On 1 November 1918 the Canadian Corps would take Valenciennes. The small city was only 30 kilometres from Le Cateau but the artillery tactics and techniques were four years apart, and it made a world of difference.
In late October Haig reckoned the Germans were on their last legs, with Turkey and Bulgaria knocked out of the war and Italy preparing to attack the tottering Austrians. With the Americans and French attacking, it was time for the BEF to launch one final blow. To get the British First Army in position for the anticipated Battle of the Scheldt, they first needed to take Valenciennes, which lay east of the Scheldt Canal. Because of the rain and German-controlled flooding, the low ground west of the canal was flooded for a distance of perhaps a thousand yards; in addition, there was barbed wire on the eastern bank and the German troops (and machine guns) were safely positioned in houses. A frontal assault across the canal was out of the question. However, the canal swung round the city and to the south XXII Corps had got across. If the Germans could be thrown off Mt Houy (which was only 150ft high, but about 50ft higher than the surrounding country-side, and blocking observation of German artillery to the east), they could be levered out of Valenciennes.
However, the Germans recognised the key ground and they had plenty of guns; in addition, troop morale was reasonably firm. From 24 to 28 October several British attacks were made, all rushed and poorly supported, more in hopes that the Germans were weak than in confidence that the attacks would succeed. But the British troops were at the limit of their supply lines (railheads were 30 miles back, and lorries were in short supply), casualties had thinned the ranks and everyone was tired. The Scots of the 51st (Highland) Division pushed up Mt Houy, but their last attack on 28 October was driven back from the crest by a German counter-attack, despite support from nine brigades of field artillery and fourteen batteries of heavies.
The Canadian Corps was now moved in to make the attack. The Canadians had been facing the canal, but since the main thrust could not be made there, they were available. The 4th Canadian Division relieved the 51st Highlanders, and moved up guns and shells; they took several days to plan their attack. Few infantry and plenty of support was a key element of their plan: ‘to pay the price of victory, so far as possible, in shells and not in the lives of men’. The delay also allowed time to coordinate infantry, machine guns and artillery. The Canadians knew there had been several failed efforts to take Mt Houy, and steadily increasing German artillery fire showed the enemy’s determination to hold the position; however, the Canadian gunners were just as determined to crush German resistance by weight of shell.
The attack would be some 2,500 yards wide (about 1½ miles). One Canadian infantry brigade would attack (by this stage of the war, that meant about 1,200 men). Generally speaking, about 10 per cent of any unit was left out of battle in case there were heavy casualties. For that one infantry brigade, there were eight brigades of field artillery and six of heavy artillery. The first objective was basically Mt Houy, and the second was 2,000 yards beyond it, clearing a few villages and the suburbs of Valenciennes.
There was no preliminary bombardment, but most of the heavy artillery fired well ahead of the infantry, hitting the German defence in depth and the reserves. No fewer than 39 6-inch howitzers were assigned to fire one round per minute over the front of the attack, a ratio that equated to 1.6 shells per 100 yards and the bursting radius was over 500 yards. McNaughton was putting ‘a practically continuous rain of chunks of steel across the whole front of the attack’. That was the first phase; when the Germans were pushed off Mt Houy and lost their observation posts there, more Canadian guns could fire, and the second phase of the attack narrowed to 1,000 yards. Some 55 howitzers would fire 2 rounds every 3 minutes, so it became 3.6 rounds per minute per 100 yards.
In all, 144 18-pounders and 48 4.5-inch howitzers would fire a creeping barrage (effectively 7 tons of shells per minute), deliberately moving at only 100 yards in four minutes (later slowing to five minutes) so that the infantry would have no problem keeping up. The field from the foremost howitzers would fire some smoke shells but would also hit selected strong-points ahead of the 18-pounders. The infantry, in turn, pulled back from the foremost positions on the lower slopes of Mt Houy so the artillery would have a straight (and convenient) line for its starting barrage. Machine guns fired both forward and flanking barrages, taking advantage of the topography: Mt Houy was an exposed salient. The infantry would be attacking from the southwest with machine guns firing from the south and heavy artillery firing from the north. Additional machine-gun and heavy artillery barrages were planned for the right flank of the attack, covering the ground with fire instead of sending more infantry into battle. Planning also took into account where German reserves were likely to be and thus where counter-attacks were likely to start. Since the towns and villages were full of refugees, the French had forbidden unnecessary shelling. (The Germans were continuing to use gas shells, and the Canadian troops were upset about its use around unprotected civilians; they were prone to confiscate gas-masks from German prisoners and give them to civilians. They were also taking relatively few prisoners at this stage in the war.) The Canadians decided only to hit counter-attacks on the edge of towns; this meant that the Germans had a good night’s sleep in a building but they were easier to kill in the open. The half-circle of British positions allowed enfilade fire not only on the front line but on roads (for harassing fire) and on reserves. Counter-battery work was not neglected, with 49 guns assigned to obliterate the 26 known German battery positions. The gunners slept by their guns in case the Germans got wind of the attack.
One battery was assigned a particularly devious mission. It was deliberately sited where it could fire into the rear of the German positions, and shortened its range as the attack progressed. Not only did this prevent it from hitting the Canadian infantry, but the Germans would think their own artillery was shelling them and their morale would suffer accordingly.
At dawn, 05.15 hrs, on All Saints’ Day the bombardment crashed out and the infantry moved forwards. German artillery fired promptly and accurately but mainly at the British artillery, with little or no effect. (Gibbs called it a ‘fierce line of fire’ but noted that it quickly ended as counter-battery fire took effect.) The hapless German infantry soldiers, meanwhile, were deluged with shell-fire. Gibbs wrote, ‘our barrage rolled like a tide wiping them off the map of France’, and the New York Times headlined the story ‘British Gunfire Paralyses Foe’. Prisoners, ‘stupefied and demoralised’, surrendered freely, including a complete company that was trapped in the fog and smoke; perhaps the first thing they saw of the Canadians was their bayonet points. With these advantages, the first objective was reached on time. A few machine-gun nests and a single field gun held out during the advance to the second objective, inflicting casualties before being overrun by the experienced infantry. The heavy artillery fire stayed ahead of the barrage and deliberately smashed some rows of houses where the Germans were known to have positions (any refugees killed here were regarded as collateral damage). Once the objectives were secured, it was time to see what the Germans would do. Each of the infantry battalions moved a 6-inch trench mortar forwards, and three brigades of field artillery moved on to the slopes of Mt Houy. Their observers moved to the top, so they could quickly engage any target they saw. Shortly after noon German infantry was seen forming up and the planned protective barrage was employed: 11 batteries of 6-inch howitzers rolled a barrage over the Germans. The survivors lost all interest in attacking. Between 15.00 and 16.00 hrs more movement was seen on the right flank, and on-the-fly plans were made to hit the Germans once they had fully formed up. At 16.35 hrs the situation was judged ripe, and 9 batteries of 6-inch howitzers obliterated another counter-attack.
The results were gratifying. Mt Houy was taken and the Germans were levered out of Valenciennes. (Another Canadian brigade had squelched forwards to the canal to test the German positions, and found almost no resistance. By mid-morning two Canadian battalions were solidly across. The German infantry had withdrawn very quickly, probably realising from the noise of the bombardment on their left rear flank that their comrades could not hold under such a maelstrom.) Over 800 dead Germans were found around Mt Houy alone, and 1,800 prisoners taken. The 2,149 tons of shells had done their work. But the Canadians also suffered 501 casualties, out of the 1, 200 infantry in the attack. Massive (and well handled) firepower could reduce casualties – not least by allowing fewer infantry to attack – but there was no avoiding a substantial percentage of casualties. The three British divisions attacking further to the south took over 1,600 prisoners and counted 300 dead; their casualties were higher than the Canadians’, but by this stage of the war a well supported Allied attack could easily break any German line. The Canadians had used every trick in the Allied arsenal and noted a number of ideas for the future but their brutally effective use of artillery had not solved all the problems of the Great War.
A U.S. system designed to warn of enemy missile attacks successfully detected an Iranian missile attack in January. The early warning gave American troops at their Iraqi base time to take cover. U.S. Air Force personnel in Colorado detected and monitored the attack on the ground.
The U.S. Air Force is crediting an obscure, but important constellation of military satellites with saving American lives. The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) detected the launch of up to a dozen Iranian ballistic missiles in January—information that was passed to U.S. troops at the targeted Iraqi air base. While the attack injured more than 100 American servicemen and women, it didn’t lead to any deaths or serious injuries.
The attack took place on January 7, 2020. The Iranian government, in retaliation for the U.S. targeted killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem Soleimani, launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at American forces located at Al Asad air base and the city of Irbil. Although President Donald Trump assured the U.S. there were no casualties as a result of the attack, it was later disclosed more than 100 troops suffered brain injuries.
But it could have been worse. The reason injuries were so limited, the Air Force says, is because the attack was detected ahead of time—from space. According to C4ISRNet, the Air Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP), which is designed to spot ballistic missile launches worldwide, noticed the attack and was able to provide early warning, allowing American troops to shelter in place.
During the Cold War, the Pentagon built up an extensive worldwide network of sensors to detect missile launches. One aspect of this network was the SBIRS. While U.S. ground-based radars could only detect incoming missiles as they rose into view over America, satellites with infrared sensors could be stationed permanently in orbit above the Soviet Union, China, and every other conceivable adversary, ready to detect the telltale plumes of hot exhaust billowing from a ballistic missile.
SBIRS consists of four satellites in geosynchronous orbit and two in highly elliptical Earth orbits, each armed with infrared sensors. SBIRS coverage is unknown, but apparently covers a good deal of the globe, and the sensors are sensitive enough to detect even smaller launches, like Iraq’s 1991 Scud missile launches against Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In 2015, the Air Force noted that the SBIRS constellation had the ability to detect natural Earth-based phenomena such as wildfires and volcano eruptions, though it isn’t known if the service went on to share such information with interested parties.
U.S. Chief of Space Operations Gen John “Jay” Raymond credited the 2nd Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado for detecting the attack and providing warning information to U.S. Central Command.
Artist’s impression of the colossal WLT Type 1, drawn from the plans submitted by Mr Cargin. The unique pads on the tracks are extended on the leading edge of the tracks, and are changing their aspect on the top rear of the track unit that has the soldier standing next to it.
From the Johnson Light infantry tank in the early 1920s through to the Duplex Drive tanks of the Second World War it would appear that there was no development work on amphibious tanks in the UK. Vickers did design a couple of two-man amphibious tanks in the 1930s, but these were not effective combat machines, being almost unarmoured and armed only with a machine gun. Yet the machine did find some overseas sales, most notably to Russia, who developed the tank into the T-37A. The British did develop some wooden floats that could be attached to a Vickers light tank to enable it to cross bodies of water but, apart from that, the common misconception is that Britain did not carry out any research or development into amphibious tanks.
During the first years of the Second World War Britain devoted some time and effort to designs and studies into operating tanks across water. By sheer coincidence, some private individuals were also thinking of this problem and came up with some ideas on the subject.
The first tank to receive a mention in the historical record was just such a private venture. On 2 July 1940 William Train Gray, of Altrincham, Chester, filed a patent for an amphibious tank but no plans or drawings were included with the application. Mr Gray’s novel idea was termed a ‘longitudinal’ tank with a series of sections rotating around a single axis. One section held the tank’s fighting compartment and crew, and remained the same way up at all times, while the others had tracks on the bottom and boat-like elements, such as propellers, hull and rudders on the top. When entering the water the front section would rotate through 180 degrees, leaving the tracks on the top and the boat on the bottom. The same would happen when the rear section entered the water. The process was reversed when leaving the water. For obvious reasons, the idea does not seem to have even been looked at by the government’s scientific bodies.
The government itself was alive to the idea of amphibious tanks. Throughout 1940 there was some thought going into the concept of amphibious tanks, their design and operation. Although some experiments had been carried out on submersible tanks, including a cruiser Mk I being modified to drive along under water and managing to operate in water ten-feet deep. Initially thoughts were of infantry tanks being submersible for river crossings and the like, and cruiser tanks being supported by flotation devices. For landings from the sea, submersible designs were less favoured, and the development moved away from submersion. One idea put forward was the concept of building ‘the battle landships of the Army’. These were seen more as boats with tracks and were in the 800-850-ton range. Lord William Douglas Weir, the man behind these ideas, pointed out that tracked machines of 1,200 tons already existed. With a warship’s level of armour they would be able to ignore field artillery and would crush any known obstacle.
This idea was seen as too outlandish and the task of designing an amphibious tank and defining the requirements of the tank were handed to the Department of Naval Land Engineering (DNLE), which had previously designed the ‘Nellie’ trench-digging machine. The general staff requirement envisioned that the landings would consist of about 100 tanks in the first wave, launched from about 200 yards offshore. After landing, the tanks would need to fight and be able to secure a bridgehead about three to five miles in depth to cover follow-on waves. The War Office wanted the tanks in production by 1 April 1941. The short timescale meant that some of the more difficult propositions, such as submersion, were again dismissed which upset some parts of the development team as they had designed and were working on a submersible tank. The new DNLE tank was known simply as the AT-1, with the ‘AT’ standing for Amphibious tank. The design included track propulsion when in the water, which had some bearing on the next design we will study.
