German U-Boat Ace Peter Cremer: The Patrols of U-333 in World War II

The intelligence derived from breaking Enigma transmissions — the product was known as Ultra in Britain, because it had the highest of all security classifications — was of vital importance in fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. The identification of U-boat movements through Ultra intercepts allowed convoys to be directed away from their patrol lines, aircraft to be vectored to their positions and escort groups of destroyers and frigates to be hurried to their concentration areas. The cipher war in the Battle of the Atlantic swayed one way and another. British naval codes, particularly the Long Naval Code No. 3, were read by the Germans while the British were reading Enigma. At the end of 1942 and well into 1943, the British lost the U-boat key altogether, with calamitous results for convoy sailings. Overall, however, Ultra intelligence was a crucial factor in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic against the U-boats.

This description of the effects of escort attack on a U-boat during a convoy battle graphically conveys the horror of a successful depth-charging. By November 1943, to which this episode dates, the Battle of the Atlantic was largely won. A determined U-boat could still inflict damage unless relentlessly attacked and kept down, as U-333 was by HMS Exe, a River-class sloop, one of the hundreds of small ships that were the mainstay of the Allied effort in the Atlantic battle. Kapitan-leutnant Cremer survived this, his second, patrol, against Convoy SL (Sierra Leone) 139, but was sunk on his fifth, in July 1944. A majority of U-boats were sunk on their first patrols. The U-boat force lost 70 per cent of its manpower during the war, the highest proportion of casualties suffered by any arm of service in any combatant country.

On 13 November the sailing was reported of a convoy with ships from Gibraltar and North African ports which next day joined up with a Sierra Leone convoy about 100 miles south of Cape St Vincent and now consisted of 66 freighters: it was code named SL 139/ MKS 30. To start with it was accompanied by 40th Escort Group, but during the passage to Britain 7th and 5th Escort Groups were fetched from other convoys and the 4th from Belfast, so that the 66 merchant ships were gradually surrounded by 28 escort vessels: frigates, corvettes, destroyers and the Canadian anti-aircraft cruiser HMCSPrince Robertwhich had come from Plymouth — the Luftwaffe now had only a fitful presence over the ocean, but reconnaissance aircraft and even bomber formations were occasionally spotted. RAF Wellingtons from 171 Squadron in Gibraltar provided air protection, reinforced by Mosquitos and Beaufighters off Cape Ortegal. Direct convoy protection was then to be assumed by aircraft from Cornwall (RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force] 422 Squadron and RAF Liberators from 453 Squadron).

Against this doubly and trebly screened convoy we had the Schill Groups I, II and III in three stop lines about a day’s sailing apart. Air Command Atlantic was involved with 25 long-distance bombers of type HE [Heinkel] 177. This time the convoy battle promised to be both vast and varied.

On 16 November the convoy was first sighted by a German aircraft, and thereafter there were several sightings. In the morning hours of 18 November the ships sailing up from the south came into action against the U-boats on watch in the north. The scene was roughly midway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. This was a grey November morning after a clear moonlit night. The sickle stayed for a long time in the sky before it was properly light. Small clouds came up. A slight wind was blowing from the north-east, and when the sun shone in the course of the morning it showed a sea stirred into a slight swell by the winds of recent days. U-333 was moving underwater and when I occasionally raised the periscope spray splashed against the lens. The empty horizon was a sharp dividing line which in the rhythm of the sea rose up, then disappeared behind the wave-tops. The clock showed 11.30.

It was relatively quiet in the boat. Amid the gurgle and wash of the water came other sounds, weak at first, then growing stronger. The operators signalled ships’ propellers from the south. I let things start gently and hung on the periscope. After a while the silhouette of a great many freighters appeared. Fourteen rows of ships were coming in their full width with foaming bow waves directly towards me. It was a unique sight: the expected convoy SL 139/MKS 30. Chance would have it that U-333 was the first boat to intercept the enemy.

In front sailed two escort vessels, clearly destroyers. U-333 lay roughly in the middle between them, in an attack position which would probably not recur. I only needed to let myself drop into the convoy and attack like a pike in a carp pond. All tubes were ready for an underwater shot, flooded and with bow caps open. All I had to do was lie still, let the enemy draw closer and then: at him with a roar! But everything turned out quite differently.

The destroyers were signalling to one another. The right-hand one was zig-zagging continually while the left kept to a straight course. I had my periscope up again, hoping it would not be noticeable in the light motion of the sea, when suddenly I saw an aircraft flit past my lens barely 30 metres above the water. At the same moment the locating signals of the enemy Asdic [sonar — underwater sound-ranging system] struck the U-boat’s side with their horrible ping-ping-ping-ping, so loud I might have sent them out myself. We had been discovered. Involuntarily everyone held his breath.

The left escort, it turned out to be the frigate Exe, was already turning towards us and in a moment was so close I could distinguish details on deck. I intended to fire a spreading salvo of three into the convoy and had already ordered ‘salvo ready’, meaning after previous misses to be on the safe side and let the ships come closer, despite the menacing frigate whose sailors I could now see running to and fro. I was still staring obstinately through the periscope when a pattern of ten depth charges exploded with a deafening roar round the boat. We had got into the middle of a carpet.

The effect was terrible and is hard to describe. Suddenly everything went black and everything stopped, even the motors. In the whirl of the shock waves the rudderless boat was seized like a cork and thrust upwards. There was a cracking and creaking noise, the world seemed to have come to an end, then crashes and thuds as the boat was thrown on to its side and everything loose came adrift. I managed to grab the steel strop on the periscope, then my legs were pulled from under me. We had collided with the frigate’s bottom which was now thrusting away above us, steel against steel. Certainly the British were no less shaken than we, seeing that [according to a British after-action report] ‘just before the first charge exploded, the ratings on watch in the boiler room heard the periscope scrape down the side’ …

Seconds later, the periscope broke off. The swaying boat reared up, struck the hull of the Exe with its conning tower and the control room and listening compartment immediately flooded. The water quickly rose above the floor plates. The light of a torch lying on the chart table showed a picture of devastation. All the indicator gear was hanging loose, the glass was splintered, light bulbs had burst. Cable ends spread in bundles through the control room, the emergency lighting accumulators [batteries] had torn free. Before I even got to the depth-keeping controls the boat was again shaken by the heaviest depth charges. Like a stone we slipped backwards towards the ocean bed which here lay 5,000 metres below.

From the engine room the hydrostatic external pressure, indicating depth, was passed on from mouth to mouth and the fall of the boat stopped by blowing the tanks with compressed air. It rose slowly, then faster and faster until it had to be flooded again so as not to shoot out of the water like an arrow. Beams from the torches flicked over the walls glistening with moisture. It trickled and poured. As none of the pumps was working the water that had come in was transferred in buckets from hand to hand from the lower-lying stern — where it was already above the coaming of the alleyway hatch — into the central bilge. Gradually the boat swung back from the slanting position to the horizontal.

Fortunately the switchboard was still dry, there was no short circuit. We could put back the knife switches which had fallen out and in feverish haste got the electric motors working. Though the noise of the port propeller shaft showed that damage had been caused, its turning again was music in our ears.

My log says: ‘Decide to hold the boat by all possible means and slowly go deeper. Damage very great and cannot yet be assessed.’

From the British viewpoint we were ‘in the centre of the (first) pattern when it exploded’ and ‘the first attack must certainly have damaged the U-boat so severely that it was unable to surface.’ When an oil patch was sighted at 11.56 and a sample was collected it was believed we had sunk.

But in fact we had let ourselves drop from 60 to 140 metres. Meanwhile the entire convoy in its whole length went thumping past us overhead. In such a situation that is about the safest place for a stricken U-boat, particularly as any hydrophone [acoustic] contact is lost in propeller wash. Nothing can touch one, unless perhaps a ship is torpedoed and falls on one’s head.

But hardly was the mass of the ships past than we were overwhelmed with a drumfire such as I had never yet experienced. And that is saying a lot. It began at midday and went on till 20.55 like a continuous thunderstorm, now close, now further away, the heavy-sounding depth charges and the lighter Hedgehogs [multi-barrelled mortar bombs]. And each time we thought, ‘Now there’ll be a direct hit,’ but in fact the explosions detonated further away, we had to wipe the cold sweat from our faces. So-called heroism has not much to do with it. And when finally the torture ended and the great silence began we refused to believe it, but stood there wide-eyed, gasping and struggling for breath, waiting for the next series.

Luckily we had little time for reflection. There was too much to do. The worst damage had to be repaired. Damage to instruments (speed and trim indicators, water and pressure gauges, depth recorder) belonged to the lesser evils. Broken telephones and radio could be accepted. Even a destroyed fire-control panel lost significance for survival, particularly as the heads of all the torpedoes in the tubes had been dented, not to mention the plastic cap of my acoustic torpedo which I had thought so important …

But the starboard diesel had been thrust sideways and fallen from its base, and this was more than problematical. Now by the sweat of our brow we had to wedge and support it with beams. And hardly less serious was the port propeller shaft, which had been bent and was hammering loudly. To complete our misfortune, the radio installation was so badly damaged that despite trying three times I was only able to send a short mutilated signal.

Air was running out. Our bodily exertions had used it up quicker than usual and it had to be improved with potash cartridges and oxygen. There was a stink of battery gas — the ventilation lines had been broken – and of watery oil. Eventually the fug became chokingly thick, and compressed air was getting short. After nine hours of depth charging which had thoroughly shaken the boat and had necessitated our repeatedly blowing the tanks to maintain station, there was hardly any compressed air left. The boat was tending to lose depth again and could be kept trimmed only with difficulty. I had to go up regardless, and so, one hour after the last charge had exploded and the great, perhaps deceptive silence had fallen, I brought U-333 to the surface.

Up above it was dark. Sea state 5 to 6 with heavy swell, the slim outline of the boat hiding in the troughs. Somewhere there was a destroyer, but she spotted nothing. The watch came up and we inspected the scope of the exterior damage. The forward net-cutter was broken, the bridge cowling bent forward. Both periscopes were useless, the attack periscope bent, the night-sighting periscope broken. Radio direction-finder and anti-aircraft guns had gone, as though shaven off. The lurching boat had a list. It was only just floating above water, and I had another shock, in so far as one was capable of more, to see air bubbles surging from both sides. Apparently all the ballast tanks had cracks. U-333 could float only to a limited extent.

The diesels would not start. Despite repeated blowing, the boat would not stay on the surface but slowly sank downwards by the stern. We had to submerge again so as not to drown on the bridge. Last man down as always, I shut the conning tower hatch — or tried to. This time it stuck. Meanwhile the boat was submerging completely and streams of water poured through the opening. I clung to the wheel until I fell into the control room. We blew the last of the compressed air into the tanks and the hatch slowly emerged from the swirling water. I had swallowed a great deal, was soaking wet and numbed, but with the help of the 2WO , was clearheaded enough to find the curious cause of the defect: part of a blade knocked off from the propeller of the frigate Exe had slipped and blocked the hatch.

Things were against us — as though a renewed attempt was being made to do away with us. After many experiments we finally got the port diesel going — it began to function ‘slow ahead’ — and eventually the starboard diesel started as well. The ballast tanks were no longer airtight, but with the exhaust gases we blew into them we could roughly keep a balance with the water coming in. But the boat was still more or less unstable and threatened to drop away under our feet. And somewhere water was continually dribbling inboard where we struggled with the damaged pumps. We had no alternative but to move ‘dynamically’ and gently get away.

Next day already on the way home I wrote in the log: ‘Surfacing goes better’, and the day after, ‘considerably better, which means I have got accustomed to the condition of slowly sinking.’ Though that speaks volumes, it says nothing about our wet feet. Yes indeed, we had been given a pasting. My people patched everything possible with what lay to hand. That was very little. And so we went hobbling home with a wreck. And with all the iron around us, navigated with the magnetic needle alone, for the gyro compass too was broken.

The Second Bulgarian Empire 10th to 14th Centuries

Sebastokrator Kaloyan [Kaloian] and his wife Desislava [Kumankata]

Bulgaria under Ivan Asen II

Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who succeeded his uncle John Tzimiskes in 976, immediately sent a new army to deal with the brothers, but his main concern was a rebellion by a Greek commander in Asia Minor. Samuil and his brother Aron (his other brothers had died) were able to hold off the Greeks. Roman, who had escaped from Constantinople and was now tsar but childless, gave up the throne to Samuil in 978.

Samuil was the last emperor of the First Bulgarian Empire, and he spent his reign in wars against the Byzantine emperor Basil II. Samuil liberated northern Bulgaria and for 10 years raided Byzantine Thrace and Greece. In 986, Basil was ready to face the Bulgarians and marched through Philippoupolis to Sredetz, Samuil’s home base. However, he made too many mistakes to take the city. He divided his troops, leaving a contingent behind to guard his rear. The Bulgarians burned their crops and even managed to steal the cattle the Greeks brought with them, cut- ting off the Byzantine food supply. The commanders placed their siege equipment in the wrong place and Bulgarians were able to destroy it. The siege lasted less then three weeks before Basil retreated. Further- more, the commander he left in the rear went back to Philippoupolis, and Basil believed he was going to challenge him for the throne. Samuil, who had been fighting in Thrace, caught the emperor at the Gates of Trajan, a fortification outside of Sredetz. Here rumors and fear overtook the Byzantine troops, throwing them into despair. The Bulgarians seized their opportunity, rushing the Greek camp and winning a great victory, but Basil managed to escape, although the valuables he had brought with him fell to the Bulgarians.

Samuil followed up his victory with more raids into the empire, not only Thrace and Macedonia but also down into the Greek peninsula as far as the Peloponnesian cities and to the Adriatic, capturing Dyrachachium (modern Durres). He also defeated the Serbs and Hungarians. In 990, he moved his capital to Ohrid in western Macedonia. The city became the seat of the Bulgarian Patriarchate as well. In fact, Samuil, unable during the wars to regain recognition of the imperial crown, asked and perhaps received acknowledgement of his titles from Pope Gregory V. (The church was still nominally united and did not reach an irreparable breach between Eastern and Western Christianity until 1054.)

In 988, Samuil attacked the Serbs to prevent them from joining Basil. The Serbian prince, Jovan Vladimir, retreated into the mountains. Samuil then divided his force-one part to continue the fight against Prince Jovan and the bulk to attack the port of Ulcinj. Jovan refused Samuil’s entreaty for his surrender, but a number of Serbian noblemen went over to the Bulgarians in light of the hopelessness of their cause, and Samuil took Jovan prisoner. The tsar then marched up the Adriatic coast through Dalmatia, capturing Kotor and laying waste to the towns and villages around Dubrovnik, although he failed to take the city. He then proceeded into Bosnia and Croatia, where rival dukes were in constant warfare. Siding with some against the others, he was able to win the dukes over as his vassals.

Meanwhile, he allowed his daughter Theodora to marry Prince Jovan, her father’s prisoner, who had won her love. Samuil restored Jovan’s lands and made him his vassal. He also made a treaty with Hungary by having his son Gavril Radomir marry the daughter of the Magyar grand prince Geza. Thus becoming the master of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace, Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, he brought his empire to a renewed height by the end of the century, reversing the disasters of the last years of Peter and the reigns of Boris II and Roman and rivaling the achievements of Simeon.

