Bunker Hill 1775 Part I

“When once these rebels have felt a smart blow,” George told his Admiralty, “they will submit.”

Blows would decide, as the king had predicted. Yet no one could foresee that the American War of Independence would last 3,059 days. Or that the struggle would be marked by more than 1,300 actions, mostly small and bloody, with a few large and bloody, plus 241 naval engagements in a theater initially bounded by the Atlantic seaboard, the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico, before expanding to other lands and other waters.

Roughly a quarter million Americans would serve the cause in some military capacity. At least one in ten of them would die for that cause- 25,674 deaths by one tally, as many as 35,800 by another. Those deaths were divided with rough parity among battle, disease, and British prisons, a larger proportion of the American population to perish in any conflict other than the Civil War. If many considered the war providential-ordained by God’s will and shaped by divine grace-certainly the outcome would also be determined by gutful soldiering, endurance, hard decisions (good and bad), and luck (good and bad). The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles. But, as Voltaire had observed, history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.

This would not be a war between regimes or dynasties, fought for territory or the usual commercial advantages. Instead, what became known as the American Revolution was an improvised struggle between two peoples of a common heritage, now sundered by divergent values and conflicting visions of a world to come. Unlike most European wars of the eighteenth century, this one would not be fought by professional armies on flat, open terrain with reasonable roads, in daylight and good weather. And though it was fought in the age of reason, infused with Enlightenment ideals, this war, this civil war, would spiral into savagery, with sanguinary cruelty, casual killing, and atrocity.

Those 3,059 hard days would yield two tectonic results. The first was in the United Kingdom, where the reduction of the empire by about one-third, including the demolition of the new dominions in North America, proved to be as divisive as any misfortune to befall the nation in the eighteenth century, at a cost of £128 million and thousands of British lives. The broader conflict that began in 1778, with the intervention of European powers on America’s behalf, led to the only British defeat in the seven Anglo-French wars fought between 1689 and 1815. Of course, what was lost by force of arms could be regained, and a second British Empire, in different garb, would flourish in the next century.

The second consequence was epochal and enduring: the creation of the American republic. Surely among mankind’s most remarkable achievements, this majestic construct also inspired a creation myth that sometimes resembled a garish cartoon, a melodramatic tale of doughty yeomen resisting moronic, brutal lobsterbacks. The civil war that unspooled over those eight years would be both grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering. Beyond the battlefield, then and forever, stood a shining city on a hill.


Lieutenant General Thomas Gage declared martial law on June 12 with a long, windy denunciation of “the infatuated multitudes.” He offered to pardon those who “lay down their arms and return to the duties of peaceable subjects,” exclusive of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, “whose offenses are of too flagitious a nature” to forgive. He ended the screed with “God save the King.”

The same day, Gage wrote to Lord Barrington, the secretary at war, that “things are now come to that crisis that we must avail ourselves of every resource, even to raise the Negroes in our cause.. Hanoverians, Hessians, perhaps Russians may be hired.” To Lord Dartmouth he warned that he was critically low on both cash-he could not pay his officers-and forage; ships had been sent to Nova Scotia and Quebec seeking hay and oats. Crushing the rebellion, he estimated, would require more frigates and at least 32,000 soldiers, including 10,000 in New York, 7,000 around Lake Champlain, and 15,000 in New England. Another officer writing from Boston on June 12 advised London-the king himself received a copy-that the rebel blockade “is judicious & strong.” As for British operations, “all warlike preparations are wanting. No survey of the adjacent country, no proper boats for landing troops, not a sufficient number of horses for the artillery nor for the regimental baggage.” The war chest had “about three or four thousand [pounds] only remaining.. The rebellious colonies will supply nothing.”

Gage’s adjutant complained that “every idle report is carried to headquarters and . magnified to such a degree that rebels are seen in the air carrying cannon and mortars on their shoulders.” Some regulars longed for a decisive battle; “taking the bull by the horns” became an oft-heard phrase in the regiments. “I wish the Americans may be brought to a sense of their duty,” an officer wrote in mid-June. “One good drubbing, which I long to give them. might have a good effect.” As Captain Evelyn told his cousin in London, “If there is an honor in hard knocks, we are likely to have some share.”

The imminent arrival of transports with light dragoons, more marines, and several foot regiments would bring the British garrison to over six thousand troops, not enough to subdue Massachusetts, much less the continent, but sufficient, as Gage told London, to “make an attempt upon some of the rebel posts, which becomes every day more necessary.” Two alluring patches of high ground remained unfortified, and Gage knew from an informant that American commanders coveted the same slopes: the elevation beyond Boston Neck known as the Dorchester Heights, and the dominant terrain above Charlestown called Bunker, or Bunker’s Hill. A battle plan was made to seize the former on Sunday, June 18, with a bombardment of Roxbury while the rebels were at church, followed by the construction of two artillery redoubts on the heights. If all went well, regulars could then capture the high ground on Charlestown peninsula and eventually attack the American encampment at Cambridge.


No sooner was the plan conceived than it leaked to the Committee of Safety; British officers seemed incapable of keeping their mouths shut in a town full of American spies and eavesdroppers. Intelligence even came from New Hampshire, where a traveler out of Boston told authorities there about rumors of an imminent British sally. Meeting in Hastings House, a gambrel-roofed mansion near the Cambridge Common, the committee on June 15 voted unanimously that “the hill called Bunker’s Hill in Charlestown be securely kept and defended.” Dorchester Heights would have to wait until more guns and powder could be stockpiled.

The American camps bustled. Arms and ammunition were inspected, with each marching soldier to carry thirty rounds. A note to the Committee of Supply advised that “the army is destitute of shirts & trousers, and if any [are] in store, pray they may be sent.” Liquor sales stopped, again. Teamsters carted the books and scientific instruments from Harvard’s library to Andover for safekeeping. Organ pipes were yanked from the Anglican church and melted down for musket bullets. An ordnance storehouse issued all forty-eight shovels in stock as well as ammunition to selected regiments-typically forty or fifty pounds of powder, a thousand balls, and a few hundred flints. Commissaries in Cambridge and Roxbury reported that provisions arriving through June 16 included 1,869 loaves of bread and 357 gallons of milk from Cambridge vendors, 60 pairs of shoes from Milton, 1,570 pounds of beef and 40 barrels of beer from Watertown, a ton of candles, 1,500 pounds of soap, several hundred barrels of beans, peas, flour, and salt fish by the quintal, rum by the hogshead, and a few hundred tents, many without poles. All Massachusetts men within twenty miles of the coast were urged to carry their firelocks “to meeting on the Sabbath and other days when they meet for public worship.” A sergeant from Wethersfield wrote his wife, “We’ve been in a great deal of hubbub.”

Orders spilled from the headquarters of Major General Ward, who occupied a southeast room on the Hastings House ground floor. Portly and sallow, sporting a powdered wig, boots, and a long coat with silver buttons, Artemas Ward, now forty-seven, had been chosen in February to command the Massachusetts militia on the strength of his long tenure in colonial politics. As a Harvard student, he once helped lead a campaign against “swearing and cursing” at the college; as a justice of the peace in Shrewsbury, he’d levied fines against the profane and could be found in the street reprimanding those who dishonored the Sabbath with unnecessary travel. Massachusetts, he believed, was home to the Chosen People. Ward had never fully recovered his health after the rigors of the French war, from which he’d emerged as a militia lieutenant colonel despite seeing little action. “Attacks of the stone”-kidney stones-still tormented him. Pious, honest, and devoted to the patriot cause, he was also taciturn, torpid, and stubborn. The gambit to hold Bunker Hill in Charlestown that he and the Committee of Safety had concocted was an impulse, not a plan. The rebel force lacked not only sufficient ammunition and field artillery but also combat reserves, a coherent chain of command, and even water. Ward had recently requested from the provincial congress almost sixty guns, fifteen hundred muskets, twenty tons of powder, and a similar quantity of lead; few of those munitions had been forthcoming.

Shortly after six p. m. on Friday, June 16, three Massachusetts regiments drifted through the arching elms and onto the Cambridge Common. They wore the usual homespun linen shirts and breeches tinted with walnut or sumac dye. Most carried a blanket or bedroll, often with a tumpline strap across the forehead to support the weight on their backs. A clergyman’s benediction droned over their bowed heads, and with a final amen they replaced their low-crowned hats and turned east down the Charlestown road.

Twilight faded and was gone, and the last birdsong faded with it. The first stars threw down their silver spears. Little rain had fallen in the past month, and dust boiled beneath each step. Candlelight gleamed from the rear of two bull’s-eye lanterns carried by sergeants at the head of the column. Officers commanded silence, and only the rattle of carts stacked with entrenching tools broke the quiet. Through parched orchards and across Willis Creek they marched, and past the hulking shadows of Prospect and Winter Hills. As they turned right toward Charlestown, a couple hundred Connecticut troops joined the column, bringing their strength to a thousand men.

General Ward had remained in his Hastings House headquarters, and the column was led by a sinewy, azure-eyed colonel wearing a blue coat with a single row of buttons and a tricorne hat. He carried a linen banyan. William Prescott of Pepperell, forty-nine and bookish, had fought twice in Canada during wars against the French, earning a reputation for cool self-possession under fire. In this war he reportedly had vowed never to be taken alive. “He was a bold man,” one soldier later wrote of him, “and gave his orders like a bold man.”

Bold orders this evening would prove to be ill-considered. As the procession crossed Charlestown Neck-barely ten yards wide at high tide- Prescott briefly conferred with the irrepressible Israel Putnam and Colonel Richard Gridley, an artilleryman and engineer who had also fought twice in Canada with distinction. From just below the isthmus, the three officers contemplated the dark contours of Charlestown peninsula, an irregular triangle a mile long and less than half that in width, bracketed by the Mystic and Charles Rivers. Even at night the dominant terrain was obvious: Bunker Hill rose gradually from the Neck for three hundred yards to a rounded crown 110 feet high, commanding not only the single land route off the peninsula, but the approach roads from Cambridge and Medford, as well as the adjacent waters. From the crest a low ridge swept southeast another six hundred yards to the patchwork of pastures, seventy-five feet high and sutured with rail fences, that would be called Breed’s Hill. Some fields had been scythed, the grass laid in windrows and cocks; in others it still stood waist-high. Brick kilns and clay pits pocked the steep eastern slope of the Breed’s pastures. Gardens and small orchards lay scattered to the west, backing the four hundred houses, shops, and buildings in Charlestown. Most of the three thousand residents had fled inland. The rising moon, three days past full, laved the town in amber light. Beyond the ferry landing and a spiny-masted warship in the Charles lay slumbering Boston.

For reasons never explained and certainly never understood, when the conference ended Prescott ordered the column to continue southeast. Colonel Gridley quickly staked out a redoubt-an imperfect square with sides about 130 feet long-not on nearly impregnable Bunker Hill, as the Committee of Safety had specified, but on the southwest slope of Breed’s pastureland. Accustomed to pick-and-shovel work, the men grabbed tools from the carts and began hacking at the hillside. Striking clocks in Boston, echoed at higher pitch by a ship’s bell, told them it was midnight.


The rhythmic chink of metal on hard ground carried to the Lively, another of those leaky vessels in the British squadron, now anchored astride the Charlestown ferryway. As coral light seeped across the eastern horizon at four a. m. on Saturday, June 17, the graveyard watch officer strained to decipher the odd sounds above the groan of the ship’s yards and the Charles whispering along her hull. He summoned the captain, whose spyglass soon showed hundreds of tiny dark figures tearing at the distant slope with spade and mattock.

The ship beat to quarters. Sailors tumbled from their hammocks, feet clapping across the deck as they ran to their battle stations. A windlass groaned as the crew winched Lively on her cable to align the starboard cannons. A shouted command carried across the gun deck, and tongues of flame burst from the ship in a broadside of 9-pounders. Breeching ropes kept the guns from flying across the deck in recoil; block and tackle ran them forward for the next salvo. Gunners swabbed the smoking barrels, rammed home powder and shot, and another flock of iron balls flew toward Breed’s Hill. Other ships eventually joined in-Glasgow, Symmetry, Falcon, Spitfire, more than seventy guns all told-along with 24-pounders from the Copp’s Hill battery in Boston’s North End.

Dawn, that great revealer of predicaments, had fully disclosed Colonel Prescott’s. Screaming cannonballs-“tea kettles,” in rebel slang-streaked overhead or punched into the hillside, smashing two hogsheads containing the American water supply. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, & that we were brought here to be all slain,” young Peter Brown would write his mother in Rhode Island. Distance and elevation reduced the bombardment’s effect, although Prescott recounted how one militiaman whose head abruptly vanished in a crimson mist “was so near me that my clothes were besmeared with his blood and brains, which I wiped off in some degree with a handful of fresh earth.” When other men dropped their tools to gawk at the corpse, Prescott snapped, “Bury him,” then strolled off with conspicuous nonchalance, hatless now, waggling his sword and urging the men to dig faster.

The redoubt taking shape was formidable enough, with thick dirt walls six feet high, fire steps for musketmen inside to stand on, and a sally port exit to the north. But no embrasures had been left for cannons; worse yet, Prescott recognized that the British could outflank him on either side. Gage’s men would no doubt attack in force across the Charles, seeking to stun the defenders with firepower before closing to complete the slaughter with bayonets. To protect his left flank, Prescott ordered the men to begin building a low breastwork northeast from the sally port to marshy ground at the foot of Breed’s Hill.

He also sent an officer to plead for reinforcements, provisions, and water. Artillerymen refused to lend the courier a horse, forcing him to walk four miles to Cambridge, which he found “quiet as the Sabbath.” At Hastings House he discovered Dr. Warren, newly appointed as a major general despite his lack of military experience, splayed on an upstairs bed with a crippling headache. General Ward, tormented with another attack of the stone, fretted over the vulnerability of Roxbury, the Dorchester Heights, and his Cambridge supply dumps; British gunfire had been reported at Boston Neck. Not least, Ward worried that only twenty-seven half-barrels of powder remained in his magazines, perhaps enough for forty thousand cartridges. With consent from the Committee of Safety, he reluctantly agreed to send reinforcements to Prescott from the New Hampshire militia camped along the Mystic.


