Frederick Invades Austria a Second Time; Siege of Olmütz I

On March 15, 1758, the king marched from his winter quarters in Breslau. He started on the third campaign of this conflict, waiting until the frosts were gone and the cold winter winds had subsided. The headquarters was moved to Kloster-Grüssau and the army was encamped between there and Landshut. Frederick’s job was to keep the whitecoats quiet in Bohemia while his army descended on Schweidnitz to reclaim that fortress from its enemy garrison. This he meant to accomplish before the time of normal campaigning, and before the cautious Daun could interfere with his maneuver.

This was a bold plan, and very risky as the king’s plan placed great reliance on Daun being slow and methodical. The Prussian magazines at Jauernick and Sabischdorf were prepped to supply the needs of the forces preparing to besiege Schweidnitz. The bluecoats had been loosely investing the fortress during the winter layover. The storming of Schweidnitz was an essential preliminary to another invasion of the Austrian Empire. The king had already decided to carry the fight into the very heart of his greatest enemy for the second time in as many campaigns.

In any case, the elimination of the last major body of Austrian troops in central Silesia would give Frederick’s largely new troops the confidence they needed to face the enemy massing to their front. During the winter, Maria Theresa had been engaged in strengthening both the number and preparedness of the Austrian army. In addition to the effort to refine the command structure of the army, the numbers of men needed replenishment.

The garrison of Schweidnitz had utilized the time given to build up the fortifications there to make any Prussian attempt to retake it into a major task. Yet, the men could not help but be affected by their isolation from the main Austrian lines. Of the original 8,000 men, only 5,500, some of those of questionable quality, remained available, and even most of these men were somewhat demoralized from the degree of the Prussian successes, most notably Leuthen, the previous year. These latter were under Lt.-Gen. Franz Ludwig Thürheim and Major-General von Gröttendorf.

In the final days of March, Frederick reached the vicinity of Schweidnitz and began deploying his army for the siege. The fall of the place seemed imminent. Rossbach had shaken the French, so much so the king felt he may not have to deal with them until perhaps mid-summer. The Austrians, still smarting and shaky from Leuthen—in spite of Maria Theresa’s best efforts—would not be able to launch any offensive operations on a major scale for most of the year. As for the Imperialists, they were still hungover from Rossbach. Neither the Swedes nor the Russians were as yet ready for marching. It was, in many ways, now or never for this second invasion of Austria. As per the old axiom, “First things first.” General Tresckow was given charge of the siege forces around Schweidnitz. He had nearly 10,000 men, 4,600 of whom were cavalry. This was by no means an overwhelming force.

Nonetheless, the Prussians made steady progress towards the siege. The siege guns were brought up, and, in the first two days of April under a soaking front of rain, the first parallel of the siege lines were completed. The whitecoats, under the miserable conditions, did not discover the Prussian effort until it was a done deal. The bluecoats made sure of having sufficient artillery in place to do the job. Forty-eight pieces of ordnance were employed by the Prussians altogether, including eight 24-pounders.

The weather was not very cooperative. Since the Austrians failed to detect the line until it was completed, by then nothing could be done about it. April 8, with Marshal Daun still deep in Bohemia, the first shots of the siege batteries opened on the fortifications. Galgen, as the main fortress, was heavily cannonaded day after day, and gradual progress was made, despite miserable weather conditions. The whole structure was intrinsically affected by its location. Schweidnitz was designed by “placing the main weight of the defence on a girdle of detached forts and lunettes.” This could only increase the suffering of the besiegers and the besieged alike. All of these factors made Frederick, who never favored siege operations under any conditions, want to wrap things up even more quickly.

In the meantime, operations elsewhere had begun. On the eve of the march towards Schweidnitz, the king detached two strong columns from the main army: (1) One, under Ziethen, was to take up post near Troppau; and, (2) The second, Fouquet to Glatz. Both of these detachments had the duty of sweeping away the remnants of the Austrian forces in southern Silesia and, more importantly, keep it clear. There had been no word of any activity from the vicinity of Marshal Daun and his still reforming army.

The irascible Laudon spent much time urging on the reluctant Daun to relieve Schweidnitz (a viewpoint which he shared with Chancellor Kaunitz), and he was kept busy with his light troopers engaged in isolated actions with detached bodies of bluecoats. Laudon here can certainly be commended for seeking bold action, but Marshal Daun was fully aware that his army was not ready to take on the very confident Frederick just yet. Especially after such a crushing defeat as had been inflicted on them at Leuthen.

Nevertheless, Daun left his winter quarters on March 13. He promptly moved on to Königgrätz. The marshal and his army were posted there even now, digging in with his vaunted defensive skills, as well as training troops and having even more equipment brought forward for the army. The agitated marshal still had the advantage, if nothing else, of superior numbers: 100,000 Austrians against the maximum of 70,000 Prussians he faced. If it had been his desire, Daun could certainly have proven to be a problem for Frederick’s plans. But the latter suspected his adversary’s slow, calculating character, and took a reasonable risk that nearly paid off. In the campaigns to come, Frederick would take many more risks with Daun as his chief enemy.

The Austrian commander had guessed (correctly) that the king meant an invasion of the Austrian Empire again this year. Daun was mistaken, though, in the route that invasion would take. The Austrians had spent the winter preparing the passageways into Bohemia for the Prussian intruders. Impressive defensive posts had been prepared—posts that would not be needed. This was especially ironic since the Austrians did a much better job of preparing for a possible Prussian invasion of Bohemia in 1758, when it did not occur, than they had done in 1757, when it did.

The Austrian army itself had been steadily reinforced during the winter layover by new blood, and at his impressive camp at Skalitz (occupied on April 19), Daun had carried forward heavy training exercises until the men were becoming proficient in their trade. Unfortunately for them, the Prussian king had decided to bypass Bohemia this time around, where Prague alone was still the lone Austrian vital point, and instead proceed directly into Moravia. Daun cooperated by not taking his army past Königgrätz and interfering with the Prussian siege of Schweidnitz. Rising star Laudon did his best, to no avail, to persuade the marshal to move to try to thwart the Prussian effort to retake Schweidnitz which would enable them to drive away the last Austrian toehold in Silesia.

The king considered it too risky to make further moves while Schweidnitz remained in Austrian hands. The fact Daun refused to help the garrison presaged what was to come. But there was some basis for this attitude. There were still many in the army who could not look past 1757. While Daun waited at Königgrätz, the impressive fortifications of Schweidnitz fell. After a week of steady progress, Tresckow and Colonel Johann Friedrich von Balbi, the chief engineer, both suggested that the place was ripe for the storming. Balbi saw to it that the besieging troops, which were hardly more numerous than the defenders, were kept supplied with meat and beer. As for the cost, he begged the king “not to look at the expense.” There was also some urgency to wrap the business up. With this thought in mind and purpose, the king summoned Marshal Keith to take over the direction of the besiegers. Accordingly, evening of April 15, the bluecoats made ready and, that night, assailed the Austrian lines.

Meanwhile, though, Thürheim’s batteries had been positioned in order to enfilade the enemy’s siege lines, beyond the town walls. On April 13–14, the Austrian ordnance was pulled back to the town walls, under the increasing Prussian pressure mounting against the works. About 0200 hours on April 16, bluecoat grenadiers, of Grenadier Battalion 21/27 (Colonel Bernhard Alexander von Diringshofen), Kreytzen’s 28/32 Grenadiers, and 41/44 (Beneckendorf), stormed forward. Galgen was taken, and so swiftly that the assaulting column lost 85 men. This was the crisis of the siege. With his best post gone, the Austrian commander, General Thürheim, surrendered before dawn (April 16), forestalling a general assault. The loss to the Austrians was again great: 51 brand-new guns, considerable monies and the garrison. The loss of the latter was approximately 4,841. The Prussians lost 102 men killed, and 261 wounded. Fortfeiting so many veterans in the garrison was a serious blow for Austrian fortunes, especially when we realize the hemorrhaging among both the rank-and-file and the officers going on just then.

This enterprise now out of the way, Frederick proceeded at once with the planned invasion of the enemy’s territory. For this new incursion, the army was to be divided into two columns: one, under Prince Henry, who was given charge in Saxony. Henry’s task was to move in the manner of a support rôle. The rest of the army, that section remaining with the king, was to perform the actual invasion. Henry was to threaten the left of Daun’s army in northern Bohemia while Frederick’s men were to march southeast across the front of the enemy force to Neisse and Jägerndorf. They were probing for Moravia, and the real destination, the city of Olmütz. The latter lay about 100 miles from the nearest Prussian frontier. Austrian Croats, Tolpatches, and Pandours were thick in the intervening country.

Daun had a large body of men put into position at Trautenau, under General Buccow, while Arenberg hitched into Nachod. The irregulars of Laudon (some 5,000 strong) stayed in close touch at Lewin, but there was certainly nothing special about the Austrian dispositions. Daun was clearly interested in covering the Austrian realm against Prussian invasion. Incidently, by the beginning of the new campaign, General Lacy was no longer in the field. He was back in Vienna, busy organizing and refining the very first office of an Austrian Chief of Staff. Lacy displayed an immediate bent towards meticulous planning, and careful consideration, although we should be careful not to use the term “bean counter,” which Lacy indubitably was not. Lacy’s contemporary on the staff, General Johann Anton Baron Tillier, helped in this build-up. The contributions of a well-run general staff would reap rich benefits for the whitecoats for the rest of the war and beyond. It is worth mentioning that Lacy was also personally involved in parts of the campaign in the field.

Meanwhile, Frederick’s intentions were plain; to his generals. He planned, once Olmütz was in Prussian hands, to press southward upon Vienna. Once there, he could threaten the very heart of the Austrian Empire. An outright occupation or siege of the Austrian capital might serve to induce one or more of the allies to seek peace. All being prepared, Frederick moved out on April 19. His march was confused deliberately, for the benefit of Daun, and the Prussians proceeded on Neisse and Jägerndorf. A six-day march (April 19–25) brought them to the frontier of Moravia. To make his intentions less clear, Frederick marched his army in two distinct columns.

In this way, the Prussians were able to slip past the formidable Austrian lines at Königgrätz with relative ease. At Troppau, the bluecoats turned southward, causing Daun to suspect Frederick might be heading into Bohemia from the east. The marshal kept his men idle until April 27, while Frederick took his men on their journey. The Prussians paused at Märisch Neustadt. General DeVille had thrown roving patrols out in the area. When the Prussians put in their sudden appearance, DeVille pulled up stakes and withdrew with some haste to Prossnitz. Without further ado, the king moved towards Prossnitz in a manner which threatened to bring DeVille to battle. Simultaneously, he detached Commander Werner—with two full regiments of hussars—to go occupy an enemy magazine at Olschan. The king’s move towards DeVille was interpreted by the latter (with some exaggeration) as a serious threat. The Austrian commander decided once again that discretion was the better part of valor, and promptly fell back upon Prödlitz. He withdrew, leaving behind 300 hussars at Olschan. The Prussians nabbed 40 as prisoners (May 5), and pressed on to Tafelberg, where the Austrians had a small garrison.

With Prossnitz vacated, Prince Eugene of Württemberg took a large command (about 8,000 men), and took up quarters there. With the arrival of General Fouquet at Krenau (May 16), Frederick rose from Littau and marched with some 10,000 men to link up with Eugene thereabouts. The latter had gradually moved from Prossnitz towards his new post, under close observation of Austrian reconnaissance patrols. At Prossnitz, the bluecoats encamped, with their headquarters at Schmirsitz. Fouquet held command of the Prussian center in this new post. The Prussian guns were placed on some of the local high ground; just in case the Austrians tried something daring. Such was not the case, and the foe did not bother the Prussian camp.

With nothing stirring on Daun’s side of things, Frederick decided to step into the rôle of aggressor again. He took a force of cavalry and rode through Prossnitz headed for another confrontation with DeVille, then ensconced at Prödlitz. DeVille one more time had no intention of staying put. He fled to Wischau. A Prussian effort at pursuit was effectively thwarted by Count St. Ignon. The latter repelled the pursuers at Driffitz, rather decisively. Locals rapidly carried the word to Vienna that DeVille’s men had scattered and that the enemy were now astride the road to the capital. This intelligence was incorrect. Still, it must have been patently obvious Frederick’s intentions were not directed at all towards Bohemia this time around.27 With all doubt thus removed, the king went to work out in the open. The various detachments of Prussians were immediately set in motion, with a siege of Olmütz as a short-term goal. The main force straddled the rises between Prossnitz and the Morave. General Fouquet threw a force into Glatz to stiffen the troops already there.

As for the second formation, Keith followed at a day’s distance behind. This separation was necessary because of the lousy road conditions as well as the quartering of the troops, which otherwise could have been a serious problem. Across the Morawa and Oder rivers and the little passes through the mountains, the invaders moved. Ziethen, with some 8,000 men, had been sent ahead, and detailed to keep the marching men screened from the enemy’s swarms of irregulars. Fouquet, who had charge of the provision trains and another 8,000-man force, staggered his convoys, under heavy escort, through the passes. The main army moved via Littau, Aschermitz, to Prossnitz—within 15 miles of Olmütz.

The Prussians were in Prossnitz by May 2–3. The news from other war fronts was encouraging and gave the king confidence that he would have the time he needed for his new mission. Ferdinand was preparing to carry the fight across the Rhine into France itself. There was no need to look for interference from that side this year at all for Frederick’s designs. General Dubislav Friedrich von Platen with a detachment was busy watching Fermor. January 16, the latter’s Russians had crossed the border into East Prussia, then, sweeping aside the feeble Prussian resistance, occupied Königsberg, forcing the inhabitants to swear a loyalty oath to Empress Elizabeth. However, there was little fear of a Russian movement against Prussia’s vitals until summer at least, given the state of their army’s supply problems and other difficulties.

As for Henry, his army of 32,000 men was even then in southern Saxony watching the Imperialists.30 Until he received word that Olmütz was in Frederick’s hands his primary purpose would be the defense of Saxony. Prince Henry was engaged in sending raiding parties deep into Bohemia and trying to keep Daun’s attention diverted to that province, and thus away from Moravia.