Basil, determined to follow up on his uncle’s triumphs and reconquer Bulgaria, diverted his forces from his war with the Moslems to attack Samuil. In 1001, he sent a large force to capture the Bulgarian fortresses north of the Balkan Mountains, capturing the old capitals of Pliska and Preslav. The following year, the Byzantines marched to the west, retaking Thessaly. Samuil’s’ commander Dobromir, related to the tsar by marriage, surrendered and joined his troops to Basil’s. Samuil was now on the defensive, and eventually the Greek emperor was able to retake Thessaly and resettle the Bulgarian population farther north.

Samuil’s relations with the Hungarians also deteriorated. After Geza died, the Bulgarian tsar supported the rivals of his son, the glorious St. Stephen, regarded as the founder of modern Hungary. The marriage of Samuil’s son Gavril to Geza’s daughter was dissolved. Stephen, along with the Byzantines, attacked Bulgarian territory on the Danube, and Hungary replaced Bulgaria north of the river. The war of attrition continued for another decade. Each year Basil would raid into the Bulgarian lands, pillaging the villages. The usual Greek path was north through the Struma River valley, so in 1014, Samuil decided to take a decisive stand at the village significantly named Kliuch, “the key,” the gateway to the valley.

Samuil fortified the approaches to the village with wooden walls and stationed an army of more than 15,000 men behind it. While certainly not comparable to the massive walls of Constantinople nor even the fortifications of the Bulgarian capitals, they were strong enough to cause Basil difficulties, and the Greeks suffered many losses in their attempts to breach them.

Despite the Greeks’ difficulties, at the end of July, Nikephoros Xiphias, the Byzantine governor of Plovdiv, managed to lead his troops around the walls and attack the Bulgarians from behind. The Bulgarians left their defenses to face the new threat, finally giving Basil an opportunity to break through. The Byzantine army killed thou- sands of the Bulgarians and took thousands more prisoner, but Samuil managed to escape with the aid of his son Gabriel, who gave up his own horse to his father.

Basil then abandoned his march north, but on the retreat he managed to capture Melnik, another important fortress protecting the route. According to the contemporary accounts, Basil blinded all thousands of the Bulgarian captives, leaving one in a hundred with one eye to lead the others back home. He accomplished this cruelty either as a punishment for the revolt against him, as he regarded himself as their sovereign, or in retaliation for the killing of a Greek commander. The legend further has it that on seeing the pitiful sight when the soldiers returned, Samuel died of a heart attack in October 1014. The war, however, continued with Samuil’s son Gabriel Radomir leading the empire. In 1015, Ivan Vladislav, Samuil’s nephew, conspired with Byzantine agents to murder Gabriel and took the throne himself. He also murdered his brother-in-law Jovan Vladimir, the duke of Zeta (present-day Monte- negro). He did not conclude a peace with Basil but continued the war. However, the losses were too much to bear. Many Bulgarian governors and commanders went over to the Byzantines. In 1018, Basil dealt the ” decisive blow at Dyrrhachium (modern Durres). Ivan mortally fell in the battle and his army retreated. The remaining governors and commanders surrendered, and Basil incorporated Bulgaria up to the Danube into his empire, restoring the lands that had been lost since the seventh century. He was awarded the appellation Bulgaroktonos, Basil the Bulgarslayer.

Basil lived only a few more years after 1018, and then after a short reign by his brother, the empire fell into a half century of chaos, intrigue, and civil war marvelously described by the Byzantine historian Michael Psellus. Basil’s nieces Zoe and Theodora, the former’s various consorts, and other interlopers ruled off and on until Alexios I Komnenuos ascended the throne in 1081 and established the more stable Komnenid dynasty. After Basil’s victory, the emperor initially incorporated Bulgaria into several provinces called themes. The Byzantine aristocracy absorbed the boyars. The Bulgarian church retained its autonomous status, remaining in Ohrid, but as a bishopric rather than a patriarchate. Thus Macedonia remained part of Bulgaria. Constantinople left the Bulgarian tax and land-owning laws intact as well. Bulgarians filled the ranks of the military in the themes. Gradually, however, the emperors passed rule of the land over to Greeks. They shifted Bulgarian boyars to other lands in the empire or bought them out. Greek clerics filled the posts in the churches. Many of the Greeks that came into the Byzantine themes treated their positions as temporary sinecures and had as their first priority exploiting the available wealth. Romanos II (reigned 1028-1034) replaced the Bulgarian tax code with the harsher Byzantine system.


In 1040, Peter Delyan, claiming to be the son of Gabriel Radomir and hence the grandson of Tsar Samuil, raised the standard of revolt in Belgrade. However, scholars cannot confirm his ancestry. Perhaps he may have been the son of Marguerite, Gabriel’s Hungarian wife, which would have made him the nephew of St. Stephen as well. However, some believing that a son of Radomir could not have escaped the murders carried out by Ivan Vladislav think him to be an imposter making the claims to add weight to his rebellion. Delyan had been one of the Bulgarians taken captive after Basil’s victory and was a servant to a Byzantine aristocrat. When he escaped, he fled to Belgrade on the Bulgarian-Hungarian border.

Here Delyan won support of the local Bulgarians dissatisfied with Byzantine rule and adopted the name of the sainted tsar Peter I. At the head of a growing army of Bulgarian rebels, Peter moved southward toward Ohrid, killing Byzantine officials along the way. At the same time the boyar Tikhomir, an experienced warrior from Dyrrhachium who heard of the revolt, had himself declared tsar and led a second army eastward to Ohrid. The two armies met and Peter and Tikhomir both appealed to the assemblage to choose which one should rule. Peter’s eloquence won the day and the Bulgarians chose him; he then executed Tikhomir. The enlarged army gathered more rebellious Bulgarians and captured territory from Albania, Macedonia, and deep into Greece as far as Corinth.

Another pretender to the crown Alusian, a grandson of Samuil’s brother Aron, arose in Armenia, where the Byzantines had transported many Bulgarians after the fall of the First Empire. He had been a governor of an Armenian theme but lost favor during the many twists and turns of the notorious Byzantine intrigues. Learning of the rebel- lion in the Balkans, he clandestinely made his way to Delyan’s camp, where the pretender welcomed him as a cousin and put him in charge of a large force of 40,000 men assigned to attack Thessaloniki. The ven- ture failed, and Alusian lost more than a third of his army.

Relations between the cousins deteriorated, and Peter suspected Alusian of treason. Alusian feared Peter conspired against him. He invited Delyan to a feast and, waiting until the tsar was drunk, had his followers fall on him and take out his eyes. Alusian now took over the revolt, but losing in battle again, he went over to the Byzantines. Emperor Michael V now gathered a large army of Greeks and mercenaries and put down the revolt, decisively defeating the Bulgarians led by the blind Peter Delyan at the Battle of Ostrovo in 1041. The fate of Delyan remains unknown. In the following weeks, the Greeks suppressed the remainder of the rebels.


Toward the end of the century, a number of new revolts broke out, but the Byzantine emperors were able to quash them. The most important was in Skopje led by Georgi Votekh and Prince Michael of Zeta. After initial success in Skopje and elsewhere, however, the Byzantine forces suppressed the uprising. Constantinople suffered more serious problems with the conquest of its southern Italian lands by the Normans and its Middle Eastern territories by the Moslems. Alexios I gave up on hopes for Italy, but he asked for help from the West in retaking Syria and Palestine. The result was the Crusades. The Western crusaders who came east beginning in 1096 came not to return the lands to the Byzantine emperors but rather grab the Moslem (and some Middle Eastern Christian) lands for themselves. The crusading masses in the eleventh and twelfth centuries marched through Bulgaria despoiling the land, believing that because they were on a holy cause, they had the right to take what they needed without payment. By the end of the century, Byzantine rule in Bulgaria was almost nominal and the local Bulgarian aristocracy, in essence warlords, took over.

In the 1180s, a new series of tax riots broke out over levies imposed to finance the marriage of Isaac II of the new Byzantine Angelid dynasty to a Hungarian princess. Two noblemen, the brothers Ivan Asen and Todor, requested that Isaac appoint them autonomous governors of all the Bulgarian lands. The brothers’ origins and ethnicity are obscure. Bulgarians maintain that they were descendents of the tsars of the First Empire and therefore had the right to rule as tsars themselves. However, others have raised doubts, especially the Romanians, who claim they were Vlachs and hence related to them.

When Isaac turned down the brothers’ request, they returned home and took the lead of the rebels, declaring the older, Todor, tsar Peter II. However, Ivan Asen led the military campaigns and left his name to the new dynasty, the Asenids. With the Angelids engaged in a dynastic struggle, the Bulgarians had great success raiding into Thrace and reestablishing the Bulgarian Empire. The brothers established their capital in the picturesque town of Great Turnovo on the meandering Iantra River. A replica of the castle was built in the late twentieth century and the Bulgarian tourist agency exhibits a laser light show to demonstrate to native and foreign tourists its pride in its Medieval past.

Asen, too, was given the title of tsar in 1188, the two brothers ruling together. The war against the Greeks continued for a decade, during which despite several reverses the tsars were able to consolidate their rule. In 1196, however, Asen was assassinated by a relative angered over a private matter, and assassins also murdered Peter the following year. The throne next fell to a younger brother, Kaloian, who continued the war against the Byzantines, capturing Macedonia and Greek cities along the Black Sea coast and defeating the Hungarian allies of Constantinople, adding land north of the Danube to his empire.


Kaloian began negotiations with both Pope Innocent III and Emperor Alexios III for recognition of his title. The churches had by now split and the rivals were anxious to have the new powerful ruler on their respective sides. Thus Kaloian received recognition from both. Furthermore, the Byzantine Empire met with disaster. The Angelid family squabble brought in the crusaders of the infamous Fourth Crusade, who, instead of going on to Palestine after restoring their Angelid sponsors, installed one of their own, Baldwin of Flanders, as Emperor Baldwin I of the Latin Empire, which lasted in Constantinople until 1265. The Byzantine themes now became more than a dozen feudal fiefs in the Western style awarded to other crusader nobles, now vassals of Baldwin. In addition, other powerful states grew on the borders of the Byzantine Empire. The Greek emperors established their new empire in Nicea across the Bosporus until their return to Constantinople in 1265. The Ottoman Turks would appear later in the century. The Norman kingdom of Sicily also staked it claims. The Republics of Venice and Dubrovnik (Ragusa) appeared as wealthy mercantile states. The Serbian kingdom reached its zenith, and there were even more that would complicate the affairs of the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, making it one of the most vexing shatter belts of world geopolitics for the rest of history.

Kaloian sent envoys to draw up the border between Bulgaria and the new empire, but Baldwin contemptuously dismissed them and vowed that he would retake the renegade state. Kaloian’s appeal to Pope Innocent III was of no use because he had already condemned the crusaders for their attacks on Christian states. The Bulgarian tsar then fomented a revolt among the Greek nobles of Thrace, and when Baldwin marched to Adrianople, he found the city loyal to Kaloian, who soon arrived with his army. The Latin troops then attacked the Bulgarian forces but suffered a humiliating defeat. Kaloian captured Baldwin and carried him off to Turnovo, where he died (perhaps being executed). Legend has it, however, that the tsar imprisoned him in his castle, a remnant of which, as mentioned above, survived through the centuries, and the locals called one part of the edifice “Baldwin’s tower.”

Kaloian followed his victory with further attacks on the Latin Empire, conquering all of Thrace. Boniface of Montferrat, the king of Thessalonki, the last surviving leader of the Fourth Crusade, died in the battle. However, Kaloian himself died as well, perhaps murdered by one of his own allies. His nephew Boril (reigned 1208-1217) succeeded him.

However, while Kaloian’s reign ranks as one of the greatest and most celebrated in Bulgarian medieval history, his nephew’s was a significant disappointment. His ineptitude in political and military affairs led to the loss of Thrace and an invitation to invasion from both the Latins and Hungarians, only resolved by papal mediation and diplomatic marriages. In Bulgaria itself, a number of governors unhappy with the tsar and suspecting him of being involved in the demise of Kaloian plotted against him in 1217. Ivan Asen’s son overthrew Boril and assumed the crown as Ivan Asen II.

Tsar Asen was able to restore Bulgarian territory by diplomatic treaties, including his marriage to a Hungarian princess. When a Greek pretender to the Byzantine throne attacked him from Epirus on the Adriatic coast, Asen defeated this foe and restored Bulgarian power in the western Balkans. The Second Empire became a force to be reckoned with in European affairs and a commercial epicenter for southeast Europe. The decline of the church in Constantinople and Kiev made the Bulgarian patriarchate an ecclesiastical power as well. However, his successors could not hold the state’s dominant position. Bulgaria not only suffered from internal revolts and coups but also faced foreign enemies again, especially the restored Byzantine Empire and the Mongols, whose raids were devastating all of Eastern Europe.

The Bulgarians kept their lands intact, although they paid tribute to the Mongols and fought them in a number of battles. In 1277, one Ivailo defeated the Mongols and briefly became tsar. His importance is not his reign but his legend. Although his origin is obscure, and he may even have been a boyar, the Bulgarian myth is that he was a peasant. The story of the peasant king resonated to modern times when the country had no native aristocracy, and everyone was of peasant origin. Thus they placed the mantle of hero around Ivailo’s shoulders.


At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Mongol control over Bulgaria loosened, and the new tsar Todor Svetoslav (reigned 1300-1322) defeated the weakening Byzantine Empire, restoring Bulgaria to its former strength. In 1331, Ivan Alexander, the governor of Lovech, descended from the Asens on his mother’s side, assumed the throne after a dynastic struggle. Under him the empire reached a new peak, its last in the Middle Ages. Having trade connections with the Italian and Adriatic mercantile republics, Turnovo became a cosmopolitan commercial and cultural center. Indeed, the tsar sent his first wife to a convent and chose a new bride, Sara, from the large Jewish mercantile community in the capital. Unhappily, however, Sara-or Theodora, as she was called after her conversion to the Christian faith-was not kind to her former coreligionists and joined the priests and bishops in their campaign against Jewish influence. Turnovo at this time was also a major religious and cultural center with many churches and monasteries. The most famous religious artifact of Medieval Bulgaria is Tsar Ivan Alexander’s Tetraevangelia, the four gospels, illustrated and translated into Medieval Bulgarian. One of the illustrations is that of the tsar and his second wife Sara-Theodora and their two sons. The tsar had several sons, whom he established as corulers, and several daughters, one of whom married the Byzantine emperor Andronikos IV Paleaologus and another who was sent off as a hostage concubine to Sultan Murad IV of the Ottoman Turks.

