The First Crusade

There was curiously little pacifism in the High Middle Ages. St Augustine, already by the fourth century, had formulated a theory of just war (bellum justum), and subsequent clerics interwove his theory into a wider ideology of Christian kingship. The ideal Christian king tried to avoid war or, if war was unavoidable, tried to find honourable ways to re-establish peace (‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’, Matthew 5:9). The Christian prince whose lands were invaded without legitimate reason or whose subjects were imperilled by the forces of a rival prince or by rebellion would necessarily use war as an instrument of policy and could do so legitimately.

War had rules – in time this elaborate set of rules became known as chivalry. In the late eleventh century, it was widely accepted in elite circles that non-combatants were not licit targets, unless they were spies or harboured or supplied the enemy. Under special protection were those considered as the most vulnerable non-combatants: women and children in general, but especially widows and orphans, as well as priests, monks, nuns, the aged and the infirm.

The just wars of the biblical past, for which the book of Joshua provided textual proof, openly received the blessing of God. Had He not made the sun stand still so that Joshua’s victory might be assured? (Joshua 10:12). In the most extreme statement of the case, it was said that wars against non-believers who had attacked the people of God were waged by the direct will of God. Apart from direct illumination from the Almighty, how better to determine the will of God than to have a priest, preferably the high priest, sanctify the war?

Jesus’s rebuke to Peter, who tried to defend him when he was being taken prisoner in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, was the proof here: ‘Put up thy sword into the sheath’ (Matthew 26:52). The sword of physical retribution was not to be wielded by the spiritual descendants of St Peter – the clergy – but lordship over the sword still remained with the clergy: ‘Put up thy sword.’ It therefore rested with the Church, according to some ecclesiastical theorists, to determine how and under what conditions secular rulers could legitimately unsheathe and wield the sword of physical retribution. This was not in conflict with the older ‘doctrine of the two swords’ – one, spiritual (humiliation, malediction, excommunication, interdict), to be employed by the Church to coerce open but recalcitrant sinners; the other, temporal (physical force), to be employed by secular rulers. Rather, it clarified the traditional doctrine of the two swords by explaining the Church’s superintendence of temporal authority.

There was a centuries-old liturgy of war that emphasized certain other aspects of the intimate relationship between the clergy and righteous military violence. Ideally there was general fasting before battles were waged, and the clergy present in the entourage of the army celebrated votive masses, asking for victory and promising eternal devotion to God. The priests blessed the commanders and their troops and gave sermons of exhortation, the spiritual equivalent of the secular commanders’ harangues. They led the faithful in hymns and responsive readings like Psalm 20 (Vulgate 19), with the famous verse, ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.’

Also drawing on the stories in the biblical Book of Joshua of the conquest of the Promised Land, the clergy and the commanders commemorated victory, suggestive if not self-evident testimony, when and if it came, of the justness of their cause. They did so in part by following the example of the ancient Hebrews, who, at God’s command, despoiled their beaten enemies during the conquest of the Promised Land (e.g., Joshua 8: 26–27). They also obliged the army to hear mass, to rededicate itself to the vows of devotion with which the soldiers had prepared for battle, and to honour the weapons of war in the cult of military relics.

So, already in the eleventh century elite thinkers and other high-born people knew what a just war was and how it should be fought, even if they did not live up to their ideals. The Peace and Truce of God had done much to disseminate and popularize some of these ideals, but a particular set of events in the late eleventh century helped to create a more remarkable type of just and holy war – the crusade.

There was, it has been argued, a significant strain of millenarian feeling in eleventh-century western European society. This was perhaps slightly more characteristic of the earlier part of the century, but it may be that millennial and apocalyptic movements of a more or less popular character were in train throughout the century. The idea of a decisive colossal confrontation between the forces of good and the servants of evil was at the prophetic centre of several of these movements.

Jerusalem and its liberation, and more particularly the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Christ, from pagan domination, loomed large in apocalyptic discourse. (In the eleventh and into the twelfth century Christians in northern Europe tended to regard Muslims as pagans.) Jerusalem was being used as a first name for girls in the West (Riley-Smith, 1997, p. 33), evidence of the penetration of its image into popular consciousness; and pilgrimages to Jerusalem from the West, relatively uncommon from the seventh to the tenth century, began to increase in frequency in the tenth. They became fairly common in the eleventh and also on occasion enormously large. In 1054, one band of such pilgrims numbered 3,000. Seven thousand Germans are said to have joined together to make the Jerusalem pilgrimage in 1064–5.

Reports of various Muslim victories over Near Eastern and Spanish Christians and of the gestures that sometimes followed fuelled the smouldering hatred and desire for vengeance by western Catholics. In October 1086, the Muslim victors at the battle of Sagrajas in Spain had the heads of the Christian victims gathered up into wagons and in a gruesome procession the wagons made their way down the peninsula and thence through North Africa with their rotting trophies. Pope Gregory VII himself, a decade or so before, seems to have envisaged the papacy’s retainers, the fideles of St Peter, as a possible army, to be accompanied by him, for delivering eastern Christians from the onslaught of their Muslim enemies and also for redeeming Jerusalem. Because of the Investiture Controversy and perhaps lingering doubts about the appropriateness of direct papal involvement in fighting, the fantasy never became reality, and important features of genuine crusade ideology, such as the penitential vow of the troops, were lacking in his vision, but Gregory’s musings helped inspire and sustain other images of a just war of liberation in reform circles.

After his election in 1088, and being obliged to vie with the imperial anti-pope Clement III for backing, Pope Urban II cast about for support in numerous ways. In part owing to the Peace Movement a close relationship had emerged between local aristocracies and a number of powerful monasteries, especially in France. Focusing on prayer – the prayers of the monks for the ancestors and living members of these aristocratic lineages – the relationship implicitly and sometimes explicitly raised the hope of these aristocrats’ salvation because of the good work they did in protecting the monastic life, the highest form of the Christian life and, by extension, Christendom in general. In practice, protection was ordinarily achieved by persuasion or the threat of force rather than by the actual use of force against would-be malefactors. But when persuasion and threats failed, the application of force against those who attacked monks and other vulnerable Christians was believed to be righteous in itself.

Force in the service of retributive justice (the bellum justum) was carefully distinguished from the fury and chaos attending ‘petty’ disputes among lords, the acts of internecine violence (guerrae, the origin of our modern word ‘war’) that had plagued the Central Middle Ages and helped excite the Peace Movement in the first place and which were still thickly woven into the fabric of social life in the late eleventh century. But Urban II or one of his advisers, drawing on the legacy of Gregory VII and inspired by pleas for help from eastern Christians, took another decisive step in the development of the idea of the crusade. The same lords who protected monks could protect Christendom east and west by directing their violence against the Muslim invaders and conquerors of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Holy Land.

There is some uncertainty as to the rewards the pope promised these would-be soldiers in his famous sermon at the Council of Clermont in southern France on 27 November 1095. But there is no doubt that the idea of fighting to regain the Holy Sepulchre or to help fellow Christians in the east was in the air and met a genuinely enthusiastic response. Although the mutual excommunications of pope and patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, emphasized so much in traditional interpretations, had exacerbated tensions between the western and eastern churches, they had not set them in malignant combat or reduced all mutual feelings of respect to nothing.

At the Council of Clermont shouts went up of ‘God wills it! God wills it!’ in response to the pope’s words. He appealed to lords and lordlings to put aside their petty strife, which would lead them to hell, and instead to take up the Cross, to offer their lives to save threatened Christians. Would there be sin in killing their enemies in what was clearly conceived of as a just and holy war? No. Would there be remission of sins in some wider sense, a wiping clean of the slate or immediate entrance into paradise if one died in the effort? The pope might have been carried away and uttered ambiguous words on this occasion or on any of the many subsequent occasions on which he gave similar speeches in favour of an expedition to the east. Certainly some of his audience that first day and many others later on believed that faithfully fighting in such an expedition would be rewarded with full forgiveness of all past sins and that death in such fighting was equivalent to martyrdom. Although learned churchmen understood and stressed the penitential nature of crusading, they were far more insistent on the limited nature of the forgiveness that joining or dying on a crusade might entail.

The pope recognized from the moment he addressed the crowds in Clermont that he had touched a well-spring of militant devotion. He continued in future sermons to make the same plea and to urge those lords who responded to make firm plans for an expedition in the spring of 1096. It may well be that some of the enthusiasm at subsequent councils and rallies in late 1095 and early 1096 was scripted, with supporters of the pope’s plan strategically planted in the crowds to get the chanting of ‘God wills it!’ started. It may also be the case that the genuine enthusiasm of the moment sometimes ebbed in the weeks that followed, as lords came to recognize the dangers and expense of the long and otherwise unpredictable journey they were going on. Fear of dying in a far-off place when one’s expectation had been to be buried in the choir of the family church, or at least in Christian soil, troubled their souls. It would later be stipulated that the flesh could be buried but the bones of dead crusaders had to be brought back for separate burial in their native lands.

All these apprehensions notwithstanding, the crusading movement, once started, grew exponentially in territories like France, the southern Low Countries, and those parts of Italy where the legitimacy of Urban’s pontificate was recognized. And, given its later successes, attributed to the intervention of God (He simply worked through the Franks), it raised disturbing questions about the evident lack of imperial sponsorship for the project. Emperor Henry IV was well aware of this, for at one point he offered to join the crusade himself. But as he would not yield on the point of lay investiture, his offer came to nothing.

Pope Urban II encouraged those who took the vow to prepare conscientiously, and the principal leaders, including many Flemish, Rhine-land, northern French and Provençal barons – though in the end no king – ultimately settled on 15 August 1096, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, as the date of departure. However, it was difficult to co-ordinate and control efforts that were taking place all over northwestern Europe, and what is sometimes known as the Peasants’ Crusade or Popular Crusade – the expeditions of several dispersed groups under the leadership of various itinerant preachers and knights – set off in the late spring. A small group at Rouen in Normandy helped set the violent and almost anarchic tone of these early expeditions by massacring several Jews in the city. Another of these groups, somewhat better commanded by a knight known as Walter the Penniless (Sansavoir), left France and travelled through Germany and Hungary, making it to the outskirts of Constantinople by July. A third group, led by the charismatic preacher, Peter the Hermit, arrived there by the end of July, but on their way these poorly disciplined troops provoked any number of bloody and, for them, humbling skirmishes with Hungarian and Byzantine soldiers.

Many of the earliest crusaders never made it, even to Constantinople. The disorder and depredations of one group, whose leader was a priest by the name of Gottschalk, provoked the Hungarians, through whose lands they were marching, to destroy them. An otherwise unknown preacher named Volkmar led his followers to a similar fate in Nitra on the Hungarian border with Bohemia, but only after they had violently attacked the Jews of Prague. The most notorious of the bands was led by the Swabian Count Emich of Flonheim. He and his followers, inspired in part by the desire to loot but mainly, it seems, to force the Jews’ conversion, carried out a series of violent attacks in the Rhineland, repercussions from which would reach down the centuries.

Before they left Germany on their way to the east and were themselves cut down by Hungarian forces, Emich’s men and other bands ravaged the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Metz and Regensburg. In some cases, like Mainz, the entire Jewish population of these towns was annihilated; at others (Regensburg is an example) nearly every Jew was forced to convert to Christianity. Even where Christian authorities, especially bishops, intervened to protect the Jews, the situation continued to be ferociously dangerous. Occasionally, for example, Jews were dispersed into the countryside to prevent the crusaders from besieging them en masse, but search parties hunted down the refugees in villages and hamlets. On other occasions, churchmen promised protection at the price of conversion. Most arresting, perhaps, was that in several places Jewish resistance to the crusaders’ demands for conversion assumed the form of voluntary suicide. Many Jewish women led the way, urging the men of their communities to take their own lives rather than convert. Parents also slaughtered their children as a supreme act of devotion.

There had been rare instances of mass suicide earlier in the history of Judaism, but in 1096 and later years rabbis were troubled as to the moral legitimacy of the suicides. In the end, they came to accept them and subsequent ones as legitimate responses to the threat of forced conversion, and generations of poets would celebrate the heroism of the martyr suicides and the martyred children. Many of their names would be inscribed in memorial lists. The poetry celebrating their sacrifice entered the liturgy of the synagogue, so that the memory of the events of 1096 and of the martyrs and victims in later crusades and at other crises would never be forgotten.

Oh, how the children cried aloud!

Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered;

the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering;

the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter.

Compassionate women strangle their own children;

pure virgins shriek bitterly;

brides kiss their bridegrooms farewell –

and all rush eagerly to be slaughtered.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high,

in days of old the angels cried out to You to put a halt to one sacrifice.

And now, so many are bound and slaughtered –

why do they not clamour over my infants?

(Carmi, 1981, pp. 372–3)

Relations between Christians and Jews were affected in at least one other way by the horrendous incidents of 1096. A fissure developed in the Jewish community between those who seem to have developed a more restricted understanding of proper Jewish life and those who went back to the way of life they knew before. It is probably unfair to see the movement or sect attributed to these hasidim or pietists of the Rhineland only as a reaction to the crusade massacres, but that slaughter must have had an enormous impact in sustaining the rigorous beliefs of those survivors who insisted on a more pious way of living and an even greater avoidance of social and religious contamination by contact with non-pious Jews, let alone Christians. The sect disappeared in time; its ideas, embedded in an important body of texts, especially the Sefer Hasidim (‘Book of the Pious’), have repeatedly inspired revival movements among European Jews.

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Although most of the contingents of the Peasants’ Crusade never reached Constantinople, those commanded by Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit did. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius, and his commanders were suspicious of these rag-tag troops and, rather than have them bivouac for a protracted length of time on the outskirts of the imperial capital, they transported them across the straits to Asia Minor on 6 August. There the crusaders split into several groups, largely along linguistic lines. A few early raids were successful, but a large band of German crusaders was isolated and defeated near Nicea and forced to convert to Islam and be deported eastwards or, if they refused, to die. By 21 October, the main body of crusaders, chastened by the slaughter of their comrades but still not coordinating their operations competently, and with relatively ineffective military intelligence, came face to face with overwhelming Turkish forces and were annihilated.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Princely Crusade was in the final stages of preparation. Powerful aristocrats commanded the various units, and in each case the commander knew that his retinue had honed their skills in battles at home. Long-standing and strong personal loyalties bound many of the units as well. It is a myth that the crusaders were composed of landless young knights; they tended to be mature and experienced men who left considerable properties behind. The prominence of loyalty among these warriors did not mean that there was always harmony within the units or that the various units themselves coordinated their efforts effectively. Nevertheless, there was a military ethos that informed the Princely Crusade in a way that it did not the Peasants’ Crusade. Moreover, the new units were relatively better supplied than their predecessors. Partly this was because the great aristocrats had much more cash and credit at their disposal to buy equipment and other supplies. Partly, however, it was a matter of timing: having departed at a later date, the new crusaders had more liberty to plan, while also having the opportunity to benefit from the harvests of 1096.

The chief princes and their crusader retinues began to arrive in Constantinople in November and continued to arrive until May 1097, and were steadily ferried across the Bosporus in anticipation of engagement. Most of the commanders promised that, if they were successful, those lands they conquered which had once been part of the Byzantine Empire would revert to the Empire, a necessary concession if Byzantine troops were to complement their efforts, as in fact they did for a time. According to the best estimates, the crusade could count on more than 40,000 troops.

This enormous army appeared at Nicea on 19 June and overawed the Turkish garrison, which surrendered to the Byzantines. A week later, the crusaders set out for the interior and on 1 July defeated additional Turkish forces at Dorylaeum. Forty-eight hours later they resumed their march, traversing city after city of interior Asia Minor in the weeks that followed, but eventually encountering another major Turkish force at Ereghli in early September. Here, too, the crusading army crushed their enemies and sent the remnants packing.

Two of the leading commanders, Baldwin of Boulogne and a mercurial baron, Tancred, the son of Robert Guiscard, then took contingents eastwards and south-eastwards, where they accomplished the reconquest of the coastal cities of Anatolia, including Tarsus, which they knew as St Paul’s birthplace. Baldwin followed up this success with the conquest of Edessa and, after supplanting its Armenian prince, he set up the first crusader principality there. Pressure was then put on the temperamental Tancred to rejoin the main crusader army, which was engaged in the long siege of Antioch from 21 October 1097 until June 1098.

The successful conclusion of the siege, with only the Muslim garrison of the citadel still holding out, led to the occupation of Antioch, but a few days later a large number of Turkish reinforcements arrived and surrounded the occupied city. At this point, a Byzantine army in reserve a few miles from Antioch and under the direct command of Emperor Alexius might have saved the situation, but the emperor’s military intelligence overstated the size of the Turkish forces and the significance of their early successes. The Byzantines therefore withdrew.