On 28 August 1940 an envelope with some plans and a covering letter landed on a desk in London in the Department for Scientific Research (DSR), and was then passed onto the DNLE for comment as they were working on amphibious tanks. The letter was from Matthew Cargin, of Wolley Avenue, New Farnley, Leeds, and in it he proposed a pair of new amphibious vehicles, both called the WLT. One stood for ‘Water and Land Tank’, the other ‘Water and Land Transport’. These monsters were just over 49 feet in length and 17 feet in width, and weighed between 235 and 265 tons. The ground pressure for the ‘WLT’ tank was a surprisingly low 1.25kg/cm2. In comparison, Germany’s super-heavy Maus was 1.45kg/cm2. Mr Cargin helpfully gave options for the tanks and transports. The Types 1 and 2 were both tanks with conical revolving turrets, the only difference between the two being the arrangement of their tracks. Type 1 had four tracks mounted on two independent turntables while Type 2 had its four tracks mounted directly to the hull in a much more conventional method. Most had four engines in the 225bhp range, although the Transport Type 2 had twin 375bhp engines. Endurance was about eight days of continuous use with land speeds ranging from 38mph to 60mph. Maximum water speed for all was about 11 knots. The transports could carry eleven men as well as supplies to keep them fed and watered for the tank’s full endurance.
One of Cargin’s proposals was to increase either the armour thickness or firepower of the WLT tanks, although he did warn that increasing either meant that the vehicles would no longer be amphibious. Cargin did not list the armament but the WLT tank plans show what looks like a 9.2-inch gun, and the weapon’s dimensions on the plan match those of the BL 9.2-inch gun Mk X.
The tracks themselves, for all four types, had pads that flipped out to help propel the vehicle through the water. The tracks would always turn in the same direction but a control could be set for forward or astern. When in ‘forward gear’, the pads on the bottom of the track would flip out, and the pads on the top part of the track run would close; for ‘astern’ the opposite was the case. This created paddles pushing in the desired direction. On land the pads on the tracks were all closed up. This particular feature was praised, along with the ingenuity of Mr Cargin in working out the idea. However, nearly every other element of his design, including ventilation and armour thickness, came in for some condemnation. The track design, while ingenious, was considered too complex for use and most of Cargin’s calculations were also considered suspect. As a final point, the DNLE, who were working on track propulsion, were concerned about where Cargin had got the idea, and asked for MI5 to investigate him. At the time, due to the level of ingenuity Cargin had shown, the Department for Scientific Research was considering offering him a job. In a few short weeks over Christmas 1940 MI5 were able to put a complete dossier together on Mr Cargin:
Age 42. Married. Born in Newcastle of Scottish parents. Ship engineer by trade. Was apprenticed at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and subsequently worked on the ships of many firms. In 1925 he went to Canada where he worked as a Draughtsman in various employments until he returned to this country in 1932. Believed since 1932 to have had one period of employment only, namely for some three months in 1939 as a Draughtsman with John Fowler (Leeds) Ltd. There was routine work at a wage averaging £3 10. 0. a week and he was not a very efficient workman. Absent sick on many occasions and eventually left of his own accord. Present source of income believed to be from property owned by his wife. No criminal records in Leeds district known and no observations arise under S.A.55.
This less than glowing reference caused him to be dropped from the DSR’s recruitment list, and a letter of rejection for the WLT project was sent out.
Things went quiet for a period before, in late 1940, Mr Cargin reappeared. He had spent the intervening months drawing up detailed plans of the ventilators and other components to prove that his ideas were correct. He then started bombarding government departments with letters, sometimes at a rate of one a day. His letters went varyingly to the Ministry of Supply, the DSR and the Prime Minister’s office and were mostly identical. At one point he sent in a letter demanding to know when his plan would be taken up by the British. Another he wrote to the DSR asked if they had received his letter, which he had sent to the Prime Minister’s office only a couple of days before.
In his letters to the Prime Minister’s office, Cargin answered the DNLE’s complaint about the armour thickness of the tanks. He also laid out how these were war-winning weapons. On the armour thickness, he pointed out the armour plate was made of chromium-steel which, unfortunately, Cargin seemed to think would offer protection far in advance of normal armour. He may well have been right in the First World War but, by 1940, armour technology had moved on. Several times Mr Cargin took great pains to point out this perceived advantage in armour.
The second point he raised was how his WLTs would win the war, and the peace afterwards. First, just 500 WLT tanks and a similar number of WLT transports would be needed. This force would land directly into Germany from the mouth of the Rhine to the Kiel Canal. As follow-on forces held the coast and pushed slowly inland, the WLTs would charge along the Kiel Canal to the Baltic and down the Rhine. Then, with the flank secure, the force, again led by the WLTs, would push on into the heart of Berlin. Cargin also offered an alternative plan – landing in the area of Rotterdam to Dunkirk, then pushing on to the Baltic and Frankfurt and thence to Berlin. To defeat the Japanese, he forecast the same number of WLTs would be needed, although he failed to mention how they should be used.
Having won the war with just 1,000 tanks, Cargin turned his prowess towards the peace. The WLT transport, he predicted, would be able to handle heavy goods transport and so eliminate the need for expensive ports. A factory could just load its goods onto a waiting WLT which would then drive to the coast and sail to the nearest coast to the destination before driving the last leg overland. There followed a list of countries where the WLT transport would sell well as a guaranteed commercial success. This list included pretty much every land mass in the world apart from Russia and Europe. Mr Cargin closes his letter with the following line about his scheme: ‘would require £20,000,000 capital for initial success.’ That is nearly £1.2 billion today.
HMS Vindictive during the raid. Vindictive was an obsolete Arrogant-class protected cruiser, converted to act as the lead assault ship for the attack on the mole at Zeebrugge. She was fitted with additional armour, ramps for the troops and additional weaponry for fire support.
The blockships at Zeebrugge after the raid. Photographs such as this one, showing the blockships apparently in position, suggested that the operation against the canal had succeeded. However, the practical result was nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.
The Zeebrugge raid. This map shows just how formidable and well defended an objective the mole was, and how it shielded the entrance to the Bruges canal. It also indicates the planned and actual location of the assault ships and the blockships.
The final year of the war saw the Allies gradually overcome the U-boat threat while the naval blockade exerted increasing pressure on Germany, while the military balance on land showed signs of shifting. During 1918, one operation stands out – the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918. Although militarily unsuccessful, it cheered public opinion in Britain and among her allies, and has entered national mythology.
Britain had tried various measures to hinder the U-boats, including those of the Flanders Flotilla. This force and a destroyer flotilla were based at Bruges, reaching the sea via a 13km (8 mile) canal to Zeebrugge or a 18km (11 mile) canal to Ostend. Repeated attempts were made to attack this network, but the base at Bruges was well protected against air attack or bombardment from the land, while the technology of the day made it impossible for attacking aircraft or bombarding warships to achieve the necessary accuracy to destroy the canal lock-gates at the two ports.
The alternative to bombardment was to launch an amphibious raid, but Zeebrugge and Ostend were well defended against any such landing. Both ports had many troops in well prepared defensive positions, as well as batteries of coastal artillery totalling over 30 guns at Zeebrugge and 40 at Ostend. The canal exit at Zeebrugge was further protected by the mole – a stone breakwater, over 1.6km (1 mile) long and some 75m (245ft) across its widest point. As well as helping to create the harbour, this edifice had been turned into a minor fortress, with six large artillery pieces, protected by machine guns and troops in defensive trenches.
Despite the difficulties involved, the importance of hindering the U-boats meant that a series of plans for attacking the Belgian ports was considered. These efforts accelerated when Rear Admiral Roger Keyes joined the Admiralty as Director of Plans in December 1917, bringing to the post the same energy and initiative that had seen him devise the raid into the Heligoland Bight at the beginning of the war. He began to modify previous concepts for a raid. Following his appointment as commander of the Dover Patrol on 1 January 1918, he was given responsibility for planning and leading the operation, which he code-named Operation Z.O.
‘The raiding force left home on22 April, the eve of St George’s Day. As the motley flotilla departed, Keyes signalled “St George for England”.’
The heart of the plan was for a number of old cruisers to be used as blockships, which would be scuttled to obstruct the canal exits into the sea at both Zeebrugge and Ostend; a thick smokescreen would help to cover their approach. However, at Zeebrugge the powerful artillery on the mole was ideally placed to blow the ships out of the water before they could reach their objective. Keyes therefore planned an assault against the mole from a converted cruiser. This element of the plan would primarily be a diversion to allow the blockships to approach the canal, but would also seek to inflict as much damage as possible on the military facilities on the mole. To support the assault an old submarine, filled with explosives, would detonate against the viaduct linking the mole with land, thus preventing the arrival of German reinforcements. Once the blockships had been manoeuvred into position, the forces on the mole would withdraw.
There were some doubts about whether the operation was feasible, but Keyes convinced the Admiralty that it was worth a shot. For the assault troops, he was assigned a battalion of Royal Marines and sought volunteers from among the crews of the Grand Fleet. The main assault ship was to be the old armoured cruiser Vindictive. In addition to her existing pair of 6in guns, she was provided with a formidable arsenal to support the attack, including three howitzers, two flamethrowers, batteries of mortars and several machine guns. She was also fitted with an additional upper deck to allow the assault troops to gain access to the parapet over the mole, which they would reach by specially designed ‘brows’ or ramps. Additional troops were to be carried in two Mersey ferries, Iris and Daffodil, chosen because their shallow draught would allow them to avoid mines, while their double hulls would make them very difficult to sink. They were given additional armour plate and protection against splinters in the form of sandbags and mattresses. Five old cruisers (three for Zeebrugge and two for Ostend) were chosen to act as blockships and were fitted with extra armour and with scuttling charges, as well as rubble and concrete to make them more difficult to remove. Finally, two old submarines, C1 and C3, were filled with explosives for use against the viaduct. The force comprised over 150 ships and some 1800 men.
The attack had to be conducted at high tide and, ideally, on a moonless night; hence there were only a few days each month when it was possible. Even then it would be challenging to get all of the ships to the right places at the right time because of difficulties of navigation in fast tides and shifting sandbanks, and against enemy fire over the final stages. The operation was launched on 11 April, but at a crucial moment the wind changed and blew away the smokescreen. Keyes took the difficult but necessary decision to call it off. One motor boat was lost, its crew being captured by the Germans. On 14 April, Keyes tried a second time, only to be frustrated once again by high seas and winds. Some senior officers felt the operation should now be cancelled as operational surprise had been lost, but Keyes was keen to press on and even dropped the requirement for a moonless night. The raiding force left home once again on 22 April, the eve of St George’s Day. Keyes was not one to overlook a possible reference to the country’s patron saint: as the motley flotilla departed, he signalled ‘St George for England’, to which the captain of Vindictive replied, ‘May we give the dragon’s tail a damned good twist.’
At 10.30pm the ships for the Ostend raid broke away from the main body. About half an hour later, monitors opened fired on the German coastal artillery batteries, while destroyers took up position outside both harbours to prevent German light forces from interfering with the unfolding operation. Shortly after 11pm the flotilla began to generate the smokescreen that was intended to cover the approach into Zeebrugge harbour. At first it succeeded; the German gunners opened fire when they heard engines approaching but could not see their targets.
At around 11.50pm the wind suddenly shifted, blowing away the smokescreen to reveal Vindictive steaming for the mole at a rapidly closing distance of a few hundred metres. The German heavy guns on the mole opened up at point-blank range and although Vindictive returned fire, several of her guns were quickly knocked out and the ship was heavily damaged. Many of the troops onboard were killed, including the naval officer commanding the sailors in the assault party, and both the commanding officer and the second-in-command of the embarked Royal Marines. In an effort to reduce the battering his ship was suffering, her captain shifted course and brought the old cruiser alongside the mole at one minute past midnight on St George’s Day. Unfortunately, although this action saved the ship from further damage, it meant that she came alongside a good 275m (900ft) from the intended spot. It had been hoped that from this location, behind the main defensive trenches, the mole guns could swiftly be stormed. The troops would now be exposed in the middle of the mole. Moreover, it proved difficult to hold the ship in place against a fast tide and lively swell. The grapnels that were to have secured her could not be attached to the mole, and she had to be held in position by Daffodil, which prevented many of the troops on the ferry from landing. The movement of Vindictive, heavy fire from the defenders and damage to the ramps meant that the assault troops got ashore more slowly than was anticipated. Many were killed or wounded before they could disembark. Iris got alongside the mole, but encountered similar problems getting her troops onto it because of the height of the parapet above her deck.
‘At a time when most news seemed bad, the Zeebrugge raid seemed a welcome sign that the Royal Navy was willing and able to conduct an audacious operation against the enemy-held coast.’
