Roman Invasion Plans for Parthia I

Ancient sources reveal the extent of Roman plans to add Parthia to their empire during the first decades of Augustan rule (27 BC–AD 14). The preparations involved intelligence gathering and the creation of itineraries to map possible invasion routes through Iran. These accounts confirm the veracity of Roman ambitions and verify the scope of military preparations being considered by the Emperor Augustus.

During the first decade of Augustan rule there was a resurgence of Roman interest in eastern campaigns and Latin poets took the subject as inspiration to introduce dramatic situations into their narratives. For example, Propertius explored ideas of distant military service and the feelings of a Roman wife separated from her soldier-husband who was fighting in Bactria. The verse takes the form of a letter with the wife appealing to her husband not to be reckless in the pursuit of glory when Roman forces lay siege to Bactrian cities and take silks as plunder from the steppe hordes. She writes, ‘I beg you not to set so much glory in scaling Bactrian walls, or seizing fine fabrics from their perfumed chieftain, especially when the enemy launch the lead shot from their slings and fire their bows with such cunning from their wheeling horses.’ Propertius imagines that the soldier-husband would return when ‘the lands of the Parthian hordes are overcome’ and the Oxus River was established as a new imperial boundary. However, he hints at even more distant locations. The Roman wife expects her husband will be seen amid ‘the dark-skinned Indians who are pounded by the eastern waves’.

These ideas could have been prompted by the arrival of Indian envoys in the Roman Empire who might have offered the prospect of military alliances (26–20 BC). In another work, Propertius addresses a lover with the possible scenario, ‘What if I were a soldier detained in far-off India, or my ship was stationed on the Ocean?’ In this period it must have seemed possible that well-led Roman armies could exceed the eastern conquests of Alexander.

There are also some indications that the scenarios suggested by Propertius could be based on genuine military planning. Propertius mentions charts being circulated that mapped Parthian territory and provided details concerning enemy logistics. The wife reveals that she ‘studies the course of the Oxus River which is soon to be conquered and learns how many miles a Parthian horse can travel without water’. She also ‘examines the world depicted on a map and the position of lands set out by the gods to be sluggish with frost, or brittle with heat’. These details suggest that imperial authorities were gathering geographical and logistical information about the east in order to determine the practical prospects for conquest.

The Parthian Stations

The Romans knew the size and geography of Persia from Greek histories, including accounts written by authorities who followed Alexander. From these historical descriptions Roman commanders reconstructed hypothetical invasion routes as ‘itineraries’ listing the directions and distances between strategic sites. These itineraries might have been represented pictorially on charts containing geographic detail including mountains, lakes and rivers. But other documents were descriptive texts that explained the character of strategic locations and itemised possible invasion routes.

The Romans had supporters in the main Greek cities of Babylonia and these communities were in continual contact with Mediterranean merchants who travelled back and forth across the Euphrates frontiers. In particular, the Romans had a network of collaborators in the city-port of Spasinu Charax near the head of the Persian Gulf. Spasinu Charax was originally a military outpost established by the Seleucids, taking its name from the Greek word ‘Charax’ meaning ‘palisaded fort’. This fortified Hellenic town developed into a commercial city that was well-protected from siege or cavalry attack by the floodplains of the Tigris River. When the Parthians conquered the eastern half of the Seleucid realm, the local Greek commander Hyspaosines took the title of king and founded a new Hellenic dynasty at Charax to govern a region called Characene (127 BC). The new kings of Characene accepted Parthian suzerainty, but with a well-defended capital they could assert their independence and challenge outside interests.

Spasinu Charax was positioned at the junction between riverine and maritime travel. The city received traffic coming down the Tigris River from the heartlands of Babylonia, but it was also a staging post for maritime voyages into the Persian Gulf. Spasinu Charax therefore received trade goods from Arabia and India and served as a meeting place where Persian and Greek traders could engage with eastern merchants from distant lands. Consequently, the city was an ideal location to gather intelligence about political developments in the distant east and use as a base from which to reconnoitre possible invasion routes into foreign territories.

Pliny reveals how Greek operatives from Spasinu Charax provided Roman authorities with accounts of eastern geography and politics in preparation for a planned military action against the Parthians. He explains that ‘the most recent writer to have dealt with the geography of the world is Dionysius who was born in Charax and sent to the East by the Emperor Augustus to write a full account of this region.’ Pliny explains that Dionysus was given this responsibility sometime before 2 BC and ‘shortly before Gaius Caesar travelled into Armenia to take command against the Parthians’. The work has not survived, but it probably included the type of information suggested by Propertius when he described Roman charts recording the distance between Parthian watering-stations and the condition of the surrounding landscapes.

An ancient account known as the Parthian Stations could also be a product of these early intelligence gathering operations. The Parthian Stations was written by a Greek author called Isidore who also came from Spasinu Charax. Sometime before 10 BC Isidore charted a route through Parthia for the benefit of Roman authorities. If Augustus had ordered the conquest of the Parthian Empire, the route was intended for Roman forces to follow during their military campaign. Isidore also described valuable resources produced in Parthian territory, including pearls that contributed large revenues to eastern treasuries.

The Invasion Route through Parthia

The Parthian Stations gives an itinerary of ancient sites leading across ancient Persia from the frontiers of Roman Syria to the eastern edge of Iran. Isidore mentions distances between strategic locations and provides information about the character of prominent settlements. He maps out a possible route for Roman legions that follows the Euphrates River into Babylonia and then out across the Iranian Plateau to reach the eastern frontiers of Parthian jurisdiction in Arachosia (southern Afghanistan). Isidore mentions which settlements are fortified and notes which districts have access to the main wells. He records sites that were founded by the Macedonian regime and on several occasions includes details as to whether an urban population could be considered ‘Greek’ and thereby, by implication, pro-Roman.

Isidore suggested the invasion route should begin at the Syrian town of Zeugma on the Euphrates frontier. Zeugma controlled a large bridge that spanned the Euphrates, but he advised the main Roman force keep to the western bank so that any intercepting Parthian cavalry would need to cross the river to launch an attack. From Zeugma, the Roman army would march south through a line of fortified Greek towns and walled villages that had been founded by Alexander or the Seleucid kings. Isidore also notes the site of several ‘Royal Stations’ in this region that had been established by the Persian King Darius as part of an ancient Royal Road that connected his domains in the fifth century BC. It is possible that the Romans planned to ship supplies and personnel down the Euphrates on river craft and Isidore therefore notes any sailing hazards. At one point he warns, ‘Here the flow is dammed with rocks in order that the water may overflow the fields, but in summer this same barrier will wreck the boats.’

A village named Phaliga on the Euphrates occupied a strategic position in the invasion plans. Isidore records that the settlement lay almost halfway between the Syrian capital Antioch and the main city of Seleucia in central Babylonia. Downstream from Phaliga a tributary river flowed into the Euphrates near a walled village called Nabagath. At this point Isidore recommends, ‘Here the Legions cross over to territory beyond the river.’ This was the site where the Romans expected to bridge the Euphrates in order to advance down the east bank of the river.

There were Parthian garrisons guarding river outposts on the east banks of the mid-Euphrates and the Romans needed to occupy these locations in order to control this part of Mesopotamia (northern Iraq). Isidore mentions two Euphrates islands that the Parthians used as secure bases to store treasury funds. When a renegade Parthian Prince named Tiridates II temporarily took control of Babylonia in 26 BC, he was able to take these sites from King Phraates IV. Isidore noted that Phraates ordered his men to ‘cut the throats of the concubines’ when the exiled Tiridates had surrounded the loyalist outpost. This incident reminded the Romans that the Parthians would kill hostages and destroy property if they believed defeat was imminent.

Beyond the treasury island of Thilabus there was another island midstream in the Euphrates where the city of Izan was located. The Romans required river transports to seize these sites and Isidore mentions that the nearby city of Aipolis had bitumen springs used to waterproof ship-hulls. This material could repair any Roman transports damaged by sailing downstream, or perhaps the imperial invaders planned to construct new vessels at this site. Meanwhile, Roman land forces could advance towards the city of Besechana which had a prominent temple dedicated to the Syrian goddess Atargatis. Beyond this city the course of the Euphrates came close to the Tigris with a short canal connecting the two rivers. After capturing the Hellenic city of Neapolis, the legions would follow the path of this canal east to Seleucia on the banks of the Tigris River. The vast city of Seleucia was heavily fortified, but the Romans could expect support and assistance from its largely Greek population.

The twin capitals of Seleucia and Ctesiphon were positioned on opposite sides of the Tigris River, so the Romans needed to commandeer or build river craft to make a crossing to this monumental Parthian city. The Romans probably surmised that once Ctesiphon was captured, the Parthians would relinquish control over Babylonia, including Spasinu Charax at the head of the Persian Gulf. Isidore therefore suggests that the next stage in the Roman campaign was the invasion of Iran and the capture of Ecbatana, the second royal city of the Parthian Empire.

Babylonia was densely populated with wide well-irrigated field systems and relatively short distances between the leading urban sites. But the cities of Iran were separated by arid and mountainous tracks of land and this created difficulties for the invading force. Isidore uses a new terminology to describe sites on the route through Iran, including positions that he calls stathmoi or ‘stations’. These sites might have been caravan supply-stations (caravanserai), military installations, or communication posts used by Parthian administrators to relay government orders. It is also possible that many of these locations fulfilled multiple roles for travellers and because the Parthian regime depended on cavalry, these outposts were crucial in maintaining cohesion across their empire. As the ruling Parthian court wintered at Ctesiphon and spent the summer months in Ecbatana, the thoroughfare between these two cities was well maintained for official travellers. It therefore provided the Parthian rulers with a fast and effective escape route if the Romans sized Babylonia. Isidore describes Ecbatana as a metropolis that housed the Parthian treasury and reports that it also had a major temple dedicated to the Iranian goddess Anaitis.

The route from Ctesiphon to Ecbatana headed northeast to the Iranian Plateau. Leaving the banks of the Tigris, the Roman force would pass a Greek city named Artemita on the edge of Babylonia. From this point onwards the legions had to cross open terrain through a series of rural villages equipped with caravan stations. On route to the Zagros Mountain range they would pass through another Greek city named Chala before crossing into Media.

The legions needed to travel through ten villages in Median territory, each equipped with stations (stathmoi) for travellers. After these positions were secured, the Romans would reach a mountain city named Bagistana that controlled passage to the city of Concobar with its famous temple to the Greek hunting-goddess Artemis. By then the Roman army were close to the centre of Parthian rule in Media and if they marched further east they were advised to capture a custom station known as Bazigraban which controlled caravan traffic moving between Babylonia and Iran. Close by there was a royal summer palace named Adrapana which had surrounding parklands for the Parthian nobility to hunt game and engage in other equestrian sports.

From Adrapana it was suggested that the legions marched onward to capture the nearby capital Ecbatana. Ecbatana was crucial to the conquest of Media and after this city had been captured, Isidore recommended a further route through the region to seize three important caravan stations, ten villages at strategic locations and five additional cities. This part of the campaign route ended near a city called Rhaga which had a population larger than Ecbatana. Nearby was the city of Media-Charax which had developed around a fortified installation where the Parthians had settled some of their steppe allies known as the Mardi (176–171 BC). The city of Media-Charax was positioned beneath a mountain called Caspius and it controlled the main approach to the southern Caspian Gates. This location marked the edge of Media, so the capture of the city would have brought the western realms of the Parthian Empire fully under Roman dominion. According to Pliny, Ecbatana was 750 miles from Seleucia and 20 miles from a strategic pass known as the Caspian Gates.

Hostile deserts of salt-encrusted sediment filled large stretches of eastern Iran. These were the remains of ancient prehistoric seas that had entirely evaporated to leave broad wastelands between the mountain ranges that encircled the country. In order to capture the remaining Parthian territories, Roman forces needed to follow a course across Hyrcania, a fertile region that stretched around the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. This open coastline included grasslands, but inland there were deciduous broadleaved forests and upland alpine meadows that provided a habitat for the now extinct Caspian tiger. Leopards, lynx, brown bears, wild boars and wolves were hunted in these forests and its grassland peripheries.

However, to enter Hyrcania, the Romans had to pass through a narrow gorge known as the Southern Caspian Gates that cut through the Alburz Mountains. The legionaries taken prisoner at Carrhae had been marched through this bleak mountain pass, so the Roman authorities already had harrowing eyewitness accounts of the region. Pliny describes how the pass had been cut through the rock by Persian engineers, but the 8-mile roadway was scarcely broad enough for a single line of wagon traffic. He reports that the gorge was ‘overhung on either side by crags that look as if they had been burnt by fire and the narrow passage through the gorge is only interrupted by a salt-water stream’. Roman reports suggested that the surrounding country was almost entirely waterless for a range of 28 miles. The permanent mountain streams were saline and fresh water could only be obtained with the melt of winter snows. Consequently, the region would present serious challenges to any infantry-based Roman army trying to capture this strategic position from Parthian cavalry forces. Pliny concludes, ‘The Parthian kingdom is effectively shut off by passes.’

Pliny had read Roman itineraries that used information from Alexander’s campaigns to chart invasion routes through Iran. The Southern Caspian Gates was a central strategic point in these studies since it was estimated to be almost 600 miles from the River Jaxartes (the Syr Darya) where Alexander fixed the northern limits of his conquests in Sogdia. The gorge was also calculated to be about 450 miles from the Bactrian capital Balkh and 2,000 miles from the northern frontiers of ancient India.

A modern survey of these routes has confirmed the accuracy of these ancient figures. Pliny reports that the distance from the Caspian Gate to the Parthian capital Hecatompylos was 133 Roman miles (122 modern miles). The distance measured using modern techniques is close to 125 miles along a course that probably deviates only slightly from the ancient pathways.

Isidore outlined a route into the fertile lands of Hyrcania for any Roman forces that captured and held the Caspian Gates. Beyond the Gates, the legionaries would arrive at a narrow valley that led to the Iranian city of Apamia. From there, the invasion course had to turn east and occupy another line of villages equipped with caravan stations that probably operated as Parthian military outposts. There were no cities in this region and the Romans would travel through thirty-five villages with stathmoi (stations) on their route through Hyrcania. Only then would they reach the frontiers of the region known as Parthia and the original homelands of their enemy.

An Iranian city called Asaac (Arsak) was on the western frontier of Parthia. It was here on the southeast shores of the Caspian Sea that the founder of the Parthian regime, Arsaces I had been proclaimed king by his steppe followers after they had settled the region (250–211 BC). Isidore reports that Asaac was an important centre for an ancient Iranian religion known as Zoroastrianism and a sacred everlasting fire was maintained in the city temples.