The latter now became the major factor in the power struggle of the Balkans. While the remnants of the Latin Empire, the various Slavic lords, the Italian princes, the Hungarians, and others fought each other for territory and influence, the Turks gradually increased their hold on Asia Minor and then Europe. The struggle would reach its culmination in 1453, when after his predecessors had conquered virtually all of the Balkans, Sultan Mehmed II finally took the decrepit Byzantine capital. The struggle among the Christians took the form of a religious battle over loyalty to Pope or Greek emperor symbolized by which version of the Apostles’ Creed their subjects should follow. (The difference centered merely on a three-letter suffix of a single word.) However, the real issues were wealth, land, and power, and the kings, dukes, and lords would change church and alliance as the politics dictated. The fratricidal struggle gave the Turks ample opportunity to move in and take over.

Ivan Alexander, as did all other rulers, took part in these wars and intrigues. Sending Kera Tamara, his daughter, off to Murad’s harem was just another alliance. Obviously, political realpolitik took precedence over religious conviction. To deal with the complex situation resulting from the fragmentation of power in the Balkans in 1356, Ivan Alexander set up his son Ivan Strashimir as independent tsar of Vidin in northwest Bulgaria.

In 1363, the Turks established their base in Europe in Adrianople (Edirne) and the next year invaded Bulgaria and captured Thrace, including the important center of Philippoupolis (Plovdiv). A coalition of Bulgarians and Serbs prepared to meet the Turks in battle in 1371. Ivan Alexander died before the conflict began, and the Turks won a great victory at Chernomen near Adrianople. Ivan Shishman succeeded his father as tsar of Bulgaria in Turnovo. The Ottomans followed up their victory with new incursions into the Christian states, forcing Ivan Shishman into vassalage. The princes and rulers of Hungary and the Italian states and cities also moved in for the kill, taking over parts of the area. The Turks won a crucial and a legendary victory against the powerful Serbs in 1389 at Kosovo Field. They followed this up by capturing Turnovo in 1393 and Vidin in 1396. Although a few Bulgarian commanders were able to hold out for a few more years, the Second Empire came to an end.

Normans in Italy: Guiscard

Robert Guiscard is claimed by Pope Nicholas II as a Duke.

Robert Guiscard (c. 1015 – 17 July 1085) was a Norman adventurer remembered for the conquest of southern Italy and Sicily. Robert was born into the Hauteville family in Normandy, went on to become Count of Apulia and Calabria (1057–1059), and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria and Duke of Sicily (1059–1085), and briefly Prince of Benevento (1078–1081) before returning the title to the Pope.

Following William’s death his younger brother Drogo was elected to his position of Count of Apulia while a third brother, Humphrey, was given some of William’s former estates. Back in Normandy the seven sons who had stayed behind were watching these developments with considerable interest. These were the children of Tancred’s second marriage and in 1047 the eldest of them, Robert, decided to join his half-brothers in Italy. 

He arrived to a cool reception. Drogo didn’t particularly like his father’s second wife and detested her children, so he sent Robert off with a small band of followers to cut his teeth in a frontier fortress deep inside Byzantine Calabria, the heel of the Italian peninsula. The castle overlooked a coastal plain which held the picturesque ruins of the ancient city of Sybaris, but if Robert expected anything approaching luxury he was quickly disillusioned. The small, dank fortress was malaria-ridden and dark, languishing in a particularly sparse region of Italy. Calabria was much poorer than Apulia, with a heavily forested, mountainous interior and little land suitable for agriculture. The coastal regions had been desolated by centuries of malaria and Saracen raids, and since the local populations were thoroughly Hellenized they were more loyal to the Byzantines and less likely to welcome the Normans as deliverers.  

To survive, Robert was forced to live off the land, which he managed to do with a combination of cunning and brutality. A favorite tactic was to set crops on fire and then charge money to extinguish it, a scheme which did not improve his popularity with the local populations. Before long he was being called ‘Guiscard’, ‘the crafty’, and had acquired a reputation among the other Normans as someone to watch. He was shrewd enough to understand that a good leader should be feared by his enemies and loved by his allies. To this end he shared every hardship with his men, eating at the same campfire and sleeping on the same hard ground, but was also remarkably generous. Wealth for him was always a means, and almost never an end to itself. When a visiting Norman bishop mentioned that he was building a cathedral back home, Robert, whose own resources were stretched, loaded him down with every bit of treasure he owned. The financial loss was more than compensated by the public relations gain. The cleric returned to Normandy and brought with him stories of the wealthy, generous knight of Calabria, and Robert, who was chronically short of men, was inundated with fresh recruits. 

Before he had had a chance to expand his power, however, he was swept up into a larger conflict. When the Normans had first arrived in Italy they had been greeted as liberators by a Lombard population that was eager to escape the imperial tax collectors. As time when on, however, they had discovered that the rapacious Normans were a good deal worse than the Byzantines that they had replaced, brutally suppressing any sign of independence and squeezing their provinces for every drop of money. When Byzantine agents entered Apulia looking for a way to destabilize Norman control to neutralize the threat in Calabria, they found a very receptive audience. A massive conspiracy was hatched to assassinate every major Norman in Italy and in 1051 it was carried out. Drogo was cut down as he entered his private chapel, and by nightfall all of Apulia was in uproar. 

The surviving Normans, still not fully understanding how much public opinion had turned against them, responded by brutally ravaging the lands of anyone who was involved, thinking that they could restore the status quo with a display of strength. This was the final straw, and it provoked a response from the most powerful figure in Italy, Pope Leo IX. 

The papal palace in Rome had been deluged for years with woeful tales of rape, murder, and robbery along the major routes of southern Italy, all begging for assistance against the footloose bands of Norman mercenaries who respected no law but that of the sword. Such concerns might normally have been better directed towards the local secular authority, but Leo was uniquely suited to lead the charge. Already renowned for holiness in an age of worldly pontiffs, he alone had the charisma and standing to pull together the scattered powers of Italy into a cohesive force. The blood and death of battle didn’t shock him – as a bishop he had led the field armies of the German emperor, Conrad II, in a raid on northern Italy and saw no reason why his new position should bar another outing. 

The pope had had experience with the Normans before. They were uncomfortably close to the Papal States, were notorious for their simony – a practice he was doing his best to stamp out – and had already proved so irritating that he had refused William the Conqueror’s request for a marriage in order to humble them. If something wasn’t done to stop these lawless and uncontrollable Normans, they would begin to encroach on Vatican territory. If the pope couldn’t find some way to bring them to heel, his reputation would suffer accordingly and he would face the real danger of being surrounded by a sea of Normans.

His first thought had been to awe the Normans into submission. He had traveled to southern Italy where he summoned Drogo de Hauteville before him. Dressed in the full robes of his office, the Holy Father had coolly ordered him to rein in his men. Drogo had seemed appropriately chastened, but a few months later he had been assassinated and southern Italy was plunged into chaos.

For Pope Leo, now was the perfect time for him to strike. The Normans were leaderless and frustrated, flailing in all directions, and nearly every non-Norman baron of southern Italy, from Abruzzo to Calabria, had risen up against them. But he had to act fast before tempers cooled. Writing to the Byzantine emperor, Constantine IX, Leo offered a joint alliance and then traveled to Germany to discuss matters with his cousin the western emperor. Having shorn up imperial support for the anti-Norman coalition, he raised an Italian army as quickly as possible and marched into Apulia, proclaiming that he would put an end to the ‘Norman menace’. 

News that an invading army was on the way – led by the Vicar of Christ himself – finally woke the Normans to the danger. A desperate call went out for every able-bodied man and Robert hurried back from Calabria. Under the circumstances everyone was willing to put aside their past differences, and the united Normans elected the blunt, soldierly Humphrey, the oldest surviving Hauteville, as their leader. His first action was to send a message to Leo asking for terms, but Leo was in no mood to hear an appeal. He had his enemies right where he wanted and didn’t intend to let them escape.

Humphrey and Robert held a hasty conference to decide what to do. They were heavily outnumbered, and the fact that the pope was there in person unnerved them. But as bad as the situation was it would only grow worse if they delayed. A Byzantine army was heading down the coast and if it were allowed to link up with Leo, the odds would become too great. There was a serious food shortage; the local population had gathered up the harvest despite the fact that it was still green, and there was simply nothing to eat. If they didn’t attack now they faced the threat of starvation. 

With no realistic alternative, the Normans drew up by the Fortore River near the little town of Civitate and sent another emissary to the pope. This time, however, it was only a ruse, and in the middle of the negotiations they attacked. Leo’s Lombard allies were caught by surprise and fled in a panic, and were soon joined by the bulk of the army. Only the pope’s German regiment stood their ground against the Norman charge, but they were now outnumbered and were slaughtered to a man. The pope, dressed in distinctive flowing white robes, watched the entire debacle from a nearby hilltop with growing horror. When it became apparent that his forces were beaten he rode to a neighboring town and anxiously demanded sanctuary. The townsmen, however, were aware of what had just taken place and had no intention of offending the victors. The moment a Norman soldier rode up to the gates Leo was unceremoniously tossed out. 

The pope suffered his defeat graciously, walking proudly out to meet his enemies, and those watching from the walls might have wondered just who had won the recent struggle. The Normans fell down before him, begging for forgiveness and swearing that they were faithful Christians. Some knelt to kiss his ring, and still others ran to fetch him a horse, and some refreshment. When he had dined they escorted him to the town of Benevento – maintaining a respectful distance – and installed him in its finest apartments. Their courtesy never slipped an inch, but not all the deference in the world could hide the fact that Leo was now a captive, and the news quickly spread throughout Europe: the Vicar of Christ was a prisoner of the Normans. 

Their victory was more complete than they knew. The pope was humiliated and broken, but even if he had wanted to mount another challenge he would have found it impossible. Just a few months after the battle, the churches of Rome and Constantinople suffered a serious break and the threat of a vast anti-Norman alliance vanished along with any hope of cooperation between the eastern and western halves of Christendom.

The only thing that threatened the Norman position now was tension between the brothers, which was rapidly mounting. Humphrey tolerated his younger sibling better than Drogo had, but his patience was wearing thin. Robert was enjoying himself in Apulia and had no intention of hurrying back to impoverished Calabria. Things came to a head at a banquet hosted by the elder brother. He accused Guiscard of dragging his feet, and the furious Robert was offended enough to draw his sword before being restrained by his friends. Feeling bitter and humiliated, he made his way back to Calabria, and began the work of expanding his influence. 

Happily for him, he found the situation had greatly improved in his absence. Byzantine power in Italy was in the middle of a spectacular collapse; shrinking budgets and dithering rulers in Constantinople had left much of the local population feeling abandoned, and the garrisons left behind were demoralized and easily convinced to surrender. One town after another submitted to Guiscard, and those that resisted were either overwhelmed or fell prey to one of his famous ruses. In Otranto he managed to talk his way through the gates, and by the fall had seized Calabria’s one productive agricultural region. Each success gave him a greater reputation, which in turn brought in more recruits that allowed more fortresses and more victories. By 1057 even Humphrey had to admit Robert’s ability. 

The elder Hauteville was dying of malaria and exhaustion, and was well aware that the Normans were in desperate need of a new type of leader. Their stubborn independence made their conquests unstable, and their harsh rule fueled the anti-Norman feeling among the populations they dominated. It was no longer enough to be a good soldier; leadership of the fractious Normans now required diplomacy, statesmanship and vision if they were ever to become more than petty barons. Humphrey was determined to leave his people in the hands of someone who saw a greater destiny for them, and there was only one serious candidate. Swallowing his pride, he summoned Robert and the two had a public reconciliation. 

Not everyone was pleased with the selection, however, and Robert had to spend several months putting down various Norman barons who contested his election. For good measure he forced even the loyal nobles to re-swear allegiance to him, then returned to the toe of Italy to complete the conquest of Calabria. Here his youngest brother Roger joined him. Barely twenty-five, Roger had the same broad Hauteville shoulders and large frame, but was more easy-going than Robert. Where Guiscard was calculating, Roger was convivial, but that merely masked an iron-willed determination. 

At first the two of them worked together well. They made a stab at Reggio which commanded the straits between Italy and Sicily and Robert felt comfortable enough to leave the campaign in Roger’s hands as he returned north to put down yet another rebellion. They were too similar, however, for the partnership to work for long. Perhaps recognizing the family ambition in his brother, Robert refused to grant him land or an independent source of income. Roger was eager to build up his wealth so he could marry, and his frustration turned to anger when Robert started slowing down the payments for his garrisons. When he formally complained, Guiscard dismissed his concerns, suggesting that his brother would benefit from the same rough conditions that he had had to suffer in his early days. 

This kind of response only made things worse, and before long the animosity escalated into a full-blown war. Roger went on a rampage through his brother’s Calabrian lands, burning crops, pillaging the countryside and kidnapping merchants for ransom. Not one to back down, Robert responded in kind, and the resulting devastation caused a famine that provoked a massive popular revolt. The scale of the rebellion caught the Normans completely by surprise and soon threatened to spread into Apulia. The alarmed brothers hastily patched up a truce, agreeing to share all further conquests equally. 

Peace was restored just in time for Robert to receive a papal ambassador summoning him to Melfi for a personal meeting. When he asked what the pope wanted, the answer must have seemed too incredible to be true. It had been barely five years since a pontiff had led an army to crush the Normans, and now one of his successors was asking for an alliance. 

The reason for the about-face in Vatican policy was the election of Nicholas II, a reforming cleric who wanted to end simony, the practice of buying church offices, and free the papacy from external control. The German emperor had traditionally been the pope’s protector, but in practice that had usually meant that the pontiff was a German puppet. The only way for the pope to break free was to find a counterbalancing power and the closest one available was the Normans. 

Nicholas called a synod to meet at Melfi, and there made the alliance official. Robert pledged his loyalty and promised to defend him against the emperor. In return the pope confirmed his right to hold the land he had already seized and gave him the suggestive title ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria as well as Sicily yet to be conquered’. The fact that he didn’t actually control all of Calabria – or any of Sicily for that matter – hardly bothered Guiscard. The pope had given him the legitimacy to conquer everything he could and he didn’t intend to waste the opportunity.  

He spent the next year evicting the Byzantines from Italy, reducing the imperial holdings to the single city of Bari in the heel of the Italian peninsula. There they stubbornly resisted, clinging on to their ancestral homeland, and Guiscard was willing to let them be for the moment. He already had a more tempting target in mind – the rich fields of Sicily – and could wait for the rest of Italy to fall into his grasp. It must have been a heady feeling as he looked across the straits to the island just off the coast. The son of a minor lord of France had raised himself to the same level as his contemporary, Duke William of Normandy. There were now two Norman duchies at opposite ends of Europe, both planning to invade an island kingdom. Sicily was ripe for conquest and exerted an irresistible pull on Robert. Things had only become more chaotic since his eldest sibling, William Iron-Arm, had left, and the island was now divided between warring Arab and Berber factions. Even more promising, one of the Berber emirs had actually invited Robert to come, asking for his assistance in fending off his rivals. The two brothers crossed to Sicily in 1060 and immediately seized Messina, then plunged deep into the interior. By the end of that year they controlled most of the east coast and were making inroads towards Palermo. 