The deep boom of Lively’s broadsides had wakened General Gage, as it woke all of Boston. Province House, aglitter in candlelight, soon bustled with red uniforms. Messengers skipped up the broad stone steps from Marlborough Street with news of rebel entrenchments, then skipped back down with orders to find and fetch various commanders. Young officers eager to join the coming attack loitered in the hallway, hoping to be noticed. Sleepy aides fumbled about for decent maps, of which the British still had precious few. Concussion ghosts from the harbor bombardment rattled the windows, and the rap of drums beating assembly carried from the camps.

Several senior officers joined Gage in the council chamber, including Percy, who arrived from his house in nearby Winter Street. But it was three newcomers who drew the eye this morning: Major Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton had reached Boston in late May aboard the Cerberus, after a stormy voyage that killed two favorite horses but gave the three men ample time to find common ground for the campaign ahead despite their inevitable rivalry. “The sentiments of Howe, Clinton, and myself have been unanimous from the beginning,” Burgoyne declared. The king had personally approved their selection, fearing that without vigorous new leadership in America “we shall only vegetate.” They were deemed “the fittest men for the service in the army,” as one official in London observed, forming what Burgoyne called “a triumvirate of reputation.”

Others were not so sure. Horace Walpole, ever astringent, told his diary that Howe “was reckoned sensible, though so silent that nobody knew whether he was or not,” while Burgoyne was “a vain, very ambitious man, with a half understanding that was worse than none.” Clinton, he declared, “had not that fault, for he had no sense at all.” Their arrival at Long Wharf aboard a frigate named for the mythical three-headed hound guarding the gates of Hades inspired the war’s most enduring doggerel: “Behold the Cerberus, the Atlantic plough, / Her precious cargo, Burgoyne, Clinton, Howe, / Bow, wow, wow!” Thereafter known as the three bow-wows, they had wasted little time in undercutting Gage’s authority, as in Burgoyne’s barbed observation to General Harvey earlier that week that it was “no reflection to say he is unequal to his present station, for few characters in the world would be fit for it.. It requires a genius of the very first class.”

As the windows trembled and the Old South clock across the street struck the hours, the high command, genius or otherwise, heatedly debated what to do. General Clinton, a dimple-chinned, prickly, and gifted tactician, proposed the boldest course. Early that morning, he had made his own reconnaissance in the dark along the Boston waterfront, listening to the racket from the rebel entrenchment. If Howe and the main British force crossed directly from the North End to Charlestown, Clinton would lead five hundred men ashore in a surprise flanking attack within musket shot of the isthmus, severing the American line of retreat and trapping the enemy on the peninsula.

This scheme found little favor around Gage’s council table. Dividing the force would risk defeat in detail of the separate detachments, particularly if thousands of rebel reinforcements stormed the battlefield from Cambridge. Naval support would be tenuous: even shallow-draft vessels had difficulty in the Mystic, which had not been thoroughly sounded, and a milldam west of Charlestown Neck complicated navigation there. No one had forgotten Diana’s fate in shoal water. Every small boat would be needed to ferry at least fifteen hundred regulars from Boston to Morton’s Point on the peninsula. The amphibious assault would have to be made at “full sea”-high tide, close to three p. m.-so that artillery could be manhandled onto dry land rather than through the muddy shallows.

Gage chose a more conventional, direct assault to be led by Howe, the senior major general. As in the march to Concord, most flanker companies- light infantry and grenadiers-had been peeled from their regiments and collected in special battalions. Ten companies of each would muster at Long Wharf, bolstered by several other regiments. The remaining light infantry and grenadiers, backed by additional regiments, would embark at North Battery, with sundry marines and regulars in reserve.

Gage ended the conference with a stark order: “Any man who shall quit his ranks on any pretense, or shall dare to plunder or pillage, will be executed without mercy.” With a clatter of boots across the floor, officers hurried down the hall and out the door to prepare their commands for battle.

Admiral Graves, meanwhile, had left his flagship to board the seventy-gun Somerset, now anchored in deep water across Boston Harbor. From her gently rocking quarterdeck he could see rebels swarming across the Charlestown hillside around the new earthworks; many were already “entrenched to their chins,” as a British officer noted. Men-of-war belched smoke and noise, and tiny black cannonballs traced perfect parabolas against the summer sky, plumping the fields and splintering tree branches without excessive inconvenience to the Jonathans building their forts. To Graves’s frustration, the waters lapping Charlestown were too shallow for Somerset and other dreadnoughts to warp close; his larger ships would be limited to sending seamen, ammunition, and boats to their smaller sisters.


As the morning ticked by, Glasgow and Symmetry hammered Charlestown Neck from an anchorage west of the peninsula, supported by a pair of scows, each mounting a 12-pounder. But the ebbing tide kept them from nosing near the milldam, and Graves regretted his failure to build more floating batteries and gun rafts. Lively, Falcon, and little Spitfire glided into the Charlestown channel, popping away while preparing to cover Howe’s landing. The roar of the cannonade carried to Cambridge, Roxbury, and other villages; one terrified minister’s wife draped blankets over her windows in hopes of deflecting stray bullets.

Shortly before noon, as meridian heat began to build in Boston, long columns of regulars tramped to fife and drum through the town’s cobbled streets from the Common to the docks. Each man carried, as ordered, sixty rounds, a day’s cooked provisions, and a blanket. The 52nd Foot had been issued gleaming new muskets and bayonets that very morning; they would soon grow filthy with use. By chance, a portion of the 49th Foot had just arrived after a long passage from southern Ireland. Wide-eyed privates, wobbly on their pins after weeks at sea, disembarked on Long Wharf and marched toward the Common with flags flying and drums beating even as the grenadier and light infantry companies from other regiments clambered into the bobbing boats at Long Wharf for the first lift to Charlestown.

At one-thirty p. m., a blue pennant appeared on Preston’s signal halyard. Twenty-eight yawls, longboats, cutters, and ketches carrying twelve hundred soldiers pulled away from Long Wharf in a double column, oars winking in syncopation, with a half dozen brass field guns nestled into the lead boats. The cannonade from the ships had ebbed, but now it grew heavier than ever, balls flying, smoke billowing, and the din reverberating like a terrible thunder. Thousands crowded Boston’s rooftops and hillsides, perching on tree boughs and clinging to steeples. Among the spectators were regulars left behind and the wives of troops now gliding across the Charles. Loyalists and patriots stood together, aware that sons and fathers and lovers were down there somewhere in harm’s way, on the glinting water or the distant hillside.

Here again was an ancient, squalid secret: that war was an enchantment, a sorcery, a seductive spectacle like no other, beguiling the eye and gorging the senses. They looked because they could not look away. Atop Bunker Hill, a Connecticut chaplain named David Avery watched the sculling boats approach Morton’s Point, then raised both arms to heaven before asking God’s indulgence on “a scene most awful and tremendous.”


Astride a lathered white horse, his own halo of tangled white hair instantly recognizable, General Israel Putnam trotted back and forth across the American line in a sleeveless waistcoat, smacking shirkers with the flat of his sword. To an officer pleading with a reluctant militiaman, Putnam snapped, “Run him through if he won’t fight.” One captain would later reflect that Old Put resembled not a field commander so much as the foreman of “a band of sicklemen or ditchers.. He might be brave, and had certainly an honest manliness about him; but it was thought, and perhaps with reason, that he was not what the time required.”

Nine Massachusetts regiments had been ordered to Charlestown from Cambridge, but at best only five had reached the peninsula; the others were delayed, misdirected, or misinformed. No one seemed to have a map. Roads were confusing, the terrain foreign. Troop discipline was “extremely irregular,” one officer wrote, “each regiment advancing according to the opinions, feelings, or caprice of its commander.” Putnam had ordered entrenching tools carried back from the redoubt to belatedly build a fortification on Bunker Hill; eager volunteers grabbed a shovel or an ax, then retreated toward the Neck and beyond, never to return. By one count, fewer than 170 men remained with Prescott to hold his redoubt, officers included. “To be plain,” an observer would write Samuel Adams, “it appears to me there never was more confusion and less command.”

Happily for the American cause, some men knew their business. Colonel Prescott continued to improve his imperfect fort and the adjacent breastwork, positioning men and shouting encouragement. Roughly two hundred yards behind the breastwork, a tall, enterprising captain from eastern Connecticut, Thomas Knowlton, recognized the defensive potential of a rail livestock fence that extended northeast for several hundred yards, from the middle of the peninsula almost to the Mystic. The fence had been laid on a slight zigzag course and assembled with a method known as stake-and-rider; a portion of it straddled a two-foot stone wall. Two hundred men helped Captain Knowlton reinforce the southwestern length of the barrier with additional rails and posts scavenged from other fields. They then stuffed the gaps with haycocks and sheaves of cut grass to give the illusion of a solid parapet. Several small field guns hauled by horses from Cambridge were emplaced nearby.

As the British boats beat from Boston, the most critical rebel reinforcements reached Charlestown Neck to the thrum of fife and drum: hundreds of long-striding New Hampshire militiamen, described as a “moving column of uncouth figures clad in homespun.” Millers, mariners, and husbandmen, they included the largest regiment in New England, commanded by Colonel John Stark, the lean, beetle-browed son of a Scottish emigrant. Stark’s picaresque life had included capture by Indians while hunting in 1752 and his release six weeks later for a hefty ransom. As a Ranger officer in the last French war, he had plodded more than forty miles in snowshoes to fetch help for comrades wounded in an ambush. After surviving the bloody Anglo-American repulse by the French at Fort Carillon in 1758, he and two hundred men subsequently built an eighty-mile road from Crown Point to the Connecticut valley. Upon hearing the news of Lexington, Stark, now forty-six, left his sawmill and his wife, pregnant with their ninth child, and was elected colonel by a unanimous show of hands in a tavern; so many men rallied to him that thirteen companies filled his regiment. At eleven this morning, General Ward’s initial order to reinforce Charlestown reached Stark’s camp in Medford, four miles up the Mystic. As he would tell the New Hampshire Provincial Congress a few days later, “The battle soon came on.”

Stark sent an advance detachment of two hundred men to the peninsula, then tarried long enough at a house converted into an armory for the rest of his force to draw ammunition: fifteen balls, a flint, and a gill cup of powder-five ounces-for each musketman. Crossing the narrow isthmus shortly after two p. m., harassed with round, bar, and chain shot from Royal Navy guns, the Hampshiremen ascended Bunker Hill at a deliberate pace, then descended to the northeast lip of the peninsula. “One fresh man in action,” Stark told a captain, “is worth ten fatigued ones.” A quick glance disclosed the American peril: despite Knowlton’s deft work along the rail fence, and the hasty construction of three small triangular earthworks known as fleches closer to the redoubt, Prescott’s position could still be outflanked by redcoats advancing up the Mystic shoreline. To block the narrow, muddy beach, Stark’s men scooted down the eight-foot riverbank and quickly stacked fieldstones to build a short, stout wall. Most Hampshiremen took positions behind the fence to extend Knowlton’s line, further stuffing it with hay, grass, and stray rails. But sixty musketmen arranged themselves on the beach in a triple row behind the new barricade. There they awaited their enemy.


Bunker Hill 1775 Part II

By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army.

Thick-featured and taciturn, General Howe in the best of times was said to be afflicted by a “sullen family gloom.” He, too, needed but a glance to see his own dilemma. Landing at Morton’s Point with the second lift of six hundred infantry and artillery troops from North Battery, Howe climbed a nearby hillock as gunners shouldered their fieldpieces onto dry ground and the empty boats rowed back to Boston. “It was instantly perceived the enemy were very strongly posted,” he subsequently told London.

On his far left, rebel gunmen infested rooftops and barns in Charlestown, while up the pasture slopes, five hundred yards from where Howe stood watching with his command group, a large bastion had sprouted from the hillside. The rest of the rebel defenses came into view: the triangular fleches, several guns throwing an occasional ball inaccurately toward the British lines, and the long fence-or was it a wall?-bristling with men stripped to their shirtsleeves. The fields and pastures ended in a short plunge down to the Mystic shoreline. With more rebels clustered atop Bunker Hill and spilling across Charlestown Neck despite the naval gunfire, Howe calculated that he faced “between five and six thousand” Americans-half again their actual number. He sent a courier flying to Province House with a request that Gage send reinforcements immediately; the attack would await their arrival. Redcoats poised to march near Morton’s Point broke ranks, grounded their muskets, and sat in the grass to smoke their pipes or gobble a quick dinner of bread and salt meat.

Howe made his plan. The Mystic beach seemed a promising corridor from which to outflank and turn the rebel line. On foot, the general would personally lead the British right wing, including grenadiers assaulting the rail fence while a column of light infantry companies slashed up that river shoreline. The left wing, led by the diminutive, moonfaced Brigadier Robert Pigot, would attack the redoubt to fix the enemy in place and maybe even overrun the parapet once Howe’s troops had broken through. Celebrated for his sangfroid against the French at Quebec, the Breton coast, and Havana, Howe was quoted as telling his officers, “I shall not desire one of you to go a step farther than where I go myself at your head.” Speed, agility, discipline, and violence would be decisive. Losing Boston, he reminded them, meant moving the entire army onto Graves’s ships, “which will be very disagreeable to us all.”

Including the reserves soon to arrive, Howe commanded more than twenty-six hundred men. British field guns began popping away at three p. m., “great nasty porridge pots flying through the air & crammed as full of devils as they could hold,” as a young militiaman wrote, each ball “whispering along with its blue tail.” The bombardment so unnerved the rebel artillery battery up the slope that one American gun captain reportedly “fired a few times, then swung his hat three times round to the enemy and ceased to fire.” Regulars tamped out their pipes and shouldered their muskets, bayonets fixed. Junior officers bawled out orders. Ten companies abreast would form a broad assault front on Pigot’s wing to the left, followed by ten more, a formation mirrored by Howe’s right wing except for the light infantry column along the Mystic, necessarily squeezed into a shoulder-to-shoulder front between river and riverbank.