Near Asaac was the fortified city of Nisa (Parthaunisa) which was the location of ancient royal tombs belonging to the earliest Parthian rulers. Excavations at this site, near Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, recovered carved ivory drinking cups or ceremonial libation cones known as rytons. Other finds from the city include thousands of fragmentary administrative records from the Parthian regime written on clay tablets in Persian script. These texts document deliveries of wine and other produce to the Parthian administrators at Nisa. They also record military titles including Border-Wardens and Fortress-Commanders who oversaw the conveyance of cash crops to the royal centre.

There were no travel-stations in this part of Parthia because the region already had sufficient cities to accommodate caravans and facilitate the movement of mounted armies. North of Parthia was the Eurasian steppe, but the lands to the south were covered by desert. This meant that any Roman invasion route had to pass directly through the region. Isidore lists a series of Parthian cities that would have to be captured on any campaign through this territory, including Gathar, Siroc, Apauarctica and Ragau. This would complete the anticipated Roman conquest of Parthia, but further east there were other territories subject to Parthian rule that might also be claimed for the Roman Empire.

Beyond Parthia

Isidore outlined a route from Parthia east into Margiana that would have allowed Roman forces to take possession of the oasis site of Merv. The territory around Merv was almost entirely devoid of any settlements, but there were two Parthian villages on route to the oasis. Here Roman commanders expected to find the captive legionaries who had served under Crassus (53 BC) and Mark Antony (36 BC). By the 20s BC many of these prisoners would have spent most of their adult lives under Parthian governance.

The Romans received reports that Merv was enclosed by mountains that formed a 187-mile circuit around the oasis. Beyond the mountains was a large expanse of desert that extended for at least 120 miles to the east. The oasis at Merv received water from the Murghab River which flowed more than 500 miles from mountains on the edge of northwest Afghanistan into the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. Curtius records that Alexander the Great established six Hellenic towns on hill sites near Merv, ‘spaced only a short distance apart so that they could seek mutual aid from one another’. Pliny claims that Alexander also established a city near the river, but the settlement was abandoned or destroyed by enemy forces. Antiochus I Soter reclaimed the oasis by founding a walled Hellenic city called Antiochia Margiana close to the river (281–261 BC). He enclosed the countryside surrounding this city with a wall measuring almost 8 miles in circumference.

Archaeological remains and records from later eras suggest the appearance of this ancient territory. A Chinese soldier visited the city of Merv (Mulu) in the eighth century AD after he had been held captive by Iranian forces. He saw a caravan city surrounded by walls that were 3 miles in circumference and had iron gates. When he returned to China he reported that the ‘walls of the city are high and thick and the streets and markets are tidy and well-arranged’. The remains of ancient clay-wall barriers have been found stretching across certain northern districts of Margiana. These defences were probably built to protect the territory from mounted raiders, but the remains cannot be securely dated. They could be Hellenic, Parthian or perhaps Sassanid defences (AD 224–651) built or repaired by native peoples, or perhaps foreign prisoners of war.

Pliny describes how Margiana was ‘famous for its sunny climate’ and received recognition as one of the few territories in Parthia where grape vines were cultivated. Strabo emphasises the wine production at this site and describes fertile soil suitable for viticulture. He reports that ‘vine stocks are found that require two men to girth [10 feet circumference] and bunches of gapes grow to 2 cubits [3 feet]. This suggests that viticulture might have been well established when the first Roman captives were brought to Merv in 53 BC.

Many of the Roman captives were probably settled as agricultural labourers in towns near the city of Antiochia Margiana. Some of these Italian captives might have had pre-war experience in viticulture which was a valuable skill. One of the Parthian clay tablets recovered from the royal city of Nisa records wine deliveries from the oasis (before 40 BC). The delivery was arranged and overseen by two ‘Tagmadars’, a Greek title that designated unit officers. These men had the Parthian names Frabaxtak and Frafarn, but they could have commanded labour teams of Roman workers assigned to royal vineyards. A further possibility is that some Roman captives adopted Parthian culture and received the titles and responsibilities of their new regime. Horace asked his reader to imagine their fate: ‘Are the soldiers of Crassus, men of Marsi and Apulia, living under Median rule, joined in shameful marriage to foreign wives?’

Roman Invasion Plans for Parthia II

Merv was the eastern limit of Parthian rule in inner Asia and the oasis would have been a formidable frontier outpost for Rome. Any advance further east towards the Oxus River would have brought the Romans into conflict with other steppe peoples including the Mardi (Kangju) in Sogdia and the Tocharians (Yuezhi-Kushan) in Bactria. These steppe populations were developing into powerful regimes that could field mounted armies as large as their Parthian rivals. Pliny explains that ‘these people are numerous enough to live on equal terms with the Parthians.’ War with these nations would be a significant challenge for Rome, so a better prospect for conquest was for Roman armies to march south and claim a contested desert region in eastern Iran called Aria (western Afghanistan).

Strabo describes Aria and Margiana as ‘the most powerful districts in this part of Asia because they are populated plains enclosed by mountains’. These wide plains were intersected and irrigated by large rivers that made the land fertile, suitable for viticulture and capable of supporting large cities. Strabo estimated that central Aria occupied an area about 200 miles long and 30 miles across.

In this period Aria was ruled by Parthian princes and Isidore outlines the route from Merv that would lead an invading army through the main cities in this region. These included Candac, Artacauan and a capital called Alexandria Ariana, which was founded by Macedonian military colonists. Isidore also mentions ‘a very great city’ known as Phra and five further cities named Bis, Gari, Nia, Parin and Coroc. The existence of this urban network meant that Roman armies would be capturing cities rather than village-based caravan stations. But the area was remote from Babylonia and Isidore had few details about the actual condition of the cities of Aria.

The conquest of Aria would have extinguished Parthian rule in ancient Iran and if they continued south, the Roman legions would provoke conflict with other nations. East of Aria was the territory of Arachosia (southwest Afghanistan) which was under the rule of a steppe people who Isidore calls the ‘Scythian Saka’. These Saka were subject to the Parthians, but they could be encouraged to become allies of the Roman Empire as vassal rulers or client kings. Isidore lists a route through Arachosia to bring Roman forces to the cities of Barda, Min, Palacenti and a capital called Sigal, where these Scythian-Sakas had their royal residence. Nearby was a part-Hellenic city called Alexandropolis which was another legacy of Macedonian military colonisation.

According to Isidore, the Parthians referred to eastern Arachosia as ‘White India’. This was probably because its Iranian population had been part of the Mauryan Empire of ancient India during the third century BC. Consequently, Arachosia preserved strong elements of Indian culture within its civic administrations. Arachosia controlled certain approaches to the Hindu Kush and the mountain passes that led to the Indus kingdoms. Isidore charts a route through this region that would have taken Roman forces through several important cities including Biyt, Pharsana and Chorochoad. He also records the existence of a Hellenic city named ‘Demetrias’ that was probably established by the Greek King Demetrius of Bactria who conquered this region in about 180 BC. The itinerary outlined by Isidore ends at the city of Alexandria Arachosia (Kandahar) which was another Macedonian foundation established by Alexander and his generals. Isidore explains that the city was considered ‘Greek’ and ‘as far as this place, the land is under the rule of the Parthians.’

If they had accomplished all these conquests, the Romans would have occupied every Hellenic city in the Parthian realm and brought the frontiers of their empire as far as Bactria and Gandhara. Beyond Arachosia were the Indus kingdoms who were at that time subject to the Indo-Sakas and their overlord King Azes. Azes sent envoys to Augustus in 26 BC proposing a political alliance. Suetonius records that these ‘Indo-Scythians’ (Sakas) ‘were from nations previously known to us only through hearsay and they petitioned for an alliance (amicitia) with Augustus and the Roman people’. In earlier times the Sakas had been able to field 20,000 mounted archers, but Azes probably commanded only a fraction of this fighting force. Orosius suggests that the Saka ambassadors expected a western war against Persia and came ‘to praise the Emperor with the glory of Alexander the Great’. To emphasise his connection to Hellenic culture, Azes issued currency displaying images of the goddess Athena and used Greek titles referring to himself as ‘The Great King of Kings’. He sent further envoys to the Emperor in 22 BC who delivered a royal letter written in Greek pledging that Azes was ‘ready to allow Augustus passage through his country, wherever he wished to proceed and co-operate with him in anything that was honourable’. The king confirmed that he held the allegiance of 600 minor sovereigns in northern India and ‘was anxious for an alliance with Caesar Augustus’. Dio reports that earlier proposals were formalised and a ‘treaty of friendship’ (amicitia) firmly agreed between the two sovereigns. Augustus emphasises the military aspect of these meetings in his memorial testimony when he records that ‘to me were sent embassies of kings from India, who had never been seen in the camp of any Roman general’. Respecting this alliance, the military itinerary provided by Isidore assumes that Roman aggression would end in Arachosia near the frontiers of the allied Saka kingdom.

Augustus may have given Azes the honours due to a Roman Consul (supreme magistrate) including the gift of a curule chair. Curule chairs were distinctive campaign stools that consuls would sit upon when they made formal diplomatic or judicial rulings. Consequently the object symbolised the political and military authority of senior imperial commanders operating outside Rome. Livy describes how the Numidian king Masinissa was given this honour in 203 BC when the Romans required military allies to fight the city-state of Carthage in North Africa. The Roman general Scipio presented Masinissa with imperial insignia including ‘a golden crown, curule chair, an ivory sceptre, a purple-bordered toga and a tunic embroidered with palms’. The Senate approved these gifts and bestowed further symbols of Roman rank on the foreign king including ‘two purple cloaks with golden clasps, two tunics embroidered with the laticlave [senatorial purple stripe]; two richly caparisoned horses and a set of equestrian armour with cuirasses; two tents with the military furniture appropriate for Consuls’. The remains of a folding iron stool similar to a curule chair were found during excavations at the Saka capital of Sirkap near Taxila.⁵³ The object became a symbol of political authority in the Upper Indus that was claimed by the Indo-Parthians. When Kujula Kadphises conquered this region in the late first century AD he depicted a subject Parthian prince seated on a curule chair.

The Peace Settlement

Augustus reasoned it was not an opportune time for Rome to begin a war against the Parthians and consequently no invasion scheme was launched during the first decade of his reign. However an opportunity for war occurred in 20 BC, when the Armenians asked the Romans for assistance to remove an unpopular king who had aligned himself with the Parthians. Augustus arranged for a replacement ruler to be selected from amongst the eastern princes that were resident in Rome. He chose an Iranian noble named Tigranes and in 20 BC Roman armies entered Armenia and Tigranes III formally received his crown from Tiberius, the stepson of Augustus. This was a provocative act given that the previous Armenian king had been appointed by the Parthian King Phraates IV. But the Parthians were involved in eastern wars against the Sakas and chose not to immediately retaliate, or further escalate the situation in Armenia. It was in their interests to maintain peace on their western frontiers, even if that meant that Armenia was brought under increased Roman influence.

In 20 BC Augustus secured a long-term peace agreement with the Parthian King Phraates IV. This agreement allowed both rulers to concentrate their military activities on other frontiers and thereby enlarge their respective empires. In 19 BC Roman armies completed the conquest of northern Spain and eliminated the remaining outposts of resistance in the Alps. By 12 BC the Romans had annexed Pannonia and secured the Danube frontiers that safeguarded the main land-routes between Italy and Greece. Then the legions began campaigns in Germany to capture territory beyond the Rhine. In the east the Parthians overran Saka-controlled territories beyond the Hindu Kush and installed allied warlords as princes in the rich Indus kingdoms. These eastern conquests were complete by 10 BC, when the Parthians deposed King Azes and the remaining Saka warlords fled south to form a new ruling dynasty in Gujarat on the west coast of India.

The political settlement agreed in 20 BC required Phraates IV to return the legionary battle-standards lost by Crassus and repatriate Roman prisoners of war who had been settled in Merv. Augustus granted his stepson Tiberius an imperial commission to collect the battle-standards from the Parthians and return them to Rome where the political settlement was presented as a Roman triumph. Dio Cassius reports that the Emperor ‘received the standards as if he had conquered the Parthians in a war and took great pride in this achievement’.

By returning the standards, Phraates IV removed a pretext for war and allowed Augustus to defuse the political pressure in Rome from those who sought further conflict and military revenge. The Parthian compliance was probably based on the goodwill achieved by covert diplomatic assurances, but Roman honour was satisfied with the suggestion that Phraates IV had been forced into submission by military threat. In his memorial testimony, Augustus records, ‘I forced the Parthians to return to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies and to seek, as suppliants, the friendship of the Roman people.’

The Parthian diplomats may have suggested a marriage alliance in order to join the ruling dynasties of the empires. Augustus had a teenage daughter named Julia who had been married to a Roman youth named Marcus Claudius Marcellus. But when Marcus died suddenly in 23 BC, Augustus had to reconsider his plans for establishing a royal dynasty through Julia. Perhaps Phraates asked to marry Julia or some other leading Roman noblewoman, but the request was declined as it would have suggested that the two empires were equal in terms of international status. Augustus wanted to present himself as a citizen head-of-state rather than a dynastic king, so he preferred not to engage in the type of matrimonial alliances being practised by the rulers of other ancient empires. In 21 BC, Augustus arranged for Julia to marry his leading commander and most trusted political advisor Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Instead of an imperial princess, Augustus sent King Phraates IV the gift of an Italian concubine named Musa. Phraates IV married Musa and when she gave birth to a son named Phraataces, she was elevated to the position of leading consort. Eventually Musa became the Parthian Queen and was in a position to influence the royal succession.

The political settlement agreed in 20 BC was presented as a full Parthian capitulation to Roman authority and the return of the battle-standards was celebrated in Roman iconography as a symbol of foreign submission. The larger-than-life Prima Porta statue of Augustus portrays the Emperor standing barefoot with his right arm empty of a sword, raised in a gesture of peace. His breastplate depicts the return of the standards with the image of a kneeling Parthian offering the captured emblems to a Roman commander, a scene also celebrated on imperial coins issued in 19 BC. It was decided that the restored standards would be placed on display in a new monumental temple erected in Rome to honour the war god Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). The return of the lost battle-standards was also celebrated in imperial poetry with Ovid declaring ‘You Parthians no longer hold the proofs of our shame.’ Horace addressed Augustus with the comments ‘Throughout the whole world wars have been concluded under your auspices’ and ‘Parthia dreads a Rome led by your government.’

Over the next decade, Augustus remained on good terms with Phraates IV and between 11 and 7 BC the Parthian King sent some of his older sons to Rome to be ‘hosted’ by the Emperor. Phraates IV probably had personal motives for this action, as dissenters in the Parthian nobility often encouraged young princes to seize power from their fathers. So, by sending the young men to Rome, Phraates IV removed these candidates from court intrigues without having to deprive them of their royal position. The Parthian Queen Musa possibly encouraged this action, so that the succession route would be cleared for her own son Phraataces.