Out of this desperate situation arose the first great sequence of events that would mark the crusade – in the crusaders’ minds at least – as undeniably God’s work. Visionaries among the besieged claimed to have received comfort and inspiration personally from Jesus. The Blessed Virgin’s appearance was reported, as were the appearances of St Andrew and St Peter. And, miracle of miracles, thanks to a poor peasant, a lance was found under the floor of the Cathedral of Antioch which was said to be, though not everyone at first credited the tale, the lance with which the centurion had stabbed the dead Christ on the Cross (John 19:34). The Holy Lance, regarded as a relic, was interpreted as a sign for the crusaders to abandon the relative safety of Antioch’s defences and confront the Turks directly. On 28 June, they did just that. Completely surprised and unnerved by the crusaders’ daring, the Turks fled. Equally surprised by the failure of the Muslim army, the citadel garrison, which until that moment had courageously held out, also surrendered to the crusaders. Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, was now entirely in crusader hands.

The crusaders believed that such success, like finding the Holy Lance itself, was a sign from God, but success also bred strife. The treachery of the Byzantine emperor, as some of the crusaders conceived it, relieved them of the necessity of honouring their promise to return all conquered lands to his authority. Other commanders demurred at forswearing their solemn oaths. Presently disease afflicted the army, felling some of its most gifted commanders and decimating the ranks. But despite this, the bickering persisted: as they continued to debate future plans, what was and was not pleasing to God became painfully and dangerously uncertain.

By January 1099 many of the rank and file were rallying around lesser lords, who intended to bring order to the army by compelling dissident commanders, by force if necessary, to put aside their disagreements and resume the march. Force was necessary, it turned out (in the guise of an attack on the fortifications of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, who favoured holding to the agreement with the Byzantines), but it was followed by a sobering rededication to the expedition. By February most of what was left of the army was on the move, traversing Lebanon and reaching Palestine in May. On 6 June Tancred conquered Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and on 7 June the bulk of the army began the siege of Jerusalem. There were now approximately 15,000 troops left to do so.

They moved more quickly than they had at Antioch to end the siege, storming the city on 15 July. The frenzy of the assault and the slaughter were of epic proportions, as the crusaders took control.

Many of the Saracens [Muslims] who had climbed to the top of the Temple of Solomon in their flights were shot to death with arrows and fell headlong from the roof. Nearly ten thousand were beheaded in this Temple. If you had been there your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared. (Fulcher of Chartres, 1969, pp. 121–2).

A week later the victors elected Godfrey of Bouillon as ruler – not king – of Jerusalem: Jesus was king. But they had learned something from the experience at Antioch. The Muslims would undoubtedly send another force to try to retake Jerusalem, and indeed an enormous Egyptian force invaded Palestine in August. But on the twelfth of the month, crusader forces surprised the Egyptians near Ascalon, on the Mediterranean coast about fifty miles west of the Holy City, and utterly destroyed them.

The First Crusade had reached its emotional high point, and it is customary to claim that the crusade more or less ended at this moment. The setting up of principalities and the evolution of political and religious life proceeded apace, but these hardly appeared to be aspects of the crusade itself. In fact, the crusade was far from over. For the next twenty years, men streamed into the Holy Land and fought any number of actions in the extraordinary attempt to stabilize, expand and territorially consolidate the Crusader States. These actions were the necessary coda of the more spectacular conquest of Jerusalem and are properly considered part of the First Crusade. What this almost continuous warfare ensured was that the political institutions and social arrangements of the Crusader States would be skewed. What has sometimes been said of Spain in the era of the Reconquest can be said even more accurately of the Crusader States: they constituted a society organized almost solely according to the exigencies of war.

One of the more distinctive features of this society was the presence of military orders, well-organized associations of devout Christians who cared for and provided protection for pilgrims, nursed the sick, and ultimately took an active part in the military defence of the Crusader States. Groups of people dedicated to the nursing of pilgrims probably existed before 1099, but there were dramatic increases in the numbers of Christian pilgrims to the Holy City from the time of the Christian reconquest onwards. Pilgrims to Jerusalem characteristically, if not exclusively, were aged or sick; they came to the city not for miraculous cures but in order to die where Christ had died. It was in part due to the pressure of such numbers that the people ministering to them organized themselves into formal orders. The earliest of these seems to have been the Order of St John of Jerusalem, known more familiarly as the Hospitallers. The Order of the Temple of Solomon or Knights Templars came into being in 1119–20, originally to guard the pilgrimage routes.

The Hospitallers ran the great pilgrim hospital in the Holy City, sometimes employing Jewish and Muslim physicians to help minister to the sick. The hospital accepted both Muslims and Jews who needed care. Orphans of war and abandoned children were taken in and put in the charge of female nurses; when they came of age they were invited to join the Order. But, as was typical of the military orders, the Hospitallers, while never losing their original function, came more and more to be identified as a fighting force. The Order’s great hospital, perhaps 1,000 beds or more, was often filled with the wounded from its own battles.

The military orders, in their mature form, came to be composed of knights who took monastic vows and vowed celibacy, priests who carried out the spiritual functions of the order, sergeants from lesser social backgrounds, and nuns who helped nurse women and children and who prayed for the success of the Christian mission. They were international orders who owed direct obedience to the pope and were supported by houses established throughout Europe which both sent funds to the orders in the Holy Land and provided venues for the retirement of older members of the orders. Their work, in the heroic age following the conquest of Jerusalem, was deeply admired. To St Bernard, who wrote in praise of the Templars, they represented a new order of Christian knighthood. King Alfonso I of Navarre and Aragon (d. 1131) wanted to give one-third of his kingdom to the Hospitallers to carry on their work.

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The news in Christendom of the fall of Jerusalem and the good work of devoted Christians confirmed, more than almost anything else could, the spirit of renewal that had been articulated in the efforts at papal and popular reform. Of the crusaders who lived and returned home to Europe, few came back rich, and the difficult local conditions that had arisen on their estates during their absence often demanded extraordinary efforts at peacekeeping and restoration on their part. All of these men had lost kinsmen and good friends in great numbers in the deserts and plains of the Near East. Nonetheless, those who returned relished recalling their adventures – stories of their suffering and courage that grew in the retelling into wondrous tales of inspiration for generations to come.

Those who had failed to go on the expedition felt all the more need to prove themselves as time went by. But the specialness of having gone on the First Crusade was never lost. Families assiduously preserved the memory of the participation of their ancestors. Other families who could not count an ancestor on the expedition found it difficult to explain why this was so, since nobility and the defence of Christendom were so closely related in the aristocratic imagination. As time passed, some of these lineages ‘invented’ ancestral participants in the First Crusade by clever misreadings, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of original chronicle reports (Murray, 1998, pp. 38–54). Surely, it might be said, if the family of so-and-so had gone off to war in the East with a great entourage, and this family was closely connected to one’s own, then it was only natural and right to suppose that in that entourage one’s own kinfolk could be numbered. To have served Christendom in this, allegedly the most righteous of its wars, was the crowning achievement of nobility.

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Campaign Against the Pirates, 66-67 BC

The lembos (Lat. Lembus, Plautus, Mercator, I, 2,81 and II, 1,35) was an Illyrian fast ship, probably originally used in piracy and very important for the Romans for its carrying capacity of men, equipment and booty. It could be open and aphract, with a strong ramming capacity and rowed at two levels (biremis). From this the liburna was developed.

Pompey, ordered to clear the seas of pirates, had full authority over the entire Mediterranean and Black Seas, and all land within 80km (50 miles) of the sea. He raised 500 ships, 120,000 soldiers and 5000 cavalry. He then divided this force into 13 commands. The only area left (deliberately) unguarded was Cilicia. Pompey took a squadron of 60 ships and drove the pirates from Sicily, into the arms of another squadron. Then he swept down to North Africa, and completed the triangle by linking up with another legate off the coast of Sardinia, thus securing the three main grain-producing areas that served Rome. Pompey then swept across the Mediterranean from Spain to the east, defeating or driving pirates before him. The remnants duly gathered in Cilicia, where Pompey had planned a full assault by both land and sea. A few pirate strongholds were destroyed, and there was a final sea battle in the bay of Coracesium, but thanks to Pompey’s clemency, most pirates surrendered easily.

POMPEY THE GREAT DEFEATS CILICIAN PIRATES, 66 BC It was Pompey the Great who was to crush the Cilician pirates and give freedom and security to the waterways of the Roman Republic. To do this, Pompey received from the Senate, after long debates, extraordinary powers in 67 BC: the proconsular power (Imperium Proconsolare) for three years throughout the Mediterranean basin to the Black Sea with the right to operate up to 45 miles inland. Fifteen legates were put under him with the title of propraetores and 20 legions (120,000 men) and 4,000 riders, 270 ships and a budget of 6,000 talents. In a rapid and well-organized campaign he defeated the pirates. Two months sufced to patrol the Black Sea and root out troublemakers; then it was the turn of Crete and Cilicia (App., Mithridatic War, 96). The pirates were destroyed in their own territories and they surrendered to Pompey a great quantity of arms and ships, some under construction, some already at sea, together with bronze, iron, sail cloth, rope and various kinds of timber. In Cilicia 71 ships were taken for capture and 300 for surrender. This scene shows an amphibious operation of Pompey the Great’s fleet against the pirates. The main Roman ship is a `Three’. The burning Cilician ships are two myoparones.

The early period of Roman expansion was marked by a succession of wars with neighbours near and far. First there were the other states in Italy and then Carthage. When Carthage was beaten, the Rome turned its gaze to the east. Macedonia, Greece and then Pontus (modern Asiatic Turkey) fell to Rome over a number of years. But it was while Rome was focused on these wars that piracy raised its head in the eastern Mediterranean.

For many years, the island of Rhodes had used its navy to suppress piracy in order to protect her position as a transit port in the lucrative east-west trade. However, Rhodes fell foul of the Macedonian kingdom and appealed to Rome, who sent a force of quinqueremes to defend her ally. The combined force compelled the Macedonians to sue for peace. Under the treaty, the Romans gained the small island of Delos, which they returned to Macedonia on the condition that it was run as a free port with no taxes or dues on goods entering or leaving. Unfortunately for Rhodes, the presence of this offshore tax haven undermined the revenues from her trade and the island and her navy went into long-term decline. With Rhodes no longer able to police the waters of the Mediterranean, the pirates spread their depredations beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Ports and coastal towns were sacked, shrines desecrated and cargoes, crews and ships taken at sea. The goods, ships and their crew were then sold off at various markets. Wealthy captives were held to ransom.

The ordinary merchants of the ancient world sailed in ships far simpler in design than the warships of the period. Such ships could not afford the expensive oarsmen of the warship and had to rely instead on the single main mast and single square sail with the optional refinement of bowsprit and second, smaller square sail. Later ships added a triangular sail above the main for extra propulsion. The merchant ships could be as much as 60m (200ft) in length, possibly with more than one mast, but were more usually just 30m (100ft) long and 8m (26ft) in beam, drawing just 3m (10ft) of water and carrying loads of around 100-150 gross tons. Built for capacity rather than speed, they were not fast – perhaps 5-6 knots if the wind permitted. Crews were kept to a minimum since they ate into the profits: 10-15 men were usual on a medium-sized ship; less on a smaller ship and more on a larger one.

While the sail-powered merchantman was dependent on the wind for speed, the oarpowered warship or pirate ship was unhampered by head winds or rough seas. Since the square sail meant the merchantman would sail fastest heading down wind, the pirate tactics were simple: cruise into the wind so that any prey coming the other way would find it next to impossible to escape. Alternatively, the pirates would lurk behind headlands for a quick spurt to catch any passing trader. Fear and intimidation were the best weapons to induce a quick surrender. Faced by a pirate ship apparently bristling with armed men and with no way to escape, most merchant ships would be forced to capitulate. The pirates could then use their oars to spin the ship around and bring their bows up to the victim’s stern, where it was safe to board. The crew would be bundled below and well trussed up and the pirates would install their own crew to sail the prize for home.

So widespread and powerful did the pirates grow that when the rebel leader Spartacus and his army of ex-slaves became trapped in the toe of Italy in 72 BC they negotiated with the pirates to evacuate the whole army – some 90,000 men, women and children – by ship. The pirates were then paid even more by the Roman politician Crassus not to fulfil the contract. The problem with piracy reached such a pass that two Roman Praetors, together with their staff, were captured by the pirates. Another squadron attacked Rome’s port at Ostia and sacked other towns in the region.

Pompey’s Appointment

In many ways, the Roman elite benefited from the pirate’s activities. For those who could afford to buy, piracy kept the price of slaves low and supply plentiful. On the other hand, it did interrupt trade. So the wealthiest classes in Rome, who needed to buy slaves to work their estates, benefited while the lower, merchant classes and their workers suffered. In 69 BC, however, the pirates excelled themselves and plundered the island of Delos. It comes as no surprise, then, that the consul Metellus was voted an army to reduce the pirate base in Crete. He headed off and set about his task, rounding up some pirates and settling down to besiege others in the main pirate base on the island.

In 67 BC, the Roman tribune Aulus Gabinus presented a bill to the Peoples’ Assembly to appoint the most famous general of the age, Pompeius Magnus – better known as Pompey – to sweep the pirates from the seas once and for all. The ramifications were enormous. Clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates would greatly ease the lot of the ordinary man. Indeed, prices in the markets of Rome fell significantly simply at the presentation of this bill. The Roman citizens, the plebs, were right behind the idea. However, the wealthy ruling classes, the senators and, to a lesser extent, the knights were almost universally against the bill. The one notable exception was Julius Caesar. Ever the populist, he supported the motion. It was passed.

Pompey had already enjoyed a very distinguished military career. He had first been appointed commander of an army at the age of 24, supporting Sulla’s side in an earlier civil war. Although he was occasionally accused of cruelty, he proved so successful during campaigns in Sicily and in Africa that he was acclaimed ‘Great’ by Sulla. He even asked for and was granted a triumphal procession that should not have been permitted given his youth and junior rank. No sooner had Sulla died than another civil war loomed and Pompey found himself in Spain, leading an army against Sertorius. Although he was supported by a second army under Metellus, it was Pompey who gained a second triumph. It was a truly remarkable achievement.

The resources initially proposed for Pompey in this next task were huge. They comprised some 200 ships plus oarsmen, sailing crew and marines totalling over 40,000 men. He was to be given 15 legates (military commanders), an unlimited treasury, and unlimited powers over the whole of the Mediterranean and up to 7km (4.5 miles) inland. However, the vote was postponed for a day and when the final amended version was passed the Assembly voted through an even bigger force. This consisted of no less than 500 ships, 120,000 infantry and 5000 cavalrymen, 24 senior military commanders and a pair of quaestors (magistrates responsible for military finances). Against this, however, the pirates were reputed to have 1000 ships at their disposal and bases both large and small all around the Mediterranean.

Pompey versus the Sea Pirates 67 BC

The pirates needed to avoid contact with more powerful military elements so that they could continue to extract plunder from less well defended ports and communities in the Mediterranean, while the Roman squadrons sought to round up the pirates and bring them to a very rudimentary justice. Pompey chose to divide the Mediterranean into discrete areas and conquer each in turn, starting in the far west off the coast of Spain. This drove the pirates steadily towards the southern shore of Turkey and the final bloody confrontation happened near Soli, in modern-day southern Turkey. There, Pompey’s assault routed the pirates, destroying their strongholds in the area. Although hailed as a great victory Empire, it was not successful in the long term. Just a few years later in Sicily, Anthony and Octavian had to combine to combat Pompey’s son, who had turned to piracy.

Planning and preparation are key to the success of any enterprise and Pompey’s orders were decisive. The Mediterranean was divided into 13 areas and each one was allocated a commander and a force appropriate to the threat in that area. Pompey retained direct control over a reserve of 60 of his best ships – almost certainly quinqueremes with well-trained crews. Starting with the waters west of Italy, the local commanders restricted the seaborne movements of the pirates and forced them ashore, where they were destroyed. It took only 40 days to sweep these seas clean of the menace. Those pirates that escaped, made their way back to bases along the inhospitable Cilician coast in what is now Turkey.

The greatest threat to Pompey’s success came from inside Rome. The general’s wide powers were both envied and feared, especially by those who benefited most from the activity of the pirates. The consul Piso, safe within the walls of Rome, went so far as to countermand Pompey’s orders, paying off some of the ships’ crews. While Pompey’s fleet sailed south around the foot of Italy to tackle the pirates in the Adriatic, Pompey himself hurried back to Rome. There, his friend and supporter Gabinius had already started the process of dismissing Piso from his position as consul. This would have been a dreadful and permanent stain on his family honour and reputation. Having got his crews back, however, Pompey had the bill withdrawn, and thus Piso lwas let off. Meanwhile, Rome had been transformed – the markets were full of foodstuffs from all over the Mediterranean and prices were almost back to normal. From Rome, Pompey made his way to Brundisium on the east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece and the final part of the war.

