two appellate urban courts were set up in the capital.

For all the difficulties that Casimir experienced in Halych-Rus’, it was in his reign that the processes took off which were to give the area its variegated ethnic character for almost the next six centuries. The campaigning devastated the countryside; but the area’s fertility made it a magnet for the dispossessed, impoverished and adventurous from all over Poland and beyond. The boyar aristocrats of the area either died out during the wars or preferred to migrate to Rus’ lands under Lithuanian lordship: the surviving lesser nobility was in no shape to stand up to the influx of immigrants. The great trading centre of L’viv continued to attract a vigorous mix of settlers. Germans formed the largest number of incomers, then Poles and Czechs – though by the end of the fifteenth century, most of these elements were to be polonized and L’viv/Lwów itself became something of a Polish island in a sea of Rus’, Orthodox peasantry. The first Jews established themselves in 1356, alongside a thriving Armenian community. During Casimir’s last years and over the next decades, petty and not-so-petty Polish nobles were granted extensive land rights in the area. Casimir and his successors preferred to govern through an alien, non-boyar, non-Orthodox class on whose loyalty they could rely. The process was made easier in that even the Rurikid princes of Halych-Rus’ had shown considerable interest in accepting union with the Latin Church, as a channel for securing help against the Mongols. The petty Orthodox boyars who clung on, loaded with service obligations, uncompensated by any rights or liberties on the Polish or Hungarian models, found that polonization and Catholicization offered the easiest route to preserving and advancing their status and fortunes. It was in these lands of western Rus’ that the process of the separation and alienation of the elites from the mass of the local population first began and proceeded furthest.

Casimir’s greatest failing was dynastic. He had four wives: the first, Aldona-Anna of Lithuania, produced two daughters. The second, Adelaide of Hesse, was pious, unexciting and possibly barren. Casimir despised her and ensured that she spent a miserable marriage confined in remote castles until a divorce came through around 1356 – in scandalous circumstances. The king’s lust for Krystyna, the widow of a patrician of Prague, got the better of him. He contracted a bigamous marriage with her even before his divorce from poor Adelaide. No children were produced. In a race against time, he put Krystyna aside to marry, in 1363, Jadwiga, daughter of Duke Henry of Żagań Four children followed – all girls. Casimir could not produce legitimate sons. He may, nevertheless, have had second thoughts about letting the Angevins get their hands on his lands. In 1368 he adopted as his heir his grandson Kaźko, heir to the duchy of Słupsk in Pomerania. Days before his death on 5 November 1370, he bequeathed his patrimony of Łęczyca, Sieradz and Kujawy to Kaźko. The Rus’ lands, Wielkopolska and the territories around Kraków and Sandomierz were to pass to Louis of Hungary. Casimir had clearly not shaken off the sense that this was a family, patrimonial monarchy, ultimately his and his alone to dispose of. But this was not a view shared by the lawyers, clergy and barons who had helped him rule. His thirtyseven-year reign had persuaded them that their political arena was more than a local or regional one: that the ‘Crown’, the Corona Regni Poloniae, was a real political entity that had to be preserved. A freshly divided Poland was unlikely to hold on to the potential riches of the hard-won Rus’ lands. At the same time these notables had an unmissable opportunity to return to the politics their predecessors had practised at the height of Poland’s fragmentation, of playing off one potential ruler against another, albeit now on a scale that went beyond Poland’s borders. The county court of Sandomierz ruled the will invalid. Kaźko settled for compensation in the shape of the county of Dobrzyń, to be redeemed from the Knights, as a fief to be held of Louis of Hungary, who was to inherit the Crown.

Even in his own lifetime, Casimir III’s attainment of a relative peace and prosperity, his legal and administrative reforms earned him the title ‘the Great’ (the only Polish monarch so honoured). Yet Poland remained a lesser power, too weak to assert its claims to its old territories in the west and north. Casimir probably did as much as could have been done with some unpromising materials. For better or worse, he paved the way for a new course of eastwards expansion. He restored strong monarchic rule, although nothing that he did could compensate for the lack of a legitimate son.

Whatever the vagaries of Casimir’s policies, he had been a strong, at times even brutal, ruler. The nobility had good reasons for welcoming Louis’ accession. An absentee king (he ruled in Poland largely through his mother, Casimir’s sister, Elizabeth) would almost inevitably be less demanding. He had made promising concessions in return for acceptance of his succession. In 1355, by the Privilege of Buda, Louis had solemnly assured the nobility and clergy that he would exempt them from any new taxation. His uncertain health, and the gratifying inability he shared with Casimir to father sons, opened up even more favourable prospects. In 1374, the nobility agreed that he could designate one of his three daughters as successor in Poland. In return, from Košice in northern Hungary, Louis promulgated a Privilege, reducing in perpetuity the poradlne tax paid by peasants on noble and knightly estates from 12 to 2 groszy per łan. He went on to promise that he would pay his knights for any military service beyond Poland’s borders. In 1381, he extended these provisions to the clergy.