From the Northern Front, the news for the Prussians was still good. Although they remained some 15,000 strong, the Swedes had been held back from advancing by the muddy roads of Pomerania and the capable defense of Dohna. The latter held the shoreline against them, except at Stralsund. Now the spring thaw had come, but there was no effort to advance by the Swedish army. The latter’s chronic problems included the aged commander, Field Marshal Gustav Friedrich Graf von Rosen.

Back at the Southern Front, Daun had felled almost a whole forest to fortify and strengthen his post at Königgrätz, his defenses being so elaborate that it is no exaggeration to say Frederick might have found his task of invading Bohemia that year was impossible, had that been his design. Daun, nothing daunted, “refused to play the rôle assigned to him in Frederick’s plans.” When word arrived of the king’s advance into Moravia, the Austrians rose and sped out of Königgrätz eastwards to blunt his advance and save an important magazine—at Leutomischl—from the enemy’s clutches. Daun wasted no time, performing a direct march, as the Prussians had finally made their intentions clear. Frederick had a distance of some 150 miles, Daun only a little more than half that far. But the Austrians would not reach Leutomischl until May 5. Once there, Daun intended to take post, shielded by ever present thick bodies of Croats and Pandours.

Frederick Invades Austria a Second Time; Siege of Olmütz II

Laudon, on May 2, 1758 rose from his post and hustled forward upon Reichenau. Behind him, Daun prepped the main army for a similar move. The marshal’s men marched to Wodierold, on May 3. With that still unsatisfactory, Daun bolted through Choitzen (May 4), and, next day, finally reached his magazine. The post there was much more suitable to keeping the enemy observed. Laudon, still following his rôle as vanguard, made Landscron his post. Laudon was a very opinionated man, and he found himself frequently at loggerheads with Marshal Daun over the best choices to make for military operations. Had he served with Frederick, he might not have been so eager to talk, for the Prussian king was not fond of obstinate subordinates. In short, the Prussian military was far more regimented and orderly compared to its Austrian counterpart at this stage. The major decisions all rested solely with the person of the king. Especially those calls involving basic military planning.

Frederick, meanwhile, was preparing to put Olmütz under blockade. One problem was the relative remoteness of Olmütz from nearby Prussian magazines. A week was devoted to preliminary reconnaissance and study of the approaches to the city as well as its defenses. Frederick had 48 battalions and 103 squadrons spread out with his command, including 26 battalions and 33 squadrons in the main force. It was not until May 12, that the Prussians were set for the serious work ahead.39 Next day, the Prussian king rode out to look at Olmütz with his own eyes. He had visited Olmütz before, but the state of defensive posts now were much stronger than on his previous visit.

The monarch was really like a fish out of water. Frederick was an excellent planner on campaigns and battles, but insofar as the cumbersome mechanics of his time necessary for a siege, he was out of his element. Nevertheless, within a few weeks the king expected Olmütz to fall, which could then allow him to start on the final leg of the plan: the march on Vienna. If he ever seriously believed that, he was doomed to disappointment.

Meanwhile, with Hadik pulling back, Laudon felt compelled to move into the vacuum left at Höhenstadt (May 6). Here Laudon was so close to the wily Prussians he pushed out light detachments to Müglitz and Ausse to observe them. Our old friend General Jahnus kept in close contact with Laudon, and pressed patrols through Schönberg and Gronberg to keep the bluecoats under close scrutiny. General DeVille had fallen back on Olmütz; he sent his infantry to join the garrison directly, but kept his cavalry near, but outside, the city. The various Austrian efforts were much more vigorous against the Prussian invaders of Moravia than they ever were during the invasion of Bohemia in 1757. This activity even briefly threatened Frederick’s designs upon Olmütz. The king was relieved to see the pressure ease off.

Frederick would have liked nothing better than an all-out battle with Daun, but the marshal, with the Austrian army still doing its best to recover from the Leuthen Campaign, did not feel so inclined. However, as soon as the rumor of the approach of Laudon proved accurate, the Prussian leader made immediate efforts to oppose his advance. Meanwhile, Frederick busied himself in his spare moments with writing verse and recounting the exploits of Charles XII of Sweden at Narva to his reader, Henri de Catt (who had recently been very ill). At Aschmeritz, the bluecoats congregated a large force—23 battalions and 13 squadrons—fronting Littau. They were ensconced about Sternberg, while Lacy crept up to Prossnitz to check their designs. Frederick intended to stay at Littau for a while, which he converted into a supply and ammunition depot.

The king was certain the key to defeating the Austrians lay not so much in mauling the various detachments that were about, but in knocking off Daun’s main force. Even so, Laudon made an especial nuisance out of himself. So, just before midnight on May 21–22, Frederick set off with a detail to throw some consternation into Laudon. The Prussian force, ten battalions of infantry and 17 squadrons of horse, was divided into three columns, and tried to approach stealthily. The men struck near dawn Laudon’s scattered line hard about Namiest—about 22 miles west of Olmütz. That attack was really a rather heavy artillery bombardment with many rounds being fired in the process. But Laudon was tipped off by friendly peasants, and the artillery exchange was carried on until about 1800 hours. The indomitable Austrian commander then preempted the Prussian ground attack with one of his own first. The Prussian front was driven in, and there were a number of casualties. This enabled Laudon to pull back his scattered forces on to Konitz. The king pursued only up to the place. He said of Laudon’s losses “we captured 3 officers and 43 men.” This did demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that the Austrians would fight if left no choice.

Indeed Olmütz proved to be a far tougher nut to crack than Frederick had first calculated. She was protected by a garrison of 8,500 men under our old friend, General Marschall, backed up with 324 guns. This total included 110 12-pounder (or heavier) guns, and 91 mortars. As for the general, he was a valiant, skilled man whose rough appearance belied the capable leader that inspired confidence in his men by steady direction. Before the siege, Marschall had ordered all unnecessary individuals out of the city. Convalescent soldiers sheltering there were evacuated to points further in the interior, while the city suburbs of Novė Sady, Selena Ulice, Powel, and Stredni Ulice were torn down to keep the enemy from sheltering in them. It was a rough, but probably a necessary precaution. A garrison was put at Kloster Hradisch, as well as Rebscheine, Pablowitz, and other outlying villages, which Marschall considered essential to the safety of Olmütz. Daun (who lay idle at Leutomischl until May 23) did nothing to interfere with the Prussians as they closed up on the fortifications. He finally marched through Zwittau and, reaching the road to Olmütz, took encampment at Gewitsch—31 miles north-northwest of Olmütz. This in spite of the efforts of Vienna to get him moving.

Daun’s right wing took in the ground from Gewitsch fronting Kornitz, while the horsemen, of the left, were deployed close to the grenadier battalions. The latter took cover on a rise between Jauermeritz and Biskupitz. Daun was doing all he could to take advantage of the natural features of the ground. While he was so occupied, General Harsch moved on Mährisch-Tribau, beyond this point the irregulars of Laudon & Co. were busy harassing the bluecoats as much as possible. The Prussian supply trains had to come from Troppau (which was distant about 40 miles), but for the most part little happened. Good thing; it was said the Prussians needed 400 wagons a day during the siege just to maintain themselves. May 28, one of the roving Austrian bands lit up the country at Heidenpiltsch. The bluecoat force did its best, but some 300 wagons and a number of horses were taken. Another Prussian post, at Laskau under Major-General Christian von Möhring, became the victim of Laudon’s energetic adventures. Möhring was caught nearly by surprise, and, after a short fight, was driven from the field (night of June 7–8).

Nor were these the only operations undertaken by the two sides. The Prussian light force of Major-General Puttkammer, leading a force of 800 men, was suddenly jumped and routed by the Austrian Lt.-Col. Carl Graf Lanjus von Wellenburg (night of May 16–17) while on escort duty near Moravsky Beroun. The Prussians lost about 150 killed or wounded. The escort force lost half its number captive, while the train was dispersed, Franz von LeNoble received a wound and Puttkammer got away with less than 200 of his men.

And, during the night of June 4–5, the garrison launched its first major sortie. Under Major-General Simbschen, this force was about 550 men strong; the action inflicted some heavy damage on one section of the besieging lines, inflicting a loss of about 150 men, 50 of whom were captured. Further, on the night of June 13–14, an Austrian force of some 700 men under General Draskovitch, divided into four smaller formations, struck at the Prussian left side batteries, while an additional 300 men under Captain Rierra attacked the right wing batteries. Although this attack was finally and savagely repulsed, Frederick reported heavy damage, including seven guns spiked.

Meanwhile, Marshal Daun was preparing to march. June 15, some cavalry under General St. Ignon rode towards Prerau, which was an intention to screen the intermediate country there from the irruptions of Prussian raiders, as a prelude to the next move of the main Austrian army. The army rose from Gewitsch, and, under terrible sheets of rain, advanced on Prodivanow (June 16). Daun was determined to stay close enough to Olmütz that he could reinforce the fortress. On June 17, under better conditions, the march was resumed to a new site mapped out between Prödlitz and Evanowitz. Henry Lloyd makes out all of this was done without the Prussians even becoming suspicious. Keith was said to have a force (approximately 6,141 infantry) before Olmütz about then, along with seven squadrons of horse.

With Daun having reached a post from where he could better react, his cohorts used the time wisely. General St. Ignon (June 18), with his best effort, erupted against a Prussian force ensconced at Hollitz. The enemy, five squadrons of the Bayreuth and Puttkammer Dragoons, were abruptly forced to beat a retreat. The allied left, under Count Stainville, had things all its own way. Prussian losses of 200 killed and 150 taken prisoners were reported by General Lloyd, and Stainville also sacked the village of Wisternitz. The Prussian force thereabouts, seven squadrons of cavalry, along with a full battalion of infantry and “two pieces of cannon” were under General Mayr. This bold stroke appeared to take the bluecoats by surprise.

The bluecoat force, which boasted a band of infantry and two cannon at its back, was decimated in a short fight. Minus some 800 killed/wounded, they had to beat a retreat. Mayr himself was badly wounded and taken from the field. This represented a serious demonstration of the enemy’s prowess, and the king was obliged to pull back his outer posts. The Prussian army was reordered near Prossnitz and Czetcowitz.

That accomplished, Frederick earmarked June 20 for a powerful reconnaissance in force. He took some 12,000 men and moved on Prödlitz, scouts being sent to check out Daun’s preparations. This was the extent of Frederick’s reconnaissance, and the Prussians returned to Prossnitz. Next day, Daun detached new General Baron Bülow with 12,000 men; the latter was to make for Prerau and a reinforcement of the force in Olmütz.

Meanwhile, the news that the Prussians were sweeping virtually unchecked through her dominions proved to be most disturbing to Maria Theresa. There were actually preparations made to depart should the Prussian king take the notion of marching suddenly on the capital. This intelligence was not encouraging for the Austrians. There was an additional snag to offering an effective defense to the invaders: were all the available troops shifted to Moravia to defend Olmütz and block the road to Vienna from that side, what was to keep Prince Henry from moving against Prague in Bohemia? This was a legitimate concern of the Imperialists as well. If the Austrians vacated Bohemia, that would open the states of the Reich to the vengeful Prussians, and the only available defense then would be the largely ineffective Imperialist Army. This force had yet to recover from the hammering of Rossbach.

The siege of Olmütz had in the interim finally opened. Four days after Daun marched to Gewitsch, the Prussian engineers, led by Colonel Giuseppe Federico Balbi, completed the first parallel. A miscalculation caused the line to be dug about 800 yards short of where it should have been. So the bombardment that was opened immediately afterwards could do little because the range was too great. A second parallel had to be completed (June 2), wasting precious time. The garrison commenced to sortie against the Prussian lines. The effort on the night of June 4–5 was so successful, the next night another effort was made. This one was squashed, most effectively. The early shelling wasted, in addition, some 1,220 rounds of shot for negligible results on the first day. This second line was largely on the west side of the Morawa, as the opposite side was swampy and under water at many points.

June 9, the king took an inspection tour of Balbi’s works—most especially the main entrenchments (which had been erected on top of the Täperberg). The monarch enquired when these works were expected to be put to full use. Balbi’s brazen reply when the enemy had been beaten down could not have pleased the impatient Frederick. At the western side of the river stood Keith, commanding a detachment of 8,000 men with 71 guns. He was making a great effort of his own, but so were the defenders, whose artillery was capably directed by Lt.-Col. Adolph Nicolaus von Alfson. The latter maintained a superiority in artillery performance throughout the siege and gave the bluecoats much distress with their enterprise.

The latter lay in four distinct camps during the course of the siege. The first was at Littau, a post which extended over the Morawa and covered the road from Olmütz on that side. A second was at Neustadt, on the far side of the Morawa. The third was at Prossnitz, where the king had his headquarters; it kept the Austrians penned in from relief to the south. The fourth camp, that of Keith, encamped round Olmütz itself. From Olmütz, Littau was a good 15 miles to the northwest, Prossnitz to the south, Neustadt about 20 miles to the north from the fortress. About 20 miles west of Littau Daun was encamped, with Laudon making efforts against the scattered Prussian detachments. There is reason to believe the Austrian commander thought Frederick’s true intentions were still towards Bohemia, which meant the maneuver against Olmütz was a mere ruse.

Prince Henry, meanwhile, had been occupied with the Imperialists. He planned for Mayr to be set against them, preceding a major move. The latter had spent the winter trying to rebuild their army. Hildburghausen having resigned, the command of the still shaky force, after some haggling, was entrusted to Field Marshal Prince Friedrich Michael von Pfalz-Zweibrücken. The latter arrived at Nurnburg on March 31, and immediately set about rectifying some of his army’s most pressing concerns. The cautious Imperialist circles immediately went into council of war meetings. A reluctant decision was made at council to move from lower Saxony into a position closer to Bohemia. About the same time as the Imperialist change of order, Serbelloni resumed his career as a soldier by taking command of the Austrian forces in western Bohemia on April 16. Brabant puts the effective Imperialist strength by the end of April at “26,264 men and 3275 horses.” The allies, especially the Austrians, had been wrestling with the idea of whether or not the motley Reich forces would be any better than in 1757. Serbelloni’s presence was to provide a prop to the Imperialist effort, such as it was.