One part of the plan did unfold as intended; at about 12.20am the crew of the submarine C3 succeeded in navigating their way through the harbour and rammed the boat into the viaduct. They then disembarked into motor boats, as planned, and withdrew under increasing German fire. As they did so, the explosive-packed submarine detonated, destroying the viaduct and thereby isolating the mole, cutting communications and stranding any reinforcements.
Some assault troops did reach the mole and, despite the loss of most of their commanders, launched a number of spirited if sporadic attacks against the defenders. They came under heavy and effective fire from the garrison, protected in well prepared positions, and also from German destroyers moored on the far side of the mole. They could not reach either the artillery batteries or the other intended objectives; however, the main purpose of the assault was to provide a diversion to assist the blockships, which were the real point of the raid. This they achieved. Although the German guns engaged the blockships as they rounded the mole, their fire began later and was lighter than it would have been without the assault from Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil.
Thetis, the leading blockship, was supposed to enter the canal and then steam three-quarters of a kilometre (half a mile) into it, before ramming the lock-gates. As she approached the canal she was badly damaged by heavy gunfire, and then her propeller became entangled in an anti-submarine net. She became impossible to steer, so her captain detonated the scuttling charges. She sank just short of the canal entrance. However, she had drawn the fire of the German gunners and had cleared the nets, thus easing the approach of the other two blockships. The second, Intrepid, managed to steam into the canal and scuttle herself in the planned position across the channel. Unfortunately Thetis had been instructed only to attack the lock-gates; had Intrepid’s captain shown a little more initiative, he might have tried to ram them himself – though navigating the channel and avoiding the German fire would not have been easy. The third blockship, Iphigenia, also entered the canal, and, despite colliding with Intrepid as she manoeuvred into position, scuttled herself across the channel.
At 12.50am, as the blockships sank and their crews were taken off, the recall signal was sounded on the mole, and Vindictive re-embarked the survivors from the assault parties. As the ships withdrew, Iris was hit hard by the German artillery and the supporting destroyer North Star was sunk.
Casualties were heavy, with over 200 men killed (more than 50 by a single shell that struck Iris as she withdrew) and 400 wounded, with 13 captured. One destroyer and two motor boats were lost
The Ostend operation was simpler in conception, since there was no mole and hence no need or opportunity for a diversionary attack. Here, however, the German defenders were better prepared: the captain of the motor boat captured on 11 April was carrying a copy of the plans, so the Germans had been warned and moved two critical navigation buoys, making the already challenging task of approaching the canal all but impossible. The two intended blockships, Brilliant and Sirius, were both hit repeatedly by German fire, and then Brilliant ran aground. They could go no further so the scuttling charges were detonated, despite the blockships being some distance from the canal. Two later attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to block the canal at Ostend and a third was cancelled. No further attempt was made, largely because the increasing effectiveness of the Channel barrage made it unnecessary.
The British initially believed that the Zeebrugge part of the operation had succeeded: aerial photographs seemed to show Intrepid and Iphigenia lying across the main channel of the canal. In fact, while the blockships caused some initial disruption, the Germans were able to find ways of working around them within a few days and were making full use of the canal by mid-May. This might seem a distinctly modest success in view of the 600 casualties suffered.
The raid, however, was hailed as a triumph – albeit benefiting from considerable embellishment in official accounts. It had an enormously positive effect on morale in the Navy and in the hard-pressed Army, as well as on press and public opinion in Britain and her allies. At a time when most news seemed bad, with the German offensive on the Western Front gaining considerable initial success, the Zeebrugge raid seemed a welcome sign that the Royal Navy was willing and able to conduct an audacious operation against the enemy-held coast. The Admiralty initially baulked at the high number of medals recommended by Keyes – including no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses, the highest British award for valour – but they gave way in the face of his persistence and public acclaim.
The Zeebrugge operation was a bold and ambitious concept that was conducted with enormous determination and courage. There were significant weaknesses in the planning, however: too much improvisation, insufficient attention to important details and perhaps not enough questioning of optimistic assumptions. It seemed to rest on Keyes’s tendency to assume that enthusiasm alone could overcome any difficulty. Nevertheless, even if its military impact was slight, the timely and considerable boost it provided to morale was of great value.
When Benito Mussolini went to war against the Western Allies, he had at his disposal the world’s greatest submarine fleet in terms of tonnage. Only the Soviet Navy possessed a slight numerical edge. He was able to field 172 mostly modern, undersea warships, enough to simultaneously fulfill the numerous duties assigned to them: defending Italian coasts, intercepting enemy shipping, scouting for the surface fleet, transporting essential materials, and laying minefields. Nearly half of them could operate continuously for up to six months, ranging over 20,000 miles, far beyond the capabilities of any other contemporaneous submarines. Their torpedoes were among the best of World War Two; their all-volunteer crews, well-trained, skilled and spirited. If anything could truly make the Mediterranean Sea into Italy’s Mare Nostro, friend and foe alike believed the Duce’s submarines would effect the transformation.
Their expectations appeared to be confirmed just two days after his declaration of war, when the Bagnolini attacked two enemy light cruisers escorted by a destroyer squadron. A torpedo fired by Lieutenant Commander Franco Tosoni Pittoni struck HMS Calypso, sinking her about thirty kilometers southeast of the small island of Gavdo. In September, he escaped detection running submerged through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the North Atlantic. As a testimony to the skill of their operators, none of the Italian submarines that passed out and back into the Mediterranean from 1940 to 1943 were lost in the Straits deemed ‘suicidal’ by the Germans, who did indeed lose several U-boats around Gibraltar. Tight security in the form of vigilant corvettes and stationary hydrophones made movement through the narrow gauntlet hazardous.
Contributing to these military challenges was a powerful current that carried submerged vessels beyond their depth limits to sometimes collide with the rocky bottom. More than one boat was damaged by this navigational hazard, which was unknown until the first Italian submarine to leave the Mediterranean Sea for operations in the Atlantic Ocean successfully slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar on 13 June. Afterward, the British island-fortress was on high alert to prevent similar escapes. The Veniero had deftly infiltrated a formidable barrier of floating minefields and diligent patrols to team up with its U-boat comrades stationed at Bordeaux. British intelligence wrongly assumed she had sailed from Tobruk, where more submarines were supposedly lying in wait. Accordingly, the city was raided repeatedly by RAF Beaufort bombers, until a squadron of Italian destroyers sailed within range of the Egypto-Libyan border to shell British airfields at Salum, cratering the strip, blowing up repair stations, and inflicting irreparable damage on parked warplanes.
While sailing on the surface into the Bay of Biscay, the Bagnolini was attacked by a light bomber, but her accurate gunfire drove it away with the Blenheim’s starboard engine trailing smoke. On 11 December, Commander Franco Pittoni’s vessel joined German U-boats in action against Allied convoys, sinking the British cargo ship, Amicus, with a single torpedo. But the Italian submarine wallowed almost uncontrollably in North Atlantic weather, and returned suffering some damage to the Kriegsmarine base at Bordeaux. She sailed from there in early 1944, re-christened UIT-22 (U-boot-Italien, reflecting her Italo-German crew) commanded by Oblt.z.S. Friedrich Wunderlich. On 11 March, some 300 kilometers from Cape Town, UIT-22 was on her way to meet with U-178 for refueling, when she was attacked and sunk by pilots of South Africa’s 262nd Squadron. Their Catalina flying-boats were guided to the rendezvous by German radio messages of the kind British cryptographers had been intercepting the previous two years.
The fate of the former Bagnolini in some ways paralleled Italy’s entire undersea efforts during World War Two. Like that doomed ship, they got off with a successful start, but were soon hamstrung by a series of failings leading ultimately to disaster. These crucial faults were categorized and analyzed for the first time by Admiral Antonio Legnani, a veteran of the battles at Punta Stilo and Cape Matapan, where he successfully commanded his light cruiser, the Luigi di Savoia Duca Degli Abruzzi.
In “A Critical Examination of our Readiness and Results of our Submarine Warfare until early December 1941”, he pointed out that Italian boats were too slow: “This deficiency makes the reaching or passing (to then attack) of individual units or a convoy of them impossible.” Contributing to an inadequate speed was the drag produced by oversized Italian conning towers, which additionally slowed undersea maneuvers and, while surfaced, became large, visible profiles, unlike much smaller German versions. The U-boats also rode lower in the water, making them more difficult to see than the higher Italian free board. Italian engines were too loud, “with serious consequences in regards to detection by the enemy’s hydrophones.” Italian submarines were not designed to navigate through high seas, and therefore could not keep up with Kriegsmarine success against Allied convoys.
Germany’s Supreme U-Boat Commander, Admiral Karl Dönitz, originally had high hopes for augmenting his operational forces. At one time, “there were actually more Italian submarines than German U-boats operating in the Atlantic,” according to naval historian Robert Jackson. But the former handled so poorly in rough seas they achieved little. The final straw came on 25 May 1941, when Captain Giulio Ghiglieri was informed by radio that his submarine was the only Axis warship in the area where the German battleship Bismarck was immobilized and under attack by overwhelming surface forces. He tried to attack a pair of enemy cruisers, but the Barbarigo was unable to fire her torpedoes because the seas were too rough for her. Thereafter, Italian submarines were reassigned to the less turbulent Central and Southern Atlantic on solitary patrols.
Admiral Legnani wrote that Italian boats needed two to three minutes to submerge, more than twice as long as German submarines. Their turning radius was 300 meters, “thanks to the installation of a double rudder, where it is about 500 meters on our units.” U-boat torpedo-launchers generated no telltale air bubbles; Italian counterparts did. Italian torpedoes ran straight and true, but were sometimes diverted from the target by heavy swells. Worse, they only exploded on contact, when at least half of their blast potential was blown away from the target; German torpedoes were equipped with magnetic detonators that exploded with maximum effectiveness directly beneath an enemy vessel, breaking its keel.
The most distressful defect afflicting Italian submarines came to light at the very beginning of their operations. In early June 1940, serious problems with air-conditioning systems aboard the Archimede, Macalle and Perla were being attended to by repair personnel. But their efforts were interrupted by Mussolini’s declaration of war; a week later, the boats were ordered to the East African naval base at Massaua. During their first day at sea, crewmembers aboard all three vessels began experiencing debilitating nausea apparently caused by the air-conditioning units, which were partially shut down until cases of heat prostration continued to multiply. Conditions aboard Archimede were particularly severe, where some of the men, including two officers, suffered heat stroke. With the air-conditioning switched back on, many more exhibited extreme psychological disorders, including deep depression, loss of appetite, euphoria, hallucinations, and maniacal behavior.
On the night of the 23rd, a riot broke out among the crew, four men were killed, and Captain T.V. Signorini aborted his mission after restoring order, landing at the port of Assab. Mechanics rushed in from Massaua determined that methyl chloride–an odorless, colorless but highly toxic gas used as a coolant–had seeped into the ventilation systems and poisoned everyone aboard. It was replaced with relatively harmless freon, but most other Italian submarines continued to use methyl chloride for months thereafter!
A mid-1942 German newsreel documenting life inside the Barbarigo shows perspiring officers and crewmembers stripped down to their shorts, because they were reluctant to use the boat’s disreputable air-conditioning.
After the Archimede was restored to duty, she proceeded through the Red Sea, where she was on station for the next ten months. During that period, the few other Italian boats operating in this theater were virtually on their own, minus significant support from surface warships, with terrible consequences, as exemplified by the Torricelli. Enemy forces caught her on the surface outside Massawa during the dangerous daylight hours of 23 June, because malfunctioning ballast-tanks prevented her from diving. A pair of British gunboats and three destroyers converged on the partially disabled submarine, an apparently easy kill.
Hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned, Lieutenant Commander Pelosi defiantly opened fire at 0530 with the Torricelli’s single deck-gun. A direct hit on the Shoreham’s deckhouse forced the gun-boat to disengage from the attack and make for urgent repairs at Aden. Taking advantage of the enemy’s astonishment, the suicidal Torricelli pressed forward at top speed, unloosing a spread of torpedoes at the destroyers. While they turned to avoid being hit, Pelosi directed his furiously firing deck-gun to concentrate its 100mm shells on the Khartoum, which erupted into flames.
So successful were the Torricelli’s maneuvers that the British were not able to score a hit until 0605, when its steering gear was knocked out and Pelosi wounded. He ordered the boat’s troublesome ballast-tanks manually forced opened, and she slipped beneath the surface of the Red Sea with the Italian tricolor still flying from her conning tower. In excess of 700 shells and 500 machine-gun rounds fired at the submarine in little more than half an hour had been unable to destroy her. Standing on the decks of Kandahar and Kingston, the destroyers that rescued them, survivors of the scuttled Torricelli witnessed the still-blazing Khartoum explode and sink. So impressed was Captain Robson with the Italians’ courage, he received Lieutenant Pelosi aboard the Kandahar with military honors.
