Christianity among the Vikings

Of the three Scandinavian peoples in the Viking Age, it is the Swedes who most successfully remain hidden behind the swirl and chaos of history. Among the Svear and Gautar the art of skaldic poetry was not cultivated to anything like the extent it was among Norwegians and Icelanders; and in the centuries following the Viking Age no Swedish Snorri Sturluson or Saxo Grammaticus took it upon himself to write their early history. What the Swedes did have, by way of compensation, was a culture of raising rune-stones to commemorate the dead, and sometimes the living, to a degree that far exceeds anything in Norway or Denmark. The little we know of Viking Age Swedes derives largely from the histories and poems composed by other Scandinavians in which their kings and leaders play a part, from Rimbert’s ‘Life’ of the ninth-century missionary Anskar, and from what can be gleaned from the inscriptions on these rune-stones. The dramatic flourishing of the fashion, from the middle of the tenth century to its decline around the beginning of the twelfth century, has been attributed to the renown of King Harald Bluetooth’s Jelling stone, in Jutland in Denmark; but it was among the Swedes that the art reached its apotheosis. About 2,500 examples from the period have survived in Sweden, compared with some 220 in Denmark, a mere handful in Norway and none at all in Iceland.

Where the Ingvar stones are most evocative of our conventional ideas about the Viking Age is in their terseness and monumentality; the carving of an eagle’s head on one stone intensifies its aura of Heathen exoticism. But it stands guard alone, heavily outnumbered by the references on at least eleven other stones to the Christian God, as well as the Christian crosses carved on several of them. The saga’s depiction of Ingvar as an exceptionally pious Christian is an obvious exaggeration, but there is no reason to doubt that he and the majority of his party were baptized men. And yet, to a much greater degree than among either the Danes or the Norwegians, both of whom were by this time irrevocably members of the community of Christian peoples in Europe, Christianity among the Swedes was still struggling to establish the exclusive dominance which its dogma required. Perhaps it was that the territory was more remote; or that the spiritual centre of the whole cult of the Aesir was located at the temple in Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) in Sweden.

The rapidity and scale of the conversions carried out under Harald Bluetooth in Denmark, and Olaf Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson in Norway, owed everything to the fact that they were native kings. Adam of Bremen quotes Sven Estridson, who succeeded Magnus the Good as king of Denmark in 1047, as advising the Hamburg-Bremen Bishop Adalbert against carrying out a plan to undertake a great missionary journey through the Scandinavian lands, on the grounds that ‘the Heathens are more willing to be converted by someone who speaks their own language and who observes the same customs as themselves, than by foreigners who object to their way of life’. By the middle of the eleventh century, no such determined, native, missionary king had yet risen among the Swedes, though there had been kings, like the Emund mentioned by Adam of Bremen, who were favourably disposed towards Christianity; and Erik Segersäll, or ‘the Victorious’, whose victory in 988 over Styrbjørn Starke, in a battle near Uppsala, is referred to on rune-stones. Ingvar’s saga makes the credible claim that Erik was the great-grandfather of Ingvar the Far-Travelled.

It is with Erik Segersäll that the more or less continuous history of the kings of Sweden begins. Adam tells us that he was baptized in Denmark, but reverted to the old religion on his return to Uppsala. On his death in about 995 he was succeeded by his son Olof Sköttkonung. Olof was the first known king to rule over both the Svear and the Gautar of the Mälardalen and Västergötland regions of Sweden. He was also the first Swedish king to be baptized who did not later revert to Heathendom, and the first to practise the other major innovation associated with Christian modernity besides writing in Latin, the minting of coins to be used as coins and not as hack-silver to be judged by weight. He married Estrid, the Christian daughter of an Obodrite prince, who bore him a son, Jakob. He also had three children by his mistress Edla. His name ‘Sköttkonung’ probably derives from the fact that his profit from the battle of Svolder in 1000, at which Olaf Tryggvason of Norway was killed, was control over the Bohuslän district, on the eastern side of the Vik, which he ruled as Sven Forkbeard’s tributary king. Other explanations on a stimulating roster of possibilities that depend upon different translations of the first element of his nickname include the ‘sheet-’ or ‘lap-’ king; an interpretation that may suggest a caesarean birth; the possibility that he spent some time in Scotland; and that, as the first Swedish king to mint coins, he was remembered as ‘the tax king’.

By the late 990s these coins, minted in his name by English moneyers in Sigtuna, bore Christian motifs, suggesting that King Olof was baptized earlier rather than later in his life, and almost certainly not as late as the 1008 given in the legendary ‘Life’ of St Sigfrid from the beginning of the thirteenth century, which ascribes his baptism to an English bishop Sigfrid, known as the apostle of Sweden. An intriguing suggestion that offers to settle a number of the problems connected to the dating of Olof’s baptism, as well as the identity of the man who baptized him, proposes that the ‘Anlaf’ who raided in England with Sven Forkbeard in the early 990s, and whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us was baptized at Andover in 994, was not the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason at all but the young Olof Sköttkonung. Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury was urgently involved in raising the money used to pay off the Viking armies in 994, and it was very likely he that baptized ‘Anlaf’ at the ceremony in Andover that year. A subsequent confusion over the names ‘Sigfrid’ and ‘Sigeric’, as well as the ‘Sigurd’ mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in his reference to the event, may have become embedded in the traditions relating to Olof Sköttkonung’s baptism. The uncertainties are entirely characteristic of Swedish history of the period.

Adam of Bremen, who greatly admired Olof, tells us that at some unspecified point in his rule he proposed to pull down the temple at Uppsala as part of a campaign to convert the whole population of his regions, but that the Svear who formed the dominant majority in the coastal east remained as firmly attached to their Heathen beliefs as ever and would not allow it. In a solution that would probably not have appealed to Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi in Iceland, Olof’s authority was limited to control of the Götar of the Västergötland region in the west of the country, the region of present-day Gothenburg, which had been converted in the second half of the 990s and become a point of entry for missionary priests travelling in Sweden: ‘If he wished to be Christian himself he might choose the best part of Sweden and have full power there. He might build a church and introduce Christianity. But he must not force people to abandon the old faith. Only those who wished to should be converted.’ It seems that the arrangement was followed and as a possible result – for the chronology is uncertain – a bishopric was established at Skara in Västergötland in about 1013. Snorri adds that Olof’s long and futile attempt to exploit the volatile situation in Norway at this time led him to neglect and finally lose his tributary rights over tribes on the other side of the Baltic, and that this was another factor in the dissatisfaction that led to his demotion.

For the last years of his reign, Olof ruled only over Västergötland, as a tributary king under his young son Jakob. As the name indicates, Jakob, too, was a Christian, but not one overly imbued with the missionary imperative. In an inversion of the practice we have become familiar with over the centuries of dealings between Christians and Heathens, Jakob adopted the local and traditional name ‘Anund’ at the request of his Heathen subjects, who made it a condition of his rule. On his death in 1050 he was succeeded by his half-brother, Emund the Old, also called Emund the Mean, also a Christian. At about the same time, and as a reminder of how far Sweden still was from anything approaching a modern monarchy, Christianity was introduced into the province of Jemtland in north-central Sweden, with Norway on its western border, by a local chieftain about whom very little other than this is known. The documentation is the inscription on the Frösö stone, the most northerly rune-stone in Sweden:

Austmaðr, Guðfastr’s son had this stone raised and this bridge made and he made Jamtaland Christian. Ásbjôrn built the bridge, Trjónn (?) and Steinn carved these runes.

Scholarly debate over the conversion of the Scandinavian peoples has long concerned itself with the competing claims to decisive involvement of German bishops associated with the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, and of missionary priests and bishops from England sponsored by Olaf Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson. Adam of Bremen writes that Emund the Old was baptized but that he was not much interested in religion, an ingenuous observation that may have been occasioned by the fact of Emund’s open opposition to the German political influence in Sweden that the power of the Hamburg-Bremen see in Scandinavia entrained. He seems to have rejected the see’s attempts to establish itself at Sigtuna, in Mälardalen, and to have driven its prospective bishop out of the country, on the grounds that there was already a bishopric in Mälardalen, complete with incumbent. Adam complains that this ‘unofficial’ appointee, Bishop Osmund, ‘led the newly converted savages astray with his false teaching’. Indeed, in the deaths of all the members of Ingvar’s expedition Adam saw only God’s just punishment for this particular effrontery.

Adam’s condemnation of the ‘false teaching’ of both the king and his bishop may relate to a tradition that Emund provoked the German missionaries in Sweden with his attraction to eastern forms of Christianity, and a recent theory from Sweden on the origins, dating and significance of the so-called ‘Lily-stones’ suggests that the influence from Constantinople on the arrival of Christianity in Sweden may well have been underestimated. These stone rectangles carved with stylized lilies, a familiar image of the resurrection, are among the earliest examples of Christian art known from Västergötland. Their original purpose is not known, but they are believed to have been used at some point as gravestones. The prevailing view is that they were influenced by English and German religious art and were carved in about 1100, at about the time the first stone churches were built. The radical hypothesis behind the new theory is that Viking Age Swedes who joined the Varangian Guard as the emperor’s personal bodyguard were compelled to accept baptism before enrolment, and that the Christianity these returning Varangian mercenaries brought back with them when they returned to Sweden was accordingly neither the Hamburg-Bremen variety nor the Canterbury, but the Greek Orthodoxy of the Byzantine empire. The stones were then made to the commission of these homecoming warriors around 1000, thus a full century earlier than the date traditionally given for them, by local stonemasons whose influences were from the east. Finds of a number of other objects associated with eastern Christianity, such as resurrection eggs, as well as the occurrence of Greek crosses on rune-stones, can be used to support the theory. Its most dramatic proposal, however, is that Heathendom as a ‘state religion’ had effectively disappeared from Sweden as early as about 1000, and that when Adam of Bremen writes of conflict between ‘Heathens’ and ‘Christians’ and of attacks on ‘Heathen temples’, he is referring to a Swedish version of the conflict between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches that was raging on the larger stage outside Scandinavia at this time. On this analysis, Adam’s ‘Heathen priests’ were the Catholic Church’s Orthodox competitors, and his ‘Heathen temples’, on the same analysis, the first churches to be built in the country in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries – rectangular wooden buildings, often elaborately decorated, with staves set directly into the ground. The break between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches that occurred in 1054 finally compelled the triumph of Roman Christianity among Swedes and the theory proposes that a century of Greek Christianity in Sweden was thereafter edited out of Swedish history. If further evidence emerges in support of this then the history of Christianity in Sweden will have to be rewritten. In the eleventh century that history has to be put together from some notoriously unreliable sources, but as things stand the general picture suggests that the Heathendom which Christianity struggled to overcome was the original, native version rather than imported, Byzantine Christianity.

Emund, son of Edla, a mistress of Olof Sköttkonung, proved to be the last of his line. Following his death in 1060, his son-in-law, a Västergötland earl named Stenkil, became king. Stenkil was an active promoter of Christianity who did not share his father-in-law’s hostility to the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, and it was probably he who established the see at Sigtuna, near the site of the great Heathen temple with its statues of Thor and Odin and Frey. Since at least the time of Anskar’s mission in 829, the major trading centre in the east of Sweden had been Birka, but by the end of the tenth century its role had been taken over by Sigtuna, as rising land-levels made the old town increasingly inaccessible from the sea. Though Stenkil facilitated the work of Adalvard the Younger, the next German bishop to be appointed to the see, he prudently advised him against carrying out a plan to burn down the temple at Uppsala, predicting that he and his associate Egino would certainly be killed in revenge and he himself driven from the country as the sponsor of the men responsible for the act. Instead, the two bishops turned their attention to Götaland and the lesser violence of destroying Heathen images there. With Adalvard’s death, however, the work of conversion was once again held up. Adam of Bremen tells us that his successor, a bishop named Tadiko from Ramelsloh, was a man too fond of his food who was more concerned ‘to curb hunger at home than proselytize abroad’.

Our knowledge of the events following the death of Stenkil in 1066 is, if anything, still more hazy than it is of events preceding it. Though Stenkil founded a dynasty that endured until the 1120s, it did not re-establish itself with any certainty until 1080 and the long reign of Inge the Old. The intervening twenty years see the appearance of a number of pretenders and phantom kings, whose existence is attested only in sagas with little claim to historical credibility. Even where doubt surrounds the very existence of these kings, the roles and actions ascribed to them in the legendary material seem to sound clear echoes of an intense phase of religious conflict in Sweden, in which Heathendom mounted a last and ultimately doomed campaign of defiance against the engulfing tide of Christian religious culture.