This concentration of the Imperialist Army in the defense of Saxony and Bohemia was of scant comfort to the Saxon minister Brühl, who hinted he feared the Reich army “almost as much as the enemy.” The condemnation may seem justified in view of that force’s dismal performance at Rossbach and other military actions. Zweibrücken just now could dispose of about “35,000” men near Saatz, while Daun had been decent enough to earmark 15,000 Austrians to join this force. This made for a total, more or less, of 50,000 men; far superior in numbers to the force with Henry. Mayr had been engaged in burning the magazines and harassing the troops of Zweibrücken’s command. The latter lacked light troops, so there was little effective resistance. Prince Henry’s winter march, already alluded to, had opened the drama in Saxony.

General Hülsen was left at Freibergsdorf with about 11,000 troops. His task was to guard Saxony while Henry was absent. Now there was a new offensive. Henry moved succinctly upon Taltitz on May 23, ready to go. Lt.-Gen. Georg Wilhelm von Driesen was to be the vanguard of the force. Mayr fanned out ahead, reaching Hof on the same day. Simultaneously, the Imperialist leader at this site, Major-General Michael Gottfried von Rosenfeld, moved troops to Liechtenfels. Then he finally hitched towards Regnitz, there to take up a position hard by.

Driesen came sweeping down upon the circle, “advising” town leaders like those at Hollfeld, and Marienweiler—among others—that a series of Prussian requests needed prompt attention. Driesen forthwith occupied Bayreuth, and boldly announced to the residents that he needed their cooperation by not taking action against his Prussians. In exchange, Driesen would do his best to leave the local population alone as far as possible. Even Nurnburg was threatened with Prussian fury, but Driesen’s bark, like the proverbial canine, was worse than his bite. Mayr glided through Hollfeld, intending to put Bamberg to its mettle. May 31, Prussians suddenly appeared on the outskirts of Bamberg, and a few hussars even forced their way into the streets of the city.

In response, Rosenfeld rushed reinforcements towards the stricken post, which initially repulsed the enemy’s efforts, but, about 1400 hours, an impressive force of bluecoats appeared, complete with an artillery complement. Soon shelling reduced more than three dozen buildings to ruin and the city fathers had to sue for peace. Prussian losses had been 70, against Imperialist casualties of 23; Rosenfeld promptly withdrew on Bürgebrach. Bamberg itself was ravaged by the infuriated Prussians during the night, although dawn brought restored order. Contributions were levied, however. The city appeared on the point of giving in to what amounted to extortion when suddenly news arrived of Lt.-Gen. Karl Franz Dombâle’s approach with a relief force. Prussian demands were for some two million thalers (or talers). And even extended to demanding outright neutrality of the city for the rest of the war.

Dombâle, with about 10,000 men—over 3,000 of whom were new recruits—reached Möerfeldon on May 31, deviating through Donauworth and Walldürn, rather straggling along. He finally reached Würzberg with his main body to join Rosenfeld on June 9.60 Dombâle’s chief concern for the moment, though, was not how to relieve Bamberg from its troubles, but how to keep Würzberg. That being acknowledged, Dombâle seriously questioned the capability of the town’s walls to withstand a serious enemy effort.

Fortunately, that would not be a problem. By then, Driesen was preparing for nothing more than a managed, orderly withdrawal from his exposed forward position. During the night of June 9–10, Driesen abandoned his comfortable quarters at Bamberg and retired on Bayreuth, pausing first at Hollfeld. Prince Henry moved forward on Hof, so as to screen Driesen from any follow-up pursuit by the enemy. Driesen reached Hof on June 14, thereby reuniting with Henry’s main body. On June 5, the Prussian irregulars at Sebastienberg were turned out of their posts by Major-General Ujházy. This move caused reinforcements, from both sides, to gravitate towards that place. Prince Henry had Generals Wunsch and Ziethen before Sebastienberg, but hoped this did not presage a major enemy effort. Henry was not too disappointed; he had wrestled the forward posts from Croats only a few hours earlier.

Frederick Invades Austria a Second Time; Siege of Olmütz III

Of greater import, General Hülsen moved on Zschopau. Henry slowly and deliberately moved to join him, in the process leaving General Itzenplitz with eight battalions and seven squadrons, including two squadrons of the Szekely Hussars, at Zwickau. Itzenplitz was to play the spoiler to any effort in Henry’s direction that Dombâle might try. Henry’s command itself was 14 battalions and 20 squadrons, although this did not include Knobloch’s command. The latter had three full battalions; he set up shop at Freibergsdorf. Itzenplitz’ post was shadowed by Luzinsky, while Dombâle himself moved discreetly on Bamberg (June 20 1758). The latter was marching to join forces with Esterhazy. Dombâle’s forward elements did not even begin to reach Hof until July 1.

Daun’s task was not easy. Originally, it had been felt wise to give the marshal some leeway about how to relieve Olmütz. However, so soon as Vienna discerned Daun was merely marking time, with scarcely any action planned, orders were sent to him to relieve the garrison in Olmütz. So, while Henry was preparing something in Bohemia, in Moravia, the main Austrian army made ready to move. In mid–June, Daun rose from Gewitsch, detaching 1,100 men, from the command of Bülow, to cross the Morawa to bolster the garrison in the fortifications and make some feints. The detachment brushed Neustadt, and Frederick sent Ziethen to deal with the new intruders. Ziethen failed to intercept it, and the newcomers were able to slip into Olmütz while Daun, begging off, withdrew again into his old lines. The Austrian detachments, under Laudon, had been busy all this while. They regularly struck at the Prussian outposts under cover of night and frequently threw a scare or two into the escorts for the supply trains. Prussian provisions were running low, and in a remarkable twist of events, Prussian deserters began appearing regularly at the gates of Olmütz wanting to get into the city. These raids, however, did little to alleviate the suffering of the defenders of Olmütz, and such half-hearted attempts to draw the attention of the bluecoats elsewhere could not by themselves hope to drive Frederick’s men from the walls of the place.

The siege was making progress all this time. Inside Olmütz, supplies of food and powder were running low, but the Prussians suffered even more from the shortage of ammunition and powder. One final large convoy was to be made up and brought in with all the supplies that Frederick believed his men would need to bring the siege to a successful conclusion. He detailed Lt.-Col. Konrad Wilhelm von der Mosel with a 7,000-man force to escort this final convoy in. To provide additional security against Laudon, who was sure to make an effort to cut off this all-important supply train, the king saw good to detach Ziethen’s men to help shield Mosel’s force.

Mosel was to leave Troppau with the van of the wagons on June 26, according to plan. Ziethen sent Colonel Werner (with 200 dragoons, 300 hussars, and a full battalion of grenadiers) to meet Mosel. Werner moved out from near Olmütz on June 28 to greet the incoming train. Frederick could no more than hope for the best. With this last reinforcement, Balbi promised he could wrestle Olmütz from the enemy in a fortnight. Time was becoming critical now for the bluecoats, with enemies beginning to close in from all sides.

The march of the train started on schedule, but the movement of the double-teamed wagons over the windy narrow roads was slow and cumbersome. A group of 3,000 wagons altogether, with two civilian drivers (although military personnel would have made more sense under the circumstances, had that been the usual procedure) per wagon. As there had been no letup in wagons coming and going across the same routes, the pathways were worn. Heavy rains added further difficulties, and the wily enemy knew about the move almost from the beginning.

The trek was through some 90 miles of twisting, rolling countryside, in territory largely controlled by the enemy. The movement of such a large convoy was a haphazard affair at best, but the efforts required to attack it en route were also not without risk. The whole length of the train varied considerably, at some points being spread out to 30 miles or more from beginning to end, and at other places condensed into less than half that. The forces under the direct command of Mosel were divided into three separate groups: the van; the main body; the rearguard. What was worse, even in a situation where the wagons were close together, there were not sufficient men for a continuous front to provide support between these three bodies of moving men and equipment. The condition of the roads and rain degraded the further they went. On June 27, after just one day on the move, Mosel found it necessary to stop the front wagons of the convoy to give the rearward elements time to close up.

Surprisingly, however, the progress of the trek proceeded much better than could have been expected. The convoy’s escorts hoped the train might be brought through before the Austrians had word of its advent. A forlorn hope! And, for a change, Daun had decided to do something about it. Heretofore, he had not simply ignored the pleas and requests he had received to break up the siege, but cautious Daun was just not willing to risk a major battle over this fortress. He had done precious little in the way of stopping the supply trains without which no siege, no matter how lengthy, could hope to be successful. Any firefighter knows the quickest way to put out a flame is at the source. In a way this analogy was fitting because these supply trains were the source of the Prussian effort before Olmütz; extinguish the source and Frederick’s designs would be ruined.

It was now two choices for Daun: (1) Give battle to relieve the pressure on Olmütz; (2) Stop that last convoy. Not wishing to force a fight with the eager king (at least on the latter’s terms), the cautious marshal chose the second alternative. His plan as formulated was quite simple. From the west end of the Morawa River, Laudon, with his various detachments, was to do all he could to intercept the convoy, while General Siskovics66 was to operate in the Littau-Müglitz country—east of the river—against the Prussians from that end.

Immediately upon giving Laudon and Siskovics their marching orders, Daun marched the main army from Gewitsch near Konitz southward. This latter maneuver caused Frederick to think his foe was at last coming out for a finish fight over Olmütz. The Prussians were encouraged to see Daun’s massed army on the rises across from Prossnitz (June 22) and the king ordered his men to realign their outer lines in preparation for battle. Did the Austrian commander intend to fight? He did not and Daun’s only aim was to send the reinforcements into Olmütz, as well as to divert Frederick’s attention while his subordinates went to smash the convoy.

Ironically, on that same day, the siege took a turn for the better in favor of the bluecoats. Balbi had made an indentation in the defender’s lines (incessant Prussian howitzer fire had opened a widening gap in the earthen fortifications), and was inexorably squeezing the enemy’s presence at the walls into a tightening vise. Daun, who had retired to the south again, crossed the Morawa to steer north to support the impending effort on the Prussian train. Siskovics had reached his appointed posts, and Laudon, moving by Müglitz and Hofberg, made a roundabout path on the western end of the Prussians. From there he moved towards Bautsch (specifically, Güntersdorf) where Laudon intended to perform an unexpected attack upon the supply train from the pass there. As a precaution, Laudon left a force of some 600 men at Domstadl itself, under Major von Goese, to hold a position through which the convoy would come.

Mosel made good progress the first day, but the following day, the halt we have looked at, while probably a normal procedure, gave Laudon the time he required to move into attack position. Otherwise, the Austrians might not have reached Güntersdorf in time. As it was, Laudon arrived there on June 27, and undertook the necessary preparations to ambush the foe in the defile beyond. The following morning, Mosel got on the road leading to Güntersdorf from Bautsch, where he had spent the previous evening.

On approaching the place, Mosel found the enemy drawn out ahead (on the wooded hills above and in the pass in front) intending to dispute his passage. The Prussian commander ordered the train to halt, and, taking his troopers, led a charge that quickly cleared the defile of its occupants. Laudon’s men lost many prisoners69 out of a total of about 500 altogether. The 1st Battalion of Young Kreutz led the initial stroke, pushing through the defile into the enemy’s fire. Once there, the men took up an exposed position hard by. Behind this body, the grenadiers of Billerbeck and Captain Pirch led a part of Prince Ferdinand’s men and the rest of Young Kreutz. Laudon’s most effective measure was to plant a battery confronting the Prussian left. It just so happened that Old Billerbeck was positioned directly opposite the offending big guns. The grenadiers wasted no time trying to silence the Austrian ordnance. The men pressed forward into the woods, overcoming in the process the light irregulars who were supposed to be “protecting” the approaches to the battery. The crew of the guns, and the regulars who were with them, were not so readily inclined to go. Billerbeck promptly put in a determined charge at the point of the bayonet, which drove off the enemy, took one gun from its desperate crew, and captured some 200 men.

With the offending Austrian battery silenced at last, the Kreutz and the Prince Ferdinand regiments took their turn. A most determined effort now ensued, in which the latter two Prussian units sought to match the achievement of Old Billerbeck. Laudon did all he could to shore up his lines, calling upon his men for a supreme effort. But, after losing another of his guns to the advancing bluecoats, Laudon saw the contest was lost. Reluctantly, he ordered his tattered men to fall back on Bährn. The Austrian commander’s behavior had been almost impeccable, but there was no denying his force had suffered a serious drubbing. Losses were nearly 500 men. Fifty-two men were dead, approximately 340 were prisoners, the rest wounded.

Mosel was in no condition to follow up his advantage, as he most correctly did not lose sight of his more important mission of the safe conduct of the convoy. There had been some ill-effects from the action. The sounds and smells of the spectacle of artillery fire had unnerved many of the civilian crews. Some of their number took to horse or feet and started back on Troppau, leaving some of the wagons without crews, while the Prussians were taking care of Laudon. This vacuum left the irregulars, those who had not been chased away, the opportunity to break into the train. The bluecoats who had just chased off Laudon’s men at the defile then had to return to chase away the irregulars from the convoy’s vicinity.

It occurred to Mosel the king needed to be informed about the progress of the supply train. He disptached a trusted aid, named Beville, to go to Prussian headquarters. Meanwhile, after the convoy had been righted again as much as was possible, Mosel pressed on for Neudörfel. When Ziethen momentarily joined up with the train, he discovered that much more needed to be done with the wagons. As it worked out, “every single wagon had been turned around to go back the way they had come.” This would simply never do. Calling off of the march for a day was a necessity. In the present state, the train would never have reached its destination even without further enemy interference.

Laudon would still have made his main attack there had he not known of a more appropriate defile not far from Güntersdorf. A short distance from the little village, there arose a short knoll to the right of the roadway. This gave way to a pair of hills protruding not far from the Domstadtl River; rises which were separated by a large wooded hollow which the pass went through.

This defile, known to history fittingly as the Pass of Domstadtl, was the place that Laudon now selected for the main effort against the convoy. Ziethen had recovered his detachment under Werner, which had only reached Gibau anyway, accompanied by the grenadiers of Manteuffel and General Kaspar Rudolph von Unruh. Ziethen, as soon as he reached Gibau, was rewarded with the bad news that Mosel’s forward progress had come to a virtual halt. The horizon showed smoke and there were sounds of a struggle of some sort in Mosel’s direction. Not more than half the wagons had caught up with Mosel, which had caused the day of rest. The horses were exhausted and many of their guides were either missing or else wished they were.