Meanwhile, pressured between British forces descending from the north in Sudan and coming up from Kenya in the south, East Africa could not be expected to hold out indefinitely. Outside supplies and reinforcements could not reach the Italian defenders. Before the capture of Massaua, the Archimede and her fellow submarines made for the Italo-German base at Bordeaux, France. After passing south through the Gulf of Perim, evading enemy surface units and aircraft, they received enough supplies from a German tanker, the Northmark, to complete, in Jackson’s words, “an epic journey round the Cape of Good Hope”. The four submarines traversed 20,447 kilometers, eluding enemy interdiction and arriving in Bordeaux after sixty-five days at sea, most of them while surfaced, to great popular acclaim.
Their achievement was at least some compensation for the loss of East Africa. During the boat’s last cruise, she was under the command of Tenente di Vacello Guido Saccardo, prowling the Brazilian coast. On 15 April 1943, a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina piloted by Ensign Thurmond E. Robertson appeared 628 kilometers east-southeast of Natal. Each Italian submarine bristled with a quartet of 13.2mm machine guns, and Regia Marina crews often preferred to fight it out on the surface against attacking aircraft, rather than trust to the sluggish dive time of their boats. Saccardo’s men were no exception, and they put up such intense, accurate fire, Robertson had to abort a low-level, straight-in bomb-run, thereby affording the Archimede an opportunity to crash-dive. But she was too slow.
In desperation, Robertson put his lumbering ‘Gooney Bird’ into a sixty-degree dive, reaching a speed of 245 knots–far beyond the performance parameters for which the PBY had been designed. At 610 meters, five knots within terminal velocity, he pulled up to release four 160-kg Mk 44 Torpex-filled depth-charges. They exploded on either side of the submarine’s hull, smashing all light fixtures, disabling one of the 1,500-hp diesel engines, and blowing two forward hatches off their hinges. Unable to dive, the Italians were no less willing to surrender. For the next hour and twenty minutes, they fought off not only Robertson’s Catalina, but four other American flying-boats called to the scene. One of them piloted by Lieutenant Gerard Bradford, Jr. swooped in at a mere sixteen meters above the surface of the sea to drop four depth-charges on the Archimede. One tore through her aft hatchway, detonating torpedoes in the stern tubes, and she went down stern-first in a matter of seconds.
A pair of PBYs dropped three life-rafts for the survivors, Commander Saccardo among them. Of his fifty-four crewmembers, twenty-five were still alive, but not for long. Most were so badly wounded, they soon succumbed to their injuries. After twenty-nine days adrift in the company of his dying comrades, Engineer Giuseppe Lococo was washed ashore on Bailque, a small island at the mouth of the Amazon River, where he was found by local fishermen, who nursed him back to health. The twenty-six-year-old Sicilian coxswain was the only survivor.
The outcome of other encounters between attacking Allied aircraft and Italian submarine gunners mostly favored the latter. On 7 March 1941, look-outs aboard the Argo traversing the Bay of Biscay observed a Sunderland flying-boat in the distance. While any U-boat commander would have immediately crash-dived his vessel at the first sight of such a lethal threat, the Italians began communicating with the four-engine monster via signal lantern! Once they ascertained its identity, they allowed the Sunderland to approach to within 800 meters before opening fire, spoiling the pilot’s bomb run. By the time he resumed his attack, the Argo had vanished beneath the waves. A similar incident occurred exactly eight months later, when the Tricheco, attempting to make the Sicilian naval base at Augusta, was menaced by a Blenheim that veered away after having been hit by too many 13.2mm rounds. Off the coast of Brazil in early February 1943, gunners aboard the notorious Barbarigo caused an American Catalina pilot to prematurely drop his three bombs, which went wide of their target. The previous August 29th, she was attacked in the same waters by several PBYs. One was shot down and the others driven off, but after-gunner Carlo Marcheselli paid with his life for defending the boat.
He was not the only crewman to die in these sub-versus-plane duels, which usually saved the vessel, but not without casualties. Sergeant Michelangelo Canistraro was killed during a machine-gun attack carried out by a Sunderland against his submarine endeavoring to cross the Bay of Biscay on 15 February 1943. The Cagni escaped undamaged to complete 136 days at sea, the longest continuous mission undertaken by any Italian vessel during World War Two.
But the Torelli experienced the most unique anti-aircraft action of its kind. Among the most successful Sommergibili Italiani, she sank seven enemy vessels totaling 43,000 tons, but incurred extensive damage from a British flying-boat on 5 June 1942 in the eastern Atlantic while under way to the Bahamas. Just two days later, while limping back to Bordeaux on the surface, unable to dive, she was attacked again by two more Sunderlands. Their bomb-runs repeatedly spoiled by defensive fire, they strafed the submarine, killing Sergeant Flavio Pallucchini, wounding Captain Antonio de Giacomo and another officer. During a low pass, one of the aircraft was hit, and both turned away.
The following 16 March, the Torelli was hunting along the Brazilian coast, when three Catalinas caught her on the surface. Failure of her main shut-off valve on the engine intake prevented the boat from submerging, so she was forced to engage in a ferocious gun battle with the American torpedo-bombers. One was destroyed and the other two driven off, but the deck was badly shot up, and there were casualties. The radio-man had been killed; wounded included the chief engineer, an engineer, and, once more, the captain, this time badly injured, who transferred control to his second-in-command.
Thereafter, the Torelli was made over into a long-distance transport. Stripped of all offensive weapons, save her four 13.2mm anti-aircraft guns, her torpedo tubes were used as extra fuel tanks to extend her range and interior extensively renovated. On 14 June 1943, she departed Bordeaux with 150 tons of mercury, steel, and munitions, including 20mm cannons and a 500-kg. bomb. Also on board was Colonel Kinze Sateke, a Japanese officer specializing in telecommunications, who had just finished advanced training in Germany. He was accompanied by a German engineer, plus two civilian mechanics. All of these personnel were to assist in technologically up-grading Japan’s war effort. Although Allied intercepts learned of the secret voyage before it got underway, alerted Sunderland and Catalina flying-boats patrolling from Gibraltar to Freetown failed to locate their prey.
The Torelli arrived in Singapore without incident on 31st August. Just nine days later, word came of the Badoglio armistice, and she was seized by German authorities, her officers and men interned in POW camps. But when Mussolini established his Social Republic three months later, most of them elected to fight for him again aboard their old submarine, re-named UIT-25 for her Italo-German crew. Assigned to the 12th and later the 33rd U-boat flotilla, she served in the western Pacific until the surrender of the Third Reich was learned on 10 May 1945.
But the vessel’s life was not yet finished. She received yet a third designation when drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy as I-504. Some die-hard European officers and men stayed on board, and for the rest of World War Two, I-504 was manned by a mixed German-Italian-Japanese crew. A few days before the close of hostilities, their boat was approached by a Mitchell B-25 medium bomber. Forty-one years later, when Raffaele Sanzio was 66 years old, he recalled that attack as an engineer aboard the former Torelli:
“For the record, I can confirm that it was the 13.2mm Breda machine guns of my submarine that, on August 22nd 1945, shot down the last American twin engine bomber. It happened in Kobe, and it was us Italians who shot it down.” Theirs was the last Axis victory of the Second World War.
Although Italian submariners avoided surface combat with warships whenever possible, they did engage enemy submarines, not always by choice. The first such encounter took place on the night of 15 October 1940, when the Enrico Toti went full ahead on the surface to investigate a suspicious craft some sixty kilometers off Cape Colonne, Calabria. At about 5,000 meters, the enemy identified himself by opening fire and maneuvering for a torpedo run. A shell struck the base of the Italian boat’s conning tower, followed by one torpedo racing just passed the stern. The Toti’s four machine-guns replied by raking the stranger’s deck with 13.2mm rounds. The target turned, the Toti in pursuit, firing both of her 100mm guns at the slightly faster prey over the next thirty minutes. At 0140 hours, the 1,475-ton British submarine, Rainbow, went down with all hands.
The Toti was something of a sub-killer. The same month she sank the Rainbow, her torpedoes found the Perseus, near Zante.
The Sommergibili often gave Italian morale a boost when most needed. Just three days after 1941’s unfortunate Battle of Cape Matapan, the Ambra torpedoed HMS Bonaventure. A veteran of the raid on Taranto five months before, the battleship keeled over near Crete. That night, two freighters in a convoy bound for Greece were sunk by another Italian submarine, the Dagabur, with one, well-aimed torpedo apiece. These successes were broadly publicized to restore general confidence in Italy’s war at sea.
Italian submarines carried out less well-recognized but equally important missions. With Axis supply convoys being savaged by Allied interdiction, the Delfino transported more than 200 tons of ammunition and fuel to Italo-German troops in Libya from 13 November 1942 to 6 January 1943, shooting down a Sunderland in the process. Joining her was the Micca, formerly the flagship of the Italian submarine fleet. As such, she led a famous naval parade in honor of Adolf Hitler’s visit to Naples on 5 May 1938. When war came, the Micca was assigned to the 16th Squadron of the 1st Sommergibili Group, serving as a successful mine-layer off the Egyptian coast. In one such mission alone, on 12 June 1940, she daringly laid forty mines before the approaches to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet headquarters at Alexandria. As a transport, the Micca delivered 2,163 tons of materials to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
While Italian submarines took a beating in North Atlantic gales, their hull integrity was robust, perhaps even more so than their German betters. Crash-diving to escape the destroyer escort of a British convoy the Argo was just about to attack on 5 December 1940, she was battered by twenty-four well-placed depth-charges for more than four hours. A storm, not any damages incurred during the previous day’s underwater attack, practically swamped the boat and shorted out most of her electrical system, forcing Captain Crepas to make for Bordeaux. Three days earlier, the Tarantini endured 176 depth-charges hurled at her for twenty-four hours to emerge scarred but seaworthy. But the Smeraldo held the record for survival after escaping another round-the-clock barrage, this time in the Mediterranean, of more than 200 depth-charges between the 7th and 8th of July 1940, returning for minor repairs at the Regia Marina base in Tobruk. More impressive, the redoubtable Torelli survived an attack that would have broken the back of most other submarines, when two bombs launched at her from a Sunderland exploded under the vessel’s keel. Although badly damaged, on fire, with all her navigational aids knocked out, Commander Migliori brought her safely to the Spanish port of Aviles, where the Torelli was repaired and went on to fulfill her interesting destiny in the Pacific. Ironically, the Schnorchel, an extendable tube that allowed diesel-powered submarines to recharge their batteries without exposing themselves while surfaced, had been invented by an Italian major, Pericle Ferretti, as early as 1922. Like radar, another Italian invention, no one bothered to develop his Schnorchel.
These two neglected devices could have altered the course of military history in the Regia Marina’s favor. Mussolini’s envisioned navy had always included submarines, which received preferential considerations in fuel and production. Even so, Italy lacked the industrial capacity to keep up with attrition. German shipyards mass-produced more than 1,000 U-boats, while just forty new submarines were built by the Italians.
Far more decisive, however, was the unseen battle of military intelligence. An early gift to Allied cryptographers was a copy of the Sommergibili Italiani SM 19/S code book retrieved from the Uebi Scebeli. Described by Jackson as “among the best Italian submarines to be used during the war, giving good service in a variety of roles … strong and very maneuverable”, she was scuttled by her crew after having been depth-charged to the surface and subjected to the concentrated fire of five enemy destroyers on 28 June 1940. Over the next two weeks, eight more vessels of Italy’s sub-surface fleet were sunk in equally quick succession, until Regia Marina commanders realized the missing manual was being used to intercept their submarines, and revised all naval codes. Henceforward, Italian undersea successes resumed when a destroyer, HMS Escort, failed to survive her encounter with the Marconi off Gibraltar on 11 July.
But the power of code-breaking to sway the fortunes of war would return two years later, when the last impediment to the ULTRA secret and its capacity to render all Axis’ secrets transparent was removed with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of security in the Third Reich. ULTRA code-breaking was in large measure responsible for most of the Italians’ eighty-two submarines lost during World War Two. That they were able to sink 724,656 tons of enemy shipping in just three years is a remarkable testimony to their courage and skill, operating as they did at distinct disadvantages not confronted by Allied submarines. The enemy read orders issued by Commando Supremo at the same moment they were received by Regia Marina captains. As such, virtually every Italian vessel–not only most submarines–was ambushed before it could locate an opponent. Whereas the Italian Navy depended on a few, slow reconnaissance planes of limited range to search the vast Mediterranean Sea for targets, cryptographers sitting in London knew in advance almost every move Axis commanders made.
The Sommergibili were additionally confronted by formidable anti-submarine measures, the like of which no Anglo-American boats need ever have feared. The fifty-two U.S. submarines lost in the Second World War escaped the almost invariably innocuous attacks by enemy destroyers to be far more often bombed while surfaced by Japanese aircraft. Britain’s Royal Navy Submarine Service lost seventy-five submarines, but sank 1,500,000 tons of merchant shipping, plus 169 warships in all theatres, although during a longer period of time (three more years). Moreover, the vast majority of these successes were made against virtually defenseless Japanese convoys in the South and Central Pacific. During the first half of World War Two, British submarines operated primarily out of Malta, protecting that besieged, strategically valuable island, and raiding Axis convoys to North Africa. In the course of fulfilling these duties, they were eminently successful, but had they been forced to operate in the North Atlantic, as the Italian submarines did, they would have suffered no less grievously. Hitler’s U-boats were true, ocean-going vessels, more advanced than any contemporaries, and Admiral Legnano perhaps mistakenly compared them to his own country’s submarines, which had been designed for the less navigationally-challenging Mediterranean Theater.