Rivals, both named Erik, engaged in a struggle for the succession so bloody that Adam of Bremen, our only reasonable source for the period, says that most of the leading men of the country were killed, including the two Eriks. The violence precipitated another crisis for the Christian Church as the bishops appointed to the sees at Skara and Sigtuna stayed in their homes in Germany in fear for their lives rather than travel. Halsten, a son of King Stenkil, was then chosen as king; but nothing is known of his reign other than that it was brief and that he was driven out and replaced by a certain Anund, whom the Swedes had invited from Russia, and whose reign turned out to be equally short. Adam gives as the reason for his rejection his refusal, like Håkon the Good in Norway over 100 years earlier, to enact to the full the role of a Heathen king at the Thing meeting. After so many decades of Christian influence and Christian institutional presence in the Mälaren region, the trenchant nature of the demands made of their king invites the suspicion that these Svear were still a largely syncretic people, who continued to ignore the Christian demand that the old gods be rejected as part of the acceptance of the new one. It may be eloquent of the tensions in the region that, in 1066, a Heathen reaction among the Obodrites, from the coastal region of what is now northern Germany, between Denmark and Poland, led to the killing of the Obodrite ruler and the destruction of all three Obodrite bishoprics, and that it took the institutional Church over fifty years to re-establish itself there.

Håkon, known as the Red, as obscure as any of his immediate predecessors, seems to have succeeded Anund. We know nothing of his reign and can only presume that he was, if not Heathen himself, then at least tolerant enough of Heathen practices to go through the required motions at the sacrificial ceremonies. If, as seems likely, he remained in power for much of the 1070s, then a relatively long reign in such volatile times probably does indicate flexibility in the matter of religious faith and, most pertinently, in religious practice.

Of the circumstances of his death nothing is known, only that the succession of King Inge the Older saw the return of the Stenkil dynasty and a renewed attempt to impose Christianity or, equally, to eradicate Heathendom. A letter from Gregory VII, dated 4 October 1080 and addressed to ‘the glorious king of the Svear’, expresses the pope’s satisfaction at the conversion of Inge’s people to Christianity. A second letter in the following year addressing ‘I and A’ – only initials are used – as ‘the glorious kings of the people of Västergötland’ is a likely indication that there was a period of joint rule in which power was shared between Inge and his brother Hallsten. Ominously for the stability of the region, the letter concerned the payment of tithes to the Church. There seems to have been more turbulence, obscure but certainly of a religious nature, in which Eskil, the English bishop of Strängnäs in Södermanland, was stoned to death after an incident in which a Heathen ceremony was disrupted and the altar destroyed. The scene might have been Birka, the year 845, the murder that of Anskar’s chaplain Nithard.

Now history, literature and myth once again dissolve into each other. At the Assembly in 1084 Inge, like Anund before him – though confusion in the sources may well have conflated the two kings – is said to have refused to enact the king’s part in the ceremonies. Sven, Inge’s brother-in-law, who may only have been the fictional or symbolic creation of the compiler/author of the legendary, thirteenth-century ‘Saga of Hervar and Heidrek’ that tells the story, rose to address the enraged Heathens and promised that, if they would elect him king, he would carry out the sacrifices required of a king. Sven was duly elected. The saga then describes a scene in which Sven led the Assembly in a ritual repudiation of Christianity as a horse was led out, sacrificed, cut up and its flesh passed around to be eaten. By common assent, the rituals of sacrifice to the old gods were reintroduced, and King Sven acquired a nickname – ‘Blotsven’, or Sven the Sacrificer.

Orkneyinga Saga turns aside from its main concern with the doings of the earls of the Northern Isles to describe Earl Håkon Paulson’s visit to Sweden in the time of King Inge and offer a rapid résumé of what happened after Sven came to power. ‘Inge was forced into exile and went to West Götaland, but eventually managed to trap Sven inside a house and burnt him there.’ Back on the throne again, Inge was able to press through the re-introduction of Christianity to the Svear. Finally, in about 1090, he presided over the long-postponed destruction of the great Heathen temple at Uppsala. With that, the last true refuge of Odin, Thor, Frey, Freyja and the rest of the Aesir was gone.

Throughout the Viking Age, kings had founded towns. Hedeby’s rise to prominence as an international trading centre began when the Danish king Godfrid compelled the tradesmen and merchants of Reric to relocate there in 808. Ribe, a little south of Jelling and on the west side of the Jutland peninsula, seems to have been founded at about the same time. Birka thrived for two centuries as the main trading centre in Sweden before the merchants moved their activities to Sigtuna. The cultivation of Kaupang, for a century and a half the major trading centre in southern Norway, and the goal of Ottar the merchant’s long journey along the west coast of Norway, was probably the work of Danish kings such as Godfrid. Trondheim is believed to have been founded by Olaf Tryggvason in about 997, and Oslo’s transformation from small settlement to large town began in the middle of the eleventh century and was the work of Harald Hardrada.

The origins of Lund in Skåne are obscure, but the church that was built there in about 990 was almost certainly the work of King Sven Forkbeard. By the turn of the century, Lund had a markedly cosmopolitan character, as a Christian centre, as the site of what would later become the largest mint in Scandinavia, and as the home of a large community of foreign artisans and craftsmen. Both Sven and his son and successor Cnut conceived of Lund as a kind of ideally modern Scandinavian town. Paradoxically perhaps, in view of their military activities in the west, this involved for both the cultivation of a pronounced anglophilia. Sven’s appointment of an English bishop to his church, Gotebald, was an early indicator of this.34 After his death in England in 1014, Sven was buried in York. The author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’) tells us, however, that he had previously chosen a burial site for himself in Lund, and in due course his remains were disinterred and taken over the sea to be reburied in the church built by himself. Recent excavations have revealed what seems to have been a grave beneath the floor of the church. It was empty, probably because Sven’s remains were removed when the church was pulled down to make way for a stone church. The circumstances sound a poignant echo of the transfer, some fifty years earlier, of the remains of his grandfather, Gorm the Old, from the North Mound at Jelling to a Christian grave beneath the floor of the Jelling church. Pre-mortem funeral and burial arrangements may have been a family tradition among the Jelling kings. As we speculated earlier, the empty South Mound at Jelling was possibly intended by Harald Bluetooth as his own grave, with the circumstances of his death somehow making this impossible.

Following Sven’s death, Cnut continued to develop and expand Lund. According to Adam of Bremen, it was Cnut’s bold ambition to make the town ‘as important as London’. As well as employing English bishops in his church, he imported moneyers and designers from England, like the Leowin who signed the elegantly carved penholder found during the excavations of 1961. A moneyer with the same name was employed at the Lund mint around the turn of the tenth century and may well have been the same man. Also found was a walking stick, the intricate carvings on its handle in the form of a snake or dragon in the so-called Winchester style. Ulfkil, the maker’s name, is etched on to the stick in runes, and the name is also found among the Lund moneyers active in the middle of the eleventh century. Across a large central area of the city, shards of Viking Age pottery have been found that are unique to Lund and to London.

Lund’s growing status presently demanded something more imposing than Sven’s original wooden church and the larger stone church that replaced it was built by about 1050. In about 1060 the see of Lund was established, and its first incumbent was an English bishop, Henrik. Adam of Bremen who was, we must remember, writing a house-history of the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, describes him as a drunken sybarite who choked to death on his own vomit. At about the same time as Lund was established, a German bishop named Egino was appointed to a second Danish see at nearby Dalby, and he took over at Lund on Henrik’s death. By Adam’s account a much more pious and learned man than his predecessor, Egino struck up an alliance with his colleague Adalvard at Sigtuna that, in the name of missionary Christianity, stretched right across geographical Sweden and ignored its political divisions. As we saw earlier, the two had to be dissuaded by King Stenkil from a plan to burn down the Heathen temple at Uppsala.

Back in 831, the see of Hamburg had been created to civilize the peoples of the north by bringing Christianity to them. We saw that, as a result of the Viking sack of the settlement in 848, Hamburg had been joined to Bremen and relocated there, with its missionary aims unchanged. Some two and a half centuries later, it would seem, the job was done, with the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians formally enrolled as members of the union of Christian peoples. And yet, in what should have been the hour of its greatest triumph, the see endured the bitter humiliation of having its authority over the region removed. The so-called ‘investiture controversy’ began when Pope Gregory VII, determined to reform a Church that turned a blind eye to clerical marriage and simony and to free it from the corrupting influence of the political world, neither notified nor sought the approval of the German King Henrik IV on the occasion of his consecration as pope in 1073. His reforming programme would put an end to royal control of the appointment of bishops, but Henrik defied him and continued to select bishops over whom he knew he had control. Rebuked by Gregory, he convened a synod of bishops at Worms in 1076, which obediently deposed his turbulent pope for him. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henrik, suspending his royal power and releasing his subjects from their oath of allegiance to him. Henrik feared the move might precipitate a rebellion among his nobles, and in the extraordinary aftermath to this exchange walked barefoot across the Alps, wearing the hairshirt of a penitent, in search of an audience with Gregory at Canossa, and of his pardon. For three full days the pope kept him waiting and fasting in the snow outside the gates of the fortress where he was lodged before granting him an audience. Though Gregory revoked the excommunication, he upheld his deposition of the king as the lawful ruler of Germany. Henrik remained intransigent, and in 1080 Gregory lost patience with him and again excommunicated and deposed him, recognizing his rival Rudolf as the lawful king of Germany. Henrik’s response was to appoint the first of that flock of anti-popes that would keep the institutional Church in a state of disarray for much of the next two centuries.

Gregory died in 1085, but Henrik had had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor the year before by his anti-pope, Clement III, and the investiture controversy continued to sully the relationship between Henrik and Gregory’s successors for years to come. For most of this crisis, Archbishop Liemar at Hamburg-Bremen had sided with the king against the reforming pope. In choosing to send his letter of congratulation and Christian welcome directly to King Inge in Sweden in 1080, Gregory had delivered a deliberate snub to the archbishopric on this account. His letter to Inge the following year, on the requirement to pay tithes to the Church, reflected his urgent need for both new friends and new sources of funds, and a feeling that both might be found among the newly converted peoples of the north.

For a long time Hamburg-Bremen had held the moral right to exercise institutional authority over the Church in Scandinavia, but with the support of its leaders for the German king and emperor in his struggle with the papacy it disappeared. Along with Lund’s burgeoning status as a Christian and royal centre in the far north of Europe, this led the papacy presently to take full account of the fact that the people of the north were now firmly committed to a modern, Christian civilization. Hamburg-Bremen was an irrelevancy and the Scandinavian Church could now be trusted to manage its own affairs. The first archbishopric with responsibility for all Scandinavia was established at Lund in 1103, with Asser as its first incumbent. New archbishoprics established at Nidaros in Norway in 1153 and Uppsala in 1164 moved the institutional Church ever further north. In St Olav, the Norwegians had had their patron saint since about 1034. The Danes, who had accepted Christianity at the monarchical level some sixty years earlier, had to wait a little longer for theirs. In 1086 Cnut II of Denmark was planning an invasion of William the Conqueror’s England with a fleet which, somehow, never quite managed to leave the waters of the Limfjord. It was almost as though the memory of how such things were done was fading. Before it had returned he was dead, murdered by his enemies in the church of St Alban, in Odense. As St Cnut he was canonized in 1101. The canonization of the first saint-king of the Swedes was, in view of their enduring reluctance to join the fold, a suitably confused and ambiguous affair. In about 1155 Erik of Sweden, later known as ‘the Holy’, led an expedition into the southern tip of Finland. Brief and without discernible result, the spirit of the age nevertheless identified it as a crusade following his death in 1160 outside the church at Uppsala, allegedly against overwhelming odds and after a session at prayer inside the church. Erik was thereafter venerated as a saint by a local church anxious to achieve parity with its neighbours in the north, but his canonization was never official, for the papacy was persuaded by other stories that told of a drunkard who had met his death in a drink-fuelled brawl, so much so that in 1172 Pope Alexander III actively tried to forbid Erik’s veneration.

But in the context of the Viking past of these Scandinavian kings, perhaps the starkest symbol of the demise of one culture and its replacement by another was the adventure of the Norwegian King Sigurd, known as Jorsalafarer, the Jerusalem Traveller, who led a crusade to the Holy Land in 1108 and was the first European ruler to do so. When he returned to Norway three years later he brought back with him a splinter of the True Cross, given to him by Baldwin of Boulogne, first ruler of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. It was the most prized Christian relic of the age. We can be sure that Sigurd’s Viking forefathers, had they come across it during a raid on a church, would have tossed it without a second thought into the flames of the fire they started on their way out.


