Qin Wars of Unification (230–221 BCE)

Map of Zhou China c.400 BC

The Late Zhou period also heralded the ‘Warring States Era’ which saw almost three centuries of bitter rivalry and warfare between a mass of fractured Chinese kingdoms. Eventually the kingdom of Qin, on the western edge of early China would conquer the rest, while the Shu and Ba people were also brought into the kingdom for the first time.

Combatants Qin vs. Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, Qi

Principal Commanders Qin: King Ying Zheng (Emperor Qin Shi Huang), Wang Jian, Wang Ben, Li Xin

Other States: King An, King Qian, Li Mu, King Fuchu, King Xi, King Jia, Xiang Yan, King Tian Jian

Principal Battles Daliang

Outcome The seven states of central China are formed into one state. The short-lived Qin dynasty gives its name to China and establishes the concept of a unified state


The Qin Wars of Unification of 230-221 BCE were the direct result of the efforts of King Ying Zheng of Qin (later emperor as Qin Shi Huang) to control all northern China. Born Ying Zheng in Handan in 259 BCE, Qin Shi Huang (Ch’in Shih-hung) was nominally the son of the king of Qin but may have actually been the offspring of his father’s powerful chancellor, Lü Buwei. Regardless of his patrimony, Ying Zheng succeeded to the throne at age 13 in 245 on the death of his father and assumed his personal rule at age 22 in 231 when he seized full power and dismissed Lü Buwei, who had been acting as regent.

As ruler, Ying Zheng put down a number of rebellions. He also built up the army, emphasizing the cavalry, and carried out a number of reforms, especially in agriculture. The king was determined to expand Qin territory. Most of the smaller states of northern and central China, such as the Ba, Shu, Zhongshan, Lu, and Song states, had already been absorbed by their more powerful neighbors, and by the time Ying Zheng had come to the throne there were seven major states in northern China: Qin, Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, and Qi. Having consolidated his own kingdom, Ying Zheng now proceeded to conquer the other remaining feudal states of the Yellow River and lower and middle Yangtze River valleys in a series of campaigns from 230 to 221 BCE. His strategy was to attack and defeat one state at a time, described in one of the so-called Thirty-Six Stratagems as “befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” This meant first allying Qin with the Yan and Qi states and holding at bay the Wei and Chu states while conquering the Han and Zhao states.


Han was the weakest of the seven states and had previously been attacked by Qin. In 230 led by Minister of Interior Teng, a Qin army moved south across the Huang He (Yellow River) and invaded Han. Cavalry played a major role in the campaign. That same year the Qin army captured the Han capital of Zheng (today Xinzheng in Zhengzhou in southern Henan Province). With the surrender of King An of Han, the whole of Han came under Qin control.

Zhao was the next state to fall. Qin had invaded Zhao before but had not been able to conquer it. Zhao, however, was struck by two natural disasters-an earthquake and a famine-and in 229 the Qin armies again invaded, this time in a converging attack by three armies on the Zhao capital of Handan. Capable Zhao general Li Mu avoided pitched battle, however, choosing to concentrate instead on the construction of strong defenses, which indeed prevented the Qin armies from advancing farther. Ying Zheng then bribed a Zhao minister to sow discord between Li Mu and Zhao King Qian, who as a result came to doubt his general’s loyalty. Indeed, Li Mu was subsequently imprisoned and executed on King Qian’s order. Learning of Li Mu’s execution, in 228 the Qin armies again invaded Zhao. After several victories against the Zhao armies, Qin troops captured Handan and took King Qian. Ying Zheng then annexed Zhao.

That same year, 228, Qin general Wang Jian prepared for an invasion of Yan. Ju Wu, a Yan minister, suggested to Yan King Xi that he ally with Dai (present-day Yu, Zhangjiakou, in Heibei), then ruled by Prince Jia, the elder brother of the former king of Zhao, and also Qi and Chu. Crown Prince Dan opposed this course of action, however, believing it unlikely to succeed. Instead he sent an emissary, Jing Ke, to Qin with the head of a turncoat Qin general and orders to assassinate Ying Zheng. The assassination attempt failed, and Jing Ke was killed.

Using the attempted assassination as an excuse, Ying Zheng then sent an army against Yan. The Qin defeated the Yan Army, which had been strengthened with forces from Dai, in a battle along the east ern bank of the Yi River. Following their victory, the Qin army occupied the Yan capital of Yi (present-day Beijing). King Xi and his son Crown Prince Dan then withdrew with the remaining Yan forces into the Liaodong Peninsula. Qin general Li Xin pursued the Yan forces to the Ran River (present-day Hun River), where they destroyed most of the remaining Yan forces. To save his throne, King Xi ordered the execution of his son Crown Prince Dan, then sent his head to Qin in atonement for the assassination attempt on Ying Zheng, who accepted this “apology” and made no further military effort against Yan at this time.

In 222, however, Wang Ben led Qin forces in renewed warfare against Yan. The Qin army invaded the Liaodong Pen insula and captured King Xi. Yan was then annexed to the expanding Qin Empire.

In 225 Qin moved against Wei, first sending an army under Wang Ben that reportedly numbered 600,000 men to take more than 10 cities on the border with Chu in order to prevent that state from invading while the attack on Wei was proceeding. Wang Ben then moved against Daliang. It had natural defenses in that it was located at the confluence of the Sui and Ying Rivers. The city also had a very wide moat and four drawbridges that provided access to the city proper. Given the difficulties of taking Daliang, Wang Bei decided on an attempt to redirect the waters of the Yellow River and the Hong Canal in order to flood Daliang. It took his men more than three months to accomplish this considerable engineering feat while at the same time maintaining the Siege of Daliang. Wang Bei’s plan worked. Reportedly, more than 100,000 people lost their lives in the flooding of the city. King Jia of Wei then surrendered, and Wei was added to Qin.

Chu was next. In 224 Ying Zheng called a conference to discuss the plans for the invasion. General Wang Jian said that no fewer than 600,000 men would be re quired, but General Li Xin claimed that 200,000 men would be sufficient to conquer Chu. Ying Zheng then appointed Li Xin and Meng Wu to lead 200,000 men in two armies against Chu, while Wang Jian retired from state service, supposedly the result of illness.

The Qin armies enjoyed initial success. Li Xin’s men took Pingyu, while Meng Wu captured Qigiu. After then taking Yan (all three cities in present-day Henan), Li Xin led his army to rendezvous with Meng Wu. However, the Chu army, under Xiang Yan, had been avoiding a decisive encounter and was waiting for the opportunity to launch a counterattack. Xiang Yan’s army now pursued Li Xin during a three-day period, catching up with him and carrying out a surprise attack, joined by forces under Lord Changjing, a relative of Ying Zheng, a descendant of the Chu royal family. The two Chu armies effectively destroyed Li Xin’s army.

Informed of the crushing Chu victory over Li Xin, Ying Zheng then traveled to his retired general Wang Jian’s residence and personally apologized for having doubted his advice. Wang Jian agreed to return to government service, this time in command of the force of 600,000 men he had initially recommended. Meng Wu became Wang Jian’s deputy.

In 224 Wang Jian’s army invaded Chu territory and made camp at Pingyu. Chu general Xiang Yan assembled the entire Chu army and attacked the Qin encampment but was repulsed. Wang Jian then held his position, refusing to attack the Chu force as Xiang Yan had wanted, and it subsequently withdrew. As the Chu army was doing so, Wang Jian launched a surprise attack and then pursued the Chu army into Qinan (northwest of present-day Qic hun County, Huanggang, Hubei), where it was defeated and Chu commander Xiang Yan was killed in action.

In 223, Qin forces again invaded Chu and captured the capital city of Shouchun (present-day Shou in Lu’an, Anhui). King Fuchu of Chu was among those taken prisoner. Qin then annexed Chu. The next year, Wang Jian and Meng Wu attacked the Wuyu region (present-day Zhejiang and Jiangsu). It became part of the Qin territorial holdings.

In 221 BCE, Qi was the only state of north China not conquered by the Qin. Ying Zheng had early on bribed Qi chancellor Hou Sheng into advising King Tian Jian of Qi not to assist the other states, which were being conquered by Qin. Too late, King Tian Jian recognized the threat and sent his army to the border with Qin. Ying Zheng then used the excuse of Tian Jian’s refusal to meet with the Qin king’s envoy as justification for an invasion.

Avoiding the Qi forces massed on the border, commander of the Qin invasion force general Wang Ben moved his army into Qi from Yan territory. The army there fore met little resistance before arriving at the Qi capital of Linzi (north of present day Zibo, Shandong). Taken by surprise, King Tian Jian surrendered without a battle. Qi was then absorbed by Qin.

Qin expansion had, however, eliminated the buffer zone between the Chinese states and the nomadic peoples of present day Inner and Outer Mongolia, thus creating the need for the system of defensive fortifications known as the Qin Great Wall.

Upon absorbing Qi, Ying Zheng established the Qin dynasty, assuming the throne name of Qin Shi Huang (meaning “First Emperor of China”). As the first emperor of China, he had an enormous impact on the future of China and on the Chinese people. A reformer but also a strong-willed autocrat, he and his chief adviser Li Si pushed through a series of changes designed to solidify the unification. To diminish the threat of rebellion, the emperor required members of the former royal families to live in the capital of Xianyang, in Shaanxi Province.

Qin Shi Huang also abolished feudal ism and divided his territory into 36 prefectures and then divided the prefectures into counties and townships, all of which were ruled directly by the emperor through his appointees. A uniform law code was established, and Qin Shi Huang decreed a standardized system of Chinese characters in writing. A new tax system was put in place that is said to have exacted a heavy financial toll on the Chinese people. Qin Shi Huang also established a uniform system of laws, weights and measures, and coin age. In an attempt to silence any criticism of his rule, in 213 Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all books in the empire and records of all other dynasties and the execution of those scholars who opposed him, along with their families. Stories that he ordered some 460 Confucian scholars buried alive in Xianyang are probably not true, however.

Qin Shi Huang and Li Si also undertook a series of mammoth construction projects, including setting hundreds of thousands of men to work building the great defensive wall that incorporated older walls. This wall served as a precedent when later re gimes, most notably the Ming, also built systems of fortified walls as a means of defense against nomadic peoples to the north. The emperor also oversaw construction of a system of new roads designed to unify China economically and facilitate the passage of goods and troops radiating from the capital of Xianyang. Qin Shi Huang is now also known for having ordered construction of his large mausoleum in Xian, guarded by life-sized terra-cotta warriors and horses. Discovered in 1974 and opened to the public in 1979, the 800 warriors and their horses guarding the tomb are regarded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

Around 212 BCE, Qin Shi Huang subsequently expanded Qin territory to the south (i. e., south of the Changjiang [Yangtze or Yangxi River]). His generals Meng Tian and Zhao Tuo conquered northern Korea (Goryeo, Koryo) as well as the areas later known as Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Tonkin (Tongking) in north ern Vietnam.

