The Road to Rome

By late spring 1943, the Americans and British and their Commonwealth and colonial Allies had won the war in North Africa. The opening of a Second Front in northwest Europe was still a distant possibility, and the victory in Africa left the Allies in the Mediterranean with a choice of where next to fight the Germans. Italy? The Balkans? Greece and the Aegean? The war had to be fought somewhere: Allied planners estimated that a possible D-day in France was still a year away. The triumvirate of leaders—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—were at odds over where to fight next. The Russian victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, and the British triumph at El Alamein, had proved to be turning points. The preceding year in the Pacific, the Americans’ aircraft carrier groups had broken the invincibility of the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway, only six months after Pearl Harbor.

Churchill argued that control of the Mediterranean meant control of Europe, and he wanted England, its armies, and the Royal Navy to have it. In the telegrams that the three leaders exchanged daily, early summer 1943 was devoted to deciding how the war in south and southeastern Europe would be fought. Control of Italy, with its 4,750 miles of coastline commanding every shipping lane in the middle of the Mediterranean, and thus access to the Suez Canal and India, was crucial for the British. It would also decide how military operations in neighboring countries in southern Europe, like Yugoslavia, Austria, and southern France, could be carried out. These in turn would dictate the postwar map of the northern Mediterranean.

A liberated Sicily and Italy would enable the Allies to dominate the Mediterranean sea-lanes and the air bases within striking distance of Germany and the whole of southern Europe. The Allies had three possible courses of action. First, invade  Sicily and the Italian mainland, and fight from bottom to top, thus tying down hundreds of thousands of German troops who could otherwise be deployed against a forthcoming invasion of northwestern Europe, or else used in Russia. Second, they could stage seaborne landings at the very top of Italy, on the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts, fight across the country, and cut off the whole mainland and the German and Italian forces in it. Third, they could negotiate an armistice and surrender with the Italians, move fast, and invade and occupy the country before the Germans had time to reinforce it from the north. Having occupied Italy, the Allies could then race up the spine of the country toward the Alps, outflanking and trapping German divisions by a series of leapfrogging amphibious landings on both Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines. They chose the first option. And at first it all went according to plan.

Meeting at Casablanca in January 1943, the Americans and British argued about whether Sicily or Sardinia should be the first target. Sicily won. In Operation Husky, begun on the night of July 9, 1943, the British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery and the American 7th Army under Lieutenant General George S. Patton launched amphibious and airborne assaults across the southern and eastern coasts of Sicily. It was the largest venture of its kind in the war to date, and was successful, although many of the problems that could beset a combined amphibious, naval, and airborne operation did so. Husky was preceded by a series of diversions, the most imaginative of which was code-named “Operation Mincemeat.” The Allies were obviously desperate to persuade the Germans and Italians the landings were planned elsewhere, for as Winston Churchill had said after the success of the North Africa campaign, “Everyone but a bloody fool would know it’s Sicily next.”

So the Allies devised a cunning plan. The dead body of a homeless Welshman from north London was painstakingly disguised to resemble the corpse of a British Royal Marines officer. The scheme pretended that he had drowned after an air crash while carrying secret documents destined for General Harold Alexander, commander in chief of the Mediterranean theater. The body, with a fictitious identity—“Major Martin”—was dumped overboard by a British Royal Navy submarine off the southern coast of neutral Spain. A leather briefcase was chained to it, containing papers purporting to show that the Allies intended to invade Sardinia or Greece. A local fisherman found the body after it washed ashore, and it was passed to the Spanish navy, which in turn allowed German military intelligence in Madrid to copy the documents. Hitler fell for it. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was transferred to Greece to command German operations there against the supposed Allied invasion and, most important, three German tank divisions were transferred from Russia and France to Greece, just before the strategically crucial armored battle at Kursk in the southern Ukraine in 1943.

But the actual invasion of Sicily, which began on the night of July 9, got off to a discouraging start. Because of strong winds and inexperienced pilots of the 147 gliders carrying the first wave of British airborne assault teams, only 12 reached their correct targets and 69 crashed into the sea. American paratroopers were scattered across southeastern Sicily. The initial landings were almost unopposed, but within hours the Germans and Italians counterattacked with tanks. The Italian army fought much harder than expected, and the British, overconfident after beating them in North Africa, found themselves out-fought by them, albeit briefly, on two occasions. But then the weather swung in the Allies’ favor: the Italians and Germans had assumed that nobody would attack in the bad weather that prevailed before the attack, and so they were slow to react. The enormous dominance in Allied air power hindered the German tanks’ ability to move easily in the open Sicilian countryside. Using their infantry and tanks together, the Allies—who were numerically outnumbered almost two to one—swung north, west, and east across Sicily, pushing the Germans into the northeastern corner toward the Strait of Messina. The Germans fought a series of bitter rearguard actions as they withdrew toward the port of Messina, from where they could rescue their troops back onto the toe of the mainland.

For the Allies, the fighting was characterized by several factors they would encounter on the mainland. The combat was dominated by the physical terrain and the Germans’ exemplary command of the fighting withdrawal. Both sides effectively deployed armor and infantry together: the Germans used lightning counterattacks to keep the Allies off guard as their main force withdrew from one defensive position to the next. It was to prove a precursor to the fighting on the mainland. There was also the heat, dust, mosquitoes, the lack of water, the beauty of the countryside, the two-thousand-year history, and the rural poverty.

The fighting in Sicily introduced the Allied soldiers and their commanders to a new German opponent, which was to dominate the strategic and operational dictats of their lives for the next eighteen months. Luftwaffe Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring was in charge of the German Army Command South. He was a fifty-eight-year-old veteran of the First World War who had commanded the German air forces during the invasion of Poland and France, and during Operation Barbarossa in Russia. He made several decisive observations in Sicily. Without German support, the Italians would collapse, although they were around 230,000 in number. So he decided to evacuate his 60,000 Germans back to the mainland and save them for the defense of southern Italy. He did this in a series of tactically brilliant fighting withdrawals, using the geography on land and sea to his advantage. More than 50,000 Germans escaped from Sicily by August, including two elite paratroop divisions, along with nearly 4,500 vehicles. Kesselring achieved this despite the fact that the Allies had command of land, sea, and air.

The campaign lasted four weeks. The British and Americans lost around 25,000 killed, wounded, missing, or captured, and the Germans some 20,000. The Italians surrendered and lost around 140,000, the majority of whom were taken prisoner. Fighting was brutal. But after a morning spent observing combat in a peach orchard, a British war artist said that he couldn’t decide which was more compelling: the physical beauty of the island or the visceral violence of infantry fighting. The combat casualties on the American side were exceeded only by the number of soldiers who caught malaria, from the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, breeding in the ponds, swamps, and drainage ditches that crisscrossed Sicily.

The Allies ran head-on into the world of Sicilian organized crime, and into la dolce vita too. In one key town, American troops fought alongside Italian Mafia gunmen masquerading as partisans, after their battalion commander agreed with the local capo that political and material control of the area would revert to him once the Germans had retreated. The geography was new too. Suddenly, after the throat-scorching heat and arid lack of compromise that were the sand and rocks of North Africa, here were the southern gardens of the old Roman Empire. The idiosyncratic color of war was also far from absent.

A unit of British special forces was the first to liberate the eastern port of Augusta. They outfought and outmaneuvered a numerically superior German unit, which withdrew toward a viaduct above the town. The British soldiers then liberated not just the bar in the local brothel but also the wardrobes of the prostitutes who worked in it. When an English company of soldiers arrived to link up with the Special Raiding Squadron, they found a small group of rugged, ragged men in special forces berets, captured German weapons slung over their shoulders, some wearing a mix of combat uniforms and women’s negligees and underwear. One was playing an upright piano under the orange trees in the town square, surrounded by the others, who were drinking Campari and singing.

But then the Italians made a move that very nearly caught the Germans by surprise. In secret, they had negotiated an armistice with the British and Americans: it was signed on September 3 at a military base at Cassibile outside Syracuse in southern Sicily. Italy’s Fascist infrastructure, under the twenty-year dictatorship of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, was by now on the ropes. The country, badly defeated in North Africa and at sea in the Mediterranean, was exhausted by war. Il Duce’s lavish architectural designs, feckless colonial wars, and huge public spending had bankrupted Italy. His cloying, sycophantic allegiance with Hitler had motivated him to dispatch 235,000 Italian troops of the 8th Army to fight alongside the Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians around Stalingrad. They were badly equipped, with weapons that, at best, semifunctioned in the Russian winter, and they had no suitable clothing for the subzero temperatures. In seven months, from August 1942 to February 1943, 88,000 were killed or went missing; 34,000 were wounded, many of them with extreme frostbite. And by July 1943, the Italian mainland was already being bombed by the Allies. The country’s predominantly Catholic population was at risk of reprisals if Pope Pius XII spoke out too vociferously about the Germans’ treatment of Europe’s Jews.

So the end, when it came, was draconian. Mussolini was told by the Grand Council of Fascism on July 25, 1943, that not only would his powers be curtailed, but control of the armed forces would be handed over to King Victor Emmanuel and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio. The former was considered ineffectual; the latter, with a shameful record in World War I, was thought little better than Il Duce. So the next day Mussolini was arrested at Villa Savoia in Rome. The signature of the armistice was effectively a total capitulation of the country’s armed forces. For the Germans, who by chance had intercepted an Allied radio conversation from Sicily about the negotiations, it was a confirmation of what they had feared and expected all along. Their capricious and militarily lackluster allies had done a deal behind their backs.

Fearing that with the Italian army incapacitated, the British and Americans would quickly occupy Italy, the Germans moved as fast as they could and launched Operation Alarich, their plan to occupy Italy. If the Allies had been prepared to cooperate in full with the antifascist Italian resistance before Mussolini was deposed, the British landings in mainland Italy could have taken place unopposed. But British foreign secretary Anthony Eden insisted on a full and unconditional surrender by the Italians. During the 1935 Abyssinian crisis, Mussolini had described Eden, then an undersecretary of state at the Office of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, as “the best dressed fool in Europe.” Eden remembered and smarted at this, and demanded a full and unconditional surrender.

Badoglio was timid and terrified of offending the Germans, so the chance to provide muscular military leadership to the many Italians who would be prepared to resist both Fascists and Germans was lost, and the Allies’ opportunity to join forces with the antifascist partisans was squandered. The Germans’ speedy reaction paid off: while the Allies were still negotiating final terms, and arguing about what should become of Italy’s monarchy, Hitler dispatched nine extra divisions down through the Brenner Pass, eastward from southern France and westward from Yugoslavia. After a short-lived defense by Italians loyal to the king, Rome was occupied by the Germans on September 9, 1943. The Italian army collapsed into three pieces.

Italy Falls Apart

As an Italian army officer, Arrigo Paladini had volunteered for service in Russia in 1941 and fought near Stalingrad. But unlike 88,000 other Italian soldiers in Russia who were killed or taken prisoner, Paladini made it home alive, with nothing worse than a bad case of frostbite in one foot. It meant that for the rest of his life he could hardly run. When the armistice was signed at Cassibile in September 1943, Arrigo Paladini was still a twenty-six-year-old second lieutenant in an artillery unit of the Italian army, based near Padua in northern Italy.

As soon as he heard news of the armistice, broadcast from Allied-occupied Algeria by the American major general Dwight Eisenhower, and then on the BBC and Radio Italy, Paladini quickly decided which side he was on. Fellow soldiers in the Italian army faced four choices: desert and go home; follow the orders of superior officers and face detention in squalid camps to await the eventual arrival of the Allies, or possible execution by the Germans; remain loyal to the deposed Mussolini and his Fascist regime; or join a partisan group. As a confirmed antifascist, he felt his only choice was to move south and enlist with a group operating in the Abruzzo region, which lies between the Apennines and the country’s eastern seaboard on the Adriatic.

Tens of thousands of former Italian soldiers, accompanied by civilians who hated the German occupation of their country, formed partisan groups. Loosely aligned along political lines, they were looking to the future while fighting in the present. The Germans were the immediate enemy, their defeat the immediate goal. But regional political control at the end of the war was the ultimate objective. Paladini’s group was allied to the Christian Democrats: its main rivals in the Abruzzo area were Communists. It started life at a meeting in an ilex grove above a village, and at the very beginning had around twenty men, with four Carcano rifles, two submachine guns, and a few Beretta pistols, captured from the police, among them. Paladini took the code name of “Eugene.”

After being deposed, Mussolini had been put under the guard of a force of two hundred carabinieri, Italian paramilitary police officers who had remained loyal to the king. They hid the former dictator and his mistress, Clara Petacci, on the small Mediterranean island of La Maddalena, off Sardinia. After the Germans infiltrated an Italian-speaking agent onto the island, and then flew over it in a Heinkel He 111 taking aerial photographs, Mussolini was hurriedly moved.

They took him to the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a skiing resort in the Apennine mountains, high up on the plateau of the Gran Sasso and accessible only by cable car. Here he spent his time in his bedroom, eating in the deserted restaurant surrounded by carabinieri guards, and taking walks on the bare, deserted mountainside outside the hotel. Hitler, meanwhile, had been planning.

In September 1943, he ordered an Austrian colonel in the Waffen-SS, Otto Skorzeny, to come up with a plan to rescue Mussolini, and to assemble a group of men to do it. Thus was born Operation Eiche, or Oak. Skorzeny was colorful, charismatic, and austere, and one of Germany’s foremost practitioners of commando and antiguerrilla warfare. As a teenager growing up in Vienna in the 1920s depression, he once complained to his father that he had never tasted butter. Best get used to going without, replied his father. Skorzeny was a skilled fencer too, and one cheek bore the scar of a dueling schmiss, or blow from an opponent’s blade.5 By 1943 he was an officer in the Waffen-SS with a hard-earned reputation for success in counterinsurgency operations in France, Holland, the Balkans, and Russia. He commanded the newly formed SS commando unit Sonderverband Friedenthal, and with paratroopers from the German Luftwaffe, he rescued Mussolini without firing a shot.