In retrospect, these concessions can be viewed as the beginning of a linear process which was to give the nobility a dominant and domineering position within the state. At the time, they were more an attempt to secure protection against royal fiscal arbitrariness. The ‘nobility’ were the beneficiaries because they held a nearmonopoly of military force. But the Polish ‘nobles’ at this time were simply all those who held land carrying the obligation – even if it was in many cases notional, rather than real – of performing military service. Those affected ranged from lords of the royal council to backwoods squires barely able to afford a horse and military accoutrement. The driving force consisted of a core of some twenty families, most of whom had risen under Casimir III and were determined not to lose their standing in the state. These were the primary beneficiaries of the Privileges of Buda and Kosice. That their lesser fellow-rycerze also gained was a useful bonus which enabled the great families to build up followings and clienteles – it was to be at least another century before these junior knights/nobles became a serious political force in their own right. Louis’ Privileges also applied to the townsmen – their existing rights were confirmed – but they enjoyed only local and ad hoc concessions, grants and favours. The towns, divided by commercial rivalries, failed to show a common front. Members of the Kraków patriciate, who might even sit on the royal council, were concerned only with the well-being of their own city, not that of other towns; in any case, they could reasonably aspire to a niche among the aristocratic core. The clergy followed on the coat-tails of the ‘communitas nobilium’.

While Louis accepted that he had to make concessions in order to secure the throne for his daughters, like Vaclav II barely two generations previously, he felt no compunction at truncating Polish territory. In 1377 he incorporated Polish Rus’ into Hungary, a step already agreed on with Casimir and made easier by its separate status of a royal dominium. He confirmed the cession of Silesia to the Luxemburgs. He transferred disputed border territories to Brandenburg. These measures and the behaviour of Hungarian officials caused immense resentment, culminating in the massacre of dozens of Hungarian courtiers during riots in Kraków in 1376. In 1380, Louis judged it prudent to relinquish rule in Poland to a caucus of Małopolska potentates, which did nothing for his wavering support in Wielkopolska. When he died, in September 1382, the question of the succession was almost as vexed as ever. The Polish elites had promised to accept his daughter, Maria – but jibbed when Louis, in an attempt to unite the Angevin and Luxemburg houses, insisted that she should marry the unpopular Sigismund of Luxemburg. The Hungarians compromised and suggested that a younger daughter, Jadwiga (she was barely 10 years old), could be substituted. Małopolska agreed, but Wielkopolska wanted Duke Ziemowit IV of Płock as king. Angevin support in the south proved too strong for him. The entry of pro-Jadwiga troops obliged Ziemowit to withdraw.

Wielkopolska’s leaders were prepared to accept Jadwiga if her long-standing betrothal to Wilhelm of Habsburg could be broken off in favour of Ziemowit. She was crowned ‘king’ (this was not an age which discarded law and custom lightly) in Kraków on 15 October 1384. The southern lords had little truck with Wielkopolska’s provincialism. They, too, could play the dynastic card as well as any Luxemburg or Angevin. Jadwiga’s engagement was broken off – not in favour of Ziemowit, but of the illiterate heathen, Jogaila, ruler of Lithuania. At Kreva, in Lithuania, on 14 August 1385, Jogaila confirmed a deal his representatives had struck with Louis’ widow, the queen-dowager Elizabeth, and with Małopolska’s lords: he and his Lithuanian subjects would convert to Catholicism; he would marry Jadwiga, provide money to pay off the disappointed Wilhelm of Habsburg and annex to Poland his vast principality, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Małopolska’s elite had embarked on a spectacular exercise in corporate dynasticism, well worth the price of a 12-year-old’s feelings. Former Piast Poland stood on the threshold of a bizarre and unexpected new career.

Commando Order – Telemark

Jens-Anton Poulsson, a Rjukan native, wanted a mission—and if his commanders would not give him one, he would come up with his own. He had nearly circumnavigated the globe to come to Britain to join Kompani Linge, and since his arrival in Britain in October 1941 he had heard a lot of plans but seen no execution. His best prospect had been to lead one of the six teams in Operation Clairvoyant, his task specifically to guide nighttime bombers toward the Vemork power station by setting out lights in the Vestfjord Valley. But then that operation was abandoned and, as he wrote in his diary, “the greatest opportunity of my whole life” slipped away.