Naples and Sicily belonged to the Spanish Habsburgs until 1700, when the last member of that branch of the family died without choosing between French and Austrian claimants to his throne until the last moment, when he opted for Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. During the consequent War of the Spanish Succession, armies of both the Austrian emperor and the French prince occupied Sicily. At its end the Treaties of Utrecht (1713–14) confirmed the Bourbon contender as Philip V of Spain, but France’s military defeats by the Duke of Marlborough forced it to cede territory in North America to the British and to abandon those interests in Italy it might have inherited from the Spanish crown.

After Utrecht Austria hoped to return to Sicily, but the British, illogically and incomprehensibly, persuaded its ally that the island should go to another friend in the recent war, Victor Amadeus, the ambitious ruler of Piedmont and Savoy, who now assumed the title King of Sicily. This was an unwise arrangement because no part of Italy is so unlike Sicily as Piedmont. Victor Amadeus sailed to Palermo in a British ship, the first monarch to visit the island since 1535 and the last to do so till the Bourbon Ferdinand IV fled there to escape the armies of revolutionary France. Coming from Piedmont, where the nobility had a tradition of military and state service, the new king could not understand why Sicilian aristocrats were so unwilling to be soldiers or administrators. He called their assembly in Palermo an ‘ice-cream parliament’ because eating ice-cream seemed to be its members’ most conspicuous activity. The nobles were equally contemptuous of this rustic-looking northerner and regretted the disappearance of Spain’s elegant and elaborate viceregal court. After attempting a few reforms, Victor Amadeus soon tired of trying to rule an ungrateful island from Turin and offered it to Austria provided he was compensated by somewhere else where he could be called a king; eventually he managed to get himself made King of Sardinia. Meanwhile a large Spanish force invaded Sicily, but its navy was destroyed by a British fleet while its army was defeated by Austrian troops coming across the Straits of Messina. The Treaty of The Hague in 1720 confirmed Sicily as a possession of the Austrians, who soon made themselves unpopular on the island by trying to reform institutions which the islanders did not wish to see reformed. In 1734 another Spanish attempt to seize Sicily succeeded, and the Bourbons thereafter ruled it until they were defeated by Garibaldi in 1860.

Each change of Sicilian ruler between 1700 and 1734 was a consequence of a wider European conflict, of the contest between Habsburg emperors (Spanish and Austrian) and French monarchs (first Valois, then – in Spain as well as France – Bourbon) that had been dragging on for 200 years. In the process the chief antagonists altered Italian boundaries and dynasties, usually at treaties negotiated in the Netherlands, with no regard for the wishes or interests of the inhabitants. Sicilians could watch Spanish, Austrian or Piedmontese armies tramping over their island just as they could spy the British navy supporting one force or another off their coasts, yet they had no say in what might happen when the fighting was over.

The rest of Italy was also affected by mysterious decisions taken in the north. Like the Medici in Tuscany, the Farnese in Parma died out in the 1730s through the failure of its last males to procreate. The succession correctly went to the last duke’s acquisitive niece, Elizabeth Farnese, although, as she was living in Madrid as Queen of Spain, the duchy was assigned to her son, Don Carlos, whom the European states had simultaneously selected to be the next Grand Duke of Tuscany. Rushing to Florence with an army ready to take over, the young Spanish prince displayed his life-long obsession with hunting by shooting arrows at the birds woven into the tapestries in the Pitti Palace. But Gian Gastone de’ Medici failed to die as soon as everyone expected, and, by the time he did expire, the War of the Polish Succession (1733–5) had upset all plans and altered Don Carlos’s ambitions. Now, at a moment of Austrian military weakness, Elizabeth Farnese revived Spanish claims to the crowns of Naples and Sicily and told her son to overrun those kingdoms, which he soon did. As Charles VII, he ruled in Naples from 1734 to 1759, when he succeeded his half-brother as Charles III of Spain, the nation he ruled until his death in 1788.

After Charles had taken Naples from Austria, the vanquished power annexed Parma but was soon forced to return it to a Bourbon-Farnese ruler, Philip, a younger brother of the new Neapolitan king. A condition of European acceptance of Charles in Naples was the separation of the southern crowns from Spain, a proviso that later allowed his younger son Ferdinand to create his own dynasty in Naples. A similar condition was attached to the succession in Tuscany that finally settled on Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, who had to be recompensed for the loss of his own duchy, given to ex-King Stanislaw of Poland, the loser in the War of the Polish Succession and the father-in-law of the French monarch Louis XV. Shortly before his death in 1737, the last Medici insisted that Tuscany must never form part of the Habsburg Empire whose heiress, Maria Theresa, was the wife of Francis Stephen. After yet another war over another succession (this time the Austrian), the long game of musical thrones was finally stopped in 1748 at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The peninsula remained dominated by foreign dynasties – the Bourbons in Parma and the south, the Habsburgs in Milan (since the War of the Spanish Succession) as well as Tuscany – but it had now achieved a certain equilibrium of power. A half-century of war was giving way to a half-century of peace.

Aix-la-Chapelle was signed at a time when the ideas of the French philosophes and other writers of the Enlightenment were just beginning to percolate through the minds of Italian rulers and some of their subjects. People were coming to expect more from their monarch, not that he should share power with them but that he should act wisely, as a philosopher-king, educating his subjects, reining in the Church and the nobility, taking a leading part in promoting agriculture and trade. Thus arrived the era of ‘enlightened despotism’, a term applied to an age during which, at least in retrospect, the sovereigns of Europe are made to appear as if they had been competing hard to personify the notion: digging canals and draining marshes, constructing roads and abolishing tolls, reading Voltaire and Montesquieu before expelling the Jesuits and dissolving the monasteries – and all the time building an enlightened paradise with schools, hospitals, universities and academies.

The prince most closely resembling the stereotype in Italy was the second son of Maria Theresa, Peter Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. Intelligent and energetic, he was driven by the desire for reform in both economic and humanitarian affairs. He attacked monopolies and encouraged free trade, built roads and bridges, made taxes both lower and fairer, and reduced the public debt; he also made a valiant attempt to drain the Maremma’s marshes. In consultation with the Milanese writer Cesare Beccaria he drew up a penal code that made Tuscany the first state in Europe to abolish the death penalty and burn the gallows – a measure so audacious and encouraging to the cause of enlightenment that a Spanish reformer implored his own progressive sovereign to turn his eyes to Tuscany, to ‘reflect upon the mildness of the penalties’, upon ‘the small number of crimes’ committed there, and to ‘read over and over again the penal code’ of its prince. Among his other merits, Peter Leopold was conscientious and loyal to a state that had had no connection to either of his parents’ families before 1734. Although from 1770 he was heir to the imperial throne in Vienna, the grand duke kept his father’s promise to defend the rights and maintain the autonomy of his duchy. In 1790 he became the penultimate Holy Roman emperor after the death of his brother, Joseph II, who was the greatest and most innovative of all enlightened monarchs, an emancipator of serfs as well as Jews, although unlike Catherine of Russia and Frederick of Prussia he has not been known as ‘the Great’ – perhaps because at the end of his life he was defeated by the forces of Belgian conservatism. During his brief reign in Vienna, Leopold II (as Peter Leopold became) retained his reforming zeal, abolishing various punishments and ordering the police to be kind to prisoners; he even gave his subjects ‘something of the principle of habeas corpus’.

Enlightened despotism would not have lasted even without the French Revolution. The phrase is after all an oxymoron, though it seemed to make sense for half a century; ultimately, the ideas of the Enlightenment were bound to lead to demands for constitutional reform and the abolition of despots. Besides, however enlightened the rulers were, there was a limit to how despotic their behaviour could be, even without parliaments. Wherever reforms were attempted – in Florence, Milan, Naples or elsewhere – there were nobles and clerics always ready to dilute, delay and otherwise obstruct them.

The first half of the eighteenth century had been a great age for Italian scholarship, a time when the peninsula housed some of Europe’s finest philosophers and historians, men of the stature of Giambattista Vico, Lodovico Muratori and Pietro Giannone. Later in the century, their followers flocked to the enlightened courts, especially to Florence, the favourite rallying-point for reformers from Spain as well as Italy. They were eager to advise and cooperate with rulers on practical projects and simultaneously to establish a peninsular intelligentsia that could function across Italy’s many boundaries, creating in the process what they hoped would be ‘a republic of letters’. This was a flourishing era for cultural and scientific academies and also for journals, which could disseminate ideas and discoveries beyond the frontiers.

Contemporary intellectuals sometimes talked of a cultural Italy but not of a political patria: nationalism did not exist before the French Revolution. Most of them accepted what the despots gave in the way of reforms and did not ask for much more. Like the Piedmontese writer Vittorio Alfieri, they might write plays attacking tyranny but they did not criticize the enlightened despots. As Guicciardini had done in the sixteenth century, some accepted and even revered the political disunity and consequent diversity and cosmopolitanism of their country. When one intellectual suggested the possibility of a single Italy, another remarked that he did not want ‘love of country to affect our impartiality as good cosmopolites’.

After Florence and Austrian-ruled Milan, Naples was the best place for intellectuals to be, living under the sympathetic eyes of its new Bourbon monarchs and their talented ministers. Rome or Turin would not have tolerated the presence of Antonio Genovesi, who inspired many people with his advocacy of radical economic and humanitarian reforms. Yet in the tolerant atmosphere of Bourbon Naples he could enjoy a successful public career as a professor of metaphysics and a professor of ethics before becoming in 1754 the first professor of political economy in Europe.

Charles of Naples was an unusual enlightened despot. He promoted learning, so long as it did not affect himself or his children. He constructed a great opera house, although he disliked music and slept or chatted during performances. He was a keen builder, but mostly of palaces in places convenient for the hunting which he did every afternoon regardless of the weather. Yet however unread and unlearned he was, Charles was an intelligent and conscientious ruler – at least in the mornings – with the knack of picking able ministers to carry out sensible policies. Although he was not greatly interested in economics or legislation, his rule oversaw a doubling in revenue and a decrease in taxation; and he made Naples one of the great capitals of Europe.

As the king’s eldest son was an imbecile and his second was heir to the Spanish crown, the Neapolitan throne went to the third brother, Ferdinand, who was left alone at the age of eight when his parents went to Madrid. While a Council of Regents directed his realm, Ferdinand emerged as a boisterous, bonhomous, rough-edged youth who loved hunting as much as his father and hated reading, writing and even signing his own name. His first complaint about his wife, a Habsburg princess, was that she liked books. His rustic manners and earthy vocabulary may have been ill-suited to the palace of Caserta – ‘the Italian Versailles’ – but they made him popular; he was called the lazzarone king because he empathized with the city’s famous underclass known as lazzaroni, and like them he enjoyed eating maccheroni with his fingers. As in the time of his father, intelligent advisers carried out reforms that the monarch often cared little about. ‘If he remained ignorant,’ observed the aesthete and historian Harold Acton, ‘at least his subjects were becoming enlightened.’

Ferdinand presided over a huge capital city, containing perhaps half a million people, most of whom lived precariously in the shadow of famine, earthquakes and of course Vesuvius. Its poorest inhabitants were famous for l’arte di arrangiarsi, the skill of getting by, somehow acquiring enough coins for a bowl of maccheroni without worrying too much about where the next one was coming from. Northern Italians have seldom liked Naples, but northern Europeans have usually been more generous. Goethe admired l’arte di arrangiarsi and denied that its practitioners were idlers; Naples was ‘a happy country’, he thought, a ‘paradise’ where everyone lived ‘in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness’, himself included. The eighteenth-century city teemed with beggars and vagrants but it was not a violent place. As witnesses and statistics testify, the Neapolitans seldom got drunk or rioted, and the murder rate was low.

For the German poet, Palermo was also a paradise, and Sicily as a whole was ‘the clue to everything’. ‘To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily,’ he bizarrely warned, was ‘not to have seen Italy at all.’ Yet to see Sicily in the eighteenth century was to see a place with no trace of that epoch except in the profusion of its buildings, for the island was immune to the spirit of the Enlightenment. As the Sicilian historian Rosario Romeo observed, the only European development that the island welcomed was the Counter-Reformation; the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had virtually no impact. Unlike Naples, Sicily contained only a handful of reformers, and even they were too timid and tepid to advocate the abolition of feudalism. King Ferdinand had outstanding ministers in Naples who were unable to do anything with an island where the landed classes wanted nothing to change: if the Prince of Palagonia accepted the abolition of his droit du seigneur (which was nominal in most places anyway), he felt justified in imposing a marriage tax on his vassals for having made an apparent sacrifice. Aristocrats in other parts of Italy were showing increasing interest in visiting their estates and making them more productive, but in Sicily landowners did not follow the trend. Instead of riding from time to time over their latifondi, seeing what was happening on their farms, they stayed in Palermo, trundling up and down the marine front each afternoon in their carriages, attended by their liveried footmen. When the great Neapolitan viceroy, the Marquess of Caracciolo, arrived in Palermo in 1781, the nobles united to impede his reforms, especially those that might have led to a reduction of their feudal powers.