The two hundred Italian carabinieri protecting Il Duce surrendered after Skorzeny and his assault team landed by glider on the top of the plateau next to the Imperatore. Mussolini, in a black homburg and overcoated against the autumnal Apennine chill, was flown to Rome—with a stop in Berlin to be greeted by Hitler—in a light aircraft. Then he returned to northern Italy, where he created the Italian Socialist Republic, a puppet Fascist state that the Germans drew out within the territory they occupied. It became known as the Salò Republic, from the northern Italian town in which it was headquartered. So with Mussolini now in his small Fascist statelet, Germany occupying Italy, and the Allies arriving on the mainland, Paladini and his small band got to work.

The Arguing Allies

By the time the Americans landed on the beaches at Salerno, south of Rome, in September 1943, the Allies had just lost one of their more capable generals. The irascible, direct, but tactically effective battlefield commander Lieutenant General George Patton had led the U.S. 7th Army in the invasion of Sicily. He had no time for soldiers under his command who complained of suffering from “battle fatigue,” or any form of neuropsychiatric combat-related stress. At the beginning of August 1943, visiting American military hospitals in Sicily, he assaulted and abused two soldiers who were claiming to be affected by fatigue. Army medical corpsmen had diagnosed at least one, if not both, of them to be in the early stages of malaria, alternating between high fever and shivering fits, with attendant paranoia, hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting. It is questionable that either of them knew what he was saying.6 Patton slapped both of them, kicked one in the behind, and threatened to shoot the other. News of the incident mushroomed, and despite there being as much support for Patton as criticism over the incident, he was sidelined from combat command for several months as the 7th Army was split up. His successor was a general who would influence the Allies’ strategy as much as Albert Kesselring, though in different ways.

Generals Mark Clark and Harold Alexander

Lieutenant General Mark Clark was a brave and ambitious staff commander who had risen fast through the ranks of the American officer corps. Born in 1896, his father was a career soldier in the U.S. Army; his mother, an army wife, was the daughter of Romanian Jews. He grew up on a series of army posts, joined the army in 1913 at age seventeen, and graduated from West Point in 1917 as a second lieutenant, 110th out of a class of 139. In the manner in which promotion often works in wartime, he was a captain five months later, before being wounded in France later that year fighting in the Vosges mountains. He remained in the military between the wars, holding a variety of staff appointments, at which he excelled, and was quickly promoted. By 1942, he was a major general and deputy commander in chief under Eisenhower in North Africa. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by his friend and superior, General Eisenhower, after the successful completion of Operation Flagpole in October 1942.

The Allies were determined that the French army in Tunisia and Algeria not oppose the landings code-named “Operation Torch,” the invasion of North Africa. A group of pro-Allied senior officers from the pro-German Vichy French government, based in Tunisia, had indicated that they would be able to persuade the French forces in that country not to resist an Allied invasion. Along with a group of senior officers and three British commandos, Clark was sent to meet them. The group flew by B-17 Flying Fortress to Gibraltar and then boarded the British Royal Navy submarine HMS Seraph. (This vessel would later drop the fake body of “Major Martin” off the coast of southern Spain during Operation Mincemeat.) Clark spent three days ashore in Tunisia, the mission was a success, and senior French officers announced that when Allied troops came ashore in North Africa, they, the French, would arrange a cease-fire. Eisenhower was delighted. It showed Mark Clark’s diplomatic flexibility and powers of persuasion and command, and added to his staff capability. By November 1942, Clark was the youngest lieutenant general in the U.S. military.

In January 1943, he took over command of America’s first field army of World War II—the 5th Army in Italy. Eisenhower was an admirer, and Clark was certainly brave in a mildly reckless way, but he had a reputation for being vainglorious and ambitious. Neither of these were unnatural or surprising qualities in a West Point cadet who had finished near the bottom of his class yet had risen so quickly in the military. Clark was also a classic product of the political economics of 1930s America, a country that was becoming a world superpower and where post-Depression industrial strength restored much of the people’s confidence. It was a country where merit, personal drive, and ambition went hand in hand. Clark was not lacking in of any of these, and he found that war and high command provided the fuse for this volatile trio of qualities.

The commander of the 15th Army Group, which contained the British 8th and American 5th Armies, was General Harold Alexander. The son of an earl, he was educated at Harrow, one of England’s leading private schools. He joined the Irish Guards in 1911, after briefly considering becoming an artist. Unlike so many of his generation, he survived the First World War, where he fought on the Somme, and was decorated for gallantry three times. Britain’s leading balladeer of Empire, Rudyard Kipling, arranged for his severely nearsighted son, John, to serve in Alexander’s battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915, where he was killed. Afterward, he wrote that “it is undeniable that Colonel Alexander had the gift of handling the men on the lines to which they most readily responded … His subordinates loved him, even when he fell upon them blisteringly for their shortcomings; and his men were all his own.”

Alexander served in India between the wars, and in 1937 was promoted to major general, the youngest in the British Army. After Dunkirk in 1940 and service in England, in 1942 he was dispatched to Burma to lead the army’s retreat to India. Recalled to the Western Desert by Churchill, he led the Allied advance across North Africa after the battle of El Alamein, and then took command of the 15th Army Group, reporting to Eisenhower. The British diplomat David Hunt, who served as an intelligence officer in North Africa, Italy, and Greece, was, after the war, on the British Committee of Historians of the Second World War. He considered Alexander the leading Allied general of the war. He quotes the American general Omar Bradley as saying that he was “the outstanding general’s general of the European war.” But despite this, he had an uneasy relationship with Mark Clark, who found him too reserved.

In September 1943, the main body of the two Allied armies landed at Salerno, south of Naples, on Operation Avalanche. Two other British landings took place in Calabria and at Taranto, on the toe and heel, respectively, of Italy. A deception operation code-named “Boardman” coincided with it, in which the British Special Operations Executive leaked faked plans to invade the Balkans via the Dalmatian Adriatic coast. The plan was successful, and these fell into the hands of the Germans in Yugoslavia. Winston Churchill was, in the words of an American staff officer, “obsessed with invading the Balkans,” part of his master plan to preempt a postwar Russian occupation of territory in southern Europe that Churchill saw as rightfully European, not Soviet.

Salerno was as far north as the Allies could land in Italy while still retaining fighter cover from Sicily. The advance bogged down. American troops that managed to break out of the Salerno bridgehead headed eastward instead of north; they tried to link up with American, British, Polish, Canadian, and Indian troops that were advancing northwest toward Rome from their landing grounds at the bottom of Italy. The linkup failed. The mountainous geography of the southern Apennines dictated that an advance to seize the main access routes into the outskirts Rome would have to cross three key rivers, then force its way up the valley of a fourth, the Liri, flowing from the mountains that lay to the south of the capital. Kesselring had anticipated this. The high ground that dominated these river crossings and the main roads were controlled by German artillery, antitank weapons, and infantry. Looming over the entrance to the Liri valley itself was a huge mountain, which had a large ancient Benedictine monastery on top of it. It was called Monte Cassino.

Trying to push northward and break the gridlock at Salerno, the Allies made a crucial strategic decision that turned into a tactical error. They carried out a huge amphibious landing north of Salerno, on the Mediterranean coast, at a small fishing port called Anzio. It was only thirty miles south of Rome. When 35,000 British and American troops landed there on January 10, 1944, they found themselves completely unopposed, and they took the Germans by surprise. They could have marched on the capital. But the querulous, disagreeing Allied generalship—“the Arguing Allies,” as they were known—came to the Germans’ rescue. Mark Clark placed the operation ashore under the command of an overhesitant American general. The British and Americans were then trapped for five months in an area where German gunners on the surrounding Alban Hills had every square mile mapped onto their fire plans. The fighting for both sides resembled the trench warfare of the Western Front, and one German officer described it as being worse than Stalingrad.

British General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group comprised Mark Clark’s 5th Army, with English General Oliver Leese commanding the 8th Army. The Allies’ command structure then took another blow: Montgomery had left for England in December 1943 to help lead the Allied invasion of Normandy. He left behind him what he saw as a situation of strategic and tactical disorganization, particularly by the Americans, that he was subsequently to describe as a “dog’s breakfast.”

Clark’s dislike of Alexander was compounded by his frustration at being the U.S. general who had to implement Alexander’s decision to bomb the monastery of Cassino—although Clark personally furiously disagreed with the order. The British in turn blamed Clark for the near failure of the landings at Salerno. Into this goulash of mutual dissatisfaction, they also stirred another ingredient. Clark had personally assigned the overcautious American major-general John Lucas to command the Anzio bridgehead, and the British, who took enormous casualties there, blamed Lucas for not breaking out of the isolated enclave.

The landing at Anzio had been designed to solve Salerno and the Cassino quagmire. It did neither. What it did do was give Field Marshal Albert Kesselring plenty of time to prepare successive defensive lines north of Rome, to which he could fall back one by one in a series of tactical withdrawals. It allowed him to reinforce the north of the country and establish a major defensive line that led diagonally across north-central Italy exactly where the Apeninne mountains and the Po River valley perfectly suited defensive warfare. It allowed him months to focus his capabilities and to build a string of mutually supporting positions all along this line, which led from the Adriatic coast on the east to the Mediterranean on the west. It was the strongest German defensive position in southern Europe. Kesselring called it Gotenstellung, the Gothic Line.

Italy was now a land of several opposing and cooperating forces. There were the Americans and British, with their multinational corps and divisions from India, Canada, and countries such as South Africa; there were the Germans; there were the Italian partisan groups, with their myriad political allegiances; and there were Italian Fascists loyal to Hitler and Mussolini. The list of protagonists in the fight for one of Western civilization’s oldest lands was as complex and tricky as the terrain and the history of Italy itself.

Xebec (Chebeck)

“Xebec,” “zebec,” and “chebeck” or “chebec” are all variations on one term, whose ultimate origins are Arabic. W.H. Smyth, Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, rev. E. Belcher (1867; repr. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1996), defines “Xebec, or Zebec,” as follows:

A small three-masted vessel of the Mediterranean, distinguished from all other European vessels by the great projection of her bow and overhanging of her stern. Being generally equipped as a corsair, the xebec was constructed with a narrow floor, for speed, and of great breadth, to enable her to carry a great press of sail. On the Barbary coast the xebec rig was deemed to vary from the felucca, which in hull is the same, by having the foremast square-rigged.

The xebec, or chebeck, originated in the western Mediterranean during the seventeenth century. The name stems from the Arabic sabak. This suggests that the Barbary pirates, who were closely associated with this type of vessel, may have developed it. Xebecs were designed to emerge from shallow harbours, using their great speed to intercept merchantmen, few of which would be able to outrun or outmanoeuvre the freebooters. The original North African designers of the xebec borrowed from both the galley and the caravel traditions. The Spanish and French. were quick to follow, if only to have a ship that could match the line sailing qualities of the xebeck. Three-masted, and originally with full lateen-rig, it carried 18 oars to assure mobility during calms, and had a distinctive built-out stem platform to stay the mizzen. Although of shallow draught, the xebeck was far from being tub-like, having fine underwater lines. It carried 12 to 15 guns, including four 12pdr guns mounted on the bow.

Length: 31m (103ft 9in)

Beam: 6.7m (22ft)

Depth: 2.5m (8ft 2in)

Displacement: 190t

RIgging: three masts; lateen-rigged

Armament: 12-15 guns

Complement: 24, plus fighting men


The xebec, as in most ship types, possesses origins difficult to trace. It probably began with the Mediterranean Galley, the type used by Italian city-states, Barbary Corsairs, and other Muslim empires since the middle ages. These ships had long, narrow hulls with a bank of oars. They were meant to be fast and manoueverable under oarpower. These ships also carried two or three lateen-rigged masts.

The foremast of the xebec was traditionally raked (bent) forward while the main was straight. There were no topmasts. The immense lateen yards were actually two spars lashed together at the thicker ends to form one. The hull had considerable overhang at the bow and stern. A ram was located at the bow, much above the waterline to form a prow. There was usually no bowsprit.

Although both galleys and xebecs were warships, some of the features of a xebec are also found in the Felucca, the Pink and the Polacre.

The Felucca is closer to the xebec than the galley. It was a smaller version of a galley, but still lateen rigged. In no way was a xebec ever bigger than a galley, so the felucca is a more likely ancestor.

The Pink and the Polacre are more likely derivatives of the xebec. The pink carried a similar rig, while retaining the rake in the foremast and the narrow beak. However, it possessed a characteristic stern to which it gave its name to. According to Culver, “the upper portion of the pink’s stern was drawn out more or less behind the body of the vessel proper and usually terminated in a much restricted quadrilateral transom.” (152). The pink was more than anything a merchant ship so it had a more full hull and much less overhang at the bow and stern. At a glance, the xebec and the pink might be similar if it were not, at a closer inspection, for the unique shape of the xebec’s hull.

In the late 18th century, there are accounts of xebec-frigates, ship-rigged ships with hulls similar to that of a xebec. Such designs can be yielded to the name Polacre. These ships operated in the Mediterranean as frigates would anywhere in the world. They were owned by almost any nation with influence in the middle sea. They had three to four square sails on the main and fore masts, while the mizzen would have a large lateen sail. The hull otherwise was very similar to the xebec. The overhang, the prow, and the narrowness are all present.

From Galley to Xebec

The transition was very simple. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Barbary pirates were a menace to Christian shipping, but if a Christian warship could come to blows with the galleys of the Muslim corsairs, the broadsides could eliminate the oar-driven vessels quickly.

One theory is that in order to be able to run away or even stand up to a fight, galleys needed to be upgraded. The result was a sailing ship with the capacity to carry guns. Rowers had to be removed to fit the guns, so the dependency for speed in a corsair vessel fell to sail. To accomplish this, a hull similar to a galley, long and narrow, was used, but widened to achieve greater stability to mount guns. The graceful lines were maintained, and so a xebec is formed.

Rigs of the Xebec

The basic xebec carried three lateen-rigged masts, however, two other rigs were apparently used on the same xebec hull shape. A square-rigged mainmast appears on some western xebecs, as well as square sails on the mizzen. This would create the effect seen with the ‘polacre’ rig below. However, the fore and mizzen mast retained their rake.

The other rig that has been described is that of a fully-rigged ship, known as a xebec-frigate. This entails three square-rigged masts. This design, however, arguably becomes a true polacre.