Some of the more cut-off pirate squadrons surrendered to Pompey, who confiscated their ships and arrested the men. He stopped short of having the pirates crucified – the normal form of execution for such a crime (all the survivors of Spartacus’ rebellion had been crucified). Thus encouraged, a large number of pirates also sent a message of surrender from Crete, where they were sitting out a siege by Metellus. Pompey accepted their surrender and despatched one of his own commanders, Lucius Octavian, with instructions that no one should pay heed to Metellus but only to Octavian. Mettelus was understandably livid and continued the siege. Octavian, following Pompey’s orders, now masterminded the defence of the city on behalf of the pirates. Eventually the city – and Octavian – were forced to surrender. Metellus humiliated his rival in front of the assembled army before sending him back to Rome with a flea in his ear.

Pompey’s rehabilitation worked. Around 20,000 former pirates were eventually settled in underpopulated inland areas like Dyme in Achea, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, and Soli, in what is now Turkey. However, a substantial body of the miscreants occupied the mountain fastnesses of Cilicia with their families. The inevitable battle with Pompey’s men took place at Coracesium in Cilicia in 67 BC. That there was a battle and that the pirates lost it is about all that is known. Pompey’s victory was not surprising, however. The trained and experienced men of Pompey’s army and navy, with their proper equipment, were more than a match for the undisciplined pirates. It is worth recording that among the spoils of war after that last battle were 90 ships equipped with bronze-headed rams.

Croatian Air Force WWII Part I

Of the several Frankenstein monsters created by the mad political scientists of Versailles after World War I, Yugoslavia was among the most horrific. A hopeless mishmash of ethnically, culturally, spiritually, even linguistically disparate populations, they agonized under a facade of “the self-determination of peoples:” By its 10th anniversary, Yugoslavia had degenerated into an open tyranny, when the Serb monarch dissolved and replaced parliament with a centralized, highly repressive dictatorship under the motto, jedan narod, jedan kralj, jedan drzava, or “One Nation, one King, one Country.”

Nothing could have been further from reality. Instead, this pressure-cooker of mutually antagonistic minorities-Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montegrins, Macedonians, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, and Albanians, with Catholics, Orthodox Serb Christians and Muslims thrown into an incandescent brew-seemed guaranteed to ignite another European conflict in the same region. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as various folkish and religious groups jostled one another to maintain their identity and bare survival, Yugoslavia was torn by the same kind of violence that characterized the Balkans until at least the last decade of the 20th century.

None of these much-abused peoples yearned more than the Croats to break free from Belgrade’s iron heel. Their moment finally arose with the sun on April 6, 1941, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Yugoslavia. His troops were not opposed as conquerors but more often welcomed as liberators. The Royal Yugoslav Air Force’s 3rd Bomber Regiment (Bombarderski Puk) had been obliterated on the ground by attacking Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka dive-bombers, because the Croatian commanding officer deliberately allowed his aircraft to sit in the open as inviting, unprotected targets.

At the same time, another commanding officer, Major Mato Culinovic, defied orders by refusing to fly his 205. Bombarderska Eskadrilal63.BGI3. BP en masse to Greece. Three days prior to the invasion, it was importantly aided by a Croatian defector, Colonel Vladimir Kren, who landed his Potez Po.25-a French single-engine reconnaissance biplane-in Austria, where he turned over sensitive intelligence information about the Royal Yugoslav Air Force to the Luftwaffe. Before German forces reached Zagreb, its residents proclaimed the Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), on April 10.

Almost simultaneously, the Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska, or “Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia” (ZNDH), was formed and became operational almost at once. On the afternoon of that same day, Cvitan Galic, a narednik voclnikll klase (flight instructor) in the Royal Yugoslav Air Force, landed his biplane trainer at an airfield that had been just seized by the rebels. They hastily replaced the Bucker Jungmeister’s despised red-white-blue roundels with the ZNDH insignia-a black-leaf trefoil in a white cross-and Galic took off before the engine could cool to complete the new air arm’s first sorties, a few reconnaissance missions over territory still held by the Jugoslovensko Armija.

His single-place Bucker Bü.133 had never been intended for military operations of any kind. Its fabric-covered wood and tubular steel frame mounted a Siemens Sh 14A-4 radial piston engine rated at 160 hp to give the “Young Master” a 311-mile range at 124 mph, hardly performance enough to save itself from even the mostly obsolete fighters of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force. With that polyglot country’s collapse after 11 days of resistance, a few pilots fled to the Soviet Union or the Middle East, but most joined the ZNDH, headed by the same Colonel Kren who had defected to the Germans prior to their invasion.

His first task was collecting all aircraft, spare parts, machinery, and support equipment from the defeated Royal Yugoslav Air Force that had survived the recent Blitzkrieg. These comprised British handme-downs, such as a few dozen Bristol Blenheim light-bombers and worn-out Hawker Hurricane fighters, plus Yugoslavia’s own Rogozarski IK-3 and Ikarus IK-2 fighters. The former was a relatively modern, low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear, but the Ikarus was a synthesis of Poland’s gull-wing PZL P.8 and Czechoslovakia’s Avia B.534 biplane, both superior warplanes. The reliable, stable, if slower Ikarus actually proved itself more useful for antipartisan missions than the five faster but outdated Rogozarski IK-3s. The original four IK-2s soldiered on against knots of homegrown insurgents into late 1944, when the last Ikarus was destroyed by Allied interceptors.

Other indigenous aircraft included more than 200 Zmaj Fizir light aircraft manufactured before and during World War II. Variants of the rugged, 85-hp biplane served a multitude of roles, from trainer, reconnaissance, and liaison, to amphibian ambulance and guerilla fighter. Italian contributions to Croatia’s new air force included the CANT Z.1007, Fiat BR.20, and Caproni Ca.310. The Z.1007 Alcione (“Kingfisher”) suffered from poor directional stability that rendered it a marginally effective medium-bomber at best. Its three Piaggio P.XI RC 40 radial engines were maintenance-plagued and resulted in poor power-to-weight ratio, providing just 1,100 hp each, for an unimpressive maximum speed of just 285 mph. Although defended by three 12.7-mm Isotta-Fraschini Scotti and two Breda-SAFAT 7.7-mm machine-guns, and crew positions were protected with five- to eight-mm armor shields, the Z.1007’s all-wood construction was prone to catch fire. Not for nothing was the Acione known nonaffectionately by both Italian and Croat pilots as “the flying barn door.”

More popular was the Fiat BR.20. Obsolete before the war began, it was an under-powered, under-defended medium-bomber that nonetheless served admirably in anti-insurgency operations, where enemy interceptors were infrequently met. A more stable bombing platform than the larger Alcione, a pair of Fiat A.80 RC.41 18-cylinder, radial engines enabled a pleasant-to-fly Cicogna, or “Stork;’ to cruise at 211 mph-adequately fast to spoil groundfire but slow enough to carry out the kind of pinpoint accuracy required by attacks against mobile partisans.

A lone Caproni Ca.310 operated by the Croats likewise excelled against “Communist bandits;’ due to its slow-flight characteristics, cruising at just 177 mph, and lack of aerial opposition. The sleek, twin-engine Libeccio, or “Southwest Wind;’ was valued for its reconnaissance capabilities. More ancient were several dozen Fokker F.VII and IX passenger planes from Holland. These part wood/part fabric-covered, high-wing tri-motors could barely top 100 mph, but in their time, they achieved historic results. Richard E. Byrd was the first to fly over the North Pole in a F.VII on May 9, 1926, beating Roald Amundsen aboard his airship Norge by just a few days. In June 1927, a Fokker made the first flight from California to Hawaii. The following year, another F.VII was the first airplane to cross the Pacific Ocean from the United States to Australia.

Although used by the ZNDH as transports throughout 1941, some Dutch tail-draggers were assigned to the 1 Padobaranski Lovacki Sat, or Croatia’s 1st Light Infantry Parachute Company, in January 1942. Forty-five men equipped with rifles, submachine guns, light-machine guns, and light mortars made their first mass-jump from three F.VIIs to demonstrate their completed training on July 6, 1943, at Zagreb’s Borongaj airfield. Four months later to the day, three brigades of the 1 Padobaranski Lovacki Sat-10 paratroopers per Fokker-staged a surprise attack on a partisan stronghold near the border with Hungary.

Supported by artillery, the paratroopers took Koprivnica after three days of bitter fighting. They were redeployed in June 1944 to Zagreb’s Borongaj airfield, where an additional three companies resulted in their expansion and redesignation as the 1 Padobranska Lovacka Bojna, or 1st Light Infantry Parachute Battalion. They continued to jump from Fokker F.VIls and IXs against insurgents, but also took over Borongaj’s ground defense. Outstanding paratroopers were honored with ceremonial guard duties for government officials at the Croatian capital.

During 1941, Colonel Kren’s top priority was modernizing the ZNDH in anticipation of up-to-date machines due to arrive from the Reich. Beginning in July, the German Luftwaffe began training Croat volunteers at a flight school opened in Zagreb. Graduates were sent to Furth, outside Nuremberg, for advanced instruction. In October, the first 21 airmen left directly from Furth for the Ukraine, where they were formed into a pair of air force fighter squadrons, the 10th and 11th Zrakoplovno Lovacko Jato (ZLJ).

At Poltava, the 10th ZLJ was redesignated the 15th Koatische.I JG (Croatian Jagdgeschwader, “fighter squadron”) 52, under the Luftwaffe command of Major Hubertus von Bonin. Since radio equipment was scarce, Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering sent the Croats 25 Benes-Mraz Be-50 Beta-Minors-nimble Czech two-seater, low-wing, prewar monoplanes with transmitters/receivers-to liaison between squadrons. Fighters, too, were in short supply, and until more became available, the new pilots had to make do with only 10 Messerschmitt Bf.109Es and a single Bf.109F.

Although the former was no longer the world’s leading fighter by late 1941, it was still superior at the time to anything in the arsenal of the Red Air Force. The Bf.109F, or “Friedrich;’ however, was then regarded as the most formidable warplane in the sky, a significant improvement over its immediate predecessor. Armed with a pair of 7.92-mm MG 17 machine-guns above the engine and two MG 17s in the wings, “Emil” had a maximum speed of 348 mph, thanks to its 1,159-hp Daimler-Benz 601Aa engine. It was with this slightly elder version of the most famous Messerschmitt that the Croats achieved their first “kills” on November 2, when Hauptmann (Captain) Ferencina and Leutnant Baumgarten each destroyed a Polikarpov 1-16 fighter near Rostov.

Two weeks after the Croats scored their first aerial victories, Baumgarten, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Starc and Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Boskic shot down a trio of Rata fighters. On November 20, Baumgarten claimed a fifth 1-16 to become an ace, dying in a mid-air collision with his victim. Twelve days later, an R-10 was downed by Cvitan Galic, the same former flight instructor (now likewise a Stabsfeldwebel), who carried out the ZNDH’s first operations eight months before.

The R-10 was the Soviets’ standard light-bomber and observation aircraft (“R” stood for razvyedchik, “reconnaissance”), a low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear and a respectable range of 802 miles. It was armed with a 660-pound payload, two 7.62-mm ShKAS machine-guns in the wings, and a single ShKAS in a rear turret. The airplane’s designer, Josef Neman, had been arrested by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, on December 11, 1938, because more difficulties, for which he was held criminally liable, were encountered with the early design than had been anticipated. The R-10’s plywood-covered construction combined with a maximum speed of just 240 mph provided by a 730-hp Shvetsov M-25 radial engine made it an easy target when undefended by fighters.

In Galic’s case, he was able to dispatch a pair of protective Ratas, claiming two more three days later, when his squadron comrade, Feldwebel (Warrant Officer) Jure Lasta, destroyed an 1-16 during the same mission. The Red Air Force was markedly inferior to its opponents in terms of tactics and quality equipment, to say nothing of the low morale and worse training of air crews. With few exceptions, all the Soviets had going for them was the sheer weight of numbers, against which the Croats and every other Axis ally scored notable successes.

A case in point was something that began as routine escort duty undertaken on October 25, 1941, by Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Franjo Dzal and Feldwebel Veca Mikovic. They were assigned to rendezvous with a Henschel Hs.126 flying reconnaissance near Matveyev Kurgan, but, unbeknownst to them, bad weather had grounded the parasol-wing observation plane. While patrolling on station, they encountered a formation of three Ratas and five Chaikas, or “Seagulls.” Another Polikarpov design, the 1-153, was among history’s worst military aircraft; a deeply flawed biplane issued to operational units on June 16, 1939, long after the close of the Double-Decker Age, but in time to be massacred by Japanese fighters later that summer during the Nomohan Incident.

Among the Chaika’s long catalog of unresolved deficiencies was the absence of any firewall separating the fuel tank mounted between the cockpit and engine. In the event of an onboard fire, a powerful draft blasted the interior of the fuselage through the wheel wells, instantaneously incinerating the pilot and engulfing the entire machine. It was not for nothing that aircrews descriptively referred to the “Seagull” as the Kometi, the “Comet” Additionally given to chronic instability, exceptionally poor visibility, and powered by an 800-hp Shvestov M-62 radial engine with just a 60-hour service life, the 1-153 was nevertheless pushed through production to become one of the most numerically significant warplanes in the Red Air Force, which was equipped with 3,437 examples.

Soviet officers rarely pointed out the obvious to their superiors. In a justifiably paranoid system where constructive criticism was regarded as treason, according to aviation historians Dragan Savic and Boris Ciglic, “any attempt to show initiative or criticize how the air war was being run could lead to immediate transfer to punishment squadrons, the first rows of infantry trenches or, worse still, NKVD death-squads:”

The Croatian Messerschmitts were more than 80 mph faster than the stubby Chaikas, which dumped their payload in fright on Soviet territory after Oberstleutnant Dzal set one of them alight. Red Air Force policy forbade returning to base with unused bombs or ammunition. Pilots were required to expend their entire ordinance at the enemy, even at the risk of repeated, sometimes unnecessary passes over a target area, thereby increasing the Russians’ already prodigious attrition.

The Soviet “Seagull” did not usually carry bombs, but Dzal’s encounter revealed that his opponents perhaps represented a ground-attack version, the I-153Sh, equipped with 5.5-pound anti-personnel fragmentation bombs. In any case, they and their Rata companions fled from the outnumbered Croats, until the sudden arrival of 10 more 1-16s. In the resulting melee with 18 enemy fighters, both Dzal and Mikovic were able to fight their way out and return with minimal damage to base.

The following April, Mikovic tangled with a more modern enemy in the skies over Dyakovo village. With a maximum speed of 398 mph and an outstanding service ceiling of 37,700 feet, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 was faster than any Axis counterpart and the best fighter available to the Red Air Force, despite its numerous faults, especially oil and fuel pressure inadequacies that spoiled its performance at altitude. Feldwebel Mikovic had little difficulty shooting down his first MiG.

Another aircraft widely employed by the Soviets was the Il-2 Shturmovik Notwithstanding its unique claim to fame as the single most produced military aircraft design in all aviation history-with 36,163 examples constructed between 1941 and 1945-the Ilyushin was a preposterous monstrosity. Standing empty, the single-engine, two-seat ground-attack plane weighed just under 10,000 pounds. More than 15 percent of its gross weight-some 1,540 pounds-was made up of armor protection for crew, radiators, and a fuel tank. The pilot sat in a kind of tub 5-12 millimeters thick that additionally surrounded the 1,720-hp Mikulin AM-38F, liquid-cooled V-12 engine. Naturally, the aircraft could absorb a phenomenal amount of punishment and was not easy to shoot down.

But a ponderous performance executed at very low altitudes rendered the “Flying Tank” or “Cement Bomber,” as the Germans called it, more vulnerable than Stalin believed to ground fire, while Luftwaffe fighter pilots learned early to aim down into the cockpit and wing roots of the less-than-impenetrable Zementbomber. Its underside, non-retractable oil cooler was yet another Achilles’ heel exploited by Axis interceptors. The Luftwaffe’s Otto Kittel specialized in hunting Ilyushins, so much so, he was renowned as “the Annihilator of Shturmoviks;’ accounting for 94 of the ground-attack warplanes. South of Shadishemskaya, the 15th Koatische./Jagdgeschwader’s own Cvitan Galic shot down an Il-2 piloted by Lieutenant Grigoriy K. Kochergin, later a “Hero of the Soviet Union:”

While the Ilyushin’s steel envelope could deflect small arms’ fire and even glancing blows from larger-caliber rounds, rear gunners were not equally protected, and suffered about four times as many casualties than pilots. Nor were they provided with parachutes. These unfortunate crew members usually came from penal companies composed of politically unreliable “enemies of socialism” or “enemies of the people” who were attached to every Soviet airfield on probation. They were required to serve nine consecutive missions. Should they survive-an unlikely prospect-they were supposed to be granted their freedom, but were, in fact, transferred indefinitely to mine clearing or similarly hazardous duty. Attrition among Ilyushin gunners was so high, Marshal of the Air Forces A. E. Golovanov had installed in the cockpit rear of each Shturmovik a special, spring-driven device that kept the 12.7-mm Berezin UBT machine-gun pointing downward after its operator was killed, as a ruse to convince attacking Axis fighter pilots that the dead gunner was still alive.