Had he juxtaposed his Sommergibili with American versions, he would have had cause for optimism, because the U.S. Navy’s ‘Silent Service’ was far inferior to Italy’s undersea fleet. Beginning after the attack at Pearl Harbor, throughout all of 1942 and most of 1943, American submarines ran up a virtually unrelieved record of failure. Its boats were plagued with stability and buoyancy problems. Their torpedoes ran too deeply and exploded harmlessly, if at all, against an enemy hull in the rare instance they could be made to hit a target. Of the first four torpedoes fired by the submarine Tinosa on 24 July 1943 at a Japanese whaling factory ship, two struck the 19,000-ton vessel, which suffered no damage. U.S. Commander Daspit launched two more torpedoes, both of which hit the Tonan Maru 111 and stopped but could not sink her. At close range, and at right angles to his stationary target, he loosed off nine additional torpedoes. All hit; none exploded.
Solutions were needlessly prolonged by Bureau of Ordinance bureaucrats, who steadfastly stood by the sacred design superiority of ‘American torpedoes,’ and blamed all failures on human error. An authoritative website additionally points out that “many U.S. submarine captains did not stand up to the rigors of war time command that was demanded of them; in 1942, 30% were removed for lack of fitness or lack of results, and 14% for the same reason both in 1943, and 1944. All were career officers, generally older and thus much more conservative and cautious in combat. Consequently, most of the early offensive maneuvers were made from the safety of deep water by sonar, with predictably dismal results.”
Another web site reveals that “the lack of a unified submarine command (in the U.S. Navy) compounded the challenges. Infighting between the Pacific Fleet based in Pearl and the Asiatic Fleet in Manila for manpower and materials accounted for a schism in command that lasted throughout virtually the entire war. But even with the ‘heads up’ intelligence information being provided (by ULTRA code-breakers), tactical positioning errors by top leadership continued to haunt the submarine fleet. Boats were continually given orders of deployment to stalk the entrances of harbors and ports, ignoring the fact that the bulk of the Japanese shipping was concentrated along established, high seas trade routes. ”
Immediately after the war, commanders of the ‘Silent Service’ announced they sank ten million tons of Japanese shipping, amounting to 4,000 enemy vessels. Subsequent U.S. Navy investigation of the record showed that the total destroyed tonnage was actually half as great, while the number of ships sunk was a third of the original claim. Investigators also learned that of America’s 16,000 submariners, 375 officers and 3,331 enlisted men perished at sea–a 22% casualty rate, the highest percentage in all U.S. armed forces.
Properly functioning torpedoes were not introduced until the close of 1943, long after the war had already turned decisively in the Allies’ favor. For the remaining twenty months of that conflict, Americans sank the most ships of any submarine service of the war, possibly because they were fighting an enemy whose ability to defend himself was severely hampered.
The Soviet Navy’s undersea fleet would have likewise encouraged Admiral Legnano. After having primarily distinguished themselves for most of the war by being sunk by German Stuka dive-bombers, the few Russian submarines that survived attacked unarmed passenger liners overcrowded with refugees during the waning days of hostilities. On 30 January 1945, Commander Alexander Marinesko sank the Wilhelm Gustloff with the loss of 9,343 wounded soldiers, medical personnel, Baltic families and other civilians–the highest loss of life at sea in recorded history. A similar Soviet ‘triumph’ was submarine L-3’s destruction of the Goya, carrying 7,000 Eastern Europeans the following 16 April. Only 183 survived.
The Italian submarine service made up for its deficiencies with some of the most outstanding commanders of the war. Among them was Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia. Kriegsmarine admirals were so impressed by him, they awarded Ursus atlanticus, as his crew members affectionately referred to their Captain, the distinguished Ritterkreuz, or ‘Knight’s Cross’, an honor infrequently bestowed on their own commanders, let alone foreigners. Among his many, perilous exploits, he eluded destroyers dispatched to intercept him, while sinking six Allied vessels, including the Empress of Canada, a large British troopship. Before he was killed in action on 23 May 1943, he sank 90,601 tons of Allied shipping, making his Leonardo Da Vinci the most successful Italian submarine, with 120,243 tons sunk. Fifty years later, the Italian Navy’s new S525 was christened the Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia.
The last hurrah of the Sommergibili Italiani was their desperate defense of Sicily against an overwhelming Allied onslaught. A few managed to get in some significant hits before most of them went down fighting, such as the Dandolo, when her torpedoes so badly wrecked HMS Cleopatra on 16 July 1943 the anti-aircraft cruiser would never see combat again. Thereafter, aside from a handful of Italian submarines that happened to be operating outside the Mediterranean on 8 September, those in harbor were immediately seized by the Badoglio authorities. All the rest still at sea were ordered, under protocols laid down by the Anglo-Americans, to strictly observe a cease-fire and proceed at once on the surface under a black flag to various assigned ports. A few submarines, such as the Torelli, ran for Axis-held territories or neutral havens elsewhere.
The Topazio was less successful. For two days, she accompanied three other boats, the Diaspro, Marea and Turchese, all of them headed dutifully for Allied-held Bona on the Algerian coast. But during the night of the 10th, the Topazio slipped away, and Lieutenant Pier Vittorio Casarini hauled down the disgraceful flag of surrender. Two days later, his boat was twenty kilometers southwest of Sardinia’s Cape Carbonara when it was attacked by a Sunderland. The Topazio sank almost at once, taking Lt. Casarini and his entire crew with her. By that time, all but forty-four of the Italian submarine service’s original 172 boats had been lost, most of them after June 1942, when the Allies finally and completely broke all Axis military codes. In thirty-nine months of combat, Italian submarines sank thirteen warships, amounting to 24,554 tons. Their primary targets were, however, convoys or individual freighters, and they claimed 129 merchant vessels, an impressive 668,311 tons, up until the day of the Badoglio armistice.
Italians everywhere were flabbergasted by the dramatic turn of events. Mario Daneo was a San Marco guard on duty at Bordeaux’s Italo-German submarine base when the news reached him. “Everyone was astounded and speechless,” he remembered. “The following day, we were called into the square, and our commanding officer, along with the general commander in charge of the city, gave us a long speech in which he said that those of us who felt like it could continue with their assignment, as before. My friend, Precis Palesano, and I–he was a 3rd class Chief–looked at each other, and decided to stay. Of the 2,000 personnel from the Navy, the San Marco Battalion, Carabinieri, workers and specialists, more than 300 stayed. The others had to pack their suitcases and back-packs. At 16:30, five or six Germans came in and began loading all those who did not want to stay, and they were brought to a camp outside Bordeaux; whatever was not needed was taken away. More than one felt guilty and came back.”
A man who felt particularly guilty was Carlo Fecia di Cossato, among the most able of Italian submarine aces. Beginning on 15 April 1941, he commanded the Tazzoli in the western Atlantic, adding sixteen sunken ships to the boat’s first two under the previous Captain Vittore Raccanelli for a total of 96,553 tons, plus another damaged ship of 5,000 tons. The Germans respected Di Cossato, and bestowed several awards on him, the most distinctive having been the Iron Cross First Class, presented in person by Admiral Dönitz. From his fellow countrymen, Di Cossato received the Gold Medal, the Italian Armed Forces’ highest decoration, and two silver medals for military bravery. He was also a popular commander with fellow officers and enlisted men, who admired his intelligence and compassion.
On 2 February 1942, Di Cossato was given leave of absence, while the Tazzoli was placed under new command, stripped of armaments, and modified into a transport. As such, she departed Bordeaux for Japan with 165 tons of special cargo on 16 May, but was sunk the next day with all hands in a depth-charge attack carried out by the destroyer, U.S.N. Mackenzie. By then, her former commander had been transferred to the Aliseo, patrolling the Ligurian coast. It was while on station here that he learned of Badoglio’s surrender, and received orders to attack German naval forces evacuating Corsica. There, he destroyed several German landing-craft outside Bastia, and went on to perform escort duty for Allied ships in the Adriatic throughout most of 1944.
But these operations weighed heavily on di Cossato, until he spoke openly of his deep disappointment with the post-Mussolini regime for the first time in mid-summer, and requested dismissal from active duty. When word spread to Taranto, crews at the naval base demonstrated angrily on his behalf, and the Gold Medal recipient was punished with a six-month suspension. Sometime thereafter, he received offers for a lucrative commission in the U.S. Navy. He turned it down without explanation.
Unable to join his family residing in Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic up north, Di Cossato wrote to his mother on 21 August, about his “revolt toward the meanness of this period … For the last nine months, I have reflected upon the extremely sad moral position in which I found myself, following the ignominious surrender of the navy to which I resigned myself only because it was presented to me as a direct order from the king … You understand what is happening in Italy, and how we have been unworthily betrayed, and committed an ignominious act without any result. It is from this gloomy realization that I have developed a deep sadness, a disgust for what surrounds us. For months I have been thinking about my sailors of the Tazzoli, who are honorably on the bottom of the sea, and I think that my place is with them.”
Six days later, Captain di Cossato took his own life.
In September 1947 about sixty Africans and West Indians gathered for a rally in Trafalgar Square to air the hopes and discontents of Britain’s colonies. Beyond them was a city of blitzed buildings inhabited by people enduring the rigours of austerity which, the Labour government repeatedly told them, was the only way to achieve post-war recovery and regeneration. The speakers were also looking ahead to a better future in a new world without empires. Their mood was optimistic: the forces of history seemed to be mustering behind them since in the last month India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon had achieved independence.
All the speakers hoped that the African colonies would follow. One declared that ‘democracy’ and ‘empire’ were incompatible, and the far-Left Labour MP Fenner Brockway called for his party to make the choice between ‘aristocratic government in Africa or independence’. Kwame Nkrumah, then a research graduate at the London School of Economics and soon to become leader of the newly formed Gold Coast Convention People’s Party (CPP), warned the government that ‘Africans were getting desperate’ and, if their freedom was delayed, they would take it by force.
This impatience was understandable. African nationalism, incubated during the interwar years and strengthened by the anticipation of dividends earned by wartime loyalty, was more optimistic than ever. The educated and politicised classes had become more assertive, assumed the role of tribunes and busied themselves enlisting popular support for disciplined parties that justified their claims that they were the true voice of the people. It was becoming louder and more strident: independence was no longer decades away, but years.
Dr Nkrumah was right about the restlessness of his people. Five months later, the Gold Coast erupted: a mass meeting, held in an Accra cinema, to protest about high prices and a stagnant labour market triggered a fortnight of riots and looting. The authorities there and in London were dazed and full of foreboding. As public order dissolved, jittery officials summoned up two frigates, HMS Actaeon and HMS Nereide, from Simon’s Town ‘to show the flag’, and troops were flown in from Nigeria. The police opened fire on several occasions, and twenty-nine rioters were killed and 237 wounded. Nkrumah and a handful of leading nationalists were arrested and locked up.
Order was restored within a fortnight and the authorities cast about to find someone to blame. Had there been a conspiracy, and, if so, who had hatched it? One intelligence officer detected the hand of hitherto invisible local Communists, who had urged the rioters to provoke the police into opening fire so that ‘some on their side would be killed’ to create ‘martyrs’. This conjecture was supported by the discovery of a sinister document with references to ‘a revolutionary vanguard’ ready to undergo ‘service, sacrifice [and] suffering’ to secure independence. As the tumults gained momentum, Joseph Danquah, a barrister and colleague of Nkrumah’s, had declared: ‘The hour of liberation had struck.’ Fearful speculation mutated into fact: the Spectator alleged that the mobs had been seeking a ‘Soviet state’.
The Gold Coast riots had a twofold significance. They marked the debut of the Communist bogey in Africa and jeopardised Britain’s plans for the political and economic future of its colonies, which had been outlined during the 1945 general election campaign. The future Labour Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, promised that henceforward ‘colonial peoples must ultimately determine their own associations and destiny’ under Britain’s benign and generous guidance. The Conservative spokesman on colonial affairs pledged that Africans would be trained in the ‘ethics and honesty of local government’ so that ‘backward races’ could eventually achieve ‘the management of their own affairs’.
No precise timetable was ever set for this programme, but the prevailing view in London was that it might take forty to fifty years. Both Labour and the Conservatives agreed that the end result would be independent democracies with all the checks and balances of the British parliamentary system and an independent judiciary. It was also assumed that the process would be peaceful, gradual and firmly supervised from above. When independence was achieved, it was hoped that the former colonies would follow the path that had been taken by the white dominions in the last century, and would join the existing Commonwealth. Always an abstraction rather than a formal alliance, this association was held together by a shared past, a common language and, above all, emotional ties to the monarchy. Royal visits to old and new members of this ‘family’ of nations became regular events and were puffed in the media as evidence of unity and goodwill. Sentimental bonds reflected hard economic realities: in 1955, 53 per cent of Britain’s exports went to the Commonwealth and the colonies, which provided 43 per cent of the country’s imports.