On order, the great mass of redcoats heaved forward with a clatter of equipment and more bawling commands, the slate-blue Charles behind them and tawny dust clouds churning up with each stride. “Push on!” the troops yelled. “Push on!” Drummers rapped a march cadence, periodically punctuated by the boom of field guns towed forward with drag ropes. Howe marched with the deliberation of a man who had done this before, his eyes on the hillside ahead, trailed by aides, staff officers, and an orderly said to have carried a silver tray with a decanter of wine. Watching from the redoubt as this red tide advanced, Captain Ebenezer Bancroft of Dunstable, Massachusetts, would give voice to every patriot on the battlefield: “It was an awful moment.”

The moment grew more awful. For two months, Admiral Graves had longed to rain destruction on rebel heads, and while Howe drafted his plan on Morton’s Point, the admiral arrived by barge to note the hazard that enemy snipers in Charlestown posed to Pigot’s left flank. Did General Howe wish “to have the place burned?” Graves asked. As a precaution, brick furnaces aboard several warships had prepared all morning to heat cannonballs. General Howe indeed wished it so. A midshipman hurried to relay the order, and fiery balls soon fell on Charlestown like tiny meteors. Worse destruction came from Copp’s Hill in the North End, where early Boston settlers had once sought refuge from the “great annoyances of Woolves, Rattle-snakes, and Musketos.” British troops had muscled mortars and several mammoth 24-pounders to the edge of the ancient burying ground at Snow and Hill Streets, sixty feet above the Charles. While Generals Clinton and Burgoyne watched, gunners loaded combustible shells known as carcasses, each packed with gunpowder, Swedish pitch, saltpeter, and tallow. The Charlestown meetinghouse, with its slender, towering steeple, provided a conspicuous aiming stake.

The first shell fell short, bursting near the ferry slip. Gunners corrected their elevation, and within minutes “the whole was instantly in flames,” Burgoyne would write. Fire loped through Charlestown’s streets like a thing alive, igniting buildings at the foot of Chestnut Street and around Mauldin’s shipyard. Other structures along the docks followed in quick succession: distilleries, a tannery, warehouses, shipwrights, a cooperage. Fire climbed the pitched roofs-a “grand and melancholy sight,” one loyalist observed-then licked through houses away from the waterfront and up to the marketplace, incinerating the courthouse and the Three Cranes Tavern. North of the market, on Town Hill, more houses and another distillery caught fire. The light breeze shifted from southwest to east, as it often did on fine summer days, and flames drove lengthwise through Charlestown. Fire ignited more wharves and a ship chandlery. Ebony smoke rose in a column as wide as the town, then “hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies,” an American officer reported. Rebel musketmen scurried from the burning buildings to hide behind stone walls on Breed’s Hill and in a nearby barn.

“The church steeples, being made of timber, were great pyramids of fire above the rest,” wrote Burgoyne, who had a way with words. “The roar of cannon, mortars, musketry, the crash of churches, ships upon the stocks, the whole streets falling together in ruin, to fill the ear.” All in all, the conflagration was “one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived.”

Gawkers and gapers now climbed not only Boston rooftops and hillsides, but “the masts of such ships as were unemployed in the harbor, all crowded with spectators, friends and foes, alike in anxious suspense. It was great, it was high-spirited.”

They, too, looked because they could not look away.


The rebels waited, now killing mad. At four p. m., well over two thousand regulars ascended the slope in two distinct corps. Swallows swooped above the hills, and the stench of a cremated town filled the nose. Many militiamen had loaded “buck and ball”-a lead bullet and two or three buckshot, known as “Yankee peas.” “Fire low,” officers told the men. “Aim at their waistbands.” Again noting the brighter tint of the British officers’ tunics-vibrant from more expensive dyes-they added, “Aim at the handsome coats. Pick off the commanders.” In the redoubt, Prescott angrily waved his sword to rebuke several musketmen who were firing at impossible ranges; they were to wait until the enemy was danger close, within six rods or so-a hundred feet. “Aim at their hips,” Prescott ordered. “Waste no powder.” Five hundred yards to the north, at the far end of the rail fence, Stark told his men to hang fire until they could see the regulars’ half-gaiters below their knees. Someone may also have urged waiting till the whites of the enemy’s eyes were visible, an order that had been issued to Austrians, Prussians, and possibly other warring armies earlier in the century.

Howe’s corps, on the British right, found marching through the thigh-high grass difficult: fence after damnable fence forced the lines to stop and dismantle the rails or climb over them. As planned, light infantrymen angled through a shallow dell that led to the Mystic beach, now screened from the broader battlefield by the riverbank. Eleven companies with more than three hundred men funneled into a tight column, four or five men abreast. Beyond a slight curve in the shoreline stood the newly built fieldstone wall, defended by a few dozen rebel musketmen, some kneeling with their gun barrels resting on the stones. Closing at a dog trot to within fifty yards, redcoats from the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers in the vanguard of the column lowered their bayonets and prepared to charge.

A stupendous, searing volley ripped into the British ranks, blowing the fusiliers from their feet. Gunsmoke rolled down a beach upholstered with dying regulars as their comrades stepped over them only to also be shot down. With a third of the Welch Fusiliers wounded, mortally or otherwise, the King’s Own Light Infantry behind them surged forward; they, too, were slaughtered, followed by the 10th Foot, the 52nd Foot, and other light companies trailing them. “It was like pushing a wax candle against a red-hot plate,” the historian Christopher Ward would write. “The head of the column simply melted away.” A man five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 168 pounds had an exterior surface of 2,550 square inches, of which a thousand were exposed to gunfire when he was facing an enemy frontally at close range. Rebel musket balls seemed to fill every square inch of that Mystic corridor, blasting enormous entry wounds into enemies panting for the fieldstone wall. Among the British officers shot, “few had less than three or four wounds,” a captain later wrote home. Men miraculously unharmed by bullets or buckshot were spattered with wedges of tissue, dislodged teeth, and skull fragments. After a final, futile surge, the regulars turned and ran “in a very great disorder,” a witness reported. They left behind ninety-six comrades, dead as mutton.

Howe heard the commotion below the riverbank to his right, but the rail fence just ahead, stiff with hundreds of American gunmen, drew his full attention. As he and the grenadiers took another stride, the top rail erupted in flame and filthy smoke, quickly followed by a volley from the rebel second rank. “The whole line was one blaze,” a young Sudbury militiaman named Needham Maynard later recalled. “They fell in heaps, actually in heaps.. The bodies lay there very thick.” Howe was unhurt, but men on either side of him crumpled. Disemboweled grenadiers, some screaming, some silent, tumbled one atop another. “I discharged my gun three times at the British, taking deliberate aim as if at a squirrel,” wrote Simon Fobes, a nineteen-year-old private from Bridgewater. “I had become calm as a clock.”

Regulars from two trailing regiments hurried forward to fill gaps in the grenadier line only to be gunned down. A crackle of musketry from the three fleches to Howe’s left swept his corps with cross fire. Wounded redcoats dragged themselves through the grass amid shrieks, curses, and plaintive wails for mother. The British return fire tended to fly high: a stand of apple trees behind the American line had few enemy balls embedded in the trunks, but the “branches above were literally cut to pieces,” Captain Henry Dearborn reported. A few lightly wounded rebels reloaded muskets for their upright comrades, trimmed lead bullets to fit odd-sized barrels, or acted as spotters: “There. See that officer?”

Howe pulled his men back briefly to regroup-“long enough for us to clean our guns,” Maynard, the Sudbury militiaman, noted-then heaved forward again only to be smashed once more. “Their officers were shot down,” Maynard added. “There seemed to be nobody to command ’em.” The British wounded included Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, the grenadier commander, shot in the thigh by jittery light infantrymen who had joined the rail-fence fight after the carnage on the beach. Before he died, a week later, Abercrombie would tell London that his own army “gave me a plumper”-a volley-“and killed two officers and three privates,” while wounding twenty others in fratricidal mayhem. The undisciplined light companies, he suggested, “must be drilled before they are carried to action again.” A jeering rebel who recognized the crippled man being helped from the field shouted, “Colonel Abercrombie, are the Yankees cowards?”

A dozen men in Howe’s command retinue were now dead or wounded. “For near a minute,” an officer observed, “he was quite alone.” At last Howe turned and trudged down the hill, unscathed, though his white stockings were slick with British blood. “There was a moment,” he subsequently told General Harvey, “that I never felt before.”

Brigadier Pigot had suffered few casualties in feinting toward the redoubt-cannonballs from the 24-pounders on Copp’s Hill kept defenders crouched beneath their parapet. But now the weight of the British assault necessarily shifted to his corps. Marines, three regiments, and various detached companies pressed toward the crest of Breed’s Hill, bedeviled by fences, stone walls, and what Burgoyne called “a thousand impediments.” Approaching the redoubt, the line was “stopped by some brick kilns and enclosures, and exposed for some time to the whole of its fire,” a British ensign wrote. “And it was here that so many men were lost.”

Volley upon volley crashed from the redoubt and the protruding breastwork so that “the enemy fell like grass when mowed,” a rebel fifer said. Ebenezer Bancroft, the militia captain from Dunstable, observed, “Our first fire was shockingly fatal.” When a well-aimed fusillade ripped into the regulars, a militiaman bellowed, “You have made a furrow through them!” A diarist in the 47th Foot wrote that “for about fifty minutes it resembled rather a continual sheet of lightning and an uninterrupted peal of thunder than the explosion of firearms.” Some regulars used dead redcoats to build their own breastworks. An American captain reported that he fired all thirty-five rounds in his ammunition pouch, and then threw stones.

Among the fallen was Major John Pitcairn, the conqueror of Lexington Common, now dying in the grass from at least one ball in the chest. A major in the 52nd Regiment was described by a subordinate as “lying about ten yards from the redoubt in great agony” from five wounds; three dead captains lay near him. “They advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” Private Peter Brown told his mother in Rhode Island, “but they found a choaky mouthful of us.” An Irish comrade added, “Diamond cut diamond, and that’s the whole story.”


Not quite, for diamond would now cut back. Bloody but unbowed, William Howe drew up a new plan. With more than five hundred reserve troops preparing to cross the Charles from Boston, he would renew the attack on the redoubt by shifting two regiments and the surviving grenadiers from his own corps to Pigot’s on the left. Companies would advance in tight columns rather than broad assault lines; the regulars would lighten their loads by leaving superfluous kit behind; and they were to attack swiftly, with bayonets only, rather than pausing to shoot and reload. Moreover, eight fieldpieces now on the battlefield would be hauled by drag ropes-each brass 6-pounder weighed a quarter ton-to positions east of the redoubt to batter the defenders. Howe was disgusted to learn that his artillery fire had slackened during the earlier assaults because side boxes on the guns were found to contain 12-pound balls, which were too fat for 6-pound muzzles. He ordered gunners to instead use grapeshot, plum-sized iron balls packed in canvas bags that blew open when fired.

Peering over the parapet from his battered redoubt, Colonel Prescott watched the red tide again creep up the Breed’s pastureland. The 150 or so Americans remaining in his small fort-their faces blackened from soot and powder, as if they’d been toiling in a coal yard-had little ammunition left. Militiamen searched pockets for stray cartridges or tapped the final grains from powder horns, tearing strips from their shirttails for wadding. Prescott ordered the last artillery cartridges torn open and the loose powder distributed to his infantry. Except for a single two-gun battery, the four American artillery companies sent into battle had been all but useless this afternoon, beset with cowardice, confusion, and technical ineptitude. Of six guns that reached the peninsula, five now stood silent and the sixth had been hauled away.

The failure of General Ward’s headquarters to resupply the redoubt was almost as disheartening as the dearth of reinforcements. Among the few doughty souls to arrive in mid-battle was a familiar if unlikely figure. Dr. Joseph Warren-elegantly dressed in a light coat, a white satin waistcoat with silver lace, and white breeches-strode through the sally port gripping a borrowed gun, his earlier headache gone, or ignored, or mended by the huzzahs that greeted him. Despite the high rank conferred several days earlier by the provincial congress, Warren declined offers of command, insisting that he take post in the line with other musketeers.

Up the peninsula, hundreds of leaderless militiamen “in great confusion” ambled about on Bunker Hill or beyond the Neck, a sergeant reported. A few without muskets brandished pitchforks, shillelaghs, and at least one grain flail. Captain John Chester, who had just arrived with his Connecticut company, found chaos: thirty men cowering behind an apple tree; others behind rocks or haycocks; twenty more escorting a single wounded comrade toward Cambridge “when not more than three or four could touch him to advantage. Others were retreating seemingly without any excuse.” One colonel, described as “unwieldy from excessive corpulence,” lay sprawled on the ground, proclaiming his exhaustion. British gunners aboard Glasgow and Symmetry continued to scorch the Neck with iron shot, giving pause to even the lionhearted. “The orders were press on, press on,” wrote Lieutenant Samuel Blachley Webb, now skittering toward the redoubt with Chester’s Connecticut company. “Good God how the balls flew. I freely acknowledge I never had such a tremor come over me before.”


The sun had begun to dip in the southwestern sky, dimmed by the black coils of smoke above Charlestown, when Pigot’s legions again drew near, high-stepping their dead. British grapeshot spattered the earthworks, driving defenders from the parapet even as American fire wounded a dozen gunners shouldering the fieldpieces into position. “They looked too handsome to be fired at,” Corporal Francis Merrifield lamented, “but we had to do it.” Prescott told his men to wait until the British vanguard was within thirty yards of the redoubt walls; on command, militiamen hopped up on their fire steps, and a point-blank volley staggered the enemy ranks again. A ball clipped the skull of Captain George Harris, commanding the 5th Foot grenadier company; dragged through the grass by a lieutenant, Harris cried, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” Of four grenadiers who carried him to a nearby copse, three were wounded, one mortally.

But the battle had turned. Regulars pressed close on three sides, leaping across a narrow ditch to hug the berm before scaling the steep ramparts. American gunshots grew scattered; some Jonathans saved their last round to shoot British officers atop the parapet. “Our firing began to slacken. At last it went out like an old candle,” Needham Maynard recalled. More redcoats tumbled into the redoubt, now shooting. “Take their guns away,” Prescott yelled, “twitch ’em away.” Enemies grappled, grunting and swearing. A brown miasma of smoke and churning dust hung in the air. Americans swung their muskets as clubs, fighting “more like devils than men,” a regular reported, and when the walnut stocks shattered, they swung the bent barrels or threw rocks.