The Shturmovik’s RS-82 anti-tank rockets were, moreover, so wildly inaccurate, they were usually fired only in the general direction of a target, rarely hitting it, and then entirely by chance. To compound matters for the Il-2s, Soviet flak gunners often mistook them for German aircraft, and many were brought down by friendly fire, although precise figures for these misidentification incidents do not appear to have been kept.

Stalin was so taken with his “Flying Tank;’ he was convinced it alone could crush any Nazi attempt to attack the USSR. Over the objections of Ilyushin engineers, who pointed out that their new aircraft had not yet been produced in sufficient numbers for squadron strength, and pilot training was virtually non-existent, he rushed the first few machines to Western bases, where the Axis invasion was expected to begin. The first Il-2s were stationed with the Red Air Force in Poland, but ground personnel were unable to service or rearm them for lack of instruction, while insufficiently trained flight crews, who had never fired their machine-guns, could only take off and land.

When Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa broke over the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, most of the 249 Il-2s at the front were wiped out in a matter of days. One squadron, ShAP, lost 55 of its 65 Shturmoviks by July 10. Stalin’s love affair with the Cement Bomber was undiminished, however, although he failed to understand that the burdensome armor provisions did not lend themselves well to rapid mass production. In a personal telegram he sent to the aircraft manufacturers, Shenkman and Tretyakov, the Premier raged, “You have let down our country and our Red Army! You have the nerve not to manufacture Il-2s until now! Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. Shenkman produces one Il-2 a day, and Tretyakov builds one or two MiG-3s daily. It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army! I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more Ils. This is my final warning!!!”‘

When deployed in large numbers, nonintercepted by Axis fighters, or opposed by anti-aircraft artillery under 20 millimeters, the Shturmovik could be devastating. It often attacked when lighting conditions were dim, especially after sundown, at low altitude, confounding German flak gunners, and carried 1,320 pounds of armor-piercing bombs quite capable of demolishing Panther and Tiger I tanks. A Soviet staff publication reported that during 1943’s Battle of Kursk, `on 7 July, enemy tank attacks were disrupted in the Kashara region (13th Army). Here, our assault aircraft delivered three powerful attacks in groups of twenty to thirty aircraft, which resulted in the destruction and disabling of thirty-four tanks. The enemy was forced to halt further attacks and to withdraw the remnants of his force north of Kashara.”

On that same day, Il-2s surpassed this score byknocking out 70 tanks from the German 9th Panzer Division in just 20 minutes. Outstanding Shturmovik pilots were Senior Lieutenant Anna Yegorova (260 missions), decorated posthumously, presumed killed in action, when she had actually survived the destruction of her “Flying Tank” to become an inmate of a prisoner-of-war camp; and Georgi Beregovoi (185 missions), who went on long after the war to become a cosmonaut aboard the Soyuz 3 spacecraft in 1968. But the DB-3F (or the Ilyushin Il-4, as it was known from 1942) was ponderously weighed down by its plates of heavy armor protection surrounding the gunners, which availed them naught against the 20-mm cannon fire of Zlatko Stipcic’s Bf.109 on May 20, 1942.

A month later to the day, Croats on the Eastern Front completed their 1,000th combat mission, with 52 confirmed kills for the loss of three pilots wounded and, by the end of July, two killed; one of them, Veca Mikovic. He was shot while attacking a Petlyakov Pe-2. The Petlyakov’s rearward defense combined twin 7.62-mm Berezin UB machine-guns in the dorsal turret with another in a ventral hatch and a single ShKAS machine-gun able to alternate between port and starboard mountings in under a minute. It was this formidable return fire from a Pe-2 that holed Mikovic’s Messerschmitt. Lacking sufficient fuel to reach the safety of his lines, he crashed near Rostov in no-man’s-land. He was flying one of the new Bf.109Gs, replacements for the doughty Emits.

With this improved version, Axis pilots substantially widened the technological gap between themselves and their Red Air Force opponents. The Gustav’s 1,475-hp Daimler-Benz DB 605 AM, 12-cylinder inverted Vee piston engine gave it a maximum speed of 385 mph at 22,640 feet. Armament was upgraded to twin 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns installed above the engine, and a single MK 108 cannon firing 30-mm rounds through the propeller shaft. Pilots of the 15th Koatische. /JG soon put their new mounts to good use, shooting up enemy shipping in the Black Sea and downing 13 Reds on July 9 and 10 with no losses to themselves.

Early the next month, Galic and Oberleutnant Albin Starc destroyed one each of five aircraft engaged over Novo Pokrovskoye. Both victims were LaGG-3s, like MiG-3s, among the better fighters available to the Soviets. While its design was fundamentally sound and capable of improvements, the LaGG-3 was badly underpowered, a dilemma designers sought to alleviate by drastically lightening the airframe and installing less heavy armament. Instead, they succeeded only in weakening the warplane and pulling its teeth. Poor-quality wood-laminate construction led pilots to observe that “LaGG” was less appropriate as an acronym for the design team of Lavochkin, Gorbunov, and Goudkov, than a match for the aircraft’s description as lakirovannygarantirovanny grob, a “guaranteed varnished coffin:” Indeed, the wood frame shattered under high explosive rounds fired from a Gustav’s nose cannon.

To execute a complete circle, LaGG-3s needed a full 20 seconds, by which time, however, they were more often shot down. The two destroyed by Galic and Starc were followed on August 8 by the unit’s 100th victory, when machine-gun fire from Hauptmann Josip Helebrant’s Messerschmitt roasted a DB-3 bomber in the vicinity of Armavir. But a few weeks later, the Croats lost their youngest pilot after an Ilyushin Il-2 fell to the guns of Stjepan Radic. Hit by flak, the Gustav’s ruptured glycol tank lost too much fuel, and the 20-year-old Feldwebel was forced to crash-land in enemy territory, where his aircraft hit some treetops and exploded. A few hours later, Helebrant claimed another Shturmovik.

Croatian Air Force WWII Part II

Messerschmitt Bf.109G-14 Unit: 2. Lovacko Jato, 1. Zrakoplovna Skupina Zagreb-Lucko, April 1945. On 16th April 1945 Josip Cekovic defected to Falconara region (Italy) 12 kilometers westward of Ancona. This airplane was captured by Americans.

Dornier Do.17Z-2 Unit: 19. Bombardersko Jato, 1. Zrakoplovna Skupina Zagreb, spring 1945.

Breguet Br.19-8 Unit: 6 Sqn ‘Anti-guerilla’, 2 Group Circa 1943.

Macchi MC.202 Serie XII Unit: 2./Kro.JGr 1 Pilot – CO of 2./Kro.JGr 1 Capt (later Maj.) Josip Helebrant.

From late August through early September 1942, bitter fighting along the Novorossiysk front involved the 15th Koatische. /JG as never before, with its pilots averaging 20 escort missions every day. On September 3, Starc and Oberfelclwebel (Sergeant Major) Stjepan Martinasevic were flying cover for an Fw.189, when they were bounced by eight Ratas. Two of the attackers were damaged and the rest driven off. The twin-engine, twin-boom, three-place Focke-Wulf-189 was the war’s finest reconnaissance aircraft, able to execute a circle so tight that Allied interceptors could not follow it. Although armed with five 7.92mm MG 17 machine-guns, more often than not, the Uhu, or “Owl; simply out-ran its pursuer. The Fw.189 was also extraordinarily rugged, sometimes returning to base from the thick of combat minus an entire tail.

Three days after escorting this “Flying Eye” of the German Army, Starc and Helebrant were assigned anti-shipping duty over the Black Sea. There, they strafed a 100-ton tanker, blasting it with concerted cannon fire, until the vessel erupted into a flaming inferno, capsized, and sank in minutes. On September 8, Helebrant was back over the Novorossiysk front with Martinasevic, when they intercepted a reconnaissance aircraft escorted by 11 Chaika fighters. Martinasevic dispatched a Soviet “Seagull;’ then joined Helebrant in destroying the Polikarpov R-5. As some indication of Soviet military obsolescence, this 680-hp, wood double-decker from 1930 was the standard reconnaissance model of the Red Air Force, which equipped over 100 of its regiments with the antique airplane into 1944.

What the Russians lacked in quality, they strove to compensate with quantity, as four Croatian pilots observed while patrolling the road between Gelendzhik and Novorossiysk. During their clash with 5 Chaikas and 14 Ratas, Oberstleutnant Dzal destroyed one of either type, while Fähnrich (Officer Candidate) Tomislav Kauzlaric shot down an 1-16. On October 24, Helebrant and Starc each brought down a pair of Lavochkin fighters over the Tuapse area, raising their unit’s score to 150 confirmed “kills:” In November, the pilots were returned to Croatia for extended rest after a full year of virtually non-stop flight operations. These comprised 3,698 sorties-2,460 of them combat missions-for the confirmed destruction of 178 enemy aircraft, plus 33 “probables.” Six Croatian pilots had been lost in action, together with five ground crew men in Soviet raids.

During mid-February, the men of 15th Kroatische./Jagclgeschwacler 52 returned to the Eastern Front in the company of fresh recruits and new planes. But the situation had changed dramatically over the previous three months. The Axis initiative that had rolled irrepressibly across Russia since the first day of Operation Barbarossa had stopped at Stalingrad, where Croatian casualties were very heavy. And U.S. aid to the Soviets was now apparent in the appearance of American aircraft. On April 15, 1943, Oberleutnant Mato Dukovac fired on a Bell P-39 fighter that “flamed like a torch before abruptly falling away.”

The Aircobra’s streamlined, aerodynamically efficient design had been occasioned by placement of a 1,200-hp Allison V-1710-85, liquid-cooled, V-12 engine behind the cockpit. This peculiar arrangement enabled a 37-mm M4 cannon to fire 30 rounds of high-explosive ammo through the propeller hub at the rate of 140 rounds per minute. It was supplemented by a 12.7-mm machine-gun installed in each wing; two more were mounted in the upper engine cowl. Regardless of this formidable armament, the rear-mounted engine proved to be vulnerable to attacks from above and behind. Almost any hit on the fuselage from an attacking enemy fighter was virtually guaranteed to disable the cooling system, destroying the engine. In crash-landings, the pilot was liable to be crushed by the hot, heavy engine falling forward on his back.

The all-metal fighter’s unconventional layout allowed no space in the fuselage for a fuel tank, which was transferred to a necessarily smaller tank in either wing, thereby restricting the P-39’s operational radius. Moreover, its single-speed supercharger confined optimal performance to beneath 12,000 feet, a serious limitation, as modern aerial combat took place at increasingly higher altitudes. By 1942, virtually all bombers carried out their runs far beyond the Aircobra’s reach. Performance was further compromised by 265 pounds of armor plating, which was appropriate for a ground-attack role, but detracted from Bell’s original fighter conception. An innovative tricycle undercarriage and hinged “automobile doors” on either side of the cockpit contributed to the aircraft’s unorthodox design.

Despite its numerous drawbacks, the P-39 was just 10 mph slower than the Messerschmitt-109, handled very well, and was the best fighter available to Soviet pilots, who referred to it affectionately as Kobrastochka, “dear little cobra:” Aleksandr Pokryshkin, the Allies’ second highest-scoring ace, accounted for 58 Axis aircraft in a P-39, the highest score ever gained by any pilot with a U.S.-built aircraft. The 4,773 Aircobras President Roosevelt sent to beleaguered Soviet pilots critically helped them make up the severe losses they suffered since June 1941.

Five days after Dukovac’s first encounter with an American Kobrastochka, he was escorting German Stuka dive-bombers and Ju.88 medium-bombers in the company of three other Gustavs, one piloted by the redoubtable Cvitan Galic, when they ran into 25 Soviet fighters and gigantic flying boats. In the engagement that ensued, Dukovac downed a LaGG-3, as Galic went after a Chyetverikov MDR-6, with its 63-foot, 7.75-inch wingspan. Only 27 of the big, twin-engine, highwing flying boats had ever been built, so Galic felt privileged to claim this rara avis, which disintegrated in flames toward Novorossiysk. Continuing escort duty produced more residual “kills” on May 8, when Dukovac and his wingman, Felclwebel Bozidar Bartulovic, each destroyed a LaGG-3 while protecting a Fieseler Storch.

The Fi.156 was famous for its unprecedented STOL characteristics, making it the war’s outstanding liaison and medivac aircraft. Its very low landing speed combined with a long-legged undercarriage containing oil and spring shock absorbers that compressed about 18 inches on landing enabled the “Stork” to set down in a variety of otherwise impossible terrain. It could hover in place, almost like a helicopter, or even fly backwards against a head wind. Under normal conditions, the Fi.156 took off in less than 150 feet and landed in 60. Wings could be folded back along the fuselage, allowing it to be transported by trailer, aboard covered trains, or towed behind a vehicle. Flying their high-performance Messerschmitts, the Croatian pilots found escorting the 100-mph Storch a challenging, but rewarding experience.

Despite the debacle at Stalingrad, Axis morale held firm. There was no rout, and the Eastern Front stood badly dented, but unbroken. Positions from the vicinity of Leningrad in the north, down through Smolensk and Taganrog to the Sea of Asov in the south stiffened, frustrating all Soviet attempts to break through, while the Red Air Force lost more than 2,000 warplanes in combat above Kuban. These defensive successes were generally regarded as prelude to a renewed Wehrmacht offensive that would regain the initiative in summer. But news of the Italo-German loss of North Africa in early May struck some observers as the Axis death knell. On the 14th, two pilots of the 15th Koatische.I JG 52 defected to the Soviets, setting down their Bf.109s behind enemy lines at Byelaya Glina airfield, northeast of Krasnar.

A month and one day later, another Croatian pilot landed at Byelaya Glina. Over the next two years, defections took place in direct ratio to the decline of Axis fortunes. While much has been made of them by Allied historians, the actual number of deserters from the unit represented a small fraction of its total strength. Most who defected simply wanted to end the war on the winning side, and were largely indifferent to ideological concerns. Those who did give political consequences any thought had been deceived by Communist propaganda promises of a free Croatia or, in the case of Slovenian airmen, an independent Slovenia. These trusting souls were to be sadly disappointed with the postwar fate of Eastern Europe, and many fled to the West after the Iron Curtain fell on their respective homelands.

A case in point was the first Balkan airman, Nikola Vucina, who flew over to the Soviets on May 4,1942. Horrified by the bloodshed and slavery visited upon Yugoslavia by the Red Army, he fled in an ancient Polikarpov Po-2 Kukuruznik (“Corn”) trainer to Italy in 1946.

Mato Dukovac, Croatia’s top-scoring ace with 45 kills, lived to regret his defection by flying to Italy in another biplane, a stolen British De Havilland “Tiger Moth;’ less than a year after his September 20, 1944 desertion. Dukovac became increasingly anti-Jewish after his wartime experiences, so much so, he volunteered to fight the newly created state of Israel as a captain in the Syrian Air Force, flying American T-6 Texan trainers outfitted with ground-attack rockets and 110-pound bombs during the Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1948.

The attitude of most Croatian pilots was summarized in June 1944, when one of their officers, Oberst Franjo Dzal, offered them the alternatives of fighting on, going to Germany for advanced training, or joining the partisans. According to Savic and Ciglic, “His words were greeted by whistles and shouts of disapproval’s”

The Croatian airmen continued to enjoy the clear-cut superiority of their Bf.109Gs throughout most of 1943. In early November, however, they began encountering growing numbers of an opponent with serious claims on the Messerschmitt’s predominance. This was the Lavochkin La-5, the Soviets’ first and only up-to-date fighter. While its performance fell off above 12,000 feet, the La-5 excelled at lower altitudes. It executed a smaller turning radius and higher roll rate than the German Gustav. Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Red Air Force ace, scored most of his 62 kills flying the La-5. With more of these dangerous machines filling Russian skies, outnumbered pilots of the 15th Kroatische. /JG 52 were hard pressed.

On November 7, Unteroffizier (Senior Corporal) Vladimir Salomon was shot down by a combination of Aircobras and La-5s. Successfully bailing out of his stricken Bf.109, he froze to death after parachuting into the Sea of Azov. Two weeks later, Felclwebel Zdendo Avdic and Dukovac were battling six LaGG-3s, when Avdic received a particularly painful wound in the right arm. He was horrified to observe that his severed hand still gripped the control column, which he manipulated with his left to make a perfect landing, albeit barely conscious from a prodigious loss of blood, five miles inside friendly territory. German grenadiers carried Avdic to a field hospital, where he eventually recovered.