The End of the Evolution

The most common form of xebec produced was the traditional lateen-rigged xebec. It had three lateen-rigged masts, the fore sail sometimes being bigger than the main. The foremast was raked well to the bow while the mizzen was raked to the stern. The presence and size of a bowsprit depended on whether or not the xebec had a jib.

The hull was low and narrow, similar to a felucca. The bow retained a long prow and the stern was greatly extended with a grating over the narrow transom, if that was at all present. The unique shape of the hull allowed a small forecastle and an extended quarter deck. In some ships, the grated overhang at the stern would serve as a poop deck.

The Uses of a Xebec

Since the xebec was above all an excellent sailer, her speed could be used for commerce raiding, or piracy. And that it was. Corsairs, mainly out of Algiers, sailed in xebecs with up to 36 guns, and auxiliary oars.

The Spanish used xebecs to fight the Algerian pirates with their own weapon, seeing that the Corsairs would run at first sight of a warship. The French and Italian city states probably adapted the design for the same purpose.

On the Atlantic, the British were already experimenting with different kinds of techniques, and there is no doubt they tested the value to the xebec’s design. It is possible they had a fleet running out of Gibraltar containing xebecs.

The Operators of a Xebec

So far, there have been accounts of Barbary xebecs, as well as Spanish (jabeque), French (chebec), Italian (sciabecco), Russian (shebeck), and to some extents British xebecs (Dart and Arrow). It is interesting to note that the Danish (schierbek), Portuguese (xebeco), and Dutch (Schebeck) have the xebec in their vocabulary too, denoting knowledge of the vessel. As well there are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes and in North America during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). Further there is an account of 12 xebecs in the casualty list on the Danish side of the Bombardment of Copenhagen, 1801. Each mounted 4 guns. Otherwise, the majority of xebec operation appears to have occurred in the Mediterranean.

The French had built seven ships based on the xebec design and these ships even fought successfully against British ships. The Royal Navy had at that time tested with success the qualities of the xebec.

The xebec under sail was noted to be the fastest and most agile craft of the Mediterranean. However, the ship was not suited to heavy weather due to its low freeboard and shallow draught. As well, if it were a Corsair vessel loaded with armed troops, its range would be limited due to the fact that the stores required for that many men would take up a large amount of space. Being lightly built and of typical Mediterranean materials, the xebec was not a strong vessel. As Thomas Jefferson put it, Algerian xebecs were “so light as not to stand the broadside of a good frigate.”

These were the physical disadvantages of the xebec. Added to this was the fact that the gunners on most Barbary (North African) xebecs were poorly trained and very inaccurate. Calibres were not standardized like in modern navies so this also added to the xebec’s disadvantages.

What the xebec lost in weakness and poor crews, it made up for in speed and manoevreability. This ship type was famous for its speed and handling under sail. If the wind died, the xebec could also rely on a set of 10 to 20 oars. With that kind of movement and versatility, it was easy for a xebec to run circles around slower, heavily laden merchant ships. In a time of crisis, a xebec could easily escape naval warships too.

These qualities made the xebec attractive to North African Corsairs, notably Algeria. However, the Knights of Malta, their Christian opposites, did not seem to adapt the design, preferring galleys and eventually a modern Westernized navy. Nevertheless, many European states integrated the xebec into their navies, notably France, Spain, and Britain. Britain built two xebec-based ships (Dart and Arrow) in 1797 and both vessels were particularly successful. France and Spain utilized the design to fight the Corsairs with their own weapon. It is undoubtable that Portugal, Russia, the Italian city-states, and other nations did the same thing.

Two odd accounts of xebecs outside the Mediterranean occur in North America and in the Baltic. There are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). There is also a record of 12 xebecs on the Danish casualty list after the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801 by Horatio Nelson. Each of them mounted four guns. At the battle of Svensksund in 1790, ‘hemmemas’ were used as gunboats, and greatly resemble xebecs.

Henry I and Louis VI

Henry I of England – Reading Between The Lines Theatre Company’s modern history play.

A 1916 painting depicting the burial of King Henry I. Stephen of Blois wears the crown.

By the time of his death, William the Bastard had claimed his father’s duchy and conquered a kingdom. He had subdued with the sword and ruled with an iron hand. He had also fathered four sons.

Three of these—Robert (known as Robert Curthose), William (known as William Rufus), and Henry—survived to adulthood. Having thus produced an heir and two spares, William could reasonably expect his line to continue. What he seems not to have expected was the rebellion of Robert, his eldest son. Although William had placed Normandy under Robert’s care while busy subduing England, he was quick to remove his adult son’s authority and independence once the Conquest was completed. Angered by this, Robert argued violently with his father, who was infuriated by such insubordination and, in any event, unwilling to lose control over Normandy. Showing Robert the door, William banished him from his lands. Not surprisingly, Robert now found his way to Paris and to the more welcoming court of the French king.

Philip I, who was no fool, received the young man warmly and proceeded to install him in the muscular castle of Gerberoy, along the simmering Vexin frontier. Reacting with typical bluntness, William fortified his neighboring Norman castles and besieged Gerberoy, with Robert in it. But Robert refused to back down, sallying forth with his own men to engage the besiegers in battle.

William was still a formidable fighter, but Robert was far younger and—as his father may not have recognized—an outstanding warrior in his own right. Engaging his father at sword point, Robert managed to unhorse and wound him, forcing proud William to withdraw to Rouen—a defeat of the most humiliating kind.

Frantic efforts by Robert’s mother at last brought reconciliation. But after her death, trouble between the two broke out again. Despite William’s reluctant recognition of Robert as his heir in Normandy, Robert still had no real authority there—nor was it William’s intention to give him any. Exacerbating the situation, William regularly insulted Robert in public. Even Robert’s nickname (Curthose, or “Short Boots,” a joking reference to his height) became a verbal brickbat from the far taller father.

At length, William once again sent the discontented young man into exile, where he still was knocking about upon the Conqueror’s death. It may well have been Robert, in fact, who fomented that surge of trouble between Philip and William in the Vexin that led to the Conqueror’s demise.

Persuaded on his deathbed to do right by Robert, William gave him Normandy, as promised. But he refrained from giving him anything else: England went to the second son, William Rufus, who had played his cards right, while the youngest, Henry, received a large sum of money. In time, as in the fairy tales, the youngest would end up with the entire kingdom. But in the meantime, strife broke out between the two older brothers, with William Rufus supporting Robert’s rebellious barons, and Robert in turn receiving aid from the French king.

Several years later, when Robert gave Normandy to his brother as security for a loan to take him on crusade, William Rufus immediately fortified his Vexin borders with a vengeance—most notably at Gisors, where he piled up a steep artificial hill with a large tower on top (see illustration in chapter 10). He carried out the same plan at other locations along the Epte, including Château-sur-Epte. Unlike his brother, William Rufus was taking no chances with the French king.


Philip I was leery of William Rufus as well, for it was no secret that this boldly acquisitive English monarch (crowned as William II) wanted the French Vexin, and even entertained dreams of the French crown—a “detestable ambition,” as Abbot Suger caustically put it. Paris, which straddles the Seine upriver from Normandy, lay little more than forty miles from Norman frontiers, and at one point in his Vexin wars, William Rufus advanced as far as Pontoise—virtually at Paris’s door.

But William Rufus’s opportunities stemmed from more than geographic proximity. As he well knew, Philip I had only one son and heir. The chance that this heir—young Louis—would survive to adulthood was in those uncertain times far from likely. The Capetian monarchy was in fact a breath away from extinction, and William Rufus (who was related to the French royal family through his mother) sat ready and waiting to administer last rites.

Philip, in the meanwhile, nurtured and prepared this single heir. Under his watchful eye, young Louis grew into a capable warrior, well able to deal with the various baronial insurgencies that repeatedly cropped up throughout Capetian lands. In addition, Philip formally associated his son with him on the throne.

Philip’s detractors have suggested that the old king merely passed along to his offspring what he had come to be too lazy to do for himself, and it is possible that his motives may have been mixed. Still, Philip’s willingness to allow his son and heir an active role in the royal government went a long way to ensure that the monarch who would someday take his place would be an effective one. Indeed, Louis turned out to be a good and successful ruler, credited by historians with consolidating lands and power in a meaningful fashion and starting the Capetian monarchy on its spectacular rise.

Of course, no one knew that things would work out that way. William Rufus was betting that Louis would not live long enough to receive the royal crown, and Philip, too, worried about this. Indeed, it probably was this concern that prompted Philip to remarry, putting aside his first wife, who had proven incapable of bearing him further heirs. But instead of securing the succession, the children from this second union created a new threat to Philip’s legitimate heir. Indeed, Philip’s death in 1108 precipitated a crisis in which a “conspiracy of wicked and evil men” tried to crown Louis’ young half-brother in his place. Louis (Louis VI) received his crown on the run, in Orléans—the first time that a Capetian monarch had not been anointed and crowned at Reims.

As if these perils were not enough, Louis’ most dangerous foreign enemy, the king of England, soon appeared on Normandy’s shores. But the king Louis now faced was not William Rufus, who had been shot by a longbow while hunting in the New Forest. Instead, it was the Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry, who had seized the crown.

Unlike his father and his brothers, Henry did not thrill to personal combat. A balding man of average height, with fleshy body and brawny chest, he was fond of saying, “My mother bore me [to be] a commander, not a soldier.” Beauclerk, he was later called, in tribute to his reputation for learnedness. Still, he was as ruthless and aggressive in his own way as either his father or next-older brother, and he was perfectly capable of mounting a successful campaign, even as he was quite capable of winning what he wanted through means other than war. Within six years after William Rufus’s death and Henry’s assumption of the crown, Robert Curthose was Henry’s prisoner for life. Robert never was Henry’s match.

Thus it was that as young Louis VI of France fought to save his crown, the Norman duke he faced was neither William Rufus nor Robert Curthose, but the far more dangerous Henry I of England. Refusing to pay homage for Normandy to the new king, Henry now arrived on Norman shores.


As a military objective, Paris at the opening of the twelfth century lacked distinction. Half a millennium before, Clovis had made it his capital, and his successors favored it as well. But the last of Charlemagne’s heirs had preferred Laon, and for most of the eleventh century the Capetian monarchs resided in Orléans. Paris in the eleventh century was in fact one of the smaller towns in Capetian domains. Yet by the century’s close, Philip I was spending an increasing amount of time there, and eventually his son, Louis VI, established Paris as his capital.

The site—a hill-ringed basin lying at the Seine’s confluence with the Oise and the Marne—certainly was propitious. Centuries before, the Romans had taken due notice, driving out the Parisii Celts and establishing what they called Lutetia at this junction of a major overland route between southern France and the North Sea. Erecting a temple and administrative buildings on the largest of Lutetia’s islands (now the Île de la Cité) and settling to the south on the hill later named for Paris’s patron saint, Geneviève, they created a small metropolis—with a forum near what now are the Luxembourg Gardens, extensive baths abutting the present-day Musée du Moyen Age, and an arena alongside the present Rue Monge. They also built an aqueduct leading in from the south.

Lutetia’s role as a strategic crossroads grew, with bridges (now the Petit-Pont and Pont Notre-Dame) linking what now is Rue Saint-Martin on the Right Bank with Rue Saint-Jacques on the Left. By the second century a.d., this metropolis contained a population of more than ten thousand—considerably less than the eighty thousand of Lyons or the one million of Rome itself, but still of respectable size.

With Rome’s decay and the onslaught of Germanic invaders, Lutetia’s role as a Roman outpost withered. Yet the town (by now called Paris, after its first inhabitants) continued to function as a trading center, even while the third-century arrival of Denis, the first bishop of Paris, added a new element to the mix. Although St. Denis’ mission ended in martyrdom, he succeeded in creating a foothold for Christianity. When Clovis, first king of the Franks, converted to Christianity in the early years of the sixth century, he established his capital here.

By this time, a cathedral dedicated to St. Étienne dominated the eastern end of the Île de la Cité. Clovis made a significant addition to this ecclesiastical presence by building the church on the Left Bank later known as Sainte-Geneviève. Not many years later, Clovis’ son, Childebert, founded the monastery that became known (after St. Germain, bishop of Paris) as Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Members of the royal family had their final resting place here from Childebert on, until Dagobert changed the royal burial site to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.

During the years immediately following Clovis, Paris managed in a modest way to prosper. But after the Viking onslaught and the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire, little survived. Shrunken to scarcely more than the walled Cité, the town became a tangle of marsh and weeds.

Still, several of the great churches and their huddles of dependent villages remained. Recovery began during the eleventh century, and in the following years the city gradually grew to encompass these ecclesiastical bastions, slowly spreading to the marshy marais of the Right Bank as well as to the Left Bank of the Seine.

By this time the great fairs of nearby Champagne had begun to draw merchants from as far as Italy, spawning new traffic on roads and rivers leading everywhere. Wool from England and cloth from Flanders exchanged hands for spices, silks, and precious ornaments wrought of gold. These goods then made their slow return along the dusty Gallo-Roman roads, bringing quickened activity and prosperity as they came. Although Reims benefited most from the increasingly lucrative Champagne fairs, Paris, too, profited from its superb situation on the Seine. Port facilities had already sprung up along the river’s northern and wider arm by the time Louis VI transferred the markets to the Right Bank from the increasingly crowded Île de la Cité. Later in the century, Philip II would build covered warehouses on the site, soon to become known as Les Halles. He also expelled the Jews from the Cité; they eventually reestablished themselves on the Right Bank, which was becoming the commercial heart of town.

But in Louis VI’s day, most Parisians still lived on the Seine’s largest island, the Île de la Cité. Here at the western end lived the king, in a small palace that the second Capetian monarch, Robert the Pious, had erected on the site of an ancient Roman citadel. To the east, near the cathedral, resided the bishop of Paris and a growing throng of students, who flocked from great distances to listen to and debate with the likes of William of Champeaux and, the star of them all, Peter Abelard. In between these secular and ecclesiastical domains, perhaps three thousand craftsmen and tradespeople lived cheek by jowl, jostling each other along the cramped and muddy lanes as they cried their wares and scurried from place to place.