Prescott was among the last to escape, “stepping long, with his sword up,” parrying bayonet thrusts that snagged his banyan but not his flesh. Peter Brown scrambled over the wall and ran for half a mile; musket balls, he told his mother, “flew like hail stones.” Captain Bancroft fought his way out, first with a musket butt, then with his fists, bullets nicking his hat and coat and shearing off his left forefinger. Corporal Farnsworth of Groton would tell his diary, “I received a wound in my right arm, the ball going through a little below my elbow.. Another ball struck my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny.. I was in great pain.”

They were the lucky ones. “Nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming of this work,” wrote Lieutenant John Waller of the 1st Marines. “We tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt..’Twas streaming with blood & strewed with dead and dying men, the soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” Thirty American bodies, some mutilated beyond recognition, lay scattered across the shambles. The triumphant, vengeful roar of British regulars could be heard in Boston.

Lieutenant Webb and his Connecticut militia arrived to see the melee spill from the sally port. “I had no other feeling but that of revenge,” he wrote. “Four men were shot dead within five feet to me.. I escaped with only the graze of a musket ball on my hat.” Dr. Warren did not escape: sixty yards from the redoubt, a bullet hit him below the left eye and blew through the back of his head. He toppled without a word.

By five-thirty p. m., rebel forces were in full retreat up the peninsula, bounding from fence to fence, barn to barn, leaving a debris trail of cartridge boxes, tumplines, goatskin knapsacks, even coats and hats shed in the heat of the day. The wounded hobbled, or were carried on backs or in stretchers fashioned from blankets and muskets. On their heels came not only Pigot’s regiments but Howe’s regular regiments and grenadiers, who had bulled through the breastworks and the three fleches. Also in pursuit was General Clinton, who on his own initiative had crossed the Charles from Copp’s Hill, rallied regulars milling in the rear of Pigot’s corps, then circled north to give chase. “All was in confusion,” he wrote. “I never saw so great a want of order.”

Yet for the rebels, disorder brought salvation. The New Hampshire and Connecticut regiments, seeing the redoubt fall, pulled back from the rail fence in an orderly withdrawal to give covering fire for Prescott’s fugitives. Some militiamen loitering atop Bunker Hill advanced down the slope to pelt the British pursuers with bullets, a belated but vital contribution to the battle. “The retreat was no flight,” Burgoyne would write. “It was even covered with bravery and military skill.” Howe had seen enough and suffered enough: when Clinton confronted him north of the redoubt to urge pursuit to the Neck and beyond, Howe “called me back,” Clinton wrote later, “I thought a little forcibly.”

Americans by the hundreds surged through the gantlet of naval gunfire still scything the only exit from the peninsula. Some died within yards of safety, including Major Andrew McClary, one of Stark’s Hampshiremen, hit with a frigate cannonball. “He leaped two or three feet from the ground, pitched forward, and fell dead upon his face,” an officer reported. But most straggled unharmed onto the high ground beyond the Neck, exhausted and tormented by thirst. General Putnam followed on his white horse, cradling an armful of salvaged entrenching tools. “I never saw such a carnage of the human race,” he would be quoted as saying.

For now the carnage was over, mostly. Rebel snipers in trees and houses across the Neck continued to plink away at enemy pickets, killing a 38th Foot lieutenant with a random shot. The British answered with broadsides from Glasgow and salvos from a 12-pounder. Charlestown burned and burned, painting the low clouds bright orange in what one diarist called “a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin.” Marines landed in skiffs to set fire to wooden structures that had escaped the earlier flames. Prescott, ever pugnacious, vowed to retake his lost hill that night if given ammunition, bayonets, and three rested regiments. General Ward sensibly demurred.

“Dearest Friend,” Abigail Adams wrote from Braintree to her husband, John, then meeting in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. “The day, perhaps the decisive day, is come on which the fate of America depends.” She continued:

Charlestown is laid in ashes.. Tis expected they will come out over the Neck tonight, and a dreadful battle must ensue.. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. Night fell. The British did not come. From Prospect and Winter Hills above the Cambridge road came the excavating sounds of mattock and spade, as militiamen once again stacked their muskets and began to dig the next line of resistance.


British medicos scuffed through the high grass to feel with their feet for the dead and the merely dying, then held their flickering lanterns close to distinguish between the two. Those with a pulse or a glint in the eye were hoisted onto drays and wheeled to barges on the Charles for transport to Boston. “The cries and moans of the dying was shocking,” wrote General Clinton, who also picked his way across the battlefield. “I had conversation with many of these poor wretches in their dying moments.”

Later studies by the British Army would demonstrate that soldiers wearing conspicuous red uniforms were more than twice as likely to be shot in combat as those in muted blues and grays. The tally at Breed’s Hill seemed to anticipate those findings: Gage’s army had regained roughly a square mile of rebel territory at a cost exceeding a thousand casualties, or more than a man lost per acre won. Over 40 percent of the attacking force had been killed or wounded, including 226 dead; losses were especially doleful in the elite flanker companies-the light infantry and grenadiers. Nineteen officers also had been killed. Of all the king’s officers who would die in battle during the long war against the Americans, more than one out of every eight had perished in four hours on a June afternoon above Charlestown.

Casualties in some units were calamitous. All but four grenadiers from the King’s Own were killed or wounded. Of thirty-eight men in the 35th Foot light company, only three escaped rebel bullets; with every officer, sergeant, and corporal hit, the senior private led other surviving privates. After sustaining 123 casualties, British marines were nonplussed to find that their tents in Boston had been plundered during the battle, apparently by regulars not in the field. The Admiralty voiced “astonishment that it could have happened” but declined to pay compensation, because of the precedent such reimbursement would set. Howe, who lost virtually his entire staff to death or injury, admitted to General Harvey that when he studied the casualty lists, “I do it with horror.”


The SM.79 Sparviero (“Sparrow Hawk”) bombers were constructed of a welded tubular steel frame, covered with duralumin forward, duralumin and plywood over the top, and fabric elsewhere. The wings were made of wood. They first saw service with the Aviazione Legionaria units serving in the Spanish Civil War, where over 100 of these bombers assisted Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces mainly in Catalonia. By the time Italy entered WW2, Sm.79 bombers were the backbone of the Italian bomber force. They were used in France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Crete, Malta, Gibraltar, Palestine, and North Africa. They were responsible for sinking 86 Allied ships totaling 708,000 tons. After the Italian surrender, 34 SM.79 bombers served with the pro-Allies government and 36 served with the pro-Axis government in the north.

In 1939, 45 SM.79 bombers were sold to Yugoslavia. Most of them were destroyed during the German invasion in 1941, but a few survived to serve in the pro-Axis government after the invasion. Four of them were evacuated to Britain and were used by the Royal Air Force under the designations AX702, AX703, AX704, and AX705.

Between 1936 and 1945, 1,350 SM.79 bombers were built. After the war, a few of them continued to serve with the new Italian air force Aeronautica Militare as passenger transports; they were retired in 1952. A few of them made their way to the Lebanese air force and served until 1959.

Squadriglie 252,253

Stormo 46

This Gruppo formed on 15 February 1940 with 15 SM 79 bombers. In June they made bombing raids on Corsica, escorted by G 50s of 51 Stormo, and on 21 June nine SM 79s bombed Marseilles naval port.

The unit adopted several camouflage finishes, from banded to mottled in the same squadriglia, as new colour orders filtered through from H. Q. In November they transferred to the Balkans for operations over Greece and Yugoslavia. To save weight the bombers reduced their defensive weapons from four to two, despite several combats with RAF Gladiators. The winter produced heavy snows which reduced the number of operations, but some bombing was still undertaken. Escorting G 50s joined in with ground strafing.

On 1 May 1942 the unit became Aerosilurante and the more experienced crews were sent to Sardinia in June for operations against the HARPOON convoy. On 14 June four aircraft out of twelve were lost, with Medaglia d’Oro being posthumously awarded to Tenente Ingrellini and Sergente Maggiore Compiani. On 3 July the whole Gruppo went to the Aegean to operate against shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. They made armed reconnaissance sorties as far as Haifa, Port Said, and Port Alexander. On 1 September they became Autonomo, often co-operating with Fliegerkorps X on convoy attacks and reconnaissance missions.

By 1 January 1943 they had 8 operational aircraft at Gadurra, on day and night reconnaissance missions along the eastern and central African coastlines. On 15 February two SM 79s were intercepted by P-39s between Tobruk and Mersa Matruh, claiming one fighter shot down. By 20 March six aircraft were still operational out of thirteen.

From January to March crews were transferred between Kalamaki and Gadurra for night training by instructors from 1 and 3 NAS. Despite the setting up at the start of the war of a Blind Flying School (La Scuola di Volo Senza Visibilta) most new pilots had very little experience of instrument or night flying as they were rushed to the front with minimal training.

Pilots briefly trained on the Junkers Ju 88 for dive and torpedo bomber operations, using Luftwaffe aircraft based at Athene. The practical difficulties of acquiring and supporting such a unit precluded further pursuit of this role, despite the initial success with training.

In April 1943 one squadriglia sometimes used Coo and Scarpanto as forward bases. Two aircraft used Timpaklion, Crete, for armed reconnaissance flights between Appollonia and Benghasi. There were very few aircraft operational by mid-May, but morale was high with the recent successful missions which had followed a long wait. On 23 May three SM 79s escorted two unarmed SM 75s from Gadurra to bomb Gura base in Africa at night. 253 Sq was detached to Iraklion on Crete, from 25 June to 16 July. By 9 July the unit had only five out of eleven aircraft serviceable at Gadurra.

In July the Gruppo moved to Italy for re-equipment. They then carried out night attacks against the invasion fleet off Sicily. 253 Sq claimed an enemy night fighter off the Ioinian coast on the night of 18 July. On 7 September eight aircraft were still operational. The two squadriglie commanders took off at 19.30 hours on 8 September to attack ships in the Gulf of Salerno. It was not until they were nearing the target area that the radiomen heard the order for all bomber and fighter units to cancel operations and return to base. They only turned back when a direct order to all torpedo bomber units was received from the H. Q. of Squadra 3, landing at Guidonia and returning to Siena the next day.

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China (Chinese: Wanli Changcheng; “10,000-Li Long Wall”) consists of a series of defensive structures built across northern China. One of the largest building-construction projects ever carried out, it runs (with all its branches) about 4,500 miles (7,300 km) east to west. Large parts of the fortifi cation date from the 7th to the 4th century B.C.E. In the 3rd century BC the emperor Shihuangdi connected existing defensive walls into a single system fortified by watchtowers. These served both to guard the rampart and to communicate with the capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an) by signal-smoke by day and fi re by night. Originally constructed partly of masonry and earth, it was faced with brick in its eastern portion. It was rebuilt in later times, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The basic wall is about 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 metres) high; at intervals towers rise above it to varying heights.

The Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.) was so influential that the name “China” is derived from Qin. Shihuangdi was its founder and most notable emperor. On the one hand, he was a cruel tyrant. On the other hand, changes he made during his reign helped to define China even today. The boundaries he set during his reign became the traditional territory of China. In later eras China sometimes held other territories, but the Qin boundaries were always considered to embrace the indivisible area of China proper. He developed networks of highways and unified a number of existing fortifications into the Great Wall of China. He established a basic administrative system that all succeeding dynasties followed for the next 2,000 years. His tomb near Xi’an contains one of China’s most famous treasures-6,000 life-sized terra-cotta statues of warriors

It was Chu that innovated advanced weapons such as crossbows and steel swords, and Han that was skilled at making a wide range of weapons, including crossbows, swords, and halberds. Crossbows first appeared in Chu in the early fifth century B.C.E.  and were in general use in the fourth century B.C.E. Their strength and effective killing range generally increased over the centuries as their mechanisms were perfected.

There is no doubt that innovations in heavy crossbows, linked crossbows, and siege weapons such as catapults, rolling towers, mobile shields, scaling ladders, and battering rams facilitated the offense in the Warring States period. However, in ancient China as elsewhere, “[t]echniques for assault and defense advanced simultaneously.” Whereas military classics advocate the offensive doctrine, the less well-known Mohist school emerged as “the defensive counterpart,” so that various texts together “document a mutual escalation in the art of offense and defense.” As offensive weapons and techniques developed, various states also “undertook the expanded defense of borders, constructing great walls, ramparts, forts, and guard towers throughout the countryside to defend the entire territory against incursion.” After unification, the defense walls built by Qi, Yan, Zhao, and Qin against Xiongnu were connected to form the Great Wall, while those built by various states against one another were demolished.

The prevalence of conquests discussed earlier should not be interpreted as evidence that conquest was easy in the ancient Chinese system. Most major cities had such strong fortifications that they could not be taken except with resort to stratagems or at high cost. For instance, Qin’s siege of Han’s Yiyang produced high casualties. Qin’s conquest of Ba and Shu, which were ringed by mountains, required most of a century. Similarly, Han’s conquest of Zheng involved multiple wars fought intermittently over the course of five decades from 423 to 375 B.C.E. , and Zhao’s conquest of Zhongshan lasted from 307 to 286 B.C.E. . At the same time, Qi failed to conquer Yan in 314 B.C.E. . Yan, in turn, was not able to take two well-fortified Qi cities, Ju and Jimo, after five years of siege.

Construction of defensive walls began during the reign of China’s ‘‘First Emperor,’’ Qin Shi Huang, in 221 B.C.E. These connected sections of preexisting border fortifications of Qin’s defeated and annexed enemies, dating to the Warring States period, from which the Qin empire had emerged as victor. The building technique of this remarkable structure was the ancient method of stamped earth that employed masses of slave laborers as well as military conscripts. Some parts of the wall stood for nearly two millennia and were incorporated into the modern ‘‘Great Wall’’ built by the Ming dynasty following the humiliation of defeat and capture of the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu (1449). After he regained the throne in 1457, the Ming court decided on a purely defensive strategy and began building 700 miles of new defensive walls starting in 1474, fortifying the northern frontier against Mongol raiders. The Ming system involved hundreds of watchtowers, signal-beacon platforms, and self-sufficient garrisons organized as military colonies. Infantry were positioned along the wall to give warning. But the main idea was for cavalry to move quickly to any point of alarm and stop raiders from breaking through. In that, the Ming strategy emulated Mongol practices from the Yuan dynasty. It was also reminiscent, though not influenced by, the Roman defensive system of ‘‘limes’’ which in Germania alone were 500 kilometers long.