Strabo indicates the impact of imperial propaganda from this period when he explains that ‘the Parthians are very powerful, but they have yielded to Roman pre-eminence and returned the military trophies which they took to memorialize their victory over Rome. Moreover, Phraates has entrusted his children and grandchildren to Augustus, obsequiously ensuring his friendship by offering hostages.’ Writing several centuries after these events, Orosius believed that ‘the Parthians acted as if the attentions of the entire conquered and pacified world was focused upon them and the Roman Empire might direct their total strength against them.’ For this reason, ‘they voluntarily returned the standards that they had seized on the death of Crassus and after giving hostages, they obtained a lasting treaty by humbly promising to observe good faith.’

The Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Titius, oversaw the transfer of the Parthian princes across the imperial frontier. They were conveyed to Rome with their families and their royal requirements financed by Augustus at the expense of the Roman state. The exchange gave the Emperor an influence in the Parthian succession and further ensured that Musa’s half-Italian son Phraataces could succeed as king. Augustus derived great political advantage from these Parthian princes who he presented in Rome as royal candidates subject to imperial authority. Their presence suggested that Parthia might eventually become a client kingdom of Rome and its rulers subservient to Roman imperial interests. Horace presents this impression by claiming that ‘Phraates is now suppliant on his knees for he has acknowledged the laws and power of the Emperor.’

Further Prospects for War

Another political crisis threatened the peace between Rome and Parthia in 6 BC when King Tigranes III died and the Armenians appointed his sons as joint rulers without first seeking the approval of Rome. This was seen as a dangerous statement of independence that challenged Roman authority in the region. To deter Roman aggression, the Armenians sought Parthian backing to guarantee their efforts to reassert regional autonomy. In 5 BC, Augustus sent a campaign force into Armenia to place a Roman candidate on the throne, who within months was deposed by a popular uprising. The pro-Roman faction was expelled and a prince named Tigranes IV obtained the backing of the Parthian King Phraates IV to establish himself as the new ruler of a sovereign Armenia. This was a political triumph for the Parthians who had acquired new allies to support their regime and extend their political influence towards the Black Sea.

But Augustus was not prepared to accept this outcome of the Armenian dispute and planned to restore Roman claims over the kingdom. The invasion of Parthia was reconsidered as a military option and Roman agents were sent east to gather further intelligence concerning the Parthian realms. In 2 BC Augustus gave Gaius, the eldest of his grandsons, a special command in the eastern empire with orders to settle affairs with Parthia either by diplomacy, or military force. Gaius was in his early twenties, a similar age to Alexander when he had begun his conquest of Persia. The young general was well-liked by the Roman people and his command revived popular expectations that eastern victories were imminent.

During this period, dramatic public spectacles were staged in Rome to promote the prospect of Parthian wars and lead Roman opinion to expect new conquests. On one occasion the Emperor flooded part of the enormous plaza in the centre of the Saepta Julia building. From bleachers around the plaza the Roman crowds watched a specially staged mock naval battle recreating the victory at Artemisium when an Athenian-led Greek fleet triumphed over an invading Persian armada (480 BC). The combatants dressed in archaic costume and fought aboard replica ships. The spectacle reminded Roman audiences of past victories by classical civilisations over the land-based powers of Iran. It suggested that these conflicts were about to be reignited by Gaius in a Roman struggle against Parthian aggressors.

Ovid describes the spectacle and records how ‘the whole world seemed to be gathered in the city’ and how many Roman men were ‘beguiled by foreign romance’. After the excitement of the mock battle, even Ovid was enthusiastic for a war against the Parthian Empire. He explained: ‘The Emperor is preparing to complete the conquest of the world. Far-off eastern countries will soon submit to our laws, including the arrogant Parthians. For they will be punished as they deserve.’ Perhaps many Romans were unsatisfied with the previous diplomatic settlement and the appointment of Gaius offered them an opportunity for full revenge. Ovid wrote, ‘Oh spirits of Crassus and his Eagle standards shamed by barbarian possession, now you will rejoice and be festive, for your avenger is ready!’

Roman opinion was also encouraged by the prospect of receiving new wealth from the Parthian realms. Many would have recalled how Augustus granted large sums of money to Roman citizens after he had conquered Egypt and seized the royal treasures of the Ptolemies. They expected similar exploits from Gaius, and Ovid proclaimed: ‘Our righteous cause shall overcome the Parthians and our young hero will bring victory. The wealth of the Orient shall be added to the riches of Rome.’

Victory over the eastern kingdoms would mean impressive celebrations in Rome and Ovid looked forward to witnessing these exciting public festivities. The highlight of these events would have been a military triumph with captured eastern treasures and prisoners of war paraded through the crowded centre of Rome in carriage-mounted tableau displays. Ovid visualises the Parthian trophies and advises his readers to appear knowledgeable about foreign events, even if they know little about world affairs. He tells his male readers, ‘a beauty might ask you to name that defeated monarch, or you might have to explain to her “what do these emblems mean?”, “what country is that?” or “what does that mountain or river display represent?” You must anticipate her questions and answer with confidence, even if you have no real knowledge.’ Ovid gives an example of the right response: ‘That is the Euphrates with the crinkled crown, the figure with the sky-blue hair signifies the Tigris, those people are Armenians and that woman represents Persia.’ He also suggests that the suitor should include impressive references to ancient Greek myths and exaggerate the significance of the foreign captives being displayed on the exhibits. Tell her ‘they are captured generals and then invent their names.’

But the prospect of war between Rome and Parthia was averted by the murder of King Phraates IV. News reached Rome in 2 BC that Queen Musa had poisoned her husband and successfully installed her 17-year-old son Phraataces on the Parthian throne as Phraates V. As Gaius and his command staff made their way to Syria, Phraataces sent an embassy to Augustus explaining his concerns and requesting the return of any Parthian princes in Rome who might challenge his succession. Augustus denied this request and refused to hand over the royal candidates. He then escalated the situation by declining to acknowledge Phraataces as the Parthian ‘King of Kings’. By retaining the princes in Rome, Augustus reserved his right to interfere in the Parthian succession if Phraataces did not comply with future Roman policy.

When Gaius Caesar arrived in Syria he reaffirmed Roman claims to hold authority in Armenia and prepared the eastern legions for war. But he did not launch an immediate attack on Parthia and entered into political negotiations instead. In the autumn of 1 BC, Gaius and Phraataces assembled their armies facing each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates River. In a carefully staged pageant the two young men, accompanied by an equal number of attendants and political advisors, met on an island midstream. In full view of both armies, they deliberated over the details of a peace settlement and exchanged pledges to confirm the status and rights of their respective empires. Official celebrations were then conducted on each side of the river, with the Roman camp offering a reception for Phraataces and his nobles, and the following night the Parthians hosting a banquet for Gaius and his Roman commanders. Once more, longterm peace and cooperation between Rome and Parthia seemed to have been secured, but within a few years each of these young generals had met their death.

The Euphrates Agreement guaranteed that if Rome were to restore its authority over Armenia the Parthians would not interfere. Roman forces launched a campaign in Armenia to reclaim the region and install a royal candidate favourable to Rome. By AD 4 a Roman victory seemed assured and Gaius agreed to meet an Armenian leader named Addon who was ready to discuss surrender terms. Addon claimed to possess important documents and requested a personal meeting to present them to Gaius. As Gaius leant forward to receive the documents, Addon thrust a hidden dagger into the young man and fatally wounded him. Gaius, who had been the favoured candidate to succeed Augustus as Emperor, died from this wounds aged just 24.

By this time Augustus was 66 years old and there was no one else in the imperial family with the authority, popularity and esteem required to take charge of this special eastern command. With the death of Gaius, the reclusive middle-aged Tiberius became the most likely candidate to succeed Augustus as Emperor. But it was well-known that Tiberius had become estranged from the imperial family and had withdrawn from political and military service.

Meanwhile amongst the Parthian nobility, support for the half-Italian King Phraataces was wavering. In an effort to legitimise his foreign ancestry, he granted grand titles to his mother Queen Musa, but he could not quell the growing insurrection. In AD 4 he was overthrown by a rival Parthian regent named Orodes. On seizing the throne Orodes III had Phraataces put to death before launching a series of violent reprisals against large sections of the Parthian nobility. As a consequence Orodes was himself assassinated for his cruelty.

In AD 6 the Parthians sent an embassy to Augustus requesting the return of another son of Phraates IV named Vonones who was still living in Rome as a hostage prince. Augustus obliged and Vonones I was crowned as the Parthian King in AD 7. Strabo indicates Roman expectations that Parthia could be made a vassal state. He comments, ‘At present the Parthians have gone to Rome seeking a man to be their king and are now about ready to put their entire authority into the hands of the Romans.’ But Vonones had spent over two decades in Rome and his subjects considered his loyalties and mannerisms to be ‘too Roman’. Vonones ignored Parthian formalities and did not demonstrate sufficient interest in the steppe pursuits of horsemanship and hunting which strengthened social bonds between the ruling nobility. A revolt began in Media and by AD 12 a rival prince named Artabanus was proclaimed king in Ctesiphon.

Gaius and Phraataces might have changed the political fortunes of the western world if they had lived long enough to secure their position as rulers of their respective empires. But as events turned out, Rome missed the opportunity to conquer Parthia and lost the political struggle to establish an allied dynasty in ancient Iran. This meant that a foreign regime continued to control the caravan trails that connected Rome, through the Middle East, to Transoxiana, the Tarim Silk Routes and the economic wealth of ancient China.

Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy I

The unusually peaceful conditions in the Channel left by Henry V were the result of English control of both shores, combined with the essential support of the Count of Flanders (otherwise known as the Duke of Burgundy) and a series of truces made with the other countries whose merchants used the waterway. Englishmen continued to be restrained from piracy and privateering by the 1414 Statute of Truces. In addition, any potential offenders were busily occupied ferrying soldiers, officers of the government, the new settlers and all their respective supporters and equipment across to Normandy, and were paid for doing so.

In the background, however, the premature and unexpected death of Henry V brought to light other circumstances which were both complex and threatening. The so-called ‘dual kingdom’ was ruled by one king, but nonetheless consisted of two distinct countries. Behind the veil of Henry’s ‘permanent’ settlement of Englishmen in Normandy, each of the two countries, England and Normandy, still had its own government, its own laws, its own customs, and its own language. Henry’s failure to include the Armagnacs in the Treaty of Troyes meant that he bequeathed an ongoing war being fought against them on several different fronts, but mostly in the general area round Paris. In England, there was mounting opposition to this continuing war. Overall, the political portents for longer-term stability were not good.

Henry’s heir was the nine-month-old Henry VI (1422–61), born to Catherine at Windsor the previous December. A long regency was inevitable and the responsibility for continuity of government lay with the remaining members of the royal family, who were now reduced to four, Henry V’s two youngest brothers and two Beaufort step-uncles (see below). Almost immediately it became clear that it had been Henry V’s personal leadership and charisma which had provided the cement to give the family its former, remarkable, cohesion. Once that leadership had gone, cracks quickly appeared. The two remaining brothers were very different characters. John, Duke of Bedford was cast in the same mould as Henry himself, to whom he had already served as a trusted lieutenant. He was to prove wise, diplomatic, capable, energetic, and dedicated to the cause of England. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was, in contrast, much less reliable. His one military success had been conducting the conquest of the Cherbourg peninsula in 1418. Otherwise he lacked discretion and diplomacy, and was emphatically not a team player. He evidently had not been, and would not in future be, entrusted with important responsibility by other members of the family and nobility, which was a constant source of grievance to him. Apparently feeling cheated of opportunities to achieve military honour and glory, he was to prove himself irresponsible and self-seeking, an irritant and, increasingly, a danger to national and international stability.

Henry V’s wills, codicils and the other verbal directions he gave when he knew he was dying did not cover all eventualities, and were open to different interpretations. They opened the door to controversy. Henry had stipulated that Duke Humphrey should have the wardship of the infant king, but when the duke chose to assume that included running the country he found, to his intense frustration, that he was opposed by the council led by Henry Beaufort and his brother Thomas, and that all his activities were to be scrutinised by parliament. This initiated a series of fierce disputes between him and the restraining arm of his step-uncle, a bitter feud which continued to dominate English politics until they both died in 1447.

In France, Charles VI died fifty-one days after Henry V and, ignoring the Treaty of Troyes, his 19-year-old son, the Dauphin Charles, immediately claimed the throne. But that claim was supported by little substance: Charles had no financial resources, no body of loyal nobility and no centralised army. Much more important at that time, by mid-November John, Duke of Bedford, had emerged as the English regent of France.

Bedford was well aware that to maintain peaceful conditions in the Channel, which implied preventing a resurgence of piracy, it was essential to remain on good terms with Burgundy and, if possible, with Brittany. After some six months’ negotiation he achieved a triple alliance which bore fruit on 17 April 1423 in the defensive and offensive Treaty of Amiens, signed by himself, by Duke Philip of Burgundy and by Arthur of Richemont, brother of the Duke of Brittany. It was cemented by the marriages of Bedford to Anne, a sister of Philip of Burgundy (on 14 June), and of Arthur de Richemont to another sister, Margaret. The treaty recognised the French, the Dauphin’s party, as the common enemy.

He continued fighting to mop up remaining pockets of opposition on the Channel coast. For instance, he captured Le Crotoy, now a sleepy silt-bound fishing village but then one of the more important of the Channel ports, with an impressive fortress guarding the mouth of the Somme. Until then, lying too far from Flanders for Burgundy to reach it from the north, and too far north for the English to reach it from the Seine, it had remained in Armagnac hands, and had proved a useful base for Breton pirates. On 17 August 1424, Bedford also inflicted a massive defeat on the Dauphin’s much larger, but badly organised, force of French and Scots at Verneuil, some 60 miles west of Paris. As a result the Dauphin went into retreat, leaving the French temporarily leaderless, and the slaughtered Scots were never replaced, showing that Scottish support for France was dwindling.

However, two developments already threatened to destabilise Bedford’s triple entente. In or about January 1423 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had married Jacqueline of Hainault, and together they set out to recover Hainault from her estranged first husband, John of Brabant, and Holland and Zeeland from her uncle, John of Bavaria. Having landed with an army at Calais, their campaign was short and ended in fiasco. Nonetheless, both their objectives were bound to stir up antagonism on the part of the Duke of Burgundy. Secondly, the Bretons, as ever, were shifty allies, and despite the encouraging result at Verneuil, Arthur of Richemont reneged on the Treaty of Amiens and changed sides. He and his brother then proceeded to take control of the Dauphin’s side of the war, which aimed to expel the English! In spite of these checks, and continuing piracy by the Bretons, for six years Bedford was able to maintain the areas conquered by Henry V, and even to extend his land down to the Loire.