At dawn, June 30, the convoy moved out again. Ziethen and Mosel had decided to take precautions as they approached the Pass at Domstadtl, where they rightly assumed the foe would make another attempt to ambush them. Ziethen’s cavalry was on the right side of the convoy, this being the direction from which the enemy might reasonably be expected. The foot soldiers were on the left, and the escort forces were fanned out enough to maximize their efforts.

As quickly as the advanced wagons of the convoy drew within sight in the early afternoon of June 30, Laudon (who had been joined in the meanwhile by Siskovics and his men) opened on them with his small guns and massed musketry fire. The Austrian mounted men were ordered to block the pass itself. The Prussians approached with the infantry escort still strung out, and the train divided into separate groups. The advanced guard was under General Krockow. The latter promptly rushed forward, cleared the way of the enemy, and managed to push some 250 of the wagons through before Laudon and Siskovics could seal off the penetration. Then Krockow halted his wagons to await the outcome of the struggle.

The Austrian advanced batteries on the leftward rises promptly opened a heavy fire upon the desperate Prussian force below. The small arms fire concentrated on killing the horses, without which the convoy could not proceed. Ziethen’s men, led by the dogmatic Puttkammer, then charged the Austro-Saxon force. This fired up body crashed into Siskovics’s first line, which was sent reeling. Then an enemy force of dragoons burst forth, surrounding the Prussian force. In heavy fighting, the stunned grenadiers cut their way through the enemy and retreated to the “security” of the convoy. This was not a done deal. Laudon, with his force, suddenly emerged on the right. This latter body crashed into the convoy from a new angle. Laudon was particularly determined, and a most obstinate Prussian force was finally overcome by the combined efforts of both allied parties. Finally, the bluecoat force fragmented, allowing the enemy to break in upon the train.

Ziethen, meanwhile, charged again and again to puncture the enemy ring of defenses, with little success. He had the wagons formed into a square (a Wagenburg) to resist the allied strokes. Ziethen’s horsemen surged forward and swept back the foe from the hills, but lost his ground again to counterattacks. It was clear Prussian resistance was indeed stubborn, and the artillery that was at hand unleashed a heavy fire to try to force the allies from the ravine.

At length, Ziethen discovered he had Laudon on one side and Siskovics on the other, and the wagon train was hopelessly bogged down. The prospects for rescue were growing dim.75 In desperation, he abandoned the wagons and, cutting his way through the enemy’s lines, made for Troppau. The entire train was captured, save for that small group rescued by Krockow.

The latter determined to press on, so as to fulfill the mission to the extent now possible. As Ziethen was retreating in the other direction with most of the escort force, it was not long at all before the rather energetic enemy once again appeared, to complete the overthrow of the force trapped at the pass. Scouts reported that allied celebration of their success, which Krockow could do nothing about at the moment.

Any delay did nothing but risk another enemy effort to finish the job. So the greatly reduced supply train lunged forward. By evening, the convoy was near Bistrowan. At Heiligenberg, a new enemy effort indeed was made. This one was far less involved, but the attackers did snare one more wagon. The remainder reached the main Prussian lines.

Prussian losses for the escorting force were approximately 2,386 men; allied casualties were approximately 600.77 One of the most valiant tales associated with this action was the bravery of new recruits of the ranks of the Ferdinand Regiment. “Those inexperienced lads, varying from 17 to 20 years, defended themselves to the last.” Some 900 of these brave youths were at Domstadtl; only 67 passed into captivity. Except for a few wounded survivors, all of the rest perished that day at the pass, almost all of them fighting in a sustained action for the first time. Captain Pirch was among that number. The capping of the Prussian defeat in this melée was in the terrible execution of the Austrian guns, which speedily gained the upper hand.

MEGIDDO 15 May 1479 b.c.


Widely considered a military genius by historians, Thutmose III made 16 raids in 20 years. He was an active expansionist ruler, sometimes called Egypt’s greatest conqueror or “the Napoleon of Egypt.”

Forces Engaged

Egyptian: Unknown (probably approximately 10,000 men). Commander: Pharaoh Thutmose III.

Kadesh alliance: Unknown. Commander: King of Kadesh.


In the early years of the eighteenth century b.c., the power of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom was waning. That coincided with the immigration of the Hyksos, a Semitic population probably from the region of Palestine, that used superior weaponry to topple the faltering Thirteenth dynasty. The Hyksos dynasty began ruling Egypt in 1786 b.c.and lasted until 1575 b.c.By then the Hyksos had become sufficiently complacent and content to lose their edge, and the Egyptian population reasserted control over their own nation. The new pharaoh, who began the New Kingdom era, was Ahmose (ruled 1575–1550 b.c.). Ahmose was not content with merely regaining his country, but wanted to extend Egypt’s northeastern frontier to establish a strong buffer zone. He also wanted to extend Egypt’s power because exposure to foreign peoples had given the Egyptians a taste for things that could come only from outside their country. Hence, conquest and trade as well as security motivated Ahmose’s war making.

Following in Ahmose’s footsteps, later pharaohs extended Egyptian authority into the region along the eastern Mediterranean as well as southward into Nubia, modern Sudan. Under the direction of Thutmose I, Ahmose’s grandson, Egypt established hegemony in Palestine and Syria. Upon his death in 1510, however, Egyptian expansion was temporarily halted because of the attitude of the new pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was daughter of Thutmose I and stepsister and wife to Thutmose II. When Thutmose II died in 1490, Hatshepsut at first ruled as regent for their young son Thutmose III, but soon threw off all pretense at regency and ruled openly as pharaoh, the only woman ever to do so. Her rule (1490–1468 b.c.) was marked by more than 20 years of peace, during which time Egypt embarked on a serious building program of constructing temples and monuments.

Hatshepsut’s passive foreign policy, however, encouraged subject kings in the Middle East to ponder the idea of independence. Under the direction of the King of Kadesh, supported by the powerful Mitanni population east of the Euphrates, the states of Palestine and Syria broke free of Egypt’s rule about the time of Hatshepsut’s death.

Early rumblings of discontent had not been punished by Egyptian forces, so the King of Kadesh, who probably exercised suzerainty over most of Syria and Palestine, demanded and received affirmations of loyalty from his subject kings. Some small kingdoms in southern Palestine hesitated, perhaps remembering the days of Ahmose and the penalty for disloyalty. Kadesh sent troops to compel them to cooperate, and it seems that the kingdom of Mitanni gave Kadesh covert support. They were an up-and-coming power themselves, currently competing with the nascent power of early Assyria. If Kadesh could hurt Egypt, then the Mitanni certainly hoped to benefit.

The cause of Hatshepsut’s death has never been positively determined; it may have been assassination at Thutmose III’s direction. Whatever the reason, Thutmose III was eager to take the throne and restore Egyptian power. After directing that Hatshepsut’s name be obliterated from all public buildings, he set about rebuilding an army that had been idle for more than two decades. His southern flank was secure because the Nubians had become increasingly Egyptianized. He could therefore focus on the rebellious kings to the northeast without having to worry about threats to the rear of his army.

How many men Thutmose enrolled has never been determined. Most historians believe that no Egyptian expeditionary force ever numbered more than 25,000 to 30,000 and the first army to take the field after such a long hiatus would almost certainly not be that large. The Egyptian army was comprised primarily of infantry, carrying shields and side arms—either axes or sicklelike swords. The aristocracy fought from chariots and probably as archers. Weapons at this time were bronze. The forces that Egypt faced were equipped in much the same fashion.

In his second year as pharaoh, Thutmose III took his army into action. He appears to have been skilled as an organizer because the rapid progress his army made implies a well-laid-out logistical system. He was also the first pharaoh who, apparently, took his own chroniclers on campaign with him because the details of the march and the battle are contemporary with the campaign. Megiddo was the first battle in history for which that can be said. Thutmose departed the Nile delta at Tharu on 19 April 1479 and just 9 days later was at Gaza, some 160 miles up the coast. He arrived there on the anniversary of his coronation, but spent no time in celebration; his troops were on the march the next morning.

The Battle

Twelve days from Gaza, the Egyptians encamped at Yehem, about 80 to 90 miles from Gaza and probably about 16 miles southwest of Megiddo. That walled city was the target because Thutmose’s intelligence corps had reported that the King of Kadesh and all his vassal kings were there. At this point, Thutmose had three possible routes to Megiddo. The road north to Aruna, along the ridge of Mount Carmel, turned northeast at that town and ran through a narrow pass directly to Megiddo. His second alternative branched north-northeast just past Aruna and intersected the Tannach road north of Megiddo. The third possibility was to take the road toward Damascus. This road ran eastward from Yehem and then hit a junction, which led north-northwest through Tannach. This route would enable him to approach Megiddo from the south. Thutmose’s advisors counseled either of the latter alternatives, as the pass was too narrow, inviting an ambush. Thutmose brushed their cautions aside, determined to take the direct route. He told them they could go by any route they pleased, but he was going through the pass. “For they, the enemy, abominated of Ra, consider thus, ‘Has His Majesty gone on another road? Then he fears us,’ thus do they consider” (Petrie, A History of Egypt, vol. II, p. 105). His subordinates reluctantly agreed to go with him.

Whether through accurate supposition or by good intelligence, Thutmose was correct in his choice. Apparently, the King of Kadesh never thought that Thutmose would be stupid enough to commit his force to a narrow defile, so he concentrated the bulk of his army on the road near Tannach. Thutmose led his men out of Yehem toward Aruna on 13 May. As they approached the pass, he took the point position in his chariot, certainly a decision designed to inspire his troops and assure them of the correctness of his decision. As they debouched from the pass, they encountered only a small covering force, which they quickly drove away. Here Thutmose heeded his subordinates. Instead of launching a pursuit, he agreed to deploy his force in a defensive posture to allow the entire column to come up. Hearing of the arrival of the Egyptian army, the King of Kadesh withdrew his forces back to Megiddo.

Thutmose, either that afternoon or during the evening, decided not to attack the forces of Kadesh but instead to take up a position to the west of the city. He deployed his men in an arc athwart the small river Kina, with his flanks resting on high ground. This gave him a good route of retreat, if necessary. On the night of 14 May, the two armies camped, facing each other. At dawn, Thutmose spread his forces in three groups. He commanded in the center, and his left flank extended to the northwest of Megiddo, to be in a position to block any enemy retreat on the road that led northwest from the city. The details of the battle are too sketchy to determine how it was conducted. All the contemporary chroniclers state is that the enemy fled before the pharaoh’s forces: “His Majesty went forth in his chariot of electrum adorned with his weapons of war, like Horus armed with talons, the Lord of might, like Mentu of Thebes, his father Amen-Ra strengthening his arms” (Petrie, A History of Egypt, vol. II, p. 107).

Whatever the missing details, the Egyptians gained the upper hand, and the enemy fled in haste for the protection of the city walls, abandoning their camp and much of their materiel. That was what saved the Egyptians, at least temporarily. The Egyptian troops, lured by the prospect of loot, abandoned the chase and turned themselves over to pillage. That allowed the enemy to escape, although just barely. The residents of the city closed the gates rather too quickly, and the fleeing troops had to be hauled over the walls with ropes made of clothing. Thutmose was not happy, and chastened his men. “Had ye afterwards captured this city, behold I would have given [a rich offering to] Ra this day; because every chief of every country that has revolted is within it” (Breasted, A History of Egypt, p. 290).

Having failed to capture the city in a rush, Thutmose settled down for a siege. He ordered a wall of circumvallation built of wood from the surrounding forests; the rampart was called “Thutmose, encloser of the Asiatics.” In the wall, one gate was built, through which those inside the city that wished to surrender could exit. The details of the siege were recorded on a roll of leather stored in the temple of Amon, but only the reference to that scroll survives. The countryside was sufficiently lush to allow the Egyptians to eat well out of the fields and off the cattle and sheep herds. The length of the siege is debatable, sources listing it as anywhere from 3 weeks to 7 months, although it was probably shorter rather than longer. However long it took, the besieged finally ran out of food and surrendered.

Although a number of kings were taken captive, surrendering either during the siege or at the city’s fall, the King of Kadesh managed to escape, probably in the immediate wake of the battle. Thutmose took little retribution on the captive kings or the city, although he did remove back to Egypt much of the city’s wealth. Thutmose, however, had captured on the battlefield the king’s son, who he took back to Egypt as a hostage, along with others of the king’s family as well as the sons of the other rebellious but now humbled kings. The description of the spoils of war is long and impressive, including 924 chariots, 2,238 horses, 200 suits of armor, and the tent belonging to the King of Kadesh along with all his furniture and household goods. Added to the spoils of later victories on this campaign, 426 pounds of gold and silver were acquired.

With Megiddo now firmly in hand, Thutmose marched his men northward toward Lebanon, taking possession of the cities of Yenoam, Nuges, and Hernkeru. It is not known if these cities had sent their submission to him during the siege of Megiddo or if Thutmose had to capture them upon his arrival; either way, they came under his control quickly. He ordered a fortress built in the area in order to keep back any threat the escaped King of Kadesh might mount and then proceeded to reestablish Egyptian hegemony by either accepting the vassalage of the local kings or replacing them with successors who would swear loyalty. Just as he had done with the son of the King of Kadesh, Thutmose took the sons of those rulers back to Egypt. This not only ensured cooperation, but it allowed the Egyptians to raise the hostages in a manner that would immerse them in Egyptian culture and power, making them more amenable to control when the hostages were in a position to succeed their fathers.

Thutmose was back in his capital city of Thebes in early October and master of a new and more stable Egyptian Empire. It would not always be happy; he conducted another fifteen campaigns in the northeast to either subdue rebellions or beat back foreign threats. During his eighth such campaign, he fought and defeated the Mitanni on the other side of the upper Euphrates, taking Egypt to the limits of its empire. This completely transformed Egypt as a nation. The wealth that came into Egypt in the form of annual tribute was so massive that it allowed for the construction of temples and public buildings for which Egypt is best known today, barring only the Pyramids and Sphinx.