The Great Wall was meant to reduce costs to the Ming of garrisoning a thousand-mile frontier by channeling raiders and invaders into known invasion routes to predetermined choke points protected by cavalry armies. This strategy was mostly ineffective. The Great Wall was simply outflanked in 1550 by Mongol raiders who rode around it to the northeast to descend on Beijing and pillage its suburbs (they could not take the city because they had no siege engines or artillery). The wall was also breached by collaboration with the Mongols of Ming frontier military colonies, which over time became increasingly ‘‘barbarian’’ through trade, marriage, and daily contact with the wilder peoples on the other side. Some Han garrisons lived in so much fear of the Mongols they were militarily useless; others lost touch with the distant court and hardly maintained military preparations at all. Finally, the Great Wall could always be breached by treachery or foolhardy invitation. Either or both occurred when a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter China via the Shanhaiguan Pass to aid in the last Ming civil war in 1644, which brought the Ming dynasty to an end and put the Qing in power.

China never built a defensive wall along its Pacific sea frontier, as it felt no threat from that quarter. And yet, the main threat to its long-term stability and independence came across the Pacific in the form of European navies and marines. As with the 20th century Maginot Line in France, building the Great Wall in some ways signaled Ming defeatism rather than advertised Ming strength. The overall historical meaning of the Great Wall is ambiguous. To some, it signifies the worst features of China’s exploitative past; to others, it celebrates the longevity of China’s advanced, classical civilization.

Suggested Reading: Sechin Jagshid and V. J. Symons, Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall (1989); Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China (1990).


The fall of Constantinople in 1453 (only 3 years before the Ottoman siege at Belgrade) sent panic and fear throughout Europe and the Christian world. The loss of Constantinople was regarded as a calamitous setback for Christian Europe and the crusades. The victorious Sultan Mehmet II, encouraged by his momentous victory at Constantinople, began an advance into the Balkans and northward in the hopes of defeating Hungary and reaching Western Europe. Mehmed II would take Serbia in 1454-55; and the following year with an army estimated to be 70,000 strong (other historians have estimated that Mehmed’s army may have been between 100,000-300,000 men), he launched what would be a long and arduous march to Belgrade.

Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) was a key stronghold of the southern defense system of medieval Hungary. The epic battle between the Ottoman Empire and Hungary would come to significantly influence the subsequent history of Europe and the spread of Ottoman domination in the Balkans. János (John) Hunyadi, an influential and famous Hungarian military commander, politician and noble, took the responsibility for coordinating and controlling the defensive operations along the southern borders of Hungary (a position he was appointed to in 1441). Hunyadi, knowing of the Ottoman advance in the Balkans, left 7,000 of his soldiers in Belgrade to build and strengthen its defensive capabilities in May of 1456. In the buildup to the Ottoman siege, John of Capistrano, a Franciscan monk appointed by the pope to recruit as many troops as it was possible, crisscrossed the Kingdom of Hungary and Western European powers to raise a volunteer force. By June, 1456 Capistrano’s army and the Hungarian forces (numbering approximately 45,000-50,000 in total) arrived in Belgrade and began to take up their defensive positions north of the city.

Hunyadi was able to maintain his pre-eminent position for several years to a considerable degree due to the ever-present Ottoman menace. The defeat of Kosovo Polje was followed by a pause in hostilities. Sultan Murad, who had business to look after elsewhere, signed a treaty with the Hungarians in 1450 and this was confirmed by his successor, Mehmed II (1451-1481). However, it was soon apparent that the accession of Mehmed meant the beginning of a new phase of Ottoman expansion, which was to be much more successful than the previous ones. The first waves of this resurgent military threat soon reached Hungary. Constantinople fell in 1453, and Mehmed immediately transferred his residence from Adrianople to the newly conquered city. In 1454, when the peace of Oradea expired, he attacked Serbia and laid siege to Smederevo, Brankovi.’s capital. In the following year he renewed his attack, this time occupying the whole of Serbia with the exception of Smederevo. As the expedition of 1456 was to be directed against Belgrade, it was not surprising that Hunyadi would once again be pushed to the forefront of events as the potential saviour of the kingdom. His reputation may have been shaken by his defeats since 1444, but he was indisputably the only man capable of successfully opposing the Ottomans.

The preparations for a counter-attack began as early as 1453. Immediately after the fall of Constantinople, Pope Nicholas V proclaimed a crusade. The war against the Ottomans frequently emerged as a subject for discussion at the imperial diets in Germany in 1454-1455, although no definitive decision was made. Not surprisingly, Hungary was swept by a wave of panic, and the diet that assembled in January 1454 at Buda consented to large-scale measures in order to mobilise a national army. It proclaimed the general levy of the nobility, and renewed the institution of the militia portalis. Four cavalrymen and two archers were to be equipped by every 100 peasant holdings, a demand that surpassed all previous recruiting measures. But the projected offensive never took place; all that happened was that in the autumn of 1454 Hunyadi marched into Serbia at the head of a small army and defeated the forces left behind by the sultan at Krusevac. Planning continued in 1455 and the diet levied an extraordinary tax, but that was all that took place. The cause of the anti-Ottoman war was given renewed impetus by the new Pope, Calixtus III (1455-1458), who tried to mobilize the whole power of the Church in order to launch a new crusade. Although the princes of Europe turned a deaf ear to the Pope’s request, he nevertheless aroused enthusiasm among the common people in several places. He received much help from the Franciscans, who deployed the skills of their popular preachers in the service of the `holy war’. As a result of their unremitting zeal, by the summer of 1456 a huge crusading army, consisting mainly of Germans and Bohemians, had assembled in the area around Vienna, ready to march against the `infidels’.

However, this host never confronted the sultan, who began the siege of Belgrade on 4 July with an army which modern scholars have put at 60,000 to 70,000 men. Hunyadi, assisted by the Franciscan Giovanni da Capestrano, had successfully organised the castle’s defence and had assembled a significant army in the vicinity. In the region of 25-30,000 crusaders, `peasants, craftsmen and poor people’, rallied to Hunyadi’s camp under the influence of Capestrano’s impressive sermons.

One of Belgrade’s greatest advantages was its geographic location at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Mehmet would similarly take advantage of Belgrade’s position by sailing over 200 ships up the Danube river with canons, supplies, siege weapons and equipment. The Ottomans would even establish founderies in Serbia to build and manufacture canons to support the siege. Legend has it that the bells of Constantinople were melted and used to manufacture the canons used against Belgrade in 1456. With the Ottoman forces firmly in control of the river at this stage, the Ottomans blocked Belgrade off from the Danube with a chain of ships, moored upstream of the castle, and began placing their heavy guns outside the western walls of the fortress. The bombardment of the fortress would began in July. Hunyadi however anticipated this tactical move by Mehmed’s forces, and devised a cunning attack to retake control of the river.

On July 13, 1456, a Hungarian fleet of vastly inferior vessels broke the line of the Turkish fleet with the assistance of the fortress commander, Mihaly Szilágyi. Both Hunyadi and Szilágyi (who was Hunyadi’s brother-in-law), had river units that were anchored on the Sava River west of Belgrade and further north on the Danube – and therefore out of reach by the Ottoman forces. Both commander’s led a two-fronted attack against Mehmed II and defeated the Ottoman river armada. With the defeat of the Ottoman fleet, the Hungarians had control of the Danube again meaning the supply of needed reinforcements to Belgrade could be provided uninhibited. Hunyadi could then join his forces, camped about 30 kilometres north of Belgrade, with Szilágyi to increase the defensive capability of the fortress.

The continued Ottoman siege against Belgrade proved insufficient to deal a deciding blow to Hunyadi’s forces. Hunyadi was compelled to lead a defensive fight due to the lack of enough calvary forces to attack the Ottomans full-out. After almost ten days of unsuccessful sieges, on July 21, 1456 Mehmed ordered a full attack on the fortress. By the night of July 21 so many Ottoman attackers had been killed that chaos broke out among Mehmed’s ranks. The next morning (July 22, 1456) Hunyadi rode out of the stronghold with a small contingent and entered into hand to hand fighting with Medmed’s tired and beleaguered army. The Sultan sent 6,000 fresh troops into combat, but these troops could not defeat Hunyadi. Mehmed’s army experienced casualties in excess of 50,000 men and, after the Sultan himself became wounded in battle, ordered a general retreat to Sofia in Bulgaria.

The sultan withdrew with the remnants of his army and with memories that prevented him and his successors from launching an attack of the same dimensions for 65 years. News of this resounding victory soon reached the West. The day on which the Pope received the news, 6 August, the day of the Lord’s Transfiguration, was declared a general feast throughout the Christian world. He had previously ordered that all the bells should be rung at noon to encourage the soldiers, but his bull was not published until after the battle, and thus the tradition, which continues in Hungary to this day, is generally thought to be commemorative of the victory itself.

The victory presented an excellent opportunity for a counter-attack, especially in view of the fact that considerable forces were gathering in the heart of Hungary. But no offensive took place, because the crusaders were already on the edge of open revolt. Anger against the `powerful’, who had kept themselves far from the battle, had already been growing during the fighting. Agitation became so intense after the victory that Hunyadi and Capestrano decided to disband the army. Both of them soon died, however. On 11 August, Hunyadi fell victim to the plague that had broken out in the crusaders’ camp, and Capestrano followed him to the grave on 23 October.

Hunyadi was succeeded by his elder son, the 23 year-old Ladislaus. He seems to have inherited his father’s ambition and slyness, but apparently not his talent. Within a couple of days he found himself in conflict with the king and Cilli, who demanded that the castles and revenues that had been held by Hunyadi should be handed over. Cilli had himself appointed captain general of the realm. Together with the king, and at the head of the foreign crusaders who had recently arrived, he marched southwards with the aim of taking possession of Belgrade and the other stipulated fortresses. To preserve his position, the young Hunyadi decided upon an extremely hazardous course of action. At the assembly of Futog he feigned submission and then enticed his opponents into the castle of Belgrade. There, on 9 November 1456, he had Ulrich murdered by his henchmen, and made himself master of the king’s person. Hunyadi had himself appointed captain general, then took the king to Timisoara. Before being set free, the king was made to swear that the death of Count Cilli would never be avenged.

Ladislaus Hunyadi seems to have seriously miscalculated the possible consequences of his actions. The unprecedented murder turned everyone but his most determined followers against him: not only John Hunyadi’s enemies, like Garai, but also his friends and supporters, like Ujlaki and Orszag, agreed that Ladislaus should be bridled. Paying for perfidy with perfidy, they soon made their opponent believe that he had nothing to fear; and the king too showed himself a master of deception. On 14 March 1457, when Ladislaus was staying at Buda with his brother Matthias, both were arrested, together with their supporters. The royal council, functioning now in its capacity as supreme court, convicted the Hunyadi brothers of high treason, and on 16 March Ladislaus was beheaded in St George’s square in Buda. His supporters were pardoned, but Matthias was held by the king, who immediately left Hungary for Bohemia. The retaliation failed to bring about the desired consolidation, however. Hunyadi’s partisans, in possession of his family’s immense and still intact resources, reacted with open revolt. It was led by Matthias’s mother, Elisabeth Szilagyi, together with her brother, Michael, while the royal troops were commanded by Ujlaki and Jiskra. Fierce but indecisive fighting continued for months, and was ended only by the news of Ladislaus V’s premature death in Prague on 23 November 1457. Since the king had no lawful heir, the kingdom was once again left without a ruler.

The Soviet Union: Glider Pioneer?

G-11s, along with the Antonov A-7 constituted a majority of Soviet transport gliders. They were mainly used from mid-1942 for supplying Soviet partisans with provisions, weapons, equipment and trained men, towed mainly by SB or DB-3 bombers. Most intensive use was from March to November 1943 in Belarus, in the Polotsk-Begoml-Lepel area, on the Kalinin Front. Several hundred Soviet gliders (of all types) were used in night supply flights there. After landing, the gliders were destroyed and pilots were sometimes returned by aircraft. The only known instance of a glider returning from the field occurred in April 1943, when a famous glider and test pilot Sergei Anokhin evacuated two wounded partisan commanders in a G-11, towed by a Tupolev SB bomber, piloted by Yuriy Zhelutov, on a 10 m (33 ft) short towrope.

Gliders were also used to supply partisans in some areas in 1944 and to transport sabotage groups behind enemy lines. G-11 gliders were also used in at least one small-scale airborne operation, the Dnepr crossing, carrying anti-tank guns and mortars.

A less typical action was an airbridge from Moscow to the Stalingrad area in November 1942, to rapidly deliver anti-freeze coolant for tanks, during the battle of Stalingrad.

The A-7 was considered a successful design, but it had less capacity than the other light glider, the G-11. Moreover, a place for cargo was limited by an arrangement of seats and a presence of cantilevers of a retractable landing gear in the center of a transport compartment. It could transport seven troops (including pilot) or up to 900 kg of cargo.

The G-11 enjoyed relative success as a light transport glider design, having more capacity than the Antonov A-7, and its transport compartment was a better fit for cargo, although light guns could only be carried in parts due to small hatches.

While this glider transport experiment [Russian transport of infantry in gliders attached to bombers] first attracted attention and caused much comment among aviation writers and experts, the military leaders among other great powers took little heed of the glider potential, except for the war-minded Germans.

Just after dark one day in the spring of 1943, gliders took off from an airfield whose name, if it had one, is now lost. Their destination was secret. The Soviet Union was fighting for its life. No one was yet convinced that her armies had conclusively stemmed the German onslaught. The gliders carried Matjus Sumauskas, president of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, Henrikas Zimanas, editor-in-chief of Komunistas, and seventy others. They were all Lithuanians and members of Operative Group II, organized to launch partisan movements in German-held Lithuania.