Then, on 3 November 1428 the military tide turned. The English forces suffered their first serious defeat. The Earl of Salisbury, their leader, was killed by a gunshot during the siege of Orleans and, following that, they failed to take the town. Soon afterwards, Jeanne d’Arc intervened. Her story is well known, but in short, she led the French troops to rapid victory over the English in a series of battles, and ensured that the Dauphin was crowned King of France at Reims on 17 July 1429. Although she herself was captured by the Burgundians in May 1430 and tried and burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen on 30 May 1431, she had restored French morale, and became a martyr. The loss of Salisbury, failure of their siege of Orleans, and the contributions of Jeanne d’Arc combined to seriously weaken the English position in France, and in December 1431 the Duke of Burgundy signed a six-year truce with Charles VII, further weakening his link with England.

For the English, further adversity followed quickly. On 13 November 1432 Anne, wife of the Duke of Bedford, died in an epidemic in Paris, aged only 28. Not only a grievous personal loss to Bedford, she had also provided a positive political link with Philip of Burgundy, her brother. Bedford remarried five months later, into a family deeply distrusted by Philip, who was thus further alienated. In addition, the soldiers in the garrison at Calais mutinied for lack of pay. Still, the English leaders, Bedford, Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, failed to agree on a strategy for prosecuting the war in France.

The years 1435–36 saw multiple crises for the English, with serious implications for their control of the Channel. In the spring of 1435 most of the counties along the south coast were on the alert. The Isle of Wight was living in fear of a French invasion. In the summer that year Philip of Burgundy convened the equivalent of a peace conference at Arras, but the English failed to come to an agreement with the French. One week after that diplomatic failure, Bedford died in Rouen, in September 1435, and only a week later, Burgundy officially concluded peace with France, which left the English without allies.

In September 1435, Dieppe was lost to the French. Harfleur and the surrounding area followed in November. In January 1436 the English were faced with a popular uprising in Normandy. At Calais, the woollen exports piled up, having been subjected to a Flemish embargo. In July, a Burgundian siege of Calais failed only because of dissent within their own ranks.

Against that background the young king Henry grew up, and it must have been increasingly obvious that he was the antithesis of his father. His interests and talents lay in directions very different from military matters or governmental control. He was a gentle, intelligent, peace-loving individual, who is now celebrated for founding and successfully influencing the early development of Eton College at Windsor and King’s College, Cambridge. But, compassionate and caring, he was indiscriminately generous with his favours and lacked the ability to select good officers, advisors and confidants. He lacked political acumen. In short, he did not possess the credentials necessary for strong leadership in the fifteenth century.

In addition, during his adolescence Henry was caught between two bitterly opposed, argumentative uncles, each of whom sought to impose his own opinions on him. Not only that, he must also have witnessed, as a powerless spectator, the failures, military and diplomatic, of his representatives in France. How these experiences affected him is impossible to estimate, but it did not bode well for the peace which he so strongly favoured. In the next few years Henry supported moves towards a peaceful settlement with France, but that was a long time in coming. A commercial agreement was reached with Burgundy in 1439, but disagreements among the English participants postponed a peace agreement until 1444. In 1445 the king married Margaret of Anjou, a strong and, as it turned out, fiery character who vehemently refused to negotiate with anybody who opposed her husband, so did nothing to promote peace or conciliation. The couple became increasingly unpopular, and the government in England became increasingly divided and corrupt.

In France, meanwhile, Charles VII had been gathering strength, and on 31 July 1449 he seized his opportunity and declared war. His reconquest of Normandy took only thirteen months. It was the story of Henry V’s conquest in reverse, and in mirror-image. Rouen, Caen, and Harfleur fell in quick succession and, last of all, Cherbourg capitulated on 12 August 1450. Once again, the Channel had become an international frontier.

The French then turned to Gascony, and on 17 July 1453 as the final coup they took Bordeaux, thus making it French for the first time in its history. The loss of that important, last, area of Aquitaine, which had been held in close economic and political association by England for the past three centuries, signalled the end of this chapter of history. It was also all too much for the sensitive Henry VI, who slipped into a coma that summer and remained unconscious for the following seventeen months.

During these twenty-four years in which the English were being forced to retreat, stage by stage, from Normandy, the English government was also becoming progressively weak at home. The national exchequer became increasingly impoverished, while at the same time the Church and some of the magnates were storing up massive fortunes for themselves. Defence of the coastline against raiders or invaders became a pressing issue, with mounting fear not only in the coastal communities themselves but also in government. But although the government was well aware of the need, no funds were available for defence. Law and order broke down, with corruption at all levels. This was the background, and the reason for, another intense period of uncontrolled piracy, which lasted until well after 1453.

This period was not only longer than others which have been discussed in this book, it was also more complex, as men found various devious ways to exploit situations and the law. The records are more complicated than ever before, and are therefore more difficult to interpret or to explain.

Enemy ships were legitimate prize so we are not concerned with them, but lengthy legal arguments were spun out concerning ships and cargoes of friendly countries. The statute of 1414 remained in force until 1435, although the merchants tried to get it repealed three times before that. They were chafing, complaining that it damaged English commerce. While their own hands were tied by it, foreign pirates were making off with English ships with impunity, without the possibility of retaliating with letters of marque.

In the meantime, while the English government resisted attempts to repeal the 1414 statute, they did take a rather different step in an attempt to regulate piracy. In 1426 a proclamation went out that when goods which had been captured at sea were brought into the ports, they were not to be disposed of until either the king’s council, or the chancellor, or the admiral or his deputy, had decided whether they belonged to friends or enemies. This was probably an attempt to simplify procedures. But in effect, it placed responsibility in the hands of a local official, the admiral’s deputy, giving excellent opportunities to the unscrupulous. The only recourse for wronged merchants was to complain to the chancellor, which is where we pick up their stories.

During the first seven years of the new reign, however, as long as John, Duke of Bedford, still had control of the important continental ports, life in the Channel remained relatively quiet. But even then, some members of the families who had been well known for piracy in the time of Henry IV were already back, engaged in their old trade. And their methods were already remarkably involved and devious.

John Hawley III of Dartmouth was the only son of the famous John Hawley. Although he had started out assisting his father in the last few years of his life and carried on with piracy until 1413, no major complaints were made about his activities during the reign of Henry V. He kept relatively quiet. But in 1427 he showed up again, at sea in the Bay of Biscay. Near the harbour of Oleron, he captured a ship and her cargo valued at £220 which belonged to John Lovell, a merchant of Dundee. When a commission was issued for his own arrest, he went to Lovell and bargained with him, exonerating himself but suggesting that Lovell should obtain three more commissions in which he would accuse forty other pirates who had been, in fact, Hawley’s accomplices. Hawley also agreed, using his position as a man of influence, to approach these men, to collect the money, with which he would make good all Lovell’s losses. Equipped with the new commissions, Hawley collected the money from his one-time associates but then departed with it, ensuring that none of it reached Lovell. To make matters worse for the hapless Lovell, he was left in a position from which he could make no further claims for damages in this case. Hawley, on the other hand, was in an advantageous position: he had established his innocence in that particular case. He carried on in public service. In 1430, he was appointed a commissioner to arrest more pirates, and in 1436 he was a commissioner for array in Devonshire, intended to round up men and armaments for the defence of the realm, although as he died that May, he is unlikely to have taken that up.

John Mixtow of Fowey, similarly from an old-established pirate family, appears in September 1430, in a very peculiar case involving an admiral’s deputy. John Caryewe, master of the Mary of Le Conquet, who was sailing with a couple of other Breton vessels, had safely delivered a load of salt to Penzance. Soon after he had left for home with a quantity of cloth, he was captured ‘in warlike manner’ by a swarm of pirates from Marazion and other small local ports, contrary to the truce in force between England and Brittany. At that point John Mixtow and Harry Nanskaseke of Truro appeared on the scene, and persuaded the admiral’s deputy, John Moure, to arrest the ship, invoking letters of marque which had been granted by the Duke of Brittany to Nanskaseke’s father nineteen years previously. Using that as their excuse, they took possession of both the Breton ships and the cargo of cloth. We hear of that case because John Caryewe, complaining of great inconvenience, requested the chancellor to direct the Sheriff of Cornwall to ensure safe trading conditions for the Bretons. He also demanded that the chancellor should issue a writ of subpoena to John Moure, as well as Mixtow and Nanskaseke, to be examined in respect of the letters of marque they quoted. Unfortunately, there is no record of the outcome of this case but, more importantly, it is evidence that this official was very prepared to enter into collusion with the pirates.

Mixtow was to be heard of again, slightly later. In July 1433 he was leader of a gang said to number 200, sailing in the great ship the Edward and a supporting balinger off Cape St Vincent, southern Portugal. ‘Armed and arrayed for war’, they captured a Genoese caravel (also described as a carrack), laden with woad, olive oil and lye destined for the port of Sandwich and eventually, no doubt, for London. The crew had offered no resistance. None the less, Mixtow abandoned them, destitute, on the coast of Portugal, wrongly accusing them of being ‘Saracens’. Taken back to Fowey, her cargo was divided among the captors and was then distributed around Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Mixtow refused to accept the merchants’ evidence of identification, the ‘marks, charters and cockets’ on their goods, no doubt playing for time, during which the goods could be further dispersed.

Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy II

Conjectural sketch of a balinger (C) Ian Friel 2015.

Balinger: During the 14th–16th centuries, a class of clinker-built, oared ship, with a single mast and sail. Originating in the Basque whaling industry, its design migrated to England where balingers were used in war and trade, displacing English galleys from local waters during the 14th century.

A balinger for the King

Hawley and Mixtow were the forerunners of a new class of pirates, new men, who surfaced in the records from 1430 onwards (and it is remarkable that their appearance coincided exactly with the initial downturn of events in France). These were men who had never been employed by the Crown, as Eustace and John Crabbe had been. Nor were they, with one very short-term exception, sanctioned by the Crown as privateers, like the great John Hawley. They were not even, like the Alards or, again, John Hawley, leaders in society who would have ploughed some of their profits back into their communities. In contrast, they showed little or no allegiance to their roots. They were, to put it simply, full-time professional plunderers, whose sole objective was personal profit. The majority came from Devon and Cornwall, where they were well supported by men in high positions who in their turn stood to gain from their investment in the ships and the necessary victuals. But there were also others, from further east, who were playing the same game. Overall, these men were numerous, and particularly since their cases were very complex, it is only possible here to offer an insight into what was happening through the activities of a small representative sample.

They were as mobile as any of their forerunners, appearing wherever the prizes appealed. In the years up to 1436 their principal targets were the Breton ships sailing up the southern side of the Channel to Rouen and Dieppe, bringing the basic necessities to the English occupants of Normandy, and also to the Channel Islands. These amounted principally to food and wine from La Rochelle, salt from the Bay, and linen cloth and cords from Brittany, together with some commodities which had evidently come from further south, such as iron, and resin for caulking their vessels. The individual claims for compensation for goods lost to them were noticeably small in comparison to those of the previous century, which reflected the size of the ships they were using. They were relatively small barges and balingers, which had the advantage over the great long-distance ocean-going Italian ships, in that they were able to work out from, and carry their prizes into, the smaller harbours like Penzance and Teignmouth. But at the same time they were apparently able to work long distances. They appeared in the Bay of Biscay, and they also sold their goods at places all along the coast between Cornwall and Portsmouth, including the Isle of Wight, which seems to have been an important emporium, centred on Newport.

Some details illustrate how they received back-up support, and the nature of the problems this caused. In the spring of 1432 two Breton merchants complained specifically ‘to show the chancellor how well protected the wrong-doers on the sea-coasts of Devonshire were’. They said that those captors were bribing the admiral’s deputy to empanel juries made up for the most part of their own relatives and friends, together with the victuallers and owners of the ship concerned. Those juries could be relied upon to give false verdicts, for example stating that goods which had actually been stolen from the king’s friends had belonged instead to the king’s enemies. And, in return for a bribe of half the goods, the deputy could be relied on to enrol that verdict, which rendered the king’s commission ineffective. The Bretons emphasised that as long as the deputy was in league with the pirates, he was their guarantee that matters would be settled in their favour. Importantly, a second commission dealing with the same event exposed a complaint of extortion against John Baron, a merchant of Exeter, who was one of the members of that commission. The results of an inquiry into this case, which were enrolled four years later, revealed the extent of Baron’s extortion. In this case he had helped himself to a pipe of bastard wine which belonged to the Bretons. As well as that, on the pretext of the commission, he had taken one or two packs of cloth from every man in the neighbourhood to whom he bore ill will. He had the stamp of an exceptionally disagreeable and grasping individual. The upshot was that nobody dared trade without first paying him a cut. The king thus lost his customs and many people were wronged. In addition, it has emerged from more recent research that Baron had a history of warrants out for his arrest. These included one for stealing a ship which was under safe conduct direct from a Breton harbour, possibly the St Nunne, which is described below.

William Kydd was one of this new class of pirate. He rose from documentary obscurity in 1430 and subsequently flourished, travelling far and wide without much reference to his port of origin, Exmouth, at least before 1453. In October 1430 he was master of a balinger, La Trinité of Exmouth, which he had packed with other malefactors. They seized a ship as it was nearing Guernsey from Brittany with a cargo of food. The terms of the subsequent commission to the sheriff of Devon and others make it clear that the authorities were aware that the owners and victuallers of the ship were supporting the pirates because in the last resort, their goods and chattels were to be arrested. But, unfortunately for those merchants of Guernsey and for numerous others, this was a period when innumerable commissions were issued and very few indeed were acted upon. In other words, there was already unlimited immunity for the pirates.

The following year, Kydd was among a group who, sailing with a flotilla of four barges ‘armed and arraigned in the manner of war’, captured four food ships on their way towards Rouen, took them back to Dartmouth, Fowey and Kingsbridge (on the Salcombe estuary) and sold the goods locally. Similar piracy continued intensively, and built up until, on 31 March 1436, Kydd led the large group of pirates who descended in a flotilla of eight barges and balingers on the harbour of St Paul de Lyon, south-east of Roscoff, and carried off the Saint Nunne, a ship sheltering in that harbour while waiting for a favourable wind to cross to England. They escorted that ship back to Plymouth, where she still lay in October six months later, together with goods worth 100l which included white wine of La Rochelle, two types of cloth, and 24 flychys of bacon which belonged to Thomas Horewood of Wells.