Unemployed Gold Coast ex-servicemen (who had been prominent in the disturbances) plundering shops were not part of the official blueprint for decolonisation. Neither was the possibility that this process might be hijacked by local Communists under orders from Moscow, although as early as 1946 the Foreign Office had been nervous about an impending Russian assault on British interests by propaganda and sedition.7 Subsequent events suggested such a campaign was under way, but in fact it was confined to the Middle East, where British power was decaying fast.
Hitherto, Russia had shown little interest in Africa for ideological reasons. This was to be expected, since after Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin dropped the promotion of worldwide revolution in favour of consolidating the revolution within Russia. The continent lacked a politically aware industrial working class, which was vital for a revolution according to conventional Marxist dogma. In regions where there was a growing African working class and racial tension, Communism had made some tentative progress: the Algerian Communist Party had 12,000 members by 1945 and the South African 2,000.
A trickle of Africans continued to make their way to Moscow to study and be immersed in Marxist-Leninism, but not all succumbed to indoctrination. During his stay in 1933, Kenyatta was rebuked for being ‘a petty bourgeois’ by a South African Communist. He angrily riposted: ‘I don’t like this “petty”, why don’t you say I am a big bourgeois.’ Such remarks were dangerous, as Kenyatta knew, for he had seen another African student suddenly arrested by the secret police. He vanished and was probably liquidated in a forerunner of Stalin’s purges, whose victims included other African students.
Rather than waste effort and energy on a continent with little potential for revolution, Stalin used the immediate post-war years to tighten his grip on Russia’s new puppet states in Eastern Europe. Large Communist parties in France and Italy offered opportunities for further advances through subversion, but they were frustrated by the Marshall Aid programme which, between 1947 and 1951, funded the successful resuscitation of the economies of Western Europe. At a cost of $3 billion, America had preserved capitalist democracy and provided the wherewithal for the growth and prosperity that were so obviously lacking in Stalin’s satrapies. Among the beneficiaries were Britain, France and Belgium, whom the State Department was then relying upon to detect and parry Communist infiltration of their African empires.
The need to resist Communist activities everywhere became more urgent during 1948. While mobs were emptying shops in Accra, a coup in Prague established Stalin as master of Czechoslovakia and showed the world the KGB’s mastery of intrigue and the manipulation of local Communists. In June, Malaya’s leisurely progress towards independence was disrupted by a Communist guerrilla uprising that would after 1949 receive covert assistance from Mao Zedong’s China. As in the Gold Coast, the Malayan authorities were caught on the hop, and for a short time were all but overwhelmed by a guerrilla insurgency that would take twelve years to defeat. It was against this background that, in 1949, the capitalist West and the Communist East formally squared up, with the former signing the NATO alliance, and in 1955 the latter the Warsaw Pact. In 1950 and with Stalin’s approval, North Korea invaded South Korea.
Vigilance became the order of the day in a world in which the Soviet Union appeared to be in a swashbuckling mood, eager to probe and exploit its adversaries’ weaknesses. MI5 hurriedly extended its surveillance throughout British Africa, with an eye to exposing Communist infiltration of local nationalist parties. Special attention was given to Nkrumah and Kenyatta, who had had past connections with Russia and its lackey, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Equally suspect were African nationalist parties with socialist economic programmes such as the Northern Rhodesia branch of the African National Congress, whose constitution promised an end to ‘capitalist exploitation’ and ‘a democratic socialist society’.
Communism was blamed for the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya in October 1952, but the intelligence evidence was laughably thin. The alleged running of pistols paid for by Italian Communists and smuggled from Somalia, the machinations of Soviet diplomats across the border in Ethiopia, and the clandestine intrigues of an Indian diplomat based in Nairobi might have been the scenario for a Buchanesque thriller, but they did not constitute a Soviet plot to overturn Kenya’s government. Nor did a secret report of a political meeting held in the Nandi district in 1955 in which international affairs were discussed. One questioner asked ‘Can Russians speak Swahili?’, while another wanted to know ‘What does a Russian look like?’ The KGB was clearly making little headway in Kenya. Nevertheless, the colony’s Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, persistently claimed that the war against the Mau Mau was part of the global struggle against Communism, an assumption that satisfied the Americans, who would have been very unhappy about an ally waging an old-style colonial war of repression.
Communist propaganda took this view and it was close to the truth. In November 1952 the Polish newspaper Zycie Warszawy published a photograph of Mau Mau prisoners who had been captured in a war ‘to liberate Kenya from the imperialist yoke’ and were now ‘manacled like slaves’. More, often lurid, stuff followed, with allegations of massacres and Nazi-style atrocities which drew on reports in the Daily Worker and questions in the House of Commons. American newspapers labelled the Mau Mau as ‘gangsters’, and there were undertones of the Wild West in one story of a Kenyan housewife, armed with a revolver, who defended her isolated farm against ‘a gang of Mau Mau thugs led by the ranch’s male cook’.
Ideology played no part in the Mau Mau uprising; rather, it was a land war between haves and have-nots. The dispossessed were the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, who wanted to recover the tribal lands that had been acquired by white settlers over the past fifty years. They were the ‘haves’, who numbered 30,000 in 1952 and farmed 12,000 square miles of prime land, while over a million Kikuyu got their living from 2,000 square miles of less fertile soil. Land hunger did not, however, dictate loyalties in what became a civil war in which Kikuyu killed Kikuyu. Seventy thousand Africans, three-quarters of them Kikuyu, volunteered for the Home Guard, which accounted for a high proportion of the 20,000 Mau Mau dead.
Taking its cue from Malaya, the Kenyan government adopted the euphemism ‘Emergency’ to describe the war and provide cover for draconian decrees that suspended all personal freedoms, imposed tight press censorship and gave sweeping powers to the police. A proposal to make the possession of ‘incendiary materials’ a capital offence prompted the Prime Minister, Churchill, to remark that hanging a man for having a box of matches seemed excessive. Oliver Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary from 1951 to 1954, disagreed, and strenuously defended such measures and those who enforced them. This was his Christian duty, for he believed that he was at grips with forces of darkness: once, when reading a report of Mau Mau sorcery, he imagined that he saw the horns of the devil on the pages. It was a view prevalent in Kenya and the British press, where grisly details of Mau Mau oaths and atrocities such as the Lari massacre of over a hundred Kikuyu men, women and children were treated as evidence of a collective recidivism. Africans had repudiated civilisation and were reverting to a barbaric and superstitious past.
Hideous, oath-swearing rituals, assassinations and massacres were the key elements of the Mau Mau terror. Desperate measures were necessary to offset the inherent weaknesses of a movement that lacked modern weapons, was outnumbered by the government’s forces and soon found itself isolated from the mass of Kikuyu. One answer was to recruit through fear, hence the killings. Military operations were confined to hit-and-run raids by small bands on European farms and uncooperative villages, and the extortion of the food needed for survival in the bush.
An equally ruthless counter-terror was the government’s response. Under the Emergency regulations, over a million Kikuyu were uprooted from their homes and herded into fenced and overcrowded villages where they endured a regime of forced labour under the supervision of the Home Guard. Mau Mau suspects were interned in camps, interrogated and made to undergo a form of exorcism to release them from their diabolic oaths. Official mumbo-jumbo proved superior to unofficial, and many were released over the next six years. Flogging and torture were common and officially tolerated, and many of their victims died or were crippled by their injuries.
Among the dead was Elijah Gideon, an elderly, infirm Kikuyu Christian who was clubbed to death by askaris under the orders of two white volunteers from the Police Reserve and the Kenya Regiment, both units with sinister reputations. Details of his murder were revealed in the Commons and Lyttelton promised Members that the culprits would be tried for manslaughter. They appeared before Justice Geoffrey Rudd, who fined them £100 and £50 respectively and expressed the view that their conduct had been justified by the desperate times. Hysteria and dereliction of duty were contagious: soon after taking command of operations, General Sir George Erskine was shocked by the indiscipline of the security forces, who, among other things, in seven months had shot dead 430 suspects attempting to escape. Lyttelton reassured Members that all had died resisting arrest; strangely, no suspect was ever just wounded.
Bad men did many bad things in Kenya, and in Britain individuals on the Left of politics protested. Yet on the whole the public was willing to overlook them simply because of what it had heard about the malevolence and cruelty of the Mau Mau. ‘The menace of the Mau Mau’ was the subject of a frightening 1952 Pathe newsreel. It opened with frightening, discordant music and showed footage of bush patrols, policemen rounding up and interrogating suspects and the funeral of a ‘wise and peaceful chieftain’. His murder was one of what the commentary called the ‘bloody deeds’ of the Mau Mau, who were referred to as ‘terrorists’, ‘fanatics’ and ‘bandits’ determined to ‘drive all the whites out of Kenya’. Horrific details of Mau Man initiation rites were hinted at in the press and the Commons.
According to one version of the Mau Mau oath, initiates were required to submit to and revere Kenyatta as ‘our great leader’. He had returned from England with his English wife in 1946 and become head of the Kenya African Union. Within weeks of the declaration of the Emergency, the Kenyan government arrested him and several other political activists and tried them on charges of instigating and encouraging the Mau Mau conspiracy. This was done in the knowledge of Kenyatta’s earlier Communist connections, the implication being that he was a Soviet agent. This canard and his arrest appeased the distraught settler community, which was screaming for blood. The truth was that Kenyatta had no links with Mau Mau, as MI5 knew, but was a conventional nationalist. Nairobi paid no attention: a rigged trial with bribed witnesses and a partial judge found Kenyatta guilty and he was sentenced to six years’ hard labour.
By 1956 the Mau Mau were defeated and the Emergency was terminated, although ‘hard-core’ suspects were detained for a further three years. In 1959 eleven of them were beaten to death by African guards at the Hola detention camp. The moral implications of this outrage were dissected by a Conservative MP, Enoch Powell, who reminded MPs of the traditional ideals to which the Empire aspired. ‘We cannot say’, he argued, that ‘we will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards at home.’ Public opinion would not tolerate such distinctions and rightly so, for it expected British values to be absolute. ‘We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own standards in the acceptance of responsibility.’ Questions of responsibility were raised in 2013, when four Kenyans appeared in London to claim civil damages for injuries they had suffered during the Emergency. The often grisly forensic details of official torture and coercion had been exhaustively and calmly revealed by David Anderson’s History of the Hanged and, less calmly, by Caroline Elkins, an American historian. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with the British government allocating £20 million for compensation to claimants who could prove injuries suffered during the Emergency.
In 1959 Powell had restated the traditional ideals of liberal imperialism. Its latest objective had been confirmed by Churchill’s Conservative government, which came to power in 1951. In November, Lyttelton told the Commons that he would continue the policy by which the colonies would achieve independence within the Commonwealth. He added that there would be no self-determination for colonies unable to support themselves, although every effort would be made to encourage and fund economic and social development. Of the 956 appointments made by the Colonial Office in 1953, over two-thirds were engineers, town planners, education officers, geologists, foresters and vets.
Just when the African colonies would be ready for independence still remained unclear. The Gold Coast upheavals had been followed by official inquiries which concluded, hesitantly, that the pace of the colony’s progress towards self-government should be quickened. Nkrumah was released from gaol in 1949, and 60,000 members of his CPP held a mass rally in Accra to celebrate. There were prayers for him and his supporters sang ‘Lead Kindly Light’. The Christian tone of the meeting inspired confidence, although the intelligence agencies suspected that a flamboyant leader who enjoyed the accolades Africa’s Man of Destiny’ and ‘Star of Ghana’ was a covert Communist. There were also suspicions that Nkrumah had links with a shady diamond smuggler.
The charismatic cult of Nkrumah provided Britain with what it needed: a popular leader with whom they could do business, and one whose ambition and vanity were far stronger than his attachment to Marxist dogma. Moreover, in 1954 he had declared that he had no plans to nationalise foreign companies. Most important of all, Nkrumah had a cordial working relationship with the Gold Coast’s Governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, a steady pragmatist who followed the principle that delaying independence would incur greater risks than procrastination. In 1950 arrangements were made for voter registration – 40 per cent of those qualified did so – and there were official reassurances that the ballot would be secret and warnings against intimidation. The CPP won the election and Nkrumah became interim Prime Minister at the head of a Cabinet which advised the Governor in the final phase of the transition to independence. Given the prevalence of illiteracy, ballot papers showed party symbols. His CPP chose a red crowing cockerel, the appropriate symbol for the breaking of a new dawn.
As that dawn approached, the colony’s three political parties remained under close surveillance. One spy penetrated the CPP and helped construct profiles of its leading figures. They included sincere nationalists and men who saw independence as an opportunity to advancement in a country where all the top jobs in government and business had previously gone to Europeans. There were also eccentrics, including the son of a fetish priest who imagined that his inherited supernatural powers might help him influence voters. He was a small man who had spent time in the Accra lunatic asylum, called himself ‘The Great Lion of Judah’ and was polite towards Europeans, who were intrigued by his mannerisms and ‘exaggerated Oxford accent’.