Seeking to extend his life, Qin Shi Huang had been taking a medicine prescribed by his doctors that contained a small amount of mercury. He died, apparently of mercury poisoning, while on a tour of eastern China in Shaqiu Province in 210. In short order there was a strong re action to his autocratic regime. His second son and successor, Hu Hai (Qin Er Shi), proved to be an inept ruler, and a great peasant rebellion, led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, soon began. This sparked a series of rebellions that, combined with in fighting at court, brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206 BCE.


The Qin Wars of Unification joined the seven states of central China into one state. Although the Qin dynasty itself was short lived (221-206), it gave its name to China and produced the concept of a unified Chinese state.

Further Reading Bodde, Derk. “The State and Empire of Qin.” In The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B. C.-A. D. 220, edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, 21-102. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Clements, Jonathan. The First Emperor of China. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton, 2006. Tianchou, Fu, ed. The Underground Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Beijing: New World Press, 1988. Wood, Francis. The First Emperor of China. London: Profile Books, 2007. Zilin Wu. Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China. Hong Kong: Man Hei Language Publications, 1989.



The armed forces of Rhodesia won virtually every battle and skirmish they ever fought against the guerrilla armies, yet they lost the war. In July 1977, Foreign Minister P K van der Byl said of white Rhodesians’ resolve never to live under a guerrilla regime: ‘We will contest every hill and every river, every village and every town, every crossroad and every bridge.’ Van der Byl’s penchant for Churchillian rhetoric was renowned, but his declaration epitomized the objectives of the Rhodesians’ war against the nationalists: never to surrender their political, social and economic power to black majority rule. Yet the war was lost, and in April 1980 the guerrillas grasped the reins of power for which they had fought so long.

The story of the Rhodesian armed forces during the civil war is one of tactical brilliance and strategic ineptitude. Rarely in military history have such thinly stretched troops, hampered by chronic manpower, training, equipment and financial constraints achieved such consistent successes against enemy forces which enjoyed the tactical and strategic initiative for most of the war, and often reached numerical parity in the field. But the Rhodesian obsession with successful tactics created a fatal blindness to the strategic imperatives of a protracted revolutionary war such as the guerrillas were waging.

The early stages of the war were fought with the armed forces much the same as they had been at the break-up of Federation. The rashness of the guerrillas’ early strategy and tactics required no expansion of the armed forces or mobilization of reserves much beyond peace-time levels. Until 1972 the brunt of the counterinsurgency operations was borne by the British South Africa Police, the RAR, the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (the ‘Royal’ was dropped in 1970 when Rhodesia became a republic). Reserve forces assisted from time to time, but did not assume the importance of later years.

The counter-insurgency operations were originally conceived of as a ‘police action’, with the army aiding the civil power against what were characterized as politically motivated criminals. Guerrillas were tried and convicted through the civil courts and were imprisoned or executed through the same machinery as common criminals. This preserved the fiction that the government was waging a campaign against violent criminal elements rather than an incipient civil war, but despite its political usefulness this attitude ignored the realities of the conflict. The police were responsible for the painstaking collection of evidence and the preparation of criminal dockets. It was only in 1978-9 that disaffected areas were placed under martial law and tribunals empowered to deal with captured guerrillas.




In a sense it was natural that the BSAP should be involved in counter-insurgency operations from the start. The unit (formed partly from the earlier British South Africa Company police) was raised in 1896 to combat the Shona and Ndebele insurgents, and in 1897 was almost solely responsible for mopping up the final stubborn pockets of resistance. The Rhodesian authorities liked to boast that, after 1897, the police did not shoot and kill a single African until 26 July 1960, during serious rioting in Bulawayo. The force was structured as a cavalry regiment and its military ethos remained with it until the 1980s. Although its functions became increasingly civil in succeeding decades after its foundation, it never entirely lost its paramilitary role nor its military spirit, signified by the force’s nickname, ‘The Regiment’, and its status as the ‘senior service’.

The regular police, numbering about 2,000 whites and 6,000 blacks at the height of the war, received long periods of counter-insurgency training during their recruit courses. Although most active policemen served in a civil capacity, most white junior ranks were required to serve periodic tours in the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit (PATU), otherwise essentially a reserve element.

As the war intensified, so the combat role of the regular police expanded. The Support Unit, nicknamed the ‘Black Boots’, was formed as a regular counterinsurgency unit and eventually expanded into a light infantry battalion of black constables officered by whites. The unit was highly successful and at times scored a higher kill rate than regular army formations. A widening war encouraged the proliferation of other specialist police units. The Special Branch, initially responsible for the investigation of political crime and undercover surveillance, diversified into the collection of field intelligence when it absorbed the police ‘Ground Coverage’ network of operatives and informers. A Special Branch section, the SB-Scouts, was a small unit of Special Branch agents, Selous Scouts and captured guerrillas which carried out more dangerous and esoteric intelligence-gathering, as well as conducting clandestine operations against the enemy’s political and military infrastructure. A Police Mounted Unit, formed in 1976, was an attempt to increase the mobility of police COIN forces, but it was a gimmicky formation which remained limited in size. The explosion of stock theft, which was part of the guerrilla strategy of undermining the white economy and its logistics system, brought the creation of specialized anti-stock theft teams. Their high mobility and ruthlessness in dealing with stock thieves, as well as a mandatory nine-year gaol sentence for cattle theft, were only partly successful in controlling this chronic problem for the white farming community. The spread of the war to the urban areas in the latter stages of the conflict was countered by the Urban Emergency unit, a ‘special weapons and tactics’ (SWAT) group, which was highly successful in rooting out and deterring urban terrorism.

Like all the armed forces, the police suffered from a shortage of quality manpower. This was partly alleviated by the allocation of part of the national service intakes for each year from 1973, and the greater responsibility of reserve units to assist in preventing and detecting crime in urban areas and the safer rural districts. Increasing reliance was also placed on black recruits, who made up the rank and file, and the stretching of white officers’ responsibilities.


Rhodesian Army badges around chopper


The cutting edge of the Rhodesian security forces was provided by the regular units of the army, and they assumed the status of a strategic reserve-cum-shock force in the late 1970s. All the regular units expanded considerably during the war and came to absorb portions of the periodic national service intakes of white youths. In time these national servicemen formed the reserve elements of the regular units and were called up for tours of duty with them.

The Rhodesian African Rifles (which received white national service officers, but no other ranks) expanded from a pre-UDI strength of one battalion to four. The second was formed in 1974, the third in 1977 and the fourth began recruiting in 1978. Only the second enjoyed anything like the training and respect that white officers accorded the first, veteran battalion. The fourth battalion never really functioned properly, and by the end of the war the RAR training establishment was simply churning out vast numbers of black soldiers to meet the insatiable demands of the armed forces for some sort of trained manpower to plug the gaps in the security forces’ disintegrating control of the countryside. Raw black troops were integrated with white reserve units, which were dwindling through emigration, to bolster their strength and assimilate combat experience as quickly as possible. At that time some officers envisaged a future Rhodesian army in which virtually every white soldier was an officer or an NCO commanding vast numbers of black rank-and-file, but this did not come about before the war’s end.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry finally reached full battalion strength in the early Seventies after years of inadequate recruitment. It was boosted by foreign enlistment and national service conscripts in its commando (company-sized units) structure. The RLI achieved notoriety as a sort of southern African Foreign Legion to which mercenaries flocked from all over the world. Estimates of the total numbers of foreigners who had served in the Rhodesian forces ranged up to 2,000, but a figure of 1,400 is more likely. A large proportion of them was concentrated in No. 3 Commando of the RLI. Although the guerrillas were able to make a great deal of propaganda out of foreign recruitment as a measure of the moral, political and military depravity of the Rhodesian government, these men were more ideological soldiers of fortune than true mercenaries. Most enlisted out of political and racial conviction or purely for high adventure, since their pay and conditions of service were the same as those of white recruits of Rhodesian origin.


The Special Air Service also attracted foreigners, though its tough selection course kept the unit relatively small, with a high proportion of white Rhodesians in its ranks. Although Peter McAleese records that at one stage in the late 1970s, in ‘A’ Squadron, most of the 33 regulars were foreigners, this tally excluded the Rhodesians in the Territorial SAS. On external operations, the SAS often wore enemy uniforms, so that if an operator was killed, especially if he were a foreigner, he could officially be disowned by the authorities. The formation had languished after the dissolution of the Federation, its strength dropping to as low as 20, but by 1978 volunteers (including national servicemen) took it up to three-squadron strength. Rhodesia’s ‘C’ Squadron SAS had been formed to serve in Malaya alongside the British ‘A’and ‘B’Squadrons. (To this day, in the British SAS orbat, the ‘C’ Squadron remains vacant in honour of the lost Rhodesian element.) The Rhodesian SAS squadron later became 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. A secret component was ‘D’ Squadron, made up of South African Special Forces Reconnaissance Commandos. Generally, the 40 South African operators preferred to work as a distinct unit, sometimes commanded by an SADF colonel, though they also fought alongside the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS in external raids. They would sometimes fly to Salisbury on scheduled flights in civilian clothes, be met at the airport and then change into Rhodesian uniform. They were there to learn, as much as to help.


Two new units to emerge during the war were the Selous Scouts, which adopted the name relinquished by the Armoured Car Regiment, and the Grey’s Scouts. The Selous Scouts took its name from the well-known nineteenth-century hunter, Frederick Courteney Selous; Henry Rider Haggard is said to have based the character of Allan Quatermain on the same adventurer. The Selous Scouts were originally formed as a small specialist tracking unit (called the Tracker Combat Unit) to provide support for other units on COIN operations. Initially there were two groups, under 2 Brigade, based at Kariba and Bindura. But the unit’s functions multiplied, as did its size, to three troops, then a full battalion of 1,000 officers and men, most of whom were black. Selous Scouts conducted clandestine operations both inside and outside Rhodesia’s borders. Individuals were attached to the Rhodesian intelligence service to gather information from as far afield as Tanzania and Angola. One Selous Scout became the most distinguished, and decorated, Rhodesian soldier. Captain Chris Schulenburg, a South African known as Schulie, usually with just one black Scout, performed feats of long-range ground reconnaissance unparalleled in modern counter-insurgency. (The full story of this modest officer was told in The Selous Scouts: Top Secret War.) The Scouts’ Support Troop acted as assault infantry in raids into neighbouring countries, though it was never as effective as the SAS. (Most of the blunders of the Rhodesians on raids into Zambia were attributable to this formation acting on its own initiative or with too much licence granted by General Walls himself.) The unit’s notoriety for treachery and brutality was only partly deserved, for the bulk of its members were engaged on routine military tasks. But the Selous Scouts did field ‘pseudo-gangs’ to deceive the guerrillas and their supporters, and to carry out punitive atrocities against villages which collaborated with the guerrillas. Selous Scout pseudo operators were paid a Rh$100 bounty for every guerrilla killed or captured along with their weapons. This rose to Rh$150 a head if there were more than ten guerrillas. The formation’s penchant for secrecy (despite the wide publicity given to its existence and to its stringent selection tests), and the bogus cloak-and-dagger attitude of some of its ranks, helped the guerrillas to paint a picture of the battalion as a latter-day Waffen-SS. The undoubted efficiency and bravery of the soldiers in the unit, many of whom were national servicemen or reservists, and the extreme conditions under which they often operated, contributed to the images of ruthless shock troops promoted by the mass media around the world.