In the second year, however, the advance abruptly halted. Besieging fortresses took time and Robert was impatient to bring the Muslims to battle. The stress of a long campaign was also beginning to show as the brothers started arguing about the division of spoils. Neither could completely agree about who was actually in charge, so they settled on an awkward joint rule. This was a particularly bad idea as Robert had no patience for consolidation and was easily bored. His attention in any case was needed on the mainland; long absences invited revolts and his restless barons hardly needed the encouragement. For the next ten years he put in sporadic appearances, leaving the conquest of Sicily largely in Roger’s capable hands. 

In the meantime Robert continued to put pressure on the southern Italian city of Bari and in the spring of 1071 it finally fell, extinguishing the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in Italy. Guiscard entered the city in triumph, dressed in the Greek style, and surrounded by his closest supporters. He was the sole master of southern Italy, and had at last made his dukedom a reality. For another man this might have been enough. His enemies at home were cowed and peaceful, the pope had turned from being a rival into an ally, and there was no one left to challenge his authority throughout the south. But Guiscard was already dreaming of greater things. Something in the pageantry of Bari had caught his imagination. He had seen it in the palaces and churches of Sicily and in the luxury of captured imperial baggage. The landless knight who had made himself a duke turned his eyes thoughtfully to the East. There, glittering Byzantium, the biggest prize of all, was waiting.

Normans in Italy: The Imperial Crown

Norman progress in Sicily during Robert’s expeditions to the Balkans: Capua, Apulia and Calabria, and the County of Sicily are Norman. The Emirate of Sicily, the Duchy of Naples and lands in the Abruzzo (in the southern Duchy of Spoleto) are not yet conquered.

At sixty-five-years-old (elderly by medieval standards), Robert Guiscard deserved a rest. Most men his age were settling down to enjoy the fruits of their labours, which in Robert’s case were plentiful. There were always the pleasures of hunting in the Apulian countryside or relaxing in one of his many palaces to distract him. But Guiscard had no intention of retiring. He was far too easily bored; he infinitely preferred fighting to governing and in any case he had become obsessed with the Byzantine Empire.

The past two decades of fighting Byzantium had left their mark. He had started by copying parts of the imperial seals into his own, and had then graduated to using the Byzantine title ‘dux imperator’ in his public decrees. This was equal parts vanity and shrewdness. Most of his subjects were thoroughly hellenized and posing as a Byzantine successor added a bit of legitimacy to his rule. Just in case anyone missed the point, he had a copy made of the imperial robes of state that he was careful to don at every opportunity.

All this strutting gained the attention of Constantinople, which was under disastrous attack by the Turks and wanted to make peace with the Normans as quickly as possible. Emperor Michael VII had a young son named Constantine, and Guiscard had a young daughter named Helena; a marriage proposal was arranged and the Norman duke was promised a fancy new title. He could now call himself nobelissimus – only a step below a Caesar – could wear the color purple, and could reasonably hope that one day a descendant of his would sit on the imperial throne. Young Helena was shipped off to Constantinople, and Guiscard sat back to congratulate himself on a nice bit of diplomacy.

Unfortunately for him, events in Constantinople moved faster still. Just after Helena arrived, the emperor was overthrown by an old general named Nicephorus III. The Norman princess was dispatched to a convent and her prospective husband, Constantine, was exiled. The news of it all was disappointing for Guiscard, but only momentarily. The Byzantines were weak, overextended against the Turks, and vulnerable. An attack now would almost certainly yield great fruit. In the meantime Helena was a convenient pawn to provoke a war.

The first step was to make an ultimatum that would be rejected out of hand. Playing the part of aggrieved father, Guiscard demanded that his daughter be instantly restored to favor, married to Constantine and crowned empress. This would have been political suicide for Nicephorus. He could hardly start honoring the son of the man he had displaced, so he sensibly refused. Guiscard immediately declared war and started marshalling a great invading army. To bolster his effort, he found a wandering monk whom he claimed was the deposed emperor Michael – somehow escaped from captivity just in time to give an official blessing to the invasion. The ruse didn’t fool anyone since the monk wasn’t a particularly good actor, but Guiscard hardly cared. He had gotten his war and now he was going to claim his throne.

It took nearly a year to raise an army, but the effort produced a magnificent result. Medieval western armies didn’t tend to be particularly diverse, but Robert had recruited soldiers from all over southern Italy: Muslims from Sicily mixed with Lombards and Greeks from Apulia and Calabria, while French and Norman adventurers filled out the rest. Cities all along the Italian coast were conscripted to build ships, and when they couldn’t fill the demand, additional ones were bought from the heavily forested Croatian coast. By the spring of 1081 there were one hundred and fifty ships waiting to transport twenty thousand soldiers, horses and besieging equipment across the Aegean. All that was needed was the command from the sixty-four-year-old Guiscard. However, before he could give it, the ground in Constantinople shifted again. Nicephorus III was overthrown by a brilliant young general named Alexius, who sent word that he was prepared to recognize all of Guiscard’s demands. The disgraced Constantine was to be restored as co-emperor, Helena was to be rescued from her convent, and the pair would be married.

Guiscard’s temper was legendary, and his rage on this occasion was especially fierce. The poor emissary who brought the news expecting that it would be gladly received had to flee from the chamber in fear for his life, and for two days the Norman duke sulked in his tent in a black mood refusing to see visitors. Alexius had neatly cut the ground out from under his feet, but the preparations had come too far to stop. Guiscard’s eldest son, Bohemond, was sent with an advance guard to form a bridgehead, and a month later Guiscard followed with the main army.

By June the Normans had reached Durrës, the second largest imperial city, nestled at the head of the old Roman road that led to Constantinople. It was well defended and seemingly impregnable, situated on a high peninsula and guarded by marshes on the landward side. Guiscard attempted to talk it into submission and nearly succeeded, but the defenders were confident they could hold out and that the emperor wouldn’t abandon them to their fate. A few days later, they were given dramatic evidence of the imperial attention. The Venetian fleet, bribed by Alexius, showed up without warning and engaged the Norman ships in battle. Using submerged pipes, they funneled Greek Fire underneath the Norman vessels, burning them below the waterline. 

Guiscard was now in a difficult position. Without naval support an effective blockade was impossible and there seemed to be little hope of taking the city by storm. Even worse, winter was approaching with the familiar problems of shelter, fuel, and maintaining supply lines in a hostile country. Morale plummeted, and an outbreak of dysentery swept through the ranks, further demoralizing everyone. Soldiers began to talk openly about retreat, but Guiscard wasn’t the type of man to back down and burned his remaining ships to prevent desertions. For the common knight it must have seemed as if they were trapped in a nightmare. The defenders of Durrës sensed the mood and began an ominous new chant. The emperor Alexius was on his way, they said, at the head of a massive relief army.

Alexius Comnenus was a formidable opponent. Claiming descent from one of the patrician families of ancient Rome, he was a rare combination of military and political brilliance. At the age of forty he had never lost a battle and was the empire’s most acclaimed general. Byzantium was in desperate need of such a man. Marauding Turks were overrunning the eastern frontiers, Slavs and Bulgars were invading from the west, and incompetent leadership in Constantinople only accelerated the pace of disintegration. By the decade’s end there had been frantic appeals to the one general capable of stopping the bleeding, and Alexius obliged, easily expelling the elderly occupant of the palace.

Despite the new emperor’s unblemished military record, however, the Norman invasion presented a serious problem. The chaos afflicting the empire had reduced the army to a disorganized mess and it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. There was still a highly effective core – the famous Varangian Guard – but the rest was a mix of undisciplined militias, mercenaries, and private bodyguards. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring force, but for the moment it would have to do. The empire was under attack and there was no time for training or drills. 

Both Alexius and Guiscard had reasons to avoid the battle. While the Norman lines were weakened with disease, they were still frighteningly potent, and the emperor would have liked to let the coming winter soften them up a bit more. He also doubted the loyalty of his mercenaries, and had good reason to suspect that they would desert at the first sign of trouble. Robert, on the other hand, was now caught between the imperial army and a heavily fortified city, and was unenthusiastic about initiating a battle. His normal practice would have been to withdraw to find a more suitable position to attack, but thanks to his rash decision to scuttle the fleet that was no longer an option. 

The only ones actually looking forward to the fight were the Varangians. Fifteen years earlier, William the Conqueror had burst into England, killing the rightful king and subjecting the Anglo-Saxons to an increasingly brutal reign. Many of those who found life intolerable under the Norman boot eventually made their way to Constantinople where they enlisted in the ranks of the Guard. Now at last they were face to face with the hated foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions. Hastings could finally be avenged. 

Guiscard led the first attack against the center of the Byzantine line. The Normans had never yet encountered an enemy that could stand up to a cavalry charge, but against the wall of Varangians, it was the Normans who broke. Repeated charges were no more effective, and the Varangians began to slowly advance, wading into the Norman line with their wicked, double-headed axes. Unfortunately for Alexius, the rest of the Byzantine army failed to follow their lead. His turkish auxiliaries chose this moment to desert, and the hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were left exposed and surrounded. The few that managed to escape fled to a nearby chapel dedicated to the archangel Michael, but there was no sanctuary against the Norman fury. The church and all within were burned to the ground.

The defeat seemed to sap the remaining strength from Byzantine territory. Durrës surrendered after another week of symbolic resistance and the rest of northern Greece wasn’t far behind. When Guiscard reached Macedonia, the town of Kastoria surrendered without a fight, despite being guarded by three hundred Varangians. If even the elite forces of the empire were not loyal, then Constantinople was as good as won, and Guiscard boasted that he would be in the capital in time for Christmas. For once, however, he had met his match. Alexius couldn’t stop the Normans with a sword, but he still had his pen, and where armies had failed, diplomacy would succeed.

Southern Italy was a tinderbox waiting to explode, filled with barons and nobles who resented the Norman yoke and who despised their subservient status. They were held in check only by fear, each of them unwilling to take the first step. Alexius merely had to provide some motivation. Byzantine agents were sent to Italy loaded down with bags of gold whispering that now was the time to strike. Almost overnight the peninsula flared into open revolt. The man Guiscard had left to represent him southern Italy wrote desperately to his master that if he didn’t return soon he wouldn’t have a home to return to.

Guiscard hesitated as long as he could. The longer he let the rebellion fester, the more difficult it would be to suppress. But he had Byzantium on its heels and the invasion was sure to falter in his absence. Valuable ground would be lost and the wily Alexius would have time to recover. Finally in the early months of 1082 news arrived that forced his hand. The German emperor, Henry IV, was marching on Rome and the frantic pope was calling for Norman protection at once. Taking a public oath to remain unshaven and unwashed until he returned, Guiscard left the army in his son Bohemond’s care and left for Italy.

Pope Gregory VII was a strange ally for the rough Norman duke. Idealistic, principled, and inflexible, he was the last person who would be expected to stand by the morally ambivalent Guiscard. Necessity, however, had driven them together. Gregory was involved in a great controversy, which had thrown Christendom into turmoil. He was attempting to break the Church free from secular control and had clashed with the German emperor, Henry IV. The first victory had belonged to the pope. Henry had been excommunicated and had been forced to trek barefoot in the middle of winter to the remote castle of Canossa in northern Italy, and beg Gregory to lift the sentence. That had merely been the opening salvo, however, and as soon as he was strong enough the emperor had threatened to bring his army to Rome and appoint a new pope if Gregory wouldn’t back down. Gregory needed a defender, and there was only one figure in Italy capable of being one. Swallowing his pride, he had offered Guiscard legitimacy and papal support in exchange for protection. The deal worked well enough until Guiscard left to invade Byzantium. A letter from Alexius, along with a few bags of gold, had found their way to emperor Henry urging him to descend on defenseless Italy. The emperor, of course, hardly needed to be asked twice.

Henry’s army had little problem breaking into Rome. Gregory fled to Hadrian’s mausoleum, and just managed to hold out. His supporters still controlled the left bank of the Tiber, and disease began to decimate the imperial ranks. Henry withdrew with most of his forces to higher ground and settled in for a siege.

Guiscard meanwhile was busy trying to stamp out the revolt in southern Italy, ignoring the pope’s increasingly panicked letters. By the end of 1084 he had crushed the last resistance, and could have come to Gregory’s aid but he hesitated. As he had feared, the Byzantine campaign was in serious trouble, and if he didn’t return immediately there was the real possibility of a complete collapse. On the other hand, his attention was simultaneously needed in Rome, where a valuable ally was fighting for his life. For one of the only times in his life, Robert Guiscard didn’t know what to do.

Once again, however, the decision was made for him by outside forces, this time by the Romans themselves. They were tired of Gregory, blaming his inflexibility for the long siege and severe privation, and they opened the gates and invited Henry to take full possession of Rome. The emperor entered in triumph, declared Gregory deposed, and appointed his own candidate. Guiscard now had no choice but to act. If Gregory was destroyed than so was the Hauteville legitimacy. Byzantium would have to wait. Gathering a massive army from every part of his domain, he marched on Rome.

Henry was not foolish enough to be there when Guiscard arrived. His weakened army was no match for the Normans and he knew it. Three days before Guiscard appeared, the emperor advised the Romans to defend themselves as best they could and then slipped away. The panicked inhabitants of the city barred the gates, but they were doomed. The walls of the city had been built 800 years before during the reign of the emperor Aurelian and hadn’t been significantly updated since. Within minutes of Guiscard’s first attack, his soldiers broke in and fanned out through the city killing and looting as they went. Gregory was escorted from Hadrian’s mausoleum to the Lateran in triumph and once again seated on the papal throne.

The victory, however, was a pyrrhic one. The Muslim and Greek contingents of Guiscard’s army saw the city as their prize to plunder and started a frenzy of rape and murder. After three days of this treatment the cowed citizens were pushed to their limit and took to the streets, waging a desperate guerrilla campaign against the invaders. Any semblance of order vanished in the chaos and the Normans, realizing they had lost control, started setting fires in an attempt to flush out their enemies. The damage was immense. What wasn’t burned down was despoiled. From the Lateran to the Coliseum barely a building was left standing. Neither churches, nor palaces, nor ancient pagan temples were spared.

Gregory had been restored, but he was now so universally hated that he had to accompany Guiscard’s army when it withdrew. He found a new home in Salerno, where he set up his court in exile, and concentrated on his reform of the Church. He died the following year and was buried, as was fitting, in a Norman tomb. He was defiant until the end, but his last words were bitter: “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile”.

Robert Guiscard, meanwhile, was finally free to concentrate on Byzantium. The war had not gone well without him. His son, Bohemond, was a superb knight and a good general, but he lacked his father’s ability to inspire. Despite demolishing three successive armies that the emperor had sent against him, the mood in the Norman camp was increasingly defeatist. It had been nearly four years since they had sailed from Italy, and yet they were no closer to taking Constantinople than on the day they had arrived. Most of them were exhausted and homesick, beginning to feel as if this long campaign would never end. Bohemond managed to hold them together for a few more months, but at the end of the campaigning season he committed the cardinal sin of underestimating his opponent. As he was crossing a river in northern Greece, Alexius lured him into attacking a decoy force while the main imperial army plundered the Norman baggage. After an afternoon spent chasing shadows, Bohemond returned to his camp to find that four years worth of spoils had vanished. For the weary army it was the last straw. The moment Bohemond’s back was turned the men surrendered en masse to Alexius.