By then, the unit had been stationed at Karankhut airfield, where adverse weather conditions grounded its pilots until early 1944, save on rare occasions. When conditions cleared in February, they faced greater numbers of enemy aircraft-many of them La-5s and P-39s-than ever before encountered. Flying against impossible odds, the squadron was decimated, and the 15th Kroatische./JG 52 disbanded, its survivors returning to Croatia in mid-March. During the previous five months, flying through foul weather and against overwhelming adversaries, five of the airmen were killed, and four had been seriously wounded. But between them they scored 77 confirmed “kills” and 8 “probables.”

In July, survivors joined the newly formed Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Skupina, the Croatian Air Force Group, for homeland defense against increasing incursions by Anglo-American bombers. The HZS was also no less preoccupied with quashing the various Communist and nationalist insurgent groups running rampant through the countryside. Fighting these rebels was nothing new. As long before as June 26, 1941, pilots of its predecessor, the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia (Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska), had carried out the earliest anti-partisan raids in Herzegovina and suffered its first loss the following day, when an aged Potez Po-25 biplane was brought down by rebel ground-fire.

Increasingly fortified with Soviet arms, supplies, and propaganda, the Yugoslav underground movement grew steadily throughout 1941, when 15 aircraft were lost to the partisans. In June 1942, they absconded with a pair of French bombers-a Brequet-19 and Potez Po-25-from the Zegreb headquarters. The Yugoslav Royal Air Force had purchased its first Breguet-19s as far back as 1924, thereafter license building another 300 examples. Most of these were destroyed during the German Blitzkrieg of April 1941, but enough survived to flesh out the new Croatian Air Force. While randomly machine-gunning the residents of Banja Luka, the bandit Breguet was brought down by flak outside the village of Kadinjani. Its pilot committed suicide, while his gunner was shot trying to escape.

ZNDH commanders were deeply alarmed by the brazen theft of this World War I-style sesquiplane with cloth-covered wings and open cockpits, and spent all their energies searching for its companion. Meanwhile, the elderly Po-25 raided four towns in as many days, successfully eluding all efforts to intercept it, until the pokey Potez was finally spotted by the Luftwaffe pilot of a Focke-Wulf Fw.58. On July 7, his twin-engine Weihe (“Harrier”) trainer doubling as a reconnaissance-attack plane used its two MG 15 machine-guns to shred the stolen aircraft while parked near Lusci Palanka.

In summer, the ZNDH mounted its first, concerted offensive against the burgeoning insurgency with warplanes left over from the defeated Royal Yugoslav Air Force. All were antiquated and worn out, but the most useful among them were 7 Avia BH-33Es remaining from 38 destroyed while resisting the invading Germans, back in 1941. The 1927 Czech biplane’s physical appearance was somewhat strange for its upper wing, being shorter, for reasons never entirely understood, than the lower. An otherwise reliable, if entirely mediocre fighter, the Vickers machine-guns and low speed provided by its 580-hp Skoda L engine made it ideal for strafing partisans. They were themselves hamstrung by conflict between the Soviet-backed Narodnooslobodilacka Vojska Jugoslavije (“People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia”) and royalist-nationalist Chetniks, from the Serbian word seta for a “military company.”

According to Savic and Ciglic, “Often, groups of insurgents were at each others’ throats, rather than attacking their common enemy. There was even collaboration with the Axis on both sides.”

Shortly after the Wehrmacht conquest, the several resistance movements began to coalesce into a general insurgency until the Chetnik leader, Draza Mihailovic, realized that Josip Tito’s NVJ only wanted to “burn the country and the old order to the ground to better prepare it for Communism. This is the fight that the Communists wage, a fight which is directed by foreign propaganda with the aim of systematically annihilating our nation:” He was likewise mistrustful of the Anglo-Americans, whose “sole aim was to win the war at the expense of others:”‘ Favorably impressed by Germany’s invasion of the USSR, Mihailovic hoped to create a Greater Serbia in the manner of the Independent State of Croatia, when he learned that Hitler’s postwar intentions for the former Yugoslavia was its division along ethnic lines into various, similarly autonomous states. In the resulting civil war between Communists and Chetniks, the Croatian airmen sought to annihilate them both.

Mussolini sent their ZNDH its first modern aircraft in the form of 10 Fiat G.50 fighters, during late June 1943. Although eclipsed by other designs by then, the Freccia, or “Arrow,” could still intercept enemy bombers or ground-attack insurgent forces with success. Following the Duce’s overthrow in September, the ZNDH received something of a windfall when 60 Italian aircraft of various types were found at Mostar and Zadar airfields. They included three “Arrows” and six Fiat CR.42 biplanes no longer fit for aerial combat, but very effective in anti-partisan warfare.

While the rebels lacked any aircraft of their own, they took their toll on ZNDH men and machines through ground-fire and espionage. On October 7, the Commanding Officer of 1. Air Group, Mato Culinovic, an ace with a dozen “kills” to his credit, perished with his crew aboard a Dornier Do.17K medium-bomber that exploded while attacking insurgent forces west of Zagreb; saboteurs had installed a detonator activated when the bay doors were opened.

Shortly thereafter, 38 Morane-Saulnier M.S. 406c-1s from France’s defeated Armee de /Air arrived from Germany. It was with this inadequate fighter that ZNDH pilots were expected to intercept growing numbers of U.S. heavy-bombers protected by huge swarms of P-51 and P-47 escorts. Croat airmen were additionally hampered by a wholly inadequate early warning system and usually scrambled only as the enemy was overhead. Whenever the defenders did get airborne, they invariably found themselves hideously out-numbered by mostly superior aircraft.

From the close of 1943, USAAF and RAF bombers repeatedly violated Croatian airspace with impunity, as they overflew the Balkans on their way to targets in Austria. The ZNDH lacked sufficient strength to oppose these Allied intruders, until interceptor units of the Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Legija (Croatian Air Force Legion) were formed with Luftwaffe assistance on December 23. A month later, Mussolini’s Salo Republic contributed 12 new specimens of the Macchi M.C.202 Folgore. At 372 mph, the sleek “Lightning” lived up to its name. Croat pilots loved the Macchi for its superb handling characteristics and 3,563-feetper-minute rate of climb, but found that the two 7.7-mm Breda-SAFAT wing guns lacked punch. Only its twin 12.7-mm machine-guns in the engine cowling were effective by contemporary standards.

But HZL crews had little immediate opportunity to put the Folgore through its paces, because Allied raids on Austria by way of the Balkans fell off for the first quarter of 1944. They used the lull to gain additional training experience until April 1, when the unit was redesignated 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien. The next day, an immense bomber stream of the 15th U.S. Air Force passed over Croatia on its way to attack the Austrian industrial city of Steyr. The ZNDH’s early raid alert system had not improved during the previous four months, and only two interceptors could be scrambled in time to confront the Americans returning from their mission. With hundreds of 12.7-mm M2 Browning machine-guns firing at them, the Folgore pilots dashed unscathed among the flight of B-24 heavy-bombers, one of which fell burning out of the sky.

In hopes of better positioning themselves to meet the foe, several dozen Croatian fighters were relocated from the unit’s base at Lucko to Zaluzani airfield outside Banja Luka. British intelligence learned of the move, and Numbers 1, 2, and 4 Squadrons in the South African Air Force’s Number 7 Wing were alerted. Their Spitfire Mk.IXs, some carrying a pair of 250-pound bombs apiece, appeared without warning over Zaluzani in a low-level attack that overtook the defenders on April 6. Twenty one ZNDH aircraft were destroyed on the ground, including a Folgore and all save 1 Morane-Saulnier, together with 16 Luftwaffe warplanes.

Of greater loss was the death of Cvitan Galic, who perished when the M.S.406, under which he took shelter during the raid, exploded and collapsed on him in full view of his horrified comrades. With 38 confirmed and 5 unconfirmed aerial victories, he was Croatia’s second-highest scoring ace. Yet another 21 ZNDH machines were caught parked in the open and destroyed by bomb-laden Spitfires six days later.

Despite these appalling losses, the 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien dispatched two pairs of Morane-Saulniers and Fiat Freccias to patrol for damaged or separated B-24s. Instead, they were attacked by two Mustangs 6,500 feet above Zagreb. The decidedly inferior MS.406s and G.50s were no match for state-of-the-art P-51s, which shot down one each of the older French and Italian fighters in short order. If anything, it is to their credit that the other two pilots were able to successfully elude their technologically superior pursuers.

When provided with better aircraft, the Croatians went over eagerly to the offensive. They had always been outnumbered by their enemies, so a numerical advantage possessed by the Anglo-Americans meant little to them. Before the end of April, Unterofizier Leopold Hrastovcan flew his Macchi past escorting Mustangs to blast a four-engine Liberator that crashed outside the village of Zapresic. Several days later, Unterofizier Jakob Petrovic’s Folgore closed in on a British de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito fighter-bomber famous for its laminated plywood construction. “The Timber Terror;” as it was also known, fell trailing thick smoke toward the sea.

Petrovic and another comrade were evenly matched against two USAAF P-38s on May 1, when one of the “Fork-Tail Devils” was shot down and the other driven off, badly damaged. While pilots of the 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien continued to score against Anglo-American intruders for the rest of spring and throughout summer, war on the homefront was spreading across the Balkans.

In mid-summer, 15 long-distance R-series Stukas were dispatched to Croatia, where they pounded Red Army columns at the southeastern border. They joined eight Ju.87D-5 dive-bombers delivered to the Antiteroristicka jedinica Lucko, an antiterrorist unit based near Zagreb, at Lucko, the previous January. In an unexpected assault on September 20, partisans captured Banja Luka, over-running the airbase at Zaluzani airfield. Thinking fast, many ZNDH crews jumped into their Dornier bombers, engines started just after propellers cleared hangar doors, to machine-gun waves of partisans, and got away at the last, possible moment. Once airborne, they circled back around to provide suppressive fire, enabling their comrades’ escape. A few days later, the city and airbase were recaptured in a powerful counterattack launched by Croat and German troops.

Further Croatian requests for specialized aircraft from the Luftwaffe were answered in mid-September with the arrival of a dozen Fieseler Fi.167A-0s. They were indeed purpose-built, but not for any antipartisan role. The big biplane had been originally designed in 1938 to serve aboard the German Navy’s projected aircraft carrier for reconnaissance and torpedo bombing. Graf Zeppelin was never completed, however, and the few examples already produced were put to use flying coastal patrols in Denmark before being transferred to the ZNDH. Like its more famous Fieseler, the Storch, the Fi.167 was endowed with extraordinary STOL characteristics, capable of landing almost vertically anywhere. With a maximum take-off weight of 10,690 pounds, its short-field and outstanding load-carrying capabilities made it an ideal transport flying ammunition, food, medical supplies, or evacuating wounded to and from Croatian Army garrisons besieged by Tito’s insurgent armies.

On October 10, while on a mission to a Croatian position near Sisak, a lone Fi.167 flown by eight-kill ace, Bozidar “Bosko” Bartulovic, was jumped by five P-51 Mk IIIs of the RAF’s 213 Squadron. Bartulovic’s rear gunner, Mate Jurkovic, used his 7.92-mm MG 17 machine-gun to score a lethal hit on one of the attacking Mustangs before the Fieseler, too, was destroyed by the other four, thereby achieving perhaps the last and certainly most remarkable aerial victory in biplane history. Both Bartulovic and Jurkovic parachuted to safety. Some of the remaining Fi.167s were installed with a single 2,200-pound bomb used effectively against otherwise impenetrable rebel positions.

Beginning in December 1944, things began looking up for the Croats. As a measure of the high regard with which he held them, Goering equipped two ZNDH squadrons with the Luftwaffe’s best piston-driven fighter. The Kurfurst, or “Elector Prince;’ was the last and fastest in a long operational line of the Messerschmitt Bf. 109 series, which had begun 10 years earlier. Optimized for high altitudes, a nine-foot-wide chord, three-bladed VDM 9-12159 propeller converted the 1850/2000 PS output of the new Messerschmitt’s DB 605DB/DC power plant into thrust. As such, the fully loaded aircraft was able to top 445 mph at 22,500 feet, while enjoying an extraordinary rate of climb at 4,820 feet per minute. Armament comprised twin, 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns in the nose with 300 rounds each, plus a single, engine-mounted MK 108 cannon firing 65 30-mm rounds.

Thus equipped with the Kurfurst, ZNDH pilots evened the playing field against their Western opponents. What the Croat interceptors still lacked in numbers, they made up for with a fighter at least the equal of the American Mustang or British Spitfire, and a highly effective bomber-buster, the K-4’s real function. Both German and Croat fliers took advantage of the airplane’s high performance to avoid enemy escorts and go after the USAAF B-17s and B-24s.

The ZNDH also made do with much older machines. On December 31, a Dornier Do.17E paid a surprise New Year’s Eve visit to the RAF’s 148 Squadron base at Grabovnica near Cazma, where the old medium bomber dropped its 1,100-pound payload on the airfield, causing numerous casualties among partisan defenders. Supply dumps were wrecked, and a four-engine Handley-Page Halifax heavy-bomber was destroyed.

On March 24, 1945, ZNDH aircraft grounded at Lucko airfield, for lack of petrol, were incinerated during a napalm attack delivered by RAF Mustangs of Numbers 213 and 249 Squadrons. Defensive flak shot down a P-51 from the former Squadron, but three Messerschmitts, one Morane-Saulnier, and a Focke-Wulf 190 were ruined. Several other aircraft were damaged. The day before, the Croats won their last aerial victories, when Mihajlo Jelak and 15-“kill” ace, Ljudevit Bencetic, flying Bf-109G-10s, claimed two British P-51s between them. Jelak was hit by enemy fire but managed to safely crash-land his wounded Gustav. With Communist forces overrunning Zagreb, Bencetic addressed his crews at Lucko airfield for the last time. They had performed their duties splendidly, he said, and flying with them was the greatest personal honor he had ever known, but they were released now from their loyalty oath and at liberty to return to their homes.’

As Bencetic returned the final salute of his men, a pair of aged Rogozarski R-100 trainers flown by Lieutenants Mihajlo Jelak and Leopold Hrastovcan were attacking a railway bridge spanning the Kupa River with 50-pound bombs. Destroying it would delay the enemy’s advance toward Karlovac, allowing time for the city to be evacuated. As Hrastovcan’s biplane circled for another pass, it was hit by ground fire and crashed near the foot of the bridge, where he was dragged from the wreckage and shot to death.

Fighting against 12-to-1 odds, Croat airmen continued to score hits on the enemy. Their final flight operation occurred on April 15, 1945, when a Dornier Do.17Z medium-bomber, covered by a pair of Messerschmitt-109Gs, raided the partisan airfield at Sanski Most, destroying two Communist warplanes, damaging several others on the airfield, and machine-gunning ground personnel to escape with damage.

The last ZNDH remnants in the 1st Light Infantry Parachute Battalion had joined up with the Croatian Army’s Motorized Brigade as early as the previous January, from which time they were in constant action south of Zagreb against an advancing partisan army. The few surviving paratroopers were still fighting in Austria a week after the German surrender, refusing to lay down their arms until May 14, 1945.

During the immediate postwar period, Tito assumed a magnanimous pose, extending “general amnesty” to all opponents. But his apparent generosity was a ruse luring war-weary servicemen to their doom. Every ZNDH airman the Communists could lay their hands on was imprisoned and tortured, often for many years. Bozidar Bartulovic, the Fieseler biplane pilot, whose rear gunner shot down an attacking Mustang, had bailed out when a 0.50-caliber bullet partially shattered his skull and shot away his right eye. After long-term recovery at a Zagreb hospital and later graduation from officers’ training school, he was arrested and sent to a POW camp until his release in 1946, then rearrested and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Upon his release, Bartulovic fled to Munich, Germany.

Many of his comrades fared far worse. All high-ranking ZNDH officers were rounded up and shot.

Siege of Genoa (1746)

Italy and the naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684

At the same time as Strasbourg was being swallowed up in the north, the French appeared to give a clue to their sinister intentions elsewhere in Europe when they occupied Casale, a fortress in the Montferrat forty miles east of Turin. The Duke of Mantua was one of those hard-up petty potentates who abounded at the time, and after being sounded by the French he willingly parted with his enclave at Casale in return for a bribe.

It was bad enough that Louis got Casale at all, for it supplemented Pinerolo as a base for French operations on the Italian side of the Alps. The way in which the enterprise was carried out was more significant still, because the occupying force and the subsequent reliefs marched straight across Piedmontese territory without the formality of gaining the Duke of Savoy’s leave. In a similarly cavalier fashion the French made a naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684, simply because the republic appeared to be too friendly with Spain. This drastic measure confirmed the impression that Louis regarded north Italy as part of his own domains.

Piedmont and neighbouring states in the War of the Austrian Succession.