The Grey’s Scouts were a mounted infantry unit formed to exploit the mobility of horses for COIN operations. The formation had mixed success, but they attracted high quality volunteers, again including many foreigners, and established a reputation for aggressiveness. At times they operated purely as foot-soldiers, depending on operational conditions.

Apart from the Grey’s Scouts and the third and fourth battalions of the RAR, the regular units were increasingly deployed as military fire brigades within the country, and on external operations after 1976. The trend was to hand over routine, ground-covering patrols to reserve forces. Fire Force duties were allocated to the RLI, the RAR, the Support Company of the Selous Scouts and, less frequently, the SAS. Formations served two- to three-week tours as Fire Forces before being allocated to other operations. In consequence, most of their ranks received parachute training.

External operations were carried out almost exclusively by these regular formations. The SAS spent most of its time across the border. The Squadrons were deployed for months at a time in Mozambique, Zambia or Botswana on regular operations to harass guerrilla camps and lines of communication and to gather intelligence. Full-scale assaults on guerrilla bases, some involving combat paradrops from as low as 300 feet, were also a part of the unit’s responsibilities. The RAR, RLI and Selous Scouts deployed detachments of up to company strength into neighbouring states, though most operations were on a smaller scale.

Other combat formations were the Independent Companies made up of national servicemen, the Artillery and the Armoured Car Regiment. The Independent Companies had specific areas of responsibility (for example, 2 Indep. Coy was based at Kariba, 3 Indep. Coy at Inyanga) in which they constantly operated. Occasionally they were deployed on Fire Force duties and on external raids. Their quality was never very high as they were the residue of national service intakes after officer training, the regular units, the specialized arms and police had taken their pick of conscripts. One such unit, 7 Indep. Coy, was a cover for a unit of French recruits into the Rhodesian forces. Some were veterans of the Foreign Legion, but they were not successful in Rhodesian conditions and were disbanded.

The service corps were largely staffed by regular troops, though their deficiencies were also made up by drafts of national servicemen and reservists. The corps divisions of responsibility were roughly similar to those of the British army: the Corps of Engineers, the Corps of Signals, Army Services Corps, Army Medical Corps, Military Police, Army Pay Corps, Army Educational Corps and the Corps of Chaplains. There were also miscellaneous departments such as the Psychological Action Group (Psyac) and Military Intelligence to co-ordinate field and external intelligence data. The Military Intelligence department performed poorly partly because of the small size of its staff, of whom nearly all were reservists. A big exception, however, was the signallers in Military Intelligence who operated the Radio Intercept Services. A great deal of vital information was gleaned from radio interception of guerrillas and regular troops based in Mozambique and Zambia. A Special Investigations Branch was created to ensure the internal security of the army and to root out subversion and dissidence among troops.

The army’s ‘tail’ was remarkably lean, and the usual imbalance between combat and support units in modern armies was not a severe problem for the Rhodesian forces. Many functions of the ‘tail’ were carried out by cheap black auxiliary labour, so that little white manpower was allocated to trivial, but necessary, support functions. The emigration of skilled artisans from the country had serious repercussions for the armed forces. Motor vehicle mechanics were in chronically short supply, especially when the number of landmine and traffic incidents escalated alarmingly from 1976. The gaps in the security forces’ maintenance capabilities were filled to a great extent by private contractors and by calling up skilled personnel to serve in security forces’ workshops.



Rhodesian Hunter from 1982.


Rhodesian Air Force 4 Squadron Cessna 337 (nicknamed the Lynx)


Air Force

The Rhodesian Air Force was a vital component of the war machine. Air force officers continued the traditions of the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ by claiming that they were responsible for the largest number of kills among the security forces, and that their operations made the bulk of other formations’ successes possible. There was more than a grain of truth in this, for the air force allowed the most efficient deployment of the strategic reserve, and carried out photo-reconnaissance and air strikes on guerrilla concentrations in and outside Rhodesia.

The RAF’s strike capability was based on a squadron of Hawker Hunter FGA9 fighter-bombers, one of Canberra B2 and T4 light bombers, one of Vampire RB9s, and Cessna 0-2 (Lynx) and Siai-Marchetti SF 260 (Genet) propeller-driven strike aircraft. Provost T52s and Vampire T55s were used in a strike capacity in the early years of the war, but were later relegated to training roles. The jet aircraft were used mainly for external operations, though the Hunter was a maid-of-all-work, since it carried out cross-border strikes, supported Fire Force operations and protected Rhodesian airspace. The Cessnas, which were brought through the sanctions barrier in red and white civilian livery, were converted to a military role and armed with machine guns, antipersonnel rocket pods and bomb racks in Rhodesia. They formed the backbone of Fire Force support throughout the country, since their slower speed and excellent maneuverability made them more suitable for the pinpoint accuracy often required in counter-guerrilla operations in close or broken terrain.

But it was in the transport of troops that the RAF played its most important role. Helicopters gave the Rhodesian forces the tactical flexibility they needed to control vast swathes of rugged countryside. The basic Rhodesian tactical element, the ‘stick’ of four or five men, was designed around the seating capacity of the mainstay of the helicopter capability of the Air Force, the Aerospatiale Alouette III. This machine was used not only for the rapid development of tracker and fighting teams, but was later the basis of Fire Force operations in the transport, command chopper and gunship roles, as well as being important for the evacuation (casevac) of the wounded. The force of 50-plus Alouettes, many on loan with their pilots and technicians from South Africa, was supplemented by a handful of Alouette II utility craft. Earlier in the war, the RAF had tried to acquire Pumas. Unlike the Alouettes which had been designed for civilian use, the Puma was specifically a military aircraft. As one senior Rhodesian air force officer lamented, ‘The UN mandatory sanctions made the sale of such equipment to Rhodesia impossible–even for the French.’ French technicians from Sud Aviation were nevertheless regular visitors to Rhodesia to advise on helicopter technology. A considerable boost to the airlift capability of the Rhodesian forces was the acquisition in 1978 of seven Bell 205s, the ‘Huey’ of Vietnam War fame, from Israel via the Comoro Islands. With a capacity of 12 to 16 men, each Bell could carry the equivalent of a former Fire Force of three to four Alouette IIIs. Cheetah was the name given to the Bells, which arrived in an appalling state. Without any manuals, they were completely overhauled, after ‘removing tons of sand’, according to a technician who worked on them.

As the scale of encounters between guerrilla detachments and units of the security forces increased, and before the acquisition of the Bells, paradrops from Dakotas were made an integral part of Fire Forces after September 1976. This necessitated large-scale parachute training of regular units which were routinely deployed as Fire Forces.

The transport squadrons of the RAF, which included Aermacchi AL60s, dubbed ‘Trojans’ by the Rhodesians, and Britten-Norman Islanders, also supplied remote base camps of the security forces and the network of airfields from which combat aircraft operated.

The squadron bases were at New Sarum, near Salisbury (home of the Canberra bomber, DC-3 and helicopter squadrons), and Thornhill, at Gwelo (home base of the Hunters, Trojans, Genets and Vampires). The operational areas were served by a network of Forward Airfields (FAFs), which ranged from large facilities like those at Grand Reef (Umtali) and Wankie, to airstrips attached to JOCs like that at Mtoko. A FAF was any airfield out of which aircraft operated in support of security forces’ operations, and from time to time would accommodate Fire Forces as well.

Late in the war a new base was built near Hartley. The project was kept out of the public eye, but the facility was capable of supporting the most sophisticated jet fighter aircraft, and may have been planned as a base for operations by the South African Air Force. As it was remote from large population centres, operations could be mounted from it with considerably more secrecy than from Thornhill and New Sarum, which used the civil runways serving Salisbury international airport. The SAAF did provide much support and training, especially for external raids. Dakotas, Canberras and Alouettes on loan, or in support, were relatively easy to disguise but the Puma and Super Frelon choppers were not. Pretoria also provided ammunition, bombs, avionics and electronic surveillance for the Rhodesian air war. In a secret exchange (Operation Sand), Rhodesian instructors, technicians and student pilots were sent to South African bases. Flying training on Impala jets was conducted at Langebaan air base and also in Durban. The Rhodesians also manned one entire SAAF Mirage III squadron for a short period.

The RAF was supported by a large fleet of civilian aircraft operated by the Police Reserve Air Wing. These aircraft, most of them propeller-driven, carried out routine supply and administrative functions, although some were armed with Browning machine guns for a ground support role. Some PRAW pilots developed considerable expertise in tracking guerrillas from the air.

Airfield and installation defence was provided by an armoured car unit comprising national servicemen and members of the air force reserve, around a regular core, and by an all-black General Service Unit.


If the regular army, police and the RAF were the mainstays of the Rhodesian security forces, the bulk of military manpower was engaged in less spectacular roles. It is a rule of thumb that the larger the formation the blunter the instrument. The major source of manpower for the Rhodesian armed forces was mobilization of reserves. The call-up net eventually encompassed all able-bodied white men between 18 and 60. All white youths between 18 and 25 were liable to conscription. The commitment eventually rose to 18 months, though those who would go on to universities had to serve 24 months since they would enjoy exemption from reserve duties while they were students. Men in the 25 to 38 age bracket were liable to reserve duty in the army, but were increasingly posted to other formations and services. Those who had missed national service conscription were first called up for training. Men over 38 were liable to serve in the Rhodesia Defence Regiment or the Police Reserve structure. The commitments of various groups differed. The most heavily pressed group were men in the 25 to 38 age bracket, who at the height of the war were liable to serve six months a year with their units. The pattern of tours became ‘six weeks in, six weeks out’, but even that was changed to ‘four weeks in, four weeks out’ in periods of acute manpower shortage, such as the traditional guerrilla rainy season offensives.

In the pre-UDI period there were two reserve formations, the Territorial Force based on white battalions of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (the Royal was dropped when Rhodesia declared itself a republic), and the Police Reserve. The Rhodesia Regiment trained national servicemen who were conscripted for six weeks’ basic training under the 1957 Defence Act. In the early 1960s the number of battalions was increased and the length of basic training rose to 41½ months. Conscripts had a reserve commitment in the battalions of the Rhodesia Regiment on release from basic training. Police Reservists were volunteers who supported the normal operations of the BSAP, and played an important role in suppressing urban disorders in the early 1960s.