Here, amid the cacophony, mud, and stench, Louis began to fortify his palace, strengthening it not only against possible Norman attack, but also—and more imminently—against the welter of powerful lords that surrounded him. With this in mind, Louis linked the Cité to the growing port along the Seine’s right bank via a great stone bridge directly connecting the island with what now is Rue Saint-Denis, securing access with a stout fortification, the Châtelet.

Rue Saint-Denis, one of two major routes leading northward, led directly to the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, founded centuries before at the burial site of the martyred saint. Here, even as Louis VI was building Paris into the seat of a reviving Capetian monarchy, Abbot Suger was planning a new abbey church that would reach to the very heavens. His church, with its arched and pointed vaults and astonishing deep-blue windows (of such brilliance that many believed the glassmaker had infused his molten glass with sapphires), led the twelfth century into those soaring Gothic realms where Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, and countless others would soon follow. But more than this, Suger created in Saint-Denis a fitting tribute to the saint who by this time was evolving into a political as well as a spiritual powerhouse.

Centuries of close ties between the Abbey of Saint-Denis and the royal crown had quite naturally lent a certain aura to the martyred saint’s reputation. Since the late sixth century, members of the royal family had been buried there, and from about the same time the court had deposited copies of royal documents there for safekeeping. The royal regalia used at coronations came to be kept at Saint-Denis as well, although the coronation itself continued to take place at Reims, the site of Clovis’ conversion and coronation. Dagobert’s recognition of St. Denis as royal patron further enhanced the abbey’s reputation as the royal abbey, as did royalty’s extension of numerous special privileges, which freed the monks from the usual fees and obligations.

Yet these were evidences of royal favor, with power residing in the benefactor. Indeed, for more than a century, when the monarchy sank to its nadir, the abbey stood in danger of losing its independence to the real source of local power, the counts of Paris.

Still, as Abbot Suger was quick to recognize, the king held the French Vexin as a fief from the Abbey of Saint-Denis—in theory, from the saint himself, although in practice from the abbey and its abbot (who during Louis VI’s reign was, of course, Suger). A minister to the king during the reigns of both Louis VI and Louis VII, and regent during Louis VII’s long absence on crusade, Suger held a formidable position in the Capetian court. Clearly the fortunes of the Capetians and those of Suger were intertwined, for while this energetic abbot sent the arches of his abbey cathedral soaring toward the heavens, he was also hard at work erecting a political construct that would set the Capetian king at the pinnacle of feudal power—worldly power for, as Suger argued, the monarch was in turn vassal to the long-dead St. Denis. That the Abbot of Saint-Denis was the martyred saint’s agent here on earth did not at all intimidate Suger, who did not shy away from the obvious conclusion.

Suger’s political construct was at heart a simple one, positing a neat and tidy theory of landholding. According to Suger, the French territorial princes held their lands in fiefdom to the Capetian monarch in much the same way that lesser lords had traditionally held their lands within the hereditary Capetian realms. In Suger’s view, the count of Auvergne held his lands from the duke of Aquitaine, who in turn held his vast realms from the king of France. To Suger, Normandy and Aquitaine and all the rest were simply part and parcel of the kingdom of France—a neat and tidy theory, filled with possibilities for the Capetian monarchs. The only problem was that the territorial princes did not view things that way. As far as they were concerned, the king of the French could do what he liked in his own hereditary lands, but he had no business whatsoever in theirs.

Suger’s political construct thus did not yet represent reality, for feudalism, with its fundamental elements of loyalty and protection, landholding, and military service, was still evolving out of the disorder that had accompanied the widespread collapse of central authority in the ninth and tenth centuries. Certain of its elements had ancient roots, but tradition faltered in the face of raw aggression. Local conditions varied enormously, and men of power—whether great or small—simply demanded and took what the traffic would bear.

By Suger’s day, many of these arrangements had acquired a certain stability and even sophistication. But the messy and overlapping structure of French political society in the early twelfth century did not even remotely resemble a pyramid, and certainly not one with the king at its apex. Feudal relationships still were widely diffused, focusing on dukes and counts and even local lords rather than the monarch. Although Suger’s theory presented a kind of blueprint for power, the Capetian monarchs could not expect power to come their way by some sort of divine right but would have to impose it upon their recalcitrant subjects.

St. Denis pointed the way. With Suger’s encouragement, the king acknowledged that St. Denis was not only his spiritual patron but his feudal overlord as well. Facing invasion from the German emperor, Louis VI hastened to the Abbey of Saint-Denis. There he begged the martyred saint to defend his kingdom. Then he took from the altar the military standard of the Vexin—a forked scarlet banner embroidered with golden flames that legend ascribed to Charlemagne.

In all humility, Louis received this silken banner in a manner that acknowledged his vassalage to his saintly overlord, St. Denis. He then called for all of France to rally around him against the common foe. The response was impressive, with many of France’s most powerful barons flocking to his side. Reconsidering, the emperor decided to head for other parts (German historians insist that he had more pressing business elsewhere). Rejoicing in this turn of events, Louis returned the banner to the abbey in triumph.

“It is neither right nor natural that the French be subject to the English, but rather the English to the French,” Suger gloated, anticipating days of glory that still lay well ahead. But for the first time a king of France had caught a whiff of the possibilities. For nearly three centuries thereafter, the French would go into battle bellowing their famous war cry, “Monjoie Saint-Denis!” and carrying before them the flame-colored silken banner of Saint-Denis known as the Oriflamme.

Already, this banner was emerging as the royal standard of France.


“Louis, king of the French,” wrote Suger, “conducted himself toward Henry, king of the English and duke of the Normans, as toward a vassal, for he always kept in mind the lofty rank by which he towered over him.” As duke of Normandy, in other words, England’s Henry I was Louis VI’s feudal dependent, no matter what other titles he bore. For years, Henry resisted this logic, and this recalcitrance lay at the heart of Henry’s struggles with the French king.

Louis in turn countered by rallying to the cause of the imprisoned brother, proclaiming Robert Curthose’s son—an attractive young man by the name of William Clito—as the rightful Norman duke and English king. Until his untimely death, Clito served as a rallying point for all of Henry’s enemies, which was exactly what Louis had in mind.

William Clito was not the only son upon the political chessboard, for Louis and Henry each had sons. In a reversal of previous generations, Henry had but one legitimate son, while Louis was blessed with eight. In much the same spirit as his father, Louis designated the eldest of these as his successor and associate in the crown, while the next in line, a mild lad by the name of Louis, departed for a monastic career.

The White Ship. The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef, Latin documents Latin: Candida navis) was a vessel that sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120.

Henry I’s son, known as William Aetheling, was but seventeen years old when Louis VI appealed the cause of William Clito to the pope, with such success that Henry had to scamper to protect both his duchy and his crown. To ensure his son’s succession in Normandy against William Clito’s claims, Henry now agreed that young Aetheling would do homage to Louis for Normandy—a significant concession, although not quite the same as the king himself bending the knee. William Aetheling did as he was directed and then prepared to return to England on the White Ship, the newest and finest vessel in his father’s fleet. It was a lovely evening in late November, and he and his young friends were prepared to party all the way.

The king set sail first in a light breeze, just before twilight. Delayed by their festivities, young Aetheling and his friends did not push off until well after dark, with a crew that by this time was almost as drunk as the passengers. Catching sight of the king’s ship well ahead, the passengers called out that “those who were now ahead must soon be left astern.” The ship fairly flew, “swifter than the winged arrow.”

Too late, the crew saw the rock that rose above the waves. As the boat impacted with a grinding crash, the young nobles cried out in alarm, suddenly realizing their peril. Out came the oars and boat hooks, as the crew tried in vain to force the vessel off. But the rock had split the prow, and water now came pouring in.

Amid the terror, as frantic bodies fought the sea, someone thought to launch the single skiff and push the prince inside. Well on his way toward shore and safety, he heard one voice above the others—his illegitimate half-sister, the young countess of Perche, who shrieked out for him not to abandon her. Overcome with pity, William Aetheling ordered the little boat to return, thus sealing his fate: “for the skiff, overcharged by the multitudes who leaped into her, sank, and buried all indiscriminately in the deep.”

There was but one survivor, a butcher who managed to seize the mast and keep afloat until morning. He alone remained to tell the terrible tale. Lost were countless sons and daughters, the cream of England and Normandy’s young aristocracy. Scarcely a noble family went untouched.

Worst of all was the king’s loss. For now Henry, duke of Normandy and king of England, had no legitimate son and heir.

The White Ship had changed history.

Tamerlane and the Golden Horde

TAMERLANE (1336–1405). Turkic chieftain and conqueror. He was not Mongol, but sought to trace Mongol connections through his wife’s ancestors. His English name is a corruption of the Persian Timür-i Leng, “lame Timür.” Tamerlane is important not only for his conquests, but for his role in definitively ending the Mongol era in Turkistanian history, and for his attack on the Golden Horde in 1395–1396, which began with the Battle of the Terek River, in which the army of Toqtamysh was decisively defeated, and ended with the destruction of much of the sedentary base of the Golden Horde along the lower Volga, including Sarai.

In 1401 the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was in the city of Damascus, then under siege by the mighty Tamerlane. Eager to meet the famous conqueror of the day, he was lowered from the walls in a basket and received in Tamerlane’s camp. There he had a series of conversations with a ruler he described (in his autobiography) as ‘one of the greatest and mightiest of kings . . . addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and does not know’. Ibn Khaldun may have seen in Tamerlane the saviour of the Arab–Muslim civilization for whose survival he feared. But four years later Tamerlane died on the road to China, whose conquest he had planned.

Tamerlane (sometimes Timur, or Timurlenk, ‘Timur the Lame’ – hence his European name) was a phenomenon who became a legend. He was born, probably in the 1330s, into a lesser clan of the Turkic-Mongol tribal confederation the Chagatai, one of the four great divisions into which the Mongol empire of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan had been split up at his death, in 1227. By 1370 he had made himself master of the Chagatai. Between 1380 and 1390 he embarked upon the conquest of Iran, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Armenia and Georgia. In 1390 he invaded the Russian lands, returning a few years later to wreck the capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol regime in modern South Russia. In 1398 he led a vast plundering raid into North India, crushing its Muslim rulers and demolishing Delhi. Then in 1400 he returned to the Middle East to capture Aleppo and Damascus (Ibn Khaldun escaped its massacre), before defeating and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayazet at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. It was only after that that he turned east on his final and abortive campaign.

The Army

Tamerlane’s original army was a hodgepodge of leftover Chaghatayid units: clans (Barulas, Jalayir, etc.), local soldiery created a century earlier under the Mongol census (called qa’uchin, old units), independent KESHIG (guards) tümens (nominally 10,000) that had outlived their khan, and the Qara’unas, an old TAMMACHI garrison. Tamerlane did not disperse these traditional units but controlled them by changing their leadership, removing major cities such as Bukhara from their control, and eventually recruiting new armies outside the Chaghatay Khanate, especially local units from the defunct Mongol IL-KHANATE. Foreign troops and craftsmen-Indians, Persians, Arabs both settled and bedouin, and Turks- were deported and settled around Samarqand and Bukhara. By 1400 his own companions commanded about 13 tümens, while his sons commanded at least nine. Tamerlane ‘s sons’ tümens were assembled from troops of all origins. The core of Tamerlane ‘s army was its Inner Asian cavalry, but he also valued Tajik (Iranian) infantry units. In an inscription he claims to have attacked Toqtamish in 1391 with 20 tümens, a statement that at the usual 40 percent nominal strength is plausible.

Attack on the Golden Horde

The subjugation of Khorasan and Mazandaran, completed by 1384, led to the first of his expeditionary campaigns against western Iran and the Caucasus in 1386-87.

Toqtamish’s father was a descendants of Toqa-Temür, one of the “princes of the left hand,” or the BLUE HORDE, in modern Kazakhstan, and his mother was of the QONGGIRAD clan from near KHORAZM. At the time the Blue Horde was ruled by Urus Khan (d. 1377) and his sons, whose seat was at Sighnaq (near modern Chiili). By allying with the Chaghatayid conqueror Tamerlane, Toqtamish succeeded after many reverses in taking control of the Blue Horde (spring 1377). Later, local chronicles speak of Toqtamish as defending four tribes (el)-Shirin, Baarin, Arghun, and Qipchaq-from the tyranny of Urus Khan. Once enthroned in Sighnaq, Toqtamish led his four tribes west to defeat Emir Mamaq (Mamay) of the Qiyat clan (1380) and reestablish GOLDEN HORDE rule over Russia by sacking Moscow (1382).

Eventually, Toqtamish turned against his old patron, Tamerlane, to pursue the Golden Horde’s old territorial claims in Azerbaijan (1385 and 1387), Khorazm, and the Syr Dar’ya region down to Bukhara (1388). Tamerlane responded with a massive punitive expedition into Kazakhstan, which finally cornered and defeated Toqtamish’s army near Orenburg (June 1391). Tamerlane also wooed away Emir Edigü, leader of the Manghit (MANGGHUD) clan, from Toqtamish’s camp. After rebuilding his power in the west, Toqtamish again invaded Azerbaijan (1394); Tamerlane crushed his army again on the Terek (March 15, 1395) and sacked Saray and Astrakhan.

By now Tamerlane’s chief rival was a one-time protegé, TOQTAMISH, ruler first of the BLUE HORDE and then of the reunified GOLDEN HORDE in the northern steppe. First sacking Urganch (1287), the capital of Toqtamish’s allied country, Khorazm, Timur launched a “five-year campaign” (1392-96) against Baghdad’s Jalayir dynasty as well as against western Iranian, Turkmen, and Georgian powers, culminating in the sack of Toqtamish’s capital, New Saray, on the Volga and crippling Toqtamish’s power.

Timur marched through the Darband Gates, a narrow pass between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. On 15th April 1395 the armies of Timur and Toqtamish met near the river Terek, a strategic point where so many battles had been fought. Timur himself took part until, as the Zafarnama put it, ‘his arrows were all spent, his spear broken, but his sword he still brandished’. This time Timur’s victory was complete.