War of Austrian Succession

At the beginning of 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession the situation was altogether, in favor of the tenacious Maria Theresa. France, however, had in the meantime found a new ally in Genvoa, irritated by Piedmont and Austria for the threat to their possession of the Finale (Treaty of Aranjuez May 7, 1745). With the help of the Genoese, the two armies of the French-Spanish under Maillebois and Gages, came into Piedmont from the Riviera and defeated the Austro-Piedmontese at Bassignana (September 28), then occupied successively Tortona, Piacenza, Parma, Pavia, Alessandria, Asti and Casale, while Philip of Bourbon finally took Milan in December 19, 1745. In the Netherlands, France were dominant. The valiant Marshal Maurice de Saxe won the Anglo-Dutch at Fontenay (11 May 1745) and occupied Tournai (May 22), Ghent (July 10), Bruges (July 18), Oudenarde (July 21) and finally Ostend (July 23). To threaten England the French organized, in the summer of 1745, the landing of Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland (August 4).

In Germany, the French influence was almost nil, while England, threatened by Stuart, tried to reconcile once again Maria Theresa and Frederick II. The latter, however, due to the stagnation of diplomatic negotiations sort a military solution: won against the Austrians in Bohemia, invaded Saxony, won the battle of Kesselsdorf (December 15), occupied Leipzig and Dresden. So achieved his goal: Maria Teresa gave up Silesia and made peace (Treaty of Dresden, December 25, 1745).

France was supported by Spain, Naples, Genoa, and Austria, had as ally the kingdom of Sardinia, England, the Netherlands. The landing of the Stuart in Scotland caused, in the autumn of 1745, a general uprising of the Scots and caused terrible panic in London. But this uprising was ended with the battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746). The only consequence was the opportunity, given to Maurice of Saxony, to extend the involvement of the Austrian Netherlands, beating an Austrian army in Rocoux in September, and threatening Netherlands. On the other hand, Carlo Emanuele III took up the arms in agreement with Maria Theresa. So he reoccupied Asti on March 8, 1746, expelled the Franco-Hispanic armies from Piedmont and Lombardy, won in battle of Piacenza (June 16), that caused the enemy’s retreat into Genoa. At this time, the King Philip V of Spain died (July 9) and his successor, Ferdinand VI, was inclined towards peace and the withdrawal of his troops from Italy. The Austro-Sardinian pressed the enemy down on the Riviera, and Marshal Botta Adorno, occupied Genoa on September 7, while Carlo Emanuele III blockaded Savona, took Finale and pursued the Franco-Hispanic Army to Varo. Genoa underwent three months of harsh occupation by Austria, but due to a violent popular uprising, adroitly directed by the Genoese government (5-10 December 1746) freed itself.

The revolt in the Portoria district in Genoa against the Austrians in 1746, led by Giovan Battista Perasso (1735-1781) known as Balilla, 19th century print. Italy, 18th-19th century.

The Austrian alliance invaded Provence, with British naval support, but they were pushed back in 1747, while the Austrians failed to regain Genoa, which had rebelled against their control. The Genoese revolt of December 1746, a successful popular rising, prefigured much that was to be associated with the revolutionary warfare of the close of the century. The swiftly changing course of the conflict in Italy indicated the volatile character of war in this period.

Meanwhile, Carlo Emanuele III was able to occupy Savona (18 December). From Vienna, he asked for an expedition against Naples to chase away the Bourbons. But England did not want an absolute Austrian domination in Italy. So, Provence was invaded, the military port of Toulon was occupied and France was forced to halt its operations in the Netherlands. The Austro-Sardinian forces advanced to Antibes, but then retreated (February 1747).

In the last major conflict in Italy prior to the French Revolutionary War, Franco-Spanish forces failed in 1743-4 to break through the alpine defences of the kingdom of Sardinia, the most important possessions of which were Piedmont and Savoy. Politics offered a new approach: by gaining the alliance of Genoa in 1745, the Bourbons were able to circumvent the alpine defences and invade Piedmont from the south. Initial successes, however, were reversed in 1746 and the Austrians and Sardinians won a decisive victory at Piacenza (16 June 1746), ending, for the remainder of the ancien regime a quarter-millennium of French efforts to dominate northern Italy.

Barbarian Invasion on the Danube

In the winter of 375/6, rumour reached Rome’s Danube frontier that heavy fighting was under way in eastern Germania north of the Black Sea. Ammianus Marcellinus reports: ‘In the beginning the news was viewed with contempt by our people because wars in those districts were not ordinarily heard of by those living at a distance until they were either over, or had at least died down for a time.’ You could hardly blame the imperial authorities for not taking the matter too seriously. The migration of the Goths and other Germani in the mid-third century had prompted a political reconfiguration that had led to a hundred years of relative stability in the region. Moreover, the trouble then had come from the north-west (present-day Poland and Byelorussia), not the north-east (modern Ukraine). The last time the north-east had posed a problem was when the Sarmatians had swept all before them in the fifty years either side of the birth of Christ, three centuries earlier. But the Romans quickly learned the error of their ways.

In the summer of 376, a vast throng of people – men, women and children – suddenly appeared on the north bank of the River Danube asking for safe haven in Roman territory. One source, not our best, reports that 200,000 refugees appeared beside the river; Ammianus, that there were too many to count. They came with innumerable wagons and the animals to pull them, presumably their plough-oxen, in the kind of huge procession that warfare has generated throughout history. There were certainly many individual refugees and small family groups, but the vast majority were Goths organized in two compact masses and with defined political leaderships. My own best guess is that each was composed of about 10,000 warriors. One group, the Greuthungi, had already moved a fair distance from lands east of the River Dniester, in the present-day Ukraine, hundreds of kilometres from the Danube. The other comprised the majority of Athanaric’s Tervingi, now led by Alavivus and Fritigern, who had broken away from their former leader’s control to come here to the river.

If the size of the immediate problem for Roman frontier security was bad enough, the refugees’ identity was even more ominous. Though the first reports had concerned fighting a long way from the frontier zone, the two large bodies of Gothic would-be immigrants camped beside the river were from much closer to home. The Tervingi, in particular, had been occupying lands immediately north of the Danube, in what is now Wallachia and Moldavia, since the 310s at the latest. Whatever was going on in the far north-east was no local skirmish; its effects were being felt throughout the region north of the Black Sea.

The Romans quickly learned what lay behind all the mayhem. Again in Ammianus’ words: ‘The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with extraordinary fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns.’

Ammianus was writing nearly twenty years later, by which time the Romans had a better understanding of what had brought the Goths to the Danube. Even in the 390s, though, the full effects of the arrival of the Huns were far from apparent. The appearance of the Goths beside the river in the summer of 376 was the first link in a chain of events that would lead directly from the rise of Hunnic power on the fringes of Europe to the deposition of the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, almost exactly one hundred years later. None of this was even remotely conceivable in 376, and there would be many twists and turns on the way. The arrival of Goths on the Danube marked the start of a reshuffling of Europe-wide balances of power, and it is to this story that the rest of the book is devoted. We must begin, like Ammianus, with the Huns.

From the ‘Ice-Bound Ocean’

The origins of the Huns are mysterious and controversial. The one thing we know for certain is that they were nomads from the Great Eurasian Steppe. The Eurasian Steppe is a huge expanse, stretching about 5,500 kilometres from the fringes of Europe to western China, with another 3,000 kilometres to its north and east. The north–south depth of the steppe ranges from only about 500 kilometres in the west to nearly 3,000 in the wide-open plains of Mongolia. Geography and climate dictate the nomadic lifestyle. Natural steppe grasslands are the product of poorish soils and limited rainfall, which make it impossible, in general terms, for trees and more luxurious vegetation to grow. The lack of rainfall also rules out arable farming of any sustained kind, so that the nomad makes a substantial part of his living from pastoral agriculture, herding a range of animals suited to the available grazing. Cattle can survive on worse pasture than horses, sheep on worse pasture than cattle, and goats on worse than sheep. Camels will eat anything left over.

Nomadism is essentially a means of assembling distinct blocks of pasture, which between them add up to a year-round grazing strategy. Typically, modern nomads will move between upland summer pasture (where there is no grass in the winter because of snow and cold) and lowland winter pasture (where the lack of rain in summer means, again, no grass). In this world, grazing rights are as important in terms of economic capital as the herds, and as jealously guarded. The distance between summer and winter pasture needs to be minimal, since all movement is hard both on the animals and on the weaker members of the human population. Before Stalin sedentarized them, the nomads of Kazakhstan tended to move about 75 kilometres each way between their pastures. Nomadic societies also form close economic ties with settled arable farmers in the region, from whom they obtain much of the grain they need, though some they produce themselves. While part of the population cycles the herds around the summer pastures, the rest engage in other types of food production. But all the historically observed nomad populations have needed to supplement their grain production by exchanging with arable populations the surplus generated from their herds (hides, cheese and yoghurt, actual animals and so on). Often, this exchange has been one-sided, with the arable population getting in return no more than exemption from being raided, but sometimes the exchange has been properly reciprocal.

Nomadism, or part-nomadism, has never been the preserve of any particular linguistic or cultural population group. Across the Great Eurasian Steppe many peoples have, at different times, adopted nomadic lifestyles. In the first three centuries AD the western end of the steppe – from the Caspian Sea to the Danube – was dominated by Iranian-speaking Sarmatian and Alan nomads. These had ousted Scythian nomads, also Iranian-speaking, in the last two or three centuries BC. By the sixth century AD at the latest, Turkic-speaking nomads were dominant from the Danube to China, and a Mongol-speaking nomad horde would cause untold devastation in the high Middle Ages. Other population groups, too, took to nomadism. The Magyars who arrived in central Europe at the end of the ninth century spoke – as their Hungarian descendants still do – a Finno-Ugrian language that suggests they may have come from the forest zone of north-eastern Europe, the only other region where such languages are spoken.

Where the Huns fit into this sea of cultural possibilities is unclear. Ammianus Marcellinus knew more about them than did our other Roman sources, but he didn’t know much. His best shot is that they came from beyond the Black Sea ‘near the ice-bound ocean’. They were not literate, so leave us no records of their own to go on, and even their language affiliation is mysterious. Failing all else, linguists can usually decode basic linguistic affiliations from personal names, but even this doesn’t work with the Huns. They quickly got into the habit of using Germanic names (or perhaps our sources preserve the Germanicized versions or Germanic nicknames given them by their Germanic neighbours and subjects), so that the stock of properly Hunnic personal names is much too small to draw any convincing conclusions. They were probably not Iranian-speaking, but whether they were the first Turkic-speaking nomads to explode on to the European scene, as some have argued, remains unclear. With such pathetic sources of information, Hunnic origins can only remain mysterious, but a little spice has been added by a famous controversy over whether the Huns were in fact the nomadic Hsiung-Nu, well known from imperial Chinese records.

In the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, the Hsiung-Nu – under the leadership of their Shan-Yu5 – harassed the north-west frontiers of Han China, extracting from it huge quantities of tribute in silks, precious metals and grain. They also contested the control of some of its important western territories, particularly the Tarim Basin where the Silk Road (which started to operate in the last century BC) reaches China. Under pressure from Han armies, they split in AD 48 into northern and southern branches. The southern Hsiung-Nu were subsequently brought into the Chinese orbit, becoming an important force within the imperial system. The northerners remained external, independent and highly troublesome until AD 93, when the Chinese government paid another nomadic group, the Hsien-Pi, to launch a devastating attack upon their homelands. Many northern Hsiung-Nu (reportedly 100,000 households) were absorbed into the victorious Hsien-Pi confederation, but others fled ‘to the west’. That’s the last we ever hear of the northern Hsiung-Nu in the Chinese records.

The Huns we’re concerned with appear suddenly in Roman records in the third quarter of the fourth century. The problem inherent in the superficially attractive equation of these people with the Hsiung-Nu is this: we have gaps between the Chinese and Roman records of nearly 300 years (AD 93 to about 370) and 3,500 kilometres to account for. Moreover, the Huns known to the Romans had a completely different form of political organization from the Hsiung-Nu’s. After AD 48, both branches of the latter had their own Shan-Yu, but the Huns arrived in Europe with a multiplicity of ranked kings and no sign of one dominant figure. The surviving ethnographic descriptions – such as they are – also raise objections. The Hsiung-Nu customarily wore their hair in a long pony-tail; the Huns did not. The two groups used similar weaponry, and bronze kettles are customarily found among their archaeological remains. Given this, there may be some connection, but it clearly won’t do just to say that the Hsiung-Nu had started running west in AD 93 and kept going until they hit Europe as the Huns. The Great Eurasian Steppe is a vast place, but it didn’t, even then, take 300 years to cross. Equally, like most nomadic empires, that of the Hsiung-Nu was a confederation, comprising a smallish Hsiung-Nu core and many other subject groups. The ancestors of our Huns could even have been part of the confederation, therefore, without being ‘real’ Hsiung-Nu. Even if we do make some connection between fourth-century Huns and first-century Hsiung-Nu, therefore, an awful lot of water had passed under an awful lot of bridges during 300 years worth of lost history.

Roman sources also give us only a very general idea of what brought the Huns to the fringes of Europe. For Ammianus, it was enough just to point out that they exceeded ‘every measure of savagery’ and ‘were aflame with an inhuman desire for plundering others’ property’. The most commonly repeated story in the Roman sources claimed their landing up at Europe’s gates was partly an accident. Some Hunnic hunters, out after game one day, trailed a hind through a marsh into new lands of which they had previously been ignorant. This kind of tale rubbed off on early twentieth-century commentators, who tended to suppose that the Huns had for centuries been engaged in nomadic wanderings in different parts of the Eurasian Steppe, and one year just happened to wander on to the fringes of Europe. But this was before anthropologists understood quite so clearly that nomads do not wander around at random, but move cyclically between carefully designated pastures. Given that grazing rights are a key element in nomad subsistence, and guarded so jealously, shifting from one set of pastures to another could never be an accident.

Unfortunately, we can only guess at the motives behind the Huns’ decision to shift their centre of operations westwards. The story of the hind concludes with the hunters telling the rest of the Huns of the wonders of the new land they’d found, and Ammianus, too, picked out the motive of economic gain. The idea that it was the wealth of the northern shores of the Black Sea that attracted Hunnic attentions is perfectly plausible. While less extensive, the grazing lands of the western steppe are rich, and have attracted many a nomad group over the years. The area north of the Black Sea was occupied by client groups of the Roman Empire, who benefited economically from different relationships with the Mediterranean world, and there is no reason to doubt that Huns also felt its call. At the same time, in the case of some later nomad groups for whom we have more information, a move on to the western edge of the steppe was often associated with the desire to escape a more powerful nomad confederation operating towards China. The Avars, who would have much the same kind of impact on Europe as the Huns, but two centuries later, were looking for a safe haven beyond the reach of the western Turks, when they appeared north of the Black Sea. At the end of the ninth century, likewise, the nomadic Magyars would move into Hungary because another nomad group, the Pechenegs, was making life intolerable for them further east. In the case of the Huns, we have no firm indication that a negative as well as a positive motivation was at work, but we can’t rule it out. Further east, in the later fourth century, the Guptas were pushing on to the Silk Road from northern India, and by the early to mid-fifth century the Hephthalite Huns were ruling the roost somewhere between the Caspian and Aral Seas. As early as the 350s, this reconfiguration of the balance of power was reverberating further east on the steppe, causing the Chionitae to move into the fringes of the Persian Empire, east of the Caspian Sea.8 It may also have played a role in the Huns’ decision to shift their grazing lands westwards.

Mysterious as the Huns’ origins and animating forces may remain, there is no doubt at all that they were behind the strategic revolution that brought the Goths to the Danube in the summer of 376. It is normally assumed that at that time they were fleeing from Huns who had suddenly exploded en masse on to the northern Black Sea littoral. It is further assumed that these Huns were virtually breathing down the Goths’ necks as they scrambled for the Danube in the hope of securing asylum inside the Empire, and that, once the Goths had reached Roman territory, the Huns immediately became the dominant power in the lands adjacent to the river. This is what you will find stated more or less explicitly in most modern accounts: Huns arrive suddenly (375/6); Goths leave in panic for the Empire (376); Huns become dominant beside the Danube (from 376).

This pattern is based on the account given by Ammianus, who paints a highly convincing picture of Gothic panic: ‘The report spread widely among the other Gothic peoples that a race of men hitherto unknown had now arisen from a hidden nook of the earth, like a tempest of snows from the high mountains, and was seizing or destroying everything in its way.’ We need to look past the rhetoric, however, at what Ammianus is actually telling us. After first subjugating the Alans, the Huns then started attacking the Gothic Greuthungi. The resistance of the Greuthungi was led by Ermenaric, who eventually gave up and seems to have allowed himself to be ritually sacrificed for the safety of his people. Ammianus’ wording is a little vague, but the reflex, documented among several ancient groups, to hold their political leadership responsible for the fate of the group, is an interesting one. When times got tough, it was seen as a sign from the gods that the old leader had offended them and needed to be sacrificed in propitiation of the offence. Ermenaric was succeeded by Vithimer, who carried on the fight but was eventually killed in battle.