Both forces changed considerably in the war years. The Territorial Battalions lost their training role and became exclusively reserve units once national servicemen were allocated to Independent Companies, the regular units, the specialist arms, the police and other supporting parts of the armed forces’ structure. Servicemen who had completed their initial period of active service were transferred to the TF battalions until they were 38. The TF battalions, which were city- and district-based, eventually numbered eight (designated 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 RR) and with a total nominal strength of 15,000.

As national servicemen began to pass through a diversity of units from 1973, so each formation built up a TF, reserve element which was called up for periodic tours of duty. Even the SAS, Grey’s Scouts and Selous Scouts had reserve components of part-time soldiers. The Rhodesian Intelligence Corps was commanded by a territorial officer and was staffed almost completely by reservists. It collected and collated field intelligence and provided up-to-date maps for all arms of the security forces.

The Police Reserve became a repository for less able and older conscripts. Men in the 38 to 60 age bracket were automatically conscripted into its ranks, although PATU contained considerable numbers of active, younger men, exempted from army service for occupational reasons, police regulars and national servicemen who had passed on to a reserve commitment, and large numbers of farmers. Sections of PATU conducted highly successful operations, but their main function was to cover ground aggressively and act in a reconnaissance role. Other elements of the Police Reserve were the ‘A’Reserve, which assisted the duty branches of the BSAP in crime prevention, and the Field Reserve. The latter was used mainly for protection duties on farms, bridges, convoys, radio relay stations and other installations. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated a peak strength for the Police Reserve of 35,000 in 1978, but this is probably too high a figure. In 1979, Police Reserve strength in Salisbury, the country’s biggest reservoir of white manpower, stood at only 4,500, and it is unlikely that there were more than 30,000 reservists in the rest of the country. The standard of training, equipment, leadership and organization of the Field Reserve was not impressive and it was only the low calibre of the guerrillas which saved periodic slaughtering of these poorly trained reservists.

Africans were not liable to conscription until 1978, when a very limited and cautious programme was introduced to conscript black youths aged 18 to 25. The potential problems of conscripting the vast numbers available, many of whom were reluctant or disaffected, were so great that the programme never really got off the ground before the ceasefire in December 1979.

Asian and Coloured youths were liable to conscription, and in due course these communities were also brought into the reserve structure. Low morale and inefficiency were caused by discrimination in terms of service, pay and conditions, but these were equalized with white conditions of service towards the end of the war. Most Asians and Coloureds were drafted into the Protection Companies for defensive duties and as drivers in the early days of the war, but later formed the bulk of the Rhodesia Defence Regiment (nicknamed the Rhodesian Dagga [marijuana] Regiment because of its poor discipline). Many also served in the Police Reserve.

Training was a headache for the military authorities throughout the war. The elite units received elite training. The Selous Scouts and SAS were trained for periods of up to eight months before taking the field, and their pre- and post-deployment retraining programmes were excellent. The training of Territorial Force battalions was gradually improved, but a chronic shortage of instructors persisted, whose skills were also badly needed in the field. This deficiency was exacerbated by the armed forces’ poor use of the skills and qualifications of reserve manpower. General Walls spoke of fitting round pegs into round holes, but a great deal of valuable manpower was wasted on the performance of military tasks which could have been carried out by far less-qualified soldiers. The Police Reserve in particular suffered from low-calibre instructors.

Once the armed forces began to mushroom, low-quality troops became a chronic weakness of the Rhodesian forces. The Guard Force was created in 1975 as a ‘Fourth Arm’with the responsibility for manning protected villages, the Rhodesian version of the strategic hamlets of Malaya and Vietnam. The Rhodesia Defence Regiment was created in 1978. One battalion was attached to each brigade headquarters to protect military installations and lines of communication. Because large numbers were required for these units at short notice, training was superficial. The tedious nature of their static tasks made the units poorly disciplined and Guard Force details often committed crimes against the populations they were charged with protecting. Had they stood against a determined, well-trained enemy they would have had little chance. Both these units received drafts of white national servicemen and (often elderly) reservists, but these were usually of low calibre and suffered from poor morale because of their attachment to notoriously inefficient units. Towards the end of the war, when the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security Force Auxiliaries took greater responsibility for defending PVs, Guard Force received better training and sometimes fought in an infantry role. But their primary task remained defensive, including the protection of white farms, ranches and communications links.

One unsuccessful expedient adopted was that of integrating inexperienced troops with battle-hardened units. The RAR’s battalions were used to try to give a quick patina of combat experience to large numbers of recruits who were given shorter than usual periods of basic training from 1978. This experiment had limited success, but the attempt to integrate the previously all-white Rhodesia Regiment battalions was a disastrous failure. The racial prejudices of the territorial soldiers and the inexperience and unreliability of the African recruits caused morale among the whites to plummet. The white territorials alleged that the Africans displayed cowardice under fire, and resentment against this invasion of a former white preserve was reflected in lower combat effectiveness.

Two other formations should be mentioned. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, responsible for the administration of the country’s African population and the TTLs, where most guerrilla activity occurred, increased its military role as Rhodesia became a garrison state. By 1978-9 administration of large areas of the country was possible only in the presence of armed force. Internal Affairs personnel in the districts were invariably armed. The rank and file, made up mainly of District Security Assistants (DSAs), was generally low-calibre manpower, poorly trained, led and equipped (initially with .303 bolt-operated rifles, though they later received LMGs). The DSAs were in close contact with the African population of the TTLs, which meant that they were in close contact with guerrilla operations, with consequently high, morale-sapping casualty rates. The quality of the District Assistants (DAs) and paramilitary DSAs depended largely upon the quality of the District Commissioners who led them. As one police officer who worked closely with Internal Affairs, noted of the DAs and DSAs, ‘They died well and died en masse.’To try to counter insurgency in districts where leadership was poor, Internal Affairs set up the Administrative Reinforcement Unit (ARU). Despite its apparently innocuous name, this white-led force was ‘full of hard men’, according to one Rhodesian military historian. ‘Despite sounding like they checked paperclips, the ARU was very gung-ho and well-equipped.’

A late appearance was the auxiliary army, grandly titled Pfumo reVanhu (‘the Spear of the People’; Umkonto wa Bantu in Matabeleland) which emerged from the internal political settlement of 3 March 1978. Under code name Operation Favour, the auxiliaries were boosted in number to try to match the size of ZANLA. About US$10 million was raised with money coming from Saudi Arabia, and especially from the Sultan of Oman, a good friend of Rhodesia and a fervent anti-communist. Ostensibly comprising guerrillas who surrendered under an amnesty similar to the Chieu Hoi programme in Vietnam, a large number (about 90 per cent, according to one Rhodesian officer who worked with them) were in fact raw recruits, some merely boys, lured or press-ganged into its ranks from urban townships. Some units fought well, especially in the Urungwe TTL, but others were merely an armed rabble. Originally liaison between the Rhodesian military authorities and the SFAs was carried out by Special Branch agents, but towards the end of the war many auxiliaries protecting PVs came under Internal Affairs control and the rest under a new unit, the Special Forces. Their political alignment to Sithole’s ZANU and Muzorewa’s UANC was more a hindrance than a help, for this made ideal propaganda for the guerrillas. Any military value they may have had was offset by the political costs of periodic rampages and reigns of terror inflicted on African populations in their areas of responsibility, called ‘frozen zones’(distinct from zones reserved for Selous Scout operations) because other Rhodesian units were not permitted to operate there. The Rhodesian government’s verdict on this generally unsuccessful experiment was revealed when, in 1979, it felt forced to wipe out two ill-disciplined and disaffected groups of auxiliaries loyal to Sithole.

Torpedo Boat 80 – 1886

Yarrow’s TB 80

TB 82 was the production version of Yarrow’s turtleback TB 79. Although in theory boats were to be conned from the protected conning tower, it gave a poor view, and the after steering position was preferred (as evident here). Note the glass shield for the chart table. These boats were similar to TB 79, but with a turtleback. They proved weak in service, and had to be strengthened.

Yarrow’s TB 80, ordered in 1886, introduced the turtleback bow into British naval torpedo boat practice. She was based on Yarrow’s Falke for Austria (which also had a turtleback), with greater beam. Running the turtleback to the conning tower precluded the earlier practice of mounting two torpedo tubes alongside it. This design offered instead a single fixed bow tube (with two torpedoes); the Austrian boats had two bow tubes, one alongside the other. Note the 3-pounder gun atop the conning tower. In the alternative gunboat configuration, the two tubes alongside the after conning tower were replaced by a second gun. Two more 3-pounders could be mounted en echelon in the waist abaft the funnels (a written account mentioned a third gun on deck, but it is not visible in printed plans). A drawing showed both four guns and the two tubes, but it seems unlikely that all would have been carried at the same time. Other alternatives considered were five torpedoes and tubes plus one 3-pounder and two Nordenfelts or two 3-pounders or the bow tube (two torpedoes), two deck tubes, one 3-pounder and two Nordenfelts. Yarrow advertised this design as a ‘division’ torpedo boat, the term meaning that it could go to sea with a division of a fleet. In 1901 the armament of this boat was set as one fixed bow tube, two single deck tubes, and three 3-pounders (presumably she had been rearranged by then). Although TB 80 had two side-by-side funnels, she had a single locomotive boiler (working pressure increased from the 130psi of the first Yarrow 125-footers to 140psi of the previous type to 160psi). Dimensions were 135ft × 14ft (130 tons), with a bunker capacity of twenty-three tons (2700nm endurance at ten knots). A DNC document dated 24 July 1886 shows the originally proposed displacement as 105.2 tons, rising to 106.1 tons (with loss of metacentric height) with the proposed turtleback and the initially proposed armament. Lowering the conning tower saved some weight, and then conning tower thickness was cut from half-inch to three-eighths inch. That restored nearly all the original stability. On trials, TB 80 made 22.98 knots on 1539ihp at 101.75 tons (3ft 10¾in mean draught); rated power was 1600ihp. Falke in turn was based on Yarrow’s Azor and Halcon for Spain.

The Admiralty

The ships described were ordered by the Board of Admiralty. The First Lord was responsible to Parliament and thus to the Prime Minister of the day. He was broadly equivalent to the US Secretary of the Navy. In the 1880s, Boards generally also included a Civil Lord with some special naval knowledge. Civil Lords included George Rendel, formerly of Armstrong’s, and personally responsible for many export warships and also for introducing hydraulic machinery, and Thomas Lord Brassey, who in 1882 published the multi-volume British Navy (a call for naval reform) and who left in 1885 to begin publishing his Naval Annual. In 1884, Brassey was promoted to Permanent Parliamentary and Financial Secretary. As such he had to defend government resistance to the campaign for additional naval spending. From 1885, the Civil Lord was responsible mainly for civil works such as dockyards.