Through both the Old and Middle Kingdoms Egypt had striven to remain isolated; after the expulsion of the Hyksos and the wars of the New Kingdom, commerce with foreign powers was too profitable to ever go back to the old days. The administration of an empire required the establishment of an expanded bureaucracy as well as a large standing army, both of which are expensive propositions. The wealth was the gift of the gods, so the priesthood also expanded, gaining in both wealth and power. Their temples demanded the best in craftsmanship, and the artistic life of Egypt benefited. Two hundred years after Thutmose III, Rameses II fought to maintain the borders of the empire. No pharaoh fought as often as he, but by the thirteenth century b.c. the power of Egypt had reached its height. From then onward, the Sea Peoples, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans all either weakened Egypt or exercised dominion over Egypt.

Megiddo in History

Although historians know of battles before Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh fighting in 1479 b.c., this battle was the first to be recorded by eyewitnesses, making it the first recorded battle in history. Because of disputes over dating, however, just when the battle took place is a matter of some debate. James Breasted in 1905 gave a detailed account of the battle, and his dating has been used in the Megiddo entry as the most specific, giving day and month as well as year. William Petrie’s translation of the Annals of Thutmose III gives contemporary dates, not in years b.c. but by years of the pharaoh’s rule. Hence, we learn that Thutmose began his campaign toward Megiddo when he left the town of Tharu on the Nile delta on the twenty-fifth day of the month Pharmuthi in the twenty-second year of Thutmose’s reign. That also creates some problems because he dated his reign not from the previous year when he succeeded Hatshepsut, but from the death of his father and the year he should have begun his rule. The battle at Megiddo is placed variously in 1458, 1467, 1469, etc.

Megiddo remained an important location in the ancient world, on the crossroads between the Hittites in the north and the Egyptians in the south, as well as those of the trade routes from the Mediterranean eastward to the empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Book of Judges describes an eleventh-century b.c. battle along the River Kishon, flowing along the Plain of Esdraelon, which Megiddo overlooked. In that battle, Israelite forces under Deborah and Barak defeated the Canaanite forces of King Jabin. In 609 b.c., King Josiah of Judah was defeated and killed at Megiddo by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho.

Even more unspecific about the date of the first battle at Megiddo is the date of the last one. The Hebrew word for Megiddo is Armageddon, described in the biblical Book of Revelation as the site of the final battle between the forces of good and evil. The foundation for one of the great ironies of history is thus foretold: the beginning and the end of military history occur at the same site.


Benson, Douglas. Ancient Egypt’s Warfare. Ashland, OH: Book Masters, 1995; Breasted, James Henry. A History of Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1905; Gabriel, Richard, and Donald Boose. The Great Battles of Antiquity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994; Petrie, William. A History of Egypt, vol. II. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1972 [1904]; Steindorff, George, and Keith Seele. When Egypt Ruled the East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

T-39 Soviet Super-heavy Breakthrough Tank

The T-39 tank was designed to be a breakthrough tank. With a rather ridiculous 4 turrets, and up to 90 mm of armour, the tank was even more powerful than the KV-1 and KV-2 that would follow it 6 years later. A number of options were presented. Two options were deemed the most viable, and made it as far as wooden models.

In real life, the T-39 was exceptionally unrealistic, and all work on it stopped in favour of the (also pretty useless) T-35 tank. However, ill-conceived prototypes would perform? Let’s take a look.

The T-150 has a comparable amount of armour. However, four 107 mm guns would mean four times the rate of fire. Even if the 45 mm turrets are completely vestigial (like the machine gun turrets on the T-28).

The “gentle giant” KV-5 has a 107 mm gun. However, it has much more armour, even with the vulnerable turret. With a mere 90 mm at its thickest.

The turret placement requires it to show its side before it can use all 4 of its guns, and even if it doesn’t, that driver’s box in the front is an excellent weak spot. It could be like a TOG: huge and slow, with no armour, but lots of hit points. It would probably have to be restricted to its initial engine configuration, and travel at 24 kph, at most.

This one is a lot more reasonable. Instead of two main turrets, there is only one. Plus, due to the 45 mm turret, it can’t point backwards. The gun is more like the 152 mm gun on the SU-152, longer, faster, and more accurate, than the KV-2’s gun.

Despite powerful armament, this tank does not have very much armour. The sloped 90 mm plate in the front doesn’t do very much to compensate for its sides (20-50 mm thick) or its lower glacis (45 mm thick). There is also a glaring weak spot that the driver sits in, inviting any opponent to make your slow tank even slower.

While the 152 mm gun option is more likely (it doesn’t even need multiple turrets), both would be excellent crew trainers. 12 crewmen means you can train as many as 3 Soviet heavy crews at once!

This was a proposed vehicle; for other fantasy Soviet vehicles:

KV-VI (Fake Tanks)

Port of London: The Second World War

Following the declaration of war against Germany and its allies, on 3 September 1939 all UK ports were put under the control of Port Emergency Committees, responsible to the Ministry of Transport. The committee for the Port of London was headed by J.D. (later Sir Douglas) Ritchie, who had succeeded David Owen as general manager of the Port London Authority [PLA] in 1938. The Admiralty also created a Naval base for the Port of London, with its flag officer and staff based at the PLA headquarters, the control centre for the Port throughout the war.

Adolf Hitler was well aware that to cripple the Port of London was to weaken Britain’s ability to survive and, as it was an entrepôt port, would furthermore affect the entire British Empire. Prior to the war, the Luftwaffe had been flying reconnaissance flights over London, taking aerial photographs, and had marked key points along the river as targets. For centuries the winding river and dangerous estuary shoals had long protected the Port. It was clear from contemporary conflicts in Spain, China and Abyssinia, however, that aerial attack would be inevitable if war occurred. Distinctive from the air both during the day and by moonlight it was an easy target for airborne bombers. Spread along sixty-nine miles of tideway, the Port was extremely difficult to defend. The following years were to become some of the most dramatic and challenging in the long history of the Port of London.

The PLA had some time earlier developed a defensive plan at the government’s request that was adopted for all ports. A River Emergency Service had been formed, able to aid and advise the Navy with local expertise. Thames lightermen and barge-owners formed the Lighterage Emergency Executive (later superseded by the London Tug & Barge Control), making themselves available to the Port Emergency Committee. Shelters were provided for workers, pillboxes constructed, first-aid stations established and some buildings strengthened. Steel pylons were erected as lookout posts. A wartime nerve centre was created at the PLA headquarters although aspects of its work moved to a safer location at Thames Ditton. Naval ships were stationed at the sea entry to the Thames. From September 1941 they were replaced by Maunsell Sea Forts, constructed in the Surrey Docks and towed downriver from there. Gun batteries were installed on each bank of the lower river. Locks and other key points were guarded by military police. The Navy requisitioned a number of Thames tugs to act as guardships, forming the Thames & Medway Examination Service, with several based at the Naval Control Centre at Southend. Conscription into the forces began in April 1939 but Port workers were included on the Schedule of Reserved Occupations and were thus exempt.

There was an initial period known as the ‘phony war’ when the British people prepared themselves for the worst. Women and children were evacuated to the countryside, leaving Port workers separated from their families. Yet during the first year there was no significant harm done to London and some of those evacuated drifted back to their homes. During that period more than 6,000 port workers were trained in various aspects of defence.

By the end of 1939 magnetic mines were being dropped into the Thames Estuary by German aircraft, sinking a number of merchant vessels. Each morning thereafter minesweepers left Gravesend and Sheerness to clear the shipping channels. It took several months for the Navy to introduce the ‘degaussing’ method that neutralized a ship’s magnetism and thus made them resistant to the devices. In the meantime, the PLA’s jurisdiction for the salvaging of ships was extended to a greater area. Groups of dockers were formed into units of the Royal Engineers, of which there were twelve by the end of the war, and they assisted in the British Expeditionary Force mission in September 1939 and their retreat in 1940. Operations took place in coastal areas as far as the Arctic Circle, North Africa and Burma.

From the summer of 1940 Germany took occupation of the Netherlands, Belgium and France and for the following four years their forces were only a short distance from shipping entering and leaving the Estuary. Allied troops were suddenly forced to depart for the Continent and ‘Operation Dynamo’ was launched to undertake the evacuation. A bizarre fleet of small vessels of all shapes and sizes, some having not been designed to go out to sea, were assembled to rescue troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, including thirty Thames tugs. Much of the fleet was assembled, provisioned and crewed at Tilbury Docks. Some, including at least eight Thames sailing barges, failed to return. At that time a German invasion seemed inevitable and two booms were laid across the Estuary, the outer one from Shoeburyness in Essex to Minster in Kent and the inner boom from Canvey Island to St Mary’s Bay. Gaps were kept open during the day, guarded by the Navy, but they were closed at night. Merchant ships began sailing in convoys, which assembled at the Naval Control Service station at Southend Pier. Shipmasters received their orders in the pier’s dance hall.

Scattered German air raids started to take place along the east coast. For London, the phony war ended in late August 1940 with a raid on north and east London followed by another on the City the next day. In the following year air-raid sirens were a familiar sound to Londoners and gave warning to take shelter. A bomb partially destroyed a boatyard at Tilbury on 1 September. The Estuary fuel depot of Thameshaven was targeted by German bomber planes on 5 September, creating a conflagration that burnt for several days and could be seen far out to sea. Then, at around 5pm on the sunny Saturday afternoon of 7 September 1940, 348 bombers, supported by 617 fighter planes, flew in perfect formation along the Thames, with the Port as the main target. Warehouses, docks, factories and homes between Woolwich and Tower Bridge were immediately destroyed by high explosives or set alight by incendiary bombs. Most areas of the Port suffered, as well as Woolwich Arsenal and Beckton Gasworks. Timber at the Surrey Commercial Docks began to burn, as it did at the West India and Royal Victoria Docks. A bomb hit the entrance lock of the King George V Dock as a ship was passing through. Fires burnt at the great flour mills at the Royal Victoria Docks. Several ships took hits in the West India and Royal Victoria Docks. Firefighters were so occupied with major blazes that smaller ones had to be left to burn themselves out. Damage throughout the Port was so great that some buildings were subsequently demolished and left as open ground for decades. Huge clouds blackened the sky as warehouses full of inflammable goods and nearby houses were set alight. Sixty craft were sunk or destroyed and blazing barges set adrift floated down the river.

Incendiaries were perhaps a bigger threat to the Port than high explosive bombs. Fires were still burning from the afternoon raid when, shortly after sunset, the next wave of bombers arrived, with enemy aircraft guided by the light of the flames. The Surrey Commercial Docks, still lit by burning timber from the earlier raids, suffered most severely during the first weekend. Fortytwo major fires took place, spread over 250 acres, along three miles of the south bank of the river. They were tackled by firefighters from as far as Bristol and Rugby. Containers of fuel oil, dropped from aircraft, as well as delayedaction bombs and years of accumulated woodchips, ensured the continuation of the conflagration for several days. Daylight revealed a landscape of gutted warehouses, sunken ships and human bodies. Rum barrels exploded in the Royal Docks; and paint, pepper and flour burned in various docks and wharves. Burning rubber was particularly difficult to tackle. The heat was so intense that paint blistered and peeled on vessels moored some distance away. The Woolwich ferry worked all night to evacuate residents of Silvertown and their belongings. In the first night alone 430 civilians died in London including a number of dock workers. In the first 12 hours 120 major incidents were reported in the Port, with over 60 craft sunk or destroyed.

Bombs inevitably failed to hit their intended targets and hit others. For example, on that first afternoon many of the residences in Stebondale Street in Cubitt Town, at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs, were destroyed. Yet the bombers failed to put out of action the anti-aircraft battery at nearby Mudchute and almost all the nearby wharves were left untouched. The residential area north of Mudchute, between Manchester Road and the Millwall Inner Dock, was devastated during the course of the war, whereas the adjacent Millwall Docks were left relatively unscathed.

One hundred and seventy one bombers returned for nine and a half hours the following night, leaving 400 dead and more destruction. The basins of the St Katharine Docks became a cauldron of flames when a fire in E Warehouse spread to others filled with flammable goods. Burning coconut oil and paraffin wax spread out across the water, blazing for several days and laying waste to some of the warehouses. The Rum Quay at Millwall docks burned out, destroying one and a quarter million gallons of the spirit. The dockmaster and his assistants worked continuously for forty-eight hours to move imperilled barges as blazing rum flowed across the water, puncheons exploded and fiery rivers of glutinous sugar crept from burning warehouses. The PLA headquarters on Tower Hill took a direct hit that night, completely destroying the central rotunda and causing extensive damage to other parts of the building. Incredibly there were no major injuries and staff within the building continued their work. The bombers returned again and again, every night for seventy-six nights, except on one when there was bad weather, until mid-May 1941 when a final 500-bomber onslaught was unleashed on the capital.

In the first few days, Anti-Aircraft Command were ill prepared. Guns had mainly been located at downriver sites. Within a week warning systems, communications, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns were relocated to suitable places, as well as mobile guns mounted onto lorries. Those measures ensured that bombers had to fly at greater altitudes with subsequent lack of accuracy. Barrage balloons could be raised to a height of almost a mile and their steel mounting cables acted as a deterrent to enemy pilots. On Sunday, 15 September alone, fifty-six Luftwaffe bombers were brought down by RAF fighters. As well as high explosive bombs, incendiaries and oil bombs, the enemy also dropped time bombs that unexpectedly exploded later, plus parachute bombs that detonated above roof level and thus caused a wider area of destruction.

As damage occurred to roads and bridges, some riverside communities around the docks became cut off from neighbouring districts. After the first week the Isle of Dogs was looking quite derelict and many residents had moved away. By mid-September the dock bridges had been withdrawn for protection and the foot tunnel to Greenwich closed due to bomb damage, making it very difficult to leave the Island. Residents of Wapping were evacuated on a flotilla of boats and a similar evacuation took place at the LCC Hospital at Rotherhithe. Some brave souls remained even after being bombed out of their homes several times. Despite the destruction around them, and in some cases the loss of their homes, workers continued to keep the Port operating.

There were many tragic stories. One took place at Bullivant’s Wharf rope and wire factory at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs in March 1941. With specially reinforced concrete floors to support heavy machinery, it appeared to be particularly safe and was thus used as a public night-shelter during bombing raids. Sadly, when the building was hit, the heavy floors collapsed, killing around 40 and injuring a further 40 people sheltering below.