Italians may have been dejected by the survival of foreign dynasties in the peninsula, but most of them would have recognized that the eighteenth-century representatives of the Habsburgs and Bourbons were superior to native rulers. Travellers usually identified the pope’s domains as the most misgoverned region of Italy. Goethe contrasted the public buildings in Tuscany, ‘beautiful and imposing … combining usefulness with grace’, with the squalor and disorder in the Papal States, which seemed ‘to keep alive only because the earth refuses to swallow them’. The countryside was neglected, agriculture was stagnant, and internal trade was obstructed by endless tolls; it was difficult to find signs of any real economic activity except in Ancona, which had been a free port since 1732. Rome was the most violent city in the whole of Italy, with far more murders than in Naples, which was three times the size. The French scholar and traveller Charles de Brosses considered its government ‘the worst imaginable’, exactly the opposite of what Machiavelli and Thomas More had ‘envisaged in their Utopias’. Its population of 150,000 was divided, according to him, into three portions, one-third of them being clergy, another third doing a little work, and the last third doing nothing at all.16 Yet neither popes nor cardinals made a serious attempt to improve matters except one, Benedict IV, an intelligent man who had read Voltaire and the philosophes and knew that the art of government required something beyond an attitude of rigid obscurantism. Yet despite his efforts to improve agriculture and reduce taxation, his reforms had achieved little by the time of his death in 1758.

A hundred years later, the Papal States retained their reputation for bad government and were often contrasted with Piedmont, hailed in the mid-nineteenth century as the most progressive of the peninsular states, prosperous and liberal, the only one capable of welding and leading a brave new Italy. Yet in the seventeenth and eighteenth (and early part of the nineteenth) centuries Piedmont was a very backward and reactionary place. To many Italians it seemed primitive and rather foreign; its people, including its monarchs and aristocrats, spoke in French or in local dialect. Compared to the cities of Lombardy and Emilia, those in Piedmont were culturally meagre and so out of touch with the rest of the Po Valley that even the Renaissance had had little influence; Turin itself has no true Renaissance churches except its cathedral. In many parts of northern and central Italy nobles were happy to be merchants and bankers. In Piedmont their career options were limited to three: the army (the most popular), the Church and public service.

The ruling dynasty was the house of Savoy, the Savoyards or, in Italian, Savoia or Sabaudi. They had been counts and later dukes of Savoy in the Middle Ages, ruling Nice and Savoy on one side of the Alps and parts of Piedmont on the other. In 1563 they shifted their capital from Chambéry to Turin because it was clear that the Po Valley offered more room for expansion than Savoy, which was perennially threatened and frequently invaded by France. That military expansion was the dynasty’s principal ambition can be perceived today by anyone wandering around Turin and looking at the many statues of kings, princes and generals waving their swords from the saddle. One of the most martial is in the Piazza San Carlo, where the bronze figure of Emanuel Philibert, mounted on a prancing horse, is pushing his sword back in its scabbard after the Battle of Saint-Quentin, a victory for him and his Spanish allies against the French in 1557. A century later, his successors’ persecution of the Waldensian Protestants in western Piedmont incited John Milton to ask God to avenge his

slaughtered saints, whose bones

Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold …

Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled

Mother with infant down the rocks …

When writing of the Savoia in Piedmont, historians have found it difficult to avoid using adjectives such as wily, unscrupulous, ruthless and opportunistic to describe rulers who merited their reputation for choosing the winning side in a conflict. All those adjectives apply to Emanuel Philibert’s son, Charles Emanuel I, who started several wars during his long reign between 1580 and 1630 and swapped sides between France and Spain depending on which seemed likely to reward him with the most territory. In his even longer reign a century later, Victor Amadeus II too played France off against Spain, and both he and his son, Charles Emanuel III, managed to snaffle large slices of Lombardy. Victor Amadeus was also the duke who, without any claim to either island, had himself made King of Sicily and then King of Sardinia, after which his territories were generally known as the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Such reforms as the government undertook in the early eighteenth century owed little to the Enlightenment: they were inspired by the absolutist example of Louis XIV rather than by any ideas of the philosophes. Thus the armed forces were strengthened and the tax system made more efficient for the purpose of increasing state power. Censorship and political repression were so heavy that several of Piedmont’s small number of intellectuals decided to emigrate. Vittorio Alfieri, the distinguished poet and dramatist, was one who chose to escape, preferring to write in France or Florence where he lived happily with the Countess of Albany, the wife of the Stuart pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Others, less fortunate, were prevented from leaving and confined for long periods in prison. Pietro Giannone, the great anti-papal historian who inspired Gibbon, was kidnapped by Piedmontese agents working with the Inquisition and died in gaol in 1748 after a captivity of twelve years.

King Tiger


August 1944

The Tiger II combined the heavy armour of the Tiger I with the slopped armour of the Panther. It was a completely different tank to the Tiger I and weighed 70 tons compared to the 56 tons of the Tiger I. The King Tiger was first used in action in Normandy in July 1944 before being used on the Eastern Front the following month. The Tiger II also called the king Tiger was the most powerful tank to be deployed anywhere during World War 2. Together with the Panther formed a German spearhead for the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The offensive though petered out due to a lack of fuel and many Tigers ended up being abandoned.

Despite its success in combat the Tiger continued to experience many problems. The overlapping suspension was one, which could easily become clogged with mud. During the Russian winter, this mud would freeze and would need to be chipped away before the tank could move. The engine was due to be replaced by the Maybach HL234, which was being developed. Essentially, this was the current HL230 engine extensively upgraded and modified with the fitting of fuel injectors which would have risen the engine power to 800-900hp partially addressing the underpowered issue. Although, this engine though never reached production before the war ended. This was to address the same under-powered problem suffered by the Tiger.

In comparison, a modern British Challenger 2 tank which has a weight of 62 tons with much stronger Chobham 2 armour, a more powerful 120 mm gun and a V-12 diesel engine producing 1,200hp. This gives a power to weight of 19.2hp compared 13.8hp for the Tiger I and 10hp for the Tiger II. At the same time, it shows how advance the Tiger II was for its day. With tank engine and transmission technology at the time, being the only real weak area Germans had not overcome.

Only 492 King Tigers were produced, with production being severely disrupted by allied bombing raids. The King Tigers turret was designed to mount the 8.8 cm KwK 43 L/71 gun. The KwK 43 was over 1.3 meters longer than that of the 88 mm KwK 36 L/56 used for the Tiger I. The cartridge was also considerably longer and wider than that used in KwK36, allowing for a much heavier propellant charge. The guns’ extremely high muzzle velocity and operating pressures caused accelerated barrel wear, resulting in a change to a two-piece barrel. This made it much easier to change worn out barrels. The turret could be rotated 360 degrees in 60 seconds in low gear, in 19 seconds in high gear at idle engine speed, and within 10 seconds at the maximum allowable engine speed in high gear. Making it quickly able to swing round onto a target.

After initial success in Normandy in July 1944, the Tiger II or King Tiger made it to the Eastern Front. It was first used in anger on August 12, 1944 by the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion resisting the Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive. The King Tigers attacked a Soviet bridgehead over the Vistula River near Baranów Sandomierski. However, on the road to Oględów, three Tiger IIs were destroyed in an ambush by a few T-34-85s. Due to these German tanks suffered ammunition explosions, which caused many crew fatalities. This also led to main gun ammunition no longer being stored in the turret to reduce fatal explosions. In doing so this reduced the number of rounds carried to 68. On August 11, 1944, three King Tigers approached and started to attack a bridge over the Vislula River. However, as they began their attack they had already been spotted by Oskin a Red Army tank commander. His T-34 85 along with two others had been well hidden and heavily camouflaged. They also had an SMG platoon supporting them.

Rather than engage straight away he decided to wait until the three King Tigers were much closer and more likely to suffer fatal damage. He waited until the King Tigers were about 200 metres away and opened fire. The King Tigers were side on to the T-34 85s and at this range, the D5-T gun should be able to penetrate the side armour. Using both APDS (Amour Piercing Discarding Sabot). Which is kinetic energy projectile that enabled better penetration of thick armour. The first two rounds fired on one King Tiger did not penetrate the third hit the turret and caused the ammunition stored in the turret to exploded lifting it away from its turret ring. The explosion also caused the King Tiger to catch fire killing all its crew in an instance. The King Tigers had yet to find their target let alone fire off any rounds. The T-34s continued to fire and another King Tiger was hit three times but its armour was not penetrated as they turned into the line of fire with their much stronger frontal armour. A fourth round hit just underneath the main turret and again caused ammunition to explode killing the entire crew once again. Two mighty King Tigers were now burning ferociously without a single T-34 85 having been hit. Out in the open and nowhere to hide, the final Tiger decided to try and escape by moving at full-speed. Using smoke, the T-34s used their greater speed and manoeuvrability and managed to outmanoeuvre the King Tiger. The T-34s fired off several shots into the side of the King Tiger.

This time they managed to disable the King Tiger without it going up in flames. The rounds bouncing off but causing chunks of armour to come off and fly around the inside cutting the crew to shreds. Three of the crew were killed by the shrapnel and the final crew member managed to escape slightly injured. He was captured and taken as a POW by the SMG platoon. It was an outstanding of tank tactics, from a tank that whilst faster and more manoeuvrable was outgunned unless it got up close to the King Tiger.

It was an appalling loss of Germany’s new super tank and caused a review of tactics and doctrine. Twelve tank crew members had been lost with one now a Soviet POW.  The immobilised Tiger was captured by the Soviets and repaired before being moved to testing grounds at Kubinka for the Soviets to evaluate. This was one of two King Tigers captured in August 1944.

During the evaluation, the Soviets found out quickly that the King Tiger had a tendency to breakdown. During the transfer to their testing grounds and getting to suitable rail transport the cooling system was found to be insufficient for the excessively hot climatic conditions of the Russian summer. The engine tended to overheat and cause a consequential failure of the gearbox. The right suspension of one of the tanks had to be completely replaced, and its full functionality could not be re-established. The tank down again around every 10 miles. The 8.8 cm KwK 43 in terms of penetration and accuracy was found to be on par with the 122 mm D-25T. It proved capable of passing a round straight through and out of the other captured King Tiger’s turret at a range of at 430 yards. The armour of one vehicle was tested by firing at it with shells between 100 and 152 mm calibre. The welding of the King Tiger even with the usual careful workmanship, was significantly worse than on similar designs even the Tiger I.

This meant that when shells were unable to penetrate the Tigers armour they caused the plates to break into smaller pieces, which would have caused injury or death to the crew sitting inside. These metal fragments also damaged the sensitive transmission and rendered the King Tiger inoperable. The armour plate was found to not be as strong as that on the Tiger I or the Panther. Further analysis found that the armour plate was lacking in molybdenum due to a loss of supply and replaced with vanadium which lowered the malleability making the metal more prone to shattering. Although to this day it has not been recorded if the frontal armour of a King Tiger was ever penetrated in battle. The Red Army also learnt to best way to take out King Tiger was to do it in stages. The first stage was to use HE rounds and destroy part of the running gear. With the tank immobilized the next stage was to at close range firing into the rear and sides to destroy it. T-34s with their good manoeuvrability stood a good chance of being able to out manoeuvre the traversing turret. An attack manoeuvre made more deadly if the T-34s attacked in numbers.

M36 Tank Destroyers in Combat

A decision that altered the war for the tank killers emerged from the Führerbunker under the ruins of Berlin during February 1945: 1,675 tanks and assault guns (new or repaired) were sent to the Eastern Front, while only sixty-seven went west. Hitler also stripped the Western Front of half its panzer divisions. The Führer was more worried about the Soviet threat to Berlin than the danger that the Western Allies would leap the Rhine. America’s tank destroyers would never again encounter the panzers in large numbers.

Western Europe was littered with the hulks of the panzers that had tangled with the tank killers. As of 28 February, the TD battalions in Third Army alone had reported the destruction of six hundred eighty-two tanks and one hundred twenty-five SP guns—more than a third of the roughly twenty-two hundred panzers Third Army claimed to have destroyed. One battalion commander told Army Ground Forces that his men (equipped with M18s) had the panzer’s number and considered the highly mobile and easily hidden PAK 75mm antitank gun to be the most dangerous weapon they faced. As for the panzer, “the enemy tank can be easily out-maneuvered and is extremely susceptible to two-way attack.” In short, the men had regained confidence in their ability to handle heavy German tanks with their 76mm and 3-inch guns.