It was a severe setback, but Guiscard was nothing if not persistent. Although he was now seventy, he had lost none of his vigor and he immediately gathered another army. He spent the winter in Corfu, but typhoid fever struck the camp killing thousands. When it finally abated, he gave orders to sail to the Byzantine island of Cephalonia as the first step of the campaign. In the middle of the crossing, however, Guiscard himself was struck by the fever and was barely strong enough to stand when he arrived. He died on July 17, 1085, having never lost a major battle.

The body was taken back to Italy, but just off the coast of Otranto the corpse washed overboard in a storm and was badly damaged. The sailors managed to recover it, but the decision was made to remove the heart and entrails and bury them in a small chapel while the rest was embalmed and completed the journey to the Hauteville mausoleum in Venosa, Italy. There it was interred in the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in a magnificent tomb.

He had lived an extraordinary life, and his accomplishments had earned him a spot as one of the greatest military adventurers. With a mixture of vision, political skill, and force of personality he had taken a small barony and turned it into one of the great powers of Europe. Along the way he had evicted the Byzantines from Italy, the Muslims from Sicily, saved the reformed papacy, and held two emperors at bay. An anonymous stone worker put it best in an inscription above his tomb: “Here lies Guiscard, Terror of the World…”


At Borna, Frederick the Great and his staff develop their battle plan, as illustrated by Hugo Ungewitter

To the Prussians’ disbelief, their infantry could calmly dress their lines after their march and advance almost unnoticed. Drawing up in line, their first volley caused the startled Württembergers to break and flee. Five minutes later a second volley dispersed the Bavarians. In barely fifteen minutes Lorraine’s left flank had vanished. Some 12,000 men were in headlong retreat. Denuded of cavalry, Charles of Lorraine’s flank was rapidly reinforced by infantry from the right but the confusion and disorder were total and by the time the Austrian cavalry arrived it was too late. The Austrian cavalry commander Joseph Lucchesi was killed and panic set in. The village of Leuthen became a mass of Austrian infantry struggling to form coherent lines. In less than three hours it was over. Entire Austrian regiments surrendered en masse. Victory was absolute. The Austrian losses, including prisoners, exceeded 21,000, a third of Lorraine’s entire army.

Frederick was determined to engage the Austrians in a major battle. He clearly understood the significance of the Austrian victories at Schweidnitz and Breslau, and, as he later openly admitted, he was prepared to gamble everything on the outcome of this confrontation. He had to attack the Austrians and expel them from Silesia before the onset of winter `at any cost,’ for otherwise he would have to resign himself `to losing this province forever.’ In short he appreciated that the Austrians had effectively achieved their strategic objective, and, unless he could by some miracle reverse this success, he understood that the war was lost. He was therefore prepared to risk the kind of attack on a numerically superior foe from which he had shrunk at Zittau in August and which had cost him Kolin in June. Though he typically exaggerated the numerical superiority of the Austrians by telling his officers they faced a force three times as large, the army he gathered at Parchwitz was formidable. By 1 December, as the king himself reported, it had reached between 39,000 and 40,000 men. What is more, almost all were meticulously drilled native sons drafted through the notorious Prussian `canton’ system – the cream of the Prussian army – still confidently revelling in the success of Rossbach. The force had more than the usual reserves of ammunition and disposed of 10 enormous twelve-pounder fortress cannons in addition to 61 pieces of heavy artillery. Frederick’s apologists have made much of his `heroic nobility’ in the days leading up to the battle. Quite uncharacteristically he seemed for once solicitous of his men, ordered extra rations and tried to show a common touch. On 3 December he summoned his officers and delivered his famous `Parschwitz Address,’ in which, after asserting that as king he really did not need to do so, he attempted to justify why he had to `conquer or die.’ Even for once deigning to speak in German rather than his usual French, he confessed that defeat would mean the war was lost. With theatrical bathos he tried to suggest that this conflict was about the preservation of hearth and home, and the defence of their `wives and children!’ Rather than allow this melodramatic royal performance to add to the Frederician myth, a sober assessment must judge it as a measure of the king’s apprehension and anxiety. In reality the only thing that this war was about was his self-esteem. Frederick had made the rape and retention of Silesia his life’s raison d’etre, on which his posthumous reputation would be made or unmade. He repeatedly asserted that he did not want to survive defeat, and on this occasion, too, he made explicit provisions on how his corpse should be handled should he not survive the battle. Now, in this desperate situation, as he later confessed, he had `to resort to anything one could think of’ to give his va banque gamble some chance of success.

Frederick had assumed that the Austrians would man August Wilhelm Bevern’s old defensive positions east of the Lohe, and that he would have to attack them there. In fact the main Austrian army had already advanced to the Weistritz immediately after the capture of Breslau. The forces at the disposal of Charles were certainly larger than Frederick’s, but not overwhelmingly so. The Austrians and their German allies counted some 50,000-55,000 men and 65 pieces of heavy artillery, but some of the regiments from the smaller German principalities – particularly those from Württemberg – were notoriously unreliable. Emperor Francis even warned his brother never to put these contingents into a vulnerable sector of the battle line, and in the event a good two thirds of them were in fact to desert. On 2 December the Austrian high command held its council of war in a chateau in the town of Lissa, on the west bank of the Weistritz. The official report of this meeting, like the announced final results of an imperial or papal election, proclaimed that the decision reached was unanimous. In fact there was bitter disagreement over the strategy to be employed. Leopold von Daun, supported by General Johann Baptist (Giambaptista) Serbelloni and several other officers, strongly urged setting up a strong defensive position on the east bank of the Weistritz, and awaiting Frederick’s attack as they had done at Kolin. Charles had other ideas, and asserted his command prerogative to push them through against the advice of Daun and other officers. Stung by the accusations of incompetence over the course of the 1757 campaign, and overconfident in his numerical superiority, he chose what has been aptly called the `brainless’ manoeuvre of crossing the river. Resistance to this idea must have been strong, as Charles’ main supporter, General Lucchesi, declared immediately after the meeting that it cost him more effort to push through the idea of attacking Frederick `than it will cost us to defeat him.’

Apparently still uncertain where Frederick’s army actually was, Charles hoped to manoeuvre the Prussians out of Silesia and have the luxury of having the time and place of the battle of his own choosing. On 3 December the Austrian field bakery with a small escort force of hussars and Croatian irregulars was sent ahead on the main road that led from Breslau to Liegnitz with instructions to establish themselves at Neumarkt in advance of the main army. The next day Frederick approached from the north and ordered an immediate assault on Neumarkt. The field bakery with 80,000 portions of bread as well as a few hundred Croats was captured without much ado; the hussars escaped back to the Austrian lines, confirming exactly where Frederick was. Why under these startling new circumstances Charles chose not to order a retreat across the Weistritz in order to establish a better position remains a mystery. Instead he strung his forces out a few kilometres west of Lissa in a not particularly strongly positioned 10-kilometre long line astride the main Breslau road, stretching from the villages of Nippern (Mrozow) and Guckerwitz (Kuklice) north of the road, through the town of Frobelwitz (Wroblowice) on the road itself, to the villages of Leuthen (Lutynia) and Sagaschütz (Zakrzyce) south of the road. Lucchesi’s cavalry anchored the Austrian right between Nippern and Guckerwitz, while Ferenc Lípot Nadasdy’s was stationed on the left, south of Leuthen. The unreliable Württembergers and other Imperial troops were also stationed on the extreme left near Sagaschütz, which would appear to be a clear indication that Charles did not expect an attack on that wing.

On the morning of 5 December Charles ordered the army battle-ready along this line one hour before daybreak. It was no mystery to the Austrians that Frederick’s favourite tactical offensive device – indeed, one employed with almost predictable monotony – was to try to turn the enemy’s flank, and as the Prussian army approached along the Breslau road from the west Charles watched anxiously for signs of a flanking manoeuvre from his command post in a windmill just north of Leuthen. The initial confrontation took place early in the morning as the Prussian advance guard of cavalry units encountered Austrian and Saxon screening cavalry under the Saxon Lieutenant-General Georg Ludwig Nostitz, about 5 kilometres west of Frobelwitz near the town of Borne (Zrodga). As the Prussians swept the Austro-Saxon horse before them, the columns of the main army approached and came into view. After assessing the Austrian position, Frederick decided to feign an attack on the Austrian centre and right by having some contingents continue the march along the main road in the direction of Frobelwitz. From the Austrian side the initial Prussian advance on their centre and right seemed to herald a flanking attack from the north. No sooner had Lucchesi, who commanded that sector, noticed this movement than he began sending frantic messages to Charles demanding that the infantry reserve be moved to the north as quickly as possible. Daun and the French military attaché, General Antoine Marie Montazet de Malvin, desperately urged Charles not to commit the reserves, but Lucchesi’s repeated pleas were given greater credence than Daun’s caution. Charles accordingly committed the entire infantry reserve under Carl Raimund Arenberg and a substantial portion of the cavalry under Serbelloni to his right wing, where they took up positions around the town of Nippern. Once he noticed this shift in the Austrian lines Frederick could, with considerable satisfaction, implement the actual plan of an attack on the Austrian left. Around 11.00 a. m. the bulk of the Prussian force, accompanied by cavalry and artillery, began its flanking manoeuvre with a sharp turn to the south. From the Austrian vantage point, however, the Prussian columns seemed suddenly to disappear.

Since this undetected flanking manoeuvre was to be the key to the Prussian success that day, it is important to ask how it was possible. Many apologists seeking to enhance Frederick’s reputation as a brilliant tactician point to the fact that the Prussian army held its fall manoeuvres in precisely that part of Silesia, and that it was the king’s keen awareness of the ground that made him realise that the Prussians could effect this `ingenious’ march undetected by taking advantage of depressions in the undulating country- side. 66 Against this view was Frederick’s own subsequent incredulity that the flanking manoeuvre had been undetected by the Austrians. After the war he had the movement repeated by riders carrying flags, while he himself took up Charles’s position at the windmill near Leuthen. In the event, the riders could not be seen by the king any more than the Prussian columns could be seen by the Austrian high command that December day. It would appear, therefore, that Frederick did not count on complete surprise on the Austrian left. Rather, having seen the bulk of the Austrian reserves committed to their right, a good two hours’ march from the left flank at Sagaschütz, he was calculating that, with the superior speed for which his troops had been mercilessly drilled, he could arrive on the Austrian left and roll up the flank before the Austrian reserves could effectively come into play. That the battle would have had the same result without the surprise effect on the Austrian left, however, is highly unlikely. If the battle of Leuthen was the greatest battlefield triumph of the Prussians in the entire Seven Years War, Frederick’s tactical calculations were thus not the sole or even primary explanation.

By 1.00 p. m. the Prussian columns under General Karl Heinrich von Wedel had reached the Austrian left south of Sagaschütz and deployed into battle formation. After a brief resistance, the Württemberg units facing them collapsed, and a roll-up of the exposed flank commenced. Nadasdy, in command of the cavalry on the left flank, saw the danger almost immediately, and sent several desperate messages to high command. Unconvinced that this was now the main Prussian thrust, however, Charles ignored Nadasdy’s appeals and failed to react. Nadasdy desperately attempted two counter-attacks against the right flank of the Prussian battle line, but the overwhelming local manpower superiority of the Prussians, supported by Hans Joachim von Ziethen’s cavalry and the heavy artillery, won the upper hand. As the Austrians were thus pushed back into the town of Leuthen in a dense mass, in places up to 100 men deep, they became easy targets for the Prussian artillery, the twelve-pounder fortress cannons taking a particularly heavy toll. Only now did Charles recognise the danger, and he desperately tried to form a new east-west defensive line centred on the town of Leuthen. The reserves standing at Nippern were hastily recalled, but they had to cover 6 kilometres on the run, leaving their artillery behind, and could not arrive in time to affect the outcome of the decisive mid-afternoon action in and around Leuthen itself. Here a fierce hand-to-hand struggle took place, in which the Prussian Third Guard Battalion particularly distinguished itself. The Austrian defenders were decimated and ejected from Leuthen. Lucchesi, meanwhile, desperately tried to salvage a situation for which he had been partially responsible. His cavalry units swept down from their position north of Guckerwitz with the intention of hitting the left flank of the Prussian line at Leuthen. This could conceivably have turned the tide of the battle. Unfortunately for Lucchesi the Prussian reserve cavalry under Lieutenant-General Georg Wilhelm von Driesen was holding position about 3 kilometres west of Leuthen, and in his attempt to attack the Prussian line Lucchesi exposed his own flank. Driesen, on his own initiative, immediately took advantage of this opening and routed the Austrian horse. Lucchesi himself was mortally wounded in the action. Daun attempted to make one more stand on the hillock north of Leuthen, where he gathered the reserves and artillery still available to him. The Prussian advance was brought temporarily to a halt, but now without cavalry support the Austrian line could not hold despite the suicidal heroism of some of its regiments (the regiment of Baden-Durlach, for example, was reduced to 9 men). Daun himself was wounded as well. By 7.00 p. m. the battered remnants of the Austrian army had fled east across the Weistritz.

Well past 10.00 p. m. that evening Charles and Daun assessed the disaster in the village of Neukirch just west of Breslau and determined it was impossible to make another stand outside the city. Charles `trembled’ at the thought of what another determined Prussian assault could do, and retreat to winter quarters in Bohemia was seen as the only option. By any measure the results were catastrophic. Despite the complete triumph of the Prussians, it had in fact not been a one-sided battle like Rossbach: the Prussians counted over 6,300 battlefield casualties, the Austrians over 9,000. But a much more devastating loss for the Austrians was the 12,000 prisoners of war captured during and after the battle, which meant that the engagement cost them a third of their army. Unfortunately Charles compounded this calamity by his decision to leave an inadequately sup- plied and equipped garrison of 11,000 men, as well as 6,000 wounded, in Breslau while the rest of the army, covered by a rearguard under Serbelloni, retreated to Bohemia. They crossed the frontier on 20 December and on that same day the Breslau garrison capitulated to the Prussians. Eight days later the garrison at Liegnitz also capitulated, though its garrison of 3,400 men was allowed to withdraw with honour to Bohemia.

The U-Boat Campaign

Many would agree that no single factor contributed more to the Allied victory in the Second World War—or was more important—than the long, hard-fought, extraordinarily punishing campaign to keep the oceans open to the vital shipping traffic, without which Britain could not have survived and the Russian allies could not have successfully prosecuted the war from the East. Without that challenging and desperate campaign, Britain could not have provided the springboard for the Normandy invasion.

The real heroes of the campaign were the largely unheralded, mostly forgotten seamen of the British Merchant Navy, the American Merchant Marine, and the Canadian Merchant Navy. Their astonishing courage and unparalleled devotion to their duty in the most outrageous and intolerable of conditions, and under nearly constant menace by enemy submarines, aircraft and surface warships, is to their everlasting credit. That is, of course, not to take away from the performance of the gallant escort crews, both naval and air, who, for much of the conflict were often super-human in their performance and achievements.