Some 600 miles behind German lines, the gliders cut away from their tow planes. It was black below. Some came in to fairly good landings. One crashed, killing all. Zimanas’s glider hit an obstacle and was virtually demolished, with the pilot killed and the passengers badly bruised or severely injured. The accident hurt Zimanas’s spine and leg. Despite his injuries and the arrival of an evacuation aircraft, he remained with the mission, assisting as best he could as a radio operator while the other partisans made their way to the Kazyan Forest. Regaining strength, although limping and in severe pain, Zimanas caught up with the main force in the Kazyan Forest. He then went with it to Lithuania.

Nothing was ever known in the West during the war of these isolated but daring partisan operations behind German lines that were frequently launched with gliders. It was through those missions that the use of transport gliders was finally coming into its own in Soviet military operations, the culmination of years of preparation.

Like the Germans, the Soviets had long been avid gliding and soaring enthusiasts. The Soviet Union was one of the few countries to compete with the Germans with any degree of success in the development of gliding. The meager amount of information allowed to seep out of the Soviet Union gave no idea of the great activity centered around glider development there. Soviet progress appears to have anticipated that of Germany by perhaps as much as five years, a fact of immense historical significance.

In the Soviet Union, the state took a direct interest in soaring. Under its support, Soviet glider pilots began to gain international recognition shortly before World War II. In 1925, the Soviets held their first national glider competition in the Crimea.

While Germany originally used the glider as a subterfuge to improve its aeronautical technology and skill resources, the Soviets embarked upon a substantial glider development program for entirely different reasons. Germany’s interest in the glider was rooted in those of its qualities that could serve military ends and took absolutely no notice of its commercial value. In the Soviet Union, it was the other way around. Military use became a coincidental offshoot. Soviet commercial aircraft could fly passengers and cargo into areas that had no trains and where roads were impassable in bad weather. The aircraft was solving historical communication problems that had reined in domestic development over the centuries. The aircraft was meeting a vital economic and political need at a critical point in the history of the Soviet Union. The Soviet expansion of commercial air transportation strove to keep up with the increasing demand to fly more and more passengers and cargo.

Short in technological skills and lacking the industrial capacity and production know-how to turn out the increasing number of aircraft demanded of a strained economy, the Soviets turned to the transport glider as offering a way to double air-cargo capacity, using substantially less resources in airframe materials, aircraft, engines and fuel than would be necessary to achieve the same cargo lift with powered transport aircraft.

By then, Soviet-built gliders had been towed long distances in single tow. Experiments were started in double and triple tows, with the thought that ultimately a single aircraft could tow many transport gliders carrying passengers in “glider train” formation. So rapidly did they progress, that by 1939 they had managed the art of towing as many as five single-place gliders with a single aircraft, a feat never matched elsewhere and an accomplishment not surpassed outside of the Soviet Union since.

Although Soviet interest focused chiefly on sport gliding in the 1920’s, the government decided to expand Soviet gliding activities in the 1930’s. In 1931, a dramatic upsurge occurred when the Komsomol passed a resolution calling for an unheralded expansion of the gliding movement during the Ninth Party Congress, held in January. The Komsomol announced a threefold purpose in its resolution: first, it sought to build an enormous pool of glider pilots through training programs; second, it hoped to gain useful information for its aeronautical research program through research and development and the testing of new glider models; and third, it was setting out to capture as many world records as it could.

To back up the program, the government built a glider factory in Moscow in 1932. It set production goals at 900 primary trainers and 300 training gliders per year. It named Oleg K. Antonov, an aircraft engineer and designer who was to become famous for his glider designs, to head design and engineering at the plant.

Shortly after the Komsomol resolution was passed, eighty leading glider and light-plane designers assembled at Koktabel. They studied twenty-two glider designs and selected seven for construction and tests to be made in 1932. In retrospect, the pace at which the whole movement progressed gives some indication of the importance the government placed on the program.

In thirty-six days of tests, Soviet glider pilots flew 662 flights, averaging more than an hour each in the seven gliders to be tested. Together with testing conducted on other gliders from distant parts of the Soviet Union, they established six new Soviet records. During that year, V. A. Stepanchenok in a G-9 glider looped 115 times and flew upside down for more than one minute in a single flight. Soviet glider pilots went on to perform new and unexpected aerobatics and carried out long-distance tows and a multitude of other feats. By 1939, Olga Klepikova flew a glider 465 miles to capture the world distance record, a feat that was unbeaten for twenty-two years. On the same occasion, B. Borodin flew two passengers for more than four hours in a single flight and, with that feat, the transport glider was born. It was then up to some perceptive person to recognize the significance of the flight, and it appears that this was not long in happening.

Although Soviet authorities saw the transport glider as a solution to commercial needs for more air lift, they apparently concurrently saw that the transport glider had some military potential. Military and commercial development began simultaneously in the very early 1930’s, perhaps in 1931 or 1932, and ran on closely parallel paths. The Moscow glider factory was their design and production focal point. In 1934, the Moscow glider factory produced the GN-4, a five-place glider that could transport four passengers and was designed for towed flight.

The idea for a multi-passenger towed glider, as opposed to the two-passenger soaring glider already flown, must have blossomed in 1932 or 1933, inasmuch as Groshev (designer of the transport glider GN-4), had one on the drawing board then. The GN-4 appears to have been a modest development compared with others then on the drawing board, for General I. I. Lisov, in his Parachutists—Airborne Landing, published in Moscow in 1968, reveals that as far back as 1932 the work plan for the Voenno Vozdushniy Sily (VVS) design bureau included the G-63 glider, a craft that could carry seventeen soldiers or a like amount of cargo. What is even more remarkable is that the bureau was daring enough to include a requirement for a fifty-man glider, the G-64, which was to be towed by a TB-1 bomber.

While there are those who would criticize such bold statements as an attempt to bolster the Soviet ego with another first or discount them as pure propaganda, there is evidence based on what was to come that the statements did not come from unrealistic fantasy. In 1935, the Soviet magazine Samolet (Flight) discussed the use of gliders for carrying passengers, citing an eighteen-passenger glider, and having a photograph in support. The article goes so far as to give an illustration of a transport glider train drawn by a four-engined aircraft. This would mean that the 1932 VVS design requirement was realized, in part, by 1935 or earlier, since gliders cannot be designed, built and tested overnight. On 9 October 1935, the New York Times reported that a 118-passenger glider with a ninety-two-foot wingspan, the G-3, had been built by the experimental institute in Leningrad and test-flown several times. It was to have been flown from Leningrad to Moscow the same month. This was undoubtedly the glider reported in Samolet.

In his book Without Visible Means of Support, Richard Miller mentions that the Soviets experimented in 1934 with a thirteen-passenger troop glider, grossing 8,000 pounds. In that same year, the Soviets could boast ten gliding schools, 230 gliding stations and 57,000 trained glider pilots.

Around 1934, a new concept took hold, fostered by Lev Pavlovich Malinovskii, head of the Scientific Technical administration of the Grazhdanskiy Vazdushniy Flot (Civilian Air Fleet). Malinovskii conceived the idea of using a low-powered freight glider plane, easy to produce and cheap to operate, that could solve some of Russia’s long-distance fast freight needs. The fully laden glider would carry around a ton of goods and be powered by a single 100-horsepower engine. The engine would assist the tow plane during take-off. Once safely airborne, the glider would cast off and deliver its cargo to a distant terminal under its own power.

Because most of the models were underpowered, only one or two went beyond the experimental stage. Several apparently grew into sizeable ten-passenger models, and there is a strong likelihood that these models, with engines removed, became the first of the larger twenty-passenger transport gliders developed in the Soviet Union and observed during the mid- 1930’s.

While Soviet designers and engineers were busy at the task of creating and producing the new aircraft, military leaders went about the task of building airlanding and parachute forces to use them. By 1933, the first of these formations appeared. The Soviet Union startled the world when 1,200 soldiers landed by parachute with all weapons and equipment during maneuvers around Kiev. Later in the year, aircraft transported a complete division, together with armored vehicles, from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of 4,200 miles. Minister of War Kliment Voroshilov was fully justified in stating at a congress in 1935:

“Parachuting is the field of aviation in which the Soviet Union has a monopoly. No nation on earth can even approximately compare with the Soviet Union in this field, far less could any nation dream of closing the existing gap by which we are leading. There can be no question at all of our being surpassed.”

That gliders were used in these maneuvers is not confirmed, although they may have been. Because of the secrecy surrounding them and the fact that they were so similar to powered aircraft in appearance, their presence among the powered aircraft could have passed unnoticed. Terence Otway states, however, that “by 1935, [the Soviet Union] had gone a long way towards creating an effective airborne force, including parachute troops carried in gliders.”

In the Caucasus maneuvers of 1936, the paratroopers participated publicly. From that point forward, however, all exercises and maneuvers of the arm were carried out in strict secrecy. Keith Ayling reports in They Fly to Fight on a large number of personnel carried in gliders, in one instance, in 1936. They were undoubtedly from the same Caucasus maneuver.

After dropping the veil of secrecy over airborne developments, the Soviets did not entirely neglect the fledgling airborne arm, contrary to foreign observer indications. By 1940, they approved an airborne brigade of 3,000 men, of which more than a third were glider troops. By mid 1941, in a doctrinal turnabout, glider troop elements disappeared from Soviet troop lists, although glider manufacture continued. Only recently has information become available that in 1941, just before the war started, the Soviet Union had already built a glider tank transport, the world’s first, which was capable of transporting a light armored vehicle. Shortly after this flight, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and no more experiments with that glider were conducted. However, the daring experiment, far ahead of those of any other nation manufacturing gliders, gives some indication of the extent of the Soviet Union’s interest in, and progress with, the glider as a military tool.

To what extent German military leaders learned from Soviet transport glider developments is not certain, but those developments certainly could not have gone unnoticed, in view of a curious succession of events involving both the Soviet Union and Germany. In a much overlooked clause, the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922 enabled the German military to produce and perfect in Russia weapons forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. To that end, the Soviets turned over the remote, disused Lipetsk airfield, about 310 miles southeast of Moscow, in 1924, where they established a flying school and also tested aircraft. Through these activities, the Red Air Force gained information about German technical developments.

In 1923, the Germans opened a “Moscow Center” liaison office in Moscow, manned by German officers who reported to the Defense Ministry in Berlin. Junkers and other German aircraft manufacturers built factories in the Soviet Union, staffed by German officers and aircraft engine experts. Many officers, such as August Plock, Hermann Plocher and Kurt Student, who were later to become generals and who occupied important posts in the Luftwaffe, served in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. General Student, who masterminded Hitler’s glider attack on Eben Emael while an infantry officer, visited the Lipetsk airfield every year from 1924 to 1928.

Three factors strongly suggest that early German development and use of the transport glider followed Soviet developments by three to five years. The Soviets must have had their transport glider on the drawing board perhaps as early as 1932 to enable them to produce their five-passenger GN-4 in 1934 or earlier. The Germans produced their Obs (flying observatory) in 1933 or 1934, a glider that was not a true transport vehicle but closer to a scientific laboratory. Second, foreign observers saw Soviet transport gliders in flight in 1935 or 1936, carrying perhaps as many as fifteen to eighteen passengers. The nine-passenger German DFS 230 glider did not appear before 1938, and it proved to be a substantially smaller model than those seen in the Soviet Union up to that time. Third, the Russians had large airborne organizations in planning in the early 1930’s and actually flew them in the large airborne drop at Kiev in 1935, while it was not until 1938 that the Germans finally organized their 7. Flieger-Division.

Although Soviet military leaders conducted few and only marginally useful air assaults during the war and the glider saw only limited use as a military transport to support these operations, it did play some role.

For the Dnjepr River crossing operations of 24 September 1943, the Soviets planned to use thirty-five gliders to transport heavy guns and equipment. In planning, the glider landings had been sandwiched in between the first and second massed parachute drops. Apparently, the glider phase was not implemented. Apart from this, it was used extensively in partisan support operations and in many raids.

German forces found guerrillas annoying and persistent. Although guerrillas lived off the land to a great extent, the regular military force kept them supplied with weapons and ammunition by glider and, where possible, by powered aircraft. The magnitude of these operations and the importance played by the glider can be judged by the fact that in counterguerrilla operations conducted just in and around Lipel alone, the German forces overran one field that held more than 100 gliders.

Gliders transported rations, weapons, medical supplies and, at the same time, provided partisans with key personnel and important orders and information. Gliders landed by night on emergency airfields and during the winter on the ice of frozen lakes. This support enabled the partisans to carry out successful attacks on railroads, roads, airfields, bridges, convoys, columns of troops, rear area command agencies and even troop units. The Germans suffered heavy losses of personnel and materiel. The Germans flew reconnaissance missions to discover air-drop and landing fields in partisan-held areas, attacked airlift operations wherever they were identified, used deception by setting up dummy airfields and giving fake signals and eventually activated a special antipartisan wing, comprised of 100 Ar 66’s. The results achieved against the guerrillas, especially in the central sector of the front, remained unsatisfactory. In the final analysis, this use of airlift by the Russian Air Force must be considered a success, since the relentless night airlift operations enabled the partisans to carry out their tasks.

After the war, Soviet interest in gliders did not immediately wane, and new models were reported, though sources of these reports are few and hard to find. As late as 1965, the Soviets had three glider regiments, which they have since deactivated.


Gurkha paratroopers check their equipment before being dropped on a series of strategic points around Rangoon.

The Japanese Army was retreating in much of Southeast Asia. The battle of Imphal swayed back and forth across great stretches of the wild country of Burma. In Meiktila, north of Rangoon, a Japanese counterattack ground Lieutenant General William Slim’s 14th Army to a halt. It was the last week of March 1945 and Rangoon had to be in Allied hands before the mid-May monsoons or the fighting would grind even slower. Slim depended very heavily on air resupply from planes based in India, planes that would be grounded in the monsoon.

With the northern, overland, route to Rangoon seemingly blocked, a plan for an amphibious assault of Rangoon up 24 miles of the Rangoon River was prepared and approved. Soon after the approval, the planners discovered several problems with the plan as written: the river was mined; coastal guns, especially on the west bank of the Rangoon River at Elephant Point, would hamper minesweeping operations; and a seaborne assault on the guns was out of the question because the coastal waters were too shallow to allow any ship with large enough guns to come within range. Already short of transport aircraft and not really wanting to jeopardize the scanty resupply missions, Slim’s staff reviewed other methods of assaulting these guns, which were at the mouth of the Rangoon River and the Gulf of Martaban.