On 1 February 1945, ETOUSA caught up with the field expedient adopted in many TD battalions and ordered that supplementary machine gun mounts be installed on the front of all M10 and M36 turrets. The theater headquarters acknowledged that crews generally wanted a hull-mounted or coaxial machine gun but observed that this was the best available solution.

Surge to the Rhine

Hitler may have decided to stop worrying so much about his Western Front, but the Americans—having eliminated the vestiges of the Ardennes offensives and stopped Nordwind in its tracks—were preparing to take a wrecking ball to the West Wall. On 2 February, the Combined Chiefs of Staff approved Eisenhower’s plan to advance to the Rhine along its length and cross in strength in Montgomery’s sector north of the Ruhr at the earliest opportunity. Most of Bradley’s and Devers’s troops were to halt offensive operations in February while Ninth Army (under Monty’s operational control) crossed the Roer plain in support of British and Canadian operations to the north.

American forces finally seized the Schwammenauel Dam near Schmidt on 10 February, but the Germans jammed open a release gate, and the Roer River quickly became a temporarily uncrossable barrier. By the time Ninth Army could get going, the American advance would resemble a broad-front offensive.

In the meantime, troops all along the line probed and gathered intelligence they would need when they headed for the Rhine.

The 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion was deployed east of the Vosges Mountains near Prinzheim, France, in early February. Lieutenant Joseph Keeby, a Chicago man in command of the 1st Reconnaissance Platoon, had orders to capture some prisoners for intelligence purposes. The infantry had tried several times without success because of extensive mine fields along the German line. Keeby gathered the thirty-one men of his raiding party three days before the operation. They went over sketches, drawings, and maps of the route to a mill the Germans were using, probably as a command post. Keeby divided his team into an assault group and a security group to provide cover.

The night of 4 February, Keeby led the assault team through the freezing darkness in a cautious approach to the objective. As the men neared the first German outposts, a machine gun opened fire. Keeby and his team dropped to the ground. The security group returned fire immediately, and the machine gun fell silent. One man spotted a second German MG preparing to open fire and killed the crew. The assault group moved forward again.

The men crept closer to the mill. Suddenly, automatic rifle fire snapped through the air. Private First Class Henry Weaver, close behind Keeby, spotted the German and shot back. His aim was true.

Surprise lost, six men stormed through the door of the mill. Private George Bass raked the first room with submachine-gun fire while Keeby tossed hand grenades. When the smoke cleared, eight German soldiers lay dead on the floor. Six others surrendered. The recon men took them back to the battalion’s position. Mission accomplished.

Along most of the front, the halt in offensive operations was strategic, not tactical, and the Americans continued to batter away at the West Wall. The doughs, tanks, and TDs were working together better than ever. AARs indicate that provisional platoons combining the two types of armor were occasionally created for some small missions. Captain Duchossois, commanding Company B, 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion (M36), described combined armed operations at Brandscheid at the stump of the Bulge in early February:

We moved across the line of departure as a tank destroyer, tank, infantry team—infantry, a tank, and a tank destroyer followed by more infantry, another tank, and a tank destroyer. We used this formation because of the poor visibility, the limited routes of approach, and uncertainty of the definite location of all fortifications.

The infantry advanced until they were held up by a fortification. When this happened, the tankers “closed up” the aperture with machine gun fire followed by the tank destroyers firing several rounds of 90mm.

Usually, the Jerries would put some white article out of the embrasure, but they would not come out to surrender until the infantry moved in and brought them out….

We found we had to keep a tank destroyer right behind the lead tank because our routes of approach were such that unless a tank destroyer was up there initially, it would be impossible to pass the tanks in order to fire on the pillbox. As a result, the leading tank destroyer and tank did the majority of the firing.

It is absolutely necessary to have communications with not only the infantry, but the tankers also. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is to have both tank destroyer and tank platoon leaders equipped with SCR-300 radio sets on the infantry frequency.

Ninth Army crossed the Roer River on 23 February. Tank destroyer battalions played a secondary role, firing direct (typically at ranges between two and three thousand yards) in support of the assault infantry, and reinforced division artillery units. Battalion recon companies crossed the river with the assault wave to provide radio links back to the destroyers.

The AAR of the 821st Tank Destroyer Battalion for February offered the following description of the now-standard operating procedure, in this case during fighting on the east bank of the Roer River near Jülich with the 29th Infantry Division and 747th Tank Battalion: “As the infantry and tanks pushed forward, 821st destroyers provided close-in direct support for the infantry and mutual support for the tanks. As the infantry, tank, and tank destroyer teams approached a town that proved to be an enemy strongpoint, destroyer guns would fire direct covering fire at buildings. This fire neutralized enemy machine gun positions and denied snipers the use of the buildings. When enemy armor or emplaced antitank guns held up the advance of the infantry, destroyer guns were called upon to neutralize the enemy positions. Tanks and tank destroyers were called upon in accordance with the type of mission to be performed and worked together to outflank enemy strongpoints in and around towns. When enemy resistance was neutralized, tank destroyers immediately assumed defensive anti-mechanized positions against possible enemy counterattacks, while the infantry consolidated their positions and prepared to move on to the next objective.”

During the three-day operation described, the TDs killed seven panzers, two SP guns, six AT guns, and two halftracks.

The AAR of the 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion, a newly arrived outfit operating with both the 9th Armored and 78th Infantry divisions, noted, “Resistance, mostly from the German 3d Parachute Division, was determined…. Tactics employed were those of tanks rather than tank destroyers. The destroyers followed behind the assaulting wave of infantry. When an obstacle, an enemy machine gun or strongpoint, interfered with the infantry advance, the destroyers [opened fire]. Upon approaching a town, it was customary for the supporting destroyers to fire a preparation. First, destroyers fired on the upper stories of buildings, forcing the enemy into the cellars. The fire was shifted to lower floors and cellars.”

The 3d Armored Division broke out of the Roer bridgehead on 26 February. The date was another fateful one for the Tank Destroyer Force, because the tankers were using several of the new M26 Pershings in combat for the first time. The Pershing was more heavily armored than the Sherman and carried the same 90mm gun as the M36 in a fully protected turret. One of the Pershings during the day destroyed two Tigers and a Mark IV at a thousand yards. The tank destroyer once again had no edge in killing power over the American tank.

Charging with the Cavalry

Captain Charles Seitz, commanding Company A of the 808th Tank Destroyer Battalion, described how tank destroyers operated with the fast-moving armored cavalry during operations to clear the west bank of the Rhine River during late March. One M36 platoon worked with each squadron. Seitz reported, “The cavalry’s mission was to exploit the Moselle bridgehead in the north of the Moselle triangle and push as quickly as possible to the Rhine and then sweep to the south along the Rhine as fast as possible. This meant rapid movement, so we found it necessary to place the M36s in the support section of the cavalry teams’ columns, following a reconnaissance troop and a platoon of light tanks. Each team moved along a different route to the objective. The lighter vehicles could move as fast as the situation allowed without being held back by the slower M36s [the M18 could keep up!]. Then, if something were hit, the destroyer would have time to move up to it and size it up.

“In this type of movement, good liaison was important. This was achieved in one of two ways depending on the situation. One was that the platoon leader rode behind the team commander, and the other was that the team commander had a radio vehicle accompany the platoon leader [the price of having incompatible radio gear].

“When the cavalry did find opposition—chiefly in towns—the destroyers moved into position to supply assault fire. In one instance, the combination of the cavalry’s speed and the assault fire of the destroyers persuaded approximately seven hundred fifty Germans in the Bingen area to give up to our much smaller force.”

Seventh Army, meanwhile, on 15 March launched Operation Undertone, which aimed at retaking the ground lost during Nordwind and clearing the southern Saar. On 16 March 1945, the men of the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion were attached to the 63d Infantry Division, which was trying to crack the Siegfried Line defenses near Ensheim, just south of Saarbrücken. Advances in the north might be unfolding with accelerating speed, but here the Germans still fought tenaciously.

In the early dawn hours, company and platoon leaders conducted a foot reconnaissance under small-arms and mortar fire to survey possible firing positions. They then met with infantry commanders to coordinate team play. That night, as the men tried to get some rest in the assembly area, they were subjected to artillery and rocket fire.

The next day at 0500 hours, the M36s of Companies A and C moved forward over sloped terrain under enemy observation in support of the doughs of the 254th and 255th Infantry regiments. Ahead lay three belts of mutually supporting fortifications, the first cleverly concealed along a ridgeline running between two heavily wooded ravines. Minefields and dragons teeth protected the approaches. Antitank ditches further restricted the movement of armor. The defenses included pillboxes, covered trenches, and turrets mounting 75mm guns. Substantial artillery, mortar, and Nebelwerfer rocket launcher units backed the defenders.

As the first M36s advanced, the sound of their engines provoked a heavy barrage of artillery and rocket fire. Fragments whistled over the heads of the crewman crouching in their open-topped turrets, passing close enough to knock off two radio antennae in Company C. Staff Sergeant Oliver Stevens dismounted and ran through the incoming fire to the infantry observation post to make final arrangements about targets. For the rest of the day, he would race between the infantry and the TDs to coordinate action.

The TDs maneuvered into exposed firing positions as close to the pillboxes as possible while German artillery fire began to crash into the assault force. The infantry was forced back initially under the withering fire, but the TDs remained forward, pounding the German lines. Gunners maintained such a high rate of fire that crews had to periodically cease fire to allow their guns to cool. When that happened, a crewman would mount the exposed rear deck and continue to hit the enemy with the .50-caliber antiaircraft machine gun. As TDs ran through their ammunition, they would back to a covered position, reload, and advance again.

The Germans tried to drive the Americans back with infantry counterattacks. Crewmen grabbed their carbines, tommyguns, and fragmentation grenades to beat the assaults back. A bazooka round destroyed one M36, and several others were damaged by artillery and bazooka rounds. One shell blew Private First Class Canterbury’s hatch off where he sat in his radio operator’s seat. He climbed out, recovered the hatch, and put it back on. Fragments from exploding shells, meanwhile, were raining into the turrets of the forward platoons, and more radio aerials, guns sights, periscopes, and even .50-cals were lost.

Strongpoint by strongpoint, the return fire ceased under pounding from the TDs. The battalion noted that its 90mm fire destroyed embrasures and in many cases pulverized the pillboxes. The doughs were able to advance by the afternoon, and engineers blew gaps in the dragon’s teeth. German prisoners were shell-shocked.

The TDs passed through the dragon’s teeth, and they were able to engage some emplacements from a distance of only seventy-five to one hundred yards. As Staff Sergeant Stevens moved his platoon forward in one sector, the lead TD broke through a temporary bridge the engineers had established across an antitank ditch. Under heavy fire, Stevens tried to pull the TD out of the way but could not. Stevens drove back to the CP, where the infantry regimental and battalion commanders were anxious to speak with him because enemy fire had knocked out all of their communications with the infantry. He collected bridging material and some engineers and returned to the ditch. The engineer officer asked as they came under renewed machine-gun and artillery fire, “Nothing can live down there! Shouldn’t we go back?” In the end, the fire was too heavy, and the effort was abandoned.

The TDs supported the assault for sixty straight hours under constant fire, using the darkness to refuel, rearm, and perform critical maintenance. During the engagement, they fired 2,450 rounds of 90mm ammunition at the fortifications. Every M36 suffered damage, and three were total losses. Two men were killed and eleven wounded, many of whom refused evacuation and stayed with their under-manned destroyers.

And the infantry won through. Stevens commented, “In this operation, the enemy artillery and rocket fire, direct AT fire, and all types of small arms fire exceeded any I have experienced in all the other assaults that I have been in, which include the crossings of the Volturno River, the assault on Cassino, the Gothic Line breakthrough, and the operations around Mateur in Africa.”

Across the Rhine

Montgomery’s operatic assault across the Rhine on 23 March was to have been the first Allied crossing, but it was almost the last. Not only had First Army jumped the river at Remagen, Patton sneaked the 5th Infantry Division across the night of 22 March, then quickly carved out two more bridgeheads on the east bank at Boppard and St. Goar on 24 and 25 March. Seventh Army crossed at Worms on 27 March. It was time for the Reich to experience American blitzkrieg.