Thus in late February 1942 Poulsson traveled down from Scotland to pitch his bosses in London a new plan. Meeting with a member of Colonel Wilson’s staff, Poulsson proposed the idea of a small team that would organize resistance cells around Telemark and prepare to sabotage railway lines. He drafted the details in a report, then returned to Scotland while the plan was considered.

Weeks passed and no answer came. He was sent on a training scheme to attack an airport. Then in early April he got orders to go to STS 31, the “finishing school” at Beaulieu, a forested estate in southern England. Over the next three weeks, he received training in espionage and living an underground life. He learned how to develop a cover (“Your story will be mainly true”); shadow a target; recruit informants (“A few drinks may be helpful”); build up an underground cell; establish a covert headquarters; and thwart counterespionage efforts, including losing a tail (“Lead him through a long deserted street and then plunge into a crowd”), staying alert (“A familiar voice or face suggests an agent is being followed”), and manufacturing a good alibi. His instructors taught him how to surveil a target, to merge into the background on a street, to burgle a house, to open handcuffs, to read a room for a quick escape. He became skilled in leaving hidden messages, in microphotographs, ciphers, and invisible inks. It was all very different from the kind of warfare he’d imagined.

He studied the enemy, everything from its organizations, uniforms, and regulations to its detective measures, wireless-interception abilities, and interrogation techniques. If he was ever to find himself under questioning, his lecturers said, “Create the impression of an averagely stupid, honest citizen.” The school’s commander, Major Woolrych, told his students, “Remember: the best agents are never caught. But some agents . . . they are inclined to relax their precautions. That is the moment to beware of. Never relax. Never fool yourself by thinking the enemy are asleep. They may be watching you all the time, so watch your step.”

Poulsson graduated from STS 31 with a somewhat mixed instructor report: “Much more intelligent than he would appear at first sight as he has a very retiring disposition. He has, however, a thorough understanding of the work . . . Could make a good second-in-command.” Even though he was tall—six two—with a mop of curly dark hair, a lean face, and bright blue eyes, Poulsson was a retreating presence in a crowded room. He preferred to remain at the back, clouded in pipe smoke. “A good second-in-command” was, however, far from the truth.

Poulsson had been born in Rjukan, where it was said that one was raised in either sun or shadow. Norsk Hydro’s top brass lived in grand houses on the sunny northern hillside of the Vestfjord Valley, while the rank and file found themselves living deep below, down by the river. As Jens-Anton’s father was a chief engineer at Norsk Hydro in town, he grew up in the light. His family had a storied history—nobility, ship captains, high-ranking army officers, English knights—and owned almost ten thousand acres of land in the Vidda, including an island on Lake Møs.

Named after his father and grandfather, Jens-Anton was the sixth of seven children. He had blond curls and the habit of smoothing them down with one hand, and he was shy in company, his nose usually pressed into his sketchbook or an adventure tale. He devoured stories of war, polar expeditions, and survival in the wild, but although he was a strong reader, he didn’t much care for school. His interests lay in the outdoors. Poulsson received a shotgun for his eleventh birthday and soon after killed his first grouse. With his best friend and neighbor, Claus Helberg, he spent his early teens wandering the Vidda, skiing, fishing, hunting, and hiking. A quiet, calm authority, Poulsson was the unspoken leader of his group of friends.

He never doubted what he wanted to be in the future: a military officer. A straight arrow, he liked rules and regimens. At his school in Rjukan, there were two classes of children his age, one wild and unruly, the other well-behaved. Wanting to tame the former, the principal moved Poulsson and Helberg into the disruptive classroom, and within a few months discipline had been restored. At fifteen, Poulsson spent a summer at a military camp. He was given his own Krag-Jørgensen carbine and learned to march in step. At twenty he joined the Army’s Second Division NCO school. He was there when the Germans invaded. Within five days his battalion, which was deployed solely in a defensive position, surrendered and retreated to Sweden. “The saddest day of my life,” Poulsson wrote. They hadn’t even put up a fight.

After a long billet in Sweden, he returned to Norway and holed up outside Rjukan for several months, bristling to do something. Unable to obtain passage to Britain by boat, he skied back to neutral Sweden, and from there he journeyed around the world. In Turkey he witnessed “mud and stone huts and beaten oilcans for roofs.” In Cairo he found “flies and street vendors the biggest plagues.” On heavy seas to Bombay, he experienced “stomach aches and head aches.” In India, the camp was “populated by large amount of lice, not nice bedfellows.” Still, it was an adventure, and an eye-opening one for a young man who had never before traveled outside his homeland. During the six-month journey, he worried at times if he had what it took to be a good soldier. One night he wrote in his diary, “One never knows one’s own reactions the first time one comes under fire.”