New nightmares blended with old, for in October 1950 the Daily Telegraph alleged that not only was Nkrumah Moscow’s poodle, but that his party was ‘using juju of Darkest Africa’. With or without supernatural help, the CPP won 104 out of 175 seats in the Gold Coast’s parliament, and in March 1957 Ghana became an independent republic within the Commonwealth. Despite misgivings, Ghana appeared to be a safe bet in terms of economic viability, for it had reserves of £200 million and debts of £20 million. The new state did, however, have one problem: Nkrumah’s ego. He considered independence to be a personal triumph which uniquely qualified him for a new career on the world stage as a Pan-African leader and a scourge of what was already being called ‘colonialism’. As for Ghana, he promised Vice-President Richard Nixon (then touring Africa) that he would give ‘vigorous’ support for free speech and ‘democratic traditions’. This was very gratifying for Britain, which had taken a gamble in hastening the transfer of power, and seen from the perspective of 1957, the result appeared to set an example of how decolonisation would be managed smoothly and to Britain’s advantage. The terror in Kenya was, however, a warning that Britain would not be coerced in surrendering power.
The countdown to Ghana’s independence coincided with a spasm of imperial bravado within the Conservative Party, whose stiffer backbenchers were unhappy with decolonisation, however protracted. Their apprehension was regularly expressed in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express. Right-wing foreboding about the future of the Empire coincided with an optimistic spirit that followed the accession of Queen Elizabeth II early in 1952. A ‘new’ and glorious Elizabethan age seemed imminent, as full of genius and achievement as its predecessor. Later in the year, Harold Macmillan, then Minister of Housing, expressed the new mood when he asked whether Britain should ‘choose to slide into a shoddy Socialism’ or ‘march to a third British Empire?’ Churchill also looked forward to a period of imperial consolidation and was delighted by plans for a grandiose development of Parliament Square that would be a ‘truly noble setting for the heart of the British Empire’.
Such presumptions appeared to contradict the idea of future decolonisation, but it should be remembered that Ghana had been an exception. Rough projections agreed by the Cabinet in October 1954 set the independence dates for the proposed Central African Federation (Nyasaland and Northern and South Rhodesia), Sierra Leone, Uganda and Tanganyika in the mid-1970s at the earliest. Still-unpacified Kenya might have to wait longer. In the meantime, Britain’s African colonies remained an economic and strategic asset that would help Britain withstand the twin threats of global Communist subversion and the aggressive nationalism in the Middle East. A demoted superpower needed all the resources it could muster to fend off its enemies and fulfil its political and military obligations to the United States at a time when the Cold War was intensifying.
Cold War anxieties prompted President Eisenhower to persuade Churchill to accelerate decolonisation. ‘We are’, he wrote in 1954, ‘falsely pictured as exploiters of people, the Soviets as their champions’, and it would be politically reckless to ignore the ‘fierce and growing spirit of nationalism’ that was spreading across Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, he sympathised with British caution and reckoned that the end of colonial rule would take at the least twenty-five years. Churchill was unconvinced. He was a child of the Victorian Empire, proud of what Britain had achieved with ‘backward races’. Their recent maltreatment in Kenya had caused him much private distress. Churchill also confessed to Ike that ‘I am a bit sceptical about universal suffrage for the Hottentots even if refined by proportional representation.’
Events in Ghana did not dispel the fears of pessimists that the transfer of power in Africa was a leap in the dark that could easily end disastrously. There were plenty of Jeremiahs who feared the worst and said so, often. Herbert Morrison, the Labour Foreign Secretary, had famously compared allowing self-government to the colonies with giving a front door key, a chequebook and a shotgun to a twelve-year-old. In 1951 The Times had called the government’s Gold Coast policy ‘a bold, perhaps hazardous experiment’. In the following year one Tory MP drew a parallel between the Roman and British empires, and reminded the Commons that when the former dissolved, it ‘was followed by something much worse – the Dark Ages’.
Others were disturbed by the potential for trouble of tribal and religious differences and the immaturity and political apathy of people who would soon be asked to decide their own future. For the past fifty years, Britain’s African colonies had progressed at different rates, and undesirable customs and behaviour that the authorities had striven to suppress had often proved resilient. In 1954 a Basuto headman, three witch doctors and eleven accomplices were charged with the rape and murder of a woman whose body parts were removed for medicines. Traditional customs flourished alongside ‘modern’ politics. In 1950 there was a revival of intertribal rustling of livestock along Somaliland’s frontier with Ethiopia, while nationalists of the Somali Youth League clashed with police on the streets of Burao. There were also tensions between these young bloods and traditionalist, itinerant mullahs, whose power they challenged.
Nationalist parties that represented themselves as expressions of the popular will inevitably clashed with established sources of authority, secular as well as religious. The wayward King Rukidi III of Toro complained in 1956 that the growing Ugandan Congress Party was making the chiefs feel ‘insecure’ and that its leaders were self-serving. Elsewhere, Britain’s willingness to cut cards with local politicians dismayed and worried princes and chiefs who had hitherto collaborated with colonial governments. There was also that easily overlooked but hard to calculate body of Africans who preferred the status quo, or who were indifferent to nationalist agitation. After the outbreak of the Korean War, an African member of the Nyasaland legislative council assured the Governor that ‘African people have always rallied to the Empire’, while in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia a district officer reported that only one in every 5,000 Africans in his area was interested in politics. In Whitehall it was assumed that the conservative and the neutral would somehow fall into line with the new dispensation by which power was slowly transferred to native governments-in-waiting.
An empire in transition maintained the old racial hierarchies, which was one reason why nationalists found it easy to make converts. In Swaziland the film censors awarded four types of certificate: A for general showing; B for Europeans only; C for non-Europeans, but excluding natives; and D for everyone over the age of twelve. Male passengers at Mombasa airport were confronted by two types of lavatory, one labelled ‘European-Type Gentlemen’ and the other ‘Non-European-Type Gentlemen’.
Artist conception of Vandal and Alan warriors in North Africa.
In 406 the East Germanic Vandals and their tribal confederates, including Germanic Suebi and Iranian Alans, crossed the Rhine. After an initial defeat at the hands of the Franks, the Vandals enlisted Alan support and smashed their way into Gaul, plundering the countryside mercilessly as they advanced into the south. In the early 420s Roman pressure forced the Vandals into southern Spain where the newcomers faced a Roman-Gothic alliance; this threat the Vandals managed to defeat, but there could be no peace. Under their fearless and brilliant war leader Geiseric (428–77), whose fall from a horse had made him lame, the Vandals sought shelter across the Mediterranean; their long exodus led as many as 80,000 of them to Africa where, they believed, they could shelter themselves from Roman counterattack. They commandeered ships and ferried themselves across the straits to Tangiers, in the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana.
There the local dux had few men to oppose Geiseric, who swept him aside and, after a year’s plundering march, in 410 reached the city of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria). There one of the great luminaries of Christian history lay dying: Augustine of Hippo, bishop of the city and church father. The Vandals stormed the city and spread death and sorrow, but Augustine was spared the final horror; he died on August 28, 430, about a year before the Vandals returned and finally overcame the city. By then Vandal aggression had prompted a large-scale imperial counteroffensive led by count Boniface. In 431 an imperial expedition from the east led by the generalissimo Aspar joined forces with Boniface but suffered defeat and had to withdraw in tatters. The future eastern emperor Marcian (d. 457) served in the expedition and fell into Vandal hands. He helped broker the resulting peace, which recognized Vandal possession of much of Roman Numidia, the lands of what is now eastern Algeria. The Romans licked their wounds but could in no way accept barbarians in possession of one of the most productive cornlands and who threatened the richest group of provinces of the whole of the Roman west. In 442 the emperor Theodosius II dispatched a powerful force from the east with the aim of dislodging the Vandals. It too was defeated and in 444 the Romans were forced to recognize Vandal control over the provinces of Byzacena, Proconsularis, and Numidia, the regions today comprising eastern Algeria and Tunisia—rich districts with vast farmland and numerous cities. In 455 the Vandals sacked Rome, the second time the great city had suffered sack in fifty years, having been plundered by Alaric in 410. The eastern emperor Marcian had his own problems to deal with, namely the Huns, and therefore sent no retaliatory expedition.
Instead, Constantinople finally responded in 461 in conjunction with the capable western emperor, Majorian (457–61), but Majorian’s crossing to Africa from Spain was frustrated by traitors in his midst who burned the expeditionary ships and undid the western efforts. By this time the Vandals had established a powerful fleet and turned to piracy; they threatened the Mediterranean coastlands as far as Constantinople itself. In 468 the emperor Leo I launched another massive attack against Vandal North Africa under the command of his brother-in-law Basiliskos; Prokopios records that the expedition cost the staggering sum of 130,000 lbs. of gold. The expedition began promisingly enough. Leo sent the commander Marcellinus to Sardinia, which was easily captured, while another army under Heraclius advanced to Tripolis (modern Tripoli) and captured it. Basiliskos, however, landed somewhere near modern Hammam Lif, about 27 miles from Carthage. There he received envoys from Geiseric who begged him to wait while the Vandals took counsel among themselves and determined the course of negotiations. While Basiliskos hesitated, the Vandals assembled their fleet and launched a surprise attack using fire ships and burned most of the anchored Roman fleet to cinders. As his ship was overwhelmed, Basiliskos leaped into the sea in full armor and committed suicide.
The stain on Roman honor from the Basiliskos affair was deep; rumors abounded of his incompetence, corruption, or outright collusion with the enemy. The waste of treasure and the loss of life was so severe that the eastern empire made no more effort to dislodge the Vandals and to recover Africa. As the fifth century deepened and the Hunnic threat receded, the east settled into an uneasy relationship with the former imperial territories of North Africa, trading and exchanging diplomatic contacts, but never allowing the Vandals to think that Africa was rightly theirs. The emperor Zeno established an “endless peace” with the Vandal foe, binding them with oaths to cease aggression against Roman territory. Upon the death of Geiseric, his eldest son Huneric (477–84) ruled over the Vandals; he is remembered as a cruel persecutor of Catholics in favor of the heretical form of Christianity, Arianism, practiced by the Vandals and Alans. Huneric’s son with his wife Eudoxia, the daughter of the former western emperor Valentinian III, was Hilderic, who claimed power in Africa in 523. Under Hilderic, relations with Constantinople warmed considerably. Hilderic himself had a personal bond with Justinian from the time the latter was a rising talent and force behind the throne of his uncle, the emperor Justin (518–27), and in a policy designed to appease local Africans and the empire, Catholics were left unmolested; many Vandals converted to the orthodox form of Christianity. The Vandal nobility found their situation threatened, as one of the key components of their identity, Arianism, was under attack; assimilation and disintegration, they reasoned, were sure to follow. When, in 530, Hilderic’s younger cousin Gelimer overthrew the aged Vandal king it was with the support of the majority of the elites. Hilderic died in prison as Justinian monitored events from Constantinople with dismay. Roman diplomatic attempts to restore Hilderic failed. But Justinian was unable to act because war with Persia had commenced and his forces were tied down in Syria. By 532, Justinian sealed peace with Persia, freeing his forces and their young general Belisarios, the victor in 530 over the Persian army at Dara, to move west.
On the heels of the signing of the peace with Persia in 532, Justinian announced to his inner circle his intentions to invade the Vandal kingdom. According to a contemporary witness and one in a position to know, the general Belisarios’s secretary Prokopios, the news was met with dread. Commanders feared being selected to lead the attack, lest they suffer the fate of prior expeditions, while the emperor’s tax collectors and administrators recalled the ruinous expense of Leo’s campaign that cost vast amounts of blood and treasure. Allegedly the most vocal opponent was the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, who warned the emperor of the great distances involved and the impossibility of attacking Africa while Sicily and Italy were in the hands of the Ostrogoths. Eventually, we are told, a priest from the east advised Justinian that in a dream he foresaw Justinian fulfilling his duty as protector of the Christians in Africa, and that God himself would join the Roman side in the war. Whatever the internal debates and the role of faith, there was certainly a religious element to Roman propaganda; Catholic bishops stirred the pot by relating tales of Vandal atrocities against the faithful. Justinian overcame whatever logistical and military misgivings he possessed through belief in the righteousness of his cause.
It could not have been lost on the high command in Constantinople that Justinian’s plan of attack was identical to Leo’s, which was operationally sound. Imperial agents responded to (or more likely incited) a rebellion by the Vandal governor of Sardinia with an embassy that drew him to the Roman side. Justinian supported another revolt, this one by the governor of Tripolitania, Prudentius, whose Roman name suggests he was not the Vandal official in charge there. Prudentius used his own troops, probably domestic bodyguards, armed householders, and Moors, to seize Tripoli. He then sent word to Justinian requesting aid and the emperor obliged with the dispatch of a force of unknown size under the tribune Tattimuth. These forces secured Tripoli while the main expeditionary army mustered in Constantinople.