The staff decided that an airborne assault was necessary but initially could not decide whether the assault should be by parachute or gliders. For a variety of weather and drop zone reasons the staff eventually ruled out using gliders so Slim reluctantly approved the parachute operation. The weather experts picked 2 May as the date for the amphibious assault. The paratroopers would have to go in the day before in order to secure the guns and the waterway entrance. The mission was code-named Operation Dracula.

Parachute forces in the Indian Army had been formed in October 1941 when British Army and RAF jump instructors established an Air Landing School in Delhi and the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was activated, also in Delhi. The first brigade commander was Brigadier W.H.G. Gough, who was already jump qualified; he was later replaced by Brigadier M.R.J. Thompson. The 50th Brigade included three national Parachute Battalions: 151st (British), 152nd (Indian), and 153rd (Gurkha). The Air Landing School was later moved to Campbellpore and Chaklala (now in Pakistan). In October 1942 the 151st (British) Para Battalion was redesignated as the 156th Para Battalion and transferred to the Middle East. Two months later the 3/7th Gurkha Regiment, recently returned from fighting in Burma, was converted to a parachute unit and designated the 154th Gurkha Para Battalion.

Early training had the same problem in India as it did in many other countries—lack of transport aircraft and a limited supply of parachutes. Because India was at the far end of the priority logistics chain the only aircraft available for jump training was the Vickers Valencia, a twin-engine biplane with a troop carrying capacity of 20. The pilot and observer sat in the Valencia’s open cockpit in the nose of the plane. The Valencias, known affectionately to the Indian paras as “Flying Pigs,” had a cruising speed of about 85 miles per hour and could take off and land on short runways. An exit hole was cut in the floor of the plane for the jumpers.

In April 1942, Leslie L. Irvin, the American parachute manufacturer, visited India. Irvin soon established a local factory in Kanpur to make parachutes for the Indian Army. By June the supply of parachutes had improved and continued to improve throughout the war.

When it was first established, the jump school required all prospective students to pass a color blindness test. This test produced a high failure rate. When official requests were made to dilute this requirement, they were turned down. The problem was solved by an inventive method. Since many of the RAF medical examiners did not speak any of the local dialects, it was necessary to administer the test using an Indian Army officer as an interpreter. The failure rate plummeted. Eventually the test requirement was dropped.

Jump training lasted for three weeks with five jumps required for qualification: on the first jump, the jumpers exited one at a time; then came slow pairs, then quick pairs, then the entire stick; by the fifth jump the students jumped with weapons and equipment, and conducted a simple tactical exercise after landing and assembling. Equipment containers were attached to bomb racks which were located just forward of the exit hole. These containers were usually released halfway through the exiting stick by the jumpmaster. Timing the release of the equipment containers was absolutely critical to avoid injuries. The first Indian to make a parachute jump was Lieutenant A.G. Rangaraj of the 152nd Para Battalion.

By the spring of 1945 plans were already in effect to split up the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade to form the cadre of the newly-created 44th Indian Airborne Division. A composite battalion group from the many units of 50 Brigade was formed to implement Operation Dracula. The battalion group was under the command of Major G.E.C. (Jack) Newland and was composed almost entirely of members of the Gurkha parachute units.

The battalion group was formed as follows: staff and A and B companies of 153rd, C and D companies of 154th, and special personnel for battalion headquarters and support companies from both battalions as necessary. In addition, a section of combat engineers from 411th Parachute Squadron Indian Engineers, a section of the 80th Parachute Field Ambulance, two pathfinder teams, and detachments from the brigade signal and intelligence units were attached. By mid April the battalion group was assembled at Chaklala for training; it was joined there by the support attachments. A reserve force was designated, and briefings and rehearsals began. The force was then moved to Midnapore, where it remained for ten days, until 29 April.

In Midnapore, the air support linked up with the paratroopers. Air support was American C-47s; the pilots had no previous experience dropping parachute troops. Special racks for equipment bundles had to be constructed. Canadian jumpmasters, who had worked with the Gurkhas before, were pressed into service. One full dress-rehearsal jump was conducted and went well. On 29 April, the battalion group was moved to Akyab, its staging base (or ‘perching area’), where it was joined by the reserve element. The reserve was to be dropped in a separate operation. Final briefings were conducted— intelligence reports estimated that opposition at the target would be light.

The battalion group was to be flown to its target area in 40 C-47s manned by the 1st and 2nd Air Commandos, American Air Corps units with no experience in parachute drops. The 1st Air Commandos was the unit that had towed gliders for Brigadier Orde Wingate’s second Chindit expedition into Burma when it went behind Japanese lines in March 1944.

At 0230 on 1 May, the pathfinder aircraft, two C-47s, took off. Forty minutes later, the main body departed. The 400 mile approach flight was marked by incredibly bad visibility and deteriorating flying conditions. The fighter escort had to turn back. At 0545, the green light came on as the first planes reached the leading edge of the drop zone, five miles west of Elephant Point, and the Gurkha paratroopers jumped. The drop was absolutely perfect. Everyone landed on the drop zone. There was no opposition on the ground and the Gurkhas assembled quickly. There had been only five minor jump casualties.

The paratroopers moved west for two-and-one-half miles. A stop was called to wait for their target to be engaged by air support. Despite being almost 3,000 meters from the target, some of the bombs fell short and one of the Gurkha companies suffered 15 killed and 30 wounded. At 1530, the reserve force jumped in, another perfect drop. At 1600 a pre-arranged supply drop was also perfect.

Also at 1600, the leading company reached Elephant Point. By now it was raining steadily as it had been for most of the day; the rain became heavier by 2000 that night.

The Japanese troops in the bunkers immediately opened up with machine-gun fire. Small ships at the mouth of the river also opened up. Air support was directed to suppress the fire coming from the ships and the paratroopers began their assault on the bunkers. Japanese opposition was light but stubborn. Hand-to-hand fighting followed and then the paratroopers attacked the bunkers with flame throwers, soon overcoming stiff resistance. A flare indicating success was fired and the Gurkhas began to consolidate their position. It rained heavily for three days. The battalion area was eventually covered by three feet of water.

The next day, 2 May, the amphibious landing was conducted. The paratroopers watched the minesweepers enter Rangoon River, followed by the amphibious assault force as it headed north. On 3 May, Rangoon fell. On 8 May, the monsoons began, two weeks early.

On 5 May, the paratroopers moved from Elephant Point to the university area in Rangoon and conducted anti-looting patrols in the area. Ten days later, the paratroopers left for India where they would join other units that were forming the 44th Indian Airborne Division.

Mission Critique

Of what are considered the minor airborne operations of World War II, Operation Dracula is thought by some military experts to be one of the finest examples of the economical and effective use of paratroopers. As always, in this mission the Gurkhas delivered when the time came. Weather, one of those factors that cannot always be counted on in military operations, especially special operations, played a small part in this operation’s execution. It was a factor in planning because it determined the timing of the operations and it was a factor in the execution because it hampered movement of the paratroopers in the objective area, but as it turned out, it was only a minor factor in the execution phase. The major factors here were speed, surprise, and purpose, just as McRaven advocates in the criteria for a successful execution. In the planning phase, both Vandenbroucke and McRaven would be pleased with this mission because it involved coordination of several elements, including two by air (aerial delivery of the paratroopers and, later, air support against the ships at the mouth of the river), and simplicity. It is interesting that even though the pilots of 1st and 2nd Air Commandos had no previous experience dropping paratroopers, they were dead-on at Elephant Point.

This operation was another of those special operations, like the Amphibious Scouts setting up lights for the Leyte channel, which was very important to larger operations that depended on them. There is little doubt that early capture of Rangoon, before the monsoons, put the Japanese off-balance instead of giving them the upper-hand for several more months.


Karim, Afsir; The Story of the Indian Airborne Troops; New Delhi; Lancer International; 1993

Neild, Eric; With Pegasus in India—The Story of 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion; Singapore; privately published by Jay Birch; undated

Norton, G.G.; The Red Devils—The Story of the British Airborne Forces; Harrisburg, PA; Stackpole Books; 1971

Praval, K.C.; India’s Paratroopers—A History of the Parachute Regiment of India; London; Leo Cooper; 1975

Tugwell, Maurice; Airborne to Battle—A History of Airborne Warfare 1918–1971 London; William Kimber; 1971


Nieuport 11 C1 Unit: Escadrille Lafayette Serial: N1336 France, 1916.
The Escadrille Lafayette in July 1917. Standing, left to right are Soubiron, Doolittle, Campbell, Persons, Bridgman, Dugan, MacMonagle, Lowell, Willis, Jones, Peterson and de Maison-Rouge (French Deputy Commander). Seated, left to right are Hill, Masson with “Soda,” Thaw, Thenault (the French Commander), Lufbery with “Whiskey,” Johnson, Bigelow and Rockwell. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“We had … come to believe that we would wage only a deluxe war, and were unprepared for any other sort of campaign.”

On the morning of October 18, 1916, three Nieuport 17 fighters lifted off from the aerodrome at Luxeuil and turned to a northwesterly heading. These three aircraft, the only ones in Escadrille N.124 still airworthy, were piloted by Masson, Lufbery, and Capitaine Thénault. After a little more than two hours’ flying time, the three arrived at their new base of operations. The large open field, bordered on one side by a dense wood, was located just north of the village of Cachy and 10 miles east of the larger city of Amiens. More importantly, it was only two miles from the banks of the River Somme.

The Somme Offensive, named after the river, had begun on July 1, 1916. In terms of sheer brutality and body count, this bloody battle was of a magnitude similar to Verdun. On the first day alone, the British army suffered some 57,000 casualties, a third of those killed outright. By battle’s end in mid-November, British, French, and German combined casualties would total more than a million men.

The remaining pilots assigned to N.124, still grounded due to a lack of available airplanes, were compelled to make the trip from Luxeuil by rail—and as usual, via Paris. The rest of the escadrille’s support personnel made their way cross-country in trucks packed with gear, tools, equipment, and supplies. This was a lengthy process, so it took until the end of the month for the squadron to become operational. In this new theatre of operations, N.124 was to be teamed with escadrilles de chase N.65, N.67, and N.112 to form Groupe de Combat 13, commanded by Capitaine (later Commandant) Philippe Féquant.

Another Prince of a Pilot

e Escadrille Américaine had taken some hard hits over the previous four months. Chapman, Rockwell, and Prince were dead; Cowdin had left the squadron; and the wounded Balsley would never return. Thaw had finally recovered from his elbow wound, but McConnell would not be back until November. As a consequence of this rapid attrition, the squadron was now down to only nine American pilots, two of which—as the next few days would prove—would also soon be leaving. Therefore, as the pilots passed through Paris on their way to Cachy, they picked up three new replacements—all officially assigned as of October 22, 1916.

The End of the ‘Deluxe War’

The Somme offensive began with French and British domination of the skies over the battlefield. Allied leaders fully recognized the need for aerial reconnaissance and fighter protection, so they had committed the necessary resources to insure air superiority. However, by late October, when the Escadrille Américaine arrived at Cachy, the situation had changed. The German Air Service had responded with significantly greater numbers of aircraft, which they massed together into a large air fighting unit called a “Jadgstaffel,” or “Jasta,” for short. This meant that the day of lone wolf fighter patrols had come to an end for pilots on both sides of the lines. Surviving in the air now depended on teamwork, as well as individual skill.

Another change in the balance of air power that the pilots of N.124 were about to discover was that the Germans were developing improved aircraft to counter the excellent British and French fighting machines. The now-outdated Fokker Eindecker was being replaced by faster and more maneuverable machines, such as the new Albatros D-series of fighters. Their sturdy monocoque plywood fuselage construction—whose strength came from their outer wooden shell rather than internal bracing—and powerful Mercedes engines gave them much-improved performance. More importantly, this outstanding engine allowed them to carry two forward-firing, synchronized machine guns. As a consequence, the men of the Escadrille Américaine would meet with very stiff resistance in the skies above the Somme.

Life at Cachy was far more difficult for the men of N.124 in another way. Gone were the comfortable villas, hotels, and the excellent food they had enjoyed at Luxeuil and Behonne. Instead, they were quartered in cold, drafty, and leaky portable shacks located in a wind-swept environment James McConnell called “a sea of mud”—with a miserably cold and wet winter just about to begin. Moreover, because the squadron had, in the past, had such excellent accommodations, it arrived at Cachy without any stoves or other cooking and household utensils. As a consequence, the pilots had to impose on neighboring French squadrons for subsistence until they could get their own mess established. Lacking even such basic necessities as furniture and blankets, the pilots initially had to sleep on the floors of their huts in their flying gear. As James McConnell put it, “We had …

come to believe that we would wage only a deluxe war, and were unprepared for any other sort of campaign.” The good life that he and his colleagues had taken for granted had come to an end.

They immediately went to work, caulking cracks, papering walls, installing electrical lights and stoves, and making their living space as comfortable as possible. Some of the more artistically inclined even decorated the bleak walls with drawings of air combat scenes and other images of interest to men at war. Meanwhile, Thaw and the squadron “chef de popote” (mess officer), Didier Masson, took a truck to Paris, and after obtaining funds from the Franco-American Flying Corps Committee via Dr. Gros, purchased stoves and other necessary equipment to haul back to Cachy. Before long, N.124’s austere living arrangements began to seem more like home.

Two Fewer “Bad Boys”

Other changes were also taking place during this time. The situation with Bert Hall had finally come to a head. Hall’s biographer, Blaine Pardoe, discusses Bert’s standing within the squadron, which was both complicated and controversial, in his book The Bad Boy. According to Pardoe, many of the offenses that authors have attributed to Bert over the past century were true: he probably was, in fact, “a liar and a scoundrel.”