After concluding his spy training, Poulsson returned to STS 26 and learned that his proposal to build up resistance cells around Rjukan had been accepted. At last, he would find out what kind of soldier he was. Operation Grouse was due to depart in a few weeks, Poulsson at its head. He and his team were to survive the harshest of winter conditions out in the wild, like the alpine bird for which their mission was named, while waiting for the green light for operations.

One unlucky delay followed another, and soon the long Norwegian summer days made the launch of the mission too dangerous. Parachute drops into Norway were limited to a very narrow window. For half the year, there was too much light at night for planes to cross over the countryside unseen by the Germans. For the other half, particularly during the long winter, drops needed to occur around the full moon, when the darkness was cut by just enough natural light that pilots could navigate by landmarks—and parachutists could spot a safe place to land.

With the operation now delayed until at least late September, Poulsson wondered whether he might be better off rejoining the regular army. Others in the company, like Knut Haukelid, felt the same, even though the Norwegian Army soldiers who had made it to Britain were similarly frustrated with inaction. Reassured by their Kompani Linge commanders that they would soon get their chance, they remained.

In the meantime, Poulsson finalized his small team: Arne Kjelstrup, a short, broad-chested plumber born but not raised in Rjukan, who carried a bullet in his hip from fighting the Germans during the invasion. He had accompanied Poulsson on his round-the-world journey to join Kompani Linge. Knut Haugland was a slightly built twenty-four-year-old with a thick shock of fair hair and a thin, boyish face that belied his exacting intelligence. A carpenter’s son from Rjukan, he had become a first-class radio operator. And Knut Haukelid, whom Poulsson often went out stag hunting with in the Highlands, knew what it took to survive and operate in the Vidda.

While waiting for their orders to come through, Haukelid stumbled and shot himself in the foot during a training exercise in the countryside. Doctors told the crestfallen commando he would not be “fit for duty” until at least October. Poulsson quickly decided on his replacement: Claus Helberg, his childhood friend. Now leaner, taller, and fitter than most, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Helberg had found his own way to Britain in the early spring to join Kompani Linge. He would need parachute training, Poulsson knew, but there was time for that.

Throughout August, Poulsson and the others prepared for their operation, gathering enough supplies to fill eight tubular containers, which would be dropped with them. The inventory list was two pages long, supplies weighing almost seven hundred pounds: ski gear, boots, gaiters, windbreakers, woolen undergarments, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, tools, cigarettes, candles, tents, kerosene, rucksacks, maps, frostbite ointment, a wireless set and two six-volt rechargeable batteries to power it, guns, ammo, and food. No one was more exacting in his requirements than radioman Knut Haugland. Often to the rankling of the British quartermasters, he specified the exact type of batteries and other radio equipment needed for the operation. That was his way.

On August 29, a hot, sultry day interspersed with thunderstorms, Poulsson traveled to London to meet with Colonel Wilson and Leif Tronstad at Chiltern Court to finalize their plans. The Grouse team would drop near Lake Langesjå, ten miles north-northwest of Rjukan, with Einar Skinnarland on the ground to guide the plane in. Haugland knew Skinnarland well from the local Rjukan resistance, and all of the team were well acquainted with the Skinnarland family. (Einar’s brother Torstein was a ski-jumping legend in town.) If for any reason it was not possible for Skinnarland to act as guide, they would blind drop and head to Lake Møs on their own. Wilson and Tronstad laid out their operating instructions, the focus on forming “small independent groups” to prepare for operations against future targets. These included German communications, bridges, and roads. Vemork was not mentioned. As far as Poulsson knew, this target was no longer on the table since the shutdown of Clairvoyant.

Two days later, the Grouse team left for STS 61 at Gaynes Hall, near Tempsford airport outside Cambridge. The distinguished mansion had once been the home of Oliver Cromwell, but now served as the SOE launch point for foreign agents headed overseas. The Grouse team would continue to train here, and wait.

That same day, August 31, Leif Tronstad sat in a smoke-filled room on Old Queen Street, the Tube Alloys headquarters, and raised the prospect of Grouse leading an attack on Vemork. Seated around the table with him were Colonel Robert Neville, the chief planner of Combined Operations, Wallace Akers, and Akers’s former ICI assistant, Michael Perrin, a key member now of the British atomic program.

When Lord Louis Mountbatten took over Combined Operations in October 1941, the command he inherited, charged with missions that brought together naval, air, and land forces, was in a state of shambles. And indeed, since then the operations of the forty-two-year-old royal-blooded British naval hero had, at best, a checkered record. Stories of the disastrous mid-August beachhead assault at Dieppe were only just beginning to recede from newspaper headlines.

Since Churchill’s return from America, the War Cabinet had tasked Mountbatten with investigating a possible operation targeting Vemork. Neville, his chief planner and a Royal Marine, looked like he could take on the task single-handedly.