In 1435, in order to respond to the crisis which was rapidly unfolding on the opposite shore of the Channel, the government had an acute need for ships. Some men concerned must have looked back regretfully to the time of Henry V, when royal or loyal hired vessels would have been used to cruise the Channel through the long summer season for the combined purposes of guarding against French ships leaving port, protecting English commerce and, if necessary, defending the south coast of England. But that was no longer an option. Even before Henry V died, those ships had become redundant and had started to decay. Back in 1423–24, the authorities, finding they were further decayed and maintenance would have been unjustifiable, and especially since there was then no pressing need for them, had sold off the ships which remained.

Therefore, when crisis was looming in February 1436 the government took the only course open to it, and issued short-term (four-month) licences to certain individual shipowners to equip certain named ships at their own expense ‘with a master, mariners, men at arms, archers, and other hibiliments of war, and victuals, to resist the king’s enemies on the sea’. They were not to be paid, but all captured goods were to belong to the captors, except for the certain ‘share’ reserved for the admiral. Of the greatest significance, a proviso was included to exonerate those who made most of this piracy possible. It was stated that if any offence should be committed against the king’s friends, the offender alone should answer for it: no responsibility was to fall on the owner or the victualler of the ship.

These commissions were mostly issued to men of east coast ports, but included one in the south-west, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth. He was another of those who first appears in the records after 1430, although he was notable as a shipowner and merchant of some substance. He was six times MP for the town between 1433 and 1455, and one of the collectors of customs in Exeter and Dartmouth in 1439 and in 1453. Between 1431 and 1435 he had frequently served on commissions to arrest men, ships and goods brought into West Country ports. Now, in 1436, he was licensed to equip and arm two of his ships, l’Antony and Le Katerine, both of Dartmouth, together with two supporting balingers or barges. For this short time, at least, he was a fully accredited privateer.

Gylle was heard of again in January 1440, in less dignified circumstances. His ship the Christopher of Dartmouth, 320 tons, was sailing home north to Dartmouth when, already in the lee of Start Point, she turned and, with full sail, a favourable wind and three well-harnessed men in the topcastle, rammed a much smaller ship which had been following some 3 miles behind her. She ‘sliced in two’ the George of Welles, 120 tons, and sank her. In his complaint to the chancellor, the owner, an Englishman born at Lancaster but then living in Drogheda, Ireland, prayed consideration for his great poverty, loss and delays and he took the opportunity to point out that while he was ignorant of Dartmouth, Gylle had ‘great authority and power in that district’.

Snapshots of the life of Hankyn Seelander illustrate the mobility, in more than one respect, of one of this new class of pirates. Both his address and even his name seem to have been readily adjustable. He is described variously as being of either Falmouth or Fowey, and it is also evident that he had valuable connections on the Isle of Wight.

In December 1433, as Hanquin Seland, he was accused of taking certain goods at sea from a ship of Bayonne. In 1439, a group of pirates in a balinger belonging to John Selander captured a Breton ship, the Saint Fiacre, sailing towards La Rochelle laden with goods belonging to John Loven. After Loven’s letters of safe conduct had been thrown overboard, he was robbed of both the ship and the cargo. In the early summer of 1441 one Hankyn Hood, presumably the same man, was sailing as master of the Marie with John Fresshow of Falmouth, a frequent companion, somewhere south of Brittany. In company with several other Cornish vessels they captured a ship of Vannes, southern Brittany, which they took to sell her cargo in one of the ports in the Gironde.

And so he went on, being especially active and confident in 1443–44. Around midsummer 1443 Alphonso Mendes, a merchant of Portugal, sailing in a ship of Tavira (on the south coast of Portugal) lost certain goods, principally fruit and bastard wine, to pirates who were named as John Selander and Hankyn Loo, both of Fowey. Unfortunately the location of this piracy was not disclosed, but one wonders whether these two names stood for one and the same man. That September, he had stolen wine and other merchandise from another Breton ship, of which John Rous was master.

On the Sunday before Christmas 1443, a group of pirates in a barge named Le Palmer of Fowey owned by Hankyn Selander captured another English ship, Le Mighell of Dartmouth, as she was preparing to enter Plymouth harbour at the end of her voyage from Brittany. She was carrying 21 tuns of wine and 17 pieces of linen cloth for a joint group of English merchants from the Plymouth area operating in partnership, it seems, with two named men from Le Conquet, Brittany. The pirates diverted the ship with its cargo to Newport, Isle of Wight, where they ‘did their will therof’. Although the goods may already have been sold, the commission which followed included the usual empty, unrealistic threat. He was to return the ship and the goods – or be committed to prison.

Clays Stephen of Portsmouth was another similar individual. In the autumn of 1445 he joined Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth and others who came from Kingswear, and captured a ship which had been sent by the Queen of France to bring a consignment of wine, iron and other merchandise to England. In spite of the ship having letters of safe conduct from the king and there being a truce between England and France, they brought it into Fowey. They disposed of the goods easily, and the merchants were severely beaten up and some were killed.

In about March 1448 Clays Stephen had travelled further in the opposite direction and was in the Thames estuary, where he was joined by William Kydd, who had come from even further west. They combined with others to attack a ship bringing goods for some London merchants from Arnemuiden near Middleburg in Zeeland to Queenborough near Sheerness. They took that ship first to Portsmouth and then disposed of the goods on the Isle of Wight.

That summer Clays Stephen, one of two pirates said to be staying at Sandwich, was busy in a flotilla out at sea ‘between Dover and Calais’, which encountered a small convoy on its way from La Rochelle to Sluys. He was the master of a balinger which took a similar ship, the Saint Piere de Lavyon, and relieved it of 39 tuns of wine belonging to a merchant of La Rochelle. At the same time another merchant lost 27 tuns of white wine from a second ship, the Noel de Arninton.

In the autumn of 1450 another small flotilla of English pirates captured a hulk (an old-fashioned term for a vessel which was probably a successor of the cog) named the St George of Bruges, which belonged to a group of merchants of that city and was on voyage home from Portugal. Clays Stephen was master of one of the pirate ships, Le Carvell of Portsmouth: others came from Southampton and Winchelsea.

These are just a few examples of the culture of concentrated piracy which existed in the 1430s and 1440s. Numerous men were involved, and between Portugal and the North Sea no mariner can have felt safe from them.

In 1449 England was in a high state of uncertainty and insecurity, with the threat of French raids renewed because France had control of the opposing Channel ports. Then there was also a stream of refugees arriving from Normandy, many of them destitute, retreating after the collapse of Henry V’s ‘permanent’ settlement. In April, the government appointed three senior officers to ‘keep the seas’, to cruise the Channel looking for trouble. Those officers included Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth, where he had already served as bailiff in 1446 and as mayor two years later. A month after his appointment the government found itself with somewhat more than it had bargained for, the largest prize of the century.

On 23 May, when Wenyngton was cruising with his ‘fellowship’ in a small flotilla of small vessels, in the general area of mid-Channel between Guernsey and Portland, he came upon the entire Bay fleet, some 110 larger vessels, which were carrying to Flanders and the Baltic not only salt but also some more valuable commodities, cloth and wine. Since Wenyngton had somehow become separated from the other two senior officers, one wonders if this encounter was entirely accidental. However, in a show of bravado, and with the advantage of a following wind, after a short altercation in which their admiral rebuffed his challenge, rather than risk the damage which might result from a mid-Channel gunfight, the whole fleet surrendered to him and was ushered into Southampton Water. Dutch and Flemish ships were soon released, but enormous bills were presented to the English government by the Hanse on behalf of its merchants.

In the penultimate month of our period, November 1453, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth, merchant of substance who had a long history of apparent probity as an officer of the Crown, and who was the controller of customs in Exmouth that year seems, at last, to have been drawn into the web of corruption. He was working in collusion with William Kydd, the long-established pirate, in connection with a captured ship belonging to the Bishop of St Andrews which they brought into Exmouth. The ensuing documents stand out as being extraordinarily complicated and contorted, even by the standards of this period. Suffice it to say that they involved impersonation of the bishop’s brother; obtaining a commission under false pretences; impounding another ship in Scotland by way of reprisal; death-threats to officers of the Crown who approached the ship when in Sandwich; and the eventual escape of the ship, after her name had been changed, for the second time, to the Antony of Dartmouth. By March 1456 she was carrying thirty pilgrims on their way south to the shrine of St James at Compostela in Galicia.

All this time, piracy flourished, not only because of the usual reasons. The Crown was indeed weak, and deep-seated dynastic power struggles were taking place between excessively rich magnates. Law and order had certainly broken down in all levels of society. And, with the progressive loss of Normandy, the Channel became, once again, a dangerous frontier zone. In addition, and pervading all that, was corruption which reflected the underlying loss of the checks and balances which had previously been provided by the feudal system.

The degree of corruption was such that administrators in the ports, wealthy landowners inland and high-level legal officers were all involved. Widespread plunder was being carried out by the men of the sea with the strong support, encouragement and participation of the whole establishment, particularly in Cornwall and Devon.

By way of an epilogue, it is a nice irony that when, after several years of civil war and political manoeuvring, the time came, on 26 June 1460, for the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury to escort the Duke of York and his teenage son Edward across the Channel from Calais to Sandwich, they did so in a ship recently stolen from the French. Within nine more tumultuous months Edward had taken over the throne as Edward IV.

Royalist Cause Mobilises

The King Charles I’s military preparations got off to an uninspiring start. On his arrival in Yorkshire the local Trained Bands were called out and although they accompanied him on an abortive attempt to secure the great magazine at Hull on 29 April, it was also clear that they would not be willing to march beyond the county boundary. If he was to raise a proper army he needed to look elsewhere.

In June therefore the King began issuing both Commissions of Array, empowering the authorities in each county to muster and arm troops, and also military commissions directing named individuals to raise regiments. Although some units were raised in Yorkshire it soon became clear that a more central location should be chosen for the mustering point. To that end therefore he left York and formally set up his standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642. By this symbolic act he announced that he was taking the field not as Charles Stuart, but as King of England and that all who stood against him were rebels. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the choice of Nottingham was less than inspired.

Parliament too was busily enlisting volunteers. Backed by City money and ready access to both existing magazines and the continental arms markets, it planned to raise no fewer than twenty regiments of foot for an army to be led by Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. The call met with an enthusiastic response and on 18 August two of those regiments were ordered to Warwickshire. Having been joined on the road by a third regiment, they successfully brushed aside a Royalist detachment at Southam on the 22nd1 and afterwards occupied Coventry, leaving Sir Jacob Astley to pessimistically declare: ‘He could give no assurance that the King would not be taken out of his bed if the rebels made a brisk attempt to that purpose.’

On 7 September more regiments left London and Essex opened his headquarters at Northampton on the 10th. In the face of this growing threat the King was persuaded to move westwards either to Shrewsbury or Chester where he could pick up the numerous levies expected out of Wales and the North West. Accompanied by just five regiments of foot and a bare 500 horse, he evacuated Nottingham on the 13th and marching by way of Derby, Uttoxeter, Stafford and Wellington, he established himself at Shrewsbury on the 20th while his nephew, Prince Rupert took up an advanced position at Bridgenorth with the cavalry. It took a few days for Essex to learn of this move, and consequently, he did not leave Northampton until the 19th, with the intention of occupying Worcester. In so doing he precipitated the first serious clash of the campaign.

In July the Oxford colleges had pledged their silver plate to the King, but making the offer and actually delivering it were two entirely different matters. A cavalier officer, Sir John Byron was therefore ordered to Oxford with 150 horse and dragoons and instructions to secure as much of it as possible. Given that the Midlands were already infested with Parliamentarian detachments and recruiting parties this was a risky business, but any delay could mean that the plate might be seized by the Parliamentarians instead – Oliver Cromwell had already prevented a similar donation by the Cambridge colleges. In the event the first phase of the operation went smoothly enough. Byron and his newly raised regiment were convoyed south as far as Leicester by Prince Rupert and apart from a minor skirmish at Brackley they arrived unmolested on 28 August. Naturally, it took some time to gather in the plate and assemble a pack-train and as the days passed Byron’s situation grew ever more perilous. This was particularly so after Rupert’s withdrawal from Leicester on 5 September. Returning to Nottingham was no longer possible, so instead spurred on by the news that Essex was establishing him self at Northampton, Byron evacuated Oxford on the 10th and headed westwards.

Slowed down by the heavily laden pack-train he took ten days to cover the sixty-odd miles from Oxford to Worcester and, having thrown himself into the dubious shelter of the city’s crumbling walls on the 20th, he decided to dig in there and wait for help. As the King was also on the move he may in any case have been uncertain as to where to go next. At any rate Rupert, alerted to his plight, moved south and two days later was at Bewdley, but by that time the Parliamentarians were also closing in fast.

At dawn on the morning of the 22nd a detachment of about 1000 of Essex’s horse and dragoons led by Colonel John Brown made a half-hearted attempt to force the city’s Sidbury Gate. The guard refused to be intimidated but although Brown made off before Byron could mount a sortie, he had no intention of giving up. Hauling off to the south he crossed the Severn at Upton and then headed back up the west bank to take up an ambush position just south of the river Teme at Powick shortly before dawn on the 23rd. Worcester itself lay on the east bank and Brown correctly foresaw that when Essex arrived Byron would try to make a run for it up the west bank. As soon as the convoy broke cover Brown planned to move forward and snap it up in open country and so although the dragoons took up a covering position on a low ridge overlooking the Terme he kept his cavalry mounted and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

For a time nothing happened, but later that afternoon a number of Parliamentarian sympathisers hurried out of the city to advise him that Byron was preparing to leave. As the Royalists can have been only too well aware that Brown was waiting for them this could only mean that Essex was approaching. Sure enough confirmation of this came at 4pm and Brown decided to make his move.

Oddly enough, there appears to have been a surprising lack of enthusiasm on the part of some of his troop commanders. The MP Captain Nathaniel Fiennes for one is said to have urged caution, but Brown had his heart set on capturing the convoy and while he mounted up his dragoons Colonel Edwin Sandys led the rest of the cavalry across the narrow pack bridge and into the equally narrow lane beyond. Unfortunately, what neither Brown nor Sandys realised was that in the meantime Prince Rupert had arrived and in order to cover Byron’s withdrawal was taking up a blocking position in Wick Field, just to the north of the bridge. The hedges lining the lane were consequently stuffed full of Royalist dragoons who very properly saluted Sandys with a volley delivered at point-blank range. Sandys naturally responded by spurring forward in order to get clear of the lane and into Wick Field, but there he received a second unwelcome shock, for the field was full of Royalist cavalrymen frantically catching and mounting their horses.