On the other hand, some of the more unsavory things generally ascribed to Hall were, according to Pardoe, exaggerations or out-and-out fabrications by his lifelong enemy, Paul Rockwell. The self-appointed squadron historian never forgave Hall for skipping out on Kiffin’s funeral. Rockwell believed that Bert had, instead, scooted off to Paris to “peddle” the story of Kiffin’s death to the newspapers. Because of this, the bitter elder Rockwell made it his life’s mission to denigrate Hall in every way possible; and being the primary source of information about the squadron, Paul’s assertions have generally been taken at face value and repeated verbatim by almost every author who has ever written about the Lafayette Escadrille. Thus, the historical picture of Bert Hall that resulted from this lifelong smear campaign is probably far worse than was really the case.

In spite of Bert’s transgressions, either real or perceived, there is no evidence that he was “kicked out” of the squadron, as often alleged—neither Capitaine Thénault nor anyone else asked Bert to leave. It seems, instead, that his colleagues—led by James McConnell, who never liked Hall—reacted to his roguish behavior and rough manners by ostracizing him to the point where he no longer felt wanted. A few days after Kiffin Rockwell’s death, he requested a transfer, and on November 1, left the squadron and reported to Escadrille N.103. After he left, McConnell made his feelings clear about Hall’s departure when he wrote to Paul Rockwell, “I’m damned glad he’s gone….” Bert also had a final comment, as remembered by Emil Marshall, an American non-pilot temporarily assigned to the squadron, who was present when Hall left. According to him, Hall shook his fist at his ex-friends as he walked out and shouted angrily, “You’ll hear from me yet!” He proved true to his word.

The next “bad boy” to leave the squadron was Laurence Rumsey. Since reporting back in early June, he had flown only a few missions—his last one recorded in the squadron log was on September 9. Moreover, he had become so dependent on alcohol that he could no longer fly sober. On one notable occasion, he took off while in an excessively inebriated state and got completely lost. He was finally forced to land on a field he decided must be in German territory. Remembering the instructions that had been drilled into him, he promptly set his Nieuport on fire. Only too late did the muddle-headed pilot discover that he was on an Allied field several miles behind French lines.

Rumsey’s heart had always been in the right place, and just to be where he was proved his exceptional courage and ability; but like a few of the other 38 men who eventually served with N.124, he was simply not cut out to be a fighter pilot.

The incident that sealed his fate occurred soon after the squadron arrived at Cachy. The beloved mascot Whiskey liked chewing on things, and when Rumsey—in a state of advanced intoxication—caught him eating his service cap, he grabbed a walking stick and clubbed the little animal in the head, blinding him in his right eye. Rumsey undoubtedly regretted this act, but it was just another indication that he was unraveling. Soon afterward, he broke out in a rash of painful boils and had to be hospitalized. By November 25, he was no longer with the squadron and was soon thereafter on his way back to the United States.

A Flashy New Insignia to Match a Flashy New Name

The squadron log indicates that the inclement weather and thick Somme River mist kept the squadron grounded for 51 of the 86 days they spent at Cachy. Consequently, significant operational events were few and far between during this period. However, other significant things were occurring within the squadron.

Germany continued to complain to the still-neutral American government about the outlaw “amerikanischen Piloten” opposing them. The much-publicized deaths of Rockwell and Prince highlighted to an even greater extent the role the Americans were playing in the war, and this only increased German outrage. It eventually became enough of a concern to the American government that on November 13, 1916, the French Minister of War ordered, “for diplomatic reasons,” that the Escadrille Américaine henceforth be called the “Escadrille des Volontaires.” This lackluster name appealed to virtually no one, so a new order, dated December 6, 1916, decreed that the new unofficial name for Escadrille N.124 would be “l’Escadrille Lafayette”—the Lafayette Escadrille. This new name did not solve the problem of pilots from neutral America serving in the French Air Service but it at least disguised the squadron’s “national character” that had so offended the German government. Moreover, it was an appealing name that everyone could embrace.

To go with their catchy new name, the men of the squadron decided that they also needed their own unique insignia to distinguish them from other French squadrons. Since a US flag was out of the question, they had to find another, less obvious image to convey their national pride. When someone noticed a handsome Seminole Native American warrior logo on a case of Savage Arms Company ammunition, the issue was resolved. What could be more American than an American Indian? William Thaw then asked one of the squadron’s more artistic mechanics, Caporal Suchet, to paint his interpretation of this image onto the fuselage sides of the squadron’s aircraft. The Lafayette Escadrille now had its own unique logo. From now on, an Indianhead would adorn N.124 aircraft, and forevermore symbolize the Lafayette Escadrille.

A Formidable New Mount

Another important development occurring during this period was the arrival of the squadron’s first Spad VIIs. This highly acclaimed new fighter was in many ways a great improvement over the Nieuport 17, although the pilots did not universally welcome the change. Their beloved Nieuport was light on the controls, maneuverable, and easy to fly; whereas, the snub-nosed Spad—whose name was derived from the acronym of the company that built it, the Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés—had none of these characteristics. In fact, this thin-winged, inherently unstable machine seemed almost clunky by comparison.

The Spad, however, had some redeeming qualities that made it a better fighting machine than the Nieuport. Though more challenging to fly, especially from the small muddy fields so characteristic of WWI aerodromes, it was fast, incredibly sturdy, and it provided an exceptionally stable gun platform for the single .303-caliber Vickers machine gun mounted in front of the pilot. Thanks to its 140-horsepower Hispano-Suiza V-8  inline engine, it could cruise at 120 miles per hour and climb to an altitude of 6,500 feet in less than 5 minutes. Perhaps best of all, pilots could dive a Spad vertically to speeds approaching 250 miles per hour without fear of the wings shedding—a very useful feature during a diving attack or with an enemy fighter glued to their tail spitting hot steel into them. Even more so than the now-aging Nieuport, the Spad would become the favorite of the aces. The newly named Lafayette Escadrille would receive progressively more copies of this outstanding airplane in the ensuing weeks and months, until eventually, the official squadron designation of N.124 would change to SPA.124.

The remainder of 1916 progressed for the squadron at dreary, muddy Cachy with relatively few significant missions. One of the more noteworthy of these began in the early morning darkness of November 17, when German bombers attacked the aerodrome, set one of the hangars afire, and destroyed several airplanes. Paul Pavelka, who had been experimenting with night flying, took off in hot pursuit, aided by the light of the blazing hangar. He failed to encounter any bombers, and because his primitive signal system failed, he was unable to return for fear of being shot down by nervous French antiaircraft gunners. He wandered through the air for the next two and a half hours, becoming hopelessly lost in the blacked-out darkness of the Somme River haze. His engine eventually sputtered to a stop from fuel starvation, and he glided blindly down to a safe—and very fortunate—landing in a field some 25 miles from home. By the time he made his way back to the squadron, a new member had joined its fold.

On January 19, 1917, another new man—the 20th American assigned to the squadron—showed up at Cachy, unexpected and unannounced. He had come from the GDE at Plessis-Belleville to retrieve a worn out Nieuport; however, since his assignment to N.124 was pending, he stayed. He later wrote, “Meals here are splendid, the service is excellent and everyone seems to be in unison from the Captain down to the last of us. It’s fine.”

The small, cherubic Edmond, who attended church and wrote his mother faithfully, was the youngest pilot to fly for the Lafayette Escadrille—and he looked even younger than his 20 years. This prompted Edwin Parsons to refer to him as “the baby of the Lafayette,” but he was no baby. In addition to having previously served in the US Navy, he had, before entering into flight training, completed 16 months of service with the Foreign Legion. Here, he had fought his way through some of the war’s bloodiest battles. However, Genet’s sterling qualities—his cheerful demeanor, impressive war record, and proven courage and flying ability—were offset by a darker side of his rather complicated personality. As is clear from his own writings, he was plagued by feelings of guilt and self-loathing, stemming in part from the fact that was a fugitive from the law in his own country—he had, before coming to France, deserted from the Navy. Equally burdensome was his love for a young woman back home who had long since lost interest in him.

Meanwhile, as the two new men were busy trying to adapt to the damp, cold climate pervading Cachy, the squadron’s ace suffered from a painful bout of rheumatism. Even so, the irrepressible Raoul Lufbery continued his outstanding work. December 27 dawned a brilliantly clear day, and Luf made the most of it. He ended this very significant year in style by downing an Aviatik C two-seat observation plane, southeast of Chaulnes. Then, on January 24, he repeated this performance for his seventh confirmed victory.

Also on January 24, the popular and hard-working Paul Pavelka left the squadron. The wandering world traveler had grown weary of the miserable cold and dampness of the Somme and was anxious for a new environment. Both he and like-minded Willis Haviland had requested a transfer, but only Pavelka’s was approved. He reported to the Armée de l’Orient in Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece, where he saw a great deal of action and accorded himself well while flying for French squadrons on the Macedonian front.

His career came to a tragic end on November 11, 1917, after he volunteered to help an old Foreign Legion comrade—now serving in the English cavalry—break a wild horse. The former cowpuncher Pavelka mounted the vicious animal and somehow stayed with the bucking bronco until it wildly threw itself to the ground and rolled over on its human tormenter. Mortally injured, Paul Pavelka died the next day. It was as ironic as it was tragic for a man who had survived so many death-defying experiences—including months of desperate combat in the trenches and numerous deadly aerial dogfights and emergency landings—to die in such a way. He was buried with honors at Salonika, and in 1928, his remains were transferred to the crypt below the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial, located at Marnes-le-Coquette, on the western outskirts of Paris.

* * *

The much-anticipated Somme experience had been, for the most part, a bust for the squadron. They had arrived at Cachy just as the big offensive and the good flying weather were each drawing to a close. After huddling around a stove in their shack for three dreary months, they shed no tears when orders came to move again. On January 26, the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille lifted off from Cachy and turned their planes south. Their new aerodrome—like Cachy, a field at the edge of a wood—was located between the towns of Ravenel and Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 20 miles due south. They hoped the new location would bring with it more livable accommodations and better flying weather.

The Lafayette Escadrille was an all-volunteer squadron of Americans who flew for France during World War I. One hundred years later, it is still arguably the best-known fighter squadron ever to take to the skies. In this work the entire history of these gallant volunteers—who named themselves after the Marquis Lafayette, who came to America’s aid during its Revolution—is laid out in both text and pictorial form. In time for the centennial celebration, this work not only tells the fascinating story of the Lafayette Escadrille, it shows it.

“Former Over the Front managing editor Steve Ruffin is well qualified to produce perhaps the most appealing treatment of the familiar subject: the Lafayette Escadrille of 1916-1918. The detailed, workmanlike text details “the life and times of the Lafayette.” From formation of N.124 in April 1916, through disestablishment as SPA.124 nearly two years later, the author traces the fortunes of all 38 Americans and their French squadron mates. Ruffin earns high marks for objectivity. Not all the Lafayette brothers were valiant, and he addresses the heels as well as the heroes. The postwar fortunes of the survivors include reason for both admiration and gloom. Rare among Lafayette histories, Ruffin places the escadrille in context, acknowledging that it had an average record. Certainly its greatest contribution was in the propaganda realm, as intended. With more than 220 photos (nearly 40 in color) Ruffin’s volume contains rare images not only of people and aircraft, but uniforms, artifacts, documents, and memorials. Six aircraft profiles by Tomasz Gronczewski and Alan Toelle provide detailed examinations of Nieuport 11s, 17s, and SPAD 7s. Appendices include bases, a full pilot roster, and a lengthy bibliography. Ruffin’s book obviously is a labor of love that will be appreciated by Great War aerophiles for years to come.” (Barrett Tillman Aerodrome)

“undoubtedly the finest photographic collection of the Lafayette Escadrille to appear in print. Along with the expert text revealing air-combat experiences as well as life at the front during the Great War, it is a never-before-seen visual history that both World War I aviation aficionados and those with a passing interest in history will appreciate. When its all said and done I can highly recommend this book to any and all enthusiasts of the WWI aviation genre.” (WWI In Plastic)

“This magnificent book probably provides everything needed by someone wishing to learn about this famous fighting unit, and really lives up to its sub-title…a reference book of the highest quality and one well worth having.”” (Cross and Cockade)

“…Given Ruffin’s 44 years of pilot experience and membership in the League of WWI Aviation Historians, he tells this rousing story as well as any predecessor….with the added benefit of research that cuts through the myths without harming the narrative. Ruffin also made use of Alan Toelle’s research into the escadrille’s aircraft markings, which benefit both the photograph captions and the color artwork by Tomasz Gronczewski. The wealth of photos includes some new ones from the period as well as updates on the squadron up to its continuing service in the French Air force today…worthy update to earn a spot in the WWI aviation enthusiast’s library” (Aviation History)

“a fresh look at the 38 Americans in the Escadrille Américaine, as it was first called, to produce this voluminous account of the unit. In addition to mini-bios of each member, his narrative is complemented by a superb collection of black & white and color photos and other illustrations gathered during a dedicated search for materials…is a finely-researched, well-written and well-illustrated book. It is recommended highly.” (Over the Front)

“For The Lafayette Escadrille, aviation historian Steven Ruffi n has collected a range of unknown or never-before-seen photos: formal Civil War-style portraits, signed glossies of fliers in movie star poses, and, thanks to American pilot Paul Rockwell, casual shots of legendary pilots fighting boredom, hanging around a hangar playing cards, attending funerals, and being buried with full military honors. While the book has “photo history” in its subtitle, the Lafayette Escadrille requires narrative to separate legend from reality, which Ruffi n adds simply and factually while letting the pictures do the heavy lifting. But when it comes to describing aerial combat in all its bloody fury, he excels.” (Phil Scott Air and Space Magazine)

“While the book has “photo history” in its subtitle, the Lafayette Escadrille requires narrative to separate legend from reality, which Ruffi n adds simply and factually while letting the pictures do the heavy lifting. But when it comes to describing aerial combat in all its bloody fury, he excels.” (Air and Space Magazine)

“The Lafayette Escadrille is an interesting volume that combines a well-written text with “then and now” photos that relate to the exploits of the squadron and its pilots.” (Air Classics)

“Historians have produced many works on the famous flying formation. This work stands out because of the author’s attention to minute detail, and his extensive travels as part of his research… He matched old photographs to their present-day sites, allowing him to show many interesting then-and-now scenes. The book also includes compelling period illustrations and artwork. Mated together with detailed text, the volume is a worthy addition to the body of work on the Lafayette Escadrille.” (Military Heritage)