On 25 March, Bradley told First Army to break out of the Remagen bridgehead. Seventh Corps struck eastward before turning north to isolate the Ruhr. The history of the 3d Armored Division recorded, “At 0400 hours on 25 March the combat commands were rumbling out of bivouac. They went out along the dawn-dim roads in multiple columns of spearheads, 32d and 33d Armored regiment tanks leading, squat and black in the gloom, with blue flame spitting from their exhausts. Tank destroyers of the 703d TD Battalion followed, clacking rapidly over the cobbles, their long 90mm guns perfectly balanced in heavy steel turrets. Armored infantrymen of the 36th, the ‘Blitz Doughs,’ rode in personnel halftracks.”

Mobile warfare was back. The semi-official history of the 628th Tank Destroyer Battalion—which was operating again with the 5th Armored Division—observed, “After being penned for so many months by terrain and prepared defensive positions. . . the only limit on the armored forces was one of resupply of rations and gas. Reminiscent of the hard driving, fast moving armored slashes following the breakthrough at Avranches, France, last August, once again the 5th Armored Division and the tank destroyers were on the loose, deep in enemy territory.” Resistance was so fragmented that the battalion would lose only one TD east of the Rhine River.

Ninety Allied divisions—twenty-five of them armored—began slicing through the Reich’s heartland.

German tank strength in the West was dwindling toward the vanishing point. When news of Patton’s crossing at Oppenheim had reached Hitler, he had called for immediate countermeasures, but German commanders had nothing with which to respond. The only “reserve” was an assortment of five panzers under repair at a tank depot one hundred miles away. The bottom of the barrel had been scraped. As of 31 March, the entire force of panzers and assault guns in Third Army’s sector was estimated at only forty-five vehicles. German Army Group B in the Ruhr had only sixty-five tanks left.

Still, panzers appeared now and again. On 30 March, 3d Armored Division relayed orders to the 703d Tank Destroyer Battalion to support the attack by the division on the road junction at Paderborn, the Fort Knox of the panzer arm. German instructors, officer cadets, and trainees drove their remaining tanks—including some sixty Tigers and Panthers from an SS replacement battalion—out to contest the American advance, and battle flared across the training grounds for two days.

Task Force Welborn formed one of the division’s two prongs and was advancing near Etteln at dusk. The column had identified four Royal Tigers ahead, but they had been struck by fighter-bombers, and Col John Welborn had been assured that the panzers had been knocked out. The column advanced, and the very functional Tigers opened fire with their deadly 88s. Seven Shermans were soon burning. The TDs of 2d Platoon, Company B, returned fire and knocked out two Royal Tigers—a job that required thirty-five rounds of AP and five of HE. One 703d recon jeep was destroyed by return fire. During this action, division CG MajGen Maurice Rose was killed when he was cut off by four Royal Tigers. A panzer commander, misinterpreting the general’s action, shot him when he reached to drop his holster.

Belton Cooper, in his history of the 3d Armored Division, reports that Royal Tigers destroyed an entire company of Shermans from an unidentified task force and that one M36 was lost during the debacle. The incident is not mentioned in the division’s own history. Several sources concur that one M36 was destroyed that day, but the exact circumstances remain unclear.

Posted in AFV

German Torpedo Bombers

Proposed Focke Wulf Fw-190A-5/U-14 with torpedo LFT5b (800kg) Luftwaffe 1943.

A German Junkers Ju-88A-17 bomber

Heinkel He 111H-6

Heinkel He 111

Early variants of the He 111, Germany’s most prolific medium-bomber design, had a conventional stepped cockpit with a pair of windscreens for pilot and co-pilot. They first saw action during the Spanish Civil War. The low-level performance of the He 111J attracted the attention of the Kriegsmarine, who saw its potential as a multipurpose bomber capable of carrying, mines, torpedoes or bombs. When it entered service with Küstenfliegergruppe 806, however, its performance proved disappointing. Not until the He 111P did Heinkel adopt the extensively glazed nose section that has come to define this famous aircraft. The most widely produced model was the He 111H-1 through to H-10, and though the Battle of Britain revealed the type’s weakness in defensive armament, the aircraft was reliable and tough, and could withstand considerable punishment before being shot down.

General characteristics (He 111H-6)

Crew: Five (pilot, navigator/bombardier/nose gunner, ventral gunner, dorsal gunner/wireless operator, side gunner)

Length: 16.4m

Wingspan: 22.60m

Height: 4.00m

Powerplant: Two Jumo 211F-1 or 211F-2 liquid-cooled inverted V-12m engines


Maximum speed: 440km/h

Range: 2,300km (1,242nm) with maximum fuel

Service ceiling: 6,500m


Maximum, seven 7.92mm MG 15 or MG 81 machine guns (two in the nose, one in the dorsal position, two in the sides, and two in the ventral position

One 13mm MG 131 machine gun (mounted in dorsal and/or ventral rear positions)

Bomb load: 2,000kg within main internal bomb bay. Up to 3,600kg carried externally (which blocked use of the internal bomb bay). Torpedoes: Two LT F5b torpedoes on external PVC racks.

Produced in parallel with the F-series, the He 111J-0 and He 111J-1 were intended as torpedo-bombers and powered by 950-hp (708-kW) DB 600CG engines, but the He 111J-1 production aircraft, of which about 8 were built, were equipped as bombers.

He 111J/J-0/J-1

A torpedo bomber version of the He 111F series, the He 111J-0 and He 111J-1 both had 950 hp (708 kW) DB 600CG engines.

He 111 J-0: Pre-production torpedo bomber similar to F-4, but with DB600CG engines.

He 111 J-1: Production torpedo bomber, 90 built, but re-configured as a bomber.

He 111 H-4: Fitted with Jumo 211D engines, late in production changed to Jumo 211F engines, and two external bomb racks. Two PVC 1006L racks for carrying torpedoes could be added.”.

He 111 H-5: Similar to H-4, all bombs carried externally, internal bomb bay replaced by fuel tank. The variant was to be a longer range torpedo bomber.

He 111 H-6: Torpedo bomber, could carry two LT F5b torpedoes externally, powered by Jumo 211F-1 engines, had six MG 15s and one MG FF cannon in forward gondola.

Heinkel He 59

A large twin-engine biplane, the He 59 was constructed under the cover of being a maritime rescue aircraft, but in fact was a versatile reconnaissance bomber capable of operating from both land and water. The aircraft had long endurance, an ample bomb load, strong armament and dependable seaworthiness. The second of the two initial prototypes, the He 59b, which flew in September 1931, was the only prototype fitted with a wheel undercarriage. The first, the He 59a floatplane, made its maiden flight in January 1932. Subsequent versions were all fitted with floats, beginning with the He 59B-1, of which sixteen were built, one being taken to Lipetsk in Russia for testing in January 1932. The subsequently improved He 59B-2 was the first version to go into major production. The first sixteen were built by Walter Bachmann’s aircraft production firm based in Ribnitz, which specialised in seaplanes. A glazed nose originally provided for the bombardier was replaced by an all-metal nose with a smaller glazed bomb-aimer’s position.

General characteristics

Crew: Four

Length: 17.40m

Wingspan: 23.70m

Height: 7.10m

Empty weight: 6,215kg

Powerplant: Two BMW VI 6.0 ZU watercooled V-12 engines


Maximum speed: 221km/h at sea level

Cruising speed: 185km/h

Range: 942km (509nm); maximum 1,750km (945nm)

Service ceiling: 3,500m


Three 7.92mm MG 15 machine guns in nose, dorsal and ventral positions

Bomb load: Two 500kg or four 250kg or twenty 50kg bombs, or one 800kg torpedo

Heinkel He 115

Despite the first prototype failing to impress in 1937, Ernst Udet informing Ernst Heinkel that the aircraft would never fly with the Luftwaffe, improvements resulted in a genuine multipurpose torpedo bomber, minelayer and reconnaissance aircraft. During continued test flights in 1938 the He 115 actually set eight world speed records in its class. However, before long the type became increasingly vulnerable to enemy fighters, and was discontinued. Production of the He 115D and E officially halted on 18 January 1940, though small numbers were still built until 1944 with periodic reopening of the production line.

General characteristics

Crew: Three

Length: 17.30m

Wingspan: 22.28m

Height: 6.60m

Empty weight: 6,690kg

Powerplant: Two 865hp BMW 132K 9-cylinder radial engines


Maximum speed: 327km/h

Combat radius: 2,100km (1,134nm)

Service ceiling: 5,200m


One moveable 7.92mm MG 17 and single moveable 7.92mm MG 15 machine guns in nose and dorsal positions.

Bomb load: Five 250kg bombs, or two such bombs and one 800kg torpedo within enclosed bomb bay. Up to 920kg of mines

Junkers Ju 88

Despite developmental problems, this twin-engine multipurpose Schnellbomber became one of the Luftwaffe’s finest and most versatile aircraft. Originally it was believed that the Ju 88’s speed would make it immune to enemy fighter interception, and although this was shown to be wrong, it was still a highly-regarded machine. The Ju 88 was produced in several versions, including bomber/dive-bomber, torpedo bomber and heavy/night fighter. The basic airframe remained the same throughout the production of over 16,000 Ju 88s of the various types used in every major German combat theatre.

General characteristics (Ju 88A-4)

Crew: 4 (pilot, bombardier/front gunner, radio operator/rear gunner, navigator/ventral gunner)

Length: 14.36m

Wingspan: 20.08m

Height: 5.07m

Powerplant: Two Junkers Jumo 211J liquid-cooled inverted V-12 engines


Maximum speed: 510km/h at 5,300m without external bomb racks Range: 2,430km (1,312nm) with maximum internal fuel

Service ceiling: 9,000m at average weight, without bombs


One 7.92mm MG 81J machine gun on moveable mounting in front windscreen, firing forwards, with 1,000 rounds. One 7.92mm MG 81J machine gun on moveable mounting in lower fuselage nose glazing, firing forwards, with 1,000 rounds. Two 7.92mm MG 81J machine guns on moveable mount in the rear of the cockpit canopy, firing aft, with 1,000 rounds each. One 7.92mm MG 81Z twin machine gun on moveable mount in the rear ventral Bola position, firing aft, with 1,000 rounds.

Bomb load: Up to 1,400kg of ordnance internally in two bomb bays rated at 900kg and 500kg, or up to 3,000kg externally.

Ju 88A-4/Torp. variant capable of carrying two LT F5 torpedoes on external PVC racks.

The Ju 88A-17 was the Ju 88A-4 adapted to carry two 1,686lb (765-kg) torpedoes.

Appearing in the wake of the superlative Ju 88, the Ju 188 proved itself an even better aircraft. It excelled as a bomber, torpedo plane, and reconnaissance platform but came too late and in too few numbers to have an impact.

The Ju 188E was the first production variant and was employed as a radar-equipped torpedo-bomber. It functioned well and was possibly the best of its type during the war.

The Ju 188 E-2 was built as a torpedo-bomber, but was identical to the Ju 188 A-3.

A modified version mounting a small FuG 200 Hohentwiel sea-search radar set under the nose and shackles for a torpedo for naval strike missions was delivered as the Ju 188 E-2, and with the Jumo as the Ju 188 A-3. The only other difference was the removal of the outer pair of wing bomb shackles.


The Germans used the F5b aerial torpedo, derived from a Norwegian design, and the F5w, of Italian design. They had some Japanese aerial torpedoes, but my source (Campbell) says they were not used due to frequent maintenance requirements.

The Germans simply bought nearly all their aerial torpedoes from one “trusted” manufacturer named “Silurificio di Fiume” (now Rijeka, Croatia) which was THE torpedo factory of the Austro-Hungarian empire but during WW2 was under Italian control. Since demand overcame offer, sometimes Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica had bitter confrontations for the produced lots that had to be settled by diplomatic efforts and reciprocal concessions.

In 1941 exhaustive trials were undertaken with all existing types of German bombers at the Grossenbrode bombing school in order to determine which was most suitable for adaptation for the torpedo-bombing role, and these and subsequent tests at Grosseto, on the west coast of Italy, revealed the most suitable aircraft to be the Heinkel He 111H. At that time the He 111H-6, powered by Jumo 211F-1 engines, was replacing the He 111H-3 as the “standard” production version from late 1941. Accordingly, the He 111H-6 included among its various possible external offensive loads a pair of 1,686-lb. LT F5b torpedoes slung side-by-side beneath the fuselage mounted on PVC racks. Numerous experiments were also carried out with various air-launched guided weapons – one of these being the L 10 ‘Friedensengel’ (Angel of Peace) device – which were auxiliary lifting and stabilising surfaces designed to give standard (F5 air-launched) torpedoes gliding properties, but the He 111H-6 role was confined to the test programme conducted with this device only. As far as I am aware it never saw action…

The Heinkel He 115C-4 floatplane was a torpedo-bomber carrying one torpedo, in which defensive armament was reduced to one rear-firing MG 15 machine gun, thirty examples of this type (C-4) being built.