The four men considered several potential courses of action to stop the production of heavy water at Vemork: (1) an attack from within by Norsk Hydro men, (2) infiltration by Poulsson and his team, (3) a six-man SOE attack party to blow up the pipelines (mirroring an early Clairvoyant plan), (4) a Combined Operations raid of between twenty-five and fifty men to destroy the pipelines and the plant, and (5) an RAF bombing.

Tronstad argued against an air attack: with all the hydrogen and ammonia produced in the area, the town of Rjukan might be wiped out in a devastating explosion, and it was unlikely any bombs would penetrate deep enough into the plant to destroy the high-concentration stages located in the basement. As for recruiting saboteurs who already worked at the plant—an inside job—he did not believe they could find enough trustworthy people at Vemork to pull it off. Instead, Tronstad wanted his Grouse team at the forefront of a direct attack. They knew the area, and according to the most recent intelligence, there was only limited security at the plant. With an additional six-man sabotage team to carry out the demolition, the group would have good odds of success.

Neville was unsure—German defenses might be stronger than reported. He favored British sappers (combat engineers) executing the attack, with the Grouse team acting as guides. Fifty soldiers could overcome any resistance, and with their strength in numbers, they could perform a larger attack on the plant, making certain it was removed as a threat. The trouble would be getting the men out and away from Norway. Neville recognized that this challenge made the sappers very likely a “suicide squad.”

The four men knew Mountbatten would make the final decision, but it looked like the Grouse team would indeed have a role to play in the Vemork plan.

Tronstad was desperate to be part of any operation on the ground as well. Yes, he was contributing to the war effort. He had his own intelligence network. He recruited Norwegian scientists to aid the British defense industry. He advised on potential chemical attacks. He helped steer the strategy, training, and operation of Kompani Linge. But at times he felt like he was fighting a paper war, of reports and conferences. He wanted away from this “abnormal life.” He felt that others were suffering the burdens of the conflict while he remained in London. Many of his close friends were dead; the Gestapo had evicted his family from their home and hounded his wife for information on his whereabouts. Brun and Skinnarland were risking their lives every day spying for his country. Tronstad wanted to do the same.

After celebrating his thirty-ninth birthday that March, he had quit smoking and begun exercising diligently. In June, he went through parachute training at STS 51. Each evening, he tried to get in a “little commando work” in the expansive park, Hampstead Heath, near his house.

Believing himself prepared for any mission, he pitched to Major General Gubbins, the SOE chief, his own involvement in Grouse. But Gubbins told Tronstad that his place was in London. The Allies could not risk losing his insight and leadership. Coming to an uneasy peace with staying behind, Tronstad threw himself into his Kompani Linge command.

His resolve was strengthened by the news out of his homeland. Across Norway, average citizens were actively resisting the Germans any way they could. Earlier in the year, teachers had gone on strike, refusing Nazi demands to teach the new order to their pupils. Terboven had ordered the arrest of the most recalcitrant teachers—five hundred in number—sending them to a concentration camp in the Arctic seaport of Kirkenes. The journey took sixteen days, the prisoners crowded inside the cargo hold of an old wooden steamer, with little food or water and no toilets. They were forced to work twelve hours a day on the docks, alongside Soviet prisoners of war, and were ill fed, poorly housed, and beaten on a whim. Some died. Others went mad. Still, they resisted.

“War makes the mind very hard,” Tronstad wrote in his diary, thinking of the latest news of their hardship. “Becoming a sensitive person again will not be easy.”

Throughout September, as Knut Haukelid watched the rains sweeping across Scotland and nursed his injured foot, he wished passionately that he had been able to join the Grouse team. From the team’s letters, however, it sounded like they were as stuck as he was. In one, headed “Somewhere in England,” Poulsson wrote, “If you think we have left, then you are damned wrong . . . A week’s waiting for fine weather which never comes. Otherwise it is all right here—the house full of FANYs [field army nurses].” Then, on September 9, “There is a red light today and we hope for the best. We are now ready to start.”

Haukelid awaited word that they had dropped safely. Once they connected with Tronstad by wireless and were securely in place in Telemark, the plan was for him to join them with another Linge member. If only for that damn foot . . .

At the end of September, another letter arrived. “Of course we came back. Motor trouble.” The following day brought yet another note from the Grouse team. “Another unsuccessful attempt. Fog in the North Sea. Devil take the lot! But tails up.”

Then silence. Nothing. Surely they were gone now, landed in the Vidda, without him.