Not expecting a Parliamentarian move so late in the day, the cavaliers had literally been caught napping. All or most of them had dismounted and were sleeping under the trees and now a desperate race developed as both sides deployed into a hasty battle-line. Having been forewarned by the noise of the ambush, the Royalists had a crucial few moments’ advantage and Rupert charged first, sword in hand. Only one of the Parliamentarian troops, commanded by Fiennes, seems to have put up much of a fight. Sandys himself went down and his whole command was sent tumbling back down the lane. As soon as the ambush was tripped Brown had dismounted his dragoons again and now he checked the Royalist pursuit at the bridge, but the fugitives themselves kept going, recrossed the Severn at Upton and running into Essex’s own Lifeguard troop at Pershore carried them away in the general rout.

It is difficult to assess the casualties suffered by either side in this affair and all that can be said is that the Royalists reckoned to have taken about 50 or 60 prisoners. They also put it about that they had killed and wounded as many more, but given the brief duration of both fighting and pursuit, this claim is probably more optimistic than accurate. Naturally enough, their own losses were light although a surprising number of officers seem to have managed to get themselves wounded as a result of going into action without waiting to buckle on their armour. On one thing at least both sides were agreed: Sandys’ Regiment was destroyed as a military unit and although the fight was otherwise of no real military significance it had enhanced Royalist morale and left the Parliamentarian cavalry with a decided inferiority complex.

Balked of his prey, Essex occupied Worcester on the 24th and then waited for the rest of his forces to catch up. His army had still not been fully concentrated when he took it out of Northampton and it was not until two weeks later that the last of them trudged in. On 7 October Cholmley’s Regiment was pushed up the valley as far as Bridgenorth but this was evidently considered a little too exposed, for by the 11th Essex had established a proper set of forward positions in the area of Bewdley and Kidderminster. Despite his brief to seek out the King, Essex seems to have been reluctant to act aggressively and instead his dispositions indicate that he was anticipating a Royal advance down the Valley.

Unfortunately, if one excepts the vicarious employment of spies, this tripwire was the extent of Essex’s intelligence gathering. If the King did what was expected of him the detachments at Kidderminster and Bewdley would give adequate warning of the direction and strength of the offensive and perhaps even delay it while Essex brought his main force out of Worcester to meet the Royalists on ground of his own choosing. The King, however, failed to oblige. While a march down the Valley was certainly the obvious approach, the professional soldiers advising the King successfully argued for a thrust straight at London. Essex would certainly try to intercept such a move, but it was better that the inevitable encounter should take place in the Midlands where the countryside was generally open, rather than in the Severn Valley where the numerous enclosed fields would hamper the employment of the Royalists’ best asset – their cavalry.

In order to cover this movement Rupert marched on 10 October to Shifnal and then from there to Wolverhampton and down to Stourbridge on the 14th. In the face of this advance Lord Wharton obligingly fell back from Kidderminster and confirmed to Essex that the King was indeed coming down the Valley. In reality the King had actually marched out of Shrewsbury with all his foot on the 12th, and by the 19th, when Essex at last realised what was happening, the Royalists were at Kenilworth with the road to London wide open before them. There was no question of course of their making a dash for the capital while Essex’s army remained in being, but the threat was sufficient to bring the unfortunate general marching eastwards and worse still, marching blind.

It was at this point that the evil effects of the Powick Bridge debacle first became apparent. Essex ought to have had his cavalry out observing the Royalists but instead he kept them close at hand and lacking proper intelligence the two armies blundered into each other by accident. Contact was established not through aggressive patrolling but through the chance encounter of two parties of Quartermasters seeking billets at Wormleighton in Warwickshire on the 22nd. The Royalists were evidently taken just as unawares but they won the fight which followed and on further investigation found Essex moving into quarters around the small market town of Kineton.

At midnight orders were given for the Royalists to concentrate later that morning on Edgehill, a three-mile-long ridge lying astride the Kineton to Banbury road. They were also as it happened forming up between Essex and London. Bad weather on the march had been forcing both armies to disperse each night in search of shelter and consequently they were slow to concentrate. Rupert seems to have been on the ridge by daybreak but it was after two before the King’s army was fully concentrated and some of Essex’s regiments were still arriving as the battle ended.

Edgehill proper is rather too steep and commanding to invite an attack and so the Royalists descended about as far as the 350-foot contour line which represents the point at which the slope rather abruptly begins to level out and fall away rather more gently towards the north-west and the village of Kineton. Most of the ground was taken up with an open expanse of unenclosed ridges and furrows known as Red Horse Field, which offered no impediment to a textbook deployment and thanks to the preparation of a map by the Walloon engineer Bernard de Gomme it is a relatively straightforward matter to reconstruct the Royalist dispositions.

The cavalry deployment at first glance appears quite straightforward, although a close examination throws up some interesting questions. In the first place de Gomme omits any mention of the Royalist dragoons, but it is clear from other sources that four regiments were present – and not three as is usually assumed – under the overall command of an experienced professional soldier named Sir Arthur Aston. According to the Duke of York, Aston (who had just been commissioned as Major General of Dragoons) took post on the right and a number of sources also testify to the presence there of Colonel James Usher’s Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Washington. The second regiment in his little brigade is unidentified, but there is no reason to doubt that it was Sir Edmund Duncombe’s since both regiments on the left can be identified. Colonel Edward Grey’s Regiment was certainly there and Bulstrode refers to the dragoons on that flank being commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Lisle and Lieutenant Colonel John Innes. The latter is known to have commanded Prince Rupert’s Dragoons and therefore Lisle presumably fought under Grey, who also appears from the Duke of York’s account to have served as acting brigade commander. While both Washington and Grey were to be employed in clearing the hedges to their immediate front the role played by Rupert’s and Duncombe’s dragoons is less certain, although Belayse asserted that: ‘before every body of foot were placed two pieces of cannon, and before them the dragoons and 1,200 commanded musqueteers as Enfants Perdu.’ If true this would suggest that in addition to covering the flanks the dragoons formed a rudimentary skirmish line ahead of the infantry brigades.

There is no evidence that any of these regiments were particularly strong, and as the Royalists are generally credited with having around 1,000 dragooners it can be assumed that both Aston’s and Grey’s brigades mustered 500 men apiece.

As to the Horse, de Gomme’s representation of their deployment appears at first glance to be quite straightforward with both wings being drawn up in ‘checquer’, that is with three regiments in the front line and two more in the rear covering the gaps between.

On the extreme left of the front line stood three squadrons of Lord Wilmot’s Regiment, and then Lord Grandison’s and Lord Caernarvon’s regiments with two squadrons apiece. In the second line were Sir Thomas Aston’s and Lord Digby’s regiments, each forming only a single squadron. With the exception of Lord Wilmot’s Regiment the number of cornets depicted by de Gomme corresponds to the number of troops known to have been mustered with each regiment and the additional cornet in Wilmot’s outermost squadron may represent the troop commanded by ‘Blind Harry’ Hastings, whose whereabouts are otherwise unknown. Assuming this to be the case it would seem likely that the first line, commanded by Wilmot himself, numbered about 850–900 officers and men, with a further 300 or so in support.

Turning to the right wing, however, there at first appears to be an odd discrepancy both as to the number of comets depicted by de Gomme and in the apparent strength of Sir John Byron’s Regiment. On the extreme right of the front line stood the King’s Lifeguard comprising a single squadron said by Sir Philip Warwick to have been 300 strong. Its proper place should have been with the King himself, but stung by unkind jibes from the rest of the cavalry they insisted on taking part in the attack.

The Lifeguard aside there were, as on the left, three regiments in the front line: the Prince of Wales’ Regiment, Prince Rupert’s and Prince Maurice’s Regiments. All three were formed in two squadrons and all three according to de Gomme’s plan mustered four troops apiece. Maurice’s Regiment certainly had only four troops but the other two were rather stronger with Rupert’s mustering six troops and the Prince of Wales’ perhaps as many as eight. Conversely, however, Sir John Byron’s Regiment in the second line is depicted with six troops organised in two squadrons. As he had mustered no more than 200 horse and dragoons at Worcester only a month before this looks rather unlikely. It is rather more probable therefore that the two squadrons which de Gomme shows under Sir John Byron’s command is actually an ad hoc brigade comprising his own embryonic cavalry regiment and the reserve troops of the Prince of Wales’ and Prince Rupert’s regiments.

Assuming that one third of both regiments went into the reserve, as was certainly a common practice, then the front line ought to have numbered close on 900 officers and men, while Byron’s two reserve squadrons may have mustered anything from 300 to 500 men depending on just how strong his own regiment was. Both wings of horse were therefore of a similar size except for the addition of the 300 Lifeguards on the right.

The equally neat-looking deployment of the infantry forming the centre masks a furious row over their deployment. Like the cavalry, they were initially drawn up in ‘checquer’ with three brigades in the front line and two in the second.

From right to left stood Colonel Charles Gerard’s brigade, comprising his own, Sir Lewis Dyve’s and Sir Ralph Dutton’s regiments. In the centre of the front line Colonel Richard Fielding’s brigade was made up from Sir Thomas Lunsford’s, Colonel Richard Bolle’s, Sir Edward Fitton’s and Sir Edward Stradling’s regiments, but apparently not his own one which may have been part of a small force covering Banbury. Finally, on the left Colonel Henry Wentworth’s brigade comprising Sir Gilbert Gerard’s, Sir Thomas Salisbury’s and Lord Molyneux’s regiments. Covering the substantial gaps between these brigades were the two standing in the second line; on the right, Sir John Belasyse’s brigade which again consisted of his own, Sir William Pennyman’s and Thomas Blagge’s regiments, and on the left; Sir Nicholas Byron’s brigade comprising the King’s Lifeguard of Foot (de Gomme depicts the Royal standard with the right hand division of this brigade), the Lord General’s and Sir John Beaumont’s regiments. On the basis of a pay warrant dated 16 November 1642, just three weeks after the battle, it has been estimated that the strength of these brigades was probably in the region of 1800 or 1900 men apiece.

The operational deployment of these brigades proved to be controversial. The King’s Lord General, the Earl of Lindsey intended to array them in the conventional Dutch or German manner, that is with two battalions up and one back. Each of these battalions would have been drawn up with a stand of pikes in the centre and musketeers on each wing. Instead a furious row broke out when the Field Marshall Patrick Ruthven insisted on employing a quite different formation known as the Swedish Brigade.

This was essentially a diamond formation comprising four battalions. The point battalion was drawn up with its stand of pikemen forward and the musketeers behind. To the right and left rear of this battalion were two more, deployed with their pikes towards the centre of the formation and the musketeers on the outside. The fourth or reserve battalion was deployed like the first and standing directly behind it.

There is no doubting that this was a complicated formation, which required the constituent regiments to be broken up and their personnel redistributed throughout the brigade. At first sight therefore it seems to have been asking too much of the inexperienced Royalist infantry and it has been suggested that the adoption of the ‘Swedish’ brigade contributed to their poor performance in the battle. However, the decision was not blindly based upon dogma but upon a very sensible appreciation of just how poorly equipped those infantrymen really were.

It is clear from de Gomme’s map and from the surviving records of arms and ammunition issued in the months after the battle that at this early stage of the war most regiments could only muster equal numbers of musketeers and pikemen – and some perhaps more pikemen – rather than the two musketeers for each pikeman required to form German-style battalions. This shortage of musketeers was obviously going to place the Royalists at a significant disadvantage in a firefight so Ruthven decided to form them up in the old ‘Swedish’ brigade which was in fact an assault formation quite literally spearheaded by pikemen.

As to the King’s artillery, little needs to be said. A pair of light guns were attached to each infantry brigade and six heavier ones appear to have been emplaced just to the north of Radway, some 300 metres behind Gerard’s brigade.

Syrian Military Effectiveness during the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon

Syrian combat performance in Lebanon showed improvement over past wars in some respects, while in other ways it showed no improvement whatsoever.

Strategic Performance.

Given the conditions under which they were forced to operate—and despite Asad’s continued commissarist politicization of his armed forces—Syrian generalship was fine, even good, although not brilliant. Syrian moves in the first few days were wise given their desire to avoid provoking Israel while preventing the IDF from securing a decisive advantage and then attacking the Syrian forces in Lebanon. Syrian units were placed on alert right away and ordered to begin preparing and repairing defensive positions along key axes of advance. Damascus bolstered its air defenses in the Bekaa and redeployed two of its best armored divisions plus several more commando battalions to reinforce its units in Lebanon, many of which had been on occupation duties for so long that they were not combat ready.

When the Israelis began pushing up the spine of the Lebanon range toward the Beirut-Damascus highway, the Syrians recognized the danger of this move and decided to block it, regardless of the potential for provoking a war with Israel. This too was probably the right move: as badly as the fighting in the Bekaa actually went for Syria, it almost certainly would have been worse had the Israelis been able to cut the Beirut-Damascus highway and then attack into the Bekaa from behind the main Syrian defense lines.

Syria’s strategy for fighting the Israelis once it became clear that war was unavoidable was also reasonable. Damascus deployed its commandos forward with armor support in ambushes along the narrow paths into the Bekaa. They were ideally placed to contest the Israeli advance. The alternative, deploying all of the commandos with the reinforced 1st Armored Division along the main Syrian defense lines in the Bekaa, would not have taken full advantage of the commandos’ capabilities, and their impact would have been diminished.

The Syrian defensive strategy in the Bekaa was straightforward: a standard, Soviet-style defense-in-depth with two brigades up and one back, but entirely appropriate for the situation. It may be the case that a truly brilliant general might have found a better approach, but the Syrian strategy was not bad, and it is unclear that Syrian tactical forces could have implemented a more sophisticated defensive scheme. For instance, any kind of elastic defense strategy would have given up the enormous advantage of the terrain. It also would have required Syrian units to prevail over the IDF in fluid maneuver warfare. Given the drubbing the Syrians took when they were defending in place and had all of the advantages of the terrain, and how badly their forces fared when they tried to maneuver against the Israelis, it seems likely that any such mobile defense would have failed far worse.

Finally, although the decision to commit the Syrian Air Force to defend the SAMs and the ground forces in the Bekaa Valley resulted in the destruction of about a quarter of the Syrian Air Force, it too was probably the best move. Not sending out the Air Force to confront the Israelis would have been a severe blow to morale throughout the Syrian armed forces. Moreover, the Syrian Air Force did succeed in keeping much of the Israeli Air Force occupied on June 9–10, the key days of the battle. In fact, the IAF was so intent on killing Syrian MiGs that they concentrated most of their effort on the air battles. As a result, the IAF did not provide much support to Israeli armor in the Bekaa until late on June 10 when the Syrian lines had already been broken. Of course, what can be faulted in the decision to commit the Syrian Air Force was the absence of any real strategy that took into account the well-known shortcomings of Syrian planes and pilots and so might have allowed the Syrian fighters to accomplish something more than merely serving as a punching bag for the IAF to distract it from the ground battles.