It is important, too, to note the invaluable and wide-ranging aid provided to Britain from both the United States and Canada in the form of the “Cash and Carry” and “Lend-Lease” programmes, the destroyers made available as well as the Liberators and Flying Fortress bombers, and the American and Canadian participation in the convoys in various roles including the crucial escort duty. It must be said that the British returned the favour many fold with their provision of escorting armed trawlers, their experience of escort tactics, their Ultra intelligence information, and their HFDF (Huff Duff) high frequency direction finding technology.

The value and contribution of the very long-ranging aircraft equipped with new state-of-the-art radar cannot be overstated. It finally closed the gap in the mid-Atlantic, enabling the Allies to reach, locate, attack, and destroy the U-boats and surface warships of Germany anywhere in the vast seas. And with the variety of weather conditions prevailing along the shipping lanes, the proficiency and effectiveness of the new radar in the long-range bombers tipped the odds much more in the Allies’ favour. Even so, the results showed that the “huff duff” technology and the human eye did, in fact, detect more enemy submarines than any other technologies of the period. Admiral Dönitz over-estimated the importance of the Allied radar, thanks mainly to being ill-advised by his scientists, and as a result took precautions against it that were largely ineffective. The combination of centimetric radar and the enormous and very timely growth of air power then turned the sea lanes into a U-boat killing ground.

Yet another vital contribution to the success of this major Allied campaign was that of Commander Frederick John “Johnnie” Walker, whose offensive team tactics against the U-boat wolfpacks had, by 1943, been adopted by the Royal Navy as well as the U.S. Navy’s hunter-killer groups. For the sailors aboard Walker’s Black Swan-class sloops, high seas operations were often testing affairs (even the hardiest sailor could feel queasy in a sloop), but the vessels were highly manoeuvrable and, in action, reminded him of hounds on a scent. When his sloop, HMS Starling, sailed from the historic port of Liverpool, he had “A-hunting We Will Go” played loudly on the Tannoy to inspire the crew. In the course of the campaign, Walker’s No 2 Support Group attacked and sank twenty-one U-boats, downing six of them in a single operation. He himself was credited with the destruction of U-264, the first snorkel-equipped U-boat to become operational.

Sharing kudos for their triumphs in the field of U-boat killing was Captain Donald Macintyre.

Finally, the role of intelligence and the valuable contribution that was provided about the U-boat movements thanks in large part to the amazing cryptographers at the British Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, must be acknowledged. Without question that contribution was absolutely key to Allied victory in the war. Ultra was the code-name for intelligence information that resulted from interpreting the high-grade codes and the cyphers collected, collated, and then disseminated by the Signals Intelligence Branch of GC&CS at Bletchley (now GCHQ in Cheltenham), which obtained the information by eavesdropping on enemy communications.

The challenge for the Signals Intelligence people was that securitygraded radio traffic within the German armed forces was protected by the use of a sophisticated enciphering machine, Schlüssel M, also known as Enigma. In the use of Enigma, a message was typed on an ordinary keyboard and then passed through electrical circuits to three rotors which had separate contact points for each letter of the alphabet in a scrambled order. As the operator typed it, each letter of the message was transmitted in turn to the first, second, and third rotor, changing each time, until the enciphered letter to be used by the operator was displayed on a screen above the keyboard and then transmitted in Morse code. At the receiving end, an operator with a similar device and a list of the rotor settings for the day, simply went through the enciphering routine in reverse. As the rotors could be changed at will, and the number of electrical circuits could be increased, the variations possible verged on the infinite. The machine was compact and simple to operate, and the resulting code was virtually impenetrable.

Appropriated by the government for the duration of the war, the Bletchley Park House property incorporated a series of huts, Nissen and others, within the grounds and these were inhabited by the Bletchley code-crackers—academicians, crossword puzzle experts, chess players—who applied themselves hour after hour to the job of unscrambling the Enigma codes. They were initially unable to distinguish a pattern as they listened to the mass of German radio traffic. Not only did each branch of the enemy forces have its own Enigma rotor settings, the naval code, which was known as Hydra, was changed daily. The computer devices then available to the Bletchley folks, while enormous in physical size, were actually less powerful than most current laptops.

Help finally came, from Poland, where one of the early versions of the Enigma device had been built and the Polish intelligence service had monitored its development. They had supplied information about that development to the British government in London, but the Bletchley people desperately required more detailed information about Enigma’s codes and rotors. To that end, the Royal Navy was assigned the task of capturing an enemy vessel with the Enigma device, codes, and any associated papers etc on board.

In February 1940, the Navy managed to capture the U-33 which was mine-laying in the Firth of Clyde; that act produced three Enigma rotors. The incident was followed by one a month later when cipher papers and another rotor were confiscated from the armed trawler Krebs, and on 7 May 1941, when code settings for the coming three months were found aboard the weather ship München. After each of these incidents the government announced, for the benefit of German ears, that the ships had sunk before they could be boarded. But the important break for Bletchley came on 9 May when U-110, the U-boat commanded by Kapitänleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, chose to attack two merchant vessels off the coast of Greenland, with a fan of three torpodoes. Lemp is the U-boat commander who, as skipper of U-30, had been severely reprimanded after torpedoing and sinking the passenger liner Athenia on 3 September 1939, claiming later that he thought the ship was an armed merchant cruiser.

Lemp in U-110 was just under the surface near the convoy when his periscope was spotted by a lookout on an escorting warship. The submarine was immediately attacked by the corvette HMS Aubretia with depth-charges and was forced to surface, where she received heavy gunfire from Aubretia and two other warship escorts. Lemp and most of his crew then abandoned the sub.

As the destroyer HMS Bulldog approached to ram the U-boat, her captain elected instead to capture it intact. He sent an armed boarding party aboard and they located and retrieved the Enigma machine and code books. King George VI later described the incident as “the most important event of the war at sea.” With Enigma and many of its secrets now in the possession of staff at Bletchley Park, they were able to read the German Hydra naval code, but they were determined that the Germans not know they could read it, and all those who had been involved in the capture of U-110 were sworn to keep silent about it, a silence which held for the next thirty years.

The Ultra intercepts were keeping the British informed and for the next nine months the positions of all operating U-boats were plotted in the Submarine Tracking Room of the Admiralty. In February 1942, however, the Hydra code was altered. It was simply a routine change and not because Dönitz suspected that the British had broken it. In the next three months, sinkings of Allied merchant ships doubled. Another change came about in spring 1943, when the Germans added a fourth rotor to Enigma, giving the Bletchley people a two-week headache while they struggled to cope with the new wrinkle. In that span, two convoys bound for Britain from New York lost a total of twenty-two merchant ships to the U-boats. From then on, though, the information provided by Ultra from Bletchley was magnificent. Churchill referred to Ultra as “the precious secret.”

Now the days of U-boat success were indeed numbered. In the massive effort to overcome the German submarine menace, the Allies were investing more than a hundred thousand men, more than forty aircraft carriers, and hundreds of escorting destroyers, corvettes and sloops. And while Allied merchantman losses continued—twenty-four of the ships were sunk between September and December 1944—the action cost the Germans fifty-five U-boats. It didn’t require much imagination for the surviving commanders of the Ubootwaffe to realise and accept that they were beaten.

The battle had been long, arduous, and costly to both sides, and both sides had fought bravely, steadfastly, and, in general, with a degree of honour. There were exceptions, however, such as an instance of a sinking U-boat’s crew being fired on in the water by a British submarine, and another, in 1944, of a U-boat’s guns being turned on the lifeboats of a torpedoed Greek freighter. For the two commanders who were responsible for these actions, the outcome exemplified the difference between being on the winning and losing sides in war: the Royal Navy officer received a decoration—albeit for another and more worthy feat—while the U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Heinz Eck, together with four of his crew, was tried by court martial, found guilty of a war crime and shot by a British firing squad on 30 November 1945.

The Royal Navy killings were largely forgotten, but the U-boat incident was turned into a cause célebre. Some believe that the British used it to try to convince the Nuremberg Tribunal that Admiral Dönitz had condoned such brutalities, and as such, was guilty of a war crime. The ploy, if that be true, did not work. The admiral was deprecating of the act and offered a reasonable excuse: his commanders were expected to eliminate the wreckage on the water (not the seamen), so that no trace would be left that might assist the escort warships to hunt down the U-boat. The tribunal judges weighed the evidence and, relative to the possible commission of a war crime, found in favour of the admiral.

There were also times when U-boat commanders came alongside a lifeboat to learn the name and tonnage of the vessel they had sunk, and then given sustenance to the survivors, in the form of cigarettes, cognac, and sometimes a course to steer for land. In his book, Convoy, Martin Middlebrook refers to an instance in which a U-boat surfaced and the men in lifeboats heard a voice through the darkness asking if they needed food. Wary of a trap, the seamen did not answer. Moments later, they heard the voice again. “Goodnight, British”, Otto Kretschmer called, and U-99 stole silently away. It was true that Admiral Dönitz had given his commanders orders that only downed airmen—who might give useful information—were to be rescued from the sea, and, considering the crowded conditions in a U-boat, this was reasonable enough, but there was never any proof that he approved the slaughter of survivors. Few U-boat commanders would attack an escort ship while it was picking up seamen from a stricken vessel, but this was not entirely for altruistic reasons: an escort so involved was one less available for offensive action.

In the dark night of 16 March 1942, the lone merchant ship SS Allendi, was steaming near the Ivory Coast of West Africa, making for Freetown to join with a convoy bound for Britain. The crew heard what they thought to be the sound of diesel engines and suspected it might be a surfaced U-boat charging its batteries. Early the next day their ship was struck by a torpedo and began sinking. Frank Lewis, Chief Radio Officer, SS Allendi: “The skipper came into the radio cabin and said it was time for us to get into the one remaining boat. We lost no time, for the ship was riding very low in the water by then. A good thing we did, too, because we had not pulled very far away when another torpedo struck her and she disappeared in just a few minutes. There we were, thirteen in a small jollyboat that was damaged and water-logged.” The U-boat commander then came alongside and gave them the choice of staying where they were or being taken back to Germany as prisoners of war. Most of the men in the jollyboat were Merchant Navy officers and they decided to take their chances where they were. Lewis: “When the U-boat left us, she created such a wash that our boat overturned, and we were left swimming. We had just managed to clamber on to the upturned boat when the next wash came along, righted the boat and threw us back into the water.” History showed that the Merchant Navy men made the right choice. They made their way to the Ivory Coast thirty-six hours later and eventually back to England.

The Allied invasion of the European continent in June 1944 was something less than the best kept secret of the war. Most Germans in the armed forces were well aware that it was in the offing and many had a pretty sound idea about where the Allies would likely be landing along the French coast. The more confident among them were persuaded that the Wehrmacht would be able to repel the invaders and shove them back into the sea before they could gain a foothold, and those who did manage to get ashore would be wiped out in the withering gunfire that would come from Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall defences along the coast. Those in the German High Command were less sure, however, about where the invasion forces would be landing and what the result might be. In the opinion of the German Army Commander in the West, Feldmarschall Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, the Allied forces would opt for the shortest route across the English Channel, to the Pas de Calais. Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel, who would command the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion, was convinced that the Normandy coast was where the action would occur. He was completely persuaded that the Allies must be beaten on the beaches or Germany would lose the war.

In numbers, von Rundstedt’s command amounted to fifty-eight divisions spread along the coastline and behind it, from the hook of Holland to the Spanish border. That number was an illusion though, as the enormous casualties the Germans had experienced on the Russian Front had effectively reduced his fighting strength to the equivalent of less than thirty divisions. What could the Germans hope to mount in the way of air defences? Due to several months of USAAF and RAF concentrated attacks, and the work of swarms of Allied fighters, the strength of the Luftwaffe was greatly reduced and it was desperately short of pilots, fuel, and serviceable aircraft. And with the weakening and downgrading of the German surface navy, Dönitz had to rely on what was left of his U-boat force to take up the slack and do its part in fending off the Allied effort. He later wrote in his memoirs: “Every vessel taking part in the landing is a target of the utmost importance which must be attacked regardless of risk. Every boat that inflicts losses on the enemy while he is landing has fulfilled its function even though he perishes in so doing.” There was no denying that this newly dictated role for Germany’s formerly key weapons of attack was the last gasp of warriors on the defence.

The Allied invasion of Europe was code-named Operation Overlord, and to oppose it, the surviving U-boats of Admiral Dönitz’s force numbered sixty-one in the Bay of Biscay bunkers and twenty-two in the Norwegian fiords. Of the fifteen boats berthed in the pens at Brest that May, one was U-415, that of Oberleutnant Herbert Werner: “The order was to attack and sink the invasion fleet with the final objective of destroying enemy ships by ramming.” At midnight on 6 June U-415 was one of eight U-boats that slipped out of the huge Brest bunker and joined with an escort force of patrol boats and armed trawlers. Werner recalled that his orders were to proceed at top speed on the surface to the south coast of England, there to carry out the admiral’s command, suicidally, if necessary. His boat would return to Brest two days later, badly damaged and one of only three boats to survive the mission. There had never really been much hope for the success of the small force of remaining U-boats against some 800 Allied warships and 4,000 landing craft. Werner later wrote: “By 30th June, U-boat operations since the invasion began were a full-fledged disaster. We had sunk five Allied cargo ships and two destroyers, and we had lost twenty-two U-boats.”

To consider the capability and potential contribution of the U-boat fleet relative to the Allied D-Day cross-channel invasion, it is essential to remember that the U-boat was planned, designed, and constructed as a strictly offensive weapon and was never intended for defensive use. The primary focus of its mission in the war, as laid out by Admiral Dönitz, was the mid-ocean anti-convoy attack, preferably by wolfpack teams of U-boats. Substantial priority was not given to development of a specific submarine type or types dedicated to more tactical and defensive roles such as coastal ambush. Thus, when thrust into a defensive challenge in the months leading to the D-Day invasion, Dönitz and the men of the Ubootwaffe could no longer realistically anticipate victory, only the possibility of honour in defeat.

At 6:30 a.m., Tuesday, 6 June 1944, amphibious landings by Allied forces commenced along five key beaches of the Normandy coast. The landings were preceded with an airborne assault by 24,000 American, British, Canadian, and Free French troops shortly after midnight. A combination of inclement weather and a clever deception plan put into effect in the months preceding the invasion, aided the Allies in achieving the hoped for strategic and tactical surprise elements. Key to this was the effort to make the Germans believe that the invasion forces were to be led by General George Patton across the Straits of Dover to Calais. The ruse was so persuasively maintained even after the D-Day landings that Hitler was sufficiently convinced of that threat as to be unwilling to reinforce his troops in Normandy with forces positioned to defend the Pas de Calais.