At this point, control of the Greuthungi passed to two military leaders, Alatheus and Saphrax, who ruled in the name of Vithimer’s son Vitheric. Having decided to retreat to the banks of the River Dniester, they were met there by a force of Tervingi under Athanaric. But Athanaric was now attacked from the rear by some Huns, who had found an alternative ford over the river, and retreated back to his heartlands closer to the Carpathian Mountains. There he attempted to stem the Hunnic tide by constructing a fortified line against them. In my view, this was probably the old Roman walls on the River Olt, the Limes Transalutanus. But the plan came to naught. The Tervingi were harassed by more Hunnic attacks as they worked on the defences, which damaged their confidence in Athanaric’s leadership. Most of the Tervingi broke with him at this point, and under new leaders, Alavivus and Fritigern, came to the Danube to request asylum inside the Roman Empire. The Greuthungi of Alatheus and Saphrax opted for a similar strategy, following the Tervingi to the river.

Some of these events unfolded very quickly. From the death of Vithimer in battle, the action is pretty continuous down to the arrival of both Tervingi and Greuthungi on the banks of the Danube. Even in its entirety, this sequence needn’t have occupied any great length of time. If, as seems likely, the Goths arrived sometime in late summer or early autumn 376, then Vithimer’s death need be placed no more than a year before. In principle, even a few months would have been sufficient for the intervening events, which would place Vithimer’s death between mid-375 and early 376. Given that a good time for agriculturalists to move on is after they’ve taken in the harvest, it was perhaps most likely late summer or early autumn 375 that the Greuthungi took to the road.

This somewhat breathless last act, however, followed a more measured drama. It is impossible to date precisely, because Ammianus gives us only vague indications of time; but what he does tell us is suggestive. He states, first of all, that Ermenaric resisted the storm brewed up by the Huns ‘for a long time’ (diu). We also hear that Ermenaric’s successor Vithimer fought ‘many engagements’ (multas . . . clades) against the Huns until he was killed in battle. There is obviously no way to be sure how long all this took, but the swift denouement which followed Vithimer’s death clearly ended a longer struggle, and it was the Greuthungi’s decision to move that precipitated the final crisis. How far back in time the preceding struggle might have gone on is a matter of judgement, but the nature of Hunnic operations does have a bearing on the argument.

To secure their entry to the Empire, first of all, Gothic embassies left the banks of the Danube to seek out the emperor Valens and put their case. Valens, however, was in Antioch – which meant a round trip of over 1,000 kilometres; even so the ambassadors were not deterred. Once they reached Antioch, the two parties had to confer and decisions had to be made, then communicated back to the Roman commanders on the Danube. All of this must have taken well over a month, during which time the mass of Goths continued to sit beside the river, more or less patiently, waiting for the green light to cross. There is no record of any Hunnic attacks upon them during this period. Furthermore, the Huns who attacked Athanaric came in small groups, sometimes weighed down by booty: raiders, therefore, rather than conquerors. The Huns’ political organization at this date didn’t run to an overall leader but comprised a series of ranked kings with plenty of capacity for independent action. When he was trying to fend off the Greuthungi’s Hun-generated military problems, for instance, Vithimer was able to recruit other Huns to fight on his side. In 375/6, there was no massive horde of Huns hotly pursuing the fleeing Goths: rather, independent Hunnic warbands were pursuing a variety of strategies against a variety of opponents.

What was happening, then, was not that a force of Huns conquered the Goths in the sense we normally understand the word, but that some Goths decided to evacuate a world that was becoming ever more insecure. As late as 395, some twenty years later, the mass of Huns remained further east – much closer, in fact, to the northern exit of the Caucasus than to the mouth of the Danube. And it was other Gothic groups, in fact, not the Tervingi or Greuthungi, who continued to provide Rome with its main opposition on the Lower Danube frontier for a decade or more after 376. The Romans had to deal with a heavy assault on the same front launched by a second force of Greuthungi under one Odotheus in 386; and still more Goths – perhaps the leftover Tervingi who hadn’t followed Alavivus and Fritigern to the Danube – were operating somewhere in the Carpathian area at much the same time.

Slovakian Air Force WWII Part I

Avia B.534-I There exist only a few photos of B.534-I series. On one of them we can see this B-534 with number 7 on the fuselage, but this marking is not complete.

Letov S-328 of rising air force during Slovak National Rising (against Germans in 1944). Czechoslovak national insignia, completed with silhouettes of three mountains with Slovak cross.

The 2.8 million Sudeten Germans freed by Czechoslovakia’s disintegration, beginning in September 1938, triggered the liberation of other minorities stranded for nearly 20 years behind the borders of that artificial state. Teschen, with its predominantly Polish population, went back to Poland; and Hungarians in Ruthenia, at Czechoslovakia’s extreme eastern section, declared independence on March 14,1939. During the afternoon of that same day, the Slovak people proclaimed their own state, which the Romanian government in Budapest officially recognized 24 hours later.

The Hungarians were likewise determined to reclaim the rest of their fellow countrymen, who made up a majority population in northeastern Slovakia, where they had been stranded since passage of the Versailles Treaty following World War I. On March 23, Honvedseg troops stormed across a border as ill-defined as it was ill-defended. Unprepared troops of the Slovak Army were routed, then rallied, but were ultimately unable to contain the invaders. Hardly less auspicious was the fledgling Slovenske vzdušné zbrane, the Slovak Air Force, really nothing more than the former 3rd Czech Air Regiment. Although the Letecky pluk 3 still possessed 230 aircraft, there were only 80 pilots and observers to man them.

They nonetheless seized the initiative on the opening day of hostilities, when their open-cockpit biplanes struck the Hungarian-occupied cities of Mukacheve, Roznava, and Uzhorod. One of the Letov bombers was brought down by flak, which additionally destroyed two fighters and inflicted damage on four more, plus another bomber. Undaunted, the Slovaks returned 24 hours later for their first aerial combat. They flew the Czech-designed and -manufactured Avia B-534, among the last of the great biplane fighters, such as Britain’s Gloster Gladiator, Italy’s Falco, and Russia’s Chaika.

Powered by an 850-hp Hispano-Suiza HS 12Y drs 112-cylinder, Vee piston engine, the Avia could achieve a maximum speed of 245 mph at 12,435 feet, with a service ceiling of 34,775 feet, and a 360mile range. These qualities won laurels for the rugged aircraft at 1937’s International Flying Meet in Zurich, where it proved at least equal to all competition and out-performed Germany’s own biplane fighter, the Heinkel-51. The B-534 was not envisioned strictly as a fighter, however, and made to serve a ground-attack role. As such, four Model 30, 7.92-mm machine-guns installed in the sides of the fuselage were synchronized to fire through the propeller, or, alternately (as the Bk 534), a single, 20-mm cannon firing from the nose was supplemented by a pair of 7.92-mm machine-guns at the sides. Provision was also made for six 44-pound bombs. It was in this mode that three Avias tangled with an equal number of Hungarian-flown Italian fighters in the early morning of March 23.

The Avia owned a 12-mph speed advantage over the Fiat CR.32, but better-trained Magyar Legier pilots prevailed. The 264-pound payload aboard CO podporučík (second lieutenant) Jan Prhacek’s aircraft was hit and exploded, atomizing his aircraft and killing him instantly, but desiatnik (corporal) Cyril Martis dropped his bombs before crash-landing upside down in a swamp. With the sudden loss of his commanding officer and comrade, and faced by three-to-one odds, slobodnik (lance corporal) Michal Karas out-maneuvered his opponents, escaping unscathed to the base at Spisska Nova Ves. Shortly after his escape, two of three Avias attempting to attack enemy tanks advancing on Tibava a Sobrance were brought down by ground-fire.

Three more B-534s returned to the same general area escorting a trio of Letovs, but were met this time by nine Fiats. Although the observer, podporučík Ferdinand Svento, parachuted from a bomber falling in flames, his body was riddled with 18 rounds of machine-gun fire, as he hung helpless in his harness. Another Letov was shot down outside the village of Strazske, but one survived the carnage to return to base. All three Avias were destroyed without cost to the Hungarians. Later that same day, 10 Junkers Ju. 86K-2 bombers purchased by the Hungarians from Germany before the advent of hostilities struck Spisska Nova Ves in the first raid of its kind on Slovakian soil. A dozen soldiers and civilians perished, with almost 100 injured, but the base did not suffer crippling damage.

A flight of seven Avias attempted retaliation by diving on advancing enemy troop concentrations in the vicinity of Paloc, but nine defending Fiat CR.32s claimed all the Slovak fighters at no loss to themselves. By then, the Hungarians had achieved limited objectives on the ground and sued for peace. In what the Slovaks referred to as Mali Vojn, “The Little War,” they lost 58 dead (22 soldiers and 36 civilians) against 23 Hungarian fatalities (8 soldiers and 15 civilians) during a week and a day of fighting. They were determined to learn from this premature baptism of fire, however, and initiated a serious reorganization of their armed forces, with special attention given to pilot training in the SVZ.

The Slovaks inherited a broad variety of aircraft from the Czechs, but many were worn out or hopelessly obsolete. These were either scrapped or consigned to student pilot squadrons, while frontline machines were refurbished almost entirely by innovative mechanics, because Slovakia did not possess a modern aviation industry. The already small SVZ was downsized still further, but its organizational structure tightened up, and a parachute brigade established. Just five months after the conclusion of the Little War, the Slovakian Air Force was a noticeably improved, although far from perfected service, when a much larger war broke out on September 1, 1939.

Joining Hitler’s Blitzkrieg against Poland were 35,000 Slovak troops set in motion by their Prime Minister, Jozef Tiso. Their limited objectives were recovery of original Slovak territories in Javorina, Orava, and Spis seized by the Poles during 1920, 1924, and 1938. Slovak participation in the Campaign was not entirely self-serving, however, because Tiso was himself a convinced Fascist and trusted friend of the Germans. They had informed him of the up-coming invasion as early as August 28, when he arranged for part of the their attack to be launched from Slovak areas bordering Poland. Beyond the recapture of former regions, he put his air force at the disposal of the Wehrmacht.

To the SVZ warplanes’ national insignia (a red disc with blue twin-cross outlined in white) were added black-and-white Luftwaffe Balkenkreuzen (“Balkan Crosses;’ Iron Crosses) on either side of fuselages and wing surfaces. Tiso dispatched 20 Letov S.328s and as many Avias to scout for his advancing troops, but even after they took Javorina, Orava, and Spis, the fighters stayed on in Poland to escort German Stukas dive-bombing enemy railroad yards around Drogobytch and Lvov. During one of these attacks, on September 9, anti-aircraft fire brought down an Avia flown by čatár (sergeant) Viliam Grun. He was captured and became a prisoner of war, but shortly thereafter made good his escape to rejoin his unit, Number 12 Squadron.

Three days earlier, a lone, unidentified aircraft flew over military installations inside Slovakia. A trio of Avias scrambled to investigate and intercepted a Lublin R-XIII (not a RWD-XVII aerobatic trainer, as sometimes reported),’ the Polish Army’s standard liaison-spotter. Forty-nine of the Polish parasol observation and liaison planes had been organized into eskadra obserwacyjna, or special observation squadrons, for long-range photographic missions. The Lublin was a versatile workhorse. Its tough construction and remarkably short takeoff run of just 204 feet were likewise ideally suited to field operations of all kinds, including courier and ambulance duties.

One R-XIII had tried to attack an enemy vessel on when the elderly Schleswig-Holstein-a pre-dreadnought battleship from 1908-was mercilessly pounding Polish defenders at Danzig with an unremitting, hours-long fusillade of 11-inch shells fired at virtually point-blank range. Unable to find his target, the pilot dropped a stick of 55-pound bombs on a German residential neighborhood instead. But a single 7.7.-mm Lewis machine-gun operated by the observer was inadequate defense against the three Avias, which handily shot down the reconnaissance plane in flames. Its destruction signified the young SVZ’s only kill of the Campaign and its first-ever aerial victory.

These were not the only Slovakian warplanes operating over Poland, however. When the brunt of Luftwaffe aircraft was thrown into the siege of Warsaw, and Wehrmacht ground forces in the south suddenly lost their eyes in the sky, the Slovaks volunteered their open cockpit, two-place biplanes. The Czech-built Hispano-Suiza Vr-36 engine could only provide 740 hp for a maximum speed of 170 mph, but when the Aero A.100 was not shooting photographs of enemy troop movements, it fired four 7.92-mm wz.29 machine-guns or dropped 1,300 pounds of bombs, thereby offering German ground forces much-needed air cover they would have otherwise missed.

The territories Tiso’s soldiers reclaimed during 1939s conquest of Poland more than compensated for regional losses to the Hungarians earlier that year and brought closer ties with the Third Reich. Yet, less than two years later, Hitler did not include the Slovaks in his original plan to invade the USSR, and even tried to dissuade them from participating, because he believed too many of Tiso’s people would side with their fellow Slavs in Russia. But the President argued persuasively on behalf of his fellow countrymen’s loyalty, and Slovakia was eventually allowed to join Germany’s other allies in their combined assault on the citadel of Communism.

However, he was disappointed to learn from the SVZ commander in chief, General Anton Pulanich, that just 33 Avias and 30 Letovs were in fully operable condition. Moreover, they could only be fueled with a unique alcohol-benzene-gasoline mixture not employed by any other aircraft on the Eastern Front. Supplies of this singular concoction needed to be constantly brought up from Slovakia, a process made increasingly difficult, as operations moved further away into the East. Despite these drawbacks, three fighter squadrons (the 11th, 12th, and 13th Letky) joined as many bomber-reconnaissance squadrons (the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Letky) in western Ukraine by July 7, 1941.

Only then did General Pulanich realize that the homeland had been left without enough interceptors to defend against attack and re-assigned the 11th Letky to Piestany. His already small armada was now down to only 20 fighters. These were inadequately supplemented by 10 former Czech elementary trainers pressed into service for reconnaissance duties, for which the Praga E-39-with its 150-hp, nine-cylinder Walter Gemma, air-cooled, radial engine-had never been designed.

With a top peed of just 106 mph, the rugged little biplanes were surprisingly effective, flying cover and observation for Slovakian ground forces in the conquest of Lvov, Kiev, and Rostov. Fortunately for the defenseless Pragas, skies above these cities had already been mostly swept clear of Soviet machines by the Luftwaffe, making aerial combat unlikely. But Red Army anti-aircraft fire remained dangerous, and čatár Frantisek Brezina’s Avia B-534 was the first Slovak to fall to Russian flak on July 25, while in the act of flying escort for a German Henschel Hs.126 observation plane.

Forced into an emergency landing far behind enemy lines, he came under fire from approaching troops. These were strafed by his squadron comrade, čatár Stefan Martis, who then landed as close as possible to Brezina, enabling him to jump aboard the lower, port wing. More Russian soldiers fired on the Avia, as it took off with the rescued pilot clinging to a strut for dear life. Although Martis was shot in the leg and his fuel tank holed by gunfire, he managed to safely reach the SVZ airfield at Tulczyn with a badly wind-blown, but otherwise sound Brezina.

The incident was important, because it for the first time won the favorable attention of Luftwaffe brass, who awarded Martis the Iron Cross Second Class, in addition to the Silver Medal for Heroism he received from his own country. When, merely five days later, another downed flyer was rescued in an identical fashion by a SVZ pilot, Slovak courage featured prominently in the German press.

Still, more than a month was to pass before General Pulanich’s airmen finally confronted the Red Army Air Force on July 29, with inconclusive results, neither side claiming any “kills:” In August, however, fighters of the 12th Letky destroyed three Polikarpov I-16s near Kiev without loss to themselves. While these numbers are not high, the Slovak achievement was nonetheless significant, because the Soviets’ low-wing monoplane Rata was more than 80 mph faster than the Avia double-deckers.

The fighting around Kiev spilled into early September, when 10 B234s attacked 9 of the markedly superior Polikarpovs, shooting down two of them without suffering casualties. A third Rata was destroyed 24 hours later, during a patrol of three Avias above the Dniepr bridge. While no Slovaks had been killed yet on the Eastern Front, their equipment was so badly worn out, continued operations were no longer feasible, and all squadrons were reassigned to the homeland before the close of 1941. Thus ended the purely Slovakian phase of the SVZ’s involvement in World War II. But Hermann Goering had been impressed by these doughty crews, winning victories with patently obsolete aircraft, and offered to provide them pilot instruction for an all-Slovak squadron. Designated 13 (slow)/JG 52, it would be attached to a Luftwaffe unit (II. JG 52) with its own Messerschmitt-109s.

Accordingly, 19 Slovakian students arrived at Karup airfield in occupied Denmark on February 25, 1942, to complete their conversion training some four months later, when they were transferred on behalf of advanced combat instruction in Piestany. They finally left during October for their new operational base at Maikop, where they awaited the arrival of their fighters. The aircraft were something of a disappointment: outdated Messerschmitt-109Es, scarred veterans of the Battle of Britain. Some, in fact, were repaired crash victims. Undeterred, the Slovaks were committed to proving themselves and dressed their seasoned Emits in the new national insignia of a dark blue cross outlined in white with a red disc at the center.