The forces gathered were impressive but not overwhelming. Belisarios was in overall command of 15,000 men and men attached to his household officered most of the 5,000 cavalry. John, a native of Dyrrachium in Illyria, commanded the 10,000 infantry. Foederati included 400 Heruls, Germanic warriors who had migrated to the Danubian region from Scandinavia by the third century. Six hundred “Massagetae” Huns served—these were all mounted archers and they were to play a critical role in the tactics of the campaign. Five hundred ships carried 30,000 sailors and crewmen and 15,000 soldiers and mounts. Ninety-two warships manned by 2,000 marines protected the flotilla, the largest seen in eastern waters in at least a century. The ability of the Romans to maintain secrecy was astonishing, for strategic surprise was difficult to achieve in antiquity; merchants, spies, and travelers spread news quickly. Gelimer was clearly oblivious to the existence of the main Roman fleet; apparently an attack in force was inconceivable to him and he saw the Roman ambitions confined to nibbles at the edge of his kingdom. The Vandal king sent his brother Tzazon with 5,000 Vandal horse and 120 fast ships to attack the rebels and their Roman allies in Sardinia.
It had been seven decades since the Romans had launched such a large-scale expedition into western waters, and the lack of logistical experience told. John the Cappadocian economized on the biscuit; instead of being baked twice, the bread was placed near the furnaces of a bathhouse in the capital; by the time the fleet reached Methone in the Peloponnese, the bread was rotten and 500 soldiers died from poisoning. The water was also contaminated toward the end of the voyage and sickened some. After these difficulties, the fleet landed in Sicily near Mount Aetna. In 533 the island was under the control of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, and through diplomatic exchanges the Ostrogoths had been made aware of the Roman intentions of landing there to procure supplies and use the island as a convenient springboard for the invasion. Prokopios reports the psychological effect of the unknown on the general and his men; no one knew the strength or battle worthiness of their foe, which caused considerable fear among the men and affected morale. More terrifying, though, was the prospect of fighting at sea, of which the vast majority of the army had no experience. The Vandal reputation as a naval power weighed heavily on them. In Sicily, Belisarios therefore dispatched Prokopios and other spies to Syracuse in the southeast of the island to gather intelligence about the disposition of the Vandal navy and about favorable landing spots on the African coast. In Syracuse, Prokopios met a childhood acquaintance from Palestine, a merchant, whose servant had just returned from Carthage; this man informed Prokopios that the Vandal navy had sailed for Sardinia and that Gelimer was not in Carthage, but staying four days’ distance. Upon receiving this news, Belisarios embarked his men at once and sailed, past Malta and Gozzo, and anchored unopposed at Caput Vada (today Ras Kaboudia in east-central Tunisia). There the high command debated the wisdom of landing four days’ march or more from Carthage in unfamiliar terrain where lack of provisions and water and exposure to enemy attack would make the advance on the Vandal perilous. Belisarios reminded his commanders that the soldiers had openly spoken of their fear of a naval engagement and that they were likely to flee if they were opposed at sea. His view carried the day and they disembarked. The journey had taken three months, rendering it all the more remarkable that news of the Roman expedition failed to reach Gelimer.
The cautious Belisarios followed Roman operational protocol; the troops established a fortified, entrenched camp. The general ordered that the dromons, the light, fast war galleys that had provided the fleet escort, anchor in a circle around the troop carriers. He assigned archers to stand watch onboard the ships in case of enemy attack. When soldiers foraged in local farmers’ orchards the next day, they were severely punished and Belisarios admonished the army that they were not to antagonize the Romano-African population, whom he hoped would side with him against their Vandal overlords.
The army advanced up the coastal road from the east toward Carthage. Belisarios stationed one of his boukellarioi, John, ahead with a picked cavalry force. Ahead on the army’s left rode the 600 Hun horse archers. The army moved 80 stadia (about 8 miles) each day. About 35 miles from Carthage, the armies made contact; in the evening when Belisarios and his men bivouacked within a pleasure park belonging to the Vandal king, Vandal and Roman scouts skirmished and each retired to their own camps. The Byzantines, crossing to the south of Cape Bon, lost sight of their fleet, which had to swing far to the north to round the cape. Belisarios ordered his admirals to wait about 20 miles distant from the army and not to proceed to Carthage where a Vandal naval response might be expected.
Gelimer had, in fact, been shadowing the Byzantine force for some time, tracking them on the way to Carthage where Vandal forces were mustering. The king sent his nephew Gibamund and 2,000 Vandal cavalry ahead on the left flank of the Roman army. Gelimer’s strategy was to hem the Romans between his forces to the rear, those of Gibamund on the left, and reinforcements from Carthage under Ammatas, Gelimer’s brother. The plan was therefore to envelop and destroy the Roman forces. Without the 5,000 Vandal troops sent to Sardinia, the Vandal and Roman armies were probably about equal in strength. Around noon, Ammatas arrived at Ad Decimum, named from its location at the tenth milestone from Carthage. In his haste, Ammatas left Carthage without his full complement of soldiers and arrived too early by the Vandals’ coordinated attack plan. His men encountered John’s boukellarioi elite cavalry. Outnumbered, the Vandals fought valiantly; Prokopios states that Ammatas himself killed twelve men before he fell. When their commander perished, the Vandals fled to the northwest back toward Carthage. Along their route they encountered penny packets of their countrymen advancing toward Ad Decimum; the retreating elements of Ammatas’s forces panicked these men who fled with them, pursued by John to the gates of the city. John’s men cut down the fleeing Vandals in great number, bloody work far out of proportion to his own numbers. About four miles to the southeast, the flanking attack of the 2,000 Vandal cavalry under Gibamund encountered the Hunnic flank guard of Belisarios. Though they were outnumbered nearly four to one, the 600 Huns had the advantage of tactical surprise, mobility, and firepower. The Vandals had never experienced steppe horse archers; terrified by the reputation and the sight of them, Gibamund and his forces panicked and ran; the Huns thus decimated the second prong of Gelimer’s attack.
Belisarios had still not been informed of his lieutenant’s success when at the end of the day his men constructed the normal entrenched and palisaded camp. Inside he left the baggage and 10,000 Roman infantry, taking with him his cavalry force and boukellarioi with the hopes of skirmishing with the enemy to determine their strength and capabilities. He sent the four hundred Herul foederati as a vanguard; these men encountered Gelimer’s scouts and a violent clash ensued. The Heruls mounted a hill and saw the body of the Vandal army approaching. They sent riders to Belisarios, who pushed forward with the main army—Prokopios does not tell us, but it seems that this could only have been the cavalry wing, since only they were drawn up for action. The Vandals drove the Heruls from the hill and seized the high point of the battlefield. The Heruls fled to another portion of the vanguard, the boukellarioi of Belisarios, who, rather than hold fast, fled in panic.
Gelimer made the error of descending the hill; at the bottom he found the corpses of the Vandals slain by John’s forces, including Ammatus. Upon seeing his dead brother, Gelimer lost his wits and the Vandal host began to disintegrate. Though Prokopios does not mention it, there was more in play; the string of corpses on the road to Carthage informed the king that his encirclement plan had failed and he now faced a possible Roman encirclement. He could not be certain that a Roman force did not bar the way to Carthage. Thus, as Belisarios’s host approached, the Vandal decision to retreat to the southwest toward Numidia was not as senseless as Prokopios claimed. The fighting, which could not have amounted to much more than running skirmishing as the Vandals withdrew, ended at nightfall .
The next day Belisarios entered Carthage in order; there was no resistance. The general billeted his soldiers without incident; the discipline and good behavior of the soldiers was so exemplary that Prokopios remarked that they purchased their lunch in the marketplace the day of their entry to the city. Belisarios immediately started repairs on the dilapidated city walls and sent scouts to ascertain the whereabouts and disposition of Gelimer’s forces. Not much later his men intercepted messengers who arrived from Sardinia bearing news of the defeat of the rebel governor at the hands of the Vandal general Tzazon. Gelimer and the Vandal army, which remained intact, were encamped on the plain of Bulla Regia, four days’ march south of Carthage. The king sent messengers to Tzazon in Sardinia, and the Vandal army there returned and made an uncontested landing west of Carthage and marched overland to Bulla Regia where the two forces unified. Belisarios’s failure to intercept and destroy this element of the Vandal force when it landed was a major blunder that Prokopios passes over in silence.
Once Gelimer and Tzazon unified their forces, they moved on Carthage, cut the main aqueduct, and guarded the roads out of the city. They also opened negotiations with the Huns in Roman service, whom they enticed to desert, and they attempted to recruit fifth columnists in the city to help their cause.
The two armies encamped opposite one another at Tricamarum, about 14 1/2 miles south of Carthage. The Vandals opened the engagement, advancing at lunch time when the Romans were at their meal. The two forces drew up against one another, with a small brook running between the front lines. Four thousand five hundred Roman cavalry arrayed themselves in three divisions along the front; the general John stationed himself in the center, and Belisarios came up behind him with 500 household guards. The Vandals and their Moorish allies formed around Tzazon’s 5,000 Vandal horsemen in the center of the host. The two armies stared one another down, but since the Vandals did not take the initiative, Belisarios ordered John forward with picked cavalry drawn from the Roman center. They crossed the stream and attacked the Vandal center, but Tzazon and his men repulsed them, and the Romans retreated. The Vandals showed good discipline in their pursuit, refusing to cross the stream where the Roman force awaited them. John returned to the Roman lines, selected more cavalry, and launched a second frontal assault. This, too, the Vandals repulsed. John retired and regrouped and Belisarios committed most of his elite units to a third attack on the center. John’s heroic final charge locked the center in a sharp fight. Tzazon fell in the fighting and the Vandal center broke and fled, joined by the wings of the army as the Romans began a general advance. The Romans surrounded the Vandal palisade, inside which they took shelter along with their baggage and families. In the clash that opened the battle of Tricamarum in mid- December 533, the Romans counted 50 dead, the Vandals about 800.
As Belisarios’s infantry arrived on the battlefield, Gelimer understood that the Vandals could not withstand an assault on the camp by 10,000 fresh Roman infantry. Instead of an ordered retreat, though, the Vandal king fled on horseback alone. When the rest of the encampment learned of his departure, panic swept the Vandals, who ran away in chaos. The Romans plundered the camp and pursued the broken force throughout the night, enslaving the women and children and killing the males. In the orgy of plunder and captive taking, the cohesion of the Roman army dissolved completely; Belisarios watched helplessly as the men scattered and lost all discipline, enticed by the richest booty they had ever encountered. When morning came, Belisarios rallied his men, dispatched a small force of 200 to pursue Gelimer, and continued to round up the Vandal male captives. The disintegration of the Vandals was clearly complete, since the leader offered a general amnesty to the enemy and sent his men to Carthage to prepare for his arrival. The initial pursuit of Gelimer failed, and Belisarios himself led forces to intercept the king, whose existence still threatened a Vandal uprising and Moorish alliances against the Roman occupiers. The general reached Hippo Regius where he learned Gelimer had taken shelter on a nearby mountain among Moorish allies. Belisarios sent his Herul foederati under their commander Pharas to guard the mountain throughout the winter and starve out Gelimer and his followers.
Belisarios garrisoned the land and sent a force to Sardinia which submitted to Roman control and sent another unit to Caesarea in Mauretania (modern Cherchell in Algeria). In addition, the general ordered forces to the fortress of Septem on the straits of Gibraltar and seized it, along with the Balearic Islands. Finally he sent a detachment to Tripolitania to strengthen the army of Prudentius and Tattimuth to ward off Moorish and Vandal activity there. Late in the winter, facing deprivation and surrounded by the Heruls, Gelimer negotiated his surrender and was taken to Carthage where Belisarios received him and sent him to Constantinople.
Roman victory was total. The Vandal campaign ended with a spectacular recovery of the rich province of Byzacium and the riches of the African cities and countryside the Vandals had held for nearly a century. Prokopios is reserved in his praise for his general, Belisarios, and for the performance of the Roman army as a whole, laying the blame for Vandal defeat at the feet of Gelimer and the power of Fortune, rather than crediting the professionalism or skill of the army commanders and rank and file. The Romans clearly made several blunders—chief among these the failure to intercept Tzazon’s reinforcing column, and Belisarios’s inability to maintain discipline in the ranks upon the plundering of the Vandal encampment at Tricamarum. On balance, though, the army and the state had performed well enough. The work of imperial agents in outlying regions of Tripolitania and Sardinia distracted the Vandals and led them to disperse their forces. Experienced Roman soldiers who had just returned from years of hard fighting against the Persians proved superior to their Vandal enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. Indeed, they had proved capable of meeting and destroying much larger enemy contingents. Belisarios’s leadership, maintenance of morale, and (apart from the Tricarmarum incident) excellent discipline accompanied his cautious, measured operational decisions that conserved and protected his forces. Roman losses were minimal in a campaign that extended imperial boundaries by more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) and more than a quarter million subjects. The empire held its African possessions for more than a century until they were swept under the rising Arab Muslim tide in the mid-seventh century.