Terek River, 22 April 1395

Abandoning his fortified camp on the banks of the Terek on bearing of Tamerlane’s approach during a second campaign against him, Tokhtamysh Khan shadowed the Timurid army until, on 14 April, they finally encamped facing one another. On the 22nd Tamerlane arranged his forces for battle in 7 divisions, himself commanding the reserve of 27 binliks, and commenced his attack under the cover of showers of arrows. Then, bearing of an advance against his left wing, he led the reserve to its support and repelled the attack but pursued the enemy too far so that, thus disorganised, be in turn was repulsed and driven back. Disaster was averted by a mere 50 of his men who dismounted, knelt on one knee and laid down a withering barrage of arrows to bold back their pursuers while 3 Timurid officers and their men seized 3 of Tokhtamysh’s wagons and drew them up as a barricade behind which Tamerlane managed to rally his reserve. The advance guard of his left wing bad meanwhile broken through between the attacking enemy divisions, while his son Mohammed Sultan brought up strong reinforcements, positioning them on Tamerlane’s left so that Tokhtamysb’s advancing right wing was finally forced to take flight.

The Timurid right wing having meanwhile been surrounded, its commander ordered Ibis men to dismount and crouch behind their shields, under the cover of which they were repeatedly attacked with lance and sword by Tokhtamysb’s troops. They were finally rescued from these dire straits by the division under Jibansha Behadur which, attacking from both flanks, obliged the enemy left flank to fall back and then drove it from the field. Finally the centres of both armies joined battle, Tokhtamysb’s giving way after a hard fight, upon which the khan and his noyons quit the field. The Timurid pursuit was close and bloody, most of those they captured being hanged.


The shattered remnants of Toqtamish’s army and of his Russian vassals were pursued as far as Yelets, not far from the Principality of Moscow. There Timur turned back not, as the terrified Muscovites believed, because of the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary and still less through fear of Moscow’s military might, but because he had no interest in conquering the poor and backward Russian principalities.

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the undoubted savagery of his predatory conquests, Tamerlane was a transitional figure in Eurasian history. His conquests were an echo of the great Mongol empire forged by Genghis Khan and his sons. That empire had extended from modern Iran to China, and as far north as Moscow. It had encouraged a remarkable movement of people, trade and ideas around the waist of Eurasia, along the great grassy corridor of steppe, and Mongol rule may have served as the catalyst for commercial and intellectual change in an age of general economic expansion. The Mongols even permitted the visits of West European emissaries hoping to build an anti-Muslim alliance and win Christian converts. But by the early fourteenth century the effort to preserve a grand imperial confederation had all but collapsed. The internecine wars between the ‘Ilkhanate’ rulers in Iran, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai, and the fall of the Yuan in China (by 1368), marked the end of the Mongol experiment in Eurasian empire.

Tamerlane’s conquests were partly an effort to retrieve this lost empire. But his methods were different. Much of his warfare seemed mainly designed to wreck any rivals for control of the great trunk road of Eurasian commerce, on whose profits his empire was built. Also, his power was pivoted more on command of the ‘sown’ than on mastery of the steppe: his armies were made up not just of mounted bowmen (the classic Mongol formula), but of infantry, artillery, heavy cavalry and even an elephant corps. His system of rule was a form of absolutism, in which the loyalty of his tribal followers was balanced against the devotion of his urban and agrarian subjects. Tamerlane claimed also to be the ‘Shadow of God’ (among his many titles), wreaking vengeance upon the betrayers and backsliders of the Islamic faith. Into his chosen imperial capital at Samarkand, close to his birthplace, he poured the booty of his conquests, and there he fashioned the architectural monuments that proclaimed the splendour of his reign. The ‘Timurid’ model was to have a lasting influence upon the idea of empire across the whole breadth of Middle Eurasia.

But, despite his ferocity, his military genius and his shrewd adaptation of tribal politics to his imperial purpose, Tamerlane’s system fell apart at his death. As he himself may have grasped intuitively, it was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe and build a Eurasian empire on the old foundations of Mongol military power. The Ottomans, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in northern India, and above all China were too resilient to be swept away by his lightning campaigns. Indeed Tamerlane’s death marked in several ways the end of a long phase in global history. His empire was the last real attempt to challenge the partition of Eurasia between the states of the Far West, Islamic Middle Eurasia and Confucian East Asia. Secondly, his political experiments and ultimate failure revealed that power had begun to shift back decisively from the nomad empires to the settled states. Thirdly, the collateral damage that Tamerlane inflicted on Middle Eurasia, and the disproportionate influence that tribal societies continued to wield there, helped (if only gradually) to tilt the Old World’s balance in favour of the Far East and Far West, at the expense of the centre. Lastly, his passing coincided with the first signs of a change in the existing pattern of long-distance trade, the East–West route that he had fought to control. Within a few decades of his death, the idea of a world empire ruled from Samarkand had become fantastic. The discovery of the sea as a global commons offering maritime access to every part of the world transformed the economics and geopolitics of empire. It was to take three centuries before that new world order became plainly visible. But after Tamerlane no world-conqueror arose to dominate Eurasia, and Tamerlane’s Eurasia no longer encompassed almost all the known world.

The War of Austrian Succession in Italy: 1740–1748

In October 1740, Emperor Charles VI died. In his youth he had held title as the Archduke Charles, claimant to the Spanish crown and for whom the Habsburgs waged the War for the Spanish Succession. He left a single heir, his daughter the Archduchess Maria Theresa.

The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy. Charles VI, however, negotiated with the ruling houses of Europe and the magnates of his monarchy to accept Maria Theresa as his legitimate and rightful heir and the next empress. Having secured domestic recognition of his daughter’s right to succeed him, he also acquired international recognition embodied in the document, the Pragmatic Sanction. It did not work. As soon as he died, the Bavarian and Saxon electors competed for the crown; and King Frederick II of Prussia, newly ascended to the throne, rejected Maria Theresa’s legitimacy and invaded Silesia, wealthiest of the Habsburg territories. France did not enter the war, but a French auxiliary corps was dispatched to central Germany in accordance with the Treaty of Westphalia, “to defend German liberties.”

In 1745 the Quadruple Alliance was officially formed by Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, and Saxony through the Treaty of Warsaw. With the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII, the Holy Roman Empire’s throne again became con- tested. Prussian forces were able to maintain their position in Silesia and southern Germany, with Austrian forces unable to oust them. Francis I of Lorraine, the husband of Maria Theresa, was elected Holy Roman emperor, a move opposed by the Prussians and the Bavarians. Despite Prussian successes against Austrian forces, Frederick recognized Francis I’s acquisition of the Habsburg throne in the Peace of Dresden on December 25, 1745, while it was recognized by the Austrians that Silesia was a Prussian province. This agreement ended the Second Silesian War.

In southern Europe the war was characterized by Spanish and Italian engagements, given Bourbon Spanish attempts to acquire territory in Italy, particularly Milan, with Italian states divided in terms of their loyalties. As Austrian forces ousted Spanish forces from northern Italy, they occupied formerly independent Italian states, most notably Genoa. In contrast, in northern Europe, British and Dutch forces engaged French forces in defense of the Austrian Netherlands as well as their own possessions. With a Swedish-Russian settlement made in 1743, Russian forces, allied with Austria, marched from Moscow to the Rhine in 1746. The overwhelmed French and Spanish forces were forced to come to terms or continue fighting against the enlarged coalition. The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed on October 18, 1748, formally ended the War of the Austrian Succession. In the end, Prussia was able to retain Silesia at the expense of Austria, which was the trigger of the whole conflict.

The Spanish royal family decided the war offered an opportunity to reclaim Milan. Prince Philip of Bourbon, the youngest son of Philip V and Elizabeth Farnese, needed a crown; and Milan, along with Parma, suited him. A Spanish army landed in Tuscany-a neutral-and marched north to the Padana Plain. Then, Philip V asked his son Charles VII of Naples to return the army he lent him in 1733 to the Neapolitan and Sicilian thrones. Neapolitan troops marched north to join the Spanish army.

France too required allies. They requested Piedmontese permission to cross the Alps and march on Milan, but Charles Emmanuel III did not want to involve his state in this conflict. He realized that, in case of a French and Spanish victory, Piedmont would be caught between the Bourbons. It meant the end of any autonomous policy and of any possible dream of expanding his power in Italy. Moreover, he threatened the approaching Spanish army that if it entered the Padana Plain, his army would its his route to Milan.

At the same time, Britain perceived the precarious situation as a threat to the Balance of Power. Piedmont and Austria were alone against much of Europe, save Russia. London therefore committed its resources to the Habsburg cause. Charles Emmanuel received a £250,000 annual subsidy to keep his army on a war footing. Then, a British squadron entered the Mediterranean under Admiral Matthews, ordered to act in support of Charles Emmanuel. The British ships entered Naples harbor with some five thousand marines. Charles VII knew it. He had no fleet and very few men to defend the city because his army had marched north. So, when Matthews presented an ultimatum: recall all his regiments with the Spanish army, or the city would be shelled and the marines landed, Charles VII had little recourse but to accept the terms.

The defection of Naples eased Charles Emmanuel’s army action against the Spanish in the Padana Plain. Not wanting to face isolation, the Spanish withdrew through the Papal States along the Adriatic coast. Soon after, Charles Emmanuel countermarched rapidly to meet a second Spanish army entering Savoy via France. He won the campaign, but it was clear that the war was becoming harder to manage.

In 1743 the Spanish threatened Piedmont with two armies. Charles Emmanuel possessed no more than 42,000 men and could use only half against each Spanish army. Nonetheless, he crushed Prince Philip’s army, marching from France, at Casteldelfino. Simultaneously, the Piedmontese with their Habsburg allies fought and defeated the second army under de Gages at Camposanto, on the other side of Italy and pressed it to the Neapolitan-Papal States border on the Adriatic coast, where it sought refuge from the Neapolitan king.

In the autumn of 1743, Britain joined Piedmont and Austria in a formal league. The treaty signed in Wörms widened the scope of the conflict from Europe to Asia, Africa, and America, where it was known as King George’s War.

The 1744 campaign was hard fought. Unfortunately, Maria Theresa wanted Naples because, according to the Peace of Utrecht, it should have remained in Habsburg hands, yet the War of Polish Succession had reversed that agreement.

Charles Emmanuel warned the Austrian ruler that this would only increase the strategic dilemma. Why expand the conflict when victory was not in sight? Regardless of the free advice, she ordered her army to destroy de Gages’s Spanish army still waiting on the Neapolitan frontier. Charles VII of Naples, aware of the Austrian menace, declared war and once again united his troops with his father’s army.

An Austrian army marched south, passing through the Papal States from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian coast. Charles VII gathered the Spanish and Neapolitan army and encamped near Velletri, south of Rome. The Austrians attacked in August and were repulsed with great loss.

The defeat forced the Habsburgs to abandon central Italy in November. The Neapolitan-Spanish army followed on their heels, arriving in northern Italy. What a present for Charles Emmanuel, who had his own troubles.

In fact, France officially entered the war in that same year. A French army united with Prince Philip’s army passed the Alps, defeated the local Piedmontese resistance, and besieged Cuneo. Charles Emmanuel tried to relieve the city, but failed. He then directed the militia against the enemy’s ordnance and supply lines and, thanks to these guerrilla tactics and to Cuneo’s resistance, the Bourbon armies raised the siege and withdrew to France to take winter quarters.

In the early days of 1745, Genoa entered the conflict. The Most Serene Republic sought neutrality, just as Venice had done for the third time in forty-five years. Unfortunately, while Venice could defend its neutrality with 40,000 men, Genoa could not; and, moreover, Britain and Austria promised to give Charles Emmanuel the Marquisate of Finale, a little imperial fief in Liguria owned by the republic as a feudatory of the empire. Charles Emmanuel desired it as a port, an additional window to the Mediterranean.

In order to protect its territory, Genoa signed a treaty in Aranjuez and joined the Bourbon alliance. It was a disaster for Charles Emmanuel. The Genoese accession to the League provided the Spanish-French army with an opened route from France through Genoese territory, and now they could mass the army from France with the army from Naples via Velletri, adding to it 10,000 Genoese troops. This was the real disaster as it increased the powerful Bourbon army to 90,000 men.

As the war in Flanders continued, Charles Emmanuel received no support from Austria.

He had a mere 43,000 men. Maneuvering them well to avoid battle, he lost many fortresses but preserved his army. Despite this, he was compelled to accept an armistice in December 1745. Fortunately, Prussia accepted peace terms offered by Austria, allowing Vienna to send 12,000 men to Italy. It was not an impressive army, but enough to permit Charles Emmanuel to take the field upon the expiration of the armistice. In the spring 1746 he attacked and the Bourbons were defeated. Milan was reconquered, Piedmont liberated, and Genoa overrun by the Austrians. The Piedmontese army occupied western Liguria and the French and Spanish fled, abandoning the republic.

While Charles Emmanuel prepared an invasion of southern France, he sent a regiment to support the Corsican revolution against Genoese rule.

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.

Genoa found itself under occupation and threatened with destruction if it did not pay 3 million scudi to Austria. Subsequently the city revolted, and the Austrian garrison was ejected. Charles Emmanuel halted his operations against France and marched to support Austrian operations against the city. The Genoese fleet, supported by coastal defenses, prevented the British fleet from shelling Genoa, but the Austrian and Piedmontese armies cut the city off from the outside world by land, while the French supplied its ally with men and material by sea.

In the spring of 1747, a new French army marched along the Mediterranean coast. Charles Emmanuel ordered his troops to hold Nice, but soon he knew that another French expeditionary force was approaching the Alps from the west. If they crossed the Alps, they could effectively threaten Turin.

Charles Emmanuel had no troops to stem the invasion. He scraped together what troops he could find. On July 19, 1747, at Assietta Hill, 30,000 French with artillery attacked 5,400 Piedmontese and 2,000 Austrians. At sunset, the French had lost 5,800 men and left more than 600 wounded1 to the victorious defenders. General Count Bricherasio lost only 192 Piedmontese and 27 Austrians; it was clearly a triumph.