On November 29, just two 13 (slow)IJG 52 Messerschmitts took on nine Polikarpov Chaikas, shooting down three of them, suffering no losses of their own. During the weeks that followed, the Slovaks escorted Luftwaffe Junkers-88 and Heinkel-111 bombers, and undertook ground attacks against enemy transportation. They were rewarded by Goering in mid-December when he replaced their used-up Emits with the much-improved Messerschmitt Me-109F-4. The Slovak pilots immediately took to this more up-to-date model, as evidenced by their escalating number of kills. The Friedrichs came just in time, because the Soviets were replacing their out-moded Chaikas and Ratas with far better Yaks, Migs, and Lavochkins. It was at the controls of 109Fs that the first Slovakian aces began to make their impact on the Eastern Front during early 1943.

While flying Avia biplanes, they were fortunate to get a crack at the enemy. Now, pilots such as Jan Reznak, Jan Gerthofer, and Jozef Jancovic were competing among themselves for the position of Top Gun. As testimony to the desperate measures undertaken by Red flyers to destroy their Slovak opponents, Jancovic returned to base after a memorable encounter on January 20, when a Polikarpov 1-16 left part of its wing embedded in his own aircraft! The Rata pilot had attempted to ram Jancovic head on.

A rapidly growing tally of successful sorties collected by the Slovaks yet again caught Hermann Goering’s eye, and he re-equipped their squadron with the latest Messerschmitt Me-109G-4s. These state-of-the-art warplanes and their crews were soon put to the test when they were moved from Maikop to an airfield on the Taman Peninsula. According to CO stotnik (captain) Jozef Palenicek, “In the sector to which the squadron has been assigned, enemy air activity has increased to such an extent that pilots-mainly on escort flights-have to engage with forces up to nine times more numerous”‘

The Red Army Air Force mounted a maximum effort for undisputed ascendancy over the Kuban, a region of southern Russia surrounding the Kuban River on the Black Sea between the Don Steppe, Volga Delta, and Caucasus. It was here that Stavka, the Soviet high command, intended to break the Axis on the Eastern Front. Never before had the Slovak airmen been caught up in such ferocious and relentless engagements, which intensified throughout March, when one of their leading aces, čatár “Jozo” Jancovic, was killed. Reznak likened him to “a bird of prey, who never took any account of his own safety in air combat;’ a recklessness that prevented him from noticing a Lavochkin interceptor while attacking Shturmovik bombers.’ Although pulled from his crashed landing, Jancovic died of his injuries soon after at a Zaporoshskaya field hospital.

He had at least lived long enough to celebrate his squadron’s 50th confirmed victory on March 21, when podporučík Gerthofer splashed a Petlyakov Pe-2 into the Black Sea. This victory was also the first Peshka dive-bomber claimed by 13 a success that drew widespread congratulations, including a personal telegram from Reichsmarshal Goering. His chief of the air department at the Deutsche Luftwaffenmission in der Slowakei, Oberleutnant Ignacius Weh, reported after inspecting the Taman base, “the Slovak fighter squadron is delighted to fight:”

Slovakian Air Force WWII Part II

Messerschmitt Bf.109E-4 Unit: 13.Letka Eastern Front, December 1942.

Heinkel He.111H-10 Unit: 51.Dopravni letka Tri Duby, Slovakia, July 1943.

Praga E-39G The E-39G taking part in Training Courses of SVZ (Slovenske Vzdusne Zbrane = Slovak Air Forces) based in Piestany in 1941. Note the yellow painted fuselage bow and the yellow fuselage band in the same colour.

Messerschmitt Bf.109G-6/R3 Unit: 13 Letka Serial: 7 (W.Nr.161742) June 1944.

As some measure of the intense struggle for Kuban airspace, 13 (slow)IJG 52 doubled its total number of “kills” in little more than a month. Aviation historian Rajlich writes that two pilots often managed “to destroy as many as four aircraft each in a single day”6 They cite the redoubtable Gerthofer, who shot down a pair of Lavochkins, one Shturmovik, and a U.S. Boston medium-bomber, all on April 24. Five days later, four Yak-1 fighters fell one after the other under the guns of rotnik (staff sergeant) Izidor Kovarik. These achievements were widely publicized back home, where the crews were popularly revered as “the Tatra Eagles;’ after the high mountain range bordering Poland.

Continuous Slovak and German air victories resulted in unacceptable losses for the Soviets, who gradually relinquished their bid for the Kuban, and the focal point of the Eastern Front gradually shifted away toward a confluence of the Kur, Tuskar, and Seym Rivers around the city of Kursk. As history’s greatest tank battle got under way there on July 4, a Petlyakov bomber burst into flames under the accurate marksmanship of nadporucik (first lieutenant) Vladimir Krisko. It was not only his ninth and last success, but the final victory won by13 (slow)/ JG 52’s first team members, who were sent home after a grueling eight months of combat. They were relieved by crews whose average age was just 24 years old, although each pilot benefited from more extensive training.

Their preparation was soon apparent in the 48 enemy aircraft that fell under their guns during the first 12 weeks of engagement. Moreover, the Soviets’ venerable Polikarpovs and Yaks were being replaced by American Aircobras and British Spitfires, which could match the Messerschmitt-109 in many particulars. It was especially to their credit then, that the airmen of 13 (slow)IJG 52 could celebrate their 2,000th combat mission on August 28. In October, they moved to Bagerovo airfield, west of Kerch, where its strait connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, an area soon to be hotly contested between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.

But the Slovaks were more concerned for the immediate protection of their homeland, which had recently come within striking capabilities of long-range U.S. heavy-bombers after Allied forces occupied airfields along the eastern Italian peninsula. Goering gave the Tatra Eagles leave to dissolve 13 (slow)IJG 52 and return home, but not before a Lavochkin La-5 fighter fell into the Kerch Channel under the guns of rotnik Frantisek Hanovec, as a parting shot at the Soviets, and the last Slovak aerial victory on the Eastern Front.

Since August 1941, the Slovaks accounted for 221 confirmed, plus 29 unconfirmed “kills;’ in more than 2,600 sorties. These numbers are aside from very many ground attack, anti-partisan, reconnaissance, and escort duties additionally undertaken during some 16 months of combat. Their achievement seems particularly remarkable when we learn that it was accomplished by less than 100 pilots, only 4 of whom were killed. Seventeen became aces, shooting down at least five enemies each. Such statistics speak to the high skill and determination of the Slovak airmen, who usually fought against opponents that not only outnumbered them, but flew warplanes, which, later in the war, technologically matched their own.

As the Slovak veterans returned to their country, however, they found conditions changed, and not for the better. During the previous two years, Soviet intelligence had waged a concerted campaign to infiltrate Slovakia with numerous covert operatives, who prepared the ground for revolt. They found the general population, and especially the peasantry, still favorably disposed to the Tiso regime, but made important allies among urban residents and the aristocracy, which in large measure controlled the nation’s armed forces. Importantly assisting the agents was Germany’s deteriorating military situation, which certain SVZ commanders hoped to use for disengaging Slovakia from the war.

Meanwhile, the former 13 (slow)IJG 52 crews were formed into a new unit, the “Readiness Squadron;’ for homeland defense on January 31, 1944. It began with shining hopes for the future, and among the brightest was its outstanding pilot, zastavnik (master sergeant) Izidor Kovarik, the nation’s second-highest-scoring ace with 28 confirmed kills. In April, he transferred as an instructor at the Tri Duby flying school, where he and his student died the following July 11 in the crash of his Gotha Go 145 biplane trainer after the structural failure of its upper wing. His loss was a terrible blow to the entire SVZ and particularly to his comrades in the Readiness Squadron.

Their 11, aging Emils and three Avias were almost hopelessly inadequate as interceptors, so Goering rushed 15 new Messerschmitt Me109G-6s straight from their Regensburg factory to Piestany, plus the first of some 25 Stukas. A trio of Junker Ju-87Ds arrived in time for the Soviet spring offensive against the Carpathian Mountains at the country’s eastern border. The SVZ-flown Doras operated with three more Letov bombers out of Spisska Nova Ves in numerous ground-attacks on the advancing Red Army.

In June, a dozen more dive-bombers were received-mostly older B and D models (some unarmed for use as trainers)-plus five, factory-fresh D-5s. A final 11 Doras arrived from Germany the following August. But as the U.S. bomber streams overflew Slovakia, they went unopposed by Readiness Squadron fighter pilots, who stayed well beyond firing range. They were under secret orders by the treasonous Minister of National Defense (!) and Chief of Staff of Land Forces to save themselves for an anti-German insurrection in the making. A few commanding officers were briefed of these plans; most pilots were not, but nonetheless forced to obey orders. Their passive resistance to the enemy came to a head on June 16, when Bratislava was attacked by Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators for the first time. The capital city suffered extensive damage, and 717 men, women, and children were killed, with another 592 injured.

The Readiness Squadron pilots in their new Messerschmitts had been eye-witnessed by too many civilians circling far out of harm’s way. A pair of bombers destroyed by loyal anti-aircraft gunners were the only intruders shot down. Popular reaction was outraged, with loud denunciations of disloyalty hurled at the airmen. Luftwaffe observers condemned them as cowards. Stung by these accusations, Deputy CO nadporucik Juraj Puskar ignored the orders of his scheming superiors to lead a full-scale attack against the next American bomber formation 10 days after the Bratislava raid. In what was to be the greatest Axis aerial opposition over Slovakia, 203 Luftwaffe interceptors were joined by 30 Hungarian fighters and 8 Tatra Eagles.

They arose to confront more than 500 Flying Fortresses and Liberators protected by 290 P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs on their way to strike oil refineries and depots in the vicinity of Vienna. Puskar and his pilots dove into the air armada, but only rotnik Gustav Lang broke through its ring of escorts to fire on a single B-24 that crashed at Most na Ostrove. His Messerschmitt was immediately thereafter riddled with .50-caliber rounds fired by USAAF fighters. Three of his remaining seven comrades were killed in short order by overwhelming numbers of the enemy, another was gravely wounded, and all their aircraft gunned down. The Readiness Squadron had been shattered.

In late August 1944, armed forces’ plotters made their move to overturn the Tiso regime and expel German forces from Slovakia. Their action, according to Milan S. Durica, Slovakia’s leading historian, was less the “national uprising” portrayed by postwar Communist propaganda and picked up by uncritical scholars in the West, than a collection of criminals armed and organized by Soviet agents.’ In any case, after two months of chaos during which Slovakian peasants were predominantly the defenseless victims of murder and looting, it petered out, as much for lack of popular support, as for the intervention of Wehrmacht troops, who were more often than not welcomed and aided by the rural populace in hunting down the bandits. The revolt was chiefly notable for one of the few combat successes achieved by the insurgents, when an Avia flown by Frantisek Cyprich shot down a German Junkers Ju-52 transport plane with Hungarian markings on September 2. The elderly trimotor was unarmed, its crew unaware that any “national uprising” had taken place.

Earlier, on February 15, 1942, President Tiso’s Ministry of Defense began organizing and recruiting for an airborne infantry aimed at striking important targets not otherwise accessible deep behind enemy lines. These would include Red Army headquarters, fuel and ammunition depots, and railway centers. By October, the first volunteers had been selected for the Junior Air Cadets’ School at Trencianske Biskupice, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Juraj Mesko. His men were trained as infantry sappers in close-quarter combat, sabotage, demolitions, and field communications.

The pace of their instruction was slowed by lack of sufficient aircraft and basic supplies, due to exigencies of the Eastern Front. But June 12, 1943, Mesko and three top-scoring classmates-Jozef Lachky, Ladislav Lenart, and Jozef Pisarcik-were provided officer training at the Deutsche Fallshirmjagerschule II (German Paratrooper School-II), in Wittstock-Dosse, 60 miles northwest of Berlin. There, they were familiarized with equipment and tactics and learned the Fallschirmjager’s Ten Commandments:

1. You are the elite of the Wehrmacht. For you, combat shall be fulfillment.

2. You shall seek it out and train yourself to stand any test.

3. Cultivate true comradeship, for together with your comrades you will triumph or die.

4. Be shy of speech and incorruptible. Men act, women chatter. Chatter will bring you to the grave. Calm and caution, vigor and determination, valor and a fanatical offensive spirit will make you superior in attack.

5. In facing the foe, ammunition is the most precious thing. He who shoots uselessly, merely to reassure himself, is a man without guts. He is a weakling and does not deserve the title of paratrooper.

6. Never surrender. Your honor lies in Victory or Death.

7. Only with good weapons can you have success. So look after them on the principle: First my weapons, then myself.

8. You must grasp the full meaning of an operation, so that, should your leader fall by the way, you can carry it out with coolness and caution.

9. Fight chivalrously against an honest foe; armed irregulars deserve no quarter.

10. Keep your eyes wide open. Tune yourself to the top-most pitch. Be nimble as a greyhound, as tough as leather, as hard as Krupp steel, and so you shall be the Aryan warrior incarnate.’

After two months at Wittstock-Dosse, the young Slovaks returned to their homeland and a new school in Banska Bystrica, at the Tri Duby airport. The 34 cadets underwent intensive instruction, making their public debut on October 30, when they jumped for the first time en masse from a pair of German aircraft before President Tiso near the town of Zilina. The right side of their helmets were then hand-painted (not decaled) with Slovakia’s airpower insignia: a white patriarchal cross standing above three, blue hills with a red sun rising in the background, the same emblem applied to engine cowlings of aircraft operated by Slovak crews. The sleeve of their dress uniform featured the image of a deployed chute on a blue patch encircled by a white band.

During January 1944, the paratroopers pursued advanced training, including night-time jumps-the first exercises of their kind in military history, not even attempted by the German Fallschirmjagern. In February, winter instruction took place near the village of Lieskovec. Before spring, the unit experienced an influx of new members, so much so, they passed abreast in review during Bratislava’s annual Armed Forces’ Day parade on March 14. However, development had been hindered since the group’s inception by a dearth of supplies and aircraft, virtually all of it eventually provided by Germany.

Short on supplies themselves, the Fallschirmjagern spared what chutes, jump smocks, and helmets they could, and Goering dispatched several medium-bombers modified to accommodate 16, fully equipped airborne soldiers each. These were examples of the Heinkel He.111K-20/ R1, among the last production variants of this famous warplane, having entered service when the Slovaks were in need of just such an aircraft. Its spacious, ventral hatch facilitated rapid jumps, and FuBI 2H blindlanding equipment aided night operations in which the paratroopers specialized.

When the “national uprising” erupted in August, some 80 Slovak paratroopers located at Banska Bystrica warded off all attacks on the Tri Duby airport. They and the rest of their comrades later participated in fierce fighting along the Zvolen-Kremnica railway and around the villages of Gajdel, Jasenovo, and Svaty Kriz. A few of Lieutenant Mesko’s men deserted; one, captured by the Germans, was executed, while another, severely wounded, was killed when the truck in which he was being driven to a prisoner-of-war camp infirmary was strafed by USAAF fighters.

After the insurgency was put down, Slovak paratroopers continued to engage the invading Soviets, but with the loss of every Heinkel and no prospect for re-supply, plus the seizure of most airfields by the enemy, their unit’s further existence as an airborne organization was no longer justified, and they disbanded in mid-November.

Although some SVZ pilots, for various reasons, joined the insurgency, Slovakia’s most successful airmen did not. Jan Reznak, his country’s leading ace with 32 confirmed and 3 unconfirmed “kills;’ refused to switch sides. His comrade and friend, Jan Gerthofer (26 “kills”), even though imprisoned by the Germans at Austria’s Stalag XVIIA prisoner-of-war camp, until his release in February 1945, likewise remained loyal to the Tiso regime.

After the war, both men enlisted in the newly reconstituted Czechoslovak Air Force as flight instructors. But their past eventually caught up with them. In 1948, Reznak was discharged for his “negative attitude toward the People’s Democracy”‘ Three years later, he was grounded permanently, when his pilot’s license was confiscated by the State Security Police. By 1951, Gerthofer had become a civil transport pilot, but in June he, too, was forbidden to fly for political reasons, and the highscoring ace was forced to work as a manual laborer.

Critics of Prime Minister Tiso fault him for bringing his country into World War II against even Adolf Hitler’s early advice. Yet, neutrality would not have spared Slovakia from the Red Army that overran all of Eastern Europe in 1945. So too, the Slovakian Air Force could not, alone, fundamentally influence the course of events, due to its numerical disadvantage. Yet, the achievement of its crews was all out of proportion to its relatively small size, and they did, after all, significantly contribute to events on the Eastern Front. As such, they secured an especially high position for gallantry in the history of military aviation.