Junkers Ju 88A-4/Torp & Ju 88A-17 – A number of the Ju 88A-4 type were adapted in 1942 for the torpedo-bombing role under the designation Ju 88A-4/Torp, and a small series of aircraft manufactured from the outset for this role were designated Ju 88A-17 and operated by Kampfgruppe 28 on shipping strikes. One PVC rack beneath each wing root supplanted the four ETC bomb-racks inboard of the engine nacelles, and two 1,686-lb. LT F5b torpedoes were carried, and a long-bulged housing fitted on the starboard side of the nose containing the equipment for adjusting the steering mechanism of the torpedoes in the air. The crew compliment was reduced to three members (four being the norm), and the offset ventral gondola was deleted from some aircraft of this type (later Ju 88A-17s).

Probably one of the most well-known actions where German torpedo-bombers were used were the attacks on convoy PQ-17 Not until the middle of June would sufficient Royal Navy escort forces be assembled to allow the transit of PQ17, and this time they faced the renewed threat of the Tirpitz, as the Kriegsmarine had committed to employ heavy surface units against the next inbound convoy. By that stage the Luftwaffe within northern latitudes had also been strongly reinforced, and now mustered one hundred and three Ju 88 bombers, forty-two He 111 torpedo bombers, fifteen He 115 torpedo bombers and thirty Ju 87 dive-bombers, as well as eight Fw 200, twenty-two Ju 88 and forty-four BV 138 reconnaissance aircraft.

The lull had also been exploited by the Luftwaffe in refining already established tactics. Although, in the main, torpedo drops had failed against PQ16, the opportunity had demonstrated once more that skilfully interwoven torpedo and dive-bombing strikes could confuse enemy gunners and disperse their available firepower. Furthermore, the poor showing by torpedo bombers brought further formation-flying training as they employed Harlinghausen’s proven technique known as the ‘Golden Comb’. Using this method, torpedo bombers would approach out of the twilight sky in great numbers, spread line abreast, against ships silhouetted against a lighter horizon. All bombers would launch simultaneously, vastly improving their chances of hits.

The complete blueprints of Japanese aerial torpedoes (Type 91) were delivered by I-30 (aka the “Cherry Blossom boat”, under Lt.Cdr. Shinobu Endô) in August 1942. The Kriegsmarine tested Type 91s at Gdynia/Gotenhafen naval station as LT 850. Curiously enough, some 30 of them were found by the Polish and used until 1954 under the designation 450 LK.

The next Japanese sub I-8 (aka the “U-Flieder”, under Cdr. Shinji Uchino) also delivered two Type 95 Mod. 1 oxygen submarine torpedoes and a Type 95 torpedo tube. During the tests conducted by U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan, the latter type developed up to 53 knots.


Augustus was so alarmed that for several consecutive months he did not cut his beard or hair, and sometimes he bashed his head in the corridors, crying out, ‘Quinctilius Varus – bring the legions back!’

Augustus reacts to the catastrophic news that three legions under the command of Varus had been wiped out by the Germans.

The Second Punic War nearly saw Hannibal and his Carthaginians wipe out the Roman forces. The legendary defeats at Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC) haunted Roman memory. But they were not the only times Rome came near to complete destruction at the hands of an enemy on the battlefield.

Although there are innumerable tales of Roman military bravery, like that of Caesar’s centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, there are instances where Roman troops fell short of what was expected of them in the heat of battle. Some did not want to fight, particularly if they knew that the enemy was especially challenging. Others fought valiantly, but if they were defeated and lived to tell the tale they were treated by their countrymen as shameful failures. The stories recount some of Rome’s darkest days, and depict some of its most humiliated soldiers.


The great Republican general Scipio Africanus had no time for ill-prepared commanding officers. One of his sayings was that bleating ‘in war the words “I had not expected [that]”’ disgraced whoever said them. Scipio firmly believed that any military campaign should only be conducted after exhaustive preparations and planning had been undertaken. One of the reasons he said this was because of some of the disasters under his predecessors’ leadership earlier in the Second Punic War. He added that one should only ever fight a battle with an enemy if an opportunity had arisen, or out of necessity.

A series of major defeats in the Second Punic War nearly destroyed Rome, yet the city’s ability to learn from catastrophes and come back fighting was absolutely fundamental to the development of the Roman army, its military skills and leadership. In 217 BC the Carthaginian general Hannibal was loose in Italy, roaming and laying waste at will, with the firm intention of provoking the Romans into action. He succeeded. The consul Gaius Flaminius was so outraged he ignored advice to wait for his fellow consul, Servilius Geminus, to arrive with his army. Flaminius completely misunderstood the depth of the threat as he marched along in the vicinity of Lake Trasimene early on the morning of 21 June. Believing Hannibal was some way off, he was horrified to find his army had been stopped by Hannibal’s African and Spanish troops. Hannibal had stationed them there with the express intention of blocking Flaminius’ men and trapping them between the lake and the mountains.

Flaminius had rushed straight into a trap. Livy claimed that Flaminius displayed admirable coolness under the circumstances and tried to rally the soldiers by telling them only their ‘brave exertions’ could save them. It made no difference to the outcome. The Romans saw the Africans and Spaniards before they realized there was an ambush waiting for them. They were also caught out by the morning mist they were marching through. Hannibal had sent his other troops up on to the high ground overlooking the road. Stationed above the mist, they could send visual signals to each other to coordinate the attack. The Romans had no idea where Hannibal’s men were until they heard the shouting but could not see anything; in the ‘din and confusion’ the centurions and tribunes were unable to issue any orders.

The Romans were attacked on all sides. They were still in marching formation and had had no chance to reorganize into battle order. According to Polybius, Flaminius was in a state of ‘the utmost dismay and dejection’ and had exhibited ‘a total lack of judgement’. When an Insubrian horseman called Ducarius recognized Flaminius as the general who had attacked Insubrian territory in 223 BC, he charged forward and killed him.

The fighting was not even over. Troops at the rear of the Roman column were pushed into the lake, where Hannibal’s cavalry killed them or they drowned. Only 6,000 Roman troops managed to escape and fight their way to higher ground, where they could see how disastrous the battle had been. They tried to hold out in a nearby village but were encircled by Hannibal and captured. Critically, the whole scenario had prevented the Roman army from operating in disciplined battle formation. ‘It was no ordered battle’, said Livy. Every man fought for himself in a frenzy that lasted three hours, apparently ignoring even an earthquake which coincided with the mayhem.

It was a ‘disaster memorable as few others have been in Roman history’, and it was impossible to pretend to the Roman people that it had been anything else. In fact it was almost the first time the general population had ever been told about a defeat. In the end a mere 10,000 Romans managed to struggle back to Rome in dribs and drabs. Meanwhile, 4,000 Roman cavalry under the command of Gaius Centenius which diverted to help out at Trasimene rode right into Hannibal’s hands and were lost too, half being killed and the other half captured.

To a beleaguered Rome the situation seemed catastrophic, but the senators kept their cool and spent days discussing what to do. The critical lessons were not to let a commanding officer act unilaterally, and not to allow an army to become trapped. The Roman army’s greatest skill was organization and discipline. Both had broken down at Trasimene, and one of the reasons was its reliance on recently raised and untrained recruits. The results were disastrous losses and Hannibal’s freedom to continue to roam Italy at will.

The solution, it was decided, was to confront Hannibal in overwhelming numbers and to make sure the men were fully trained and confident. Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro were elected as the consuls for 216 BC and placed in charge of the military preparations, Paullus dealing with recruitment and training. When Hannibal seized the town of Cannae, helping himself to Roman stores there, the scene was set for a major showdown. The Romans organized themselves into an exceptionally large army. Eight legions were formed, double the normal number. Each legion was also enlarged to 5,000 with 300 cavalry attached, adding a further 2,400 men to the 40,000-odd infantry. Another 40,000 allied infantry were raised, along with around 5,000 allied cavalry. The Roman army of 216 BC now numbered nearly 90,000 men, an extraordinary number for the time.

Unfortunately, the two consuls put their egos first and disagreed about what to do. Camped 5 miles (8 km) from the Carthaginians, Paullus wanted to avoid fighting there because the land was open and it would give Hannibal’s cavalry the opportunity to attack with impunity. That was what Hannibal himself wanted, said Livy, because ‘in a cavalry action . . . he was invincible’. Varro, who was much less experienced, did not concur. It was, noted Polybius, ‘the most dangerous situation which could happen’. The normal practice was for the consuls to take overall command on alternate days, which would not matter if they were cooperating. But they were not, and they adopted different tactics in an enthusiastic display of incompetence. Varro took advantage of his prerogative the next day to order the men to break camp and advance. Hannibal, who must have been stunned at his good fortune, capitalized on the unexpected opportunity and attacked, but the Romans managed to fight back and hold off the Carthaginians until night fell. The following day Paullus took over and told the army to pitch camp by the river Aufidus, but decided to split his force, ordering one-third to guard a ford over a mile away on the opposite bank so it could protect foraging parties.

What followed was a series of inconclusive encounters, the news leaving the people in Rome half mad with nerves. On 2 August Varro once more took overall command. He led the army over the river without even bothering to tell Paullus and placed them in battle formation, egged on by the troops who were desperate to fight. The main body in the middle was the infantry under the command of Geminus Servilius, with Roman cavalry on the right and allied cavalry on the left. Hannibal brought his 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry out to face the Romans in a similar configuration. The only significant difference was that he ordered his centre forward to create a ‘crescent-shaped bulge’ so that they could start the battle. He had also ensured that the Romans were facing into the sun and the dust, whipped up by the wind that was common there.

The fighting only became truly vicious when the cavalry met each other on the Roman right, beside the river. The area was so small that they dismounted in the congestion and started fighting hand to hand. The Roman cavalry gave way, many being killed; Varro was one of those who fled, along with 70 surviving Roman cavalry, adding ignominy to his stupidity in the lead-up to the battle. The Roman infantry made much better headway against Hannibal’s Celts, but they had inevitably advanced into a trap. It was precisely what Hannibal had planned all along. His African troops, arranged on either side of the Celts, enveloped the Romans. Meanwhile the allied cavalry on the Roman left fell back; Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal was able to leave them and support the Africans in the heart of the infantry battle.

In the melee Paullus tried to rally the troops but lost his horse. A tribune called Gnaeus Lentulus rode up and offered his own horse, he said, to the ‘only man without guilt in the disaster of this day’. It would save him and allow him to avoid the shame of a consul’s death. Paullus declined, telling him to go to Rome and warn the Senate to fortify the city, and leave him to die among his soldiers. At that moment Paullus was killed in a rain of enemy missiles and Lentulus escaped. Gradually the Carthaginians whittled down the Roman army by working inwards from the outside, systematically killing the Romans as they went.

Hannibal captured 10,000 Roman infantry, all of whom had been left by Paullus in the camp as a reserve. About 3,000 more fled from the battlefield, as did 300 allied cavalry. Polybius was appalled at how Varro managed to escape too, commenting that his flight from the battlefield only matched the disaster of his tenure of office. The rest, numbering allegedly about 70,000, were believed dead. In contrast, Hannibal lost about 5,700 men in total – less than 10 per cent of the Roman losses. These at least were the figures recorded by Polybius. Livy suggested something more like 50,000. Like all such details they were rounded and probably exaggerated to some degree. Nonetheless, it is clear the battle was a catastrophe for Rome and a relatively cheap victory for Hannibal. Livy described the Roman army as having been ‘annihilated in a massacre’, the terrible news being passed from house to house in the city. The lesson was a hard one for Rome. The decisive factor had been Hannibal’s cavalry, proving that it was better to have fewer infantry than the enemy and more cavalry.

A few days later another Roman army was wiped out by Celts in Gallia Cisalpina. The only thing that could be said in the Romans’ favour was that when the news of these hair-raising disasters reached Rome, the Senate held its nerve. As Polybius noted, ‘through the special virtues and their ability to keep their heads’, the Romans were eventually able to fight back. Their ultimate victory in a war they were to win a decade later would leave them ‘masters of the whole world’.