Assietta Hill was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. A peace was signed on October 30, 1748, at Aix-la-Chapelle. 2 Everything remained as it was before the war, except that Prince Philip of Spain obtained the duchy of Parma and Charles Emmanuel received from Maria Theresa two West Lombardy provinces, Vigevano, and Anghiera County, and a part of the territory of Pavia, setting the Milanese-Piedmontese border along the Ticino river.

Hellcats in the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy acquired large numbers of F4Fs as Grumman Martlets and made extensive use of the type. The F4F’s successor was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, designed as a private initiative in response to feedback from fleet aviators, which entered front-line service in mid-1943. It was powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 168 miles per hour, and a range of 1,090 miles on internal fuel or 1,590 miles with a 150-gallon drop tank. The F6F was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and also could carry rockets or bombs. The Royal Navy also operated substantial numbers of F6Fs as the Grumman Hellcat.

From April 1943, the British started receiving F6Fs as part of the Lend-Lease program, which America used to arm its ally. At first, they renamed these planes with the far more British title of “Gannet” instead of “Hellcat”.

The British received 252 Hellcats, but these planes never became as important for the Royal Navy as they were for its US counterpart.

On 16 July 1945 four carriers of the British Pacific Fleet joined the American fast-carriers as Task Force 37. They contained 112 Seafire or Firefly fighters, 73 Corsairs, and 62 Avengers. But the HMS Formidable also embarked a detachment of Hellcats from the HMS Indomitable’s outstanding 1844 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm.

British use of Hellcats in the Pacific extended back to the fall of 1944. In a series of strikes on Sumatran oil fields in December and January, 1844 and 1839 Squadrons off the Indomitable had accounted for some 15 aerial victories with few losses. Then came the Okinawa Campaign where 1844 ran up the largest one-day score for British F6Fs by downing four Oscars, a Tony, and a Zeke over Formosa on 12 April. It was a mighty small bag by U.S. Navy standards, but proof the British could put the Hellcat to good use.

The Royal Navy put its F6Fs to a different use the night of 25 July. When a small Japanese formation was detected heading for the British task group, two of 1844’s Hellcats were scrambled from the Formidable under a full moon. These were conventional Hellcat II’s (F6F-5s) without radar, but their pilots had been trained in night flying and were vectored by the ship’s FDO to an intercept position.

Lieutenant W. H. Atkinson, a Canadian, led the element and made contact. He identified the bandits as big, single-engine Grace torpedo planes and took his New Zealand wingman, Sub-Lieutenant R. F. Mackie, into the attack. Atkinson latched on to a pair of Graces and shot them both into the water while Mackie dumped a third. Then, in routing the other bandits, a fourth Grace was damaged and the attack was completely broken up.

It was ironic that the British, who led the Allies in night flying experience, should find themselves without their own carrier-based single-seat night fighters. Two Hellcat NF-II squadrons, 891 and 892, were forming with F6F-5Ns but would not become operational in time to fly combat.

These three victories raised the Hellcat’s tally to 47½ under British colors in the Pacific. Not surprisingly, 1844 Squadron remained the most successful F6F unit in the Fleet Air Arm with 31½ of the Royal Navy total. It also produced the individual top scorer, Sub-Lieutenant E. T. Wilson, who claimed 4.83 victories flying from the Indomitable in the Sumatran and Okinawan operations.

The Grumman F6F Hellcat was an American designed carrier borne fighter. Its design began as a development of the F4F Wildcat  powered by the R-2600 engine, but soon evolved into a much larger and more capable aircraft, with the R-2800 engine. The Hellcat was designed and put into service in a very short period in order to counteract the A6M ‘Zero’ from the second half of 1943 onwards, and soon became the main shipboard fighter of the US Navy for the last two years of the Pacific War. The Hellcat was the most sucessful allied fighter in WWII with over 5,000 aerial victories, and credited with 76% of all aircraft destroyed by USN carrier fighters.

On 30 June, 1941 the US Navy ordered the prototypes XF6F-1 and XF6F-2,  rugged aircraft that lacked aesthetic appeal.  In order to keep the take-off and landing speeds at a reasonable level, Grumman made the wings proportionally larger than most aircraft (including the Thunderbolt) to reduce wing loading. In fact, the Hellcat had the largest wing area of any single engine fighter of WWII at 334 square feet (102 square meters). They were to have the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp 2600-10 with a two-stage supercharger installed delivering 1,700 hp (1,269 kW) for take-off. Immediately after the first flight of the XF6F1 on 26, June, 1942, the craft was redesignated the “XF6F-3”.

In 1942, the design of the prototype  was adapted to take into account the analysis of the first ever captured and undamaged Japanese Zero, found by a  US Navy PBY Catalina making a routine patrol over Akutan Island in the Pacific. The Zero was dismantled and shipped directly to the Grumman Aircraft factory in California where it was reassembled and flown. The information from the test flight of the Zero aided in the final design development of the Hellcat.  It was found the XF6F-1 was marginally slower than the Zero, thus the change from the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp R-2600 to the R-2800. This engine boosted the Hellcat’s top speed to 375 mph, 29 mph faster than the Zero. No other unfavourable differences between the two planes could be found and the Hellcat was deemed ready for production. The finalized version of the XF6F-3 was almost identical to the production F6F-3 and Grumman shifted the assembly line into high gear.

Hellcat production started in 1943 and a quick and effective distribution was subsequently organised. Well over 2,500 Hellcat were delivered during the first year, making it possible to re-equip Hellcat squadrons rapidly with this more potent fighter, and it remained in frontline service with the FAA and US Navy for the remainder of World War II.

The Hellcat was used extensively as a search aircraft and fighter-bomber,  playing a major and increasing part in strikes on Japanese warships and mercantile shipping in 1944 and 1945.  In this role, and for ground attack,  it could carry up to 2,000 lb of bombs, or be armed with six 5-inch rockets on underwing pylons.

By the time Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat production ended in mid-1944, a total of 4,423 Hellcats had been built. Their numbers included 18 F6F-3E night fighters with APS-4 radar mounted in a pod beneath the starboard wing, and 205 generally similar F6F-3N night fighters with APS-6 radar. Postwar some were converted into unmanned flying bombs, used in Korea.


 Hellcat I          FAA equivalent F6F-3, 252 lendlease, initial production model

 Hellcat II         NF.II, FAA equivalent of F6F-5, 5n. 930 lendlease, redesigned cowling, provision for rockets or bombs, also nightfighter version (N)

The Royal Navy received 252 F6F-3s as Hellcat I under Lend-Lease. Production continued until November 1945 by which time 7870 F6F-5s had been built, of which some 930 had been supplied to the Royal Navy as Hellcat II and 1434 of the total had been completed as F6F-5N night-fighters. Ultimately, the Hellcat equiped 14 FAA front-line squadrons.

The first Hellcat Mark Is started to be delivered to the Fleet Air Arm on 13 March 1943,  FN321 and FN323 arriving three months later, in June 1943 to the A and C Flights of A&AEE, Boscombe Down for service trials by RN pilots, and in July 1943 FN330 was tested by 778 squadron at Crail.

Very soon afterwards the Hellcat was distributed to operational squadrons, 800 squadron receiving its first Hellcat in batches in July, August and October 1943 (eg FN337, FN334, FN332, FN334, FN332), and 1839 squadron from December 1943 (FN328). Not long after this, on 31 August, 1943 the first combat sorties were being flown by the USN VF9 and VF-5 squadrons aboard USS Yorktown against Japanese targets on Marcus Island (Minami-tori Island) some 700 miles southeast of Japan.

The first batch and second batches of 188 F6F-5 Hellcat Mark IIs started to be delivered to the Royal Navy from May 1944, primarily to 1840 squadron. By this time many Hellcats were being shipped to overseas FAA squadrons directly from Norfolk, Virginia, USA to HMS Thane 14 August 1944 and on to RNARY Wingfield, thence to 804 squadron in September 1944.

The subsequent batch of 295 Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat Mk F.II was also shipped directly to RNARY Wingfield (eg JX670 to JX720) in HMS Ranee in September 1944,  and on to RNARY Coimbatore. Many of these Hellcat were still in service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after the end of the war and into1946. However, quite a number were surplus to requirement after VJ-Day and dumped in the sea off Australia by HMS Colossus in 1945 (eg JX821).

The final 293 Hellcat II to be delivered to the Fleet Air Arm arrived between January and May 1945, the very last aircraft, KE265 being delivered on 11 May 1945.

The Hellcat served post war and some of the earlier batches managed to remain in RN service, for example JV247 in 709 squadron. After this aircraft was paid off it went to Fairey Aviation at Hayes in 1946. Whilst Grumman F.II KE209 remained as the personal aircraft of the Lossiemouth Station Flight Commanding Officer Caspar John until 1952, and the Aircraft Holding Unit in 1954 (this aircraft is extant in the Fleet Air arm Museum).

Stanley Orr

Mediterranean Coastal and Torpedo Craft

Known popularly as PT boats, World War II–era patrol-torpedo boats were the American equivalent of German E boats and British motor torpedo boats. They were small, fast, wooden-hulled, shallow-draft vessels that depended on surprise, speed, and maneuverability and thus did their best work in coastal waters.

During World War I, the Italian navy built and used some 299 torpedo-armed motorboats against the Austro- Hungarian navy in the Adriatic. From 1916, the British navy used coastal motor boats in home waters and in the raids against Ostend and Zeebrugge, Belgium, in April 1918. Although the United States did not use such craft in World War I, the Electric Boat Company’s Elco Division in Bayonne, New Jersey, constructed several hundred power boats for Britain and Italy and gained expertise in designing and manufacturing that type of vessel.

In the late 1930s, the U.S. Navy was pushed toward the development of gasoline-powered motor boats by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison, both of whom were concerned about European interest in these craft. They secured a 1938 appropriation of $5 million for the construction of ships of fewer than 3,000 tons displacement. In June, the navy staged an American design competition, selecting seven winners for further testing, but Edison decided instead to put into limited production at Elco a 70 ft craft, with a crew of 10 men, from the British designer Hubert Scott- Paine. Elco’s boat substituted Packard engines for those of Rolls-Royce. By 1941, Elco had progressed to a 77 ft version that demonstrated an average speed of 27.5 knots in rough waters and mounted 2 ÷ 21-in. torpedo tubes and 2 ÷ 50-caliber machine guns in twin turrets. The boats also had the ability to lay smokescreens. Andrew Jackson Higgins, a Louisiana shipbuilder, developed a similar 78 ft vessel. At 80 ft or less, the boats could be carried on long voyages by larger ships.

During World War II, the United States deployed in the Pacific 350 PT boats, mostly of the Elco and Higgins types, along with 42 in the Mediterranean and 33 in the English Channel. Together, they launched in combat a total of only 697 torpedoes, usually with minimal success. All too often, American torpedoes were defective, and firing them accurately from fast-moving vessels was problematic in any case. Nor were PT boats fortunate at antisubmarine warfare, being much too noisy to make effective use of sonar equipment. The most memorable action in European waters by this type of craft came from the Germans when they sent their E boats in an attack on an American landing exercise at Slapton Sands, England, on 18 April 1944. The Germans sank two LSTs (landing ships, tank), damaged a third, and killed more than 700 Americans.

1943 – German Schnellboot S.100. German S-boats of World War II were among the best small combatant vessels ever produced. The armament carried by the S-boats gave them almost the same firepower as that of a destroyer and specially developed paint schemes rendered them almost impossible to see at night. The S-boat had a cruising range of 700-750 miles with speeds from 39-43.5 knots.

S-boats were often used to patrol the Baltic Sea and the English Channel in order to intercept shipping heading for the English ports in the south and east. As such, they were up against Royal Navy and Commonwealth (particularly Royal Canadian Navy contingents leading up to D-Day) Motor Gun Boats (MGBs), Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs), Motor Launches, frigates and destroyers. They were also transferred in small numbers to the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea by river and land transport. Some small S-boats were built as boats for carrying by auxiliary cruisers.

Crew members could earn an award particular to their work—Das Schnellbootkriegsabzeichen—denoted by a badge depicting an S-boat passing through a wreath. The criteria were good conduct, distinction in action, and participating in at least twelve enemy actions. It was also awarded for particularly successful missions, displays of leadership or being killed in action. It could be awarded under special circumstances, such as when another decoration was not suitable.

Although the development of the automotive torpedo in the late 19th century promised to realize the dream of the small warship with the killer punch, the need for this ‘torpedo boat’ to work with and against fleets at sea stimulated too large an increase in size, a trend aggravated by the contemporary technology of steam machinery in displacement hulls. The development of the fast planing hull and the internal combustion engine began the cycle afresh, with progress before 1914 owing much to the commercial prospects of high-speed boating. It was but a small step to mount torpedoes on such craft, and the same specialist yards have tended to remain in the business to this day.

Much effort was put into the production of torpedo-carrying coastal craft during World War l, but only the Italians in the Adriatic and the British in the English Channel and the Baltic ever demonstrated their true potential. Neither employed massed attack, preferring to work singly or in small groups to capitalize on the advantages of agility, surprise and good planning. The Italians were particularly imaginative, evolving craft and tactics to assault an Austro-Hungarian fleet snug in well-defended harbours. The British had to contend with poorer weather conditions and soon learned the value of larger and stronger hulls. They also discovered the threat posed by aircraft and fire from ashore, suffering losses from both despite small size and manoeuvrability. Experience did not turn the British away from hard-chine designs; they accepted a drop in performance in heavy weather in exchange for the benefit of really high speed in calmer water.

After World War I the British totally lost interest in coastal craft, being occupied with deep-sea imperial matters. The Italians went on initially to be joint front runners with the Germans, who saw in the small-torpedo boat a means of constructing useful naval tonnage outside treaty restrictions. Beneath the lax gaze of the regulating authorities they built and evaluated numerous hulls under sporting-club colours and, over a decade, identified what were to be the major S-boat characteristics: displacement hull, wood on light alloy construction, stability reserves for 533-mm (21-in) torpedoes and, finally, the small marine diesel. This type of engine required careful development and, once perfected, remained peculiar to German practice, with foreign navies never producing a satisfactory competitor despite the fire risks associated with petrol engines, for which they treated effect rather than cause by introducing self-sealing tanks and improved fire-extinguishing systems.