General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of German military forces in occupied Norway, strode through Vemork’s grounds on October 1, impressed by its natural defenses but conscious that they were insufficient to protect the plant from British bandits. There needed to be floodlights, more guards, more patrols, barracks for his troops, potentially an antiaircraft battery. Mines must be laid in the surrounding hillsides and alongside the penstocks running down into the power station. The fences around the grounds had to be raised and topped with rings of barbed wire. The narrow bridge leading to the plant required a reinforced gate.

With a face that looked like it had been chipped from stone, Falkenhorst was a soldier of the old school. He came from a noble German family, had fought in World War I, and won several promotions before his country again found itself embroiled in war. During the advance on Poland, he shone. When Hitler needed a commander to take Norway, Falkenhorst was recommended, in part because of his brief stint in Finland in 1918.

The Führer had given him only a few hours to return with a plan. Falkenhorst, who knew little of Norway, sketched out the attack based in part on what he learned from a Baedeker travel guide found at a local bookshop. His success with the invasion had not brought another command in the continuing German advance. Instead he found himself stuck in Norway, guarding the country like a common sentry. He kept himself on decent terms with Terboven and the SS but savored none of their brutality in keeping the occupied country in check. However, there was no doubt that if given an order from Hitler, he would follow it, no matter what.

After his inspection of Vemork was complete, Falkenhorst gathered its directors, engineers, workers, and guards. He explained that only eleven days before, the power station at Glomfjord had been blown up in a British commando raid, halting the aluminum works that depended on it. Grabbing one of the guards from behind, Falkenhorst demonstrated to his audience how fast and ruthless these commandos could be in an attack. He warned that they might arrive in town as ordinary passengers on the train or bus but that they would come “equipped with automatic weapons with silencers, chloroform, hand grenades, and knuckle-dusters.” Vemork, he concluded, must be prepared.

The price of failure—or for those who aided a sabotage operation—was soon after made clear. On October 5 men in British uniform raided an iron-ore mine outside Trondheim with what German intelligence believed was clear help from the Norwegian resistance (in fact, it was an operation concocted by Tronstad and executed by Kompani Linge). The next day, the city woke up to find posters declaring a state of emergency; the Reichskommissar Terboven arrived by overnight train, accompanied by SS Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Fehlis and scores of his Gestapo. After the RAF’s bombing of their Victoria Terrasse headquarters two weeks before, the SS was eager for blood.

In the town square, Terboven gave a speech. “I have sincerely, and in good faith, had this country and its people’s best interests at heart . . . I have waited magnanimously, and for a long time, but I have now realized that I am forced to take severe measures. When we National Socialists first realize that we have to intervene, we do not follow the democratic method, hanging the little fish, while the big ones swim away. Instead we get hold of big ones, those who want to remain in the background . . . This evening, the population will be made aware of this principle.” Terboven and the SS picked out ten prominent local citizens—a lawyer, newspaper editor, theater director, bank manager, and shipbroker among them—“to atone for several sabotage acts.” Later, Fehlis’s execution squad shot them in the back of the head.

The Swedish border was effectively closed, and Fehlis led an exhaustive hunt for resistance members—indeed, for anyone holding contraband (radios, arms, or large sums of money). His troops searched tens of thousands of people, vehicles, houses, and farms. In the end, they arrested ninety-one individuals as well as every male Jew over fifteen years of age. Some of these prisoners were executed as well.

Terboven intensified efforts to prevent any future raids and to break the will of the Norwegian people. New border regulations, ration cards, and travel permits were instituted. The list of violations punishable by death now included providing shelter to enemies of the state and attempting to leave the country. Across Norway, thousands were arrested, often indiscriminately. Prison transports to Germany increased. Informants were pressed for names of those in the resistance. Torture intensified. If a known resistance member couldn’t be found, the Gestapo took his or her parents or siblings instead.

In mid-October Hitler delivered a secret order, the Kommandobefehl, to his generals across Europe, including Falkenhorst, to further punish the Allies for their commando attacks: “Henceforth all enemy troops encountered in so-called commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or demolition groups, armed or unarmed; and whether in combat or seeking to escape . . . If such men appear to be about to surrender, no quarter should be given to them—on general principle.” The order clearly violated the written and unwritten codes of war.

Australian Military

The military has occupied a marginal position in Australian society for most of the nation’s history, but war and the fact of military service have been key determinants in the shaping of the national character and ethos. At the level of national policy, the search for security through alliance with `great and powerful friends’ has typified Australian defence and foreign relations since the late nineteenth century. Australians have often defined themselves in terms of their military past, although until very recently they have studiously avoided any consideration of the violent dispossession of the aboriginal people in this process.