Tactical Performance. The real variations in Syrian military effectiveness were at the tactical level. Specifically, there was a sizable gap between the performance of Syrian commandos and that of the rest of the armed forces. Syria’s commando forces consistently fought markedly better than any other units of the Syrian military. They chose good ambush sites and generally established clever traps to lure the Israelis into prepared kill zones. The commandos showed a decent ability to operate in conjunction with tanks and other armored vehicles, integrating them into their own fire schemes and doing a good job protecting the tanks from Israeli infantry. The Syrian commandos also were noticeably more aggressive, creative, and willing to take initiative and to seize fleeting opportunities than other Syrian units. Their surprise counterattacks on Israeli armored columns at Ayn Zhaltah and Rashayyah in the Bekaa stand out in particular. Finally, the Syrian commandos did an excellent job disengaging whenever the Israelis began to gain the upper hand in a fight, at which point they usually pulled back to another ambush site farther up the road.

In contrast, the rest of Syria’s armed forces performed very poorly, manifesting all of the same problems that had plagued them in their previous wars. In the words of Major General Amir Drori, the overall commander of the Israeli invasion, “The Syrians did everything slower and worse than we expected.” Without a doubt, the Syrian Air Force performed worst of all the services, but having discussed their problems in some detail above, I will concentrate on the Syrian Army.

As opposed to the competent performance turned in by their commandos, Syria’s line formations had little to brag about other than their stubborn resistance and orderly retreat. Syrian armor consistently refused to maneuver against the Israelis, with the result that in every tank duel, no matter how much the terrain or circumstances favored the Syrians, it was only a matter of time before the Israelis’ superior marksmanship and constant efforts to maneuver for advantage led to a Syrian defeat. Chaim Herzog has echoed this assessment, observing that the Syrian military’s greatest problem was its chronic “inflexibility in maneuver.” Syrian artillery support was very poor and had little effect on the fighting. Syrian artillery batteries showed almost no ability to shift fire in response to changing tactical situations or to coordinate fire from geographically dispersed units. Syrian armored and mechanized formations recognized the need to conduct combined arms operations, but showed little understanding of how to actually do so. Infantry, armor, and artillery all failed to provide each other with adequate support, allowing the Israelis to defeat each in detail. In general, the Syrians relied on mass to compensate for their tactical shortcomings, but Israeli tactical skill proved so overwhelming that even where Syrian armored and mechanized formations were able to create favorable odds ratios, they were still easily defeated by the Israelis.

Damascus’s ground forces had other problems as well. Syrian units were extremely negligent in gathering information and conducting reconnaissance. Many Syrian commanders simply failed to order patrols to keep abreast of Israeli movements in their sector, instead relying on information passed down from higher echelons. Those patrols that were dispatched seemed to have little feel for the purpose of reconnaissance and rarely gathered much useful information. As a result, many Syrian units blundered around Lebanon with little understanding of where the Israelis were, sometimes with fatal consequences. Syrian units showed poor fire discipline, squandering rounds so quickly that they were forced to retreat because they were out of ammunition. Despite extensive training in night-combat from their Soviet advisors, Syrian units were almost helpless after dark. Syrian personnel at all levels could not night navigate, their units lost all cohesion in the darkness, and morale dropped accordingly. Only some of the commando units showed any ability to actually apply the training they had received and operate after dark but, fortunately for the Syrians, the Israelis generally halted each night.

The Syrian Gazelle helicopter gunships made a huge psychological impact on the Israelis, but did little actual damage. The Gazelles were not able to manage more than a few armor kills during the war, and although they employed proper “pop-up” tactics, they could only delay the Israelis. Although this was useful in slowing the Israeli advance to the Bekaa and then hindering the Israeli pursuit after they had broken through the Syrian lines, the Gazelles were unable to prevent Syrian defeats, even when they were committed in large numbers as in the fighting around Lake Qir’awn. One Israeli officer observed that the Syrian Gazelles were “not a problem” because they did not employ them creatively, had bad aim, and operated only individually or in pairs, making it easy for the IDF to handle them. Anthony Cordesman has commented that Syrian helicopter operations in Lebanon suffered from “The same tactical and operational rigidities, training, and command problems that affected its tank, other armor, and artillery performance.” Consequently, their contributions were negligible.

Syrian combat support was another impediment to their tactical performance. In particular, Syrian logistics were appalling. Damascus had established huge stockpiles of spares and combat consumables in the Bekaa, yet during the combat operations many Syrian units could not get resupplied (although part of the problem was their wasteful expenditure of ammunition). Graft had riddled the Syrian quartermaster corps with the result that a lot of things that were supposed to have been available were not. In addition, the Syrians did not understand their Soviet-style “push” logistics system, with quartermasters demanding formal requests for provisions, rather than simply sending supplies to the front at regular intervals as intended.

Maintenance was another problem area for the Syrians. Most Syrian soldiers were incapable and unwilling to perform even basic preventive maintenance on their weapons and vehicles. Instead, these functions had to be performed by specialized technicians attached at brigade and division level, and for most repairs, equipment had to be sent back to a small number of central depots around Damascus. These facilities were manned in part by Cuban technicians who handled the more advanced Soviet weaponry. The Israelis reported capturing a fair number of Syrian armored vehicles abandoned because of minor mechanical problems.

The fact that Syria’s commandos performed so much better than Syrian units ever had in the past should not obscure the fact that, in an absolute sense, when compared to the forces of other armies, Syria’s commando battalions were still mediocre. In general, the Syrian commandos were content to sit in their prepared positions, fire down on Israeli forces that wandered into their ambushes, and then retreat as soon as the Israelis recovered and began to bust up the Syrian defensive scheme. Incidents such as the commando counterattacks at Ayn Zhaltah, Rashayyah, and a few other minor engagements were still exceptions to the rule. They are noteworthy because they were among the only times that even the commandos tried to get out and upset Israeli operations. The rule, however, was for the commandos to establish ambushes and then wait passively for the IDF to come to them.

The commandos also weren’t terrific with their weapons: on any number of occasions, Israeli units were completely trapped by Syrian commando ambushes, and subjected to a hail of gunfire, grenades, and missiles, only to emerge having suffered just a handful of casualties. In addition, like other Syrian formations, the commandos frequently neglected to cover their flanks or were too quick to conclude that terrain was impassable. As a result, many Syrian ambushes were cleared by Israeli flank guards or bypassed altogether when Israeli combat engineers found a way through terrain the Syrians had deemed impassable.

Unit cohesion among Syrian formations in Lebanon was actually quite good. For the most part, Syrian units stuck together and fought back under all circumstances. Few Syrian units simply disintegrated in combat. The rule was that Syrian units fought hard and then stuck together and retreated well. Although it is true that Israeli pressure was uncharacteristically light on the Syrian armored forces withdrawing up the Bekaa after their defeat on June 10, there were still many instances of Syrian units showing good discipline and retreating in good order under heavy pressure. The commandos in particular showed outstanding unit cohesion. In many fights they clung to their defensive positions until they were overpowered by Israeli infantry units, and in several clashes, Syrian commando units fought to the last man to hold particularly important positions or when acting as rear guards to allow other forces to escape.

Syrian Combat Performance and Underdevelopment

It’s easy to get distracted by the better performance of Syria’s commandos in 1982 and see it as evidence that the Syrians had improved dramatically over their performance in 1948 (and 1967, 1970, 1973, and 1976). It’s just as important not to. The commandos represented no more than about 5 percent of the Syrian forces that fought against the Israelis in Lebanon. They were better than the other 95 percent, but not dramatically so. They never proved the equal of their Israeli opponents. They were always beaten, sometimes badly, sometimes very badly.

Meanwhile, the rest of the force was pretty disastrous and showed no marked improvement over the conduct of their predecessors back in 1948. It’s not that there weren’t any differences between the Syrian Army of 1948 and that of 1982. There were. And in some important areas and in some very noticeable ways. But overall, it’s hard to make the case that Syrian combat effectiveness had improved much.

Syrian strategic performance was notably better in 1982 than it had been in 1948, but that had nothing to do with underdevelopment. If anything, it is another bit of evidence regarding the impact of politicization. Asad had found a handful of generals who were both competent and loyal to command his forces before the October War, and these men largely remained in charge in 1982.

Syrian tactical leadership, however, demonstrated the same set of problems that plagued their forces in 1948 and all of the wars in-between. Their junior officers would not act aggressively or creatively, could not execute ad hoc operations, did not bother to patrol or otherwise try to collect information, could not maneuver for advantage or even shift their forces to react to enemy maneuvers. They rarely counterattacked, and when they did so it was generally a clumsy frontal assault. Time and again, Syrian tactical forces just sat in their defensive positions and blasted away (inaccurately) until the Israelis killed them or maneuvered them out of position. And while the commandos did noticeably better with combined arms, an ability to improvise defensive positions quickly, and a somewhat greater reactivity to Israeli moves, so too did some of the Syrian forces in 1948, notably in their second assault on Zemach and the fighting at Mishmar HaYarden. Moreover, the performance of the Syrian Air Force in 1982 was absolutely dreadful, more than compensating for any plaudits the commandos might have won. In terms of tactical leadership, there was little, if any, improvement among Syrian forces despite Syria’s significant economic development from 1948 to 1982.

A variety of other problems persisted or actually got worse as Syria developed economically between 1948 and 1982. Syrian logistics were not great in 1948, but neither did they have to be. Very little was asked of them. Syrian logistics were awful in 1982, although corruption was a big part of the problem. Syrian maintenance and operational readiness rates did not improve much, nor did Syrian weapons handling. To some extent, all of these issues need to be seen in relative terms: in 1982, the Syrians were operating far more sophisticated equipment requiring far greater logistical needs than they had in 1948. They were still bad, but they seemed to be keeping pace, staying at the same mediocre level, even as the sophistication of their equipment increased. That suggests an improvement that paralleled their rising level of development.

The one area where that didn’t seem to apply was Syria’s air force pilots. In 1982, they were utterly incapable of flying (let alone fighting) their planes when they lost their GCI guidance. There is no parallel in 1948, and this suggests that the MiG-23 and even the MiG-21 may have been beyond the ability of even a better-developed Syria to employ properly.

In an absolute sense, the Syrian military of 1982 was vastly more powerful than that of 1948. It was better armed, better trained, more professional, larger, and had more combat experience. If they somehow could have fought each other, the Syrian military of 1982 undoubtedly would have beaten the Syrian military of 1948. Two things are noteworthy for our purposes, however. First, many of the most crippling problems that the Syrians (and other Arab militaries) have consistently experienced since 1948 in tactical leadership and information handling remained unabated. If anything, they got worse. Second, despite the significant improvement in Syria’s socioeconomic circumstances, its problems with logistics, maintenance, weapons handling, and even combined arms operations did not improve much, if at all. At best, they kept the same mediocre pace with the increasing sophistication of Syria’s Soviet-supplied kit.

All of this suggests that underdevelopment probably did have an impact on the effectiveness of Arab militaries since World War II, but like politicization, it came in certain areas, and not necessarily those that were the most deleterious.

WWI Ground Strafing

Two American Spads strafe German troops during the St. Mihiel battle; one of them is hit by ground fire by Robert W. Wilson.

Fokker DVII, on Strafing Run over Trenches by Michael Turner

In Meuse-Argonne action of late September and on, American pursuit and observation units reported ground machine-gunning as regular work. In more specific terms the citation for award of the Silver Star to an American pilot for strafing a German artillery unit read in part, for “killing 60 horses and a like number of men.”

The U. S. 1st Pursuit Group flew numerous low-altitude patrols to counter German squadrons of specialized ground attack aircraft, called “troop strafers” by American troops. Flying under 500 feet, our pursuits broke up numerous such attacks. But these heavily gunned and armored enemy planes also caused Gen. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, to state a need to Washington for a larger caliber, higher muzzle velocity aircraft machine gun to best shoot them down.

A specialized U. S. air unit was the 185th Aero Squadron, flying Camel pursuits. It was trained to engage German Gotha bombers operating at night. Yet, when bad weather frequently halted these German raids, the 185th turned to low-level night attack of the enemy on the ground. On one mission a German train was strafed as it steamed along unsuspecting of such attack at night. Also, staff officers of Brig. Gen. Mitchell, driving at night with lights on, took hits in their vehicle by machine-gun fire from a German aircraft above.

Some of the under-lying principles and nature of that “doing” came directly from World War I strafing. For example, in the film and video Thunderbolt (sponsored by the U. S. Army Air Forces [USAAF]) on World War II air action, P-47 pilots are shown shooting up trucks, trains and other targets of opportunity with their aircraft machine guns in Italy in 1944. As the narration states, “Every man his own general!” Found in a film production, these words may hint at “theatrical,” but they are fully valid historically.

Examples of British, German, and American strafing show varied missions flown. Lt. Case was on a 14-plane mission. Rickenbacker and Chambers operated as a pair. MacArthur and Udet flew one-man efforts. But regardless of how many planes left home base together, once into strafing action it was done as single planes or small elements-and those pilots and element leaders became the decision makers in their searches for and attack of targets, now their own generals.

But that is not the full story. We need to identify just what was being employed in this air-to-ground machine gunning as these decisions were made. Was it planes and aircrews, and guns and ammunition? Yes, but more specifically and accurately from the pilot’s and aircrew’s view, it was the “time of fire” of the guns. That time of fire was inherent in gunfighting. It was there in some amount of time, continuously available for use on the enemy. On the other hand, that time of fire could not be used all at once. It took that long to generate it-as opposed to bombs, rockets, etc., that could be released all at once or almost so if desired. Thus aircraft gunfighting (dogfighting and strafing) had a built-in decision factor for pilots and aircrews in applying its time of fire. For strafing, whether trench strafing, ground strafing, airfield strafing, or hunt and find strafing, once out over the enemy there was always that amount of time up for decision on how to use it.

With his time of fire, Lt. Mayberry moved about strafing a variety of targets. So did Case. Udet stayed in one place with repeated passes to destroy a key target there. MacArthur went back mission after mission, pass after pass, to shoot troops crossing a river. Rickenbacker and Chambers stayed with their large convoy target, as did the Allied strafers who destroyed 11 new Fokkers on an airfield. Young and Bogel and Richthofen were not even on strafing missions; they just decided to strafe.

The majority of the pilots and aircrews in these examples used all their firing time, applying it in multiple passes. In every case, they had a specific target that they had found. Their shooting was aimed right into that in-view target. They wasted little or none of their time of fire toward anything except bullet holes in enemy equipment and hides. That maximum number of such holes per airplane employed seems a very valid and effective concentration of force and firepower on the enemy-even though the warriors doing it were spread out in small numbers at the time.