The coming and going of vessels still had to continue according to the tides, despite the bombing raids. A blackout was imposed at night so navigation and dockside work was required to be undertaken in darkness. Many regular tasks, such as pulling a tail of laden barges under Thames bridges or passing a ship through a lock, became extremely difficult and dangerous when undertaken in complete darkness. Despite the great damage being inflicted, a diminished staff and the need to continue its normal operations, PLA staff also took on the civil defence of the docks and river. That included the provision of firstaid stations, firefighting, salvage and wreck-raising. Along the length of the tidal river volunteers kept watch each night, reporting anything falling into the water to the Flag Officer In Charge at the PLA headquarters, from where mine-sweeping and clearance activities were coordinated. Ordinary dock workers extinguished incendiary bombs, which often fell in awkward places such as on roofs, in order to protect the contents of warehouses. Fires that took hold in private wharves, often in cramped conditions and with limited staff, were particularly difficult to extinguish. Tugs and lighters continued their journeys during raids, their crews often kicking incendiary bombs overboard. Most Thames tugs, operating as the River Tug Fire Patrol, were equipped with powerful pumps that could be used for firefighting. Between 1940 and 1950 the PLA had to deal with eight shipwrecks caused by the conflict and raise 35 ships and 600 small craft from the river. Staff kept the port operational despite the difficult and dangerous conditions, although trade had been reduced to a quarter of its pre-war levels.

From early 1941 the enemy began dropping parachute magnetic bombs as far upstream as Hammersmith. These could lie dormant on the bed of the river or dock until triggered by a passing vessel. A dramatic example occurred in April 1941 when the oil tanker Lunula, having arrived at Thameshaven from Halifax in Canada, detonated a mine dropped the previous night. The resulting fire blazed for ninety-seven hours.

As the war progressed the authorities became more prepared, with air-raid early-warning and anti-aircraft guns in place and better defence provided by the Royal Air Force. Despite the constant destruction, the Port somehow managed to continue operating, although at a reduced level. The river had to be closed on some occasions to sweep for mines. With diminishing returns, and other fronts on which to fight, the Germans had largely given up their efforts to destroy the Port by the middle of 1941. From the second half of April the Luftwaffe instead concentrated on other British ports such as Belfast, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Merseyside, Tyneside and Glasgow. Despite the respite from bombing, the Port remained under a state of siege as the enemy continued dropping mines and maintaining U-Boat operations in the approaches. In June 1941 Winston Churchill reported in a secret session of the House of Commons: ‘The Port of London has now been reduced to one-quarter … and the English Channel, like the North Sea, is under close air attack of the enemy.’

Patterns within the Port dramatically changed. Some ships familiar in London were requisitioned by the Navy. Others that worked particular trades became general carriers and berthed in different docks than previously. Unfamiliar ships arrived in London. Most long-distance trade was diverted to less vulnerable ports such as the Clyde, to where some London port staff, sea-pilots, equipment such as cranes, locomotives, tugs, lighters and a floating crane, had been transferred. From there London’s imported food supplies arrived by rail or coaster into storage facilities at the Royal and West India Docks. Reserve buffer depots were organized in safe places around the country. An exception was flour, which had to be kept within easy reach but in safe places. The solution was to store it on barges that were dispersed along the river between Teddington and the Pool. Most cargo was carried by smaller coasters, which were less vulnerable to attack than larger vessels. During the course of the war a million tons of rubble from demolished homes and factories was sent around the coast, much of it on sailing barges, to be used as hardcore for the construction of airfields on the east coast. There was an acute shortage of young workers as they were diverted to other ports or into the services. Those who remained were nearly all over fifty years of age.

It remained necessary for colliers to continue supplying London’s Thamesside power and bunkering stations with coal. During the course of the conflict there were many losses as they travelled back and forth around the coast. They were constantly threatened by submarines, E-boats and mines. Although immune from magnetic mines, wooden-hulled Thames sailing barges, which were unable to travel in convoy, were a sitting duck for enemy aircraft and only a small number survived the conflict.

At the outset, twenty Thames ship-repair yards came under Naval control in order that priorities could be set. For several years London once again became Britain’s main ship-repair port, handling over 23,000 vessels. Yards installed armaments, adapted craft for wartime duties and repaired damaged vessels. Work continued uninterrupted throughout the war, despite a number of direct hits on the yards.

W.S. Morrison, Minister of Food, pointed out that the transportation of food by ship was putting the lives of seamen at unnecessary risk. Lessons had been learnt from the Great War and the navy organized escorted convoys from the start of the conflict. Nevertheless, there was a great loss of shipping and lives from enemy action, particularly from German and Italian submarines. Over 2,700 British merchant navy ships, or the equivalent of over fifty per cent of British merchant navy tonnage at the start of the war, was sunk during the course of the conflict, with the loss of over 30,000 lives. Many of the total of over 1,350 Royal Navy ships that were sunk were on escort duty.

With food being rationed, and in some cases homes obliterated Lord Woolton, who took over as Minister for Food in April 1940 commented: ‘With my right honourable friend Mr Bevin, I entered some months ago into a joint campaign to increase the provision of works canteens. We took very seriously the old idea that you should feed your troops well.’ Most dockers ate and drank in pubs close to where they worked but establishments had been damaged, or simply shut up shop during the Blitz. The government passed the Docks (Provision of Canteens) Act that compelled the PLA, along with other ports, to provide canteens for all the workers. The first works canteens were vans, donated by well-wishers from British colonies and operated by the Women’s Legion, but they were later supplemented with twenty-seven permanent premises. ‘With regard to dockside canteens,’ said the Minister, ‘I take a very special interest in this problem, because I was well acquainted with the docks in Liverpool … We have now erected a large number of new canteens … They are capable of feeding people by day and by night. I have seen the canteens, and I have been among the dock labourers, and men whom I know have told me of the very great advantage that they are getting as a result of the excellent meals which are being served to them at what are really very low prices.’ The provision of canteens continued after the war and at the end of the decade were providing 6,000 meals each day in the Port.

By 1942, after the end of the first wave of bombing, there was a different rhythm in the Port and some shipping returned. American-built ‘Liberty’ ships – low-cost, mass-produced cargo vessels – were arriving. The British war emphasis moved from defence to attack. Up and down the river, craft were being built or modified at existing yards and other suitable sites ready for a future offensive or for mine-sweeping duties. Many were constructed of wood due to the dangers of magnetic mines.

In retaliation for Allied air raids on Germany, in January 1943 Luftwaffe bombers returned to the London skies in what was named the ‘Baby Blitz’. By then British defences were far more effective than in earlier years and considerably less damage occurred. One casualty however was the Tilbury Hotel that was burnt to the ground by incendiary bombs. It had stood on the riverside since 1882 and had been until then a landmark for passengers and crews passing along the river.

As the bombs rained down on their homes during the Second World War, casual workers, who were not obligated to work set hours or days, were able to take time off to clear damaged properties. This absenteeism occasionally left the Port undermanned and distribution of food and military supplies disrupted at a crucial time for the nation. As wartime Minister of Labour, it was Ernest Bevin’s responsibility to solve this problem. The National Dock Labour Corporation was created as a statutory body in March 1942 to oversee the availability of workers in British ports and ensure there was the correct amount of manpower available wherever and whenever it was required. Workers were incentivized to arrive each morning for the call-on, with an ‘attendance pay’ for those who came, even if work was not available, and provided with paid holidays. Rather than the previous chaotic situation of men crowding outside London’s dock gates, new meeting halls were erected where they assembled until assigned their tasks. In November 1944 the stevedores at Surrey Commercial Docks walked out in protest at the necessity to meet in their hall. As the backlog of unloaded ships grew, the dock management were forced to acquiesce and allow the men to continue gathering at the dock gates for the selection. The same occurred when meeting halls were erected at the Royal Docks in early 1945, with a mass walkout organized by the stevedores and the Transport & General Workers Union. When the government this time refused to give way, the strike spread to Tilbury and only ended after a week when the government promised an enquiry.

During the spring of 1944 large quantities of supplies were being stockpiled in the Port in readiness for ‘Operation Overlord’, the military return to the Continent. Troop and supply ships moored in the Tilbury, Royal and West India Docks. The American 14th Army Transportation Corps based themselves at the Royal Albert Dock. From the Royal Victoria Dock, General Montgomery addressed an audience of over 16,000 London dock workers throughout the Port, relayed by telephone wires and speakers, telling them that their efforts in the following months would help determine the outcome of the war. To ensure that everything ran smoothly there was a general overhaul of lock gates, cranes and other equipment, and new bridges were constructed. Temporary huts and facilities were put in place to accommodate the large number of awaiting military personnel. All this activity took place while the Port continued with its normal business.

Marshalling of vessels for the D-Day Landings took place in London on 27 May 1944 and the following day at Tilbury Docks. The next week the armada gathered in the Thames Estuary off Southend and departed on 6 June. Three hundred and seven ships sailed from the Port, carrying 50,000 soldiers, 9,000 vehicles and 80,000 tons of supplies. London’s pilots worked around the clock, often in darkness, and commercial work at Tilbury ceased for a period in order to accommodate the British Liberation Army.

The forces that arrived on those beaches were immediately followed from Tilbury by six 30-foot-diameter, 250-ton floating ‘ HMS Conundrum’ bobbins. Around each drum was wound seventy miles of ‘Pluto’ pipeline that was unrolled to lie on the bed of the English Channel, supplying the advancing troops with fuel pumped from England. The system had originally been devised and tested two years earlier, with pipes from a Thames-based submarine cable manufacturer. Over eight miles of concrete caissons, weighing up to 6,000 tons, were then floated across the Channel and sunk on the Continental coast to form prefabricated ‘Mulberry’ harbours. Two-thirds of these caissons had been constructed in the Port of London during the winter of 1943–44 from the rubble of destroyed buildings. Some were made in dry docks. To create other manufacturing sites, the East India Import Dock and parts of the Surrey Commercial Docks had been drained and later refilled in order to float the completed caissons.

After the initial landings, London continued to operate as the principle supply base for the British Army of Liberation as it moved across the Continent. Special arrangements were put in place for the rapid turnaround of supply ships. During the year between D-Day and the end of the war in Europe 2,760,000 tons of military stores, including over 200,000 tanks and vehicles, left the Port.

D-Day was not the end of the war for London and its Port however. Just a few weeks later, in June 1944, the enemy began launching ‘Vergeltungswaffen’ or ‘retaliatory weapons’, unmanned flying rockets. Fired at London from occupied Europe they simply fell when their fuel supply was exhausted, hitting random targets. They had a very distinctive sound when in the air and became known as ‘doodlebugs’. On 30 June 1944 the Millwall Docks river entrance lock took hits from two rockets, having already been damaged by high explosive bombs early in the Blitz. After the war it was decided that repair could not be justified due to the high cost and the lock was permanently dammed with concrete in 1955. The only entrance thereafter was via the West India Docks.

Despite flying at about 400 miles per hour the rockets eventually became vulnerable to air defences. In September 1944 Germany began launching a more effective ballistic missile known as the Vergeltungswaffe 2. Carrying a one-ton warhead, V-2s were fired high into the earth’s atmosphere before turning and descending on their targets at 2,000 miles per hour, a speed that was too fast to be hit by a human-operated anti-aircraft gun. Poplar and West Ham, around the docks, were particularly badly hit. The only serious harm to the Port itself was at the important Exchange railway sidings of the Royal Victoria Dock and on the bascule bridge over the entrance to the King George V Dock, the latter temporarily closing the dock entrance. The last V2 to land in London fell in Stepney, killing 131 people in March 1945.

During the course of the war London had come under bombardment for almost 2,400 hours. Approximately 1,500 high-explosive bombs, 800 Vergeltungswaffen rockets and 350 parachute mines had fallen on the Port’s riverside boroughs, as well as countless thousands of incendiary bombs. The many casualties among port workers and seamen included sixteen London ships’ pilots who lost their lives.

Dreadnought Survival and Renaissance

The Renown class comprised a pair of battlecruisers built during the First World War for the Royal Navy, the Renown and Repulse.

The pace of Dreadnought construction among the naval powers continued for much of the First World War. Some were abandoned when it was decided to divert the materials and labour to other armament manufacture. Others were abandoned when the end of the war appeared to be imminent; still more were scrapped, some at an advance stage of construction, under the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1921. The interim period in the life of the Dreadnought, covering the years before and after this treaty, are covered in this chapter. The aborted ships arouse a special feeling of melancholy nostalgia. They were begun with such high hopes, were worked on for years with the skill and brains of many men, and were even sometimes launched amid the celebration and relief of that ceremony. All for nothing. On one day the riveters were at work in the great empty shell; the next their work was being heartlessly destroyed. But some of these interim Dreadnoughts were completed, and they were remarkable vessels. A few words must also be added about the “Dreadnoughts that never were” because they form an important part of the history of the ship, and strongly influenced future design.

Britain laid down no new battleships during the First World War. In 1914-1915 the 15-inch-gunned Queen Elizabeths and the “R’s” were augmenting the power of the Grand Fleet, and giving it the overwhelming superiority it enjoyed for the rest of the war. Besides, Britain was busily converting itself into a major military power. But there still remained a shortage of battle cruisers, and in the early months of the war they were evidently proving their worth. Nobody believed this more passionately than Fisher, now back in the Admiralty. The victory at the Falkland Islands, and Fisher’s enduring preoccupation with an invasion of the German coast, caused the laying down of five battle cruisers between January and June, 1915. One pair of these were to have been further “R”-type battleships, but their design was changed at the last minute. The other three were referred to by Fisher as “large light cruisers” in order to get them through the Treasury, and they had strange and colourful histories.

Fisher’s orders to the D.N.C. for the Repulse and Renown required the highest speed of any Dreadnought afloat and an armament of 15-inch guns. He was not very interested in how much armour they carried. What the Grand Fleet received as reinforcements twenty months later were two of the loveliest and certainly the fastest ships afloat. But after Jutland the Grand Fleet was less interested in speed, and much more interested in protection — which in the Repulse and Renown was less than that of the late Queen Mary. They were given rude names like White Elephants, and sent back for more protection, especially over their magazines. Both ships could do 32 knots in their early days, but the numerous reconstructions that punctuated their careers in war and peace (they were also nicknamed Refit and Repair) later reduced this by several knots. They were to have had eight 15-inch guns, but Fisher was in such a hurry that the last two pairs were not ready in time, so they went through life with a main armament of six 15-inch — another “first” for this class. Fisher also insisted on going back to small-caliber secondary armament. They were unique triple-mounted 4-inch. Another Fisher legacy, which lasted all their lives, was their high-speed manoeuvrability, which helped the Repulse in 1941 to evade attack after attack by Japanese torpedo planes, before she became the first capital ship to succumb to air power at sea.