The British army and the Royal Navy left an indelible stamp on the early Australian colonies, but this had little to do with the discharge of their most obvious military functions. The garrison of New South Wales was provided initially by several companies of the Royal Marines, who were succeeded in 1791 by the New South Wales Corps, a regiment recruited specifically for service in the colony. Following its involvement in the bloodless deposition of Governor William Bligh in January 1808 it was recalled to Britain and disbanded finally in 1818, and from 1809 the military force in the Australian colonies was provided by regiments of the British army, usually four in number at any one time. These provided guards for the convict labourers who made up the bulk of the settlement’s early population, maintained internal law and order against the aboriginal population and escaped convicts, and provided a security guarantee against an external threat which, while frequently apprehended, never materialized. With the decline in transportation after 1840 the internal security function declined, and this together with the absence of a clearly identifiable external enemy led to a gradual rundown in the British garrison, although the last regiment was not withdrawn until 1870 in line with the recommendations of the Mills Committee of 1862.

The most important contribution of the British military was in `nation-building’; most of the original transport and communications infrastructure of the colonies was created by officers of the Royal Engineers, who also supervised the early Mints, while the structure of executive government and administration was supplied by officers of the army and navy. The regiments and the ships of the Australia Station (created in 1859) played a dominant role in the social life of the colonies as well.

The achievement of self-governing status in the 1850s and 1860s, and especially the departure of the last garrison units, forced colonial governments back on their own resources for the provision of their own defence. The colonial military forces were never very effective militarily; they fulfilled an important social function for the middle classes but were subject equally to marked fluctuation in strength and the provision of equipment, especially during the major depression of the 1890s. On two occasions colonial forces played on a wider stage: in 1885 when New South Wales despatched a contingent of 770 men to the Sudan to avenge Gordon, and during the Boer War (1899-1902) when 16,175 men served in five colonial contingents and, following Federation in 1901, in three Commonwealth ones.

The period between the federation of the colonies in 1901 and the outbreak of war in 1914 was marked by considerable military activity, although initially the Commonwealth parliament was hostile to military spending. This changed with the Japanese victory against the Russians in 1905, coupled with dissatisfaction with existing arrangements for naval defence which entailed reliance on, but no control over, ships of the Royal Navy subsidized by the Commonwealth. Agitation for a greater say in the dispositions of naval defence led to the formation of an Australian naval squadron in 1914, while a system of universal military training was introduced in 1909 to provide a sizeable field force for the home defence of the Commonwealth. In both areas Australia adopted distinctly different solutions to its defence problems from either Britain or the other self-governing dominions.

The Boer War notwithstanding, participation in the Great War of 1914-18 was regarded widely as the nation’s `coming of age’, and involvement in that war influenced Australian society for decades. Approximately half the eligible white males drawn from a total population of five million enlisted; 331,000 of these served overseas, of whom 60,000 were killed and a further 166,000 were wounded. It was a devastating introduction to modern industrial warfare, made worse by the deep divisions occasioned by the domestic disputes over conscription for overseas service.

The seizure of German colonial territories in the South Pacific in the war’s opening months and the destruction of German commerce-raiders fully justified Australia’s pre-war insistence on an Australian fleet, but the first major military commitment was to the defence of the Suez Canal and the opening of a front against Turkey in the Dardanelles. An unmitigated disaster at almost every level, Gallipoli is the foundation stone of the Australian military myth and provided the raw material of the self-regarding Anzac legend, which has dominated the Australian national image ever since. It was also a small epic of courage, endurance and sacrifice which demonstrated both that the Australians had the makings of very fine soldiers – something which various British observers had remarked on during the Boer War – and that they still had a long way to go. Of the 50,000 men who served on the peninsula over 26,000 became casualties, more than 8,000 of them killed, in just seven months.

The Australian Imperial Force was greatly enlarged and reorganized in January 1916; five infantry divisions departed for service on the Western Front while two mounted divisions remained in the eastern Mediterranean as part of the main strike force in the campaigns in Sinai and Palestine. In France the Australians fought on the Somme, losing 28,000 men in July-August 1916, and at Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele, where they suffered another 58,000 casualties in the course of 1917. Formed into an Australian Corps at the end of that year, and from May 1918 commanded by an Australian militia officer, General Sir John Monash, the Australian divisions became one of the spearhead formations of the British 4th Army, heavily involved in the great advances of July-October 1918 which resulted in the final defeat of the German army, and during which they suffered a further 21,000 killed and wounded. The heavy losses in France led directly to agitation for the introduction of conscription in line with Britain and the other dominions. Dominated by the prime minster, William Morris Hughes, the domestic debate degenerated into a loyalty test into which various irrelevant considerations of religion and class were introduced by both sides, influenced by events in Ireland in 1916 and Russia in 1917. The electorate twice rejected the proposal, in October 1916 and December 1917, and by 1918 the home front was bitterly divided; recruitment in the last year failed significantly to keep pace with wastage, and many units in France operated at half strength or less.