The naval members were led by the Senior Naval Lord, renamed First Sea Lord when Admiral Fisher took that post. His assistant or deputy (Second Naval Lord) eventually was responsible mainly for personnel. The Third Naval Lord or Controller was responsible for materiel (between 1870 and 1882, the Controller was not a Board member). At times, about 1900, the captain designated to become Third Sea Lord seems to have acted as Controller before being given that appointment (eg, Captains Fisher and May). The Junior Lord (typically a captain) ultimately became Fourth Sea Lord with special responsibility for supplies. Later a Fifth Sea Lord was added mainly for naval aviation. Under the Controller came the three principal materiel departments: Naval Construction (headed by the Director of Naval Construction (DNC), often also styled Assistant Controller), Naval Ordnance (DNO), and Engineering (ie, machinery, headed by the Engineer-in-Chief (E-in-C), normally an Engineering Rear Admiral). Typically the DNO was a captain, and the DNC was a civilian member of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors (founded in 1883). The Controller laid out the Board’s requirements, and the DNC produced one or more alternative sketch designs.

In the 1880s, Britain was the foremost warship builder in the world. Private British yards built almost exclusively for export (Royal Navy ships were built mainly at Royal Dockyards, corresponding to US naval shipyards). The DNC recognised that small fast surface warships involved specialised design work. He felt comfortable with cruisers and larger ships, and with slower ships such as gunboats. Thus, for torpedo boats and then for destroyers, the DNC circulated broad requirements and monitored the designs submitted. The torpedo gunboats were an intermediate case. As destroyers grew, the gap between a scaled-down unarmoured cruiser and a scaled-up (and substantially strengthened) torpedo boat shrank, so that the DNC felt capable of designing destroyers. After 1909, he took over the destroyer design process, the results generally being called Admiralty designs. Even then the specialist builders were invited to submit alternative designs, particularly when the DNC or the E-in-C wanted to try special features. The A to I ships of the interwar period were all DNC designs. They were so successful that the major export success of the late 1930s was for modified Admiralty-designed destroyers.

Unlike the DNC, the E-in-C lacked in-house design capability. He recommended machinery features and monitored firms’ proposals. The E-in-C’s attempt to ensure the efficiency of destroyer machinery by circulating Yarrow’s designs among other builders, led to a prolonged conflict between Yarrow and the Admiralty, the firm refusing to bid for several years.

A war crisis with Russia in 1878 showed that intelligence and staff support for the Royal Navy was inadequate. A Foreign Intelligence Committee, which also had war planning functions, was formed. In 1883, it morphed into the Naval Intelligence Department (NID). Despite this organisation s name, it had important staff functions. For example, the NID published classified analyses of questions such as the value of speed versus protection in battleships. For a time its chief was in effect chief of the naval staff, though not designated as such.

In 1911, it appeared that war against Germany might be imminent. Summoned to brief Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Arthur K Wilson, explained his war plans unconvincingly. The more plausible representatives of the British Army, including War Minister Haldane, convinced Asquith that the Admiralty needed a new civilian chief – and an army-style war staff. Winston Churchill was moved in October 1911 from the Home Office to the Admiralty as First Lord specifically to solve the perceived planning mess. A War Staff, formed in 1912, was in effect the planning and mobilisation elements of the old NID. The NID survived as an intelligence organisation, collecting both operational and technical information.

During the First World War, critics of the Admiralty organisation argued that it was hopelessly hidebound, slow, and inept. Later the Admiralty was blamed for the failure to institute convoy before spring 1917; thus the reform of that year was justified in retrospect as part of the claim that the new Lloyd George government alone had saved Britain. Reforms included the choice of a civilian, George Geddes, as Controller; Geddes was already famous for his success in disentangling the railway system in France. He was brought to the Admiralty to accelerate naval and merchant shipbuilding, both badly strained. First Sea Lord became Chief of the Naval Staff, with a Deputy Chief (not on the Board) assisting him. New Admiralty departments included Torpedo and Mining (Director, the DTM). Postwar, Gunnery (ie, fire control, headed by the DGD) and Electrical Engineering (Director, the DEE) were added.

The British financial year began on 1 April, so a programme year extended from 1 April to 31 March – for example, the 1912–13 Programme was for ships to be ordered in summer or autumn 1913, the Estimates for that year having been approved by Parliament that spring. Typically, the Admiralty Board decided the programme for the coming financial year early in the year, with the Cabinet deciding on what to submit to Parliament by late March. Because the character of the programme depended on the cost of the ships, some design estimates had to be completed in autumn of the previous year. Thus the basic characteristics of the 1914–15 destroyers were set during summer and autumn 1913.

The builders

The two pre-eminent builders of small fast torpedo craft were Thornycroft and Yarrow, with J S White, more specialist in yacht-building, a distant third. These three firms built the British torpedo boats. J & G Thomson of Clydebank achieved some important successes with private torpedo craft ventures; later it became more famous as John Brown, after it was taken over by the Sheffield steel firm of that name. With the advent of destroyers, firms that specialised in larger ships were given design and construction contracts: the most important at the outset were surely W G Armstrong (Elswick), Cammell Laird, Fairfield, Hawthorn Leslie, Palmers, and Vickers (originally the Naval Construction & Armament Company). Some firms had close relationships with foreign yards, so that foreign destroyers were built to British plans. For example, Pattison in Italy used Thornycroft plans. Vickers owned much of the Spanish shipbuilding industry from 1909 on. Unfortunately, it is rarely possible to be certain that a particular foreign destroyer corresponds to a particular British design.

The situation is made more complex by the loss of some key records. For Thornycroft, an excellent Thornycroft List, compiled by David Lyon, survives in manuscript form at the National Maritime Museum. So does a design notebook compiled by Vickers’ chief designer George Thurston. Unfortunately, many of Yarrow’s papers were destroyed during a Second World War bombing raid. I have been unable to pursue other builders’ design collections. In some cases, the foreign destroyer covers at the National Maritime Museum indicate design origins.

Later British torpedo boats

British builders kept producing larger torpedo boats for foreign customers, and the Royal Navy bought versions for its own use. Yarrow’s 135-foot TB 80, the first British torpedo boat with a turtleback, was based on its 135-foot Falke for Austria. Apparently, the turtleback was an afterthought, because a weight sheet dated 24 July 1886 shows both her original design displacement (105.8 tons) and a new estimate incorporating the proposed turtleback and miscellaneous armament (106.1 tons). The turtleback became an important feature of later British torpedo boats and destroyers. In theory, it threw spray away from the boat, though critics pointed out that a turtle-backed boat tended to dig into waves and that her bridge was often quite wet. On her official trials in December 1886, Falke made 22.43 knots at a displacement of eighty-seven tons. The 1887–8 Programme included six repeat versions of Yarrow’s TB 79 with turtlebacks, TB 82–87. In addition, in 1887, the India office ordered seven slightly enlarged 125-footers. Taken over by the Royal Navy in 1892, by 1898 these were numbered in the torpedo boat series as TB 100–106.

Forts Maxim Gorky I & II

Armored Coastal Battery-30 and Armored Coastal Battery-35

German soldiers take cover on the battered concrete face of Fort Maxim Gorky below the burning armored cupola with its two 12-inch naval guns, now crippled and askew. At battle’s end, shattered chunks of the fort’s concrete bulwark testify to the fierceness of the attack. When resistance ended, the Germans found only fifty Russian survivors, all severely wounded, in the bowels of the stronghold.

The fortress of Sevastopol on the Crimea with its ring of forts and coastal batteries covered a circumference of about 10 to 12 km. Six heavy coastal batteries, two located north of Severnaja Bay, reinforced other coastal positions such as three old coastal forts on the north side of the position and three on the south side. Coastal Battery Shiskov, completed in 1912, mounted four 120-mm guns on pivots mounted on concrete platforms. Naval Battery Mamaschai (Coast Battery #10), completed in 1930 and one of the newer positions, mounted four 203-mm guns with gun shields on an open concrete platform similar to most of the other coastal batteries. Coast Battery #18, completed in 1917, and Coast Battery #19, completed in 1924, mounted four 152-mm guns each, and Coast Battery #3, two 130-mm guns. Fourteen new or reconditioned old forts, most of them north of the bay, and 3,600 concrete and earthen positions supported by about 350 km of trenches and thousands of land mines, completed the fortress in early 1942. Trenches and tunnels linked many of the positions. In the Sapun Mountains, at the base of the peninsula where Sevastapol was located, natural and man-made caves in the high, almost perpendicular, bluffs of the Tshornaya River were turned into formidable defenses.             

In addition, the Maxim Gorky I and II (Coast Batteries #30 and #35), each had a pair of gun turrets: the first with twin gun turrets located east of Ljabimorka (north of the bay) and the second with a set of similar turrets situated on the south-western end of the peninsula where Sevastopol stood. Battery Strelitzka mounted six 254-mm guns. Fort Stalin and Fort Lenin included a battery of four 76.2 anti-aircraft guns. Other forts, such as Fort Volga, served as infantry positions. Finally, the old strong point of Malakoff was turned into an artillery and infantry position with two 130-mm guns with shields. Besides the normal anti-infantry and anti-tank obstacles, the Soviets employed a “flame ditch,” a concrete lined ditch where fuel funneled through a pipe was ignited, creating a fire barrier.      

Although it was not actually a coastal defense sector, the isthmus linking the Crimea to the mainland was defended by the Perekop Line, consisting of permanent works forming two continuous lines. In the low lying treeless plain, every rise over 10 meters dominated the area. The 15 km wide northern belt included the outpost of Perekop. The main defensive area, the 400 year old Tartar Trench, cut through the isthmus and served as a moat supported by two dams. The ditch was about 9.0 meters deep, 20 meters wide and was filled with water. The southern position, which crossed the isthmus taking advantage of the local lakes and canals, was supported further to the south by the Tshetarlyk River. Numerous bunkers covered barriers of steel anti-tank rail obstacles, tank traps, and mine fields. Unlike many of the positions on the border, these were already camouflaged and difficult to detect.

Coast Artillery:   Range (meters)

355.6-mm (14´´) 31,000

305-mm (12´´) 24,600 to 42,000

234-mm 24,000

203-mm (8´´) (German) 33,500

181-mm*152-mm (6´´) 14,000 to 18,000

130-mm* (5.1´´) 19,600 to 25,400

105-mm and 152-mm (old weapons) 15,000 to 18.000

75-mm (3´´)(French Canet) 8,000

*These may be the weapons identified as 185-mm and 132-mm weapons by Germans.