Then, too, the capabilities and characteristics of aircraft and guns demanded on-the-spot decisions for the situation in each pass. The best pursuit planes of World War I had top speeds of around 130 miles per hour. Thus strafing passes ranged from diving speeds above that to much slower in early war pursuits. However, one fact about speed and flight attitude, (which is not obvious to many people) is that fixed forward-firing aircraft guns could be fired regardless of how fast or slow they were flown, or whether flown straight down, some lesser dive, or flat, or with wings level, in a bank, or even inverted. The guns fired wherever they pointed when the trigger was pulled.

Thus strafing did not require tables of speed, altitude, dive angle, and the like from which to plan attacks then closely execute in order to achieve accuracy. The pilot was free to aim the guns in anyway desired or needed. To concentrate bullet impacts on a target, the aircraft nose was held on it while firing, usually requiring some degree of “dive” to do so. To spread bullets along or throughout an area on the ground, the aircraft nose was made, or allowed, to move while firing.

Lt. Mayberry flew near level on the deck in order to aim his guns into the open ends of sheds housing enemy planes. To aim those same guns on the troop train among buildings in town, he had to dive down from above to have an unobstructed line of fire. Lt. Case stressed he “dived” to hold his gunfire on troops at the door. Rickenbacker and Chambers “porpoised” down an enemy column. Had they flown along level above it, their guns would never have pointed down on it. A steep dive was necessary to shoot downward on troops in trenches. Yet, shallower dives were more common on troops in the open and numerous other targets. There was an endless variety of target situations.

References report that World War I pilots felt that certain altitudes were very dangerous in strafing passes, particularly 300 to 500 feet. Starting higher, 1,000 to 1,500 feet was considered best; then when pulling out down low, 100 feet or on the deck, to stay down in leaving the target area. It can be assumed that was a desirable pass. But the examples vary greatly from it. They show passes flown as needed and chosen to achieve effective results on particular targets and also for repeat runs, and strafing under weather of low ceilings of 500 feet and below-with many passes made entirely in the highest danger zones-all decided by pilots in the air to accomplish the mission. Certainly there were numerous other factors, including equipment as well as flying and aiming techniques, involved in decisions, and these are primary subjects of later chapters. But recognition of this underlying great flexibility in use of fixed, forward-firing aircraft guns from this war is felt to be essential back- ground to those chapters.

Flexible guns of rear-seat and other aircrew gunners had their story too. Primarily for rear arc protection against enemy aircraft, examples show much of their strafing was done in that rear arc as the aircraft passed over and beyond a target. But they also had a capability unique to them. A pilot could bank the plane and circle above a target while the gunner fired downward on the inside of the turn to concentrate fire on that target; and he could hold it there on target as long as the plane circled above.

The German specialized ground attack planes had forward-firing and flexible guns and, in certain cases, downward-firing guns mounted in the fuselage. However, if these “downward” guns were fixed position or limited in fore and aft traverse, bullets would always impact along the ground in raking or “walking” fire; a gun had no real capability to aim on a specific target. This type fire was useful in places, and pursuit pilots at times “walked” bullets too. But downward-mounted guns were one element of World War I strafing that did not go on to standard use in future wars (although some slightly depressed guns have been used).

Summaries on American strafing in The U. S. Air Services in World War I include the following: “[T]he enemy’s troops were attacked by our pursuit air- planes with machine guns and bombs…. [T]his aid from the sky in assisting during an attack by our troops or in repelling an attack or counterattack by the enemy greatly raises the morale of our own forces and much hampers the enemy. It will be well to specialize in this branch of aviation.” Thus there was postwar high-level recognition of the contribution and value of strafing, where prewar judgment of it had been “absurd.” However, that recognition was in broad military terms, without publicity on strafers and their accomplishments.

Maj. Hartley had said he would dearly love to know just what damage MacArthur did in a single day. Since Hartley did not know, it is unlikely the world will ever know either. A citation noted one pilot killed sixty horses and a like number of men on a mission, but no figures are found for how many he killed in the entire war, nor of accumulated scores of damage done by other individual strafers during World War I. Of the names in examples covered, only those of the top aces, with their confirmed scores of air victories, are known to the public. The “unknown” names mentioned here are not even a token of the total strafers in the war. Yet, examples leave no doubt that their duty, valor and sacrifice ranks with the greatest in all history. This is certainly the ultimate story and legacy passed on by these pioneers, and it is a legacy of honor ingrained in and inseparable from the strafing of later wars.

It is fact that strafing was a pilot and aircrew creation from which they set the way in utility and tackled varied targets, situations and weather, much done voluntarily. This established strafing as a “pilot and aircrew and cockpit” business. Expertise in and conduct of strafing operations, and the knowledge thereof, was from the start, and remains, located at combat unit level, not at high headquarters, schools, and archives. Strafers are largely their own generals in this respect, too.

No books dedicated to World War I “strafing” have been written. The examples here are based on material in books on “aces and fighter planes,” including Von Richthofen and the “Flying Circus” by H. J. Nowarra and Kimbrough S. Brown; Rise of the Fighter Aircraft, 1914-1918, by Richard P. Hallion. These volumes on aces and fighters include much on strafing; yet, they do not mention “strafing” or “strafers” in titles, nor in most cases in tables of content. The same is true for general histories and other accounts of that war and sub- sequent wars.

Executing Noball

The routes flown on 14 January 1944 by the two sections of the 392nd BG.

British intelligence eventually identified four kinds of Noball targets in France: heavy sites, ski sites, modified sites, and supply and support facilities. It was the discovery of the nine large construction sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and the Cotentin Peninsula near Cherbourg that first captured the attention of British intelligence analysts. Throughout 1943 Organisation Todt’s building units, supported by thousands of slave workers and conscripted civilian labor, began excavating and building what British documents refer to as the “heavy” Crossbow sites. After the war, the Allies discovered that the German air force had responsibility for four of these, which were intended to store, assemble, and launch a large number of V-1 flying bombs. Code-named “Wasserwerk,” or water works, by the Germans to hide their purpose, these were primarily long tunnels with gaps in the ceiling to fire rockets toward London. In the Cotentin, they built one in Tamerville, northeast of Valognes, and the other at Couville, southwest of Cherbourg. The US Army’s VII Corps overran both of these installations in late June 1944. The other two were Lottinghen, east of Boulogne, and Siracourt, west of Arras in the Pas-de-Calais. Siracourt was typical of these kinds of launching sites. The dozen or so houses at the beginning of the war contained fewer than 140 citizens, mostly farmers and their families. The German army evacuated the French civilians as Organisation Todt arrived in the spring of 1943. On a little hill, just west of the village, contractors began construction in September. This facility was to be the first of four to process, store, and possibly fire the V-1. The main construction was 625 feet long and 132 feet wide and oriented at a right angle to London. The 1,200 workers, primarily Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, and French forced labor, lived in a camp at Croix-en-Ternois a little more than a mile away. Under the supervision of Organisation Todt’s guard force (Schützkommando), the workers ultimately built the structure and poured more than 50,000 cubic meters of concrete to make it invulnerable to Allied bombers. Because of the bombing, however, it was impossible to finish its construction. As a result, the Germans never fired a flying bomb from it, and it fell to Canadian troops in September 1944.

The German army controlled the V-2 rockets, and it designed large concrete installations, capable of launching seven to ten rockets per day, with sophisticated storage and assembly capability. For example, the launchers at Wizernes, next to Saint-Omer, lay beneath a massive concrete cupola twenty feet thick and were capable of launching their rockets from two platforms. Other sites at Watten (Éperlecques), near Calais, and Sottevast, near Cherbourg, were just as massive and required millions of tons of concrete. Forty-four miles north of Siracourt and eleven miles northwest of the Luftwaffe airfields at Saint-Omer is the three-square-mile complex at Watten. On its southwest corner, Organisation Todt built a massive structure that came to be called the Blockhaus. It was an incredibly large structure that absorbed thousands of tons of concrete and the forced labor of thousands of unfortunate workers. Based on experience at the submarine pens along the coast, the German engineers expected it to withstand the bombardment of whatever the enemy could drop on top. The Allies never understood its exact purpose but knew they had to destroy anything that was consuming so much German effort. It was the first site detected by British reconnaissance. Duncan Sandys never believed it had an offensive capability and, even after his visit in October, considered it to be a plant for the production of hydrogen peroxide, which the Germans were using as a fuel. Postwar records and analysis indicate, though, that it may have served as a general storage, assembly, and launching facility in, according to one researcher, “a bomb-proof environment.” Most experts believe it was capable of launching rockets on its own.

Watten (Éperlecques)

Twelve miles south of the Blockhaus near Saint-Omer is the village of Wizernes. In an old quarry, Organisation Todt constructed one of the largest installations of the war, the V-2 launcher site known as La Coupole, or the dome, for the most impressive aspect of the facility. Todt designed it to assemble, fuel, and fire rockets from within the protected site. Upwards of 1,300 forced laborers worked on this project twenty-four hours a day. Like the Blockhaus, it had two launcher ramps that could fire rockets simultaneously and was probably the most sophisticated of the vengeance weapon launching sites. By March 1944 British intelligence was convinced that it needed to be added to the list of Noball targets. The most sinister of V-2 launcher sites was the silo complex west of Cherbourg near La Hague. These, generally overlooked by Allied intelligence, resemble the later American nuclear missile silos of the Cold War. It never became operational, and the US VII Corps occupied this region in July 1944. The problem for the Germans was that the construction crews could not hide the extensive work sites from the hundreds of Allied reconnaissance aircraft searching for signs of activity. The continuous bombing of the extensive excavations in France meant the Germans could not complete the launching facilities, which ended any possibility of the German air force using them. Ultimately, the Germans would fire no V-2 rockets from fixed sites but would employ mobile launchers that were essentially impossible for the Allies to detect in advance.

Eleven miles from Cap Gris-Nez, across the channel from Dover and ninety-five miles from the center of London, is a facility unique among the heavy sites. The British knew the Nazis were developing a long-range gun, but they did not know any details. The German army had done this before, and Allied commanders had visions of a weapon similar to the artillery used to bombard Paris in the previous conflict or the large guns deployed along the French coast. Therefore, most analysts believed the construction at Mimoyecques, France, was a variation on a V-2 launch site, since it bore no resemblance to anything with which they were familiar. Also, since most of the workers were German, few details emerged as to its actual intent. In reality, the site housed something revolutionary, a large battery of long-range guns, called Hochdruckpumpe (high-pressure pump) guns, later referred to by the Allies as Vengeance Weapon-3. Each 330-foot smooth-bore gun was to be capable of firing a six-foot-long dart about a hundred miles. Its range was the product of added velocity created by solid rocket boosters arrayed along the edge of the tube. Each projectile could carry about forty pounds of high explosives. The plan was to construct banks of five guns each with the potential of firing six hundred rounds per hour toward London. British intelligence knew little about what was going on inside the facility. After the war, Duncan Sandys’ investigation of the large sites discovered the true nature of the threat they had faced. Fortunately, Allied air attacks prevented Organisation Todt from ever finishing its work and German gunners were never able to fire these weapons.

The second kind of targets identified by Allied analysts were the so-called ski sites, named from the configuration of several buildings that looked like snow skis on their side. By late 1943 British intelligence officers had identified between seventy and eighty of these, hidden in the hundreds of wooden patches that dot the northwestern French countryside, with their launchers pointed directly at their intended target. If left alone, each one of these small installations could hurl fifteen FZG-76 flying bombs across the channel each day. The cumulative effect of hundreds of these striking London daily would not help civilian morale. They also posed a direct threat to the harbors from which the Allies would launch and sustain the invasion. One of the first sites identified by intelligence analysts was in the Bois Carré (Square Woods) about three-quarters of a mile east of Yvrench and ten miles northeast of Abbeville on the Somme. A French Resistance agent was able to infiltrate the construction site in October 1943 and smuggle out some of earliest detailed descriptions of a ski site layout. The long catapult, generally visible from the sky and quickly identified by reconnaissance aircraft, became the signature target indicator. As a result, even with extensive camouflage, they were identified, targeted, and destroyed by Anglo-American aircraft. As a result, none of these installations ever became operational.

Soon after the first air attacks, German leaders began considering an alternative method of launching the V-1. Security and concealment now became a priority, and these modified launcher sites were better camouflaged and of simpler construction. These new launchers no longer had many of the standard buildings, especially those that resembled skis, which had contributed to their rapid discovery by intelligence specialists. With minimal permanent construction, the only identifiable features were an easily hidden concrete foundation for the launch ramp and a small building to set the bomb’s compass. Other buildings were designed to blend into the environment or to look like the local farmhouses. All this took less than a week to fabricate, and forced labor no longer did the construction work, as German soldiers prepared each site in secret. Supply crews delivered the flying bombs directly to the launcher from a hidden location, assembled and ready to launch. All the teams needed to do was set the compass and mount it on the catapult. Difficult to locate from the air, these launchers would remain operational until overrun by Allied ground troops in early September 1944. After that, the Germans launched their V-1 rockets from sites in the Netherlands or from German bombers specially configured to fire these weapons.

One week after the last V-1 flew from French soil, the V-2 rocket made its first appearance when it slammed into a French village southeast of Paris, killing six civilians. The German army had abandoned any hope of using large fixed sites for anything other than storage, and they now organized the delivery of their rockets as mobile systems, structured around less than a dozen vehicles and trailers. While the rocket was still hidden, crews prepared it for launch, a process that took between four and six hours. Within two hours of mission time, the firing unit deployed to a previously surveyed site and erected the rocket on a mobile pad. As soon as it was on the way, the soldiers disappeared into the woods, leaving little trace of the launch. Unless an Allied fighter happened to catch the Germans during the short preparation process, there was little the air forces could do to prevent launches. The Germans fired none of the mobile V-2s from French soil, but fired them instead from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. While not part of the discussion of bombing France, these rockets are an important reminder that the Germans continued to use mobile sites until the end of the war.

The final kinds of Noball targets were the supply sites that provided rockets for the individual firing units and the transportation network that supported them. By February 1944 the Allies had determined that seven facilities existed, one on the Cotentin Peninsula and the remainder arrayed just east of the belt of launchers. These, however, were relatively difficult to attack and were often located within underground bunkers or railroad tunnels, under fortresses, or deep within thick woods. They also were often protected by extensive anti-aircraft artillery. More vulnerable were the various rail yards that served as offload and staging points for these systems. Rail stations in Saint-Omer, Bethune, Lille, Lens, and Arras were the crucial nodes in this network. Attacking these transportation nodes also supported the goals of the Transportation Plan, the Allied attack of bridges along the Seine and Loire, and Operation Fortitude, the effort to deceive the Germans as to the actual location of the invasion.