The Italian lsotta-Fraschini was an excellent petrol engine, used widely abroad until 1940; it was probably its very availability that inhibited comparable development elsewhere. During World War I the Italians found the small planing hull adequate for their Adriatic operations. Translated into the open-sea war of 1940-3 it proved unsatisfactory and was dropped in favour of a German type of round-bilge form.

A considerable increase in efficiency resulted in the abandoning of direct-drive for purpose-designed reduction gearboxes and propellers, though transmission problems and structural failures proliferated with small hulls that ‘worked’ in a seaway. Wood had the necessary resilience and ease of repair where clad on timber or light alloy frames. All-aluminium alloy hulls corroded disastrous salt-water conditions. As in the pre-transitional navy, it was found that wooden hulls could not exceed a certain length and, for instance in the British SGBs steel had to be used. A great British innovation was to abandon traditional boat-building methods for mass production, using prefabricated techniques. Once certain weaknesses had been rectified, this system realized greater numbers of craft.

Hard-used fast coastal craft have a short operational life and demand continual attention. Specialized depot ships, or tenders, enabled squadrons to operate successfully ‘up-front’. The Americans particularly made great use of them, offering off duty crews accommodation and facilities while undertaking endless hull and machinery repairs, and servicing armament.

It had been assumed between the wars that coastal craft would be needed in inshore ASW role, a belief that hung on until the British SDBs of the 1950s. In the event, submarines generally operated further offshore and those which were destroyed by small craft were despatched by torpedo while navigating on the surface. Specialist AS boats were, therefore, rapidly re-armed as gunboats, their depth charges removed. It remained the practice, however, for many boats to retain a pair of charges for the deterrence of close pursuit.

Small torpedoes of up to 457-mm (18-in) calibre proved to have insufficient ship-stopping capacity, but the size and weight of two or four 533-mm (21-in) weapons tended to dictate the parameters of the boats themselves, to the extent that the Americans developed a special ‘short’ version. To save the weight of tubes, dropping gear was introduced, though this left the torpedoes themselves vulnerable to damage. The Germans preferred to retain their two enclosed tubes forward, with a reload for each stowed safely behind a bulwark.

Close-in fighting was typically brief and bloody, involving large volumes of volumes from light automatic weapons. Armour was gradually introduced as a result the Germans going as far as an armoured wheelhouse. Initially the British were at a disadvantage with only machine-guns to match the German 20-mm cannon, whose explosive or incendiary shells were lethal to wooden hulls loaded with petrol and ammunition.

As ever, armament developed to suit the need. American PT boats, involved in the Far East against the eternal and apparently unstoppable Japanese barge traffic, shed some or all of their torpedoes in favour of weapons such as racked 127-mm (5-in) rockets and 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars. British boats faced similar problems with the German MFPs, or ‘F’ lighters, in such areas as the Aegean and Adriatic. Like the Japanese, these craft were of a draught too shallow to be vulnerable torpedoes and could take aboard a variable armament which often included much-respected 88–mm (3.46-mm) gun. British MGBs responded appropriately, toting guns as large as the short-barrelled 114-mm (4.5-in) gun.

Radar, available to small craft, was a boon in the vicious nocturnal encounters where opponents could usually be seen only fleetingly and for very short periods. Paradoxically, it was radar-controlled gunfire on the part of larger ships that offset the torpedo boat’s advantages by effectively outranging its main weapon.

Come the peace there was no sentiment, the boats being deleted in hundreds destroyed by burning and many surviving a swords-to-ploughshares transfiguration to become houseboats of surprising durability.

Interest in small craft lapsed again on the part of the larger navies until that day in 1967 when the Eilat became the first major SSM casualty.

Artillery of the Middle Ages

The earliest written evidence for the cannon is found in the ordinances of Florence for 1326, which order the appointment of superintendents for the manufacture of a brass cannon as well as arrows and iron balls for it. Fairly certainly, therefore, the actual invention of cannon took place some time earlier, probably c. 1320; later chroniclers report that guns were used by the Germans at the siege of Metz in 1324 and by the Granadines at the siege of Baza in 1325. Other references to artillery allegedly dating to the very beginning of the 14th century and even to the 13th century are also to be found, but they all appear to be later interpolations. As we have already seen, the earliest reference to the use of cannon by the English dates to 1327, the year in which our earliest surviving picture of a cannon was also drawn, the Milemete manuscript executed that year by Edward III’s chaplain containing a picture of a trestle-mounted vase-shaped gun discharging a heavy, feathered bolt against a castle gate.

The shape of the gun in this picture explains graphically why early cannon were called vasi by the Italians and pots defer by the French. The 2 or 3 guns used by the English at Crecy in 1346 may well have been of this type. Other names in use for artillery at this early date already included ‘cannon’ (1326) and ‘gun’ (in various forms), but the most widespread name was undoubtedly ‘bombard’, which was derived from bombos, meaning a loud humming noise. Froissart speaks of bombards as well as cannon in his description of the siege of Quesnoi in 1340, but the word doesn’t actually occur in contemporary documents until several years later, by which time the earlier vase-shaped guns had disappeared. It was soon used as a general term for gunpowder artillery in general, and we encounter not only the heavy grosses bombardes but hand-bombards too. Not until the late-14th century was the word bombard accepted as denoting only a heavy gun, the first true heavy bombard, weighing 2,000 lbs, only appearing in 1362.

The earliest reference to guns being used in the field, as opposed to being used in sieges (by both defenders and attackers), dates to 1339 when the account books of Bruges record a new type of light artillery called a ribaudequin or ribaud. This is described by Froissart as ‘3 or4 guns bound together’, and we know from other sources that it took the form of a row of small gun-barrels mounted on a 2 or 4-wheeled cart (which Froissart likens to a mediaeval wheelbarrow), with a fixed mantlet, to protect the gunners; it was therefore often called a char de guerre or ‘cart of war’. The barrels could usually be fired either all together or else in rapid succession, 3 monstrous Italian contraptions of 1387 each having as many as 144 individual barrels in three 48-barrel tiers which could be fired in groups of 12. Probably the ribaudequin was initially developed for the defence of narrow spaces in castles, such as gateways, passages and breaches, but its potential as a source of mobile firepower in the field must soon have been recognised and within a short while it was to be found in use in great numbers, particularly in the Low Countries. In 1382 Gauntois rebels before Bruges had as many as 200 chars de guerre which are described as high-wheeled with long forward-projecting iron pikes for defence. Apparently there were also a great number at Roosebeke, and in 1411 the Duke of Burgundy’s army blockading Paris is said to have been accompanied by 2,000 such carts, either an exaggeration for 200 or perhaps a reference to the number of barrels. Soon afterwards, however, the ribaudequin began to fall out of favour, undoubtedly because of the widespread introduction of the handgun. Nevertheless the word ‘organ-gun’, appearing in place of ribaudequin from the late-14th century onwards, bears witness to the continued survival of such weapons, late-15th century pictures of guns captured in the Burgundian Wars including several of wheeled carriages mounting several small barrels, usually 3.

Such multi-barrelled varieties of light artillery should not be confused with cannon mounting 2 or more rarely 3 barrels, dating to the 1470s; such guns are usually referred to in the sources as cannon having 2 or 3 capita, testes or ‘pots’. A similar weapon, from the same source, has a movable breech called a chamber which was secured in position in a gun by use of leather-covered wedges. Such chambers contained the charge used to fire the gun and were employed in many early cannon. However, the escape of powder-gas rendered this method of loading unsatisfactory, and it was not long before most guns tended to be purely muzzle-loaders, though some (Mons Meg, for example) were sometimes in sections that could be screwed together, easily identifiable by the holes round the rim of each section for screwing the parts together with levers. Nevertheless, movable breeches continued to be used for ribaudequins and some small guns, as well as some not so small, for a considerable time to come.

The earliest guns were made of brass or copper and were fairly small, weighing only 20-40 lbs themselves and firing missiles of only a few pounds’ weight. Some early guns were even made of wood with only a core of metal; Petrarch, for example, refers to wooden cannon in 1343. However, after 1370, although many guns were made of latten, wrought iron guns were by far the most common, becoming bigger and bigger as time went by. They were made from longitudinal strips of iron welded together, with iron hoops driven over them from end to end. The stands or beds on which they were mounted were called tillers or, in England by the late-14th century, trunks, the guns being secured to them by means of leather thongs, ropes, strong wire or iron bands. An order for a tiller to be made at Caen in 1375 describes it as ‘a large baulk of elm, to be deeply grooved for the cannon to lie in, another for the side pieces in front, for pointing the piece’ and various other baulks and timbers for side pieces at the back, lower beams and assorted unidentifiable parts. One chronicler tells us that such tillers did not last very long in action, requiring replacement every 3 or 4 days.

The earliest references to wheeled gun-carriages date to the 14thcentury, being the ribaudequins mentioned above. Heavier guns on wheeled carriages made their appearance only a little later, an Italian source mentioning 2-wheeled gun-carriages being used at the siege of Quero in 1376. However, they remained extremely rare until the 15th century, when they were further developed during the Hussite wars of the 1420s and 1430s, but there are still unlikely to have been many in Western Europe until the mid-century. The next stage in their development was the elevating carriage, which was a means of depressing or elevating the barrel used prior to the general introduction of trunnions (which first appeared c. 1400) in the second half of the 15thcentury. Today this is usually called a ‘Burgundian’ carriage because of the frequency with which it occurs among the many pieces of artillery that were captured by the Swiss in the Burgundian Wars, still to be seen in Swiss museums today.

By the beginning of the 15th century there were sufficient numbers of cannon in existence for a division into different categories to have become apparent. One English verse of 1457-60 actually refers to bombards, guns, serpentines, fowlers, coveys, crappaudes (crapaudaux in French), culverines ‘and other soortis moo than VIII or IX’. Bombards were the biggest guns of all, sometimes weighing over 10,000 lbs and capable of firing missiles of many hundreds of pounds’ weight; Bordeaux in 1420, for example, had a large bombard capable of firing a stone weighing 7cwt (784lbs) and was making another that could fire stones of 5 1/2 cwt. The second-largest type of gun was the fowler or veuglaire, which first appeared in the Low Countries very early in the 15thcentury. This could be up to 8 feet long and varied in weight from 300 lbs right up to several thousand, but was usually at the lower end of this scale. It was usually a breech-loader and could sometimes be found mounted alongside ribaudequins. The crappaude or crapaudine was somewhat smaller again, being only 4-8 feet in length, while culverines and serpentines were the smallest types of gun to be found, though they usually had quite long barrels in relation to their calibre (hence their ‘serpent’ names, culverine being derived from colubra, meaning a snake); Charles the Bold, for example, had one 30-foot serpentine and 6 more 8-11 feet long at the siege of Neuss in 1474. To distinguish them from hand culverines they were often called grands couleuvrines. According to the Sieur de St Remy, an eye-witness, the French had serpentines at Agincourt in 1415, while Monstrelet refers to ‘un grand nombre de chars et charettes, canons et ribaudequins’ as being there. Mortars also made their appearance towards the end of the 14th century, these being at first short and heavy with a large bore, becoming smaller during the 15th century. The English at Orleans in 1428 had 15 breech-loading mortars in their siege-train.

The earliest cannons fired either small iron balls or else heavy quarrels such as that depicted in Milemete’s picture. Such quarrels or garrots were used by Philip van Artevelde’s guns at Roosebeke in 1382, for example. They normally had oak shafts, iron heads and iron, steel or brass flights and could weigh 15-30 lbs or on occasion considerably more; Froissart refers to heavy quarrels on several occasions, allegedly weighing 200 lbs at the siege of Ardres in 1377. Quarrels were in common use throughout the 14th century, and were the most common type of artillery missile until the early 1340s. Still frequently employed in the 15th century (Charles the Bold’s grandes coulevrines fired quarraulx), they remained in limited use right up until the very end of the 16th century. Lead pellets, used by the smallest guns, and iron cannon balls such as recorded in the Florentine account of 1326 and used at Crecy in 1346, were replaced by stone shot as guns increased in calibre in the second half of the 14th century. The first reference to stone shot is found in the Chronicles of Pisa in 1364, and it was in use in France within a few years and in Germany by 1377, though in England gun stones (and therefore large guns) only begin to appear in the 1380s. Such stones were made by highly paid stone-cutters and were often if not usually covered with a thin layer of lead in order to prevent undue wear and tear to the inside of the gun barrel. As we have already seen, they could be of considerable weight. 200 lb shot was in use well before the end of the 14th century, and in 1451 the accounts of Philip the Good of Burgundy mention 3 gun stones of as much as 900 lbs each.

The transport both of such stones and of the massive guns that fired them was clearly a major consideration for 14th and 15th century commanders. A Burgundian source of the 1470s says that a large bombard required 24 horses to draw it, a courtaut (crappaude) 8 horses, a medium-sized serpentine or a mortar 4 horses and even a small serpentine 2 horses. In 1388 a single German bombard belonging to the city of Nuremburg required for its transport 12 horses to draw the barrel, 10, 4 and 6 more respectively to draw the wagons containing the tiller, winch and hoarding, another 20 horses to draw ammunition wagons each containing three 560 lb stone balls and the appropriate gunpowder, a horse for the master gunner, and a final wagon for his 6 assistants and their various tools. Similarly in 1477 two Italian bombards of no exceptional size required a support train of 48 wagons, each drawn by 2 or 4 horses, to transport their tillers, gunpowder, stone shot, quarrels and other equipment. So great was the weight of some artillery, in fact, that roads and in particular bridges frequently required reinforcement in order to take them. In 1453, for example, Philip the Good of Burgundy bad to get a 17-foot bombard weighing 7,764 lbs from Mons to Lille, which involved strengthening every bridge en route with iron supports. When at one point this monster slid into a ditch it took two whole days to get it back on to the road. It is therefore easy to understand why guns and ammunition were frequently transported by river instead, as they were by the English in Normandy and Gascony in the 1420s and by the Burgundians in Flanders in 1453.