But if the Renown and Repulse were unusual vessels and a breakaway from the line of the Dreadnought’s development, their younger cousins Furious, Glorious, and Courageous can only be described as bizarre — or as the “outrageous” class, as they were popularly named. They were later officially classified as battle cruisers, but in fact Fisher’s camouflage description was more appropriate. Courageous and Glorious each mounted a pair of 15-inch guns fore and aft, a secondary armament of eighteen 4-inch, again in triples, and were as fast, and as long, as the Renown and Repulse. Their reduction in displacement by some 8,000 tons was caused by their fewer heavy guns, and their almost total absence of armour plate. This was shallow and of only two or three inches on the belt, an inch or so on the decks, with serious consideration given only to the turrets and barbettes. The same general pattern was followed with the Furious, and provision was made for the same main armament. But instead a new weapon of unprecedented caliber was fitted, one fore and one aft, each capable of firing a shell weighing 3,600 pounds. This size of gun and weight of shell were not equalled until the Japanese Yamato and Musashi went to sea a quarter-century later. Immediately after the Furious was completed, and before she was commissioned, the forward 18-inch was removed and a short flight deck substituted — for seaplanes. “A trolley-and-rail method of launching was employed, the seaplane resting on a trolley which ran down a slotted rail fixed to the deck. On reaching the end of the deck, the trolley was arrested by two arms fitted with shock absorbers.” Later the other gun was removed and both were mounted on monitors for shelling Belgium and then shipped out to Singapore for shelling the Japanese. During her long life she was, then, called a large light cruiser, a battle cruiser, and an aircraft carrier; and in this last guise she sported in turn a flight deck forward, a flight deck fore and aft, a clear single flight deck when her funnels, bridgework, and mast were removed, and finally, for her Second World War service (which she survived), she was given a vestigial mast and bridge. Courageous and Glorious were also converted to carriers in the 1920’s, with the elimination of all their heavy guns and the retention of an offset mast and funnel.

As they were first built, these five curious ships were the epitome of the Fisher battle cruiser. It seemed only just, therefore, that four of them (the Furious was absent) were engaged in the last big-gun action with units of the High Seas Fleet on November 17, 1917. It was only a high-speed pursuit between minefields, and nothing much happened. The Glorious had one further distinction: she was the only battle cruiser which German battle cruisers tried to sink in the First World War and succeeded in sinking in the Second (Hindenburg and Moltke; then Scharnhorst and Gneisenau).

In 1915 three 15-inch-gunned battle cruisers were being built in Germany. The British Board of Admiralty therefore decided to offset the threat of these ships with something more formidable than Fisher’s “large light cruisers.” Four huge super-battle cruisers were therefore designed, and the first, the Hood, was laid down a few hours before Jutland was fought. The building of her sisters Howe, Anson, and Rodney was halted later when Germany gave up building Dreadnoughts altogether in favour of U-boats. The Hood, like the Vanguard of a later generation, was completed for war, but not in time for it. For some twenty years she was the largest, most beautiful, and most esteemed Dreadnought in the world. Few carried a heavier broadside, none were faster, none more graceful nor more formidable in appearance. Everywhere she was the cynosure of the maritime world. When she was sunk by a few shells from a German battleship, it seemed to many Britons that they had been deprived of a part of their naval heritage. As first designed she was to have had a main hull belt 33 percent thicker than that of the first battle cruisers; as she was completed, with the lessons of Jutland seemingly learned, it had grown to 12 inches, and was 9½ feet deep. Other protection was also on a scale with that of the Queen Elizabeths, with special emphasis on the protection of the magazines. This was inadequate to meet the rigors of 1939 artillery, bomb, torpedo, and mine. But there had been no time to give her the planned modernization before its urgent need was catastrophically proved by the Bismarck’s more modern 15-inch guns.

In the midst of a huge scrapping program in 1921, Britain became aware that her naval situation was being threatened by two of her friends, America and Japan, the reason being that these uneasy late Allies were themselves disputing maritime supremacy in the Pacific. Within a few years their vast programs of super-super-Dreadnoughts must wrest from Britain the crown she had worn since Trafalgar. In the face of extraordinary cost, which she could not afford, opposition from militarists, who believed the day of the capital ship was finished, and political pressure from the Treasury, and also the common people (for after all the war to end wars had only just ended), authorization was given for the construction of four battle cruisers. On October 21, 1921, amid great controversy, the keel plates of the four most powerful fighting ships in British history were laid. They were intended to carry the names Invincible, Indomitable, Inflexible, and Indefatigable, were to be of 48,000 tons, and to carry an armament of nine tripled 16-inch guns, all forward of the funnels, and sixteen 6-inch as secondary armament in twin turrets. The protection was to be on the scale, and on the “all-or-nothing” principle, established by the American Oklahoma; speed about 32 knots. They were, in fact, to have been the 1921 equivalents of the 1911 Queen Elizabeths: fast, well-protected, immensely strong, the perfect fast battleship rather than battle cruiser. Three and a half weeks later all work on them ceased, as a result of the Washington decisions. But by arguing at this conference that much of British capital-ship tonnage was out of date, and would have to be scrapped long before the “Battleship Holiday” prescribed by the conference had ended, the British delegate gained permission to build two battleships that would offset the advantage America and Japan had gained with their 16-inch-gunned Marylands and Mutsus. These ships, Nelson and Rodney, were scaled-down versions of the aborted new Invincibles, and were under construction a year after the battle cruisers were scrapped. In order to get down to the displacement limit of 35,000 tons, sacrifices had to be made, and these were mainly in the engine room, the horsepower being dropped from 160,000 to 45,000, the speed from 32 knots to 23 knots. There were small reductions in secondary armament, but the main armament remained the same, and unique in British practice in being disposed all forward, to economize in armour plate over the magazines, the centre of the three triple turrets being raised. Theoretically this disposition should have allowed the guns to be fired well abaft the beam, but in practice it was not possible, owing to blast damage to the bridgework and control towers. The most popular defence put forward for this arrangement, in the best Beatty tradition (he was First Sea Lord now), was that British ships did not run away and were therefore not interested in firing backward. Nevertheless, the restriction was a great handicap, and these two ships came in for much criticism because of their low speed and poor handling.

The last of the Oklahoma school in America were the three Marylands, mounting 16-inch guns and with an immensely high resistance level with their 16-inch main belt on the waterline. The completion of these fine ships spanned the Washington Conference, and the fourth of the class, Washington, although more than 80 percent complete, was used for target practice. These vessels, and their predecessors the Tennessee and California, were the first fruits of an unprecedented program of heavy-ship building in which the United States indulged, through uneasy peace, war and uneasy peace again, for some five years. Japanese naval rearmament, and the battleship race that inevitably followed, closely matched the German pattern. Fifteen years after the German Naval Act in 1900, Japan announced to the world a program of Dreadnought construction that could only presage some future attempt to undermine American influence and interests in Asia, from the Aleutians to the subcontinent of India. America replied with the California, Tennessee, and Maryland, laid down in 1916 and 1917, planned three more Marylands, six Indiana-class battleships, and six Constellation-class battle cruisers. Future construction of 18-inch-gunned battleships and battle cruisers was also in an advanced planning stage before the lunacy was ended.

The success of the British battle-cruiser engagements at Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank, and the Falklands, the German hit-and-run raids against the English coast, and the general activity of this class compared with the inactivity of the battleships, led to a reappraisal of the battle cruiser in America, where it had previously been a despised vessel. In February, 1916, the president of the Naval War College, in the course of testimony before the Senate Naval Committee, gave his opinion that the United States should build no more battleships until two divisions of eight battle cruisers had been added to the fleet. Until the first was laid down five years later, the nature of these ships was debated more hotly and more openly than that of any other class of Dreadnought. The first plans called for ten 14-inch guns in two triple and two superimposed twin turrets, a displacement of 34,800 tons, a speed of 35 knots — and seven funnels. After Jutland, the vulnerability of these ships was criticized, especially as half the boilers were to have been disposed above the main belt. Many other people did not want to have anything to do with them: the battleship was the only capital ship worth having — none had been sunk at Jutland. “I believe the battle cruiser is a mongrel,” wrote a correspondent to the Scientific American five months after that battle. “There are only two real types, the fast scout and the floating fortress. The battle cruiser tries to combine both qualities, and as a result is neither … Pile on that armour,” he pleaded, “fourteen or fifteen inches thick.”

The ships remained in abeyance until after the war and until attention could be again concentrated on the dangers in the East. Then in 1919 new designs were drafted. The merits of the biggest gun and the heaviest armour were taken into account; and, as always, the answer was found in greater displacement. The chiefs of the bureaus of Construction, Steam Engineering, and Ordnance, after an exploratory tour round the European yards and fleets, decided that something closer to a fast battleship of the Derfflinger type would best suit America’s needs. The 1920 design for the Constellations reflected this. The protection and internal strength were increased; the boilers above the belt were placed behind armour, and speed was lowered to about 30 knots with 180,000 h.p.; displacement was increased to 43,500 tons, and the armament increased to eight 16-inch in pairs, supported by sixteen 6-inch. The keel of the first was laid on January 29, 1921.

Four months earlier, as proof of continued American confidence in the battleship, and continuing anxiety about Japanese plans, the United States Navy had under construction no less than nine battleships mounting 16-inch guns, and one new one in commission. Of these, three were of the 32,500-ton Maryland class, and six more were “ultimate Dreadnoughts” of the same displacement as the Constellations, with speed reduced to 23 knots, increased protection, and twelve 16-inch guns in triple mountings, as in the California. These had been authorized in 1917 and 1918, as the Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, Iowa, and South Dakota.

All that should now be added is that, of these twelve monster battleships and battle cruisers, only two were commissioned by the United States Navy — as the 33,000-ton aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga. Finally, a historical note for extremist addicts: the largest Dreadnought ever seriously contemplated for any nation was a mythical vessel proposed as a result of an inquiry included in the 1916 Naval Appropriations Act. The only limitation was that it should be able to pass through the Panama Canal. It was to have been of 80,000 tons, with an overall length of 975 feet, a speed of 35 knots, and a main protective belt of 16 inches. Fifteen 18-inch guns were to have been mounted in five triple turrets. 

The navy that came nearest to building the ultimate Dreadnought of these dimensions and power was the Japanese. Japanese naval architects had already produced some of the most radical, powerful, and effective Dreadnoughts, which denied in appearance and a multitude of radical features the old saw that the Japanese were a race of imitators. Not all their ships — and especially their heavy cruisers — were unqualified successes. And their piled superstructures may have had a frightening effect on the enemy, but they must also have terrified those who endured battle in them.

Japanese naval construction really got into its stride when the Russian war debts had been worked off, and the European naval powers were too busy to take much notice of what was happening. Besides a number of very fast destroyers and light cruisers, a Dreadnought program of vast dimensions was put in hand in 1915-1916. From the meagre information that was given to the world, it could be calculated that within little more than a decade Japanese naval power would dominate the Pacific. But the wording of the famous Navy Laws was so obscure and circumlocutory that it was difficult to tell for a certainty what would be the result. Its basis rested on “the 8-8 standard”; or an establishment of at least eight battleships and the same number of battle cruisers all less than eight years old. As Japan already had ten Dreadnoughts in commission or under construction in 1915, and the sixteen new ships of the 8-8 standard would be by no means obsolete when they were replaced in the first line, then it could be argued that Japan would have the most powerful fleet in the world by 1928 unless something was done about it. One consolation was that the Japanese were unlikely to have either the money or the shipbuilding facilities to manage such a gigantic program; on the other hand, when American intelligence from time to time picked up crumbs of information on new construction, the details were frightening.

The United States Department of the Navy thought it was at least one step ahead of its rival with its 16-inch gun when it was testing it at Indian Head in 1917. But Japanese development of a gun of the same caliber was in step, and the Mutsu and Nagato, with their two-knot superiority over the four Marylands, gave away little to the American ships in protection. What was more, the Nagato had joined the fleet by the end of 1920, and within a few months the Intelligence Department of the United States Navy had discovered the specifications of two improved and enlarged Nagatos (Kaga and Tosa, 39,900 tons, ten 16-inch) already under construction; four giant battle cruisers (Amagi, Akagi, Atago, and Takao, 43,500 tons, eight 16-inch), two of which had already been begun; and finally even larger super-battle-cruisers of 47,500 tons mounting eight 18-inch and sixteen 5.5-inch guns with a speed of 30 knots, which would be ready by 1927.

This news galvanized the State Department into activity and caused the convening of the Washington Conference, one of the shrewdest acts of modern American diplomacy. Under its terms, worked out amid heated controversy, there would be no more Dreadnought construction for ten years, ships would not be replaced until they were twenty years old, and when they were would be limited in displacement to 35,000 tons. Battle fleets were to be limited to the following tonnage: Britain, 580,450; the United States, 500,650; Japan, 301,320; France, 221,170; Italy, 182,000. All Dreadnoughts launched or on the stocks were to be scrapped, with the exception of three of the American Marylands and the Japanese Mutsu, to compensate for which Britain was allowed to build the Nelson and the Rodney. No one was much pleased by the result except America. The Japanese thought they were being frustrated, the British demoted, the Italians and French insulted. But they signed.

The Tosa was in fact launched and used as a target ship, the results being of great value when they tired of the “holiday” and began designing the Yamato and Musashi. Kaga and Akagi were both finished as large aircraft carriers. 

Most of the other naval powers had given up their uncompleted wartime Dreadnoughts long before this. The French Normandie class of five ships to mount twelve 13.4-inch guns in three quadruple mounts, with a speed of 25 knots, remained on the stocks for some eight years. Their guns were purloined by the army; some were bored out to 15.75 inches; others were reputedly captured by the Germans and used against the French. Only the last ship, the Béarn, ever took to the water, and she was finished as an aircraft carrier. The Italians began building in 1914 a foursome of super-Dreadnoughts based very closely on the Queen Elizabeths, but the need for these never arose, as the guns of the Austro-Hungarian battle fleet were as muted as the German.