152-mm Howitzer 1938 12,400

122-mm Howitzer 1938 12,100

107-mm Cannon 1940 M-60 17,450

76.2-mm Cannon 1936 13,500

45-mm Anti-Tank 1932, 1937 4,670 to 8,800

120-mm 1938 5,700 to 6,000

82-mm Mortar 1936 3,100

50-mm Mortar 1940 800                

7.62-mm Light Machine Gun(Maxim 1910)                                               

76.2-mm Light Machine Gun (Degtiarev 1928)         

*Sources are inconsistent with regard to the figures and the type of shell used

According to German documents, the so-called 76.2-mm Fortress Cannon on a special ball mount in a gun casemate, replaced the older 76.2-mm gun used in fortifications and had a faster rate of fire. The mount included a funnel that carried the used shell into the fossé in front of the gun position. The older gun positions on the Stalin Line did not have this type of funnel, but included an embrasure cover that dropped in front of the gun.   

The mortars and most of the artillery were placed in field fortifications made of earth and logs. Many of these positions were probably not prepared until after the invasion in 1941.             

In addition to these weapons, there were also small flame throwers, static weapons buried into the ground with only their nozzles exposed and ignited electrically or by trip wire. They were placed in front of the defensive position or among the obstacles. According to German sources, the Soviets used a 1941 design, which means that it is not likely that they were in the Stalin Line. However, they may have been placed in other positions such as the Minsk to Moscow highway or the Mozhaisk Line.

World War II      

The Germans, who invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, were not fully aware of the defensive positions that faced them. They estimated that 40% were completed, but had no drawings showing exact locations or composition of Russian installations, except for those located right on the border. 

The staff of the German 8th and 29th Divisions had little knowledge of the condition or existence of Russian fortifications behind the Popily and Niemen Rivers. They planned to deal with any fortifications they encountered with massed artillery bombardment from twenty-nine heavy batteries, including eleven 210-mm mortar batteries.

The Germans easily overran the first bunkers, which were empty, poorly camouflaged, exposed in open terrain, and devoid of obstacles. The Germans smashed the bunker embrasures with anti-tank guns and destroyed many with flame throwers and demolition charges. The 8th Division quickly overcame most opposition on its front with these methods. Grodno fell on June 23 after all the bunkers in front of it had been eliminated. The 28th Division simply bypassed many Russian fortifications at Dorgun on the first day and moved to the Niemen. This division was later ordered to take the strongest border defenses in the area, the Sopockinie fortifications, which it had previously bypassed. After bitter fighting, Sopockinie was taken on June 24. Troops in a three-level bunker resisted for seven hours in the face of the German troops and engineers who detonated several hundred kilograms of explosives. The Germans attributed their success to insufficient Soviet troops in the area and to the incomplete state of the defenses, which lacked obstacles, minefields, and camouflage.               

The old fortress of Brest-Litovsk, located on four islands with wide moats and old walls, was put back into service by the Russians soon after they occupied it in 1939. The German 45th Division attacked it, supported by huge 210-mm howitzers and two 600-min mortars. After a river assault, the German troops encircled it, but it took them seven days of intense fighting to take the citadel, since they had under-estimated the strength of the old works.     

Further to the south, the Germans attacked the Sokal defenses on the Bug River where the Soviets had completed and camouflaged many of the bunkers. On the first day, the Germans methodically eliminated each position, leaving an engineer battalion behind to complete the work the next day. On June 25 twenty two- and three-level bunkers, which were still incomplete, went back into action. Even though they lacked camouflage, they managed to resist for a considerable time. One of the bunkers with a cloche proved particularly difficult to disable. The Germans used demolition charges to eliminate many of them. The procedure required engineers to advance under cover of flame-throwers and place demolition charges in the ventilation shafts, blasting the entrances.    

The URs of Kiev gave stiff resistance from July to August 1941 with the city of Kiev holding off several assaults until August. Further north on other parts of the Stalin Line, many of the URs such as Slutsk, were little more than skeletons, of little use to the Soviets despite Zhukov’s pre-invasion efforts.             

The defenses on the Dniestr extended up to 10 km in depth. Along the east bank of the Dniestr the Germans encountered elements of the old Stalin Line. The defenses near the river lacked an outpost line. Two- and three-embrasure light bunkers for machine guns and a few gun emplacements, stood 400 to 2,000 meters apart in the Yampol sector (UR of Novogrod-Volynski) and were reinforced by field fortifications.             

Elements of the German Eleventh Army in pursuit of Soviet troops retreating from the Pruth River, encountered these works in mid-July. Two infantry divisions attacked across the defended river crossings on July 18 at Cosauti and General Poetash. The Germans successfully forced a crossing at both points. Assault engineers eliminated the bunkers at Porohy with the use of flame-throwers and pole charges placed against the embrasures. Heavy explosive charges reduced the remaining bunkers. Russian troops continued to fight desperately even when out flanked and in a hopeless position, not knowing that the high command had already sacrificed them before the invasion began. German reports indicate that the Soviets reoccupied abandoned positions in places where local resistance was strong. In some instances, however, the troops turned out to be raw recruits forced to defend bunkers unfamiliar to them and they surrendered quickly.         

A heavily fortified area of the Stalin Line at Dubossary, containing many bunkers, artillery batteries, and other supporting positions, finally fell at the end of July. German engineers and infantrymen, supported by anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, engaged in close combat, finally overcoming Soviet resistance.     

In September, the Germans penetrated the position they called the Leningrad Line and struggled on. The Mozhaisk Line, the defenses in front of Moscow, was still incomplete and fell quickly in October. For the most part, the Soviets failed to use effectively the fortifications between the border and Moscow, partly because most were incomplete and not fully manned. Odessa, which had only field fortifications and no permanent landward fortifications, resisted until November 1941.   

After the Germans overran the Perekop Line on the isthmus leading into the Crimea in October 1941, it was only a matter of time before Sevastopol fell. It held out for twenty-eight days in a battle that ended in July 1942. At Sevastopol the Germans deployed their super heavy artillery, including the 800-mm rail gun Dora, to destroy key points like Maxim Gorky I. On June 6, heavy German guns and mortars fired on Maxim Gorky I and scored direct hits that destroyed one of the gun turrets and damaged the other. Additional artillery fire and air bombardment failed to eliminate the Maxim Gorky damaged turret, which was finally put out of action by assault engineers on June 17. The battle for the battery continued as the Russians fought from its battered positions until July 1. The 800-mm monster rail gun inflicted little damage beside landing three rounds on Fort Stalin on June 5, and fifteen rounds on Fort Molotov on the next day. German heavy artillery concentrated on Fort Stalin on June 11-12. The four 76.2-mm guns of the fort had special shelters and remained in action until June 13 when an infantry assault finally took the fort. By early July, the Germans had fired over a million rounds. They had taken over 3,500 fortified positions, 7 armored forts, 38 bunkers built into the rock, 118 bunkers of reinforced concrete, and another 740 built of earth and stone. On July 4, after taking the Sapun positions, and the final assault that took Maxim Gorky II, the campaign against the last major pre-war fortified position came to a close. Soviet methods of fortifications began to change as the war progressed.

The German Siege 1942

Between 2 and 6 June, the Eleventh Army fired a total of 42,595 rounds equivalent to 2,449 tons of munitions. Some nine per cent of Eleventh Army’s ammunition stockpile was expended in the preparation phase. German divisional artillery fired 19,750 rounds of 105mm and 5,300 rounds of 150mm ammunition in the five-day bombardment. Infantry guns fired another 4,200 rounds of 75mm and 150mm ammunition, plus 5,300 81mm mortar rounds. The corps-level Nebelwerfer battalions remained silent during this phase, not firing a single rocket. Two-thirds of the super heavy artillery rounds fired in the prep phase were from the four 240mm H39 howitzers and 16 305mm Skoda mortars.

The heaviest weapons, the Karl mortars and ‘Dora’, only played a minor role in the opening bombardment. One Karl mortar fired two registration rounds on 2 June, but the battalion then was not committed until 6 June. After an immense engineering effort, ‘Dora’ was finally installed at Bakhchysaray 25km north-east of Sevastopol and was ready for firing on 5 June. At 0535hrs, ‘Dora’ fired one of its 7-ton shells at Fort Maxim Gorky I’s Bastion I, and then proceeded to lob eight rounds at the minor Coastal Battery 2 near the harbour entrance. Accuracy was poor, with most rounds missing by 300m or more. Six rounds were then fired at Fort Stalin, with the closest round landing within 35-40m of the target and most impacting 130-260m away. On 6 June, ‘Dora’ opened fire in the evening and fired seven rounds at Fort Molotov; one round struck within 80m of the target, three rounds within 165-210m, one round within 310m, one round 500m off and one round 615m off. ‘Dora’ was then directed against a cleverly camouflaged ammunition dump named White Cliff on the northern side of Severnaya Bay and fired nine rounds with no effect.

It was more difficult for the Germans to employ the clumsy and shortrange Karl system, but on the late afternoon of 6 June the men of the 1st Battery/833rd Heavy Artillery Battalion were able to manoeuvre the 600mm mortar known as ‘Thor’ up onto a hill just 1,200m from the nearest Soviet positions of the 95th Rifle Division. From this location, ‘Thor’ had a clear line of sight to Fort Maxim Gorky I 3,700m to the south, and at 1700hrs it started lobbing 16 of its 2-ton concrete-piercing shells at the target. One of the shells hit Turret No. 2, severely damaging the weapon and causing casualties among the crew. ‘Thor’ was less effective against Bastion I, which contained the fort’s communications and range-finding equipment, but a Stuka attack succeeded in knocking out the cable trunk. All told, Coastal Battery 30 suffered about 40 casualties among its 290 naval gunners during the air and artillery bombardment, but neither ‘Thor’ nor ‘Dora’ had succeeded in destroying the installation.

Although the use of super-heavy weapons such as the Karl mortars and ‘Dora’ may have undermined the morale of the Soviet troops on the receiving end of multi-ton shells, these weapons actually failed to make a significant contribution commensurate with their cost. Primary responsibility must rest with General der Artillerie Zuckertort, the commander of the 306th Army Artillery Command, who violated the cardinal rule of artillery support in that he allowed these expensive weapons to fire too few rounds at too many targets, resulting in none of them actually being destroyed. ‘Dora’ had only 48 rounds available but Zuckertort used them against eight different targets, including only nine rounds against the primary target of Fort Maxim Gorky I. Furthermore, the super-heavy artillery of 420mm or larger all ran out of ammunition early in the offensive and it was the less-celebrated Czech-made 305mm mortars and 240mm howitzers that made the greater contribution and continued to fire from the first day of the offensive to the last.