The interwar years were marked by the same financial stringencies and political blindness experienced throughout the western democracies, in Australia’s case influenced strongly by over-reliance on the Singapore strategy. The outbreak of war in 1939 saw Australia commit inadequately equipped forces to the Mediterranean once again, while the entry of the Japanese into the war in December 1941 revealed the bankruptcy of interwar strategy. Australian infantry divisions were involved heavily in the early defeats of the Italians in 1941 and in the see-sawing offensives against the Germans in North Africa, as well as comprising the main forces committed to the disasters in Greece and Crete. A division was lost at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, at which point the Australian government insisted on its right to withdraw its forces from Europe for the defence of its own territory. Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in the American-created South-West Pacific Area, Australian formations defeated the Japanese in a succession of gruelling campaigns in Papua-New Guinea in 1942-3 until, eclipsed by the enormous build-up of US forces and denied a role in the reconquest of the Philippines, they were deflected into marginal campaigns away from the main axis of the Allies’ northwards advance.

Australia fielded about 800,000 uniformed personnel during the war, and made as great an effort on the home front. As well as supplying its own needs it provisioned the US forces in the South-west Pacific theatre and continued to supply foodstuffs to Britain. War-related industries received a considerable boost, and large numbers of women entered nontraditional employment categories for the first time. So great was the strain on the domestic economy that the government began selective demobilization of the forces at the end of 1943 in order to meet the demands for labour. From February 1943 a limited form of conscription for overseas service applied; conscripted militiamen were required to serve only in Australia’s immediate environs, and the successful passage of the legislation was the result of considerable persuasion within the Labor Party by the Labor prime minister, John Curtin. Dictated by the seriousness of Australia’s strategic situation, it remains the only occasion on which the issue has not deeply polarized the wider community.

Postwar defence policy was characterized by three tendencies: forward defence and the concomitant involvement in a continuous series of conflicts throughout the 1950s and 1960s; the dominance of the regular services, especially the army, as the principal source of advice to government; and the centralization of defence administration. At the same time, Australian reliance on a major ally switched, gradually, from the United Kingdom to the United States. In the period immediately after the war Australia in fact re-emphasized the traditional links with Britain; through the 1950s Australian policy tried to balance British and American links and, although the major realignment of the armed forces along American lines began with equipment acquisition programmes announced in 1957, this policy continued until the final announcement of British withdrawal from southeast Asia in the late 1960s.

Involvement in the occupation of Japan (1946-51), the Korean War (1950-3), the Malayan Emergency (1950-60), Konfrontasi with Indonesia (1964-6) and the Vietnam War (1962-72) saw the services involved in operations more or less continuously for a quarter of a century. With the significant exception of Vietnam, these wars were fought entirely by regular service personnel; casualties were low and the operations generally successful, and involvement in these campaigns aroused little comment and almost no opposition at home. Although initially ignored by most, Vietnam became the most divisive war in half a century, especially after the first national servicemen were despatched in mid-1966. As in 1916-17 the issue for most was the use of conscripts overseas, although for the radical Left this soon led to a critique of the conduct of the war, the fact of Australian involvement, the US alliance, and the nature of society generally. The operations conducted by the 1st Australian Task Force were highly successful on the whole, and the casualty rates low: 501 killed, only 1 per cent of the total number involved, and around 3,000 wounded. These factors made little difference to the growing unease felt by middle Australia over government policy, nor to the mostly young demonstrators who took to the streets in 1970-1 in their tens of thousands. The Australian contribution was scaled down in 1969, and withdrawn in late 1971. Whether Vietnam was the key issue in unseating the government in the elections in December 1972 must be doubted, however.

Since 1975, and more particularly since 1983, Australia’s defence posture has undergone some fundamental changes. While the alliance with the United States remains close, epitomized by the prompt despatch of a small naval task force to the Persian Gulf in late 1990, a series of reports has stressed the need for greater selfreliance in the task of defending Australian territory and interests. A large-scale equipment acquisition and replacement programme, commenced in the 1980s, will run through to the end of the century, and this has placed strain on the defence budget, but in other areas, especially the proclaimed intention to pass many functions back to the reserve forces, government policy seems intent on reversing many of the developments of the postwar era.


Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia (Melbourne, 1990); Australia: two centuries of war and peace, eds Michael McKernan and Margaret Browne (Canberra, 1988); Revue Internationale d’Histoire Militaire, lxxii, edition Australienne, eds Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (Canberra, 1990); Peter Pierce, Jeffrey Grey and Jeff Doyle, Vietnam Days: Australia and the impact of Vietnam (Ringwood, Victoria, 1991).