After finishing repairs to the High Seas Fleet by the end of October, 1916, big-ship construction almost ceased in Germany. The Baden’s 15-inch-gunned sister ships Sachsen and Württemberg were never completed; nor were any of the seven battle cruisers. As improved Derfflingers, these would certainly have been formidable foes indeed. The first class of four, Mackensen, Graf Spee, Prinz Eiten Friedrich, and Fürst Bismarck were laid down in 1913, and would have closely resembled the Derfflingers, but with 14-inch guns. The main armament was increased again to eight 15-inch, arranged as in the Badens of which they were battle-cruiser equivalents, in the Ersatz-Yorck, Ersatz-Gneisenau and Ersatz-Scharnhorst, laid down in 1915. Few were launched; and after 1916 no new German Dreadnought was to take to the water until 1931.

This interim period in the Dreadnought’s life conveniently comes to an end with the 1920’s. The decade had begun in a frenzy of competition, when rumour and counter-rumour of greater and greater gargantuan designs had flooded the world’s admiralties and navy departments, along with argument and counter-argument about the battleship being doomed by the torpedo and high-explosive bomb. The torpedo plane was recognized as a serious weapon; General Billy Mitchell, General Giulio Douhet, General Hermann Goring, and Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard advocated the giant bomber as the supreme arbiter and supreme deterrent of the future. The Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet both died, and the Pacific replaced European waters as the area of the future struggle for maritime supremacy. But with the Washington Treaty safely signed, and with the rapid growth of technology and new and more sophisticated weapons, few people thought that there would ever again be battle fleet competition. But the last battleship race had not been run. The Dreadnought — still following the same Fisher-Cuniberti basic formula — was by no means dead. Twenty years after they had been broken up on the slips or sent to the scrapyards, ships as mighty in size and power as the stillborn Takao, Constellation, and Invincible were to join the world’s fleets and take part in the greatest maritime struggle of all time.

King Arthur

The Black Knight attacking King Pellinore. Illustration for Stories of King Arthur (Ward Lock, c 1910).

King Arthur is one of the most famous names in history, and his name still evokes visions of fantasy, chivalry, bravery, and more even today. Arthur remains a pop culture fixture around the globe, made famous in various Arthurian tales written by writers like Chretien de Troyes. Arthur came to embody the ideals of the Middle Ages: strength, chivalry, bravery, and more. Along the way, his Excalibur sword, the Holy Grail, his queen, and more have all become household words.

Arthur has long been identified as a folk hero, and there are countless tales that comprise the Arthurian legend, but was there an actual person that the original stories were based on? People still search for the seeds of truth in the Knights of the Round Table, and the historical figure that inspired the Arthurian tales.

Of course, as with all great myths, and even those with a kernel of truth behind them, there is no “real” Arthur. Arthur is now comprised of the works written by diverse storytellers, most of which have built upon the ancient stories and possibly history. It is from there that a primordial seed of myth remains at the heart of all the retellings. At the same time, Arthur’s story is one of transformation, as he is brought from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and more modern times. And that story also includes the famous contemporaries in his stories and other important historical figures, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, the imprisoned Sir Thomas Mallory and Walt Disney.

When looking for the historical and mythical Arthur, scholars try to understand how the Arthur of these tales and of others like Disney’s Sword in the Stone and Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to be.  What are the origins of the Arthur legend and what can they tell people about the past?  What is the historical basis for King Arthur, if any?

On the high sea cliffs of Cornwall’s North Coast there is a place steeped in legend, weathered by centuries, and, as is so often the case in such places, encrusted in tourist nick-knacks: the ruins of Tintagel Castle, the legendary place of the conception of King Arthur.  Visitors arrives in the village of Tintagel – until recently named Trevana – and perhaps parks in the Middle Ages Parking Lot and walks by the Merlin’s Slot Machines and numerous shops with wizard-shaped candles and glass dragons.  This is the Arthuriana of today. It is both amusing and tacky, but Tintagel Castle and the legends born there have far deeper layers beyond the plastic swords and Disney knock-offs.

Entering the historic site brings people to the next level of Arthur’s story.  Looking at the interpretative signs, visitors quickly realize they are hardly the first to look back on Arthur and his knights. This castle was rebuilt once before, during the Tudor Age of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, in a far grander style than its original form.  It is predominantly these 15th century walls that tumble dramatically down the cliffs and sit amongst tough heather plants, back by the dramatic slate-gray sea.  This grandiose construction served one purpose: to demonstrate that the Tudor Kings positioned themselves as the foretold return of Arthur, who they imagined to be the paragon of their elaborate code of chivalry and the first great king of their lands.

At the same time, there is a deeper history to Arthur and a more ancient Tintagel yet. This Arthur was a mighty warrior, maybe a mythical being who perhaps led the Celtic people of Britain’s Dark Age in a glorious and ultimately unsuccessful defense of the island from Germanic invaders.  That castle remains here too. A simple post-Roman fort guarding a harbor leading to rich sea routes, its crumbled walls served as the foundations for the Tudors’ construction.

There are two ways of exploring the origins of Arthur.  The first is to scour the historical and archaeological record for potential candidates who might have been the “real” Arthur. These historical figures emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire and might have served as the original template. Historians may then attempt to track how various peoples throughout history have built upon, elaborated or simplified the story.

Given all the time that has passed, a second method involves ignoring the question of whether there was a “real” Arthur and instead treats the entire Matter of Britain as a mythological cycle. This is done simply by analyzing the literature itself. What does the Arthurian Cycle tell people about humanity? How is it connected to other myths, and is there a connection to a shared human “mono-myth”?

Although they sound completely different, these two approaches are not actually mutually exclusive.  It is entirely possible and maybe even probable that there was a historical figure or figures who inspired the Arthurian legend. At the same time, Arthur´s durability across time is certainly due more to his mythological components, his relationship to ancient stories, and to the universal human story. By tracing both the historical and mythological origins of Arthur, it’s possible to see where they differ and where they converge, which forms a more comprehensive (and complex) body of stories that comprises King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

In 1991, historian Thomas Charles-Edwards wrote, “[A]t this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur…the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him.” Indeed, when searching for the historical figure who Arthur is based upon, a decent place to start is with the acknowledgment that such a person may never have actually existed. It was quite common for writers in the Middle Ages to conflate fictional and historical figures. For example, in Dante´s Inferno, historical and legendary figures mingle together frequently. In England, medieval chroniclers turned the twin Saxon horse gods of Hengest and Horsa into historic warlords who they claim led the Saxon invasion of Britain, and those figures also bear striking similarities to other mythological figures concocted by other European peoples.

That said, while it is possible that Arthur has no historic origins, it is also very possible that he does. Naturally, many scholars (of both the professional and armchair varieties) have speculated over who these figures might be, and there is still heavy debate on the topic.

The most prominent figure among these theories is Ambrosius Aurelianus, also known as Emrys Wledig in Welsh.  The chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Ambrosius was the second son of Emperor Constantine, and that as a child he was sent to live in Brittany to escape King Vortigern of Britain.  As a young man, Ambrosius returned to a Britain in chaos amidst the collapse of Vortigern’s control and the hordes of invading Saxons.  He battled Vortigern and is said to have won control over the western regions of Britain, including those that are still the most Celtic today.  Vortigern called increasingly upon Saxon allies as the two battled for control, and eventually Vortigern fled, leaving Ambrosius as “King of the Britons.”  After the death of Vortigern, Ambrosius pushed the Saxons back to the north of Britain, where they remained for the rest of his life.

Ambrosius’s role as a defender of the Britons was recorded by his contemporary, St. Gildas, in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). This is important, because Gildas does not mention Arthur. This fact can be interpreted in various ways. It can be taken as evidence for the Ambrosius connection, for the non-existence of a historical Arthur, or simply as an oversight, since he does not mention Vortigern either. Historians are almost certain that Vortigern existed.

Describing Ambrosius, St. Gildas wrote around 540 A.D., “That they might not be utterly destroyed, the remnants (of the British) take up arms, and challenge their victors to battle under Ambrosius Aurelianus. He was a man of unassuming character, who, alone of the Roman race, chanced to survive the storm in which his parents, people undoubtedly clad in the purple, had been killed. Their offspring in our days have greatly degenerated from their ancestral nobleness. From that time the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy…up to the year of the Siege of Mons Badonicus.”

Another important and well-respected historian of the Dark Ages was Bede the Venerable, who also mentions Ambrosius but not Arthur.  He wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731 and describes Ambrosius in this way: “They had at that time for their leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of worth, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survived the storm, in which his parents, who were of the royal race, had perished. Under him the Britons revived, and offering battle to the victors, by the help of God, gained the victory. From that day, sometimes the natives, and sometimes their enemies, prevailed, till the year of the siege of Badon-hill, when they made no small slaughter of those enemies, about forty-four years after their arrival in England.”

Based on these sources, Ambrosius is well-placed to serve as the origin of Arthur. He is a nobleman who disappears and returns to take up his appointed role as the defender of the Britons, and during his reign, the Saxons are held back.  The Britons rally behind him, and he is known for his moderation and wisdom.  Moreover, his name “Aurelianus”, while not exactly “Arthur”, is similar enough to the legendary king that it’s easier to imagine the evolution of his name into Arthur than it would be with a name like Vortigern.

With that said, there’s a major problem in this theory. The primary recorder of the life of Ambrosius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, also records the life of Arthur in great detail, and is quite clear in his writings that they are two different people.  Geoffrey of Monmouth specifically states that Ambrosius’s father and Arthur’s father (Uther Pendragon) were both sons of King Constantine, a descendant of the Roman overlords. He also wrote that Arthur was born after Ambrosius’s death.  Since Geoffrey is one of the most important chroniclers of Arthur’s life, at least of those that survived the Middle Ages, his writings must carry some weight.

Another potential candidate is Riothamus, a name (or possibly a title) meaning “Great King.” He is listed on the roll of Kings of Britain.  Riothamus appears to have been a real person, or at least the Roman diplomat who wrote to him in 460 A.D. thought he was.  Riothamus appears to have been king of the Celtic peoples of Brittany as well as Britain, and he was called across the Channel twice to lead military campaigns in Gaul.  Most notably, this is the same time that Geoffrey of Monmouth would later say “Arthur” was fighting in Gaul.  It is this overseas emphasis in Riothamus’s biography, combined with Geoffrey’s similar emphasis (lost in most later retellings), that supports the theory Riothamus is the historical Arthur. Riothamus has recently had a strong proponent in a scholar named Geoffrey Ashe, who championed that connection in his book The Discovery of King Arthur (1985), but his evidence has not silenced the debate on the issue.

An interesting alternative proposal was that the name “Arthur” did not signify a person but a title, and that it meant “The Bear King”. The word “art” means bear in many Celtic languages, including both Welsh and Cornish, and this theory is reinforced by two pieces of early evidence. The Y Gododdin, an 11th century Welsh poem, refers to a warrior who “glutted black ravens [i.e., killed many men] on the rampart of the stronghold, although he was no Arthur” (a reference which could, admittedly, mean a name as well). Then there is also the Artognou stone, found in Tintagel, which could translate to “Famous Bear.”

The written record of the Dark Ages, which is spotty at best, will never fully answer the questions about the nature of Arthur’s origins and whether he was based on a real man, but there are other sources of evidence that scholars can rely on. While archaeology can tell historians much about the broad sweep of history, its ability to pinpoint the locations and events of specific individuals, especially in the deep past, is limited.  Arthurian archaeology has focused upon the excavation of sites which have been passed down as being linked to Arthurian tales in the oral record.

The first and most recognizable site is the ruins of Tintagel Castle on the Cornish coast, where Arthur is said to have been conceived and born.  Excavations performed at the site in the 1980s and ‘90s have shown that there was a Dark Age fort at the site during the appropriate period, and that it was particularly wealthy for the region, which indicates that it was possibly the home of a local king or chieftain.  This leaves open the possibility that the written reports that survived the Middle Ages are accurate, though it does not confirm anything. A wrinkle emerged in 1998 when the caretakers of Tintagel, a government body called English Heritage, announced that they had found a piece of slate which read: “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has made [this].”   Further analysis led some to believe that the author was claiming descent from Coel Hen (the famous “Old King Cole”) of York, also one of Arthur’s claimed ancestors.  The claim that this was proof for the Arthurian connection led to a storm of controversy which has not yet fully died down.  This evidence is still fairly slim, but it increases the possibility that Tintagel is actually connected to the historic king.

Another well-known piece of evidence for the reality of Arthur emerged in 1191, when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found a tomb containing a man and a blonde-haired woman. The tomb was inscribed: “Here lies entombed King Arthur, with Guenevere his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon.”  This was a blessing for the monastery, which had recently suffered a devastating fire, because the remains served to restore it to a position of prominence and gave it a lucrative source of pilgrim revenue.  It also served as a useful piece of political propaganda during a period of Welsh-English struggle. As one writer noted, “The alleged discovery of Arthur’s tomb, then, was propaganda that the English could use against the Welsh, proving to them definitively that their savior was permanently deceased and would never return to liberate them.

Due to these reasons, as well as a lack of any evidence (both bodies and inscription disappeared), modern scholars strongly doubt the veracity of the Glastonbury find.  However, the area around Glastonbury remains a place rich in Arthurian connections, especially due to the belief that the Holy Grail – a key part of the Arthurian Cycle – is located there.

Another important archaeological site is the most likely purported location of Arthur’s court at Camelot: the Cadbury Hill Fort.  Like Tintagel, Cadbury has an association with Arthur in oral history which actually appears to pre-date the invention of Camelot by romantic literature in the 12th century.  Archaeology at the site in the 1970s revealed the existence of a Dark Age hill fort.  This was not a “castle” as people imagine them today, as such structures did not exist at the time of Arthur, but it was still an impressive fortification. Like Tintagel, the impressive fort indicates the presence of a prominent leader, if not a king.  In fact, this is one of the most elaborate strongholds of the period ever found, giving credence to claims that the great warlord Arthur lived there. Again, this does not mean that the powerful leader had to be Arthur, as there were other major figures of the period that could have financed and needed such a structure. Ambrosius Aurelianus and his enemy Vortigern both fit the bill, as does Riothamus and Arthur’s legendary father, Uther Pendragon.