The Allied command structure was in the charge of the American General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, with the British General Bernard Montgomery having overall command of the ground forces. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, comprised of 73,000 American 61,715 British, and 21,400 Canadian troops, 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel, 4,000 ships and landing craft, and thousands of aircraft. The actual landings were made along a fifty-mile front, with the Americans assigned to Omaha and Utah beaches, the British to Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadians to Juno beach. There were no U-boat attacks against Allied shipping on D-Day.

Effectively, U-boats were not involved in the English Channel on D-Day, and in the days that followed, were never able to impact the Allied effort. By late August, German emphasis was on saving the surviving U-boats by withdrawing them as much as possible to Norway and Baltic ports.

The rolling thunder of American tanks entering Brittany was joined by the pounding of R.A.F. bombs on the U-bunkers of Brest, St Nazaire, Lorient, La Pallice and Bordeaux. By September, Brest was under siege and surrounded by the American 6th Armored Division. Those U-boats remaining in the Biscay bases were dispatched on a hazardous six-week journey around the coast of Ireland, through the North Channel and past the Orkney and Shetland Islands, harassed all the while by Allied planes and warships, to eventually reach anchorage in the Bergenfiord on the southwest coast of Norway. Memories of the cafés and promenades and the sunshine they had left behind contrasted starkly with the glacial landscape, gloom, fogs and gray seas where they were now holed up, symbolic of the depressing decline in the fortunes of the Ubootwaffe. The retreat from France marked the end of their effective role in the Second World War.

The propaganda line out of Berlin trumpeted the great new assault by Germany’s V-2 terror rockets on England, and coming soon to America as well, guaranteed to make the Allies sue for peace. More credible, perhaps, was the impressive December offensive by the Germans in the lush hills of the Ardennes in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front, known today as the Battle of the Bulge. This massive German counter-offensive was aimed at splitting the British and American Allied line in two, capturing Antwerp, encircling and destroying four Allied armies, and then forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in favour of the Axis powers. Once accomplished, Hitler would then be free to refocus on Russia. Initially, circumstances favoured the Germans. Poor aerial reconnaissance due to exceptionally bad weather conditions, Allied overconfidence, and preoccupation with their own offensive tactics, left the Allies surprised by the enemy offensive even though intelligence personnel in Patton’s Third Army had predicted it.

The then vastly superior Allied air forces had been grounded by the heavy overcast weather, but gradually the weather lifted and that, coupled with outstanding resistance around the town of Bastogne, and the renewed ability of the Allies to bring in supplies and reinforcements, turned the tide and ended the German offensive. It was the largest and bloodiest European land battle of the war.

Hitler took personal command of Berlin’s defences in February 1945. In April the American president Franklin Roosevelt died and he was replaced by Harry Truman, who was no less dedicated to the defeat of Nazi Germany. On 1 May the death of Hitler was announced: “Our Führer, fighting to his last breath, fell for Germany in his Headquarters . . .” Days later, at the end of the war, the Nazis planned to scuttle their fleet (as they had done at the end of the First World War), including the remaining U-boats, but the British stipulated that no such action be taken, otherwise the bombing of strategic targets in Germany—or what remained of them—would go on. Dönitz was left with no choice, and on 5 May he ordered all U-boats to transmit their positions in plain language and sail to Allied ports: “Unbeaten and unblemished, you lay down your arms after a heroic fight without parallel.”

At that point Germany still had more than 350 U-boats, including many new Type XXIs and XXIIIs, which had never been in action. The majority of these boats were in German ports or at anchor in the Norwegian fiords. Some remained at sea and of these, two were sailed to Argentina, while the rest went to Britain and America where they were surrendered. Nearly 200, however, in the hands of commanders who either did not believe the order of their Admiral, or refused to accept it, were scuttled by their crews. Of the 156 U-boats surrendered by September 1945, 110 were scuttled or sunk by Royal Navy gunfire off the coast of Northern Ireland. Nearly 30,000 of the 39,000 German sailors who went to sea in the U-boats never returned.

America in the Spanish American War

(clockwise from top left) Signal Corps extending telegraph lines from trenches
USS Iowa Filipino soldiers wearing Spanish pith helmets outside Manila
The defeated side signing the Treaty of Paris Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the captured San Juan Hill Replacing of the Spanish flag at Fort Malate

Shortly after taps on February 15, 1898, the United States battleship Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor, taking with it 266 American lives. While the war against Spain did not begin until two months later, this disaster provided the cause that rallied the American public in favor of war. People no longer asked whether war would come but rather when it would start.

Today, that war evokes images of Dewey’s Squadron sailing into Manila Bay and destroying the Spanish fleet or of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill in the face of determined Spanish sharpshooters. Yet these images belie the truth. At the beginning of 1898 the United States barely ranked as a third‑rate power and “unconventional wisdom” in Europe weighed the potential conflict in favor of Spain. Indeed, when examining the conduct of the war, had the Spanish been more de­termined to win, or luckier, the Americans might well have lost.


“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”

‑William Randolph Hearst to Frederick Remington

War with Spain resulted from a long series of provocations, both real and imag­ined. The source of trouble was the sever­ity of Spain’s colonial administration, aggravated by her unwillingness to cede au­tonomy or grant basic political and eco­nomic freedoms. Cuba had not been as rebellious as the rest of Latin America, but in 1868 that changed. This rebellion was known as the Ten Years’ War. At its end in 1878 Spain promised reform and the end of slavery (finally abolished by 1886). The rebel leaders left Cuba, declared them­selves the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and established a headquarters in New York.

Known as the “New York Junta” these professional agitators included Tomas Estrada Plama, Maximo Gomez, Claxito Garcia, and Jose Marti. In the summer of 1894, when the US Congress placed a customs duty on sugar (the Wilson‑Gorman tariff), the Jun­ta’s chance came, for the sugar‑based Cu­ban economy would shortly collapse.

The new revolution began February 24, 1895. After initial enthusiasm, the revolution died down to sporadic guerilla clashes, mostly in the jungle interior of eastern Cuba. The rebels were led by Maximo Gomez, who had fought in the Ten Years’ War. Known as El Chino Viejo.(The Old Chinaman), Go­mez presented an unmilitary appearance but proved shrewd and persistent. Realizing he could never win a pitched battle with the Spanish, he fought a hit‑and‑run campaign of calculated terrorism. By attacking the Cuban economy he could force the population to ei­ther join him or seek refuge in Spanish ­garrisoned towns.

This strategy baffled the Spanish commander‑in‑chief, Martinez Compos, victor of the Ten Years’ War, who found that his force of well over 100,000 regulars could not close for decisive combat. Com­pos pursued a passive defense policy by di­viding the island into military zones behind a system of trochas (fortified lines) designed to restrict rebel movement. These lines in­stead destroyed his army’s morale by sti­fling initiative.

Eventually, he was replaced by the more ruthless Gen. Valeriano Wyler y Nicolau.

With such a dirty but colorful little war right on America’s doorstep, the curious did not lack for news. It was the perfect oppor­tunity for every foreign correspondent to make his mark in the field. Many newspa­pers and periodicals sent reporters, even providing some with chartered yachts for use as private dispatch boats. With compe­tition so stiff, not a few resorted to concoct­ing stories of Spanish “brutalities.” Indeed, such were the hottest items back home, particularly when spiced up with Cuban “eyewitness accounts” or the “indisput­able evidence” provided by rebels.

This was competition at its fiercest with the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers as the leading contenders. The only concern was to sell more newspapers and this bias, vulgarity, and sensationalism gave us what today we call “yellow journalism.” (The ac­tual term came from the Hearst newspaper coverage of the sensational Yellow Fellow Transcontinental Bicycle Relay of Aug.-Sept. 1896.) The Yellow Press was directly responsible for aligning public opinion in fa­vor of war to liberate Cuba. Yet the fame of certain writers and correspondents rose above yellow journalism. These individuals include Richard Harding Davis, who also covered the Boer and Russo‑Japanese Wars; Stephan Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage; and painter and illustra­tor Frederic Remington.

Unfortunately for Spain, Gen. Wyler’s anti‑insurgency policies inflamed American public opinion. Arriving in Cuba in February 1896, Wyler found the economy in chaos and the military situation out of control. Im­mediately he imposed martial law and the summary execution of terrorists. Already carrying the sobriquet “Butcher”, Wyler did not have to order many executions be­fore the US Senate debated recognition of the Cuban belligerents. Though this debate eventually waned, Wyler was never entirely out of the public view. Indeed, that autumn Wyler nearly became a political issue in the 1896 presidential election when he declared the policy of “reconcentrado” (reconcen­tration). Wyler intended to relocate the ru­ral population into towns garrisoned by his own troops thus separating loyalists from rebels while expanding the system of trochas. The result was a disaster.

Like Campos, Wyler had negated his great numerical superiority by spreading his forces everywhere. Since the loyal peas­ants could not produce enough food, the al­ready shaky economy of “the Pearl of the Indies” became a shambles, and the finan­cial drain on Spain was enormous. Worse, the Wyler’s strategy surrendered the initia­tive to the rebels at the very time the Span­ish should have aggressively pursued each rebel band. Antonio Maceo, one of Gomez’s ablest lieutenants, underscored this failure by marching his brigade from one end of Cuba to the other. Although he died in an ambush while leading a new raid (Dec. 1896), Maceo achieved victory despite his defeat in nearly every engagement. By car­rying the war to the relatively quiet western Cuba, he forced all Cubans to chose Spain or rebellion.

The general trend of world economic events also worked against Spain. A new in­dustrial colonization had developed. The growing maturity of European markets and coincident rise in productivity impelled the na­tions of Europe to seek foreign markets. Spain could not equal their expansion with her limited industrial base, and soon found her col­onies providing the raw materials for foreign economic development. Cuba produced much sugar, tobacco, and various minerals, but 75% of its exports went to the United States. In the severe world financial panic of 1893, the price of sugar plummeted and trade barriers rose. In the United States, both political par­ties pursued an active tariff policy which could only bring economic ruin to Cuba. The public had no pressing political interest in Cuba dur­ing the presidential election of 1896 and never developed an economic concern. Indeed, Cuba was of only small economic interest to the US.

While the heat of political rhetoric made war with Spain more likely, the recently elected President McKinley shrank from the idea of using force. He sent the Spanish various proposals for avoiding war. These remained unanswered, although Gen. Wy­ler was replaced in October 1897. With Wy­ler’s replacement McKinley had his best opportunity to solve the Cuba question. To his credit, he did allow Spain enough time to find a solution, but he was perhaps pressed too hard by jingoists and newspapers to al­low Spain to save her honor.

While McKinley maintained a public posture of peace, the newspapers worked for war by keeping conditions in Cuba be­fore the public. The stories they created caused riots in Havana. On January 12, 1898, a mob led by Spanish military officers attacked Havana newspaper offices. While there were no threats to US property, Consul‑General Fitzhugh Lee, who favored war with Spain, requested that a US man-­of‑war be sent to Havana. On January 25th Maine arrived with flags flying and the crew at battle stations.

Upon the destruction of the Maine on February 15, McKinley realized that the rush to war was inevitable as the now thor­oughly aroused American public clamored for action. He proposed additional funds for national defense and actively spoke against Spain’s policies. At length, as Madrid finally abandoned her reconcentrado policy and complied with some American demands, McKinley called upon Spain to declare an immediate six‑month armistice. Spain granted this and other concessions, but her own jingoists forced the government to hold out for settlement terms which would pre­serve Spanish sovereignty over Cuba. Soon it became obvious that Spain was playing for time. On April 11, McKinley asked Con­gress for authority to end hostilities on Cuba. On April 20, the final demand was made for Spain to relinquish her authority in Cuba to the United States. On the 21st, the Navy sailed for Cuba and declared a block­ade for much of the island beginning the 22nd. On April 25, war was declared, retro­active to the 21st.


The apparent Spanish strength at the outbreak of the war is deceiving. To oppose the US, Spain had on its army list in 1898 some 492,067 men (regulars and volun­teers) distributed as follows:

152,284 in Spain

278,447 on Cuba

51,331 in the Philippines

10,005 on Puerto Rico

This list, however, hides the real numbers by retaining the sick and dead. Since the be­ginning of the insurrection in 1895, the Spanish army had suffered some 2,000 bat­tle deaths and 8,500 wounded. Another 13,000 had died from yellow fever and 40,000 others had died from “other causes.” On February 8, 1897,18,000 lay in Cuban hospitals. By April 1898, the Spanish army in Cuba mustered 155,302 regulars and 41,518 volunteers (plus many thousand irregulars who were mostly ineffective). It already faced an active enemy, had inade­quate food, was devastated by tropical dis­ease, could hardly redistribute itself on Cuba, and had little prospect of reinforce­ment from Spain.

War found the United States with a clear and definite goal. Once Cuba was freed from Spanish dominion, the war would end. Thus, the island would be the main bat­tleground and the logical main objective would be its capital, Havana, defended by some 31,000 well‑entrenched Spanish reg­ulars. A simple strategy, yet the US army entered the war woefully unprepared to prosecute any strategy. On the eve of war it numbered 28,183, who only barely manned 25 infantry, 10 cavalry, and 5 artillery regi­ments. Some elements of these regiments had to remain in the western states to keep an eye on the Indians. The declaration of war added 33,000 recruits, but of them only a few hundred ever saw any fighting.

Since the US Army was so under­strength, the President was obliged to call for regiments of volunteers to fight beside the regulars. Planners considered mobiliz­ing the state militias (the National Guard), totalling some 100,000 men, but later de­cided to call for volunteers to create a citi­zens’ war for liberty.

The first call went out for 125,000 men. Each state had a quota, but some were granted increases so that their entire militia organizations could transfer intact to federal service. For example, Pennsylvania was able to transfer all its fifteen militia regi­ments instead of the allocated ten. This was fortunate as Pennsylvania’s militia was con­sidered the most efficient of all. Since the states usually granted a leave of absence from the militia to each guardsmen who vol­unteered, militia volunteers comprised the vast bulk of the first call. They were formed into 119 infantry regiments, 5 cavalry regi­ments, 16 field artillery batteries, and a heavy artillery regiment, plus assorted de­tachments.

A second call raised 75,000 men, who were used to fill out the first call regiments and, additionally, a few new regiments. Noteworthy was McKinley’s insistence that five regiments of negro volunteers be raised and that the 8th Illinois (colored) reg­iment was commanded by the first negro colonel in the US Army (Col. John R. Mar­shall). None of these formations, however, saw combat.

The volunteers were enthusiastic and profoundly convinced of the righteousness of the new citizen’s army. The First Volun­teer cavalry regiment, dubbed the “Rough Riders” by the many newspaper correspon­dents who covered their formation and ex­ploits, was recruited from New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and the Indian Terri­tory. Included initially were about 100 ath­letes from the Ivy League colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.) ‑ others would join later. There were broncobus­ters, cowboys, sons of confederate vet­erans, some Texas Rangers, a marshal of Dodge City (Benjamin Franklin Daniels), and a few Indians known only by their nick­names: Cherokee Bill, Happy Jack of Ar­izona, Smokey Moore, and Rattlesnake Pete. Others gave fictitious names: one in­dividual desired to redeem himself from a murder charge back home.