The Soviets held back most of their artillery during the period 2-6 June because of limited ammunition supplies and concern about exposing their few heavy weapons to enemy counterbattery fire or Stuka attack. At the start of June, the SOR had about 200-300 rounds for each of its howitzers and 600-700 rounds for each mortar. Yet Soviet observers were vigilant and when they could confirm the location of a German artillery unit, they would call upon a few designated ‘sniper batteries’ that could shoot and then re-position. During the period 2-6 June, the Soviets destroyed three German artillery pieces, including a precious 280mm howitzer.

On 7 June 1942, after five days of bombardment, the Soviets expected an imminent ground assault. On the evening of 6 June around 2300hrs, Soviet artillery supporting Defensive Sectors III and IV began shooting harassing fires against suspected German troop assembly areas. In spite of this, at 0315hrs the 306th Army Artillery Command began a massive one-hour ‘destruction fire’, concentrating on the area between Haccius Ridge and Trapez. Both ‘Odin’ and ‘Thor’ joined the bombardment, firing a total of 54 rounds against Coastal Battery 30’s turrets [ Maxim Gorky I] and Bastion I, as well as against targets around Belbek. Infantry guns and mortars fired for effect against the front-line trenches in the Belbek Valley, while Nebelwerfer hit the second-line positions and 305mm mortars worked over key targets such as the Olberg. Unlike the previous five days, the German artillery fired at nearly maximum rates of fire and did not pause to assess damage. The effect on the forward Soviet positions around the Stellenberg (Hill 124) was stunning as infantry fighting positions were pounded mercilessly. Long-range guns went after targets in the Soviet rear, particularly reserves and known artillery positions. The Soviet 7th Naval Infantry Brigade, sitting in reserve well behind the line, was particularly hard hit and lost most of the 200 replacements that had just arrived to a combined air and artillery attack. However, ‘Dora’ continued to waste rounds firing against the White Cliff ammunition dump – which prompted an angry rebuke directly from Hitler to stop misusing the weapon against such targets. Although the Germans claimed that ‘Dora’ destroyed the dump – a claim that may be exaggerated – it is clear that it had failed to neutralize Fort Maxim Gorky I, which continued to fire periodically throughout 7 June.


The general restoration of Europe’s monarchies that followed Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was confirmed by the Congress of Vienna (1815), and the exiled king of Sardinia was not forgotten. He recovered his lost lands, returned to Turin, and promptly attempted the restoration of the status quo ante. Yet post-Napoleonic Europe was very different from pre-revolutionary Europe. Many of the ideas spawned and exported by the French Revolution continued to circulate, posing a near-ubiquitous challenge to the natural conservatism of the restored monarchs. The ideas of ‘the nation’, endowed with a life of its own, and of the inborn right of its inhabitants to liberty, equality and social fraternity, were particularly strong, beginning to undermine the post-Napoleonic order as soon as it was established. Three parts of Europe where ‘the nation’ felt most excluded from politics were specially susceptible; and popular demands grew for the creation of nation-states on the French model. Poland, which had been carved up by three neighbouring empires, was to strive in vain throughout the nineteenth century to win back its independence; but Germany and Italy were to succeed where Poland failed. Germany was divided by the intense rivalry of Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria; advocates of the German national movement, the Vormärz (‘pre-March’), could at first see no easy way to do so. Italy’s divisions were still more marked. The north was dominated by the Austrian Empire, which held onto both Venice and Milan; the centre was run by a gaggle of reactionary monarchs, including the Roman pontiff in his Papal States; and the south remained in the grip of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In face of the restored hereditary rulers, the advocates of the Italian national movement, the Risorgimento or ‘Resurgence’, did not possess a common strategy.

For Italian nationalism encompassed several competing interests. One wing placed the emphasis on cultural objectives, notably on education, the promotion of a single, standardized Italian language, and the promotion of national consciousness. The central figure in this was the Milanese writer, Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), author of the first novel written in standard Italian, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1827). Another wing was dedicated to political radicalism. Here the central role was played by the secret and revolutionary Society of the Coalburners, the Carbonari, whose activities were formally banned; one of its members, a Sicilian soldier called Guglielmo Pepe (1783– 1855), launched the first of many abortive risings in Calabria in 1820. There was even a tradition of support for the Risorgimento by ruling monarchs; Napoleon’s stepson and viceroy in Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais, had set the example, which was followed by the emperor’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, when King of Naples. It seemed to create the perceived need for a political patron of established authority, who could curb the hotheads while giving heart to the moderates and negotiating with the powers.


The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was widely regarded, in Italy as in the rest of Europe, as a place of sloth and squalor, of grandeur and poverty, a place where landless labourers kept themselves just alive by scratching the parched soil of distant noblemen, where street urchins in the city picked the pockets of wealthy tourists and bands of brigands roamed with impunity in the hills outside, a land exploited and oppressed by an indolent monarchy, a frivolous aristocracy and a swarm of grasping clergy.

This picture was inherited and preserved by generations of historians until recently the stereotype was re-examined. Then it transpired that the kingdom was not just a land of latifondi, of vast desiccated estates in the interior that contained little except scrub for goats and some thin soil for wheat. Naples may not have had the irrigation or the natural advantages of Lombardy, but it was not an entirely backward place; wheat yields there were higher than in the Papal States. As for the latifondisti, it emerged that they were not all absentee landlords frittering away the produce of their workers by living in luxury in the capital. The latifondo was part feudal and part capitalist, part social structure and part business enterprise. Owners used their lands to feed themselves and the people who lived there, but they often grew food for foreign markets as well. The exported produce of the Barracco family, latifondisti from Calabria, included liquorice, olive oil, fine wool and cacciacavallo cheese.

The state of industry in Naples has been similarly disparaged: travel accounts of the period leave the impression that the inhabitants had never heard of the spinning jenny or the steam engine. Yet a modernized textile industry, aided by a sensible tariff policy, existed in the Apennine foothills in the early nineteenth century; not much later, an engineering industry was established around the capital. Naples in fact enjoyed a number of industrial ‘firsts’. It possessed the largest shipyards in Italy, it launched the first peninsular steamboat (1818) and it enjoyed the largest merchant marine in the Mediterranean; it also built the first iron suspension bridge in Italy, constructed the first Italian railway and was among the first Italian cities to use gas for street lighting. Admittedly, not all these achievements were as impressive as they sound. Naples may have built the first railway, but it was a short one, and its construction did not lead to a rapid expansion of the network. Most of the other states soon caught up and overtook it: by 1860, when the whole of southern Italy had only 125 miles of track, Lombardy had 360 and Piedmont, after a slow start, possessed over 500.

A glance at its economic statistics reveals how separate Naples as a trading partner was from the rest of Italy. In 1855 85 per cent of its exports were sent to Britain, France and Austria, while only 3 per cent crossed the border into the Papal States; Neapolitan trade with Britain was three times greater than that with all the other Italian states added together. Feelings of separateness were not confined to commerce; Naples possessed its own remarkable legal system, widely regarded as superior to any other in the peninsula. Outsiders noticed that the place was different, a distinct, cosmopolitan entity, a kingdom (with or without Sicily) with an ancient history and borders which, almost uniquely in Italy, were not subjected to rearrangement after every war. Moreover, Naples itself was still by far the largest city in Italy – indeed the third-largest in Europe after London and Paris – and had been a capital since Charles of Anjou had established himself there 600 years earlier. It was the only Italian city, thought Stendhal, that had ‘the true makings of a capital’; the rest were ‘glorified provincial towns like Lyon’. Before 1860 hardly anyone contemplated the idea that the kingdom might be destroyed and its territory annexed by an all-Italian state; and little in the subsequent history of that state indicates that the Neapolitans would have been unhappier if they had been left to govern themselves.

In their propaganda Italian patriots of the nineteenth century identified the Neapolitan Bourbons as the chief home-grown tyrants and Austrian Habsburgs as their foreign equivalents. Yet even they were unable to convince themselves that the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was an oppressive state. It was governed by Ferdinand III, son of the great Peter Leopold and brother of the Austrian emperor whose armies had lost four wars against Napoleon and whose daughter had been sacrificed to the French emperor’s desire to beget an heir. Ferdinand’s return to Florence in 1814 did not lead to a persecution of bonapartists or to the abolition of reforms. As in the eighteenth century, Tuscany was a tolerant and civilized place that preferred Jews to Jesuits and welcomed exiles from Piedmont and from other states. Tariffs were low, censorship was feeble, and the armed forces were almost non-existent, though in an emergency the state could call for Austrian troops. Ferdinand was succeeded in 1824 by his son Leopold II, another benevolent ruler until the revolutions of 1848 converted him – along with Pope Pius IX and the King of Naples – to conservatism. In the early part of his reign he reduced taxes, carried out liberal reforms, encouraged science and returned to that perennially elusive project of Tuscan rulers, the draining of the Maremma marshlands on the Tyrrhenian coast.


The Army of the Two Sicilies was the land forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose armed forces also included a navy. It was in existence from 1734 to 1861. It was also known as the Royal Army of His Majesty the King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Reale esercito di Sua Maestà il Re del Regno delle Due Sicilie), the Bourbon Army (Esercito Borbonico) or the Neapolitan Army (Esercito Napoletano). Later many ex soldiers of this army joined Italian Royal Army.


Garibaldi was diverted from the escapade in Nice by news of a revolt in Sicily and pressure from a number of patriotic colleagues who begged him to lead an expedition in its support. In early April a Mazzinian plot in Palermo, which was quickly suppressed, had touched off a wider rebellion in the interior: bands of hostile and impoverished peasants spread across the island, killing or ejecting policemen and tax collectors and eliminating all form of local government. Many educated Sicilians approved of the rebellion against the Bourbons but were nervous of the other aims of an essentially social uprising. A few of them wanted independence and a few others hoped for union with the rest of Italy; Francesco Crispi, a lawyer and a future Italian prime minister, opted for union partly because he considered his fellow islanders incapable of ruling themselves. Most Sicilians were autonomists, however, who would have been content with a revival of the 1812 constitution and the distant sovereignty of the Bourbons. Their dislike of Naples was more vivid than their desire to join Italy.

Garibaldi was delighted by the tidings from Sicily and enthusiastic about the idea of an expedition there. He was an idealistic man with a simplistic ideology. Italy must be free and united, and its enemies – principally the pope, the Bourbons and the Austrians – must be overthrown. Although originally a republican, he now realized that the national cause was only likely to succeed under the leadership of Victor Emanuel.