Finally it should be noted that the older types of artillery, the trebuchet and the ballista, continued to be used alongside guns until the 15thcentury. The French besieging Rennes in 1370 used trebuchets, for example. In fact in the East, where guns were introduced a good deal later than in Western Europe, we find the Byzantines using trebuchets during the final siege of Constantinople in 1453, while the Ottomans were still using ‘slinges’ against Rhodes as late as 1480.

English Artillery

England had artillery by 1327, in which year Edward III is claimed to have been accompanied by such ‘crakys (ravens) of war’ on his Scottish expedition. Guns were used at the siege of Berwick in 1333, and in the field at Crecy where, according to Froissart, ‘the English had with them two bombards and they made 2 or 3 discharges on the Genoese’. The presence of cannon in the English army on this occasion has, curiously, been doubted, but is confirmed by various sources, including Villani, who says that ‘the English guns cast iron balls by means of fire’, and that ‘they made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses’. The complete case for the defence is ably set out in Burne’s The Crecy War. However, there seems to be no evidence of an English army on the Continent employing field-guns on any other occasion during the Hundred Years’ War period.

Guns in England were at first ordered via the Tower of London, but from the 1370s at the latest castles began to buy, or sometimes hire, them direct from their manufacturers, using money supplied from the exchequer. The English dominions in France similarly made their own arrangements, obtaining their guns either from the Tower or from Calais, or in 15th century Normandy from Caen and Rouen. During the second half of the 14th century individuals even began to buy cannon of their own, and by the end of the century they were to be found in virtually every major and even minor castles.

Until the 1380s English guns were not as heavy as those of the French, averaging only 380 lb. in weight. However, heavier pieces began to appear at about that date; Sir John Arundel had 12 guns at Cherbourg in 1379 of which 7 could fire stones of 24″ and the remaining 3 stones of 15″ diameter. A surviving gun used in Sir Nicholas Burdet’s unsuccessful siege of Mont Saint-Michel in 1424 weighs 5 1/2 tons, has a calibre of 19 1/2″ and could fire stones weighing 300 lb.

Artillery customarily accompanied all English armies in the field by the mid-14th century. In 1356 there were guns in the Black Prince’s baggage train when he fought at Poitiers, and Froissart tells us that Chandos ‘was in the habit of taking (guns) about with his troops’ by 1369. Nevertheless, such artillery trains were of modest proportions, and even for Edward III’s proposed expedition of 1372 only 29 guns were supplied, despite the considerable size of the army (4,000 men-at-arms and 10,000 archers). At the most celebrated achievement of English artillery during this period, the battering into submission of Harfleur in 1415, only 12 heavy guns (plus presumably a greater number of smaller pieces) were present, three being named London, Messenger and The King’s Daughter.

Artillery in Ireland

Ordinary siege-engines of the trebuchet and ballista varieties remained in use in Ireland until at least the late-15th century, arrow-firing engines being recorded, for example, in 1478. Cannon were introduced in small numbers by the English in the 14th century. One very small gun accompanied Lionel of Antwerp in 1361, while Richard II had at least 6 great bombards and 6 small ones in his expedition of1394-95, and 32 cannon during his 1399 expedition, which were deposited in Dublin castle on his return to England, seemingly unused. The first actual use of light guns in Ireland seems to date to as late as 1488, when Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, used them against Balrath castle. Heavy guns are only first recorded used in 1495, this time by the Lord Deputy against Waterford.

Scottish Artillery

The Scots first saw artillery in 1327, in Edward III’s army, and again during the English siege of Berwick in 1333. However, they are only first recorded using cannon themselves in 1339, at the siege of Stirling. Artillery rarely ever actually appeared in a Scottish field army raiding in England, but at home even noblemen often had their own guns by the mid-15th century, like their counterparts in England, France and elsewhere. A general council held in 1456 actually advised that certain barons should be asked to provide ‘cartis of weire’ for the royal army, each with 2 breech-loading guns, the parliament of 1471 similarly ordering prelates and barons to make such ‘cartis of weire’. One of the most famous artillery mishaps of this period occurred in Scotland too, King James II being killed by a gun back-firing at the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460.

French Artillery

ln France, as elsewhere, individual towns soon had large numbers of guns – in 1358, for example, Laon already had 12 and had just ordered 43 more, while Arras in 1369 had 38 guns; early cannon were, after all, not particularly expensive (we read in French accounts of guns costing only 3 francs, 2 1/2 ecus, and so on, equivalent to about 3s. or 3s. 4d.), and they could even be cheaper than the powder necessary to fire them! By the first half of the 15th century many individual barons too had their own artillery, such as the 7 ‘great culverins of metal’ which Gaston IV, Comte de Foix, took with him on campaign in 1450. The crown, on the other hand, had little artillery of its own before the 15th century and normally obtained what it required for a specific enterprise by temporarily ‘borrowing’ guns from the towns. Summonses issued after the fall of Harfleur in 1415, for example, specify to the provincial baillis that ‘you will likewise enjoin … that all cannon, engines of war, and other offensive or defensive weapons that can be spared from the principal towns, be sent to our aid without delay, which we promise to restore at the end of the war(i. e., the campaign).’

The French seem always to have had heavier guns than the English (as early as the siege of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte in 1375, for example, they had guns that could fire 100 lb stone shot, one of them weighing more than a ton), but they only began to put this advantage to good use in the 1430s under the guidance of Jean Bureau, Master of the Artillery, and his brother Gaspard. Jean first served as a gunner for the English, but he took service with King Charles VII in 1434 and master-minded siege technology during the reconquest of occupied France from the English thereafter, his most notable successes being the capture of Meaux in 1439, Pontoise in 1441, Harfleur in 1449 (where together with Gaspard he founded 16 guns on site) and Caen and Cherbourg in 1450. In addition Jean was effectively commander of the French forces at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His brother was Master of the Artillery in tum; in 1458 his permanent bande comprised a keeper ofthe artillery, a master gunner, a master carter, and 30 cannoneers, and in 1463 he had as many as 9 bombards and 32 smaller guns in and around Paris under Louis XI.

By the late-15th century the French royal artillery train was generally accepted as being the most formidable in Europe.

Artillery in the Low Countries

The communal armies of the Low Countries made considerable use of light field guns from the mid-14th century onwards, the very earliest case of field artillery on record being the ribaudequins used by Bruges in 1339-40. Some idea of the large number of guns sometimes fielded can be taken from Froissart’s account of a battle between Bruges and Ghent in 1382 in which ‘they of Ghent discharged at once 300 guns at one shot’. Examples of their effectiveness in action can be seen in the descriptions of the battles of Roosebeke, Othee, Gavere and Brusthem.


In addition to soldiers a considerable amount ofarms, including artillery, was also imported from Gascony, or else manufactured in Navarre by Gascons. During Charles the Bad’s reign a small cannon firing a 7lb stone ball cost 50 florins to make, while a larger one firing a 13 lb ball cost 70-100 florins.

Artillery in Spain

The first reference to the use of cannons by the Christians of Spain dates to King Alfonso XI of Castile’s siege of Algeciras in 1342. Guns were being regularly manufactured for the Castilian army by the 1380s, by which time they were certainly being used on the battlefield, the Castilians fielding 16 bombards against the Portuguese at Aljubarrota (though admittedly with little effect). However, the royal artillery establishment remained of modest proportions until the late-15th century. In 1479 there were only 4 artillerymen in Castilian royal service, but by 1482 this had increased to 65 and by 1485 to 91, including Burgundians and Bretons but mainly Aragonese. By 1495 the Castilian army possessed 179 pieces of artillery.

Granadine Artillery

There is substantial evidence that it was the Granadines who introduced gunpowder into the Iberian Peninsula. They appear to have had artillery at the siege of Baza as early as 1325 and at Alicante in 1331. In 1342 the garrison of Algeciras used cannons referred to by Christian sources as truenos (‘thunderers’ or ‘thunderclaps’, which remained a common term for artillery in Spain until the 16th century; those at Algeciras fired ‘stones of iron’ the size of apples and ‘arrows so long and thick that mao could only with a great effort raise them from the ground’). Despite their early lead they appear to have used artillery exclusively in sieges and the defence of towns and castles, though in a sortie before Granada in 1491 they towed a couple of light pieces into action with them.

However, in the 15th century they were completely outclassed by the Christians’ artillery. At the siege of Moclin in 1486, one of the few cases where Granadine artillery is recorded as being effective, it is significant that the cannons they were using were captured Christian pieces.

The Italian States

Condottieri armies, being in the employ of city-states, were usually well supplied with artillery, which was normally only used in siege-work. Nevertheless, the Veronese army at the Battle of Castagnaro in 1387 was accompanied by 24 bombards and 3 ribaudequins (though they never got into action). By the 15th century some condottieri also had their own modest artillery trains – for example, one condottiere in Milanese employ in the mid-century had, besides his 400 lances, 2 bombards and 2 smaller pieces.

Unlike the rest of Western Europe, where horses were used, the principal draught-animal in Italy was the ox. A Milanese artillery train of 16 guns in J472 required 522 pairs of oxen to haul its 227 wagons (which also carried handguns, powder, shot and spare lances), while another army, this time dating to J477, had 2 guns capable of firing 200 and 300 lb shot drawn by 5 and 8 pairs of oxen respectively. Papal armies actually used buffaloes to draw their guns.

Swiss Artillery

Cannons were probably in use in Switzerland by the mid-14th century, and were being manufactured in Baste by 1371. They were not of major importance in Swiss warfare, however, the mountainous nature of the local terrain being against them. Nevertheless, the cantons did have some light field pieces which they used to good effect at Grandson. After the Burgundian Wars, of course, the Swiss had an embarrassing wealth of guns, contemporary records indicating that they captured in total many hundreds of pieces from Charles the Bold.

Burgundian Artillery

Despite Commynes’ assurances that it was the archers who were considered ‘the pride and joy of the army’, it seems likely that Charles was in truth more proud of his artillery(though paradoxically enough it did him little worthwhile service during his ten years of siege and war). The guns he fielded were amongst the most modern to be found anywhere, many having trunnions or elevating devices as well as wheeled carriages which made them ideally suited to field use. Poor gunnery, however, rendered them virtually ineffective in battle, and though Charles himself claimed that his guns killed 1,200-1,400 Frenchmen at Montl’hery in 1465 it is significant that the Swiss were able to capture Charles’ powerful artillery train each time they came up against it, at Grandson (allegedly 420 guns), at Morat (200 guns) and at Nancy (103 guns). Judging from the quantities, however, these must have been largely small-calibre pieces, which would seem to be borne out by the ‘very numerous and powerful’ artillery used at the siege of Neuss, which comprised 17 great bombards, 10 courteaux (seemingly crappaudes) on wheeled carriages, and 202 serpentines of assorted sizes and calibres, the whole being served by 200 cannoniers. Similarly, Charles’ artillery train against Lorraine in 1475 was made up of 12 bombards (6 large, 6 small), 6 mortars, 10 courteaux, one great serpentine, and 16 large and 48 small serpentines.

Charles also seems to have made more use of field artillery than most of his contemporaries, though this was due at least in part to the fact that he had a knack for letting himself be attacked whilst prosecuting sieges. However, at Nancy he certainly had 30 guns positioned in front of his infantry square which would have surely smashed the Swiss pike phalanxes if they had been stupid enough to attack head-on, which they were not.

Such artillery trains were mustered from a variety of sources. Most were drawn from ducal arsenals at Dijon, Lille and elsewhere, supplemented by captured pieces and others borrowed or commandeered from towns or belonging to individual noblemen. As early as 1419 there were 23 ducal castles with their own artillery. Overall command was in the hands of a Master of Artillery for all the Burgundian lands, an office created under John the Fearless in 1415.


The invention of gunpowder and subsequent introduction of the gun in the first half of the 14th century added a brand-new dimension to warfare.

Early field artillery was customarily positioned either directly in front of an army or on its flanks. Examples of these forms of deployment are to be found respectively at Ludford Bridge in 1459, where the Yorkists had ‘their carts with guns set before their battles’, and at Agincourt in 1415 where, so Thomas Elmham records, the French had ‘certain saxivora or guns, which might disperse the English when about to fight, placed along the flanks of the army’. Christine de Pisan says that the artillerymen ‘drew up with the crossbowmen and archers’, which-as we have seen-means on the flanks or in front. The obvious disadvantage of placing one’s artillery to the front of the army, of course, was that it could find itself somewhat exposed, and it was not unusual for it to be charged and taken after its first discharge simply because reloading took an inordinate length of time. In fact on many occasions guns would be taken and retaken during a battle, perhaps several times, as, for example, at Formigny in 1450. One means of preventing this was to accompany the heavier guns by smaller or multi-barrelled pieces designed to keep the enemy at bay while the former were laboriously reloaded. Le Jouvencal, for instance, says: ‘When your bombards have begun to fire, make sure the veuglaires and light artillery fire as much as possible after each shot’. As an indication of how low the rates of fire of the heavier pieces actually were, Hussite guns at the siege of Karlstyn fired only 7 times a day, though one could fire 30 times, and though this was not under battlefield conditions, where higher rates of fire were undoubtedly attempted, it is noteworthy that at the siege of Saaz in 1421 one gun that fired 70 times in a full 24 hours (i. e. at least one shot about every 20 minutes) was considered extraordinary by contemporaries.

Such low rates of fire combined with a relatively short range (le. ss than that of a crossbow in 1347, though reaching 2,500 paces by as early as 1429), severely restricted the effectiveness of field artillery during the period under review, and we rarely read of many men actually being killed by artillery in contemporary accounts. At St Jacob-en-Birs in 1444, for example, only about 200 men were killed by the Dauphin’s guns (though admittedly this represented nearly 15% of the Swiss losses), while at Morat Charles the Bold’s guns killed just 250 men in the Swiss Vorhut. At Nancy, where they had been sighted too high, his guns actually killed only one-presumably tallman!

Other disadvantages of early artillery were their inability to fire during damp weather (at Northampton, we are told, ‘the king’s ordnance could not be shot, there was so great a rain that day’) and their notorious inclination to fracture in service, blowing themselves and their gunners to kingdom come. At the siege of Cherbourg by the French in 1450 as many as 3 bombards and a cannon burst in this way.