The regiment was the project of Theo­dore Roosevelt, then assistant Secretary of the Navy. He declined a political appoint­ment as the regiment’s colonel, citing his lack of experience. Instead, he recruited an acquaintance from the regular army, Cap­tain Leonard Wood, to command, while he became lieutenant colonel. Congress had authorized five volunteer cavalry regiments (three to be in the west) and had allotted 780 men to the regiment, but this number was raised to 1,000 as more of Roosevelt’s friends wanted their sons to join. The regi­ment was completely mounted while in the US.

Before the war the United States had no permanent military organization higher than the regiment. Volunteer regiments were established at 12 companies of 106 men. In practice most averaged about 1,000 men ‑ large in comparison to the regulars. (Of the 24 regular non‑artillery regiments seeing action at Santiago, 21 had only around 500 men, or even less.) Volun­teer regiments were heavy with political appointees; some volunteer officers, how­ever, had been with the regular army, and had been drawn to the volunteers by increases in rank and pay.

The Spanish were organized about the same as the US with 12 companies to the regiment, but each company numbered about 130 men. Including its headquarters and a 47 man band the Spanish regiment numbered 1711 men. At higher levels, Spain followed the European practice of combining two regiments to form a brigade and two brigades to form a division. Each artillery regiment was organized into two battalions, each with two 4‑gun batteries. No undivided infantry regiment was en­countered at Santiago.

Regular Spanish units were widely dis­persed in battalions and even detached companies, but were often well reinforced with locally raised troops. Those not in static garrisons were assigned to a “column.” Such columns ranged in size from a few companies to three or four bat­talions. Some commanders had fearsome reputations, but generally, the Spanish army in Cuba behaved with considerable re­straint. Unfortunately, graft was wide­spread. So many Spanish officers were involved in international arms‑sales rivalry that it was said almost every Spanish officer above the rank of major was an employee of Krupp or Vickers. Yet the army was veteran, with seasoned officers and men. It could still mete out damage and continue to function, even after appalling casualties.

US troops suffered from being ill­-equipped for campaigning in the tropics. The most noticeable problem was the regu­lation woolen blue uniform, suitable for campaigning “in Montana in the fall” but certainly not for the summer tropics with the rainy season due. Only the Rough Riders had appropriate light‑weight brown uniforms.

Each man, regular and volunteer alike, was expected to carry his entire kit at all times. The standard kit comprised some 100 rounds of ammunition in cartridge belts slung around his hips, a sheathed bayonet, a canvas‑covered canteen, half a tent, two tent poles, and some clothes. Unfortunately for their health, many soldiers threw away clothes and tents. A few carried the new Meriam packs, a square box‑like canvas knapsack, but most sweated along under the old “horse‑collar” Civil War blanket roll.

A soldier was supposed to carry a five­-day ration, but most in the early actions had had little to eat. The standard ration was canned beef, hardtack, dried navy beans, and roasted coffee beans. This diet was too heavy for the tropics and the canned beef spoiled quickly. Even the water was not good, but nearby swamps posed a far more serious threat, yellow fever. American medicine provided no answer save that of moving away from the problem.

In combat the US regular carried the Krag‑Jorgenson rifle. This repeater held five rounds in its magazine and was suitable for rough service. The cavalry carried the carbine version plus a revolver. The US had enough Krags in its arsenal (53,000 plus 15,000 carbines) to equip all new recruits to the regulars but, obviously, not enough for the volunteers. They were equipped with the .45 calibre Model 1873 Springfield rifle, a single‑shot weapon. Unfortunately, most ammunition available for the Springfield used charcoal powder, which produced clouds of smoke. The Springfield, though, was an accurate powerful weapon. It fired a slug weighing 500 grains versus 220 grains for the Krag. Both rifles had about the same range. Since US fire tactics emphasized ac­curacy rather than volume of fire, it is not surprising that the Springfield enjoyed such wide use. Interestingly, some Rough Riders preferred their personal Winchester rifles.

The Spanish infantryman carried the .45 calibre Mauser, a repeater delivering 15 rounds per minute using smokeless pow­der. The Spanish favored volume of fire, a tactic that worked well in closed country.

The US infantryman could expect little help from his artillery. The standard piece was a 3.25″ breechloader and, like the Springfield rifle, it discharged clouds of smoke when fired. US artillery perform­ance suffered from poor siting, lack of ob­servation, and lack of coordination with the infantry. The Spanish had efficient Krupp made breechloading pieces with a range su­perior to the American guns, but few were available and much ammunition proved to be defective. The bulk of Spanish artillery comprised ancient muzzle‑loaders good for little more than close range firing.

To American forces must be added the Cuban rebel army. According to Cuban offi­cial records, 53,774 served in the Revolu­tion from 1895 to 1898. When the US invaded, the rebels numbered some 15,000, of whom about 6,500 could be found in the Santiago province, Claxito Gar­cia commanding. The rest were quite cut off from Santiago. Rebel forces were atro­ciously equipped, many going into battle barely clad and armed only with machetes. Those who carried arms often had no more than one or two rounds; in fact, Spanish Mauser cartridges were a form of currency in Havana. The rebels could not engage in close combat, as they lacked steadiness and discipline, having lost many of their best officers.

Remember the Maine! (1898)

The battle cry of the Spanish-American War, coined by the jingo press, whipped up war sentiment after the USS Maine was destroyed in an explosion while anchored in Havana harbor. The sinking served as the cause for the United States to declare war on Spain. The battleship Maine arrived in Cuba, ostensibly for a “friendly” naval visit, at 11:00 a. m. on January 25, 1898. With Spain involved in a vicious colonial war with Cuban rebels, such visits had been avoided since 1895, but as American sympathy for the rebels grew, so too did anti-American sentiment among Spanish loyalists in Havana. Rioting in Havana on January 12, 1898, worried the American consul, Fitzhugh Lee, who cabled that “ships may be necessary later but not now.” Although Havana calmed down, the McKinley administration on January 24 ordered the Maine to Havana.

The Maine was a second-class battleship, weighing 6,682 tons and with a maximum speed of 17 knots. Main battery guns were sometimes arranged in rather strange fashion: the forward turret of the Maine was on the starboard side of the ship and could not effectively fire to port, and the after turret-on the port side-could not effectively fire to starboard. This was an obvious limitation, and was corrected in the next class of ships by placing the turrets on the centerline.

Although Spanish officials would rather the Maine were elsewhere, they were cordial and the city was calm. Nevertheless, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee did not allow his sailors liberty for fear of an incident. Security on the ship was high. The ship’s watch was greatly enlarged and sentries were armed. Both boilers were kept going-a departure from the usual practice of operating a single boiler-in case the ship was called to immediate action, and shells were kept near all of the Maine’s guns.

At 9:40 on the evening of February 15 an explosion ripped through the Maine and sent it to the bottom of the Havana harbor. The first, a small muffled blast, was followed by a tremendous explosion that ripped through the whole forward half of the ship and, almost in an instant, killed 252 men. The ship settled rapidly to the bottom, and the confused survivors were soon either swimming in the muddied waters of the harbor or climbing into rescue boats. Surprisingly, there was no panic; Captain Sigsbee’s orderly, Marine Private William Anthony, furnished history with a memorable example of attention to duty when, upon meeting the captain in a passageway, said, “I have to report, sir, that the ship is blown up and is sinking.”

Three of the Maine’s boats were undamaged and were put into the water, and other boats arrived to help in the rescue effort. Captain Sigsbee was reluctant to leave his ship while there was any possibility of rescuing personnel who might be trapped in the wreck- age, but the fires were setting off shells in some of the magazines and it became impossible to remain aboard.

The captain sent an immediate cable to the Secretary of the Navy, both to advise of the disaster and to caution against speculation as to the cause. “Public opinion should be suspended until further re- port,” he said, but he knew that he was whistling into the wind.

With the entire forward part of the vessel destroyed, 260 men were killed (out of a crew of 355). Newspapers immediately attributed the explosion to Spanish treachery and called for war.

The newspapers had gotten the news by 2:00 a. m., and the race was on. The Journal was quick to announce that the Spanish were responsible, citing no less an authority than Assistant Secretary Roosevelt. Based upon the reported opinions of “naval officers,” the Journal was also able to graphically diagram the placement of the enemy mine that must have caused the sinking; but, leaving nothing to chance, Mr. Hearst also offered a $50,000 reward for additional evidence. Mr. Pulitzer dispatched a ship to Havana, carrying a team of investigators who were to uncover the true story for the World.

The Navy made preparations to convene a formal court of inquiry, and sent divers from Key West to retrieve the magazine keys and the cipher book, and to inspect the underwater damage. The divers reported there was a hole in the bottom of the ship; but none of them were construction engineers and were not really qualified to make any judgments. The Spanish suggested that a joint investigation be conducted, as being in the best interests of both countries, but this was coldly refused, as was permission to inspect the wreck- age. The Spanish went ahead and conducted their own inquiry, using whatever evidence was publicly available.

A great state funeral was held for the dead of the Maine, attended by all of the military, civil, and ecclesiastical authorities of Havana. There was no question of the authenticity of the shock and grief displayed by the members of the official community, and the ceremonies were conducted with deep and sincere sympathy. Captain Sigsbee was uncomfortable at the thought that a Catholic ceremony must be read over the Protestant dead, but the tropical climate did not permit of delay until a Protestant minister could be located. The captain satisfied his misgivings as best he could by reading the Episcopal burial service to himself, en route to the cemetery.

A naval court of inquiry concluded on March 20 that an underwater mine sank the Maine, although responsibility for laying the mine could not be determined. The Spanish offered to send the matter to arbitration in order to settle the cost of the dam- age and even agreed to an armistice (to last as long as the commanding general in Cuba thought prudent) in the war on the Cuban rebels. But the United States was in no mood for arbitration or for negotiations.

President William McKinley had experienced the carnage of war firsthand as an officer during the Civil War. He hoped that the report’s inability to blame the Spanish for the sinking would leave open an opportunity to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the sinking and of the political status of Cuba. But public sentiment was not with him. Reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba both real and imagined and the mass starvation produced by Spain’s military policies created great sympathy for the Cuban rebels. The publication a few weeks before the explosion of the Maine of the de Lome letter, in which the Spanish minister had made derogatory remarks about the president, abetted the growth of war fever in the United States. Bowing to pressure, McKinley on April 11, 1898, asked Congress for the authority to use the armed forces to intervene in Cuba. Congress debated for a week before agreeing on April 19 by joint resolution. McKinley signed it the following day and the war began.

Seventy-eight years later a study, using the latest naval technology, by Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover of the U. S. Navy concluded that an internal explosion occurring in one of the coal bunkers had caused the sinking of the Maine.


Within days after the destruction of the battleship Maine, a US Navy court of inquiry was convened in Havana on the lighthouse tender, Mangrove. Captain Wm. T Sampson was the presiding officer. The most important duty was to determine whether the disaster was due to sabotage or an accidental internal cause.

The first action taken was to have divers investigate the wreck, but this examination would take time. Meanwhile, the court heard testimony from the survivors, 98 of an original crew of 350 officers and men, although more soon succumbed to their wounds.

From the great volume of testimony, the court narrowed the field of possible explanations for the disaster by examining such questions as the state of the electrical wiring, stowage of combustibles and ammunition, safety shoes, gas detection gear, and even the possibility of a lunatic. Later, the divers’ reports gave the court a new set of circumstances to investigate. A powerful force had driven the ship’s keel up from below and punched in her armor and plating on the port side, but the starboard plates were blown outward. Even a crater was found on the harbor bed. Since prior testimony had established that there had been two separate explosions the court concluded that the first had been caused by a mine and the second was an exploding magazine. Some ammunition had continued to explode even as the hulk settled on the harbor bottom. The Spanish court of inquiry, which met simultaneously, took issue with the exploding mine theory citing that no dead fish were found nor was a geyser observed. Unfortunately, the Spanish court could not send down its own divers (in its own harbor!) because of diplomatic protocol. The Spanish court also questioned the level of training of American sailors.

While the Navy’s case was not airtight, evidence strongly supports the US court’s conclusions. Notwithstanding, in 1911 the wreck was raised and a second court of inquiry was convened. With no new evidence uncovered, that court reaffirmed the earlier court’s finding that the first explosion was exterior to the ship. The wreck of Maine was subsequently moved farther out to sea and to date no new physical evidence has been presented.

In the years since the second inquiry, debate over the exact cause of the disaster has continued. A report released by Admiral Rickover in 1976 summarizes one popular theory. This theory holds that the explosion resulted from coal gas (methane) coming into contact with a crude electrical wiring system. The gas would have formed in the nearly inaccessible Ai6 bunker; close to the 6‑inch reserve ammunition magazine which exploded. This theory explains the problem in those years of ships blowing up seemingly without reason, the origin of coal gas not being fully understood in 1898. Yet the court of 1898 closely investigated the condition of the A16 bunker and found nothing amiss.

The Maine’s destruction was such a fortuitous and timely event for some political groups and the accidental explosion theory dependent on such a sufficiently rare type of occurrence that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that her loss was not accidental. Anarchists of the day would not have had any scruples about sabotage. If there was indeed a mine, the question of whose mine it was remains open to this day.

“conspiracy theory”

What, then, was the “true” story? Admiral H. G. Rickover conducted a new examination into the explosion in 1976. He noted the problems of the original 1898 U. S. inquiry: limited expertise, poor diving conditions in the harbor, and inadequate questioning during the hearings all contributed to an inquiry that was not as comprehensive as it should have been, given the import of its result. Even contemporary experts questioned the likelihood of a mine having been the cause of the disaster. Public pressure to do something with the Maine wreck led to Congress appropriating $650,000 in 1910 to remove the wreck and recover the bodies still there for burial in Arlington Cemetery. The Army Corps of Engineers were given primary responsibility for the endeavor. In 1911, a new board of investigation arrived in Havana with more expertise than 1898. They took detailed records of the damage and many photographs and diagrams. Nevertheless, their ultimate conclusion (while differing from 1898 in technical detail) was that the primary explosion was still due to the placing of a mine, which had set off another explosion in the magazines. For the purposes of Rickover’s study, two experts reexamined all the evidence and concluded that in fact the primary explosion had been an internal one, possibly caused by fire in a bunker setting off explosions in the magazines.

The story of the sinking of the USS Maine is clearly central to the story of the Spanish-American War; but it also raises issues that have to do with the role of the press in creating “conspiracy theories” to suit their purposes (increased circulation and jingoism), as well as the issue of scientific evidence and its role in establishing “truth.” In this story, technical evidence is central in determining the “true” story of the Maine and whether a war was started over an accident. Certainly the role of technical or scientific evidence continues to be central to society’s need to determine the “truth” of events, but this story also reveals that technical evidence (which is not infallible) can be given too much power. Rickover speculates whether a different outcome might have occurred if the 1898 inquiry had come to a different conclusion. While that can only ever be hypothesis, it nevertheless raises the issue of just how important the “conspiracy theory” about the Maine-reinforced by the “truth” of a scientific inquiry and the inflammatory actions of the press-was in shaping the course of history.