The Sicilian uprising seemed to be faltering in mid-April, when Bourbon forces regained control of the coastal regions. Garibaldi was disheartened by the news and vacillated over his impending expedition. He had criticized Mazzini for irresponsible adventures and he did not wish to emulate Carlo Pisacane, the socialist patriot whose followers had been annihilated after landing three years earlier on the Neapolitan coast. Another problem was munitions. Garibaldi’s lieutenants had gone off to collect the money, arms and volunteers that were always available for any enterprise commanded by himself, but Azeglio, now the Governor of Milan, blocked a consignment of modern British rifles. ‘We could declare war on Naples,’ wrote the former prime minister, ‘but not have a diplomatic representative there and send rifles to the Sicilians.’14

At the end of the month, after further dispiriting news from Sicily, Garibaldi called the expedition off, but two days later, apparently convinced by Crispi that the rebellion was still active, decided to go ahead after all. As soon as one of his lieutenants had seized two steamships in the harbour of Genoa, he dressed himself up in the outfit he had picked up in South America – red shirt, pale poncho and silk handkerchief – and set off with his ‘Thousand’ volunteers across the Tyrrhenian Sea, a voyage that propelled him and them into legend and into comparisons with the ‘three hundred’ soldiers of Leonidas, the Spartan king who had held the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian army in 480 BC. It was indeed an heroic enterprise but it was also, incontrovertibly, illegal. Apart from stealing the two ships, Garibaldi was making an unprovoked attack on a recognized state with which his country, Piedmont-Sardinia, was not at war. History may have forgiven him for the deed, but it was an act of piracy all the same.

The Neapolitan king, Francesco II, did not at first take the expedition seriously. To him it seemed another adventure in the manner of Pisacane and the Bandiera brothers, a raid by a rabble of revolutionaries who would easily be defeated, despite the support of local rebels, by his troops on the island. Yet Garibaldi was a successful and charismatic guerrilla leader who enjoyed other advantages as well. King Ferdinand had died the previous year at Caserta after a reign of twenty-nine years, and his son, nicknamed Franceschiello, was young, timid and inexperienced. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had few allies except Austria, which was no longer in a position to help, and it had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain and France following their governments’ denunciations of Ferdinand’s ‘despotism’. The current Napoleon was unsympathetic to the Bourbons because he wanted their throne for his cousin Murat, and the British disliked them because Gladstone had convinced his colleagues that they presided over a uniquely awful regime. The hostility of France and Britain was fatal to the Bourbons because those nations had the means to decide whether ships might or might not reach their destinations in the Mediterranean. Had they wished to do so, their navies could have prevented Garibaldi from landing in Sicily in May and from crossing to Calabria in August.

While the expedition enjoyed the support of the small number of southern patriots, it also had backing, equivocal and confusing though this often was, from inside the Piedmontese establishment. Even those who opposed it did so halfheartedly. Cavour tried to dissuade the Thousand from embarking but he did not threaten force to deter them. Later he dispatched the Piedmontese navy to intercept the stolen ships, to prevent reinforcements from reaching Sicily and to delay Garibaldi’s crossing of the Straits of Messina. But the navy’s failure to achieve any of these objectives was not entirely the fault of the commander, the inept Count of Persano. Without some degree of official connivance, it is difficult to see how steamships could have been seized in Piedmont’s principal port, how the expedition could have managed to reach its destinations, and how so many soldiers ‘on leave’ from the Piedmontese army could have enlisted with the volunteers.

Garibaldi was lucky with his landing at Marsala on Sicily’s west coast on 11 May. The Bourbon garrison had just marched off to Trapani, and Neapolitan ships protecting the town had just sailed off to the south; later, when one of these vessels returned, it delayed firing at the red-shirted volunteers who were in the process of disembarking for fear of hitting two British ships in the harbour. The garibaldini had expected a welcome from islanders pining for liberation and were thus surprised to find a complete absence of enthusiasm for their arrival; also disconcerting was the invisibility of the revolt they had come to support. A few days later, however, the Thousand defeated a badly led Neapolitan force at Calatafimi and attracted a small number of Sicilians to their ranks. After the battle Garibaldi marched eastwards, capturing Palermo in June and Milazzo in July, landing on the Calabrian mainland in August and reaching Naples in September, four months after he had set forth from the Ligurian coast. In Palermo, where he established a government with himself as interim dictator and Crispi a secretary of state, he demonstrated his radical zeal by abolishing the grist tax and promising land reform for the peasants. Yet he could not go as far as he wished in this direction since he could not afford to alienate those landowners whose support was crucial for the achievement of political union with the north.

Although Garibaldi displayed courage and military skill in his campaign, the heroics were not quite on the scale that legend suggests. He did not defeat the 25,000 Neapolitan troops on the island with the thousand men he had arrived with at Marsala; over the summer, reinforcements from the north brought his own forces to more than 21,000. Nor was outrageous valour always required to overcome an enemy that, while well equipped, was poorly commanded and widely scattered. The young king was encumbered both with octogenarian ministers and with septuagenarian generals, one of whom had fought at Waterloo. These officers were not only old but also cowardly, incompetent and in some cases treacherous. At Calatafimi the Bourbon forces were positioned on a hilltop, inflicting casualties on the garibaldini attacking up the slope, when they were inexplicably ordered to retreat. One general foolishly suggested a truce which allowed Garibaldi to re-arm and take control of Palermo, another withdrew his troops unnecessarily from Catania to Messina, and officers from both the army and the navy deserted and took bribes. Some of these individuals were subsequently sent to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where the guilty ones were lightly demoted.

In Calabria Garibaldi found the opposition even feebler than in Sicily. Although the Neapolitan generals had 16,000 soldiers in the toe of Italy, they put up little resistance and sometimes submitted without firing a shot; one battalion surrendered to six wandering garibaldini who had got lost. Reggio was handed over with hardly a fight, and so was Cosenza. In Naples the minister for war announced in the mornings that he was departing for Calabria to defeat Garibaldi but then changed his mind in the afternoons because he considered his presence in the capital was essential to prevent disorder. Well did he and the other generals deserve a dismissive line in Richard Strauss’s opera, Der Rosenkavalier: when the Marschallin thinks she is about to be surprised with her lover, she decides to confront her husband, the field marshal: ‘Ich bin kein napolitanischer General: wo ich steh’ steh’ ich.’ (‘I am not a Neapolitan general: where I stand I stand.’)

On 7 September Garibaldi entered Naples by train, in advance of his army, where he was welcomed by Bourbon officials: the minister of police had already sycophantically told him that the city was waiting ‘with the greatest impatience … to greet the redeemer of Italy and to place in his hands the power and destiny of the state’. King Francesco had left the city the previous day, intending to carry on the war from Gaeta, the coastal fortress town near the border with the Papal States in the north. For all his limitations, he was a conscientious and honourable monarch who realized that a siege of Italy’s largest and most densely populated city would cause terrible carnage. But he did not shirk or run away like the dukes of central Italy had done a year before. He left garrisons in the castles of Naples and marched out, leaving nearly all his money and his personal possessions in his capital. He expected to return.

In the north of the kingdom the Bourbon army was transformed. Loyal regiments from Naples and other provinces of the mainland fought valiantly and were victorious in several skirmishes against the redshirts near Capua. Yet once again the generalship was defective, too slow, too cautious, too lacking in imagination. An urgent and vigorous counter-attack might have defeated the smaller enemy force; but when the advance eventually came, Garibaldi halted it on the River Volturno, a dogged defensive action in which he lost more men than his opponents. Even then the Neapolitans might have remained undefeated if the contest had been limited to themselves and the volunteers.

As soon as Cavour realized that Garibaldi would conquer Sicily, he was eager to annex the island to Piedmont. He had always detested home-grown revolutionaries more than he disliked Bourbons and Austrians, and the last thing he wanted was to see Sicily and possibly Naples in the hands of democrats and other radicals. Once the redshirts had reached Palermo, he therefore sent his representative, La Farina, who arrived in early June with posters proclaiming ‘We want annexation’. It was a strange appointment because La Farina was an insensitive individual and a well-known antagonist of both Garibaldi and Crispi. So much of his time in Sicily was spent intriguing and causing friction among members of the new government that after a month Garibaldi had him arrested and sent back north.

In Naples Cavour chose to employ a tactic similar to that which La Farina had failed with the previous year in the Po Valley: arranging a ‘spontaneous’ uprising in the city – and doing so before Garibaldi arrived. He duly sent Persano to the Bay of Naples with money in his pockets to bribe officials, and soldiers hidden on his ships ready to rush to the aid of the conspirators on land. In the city the Piedmontese ambassador duly gave the signal for revolt but, as so often with these Cavourian schemes, nothing happened. The Neapolitans were sensibly waiting to see which side was likely to win before committing themselves to the conflict.


Few Europeans mourned the fall of the Bourbons. Nor did later Neapolitans greatly regret the passing of a dynasty that had provided them with five kings over a century and a quarter – longer than the rule of either the Tudors or the Stuarts in England. Sentimental attachment was subdued perhaps by distant memories of earlier dynasties and by the presence of so many monuments of previous ages. The family had indeed produced no outstanding monarch but nor – despite what propaganda said – had it supplied a very bad one. In any case, was the general standard any lower than those of their cousins in Spain, the Savoia in Piedmont or the Hanoverians in Great Britain? The victors and their international supporters claimed that the Bourbon exit was an inevitable episode on the road to Italian unity, a necessary consequence of a war of liberation, the conflict having been simply a logical stage in the process of nation-building, a way of absorbing natural national territory – as Wessex had ingested Mercia or France had taken in Provence. Few people outside the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies saw it for what it ultimately was, a war of expansion conducted by one Italian state against another. The unusual feature of the contest was that it was a three-sided one, two sides playing the recognized parts of protagonist (the garibaldini) and antagonist (the Bourbons) while the third (the Piedmontese) took on a more subtle role, pretending to be a friend of the others but in reality being the enemy (and eventual conqueror) of both.

Moral and historical justifications for the conquest of Naples are perplexing. According to G. M. Trevelyan, the doyen of British eulogists of the Risorgimento, unification was necessary because of ‘the utter failure of the Neapolitans to maintain their own freedom when left to themselves in 1848’. Yet other people have failed in similar fashion without needing or deserving conquest. Another argument, still favoured by certain Neapolitan historians, is that the rapid collapse of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1860 proved that it was rotten and required elimination. Again, other regimes have collapsed before a sudden onslaught only to be resuscitated later by their allies. A distinguished historian of Naples, an elderly man whose great-grandparents were all Neapolitans, insists that his country could not have become a modern nation by itself after 1860, that it needed the partnership of Piedmont to give it the apparatus of a modern state. His argument does not convince. Piedmont was undoubtedly a richer and more liberal state than the Two Sicilies in 1860, but for most of the eighteenth century Naples had possessed a more enlightened regime than Turin, and only a generation before union it had had more industry and more progressive codes of law. The belief that Naples, unlike other countries in western Europe, was incapable of evolving by itself is simply illogical, an example of that southern inferiority complex which was engendered by the triumphalism of the Risorgimento and reinforced by much subsequent talk, northern and condescending, about ‘the southern question’ and ‘the problem of the mezzogiorno’.