The events of 216 BC remained in Roman consciousness long afterwards. Cannae was remembered as an occasion ‘when the survival of the Republic hung on the loyalty of our allies’. By imperial times a story had grown up that Varro had suffered such a terrible defeat at Trasimene because he had insulted Juno. As aedile in charge of the games he had installed an exceptionally good-looking young male actor in Jupiter’s carriage to hold the necessary religious accessories. It was a clear allusion to Jupiter’s cup bearer Ganymede, with whom Jupiter had fallen in love. Therefore, it was alleged, Juno had been infuriated by Varro’s insensitivity and had made sure he was defeated. When the tale was recalled in later years sacrifices had to be made to make amends for Varro’s contempt for Juno’s sensibilities. The point is not whether the story was true or not, or even whether the Romans believed it, but rather the notion that battles or campaigns were susceptible to the whims of deities in response to the actions of men.

The eventual Roman victory in the Second Punic War was won at astronomical cost. Trasimene and Cannae reinforced the Roman sense of destiny that they had prevailed and overcome enormous adversity. The nature of the evidence we have tells us little or nothing about the individual soldiers involved. They are absent from the record. What we do know is that in the longer run the families they left behind were often dispossessed of their land by the greedy Roman aristocracy. Even the survivors all too often came home to find their peasant farms had been stolen and absorbed into vast senatorial estates run by slaves, leading to a political crisis in 133 BC. It was the ensuing crisis in the Roman Republic that began slowly to pave the way for the age of the emperors and the establishment of a professional standing army.

The surviving Roman forces from Cannae who made their way back to Rome were not thought worthy of compassion. In Roman eyes they had failed ignominiously. It would have been far better had they died in battle. Instead they were punished by being sent to Sicily and forced to live as if they were still on campaign for as long as the Second Punic War lasted. In 212 BC the remnants of the army defeated at Cannae appealed to the general commanding in Sicily, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to take their concerns to the Senate. In their letter they found an oblique way of implying that the fault for the defeat clearly lay with their leaders and reminded him that the officers had proceeded to pursue normal careers, some even becoming provincial governors. They drew attention to the lenient treatment meted out to other defeated Roman armies and begged for the chance to overturn their disgrace. Marcellus agreed to send the letter on to the Senate, but the appeal was rejected.

In 205 BC Scipio, who was assembling a new army in Sicily to mount an invasion of Africa to destroy Carthage, took a different view. The soldiers themselves believed that under Scipio they could redeem themselves:

Those who were left of the soldiers who had fought at Cannae felt convinced that under Scipio, and no other general, they would be enabled, by exerting themselves in the cause of the state, to put an end to their ignominious service. Scipio was far from feeling contempt for that description of soldiers, inasmuch as he knew that the defeat sustained at Cannae was not attributable to their cowardice, and that there were no soldiers in the Roman army who had served so long, or were so experienced not only in the various kinds of battles, but in assaulting towns also. The legions which had fought at Cannae were the V and VI. After declaring that he would take these with him into Africa, he inspected them man by man. Leaving those whom he considered unfit for service, he substituted for them those whom he had brought from Sicily, filling up those legions so that each might contain 6,200 infantry and 300 cavalry.

The Cannae survivors had finally exonerated themselves, but it had been a long time coming.


The slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BC presented Rome’s army with an unprecedented challenge, and it came about because of the grievances of a man who had once fought for Rome. The Thracian Spartacus had reputedly once been a soldier in the Roman army – glossed over in the famous motion picture about his life. Having somehow been enslaved, he was eventually sold for gladiatorial training at the school run by the lanista Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. Spartacus’ military training as well as his intelligence stood him in good stead when, according to Appian, he decided to lead a rebellion by overcoming the training school guards. Plutarch’s version has 200 gladiators planning to escape, with 78 managing to do so and subsequently electing Spartacus as leader. (Given the chaos there must have been at the time, it is hardly surprising the accounts do not tally precisely, not only at this point but also throughout.) Spartacus and his band of rebels headed for the slopes of Vesuvius, having been joined as they went by runaway slaves and even some free peasants. Any loot or booty gathered along the way was shared out equally, an egalitarian gesture which soon encouraged many others to join them.

A slave rebellion was something that terrified the Romans. Two major revolts had erupted in Sicily in 135 BC and 104 BC and had proved extremely dangerous and difficult to crush. There were so many slaves that there was a real risk they would realize that by working together they could easily overcome their masters. Despite that, no one in Rome appreciated quite how dangerous Spartacus’ rebellion was. Arrogance and complacency set the Romans on the route to another military disaster. A couple of scratch forces rather than proper armies were thrown together and sent after the rebels, who beat them off easily. Spartacus’ army was now thought to number 70,000, and thanks to his experience he was able to oversee the manufacture of weapons and military training. Only then did the Senate dispatch a proper consular army of two legions.

To begin with they successfully defeated a force of 30,000 fighting under another gladiator leader called Crixus, who was among 20,000 men killed. Spartacus decided to lead his slave army north through Italy but was cut off by one of the consuls, while the other blocked his retreat. Since the consular army cannot have numbered more than about 10–12,000 men, however, splitting them was a bad move. Spartacus attacked the two halves of the Roman army in separate engagements and defeated both with a force that had now grown to 120,000, the consuls fleeing in separate directions. Plutarch adds that Spartacus headed on towards Gaul, defeating Cassius, the governor of Gallia Cisalpina, and an army of 10,000. Spartacus ordered the execution of 300 Roman prisoners as a sacrifice in honour of Crixus. Next he marched on Rome, killing all his remaining prisoners and his pack animals so that he could advance as fast as possible. By now the consuls had regrouped and together tried to block Spartacus. He defeated them again.

The fact that a trained Roman army was being overcome time after time by a slave contingent led by a former slave who had once fought for the Romans himself was a devastating and terrifying humiliation for the Roman military. Spartacus was also smart enough to understand that his force, for all its size, lacked the equipment and training to take Rome. Instead he captured the city of Thurii, where he only allowed merchants to bring in iron and brass so his men could manufacture more arms. Another victory over a Roman army followed.


Spartacus’ rebellion had lasted three years by the time it finally came to an end. In 71 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus stood for one of the praetorships that year. No one else would stand for fear of the immense task ahead, but Crassus was extremely wealthy and even more ambitious. Appian said that, determined to win at all costs, Crassus raised an army of six legions, to which he added the consular army of two legions. However, he reduced the number of men in two consular legions by decimation as a punishment for their failure to defeat Spartacus in the preceding two years. According to another story that circulated (which Appian quotes), he was in fact defeated himself by Spartacus to begin with and had to decimate his whole army, killing around 4,000 men. In Plutarch’s version Crassus sent Memmius, one of his legates, with two of the legions to fight Spartacus. Memmius was defeated and some of the survivors fled. Crassus regrouped them but took the 500 most cowardly and decimated them. Whatever the truth, it worked. He killed two-thirds of a group of 10,000 of Spartacus’ army who were encamped some way from the main force. With that victory under his belt, Crassus led his men to rout the rest.

Spartacus’ army fled south to the sea, hoping to cross to Sicily, but was trapped by Crassus. Spartacus tried to avoid joining battle after he lost 6,000 men when trying to break out, and instead spent his time trying to harass Crassus’ army. Back in Rome, the thought that the siege might last any longer led the Senate to invite Pompey and his army, which had recently returned to Italy from the war in Spain against the rebel Quintus Sertorius, to head south and help defeat Spartacus. That infuriated Crassus, who believed Pompey would end up with all the glory and was desperate to fight Spartacus before his rival arrived. Spartacus tried to negotiate terms but Crassus refused. Spartacus then broke out and headed for Brindisi in the hope of making his escape by sea. He gave up when he heard that Lucullus, proconsul of Macedonia, had arrived back in Brindisi after defeating Mithridates of Persia. Spartacus now turned to face Crassus in battle and was defeated. He was killed while making his way towards Crassus, killing two centurions as he did so, as were all the rest of his army except 6,000 men whom Crassus crucified along the Via Appia from Capua to Rome. The Spartacus War had put Rome in the most extraordinarily precarious position. Spartacus’ success came close to undermining the military prestige Rome had won over several centuries, and made a mockery of the Roman military system Polybius had so admired only eighty years earlier.


In 53 BC, almost twenty years after he brought the Spartacus War to an end, Marcus Licinius Crassus and a huge Roman army set out to the east to confront the Parthians under their commander Surena, Orodes II’s general. Crassus was a political associate of Caesar and Pompey, and at the time the three men were united in an unofficial alliance known today as the ‘First Triumvirate’. Crassus was moreover the richest man in Rome.

The battle that followed at Carrhae (near present-day Harran, eastern Turkey) was a catastrophe. Most of the Roman force was annihilated. Crassus was killed, as was his son. Even worse, the Roman standards were lost. All the auspices had been bad from the outset. For some reason, Crassus was handed a black cloak instead of the white or purple one a general would normally wear to battle. The soldiers were in a depressed and silent mood instead of being eager to fight. The legionary eagle standards proved to be a problem too. A centurion struggled to pull one of them up out of the ground, while another swivelled round to face the wrong direction. Crassus ‘made light’ of such bad omens, said Plutarch. Valerius Maximus put it all down to the inevitable consequence of human vanity in the face of heaven.

To begin with, Crassus spread his men out on a wide front to stop the Parthians surrounding them. Soon he changed his mind and ordered them to rearrange themselves into a hollow square with 12 cohorts and a cavalry wing on each side. The idea was they would be able to face an attack from any side. Keen to bring the Parthians to battle, he refused to make camp by the river Balissus and allow his parched troops to quench their thirst. They had to eat and drink where they stood before moving on. When they did advance, Crassus marched them into a trap, even though his army was much bigger than Surena’s. Surena had ordered his men to hide their armour behind their clothing and had concealed his main army behind his advance force. With a graphic sense of theatre he then ordered the Parthian soldiers to work up a terrifying and disorienting din using drums and bells, before exposing their armour – an impression amplified by their painted faces and the way they wore their hair over their foreheads in the style of the Scythians to make themselves look as frightening as possible.

The Parthian force surrounded Crassus’ hollow square. He ordered an advance, but it collapsed almost instantly under a hail of arrows. The Romans could not escape. When Crassus realized the Parthians had brought up a supply chain of camels laden with fresh arrows, any hopes that they were about to run out of ammunition evaporated. Crassus told his son, Publius Licinius Crassus, to lead an attack as the Parthians withdrew, before the opportunity disappeared for good. The younger Crassus took eight infantry cohorts, 500 archers and 1,300 cavalry. He raced right into a trap. The Parthians stopped, turned, used their cavalry to kick up dust and embarked on a massacre. Roman infantry troops died or suffered in agony trying to pull out the barbed arrows, which ripped open their wounds even wider. Others had arrows through their feet and hands, pinning them to the ground or fixing their hands to their shields. Young Crassus pressed on, only for his Gaulish cavalry to fall foul of the Parthians’ longer spears and the heat. They fell back, taking over a patch of higher ground to give them a defensive advantage, but only exposed themselves to another hail of arrows. The wounded young Crassus turned down a chance to escape and ordered his shield-bearer to kill him. The Parthians then turned on his father.

Before Crassus could advance to relieve his son the Parthians returned to face him, started on their drums again and held up his son’s decapitated head. They mocked Crassus for his cowardice compared to his son’s valour. Roman morale plunged further, a speech from Crassus failing to lift their spirits. The first day of the battle ended with the Parthians once more surrounding the Romans and killing many with arrows and spears. Crassus spent the night in despair, so his officers decided to organize a general retreat into the city of Carrhae, abandoning many of their sick and wounded. In the morning the Parthians started the day by killing 4,000 of those left behind. In addition, four cohorts that had become separated from the main Roman column were wiped out after getting lost.

With the remaining Romans stuck in Carrhae, Surena offered a truce if they would leave the region. It was agreed that he and Crassus would hold a conference, but the next day the Parthians told the besieged Romans that if they wanted a truce they would have to hand Crassus over. The meeting, when it took place, was a disaster. Surena offered Crassus a horse but one of his men pulled the animal’s reins while Crassus was seated on it. His officers tried to restrain the horse but violence broke out and Crassus was killed, allegedly by a Parthian named Pomaxathres. That sparked an eruption of killing which started with the deaths of some of Crassus’ party and ended with the slaughter of 20,000 Roman troops and the imprisonment of 10,000 more, and the Roman standards were lost. Led by Cassius Longinus, one of Crassus’ officers, only 10,000 soldiers made their way back to Syria (some of them must have recorded their experiences in accounts later read by Appian and Plutarch). A particularly distasteful account of the aftermath was related by Cassius Dio. He said there was a story that the Parthians had poured molten gold into Crassus’ mouth in mockery of his riches and the way he had pitied those who could not afford to bankroll a whole legion from their personal wealth.

The disaster was an object lesson in what could happen when soldiers, demoralized and far from home in extremely arduous conditions, were confronted with an imaginative and resourceful enemy. Carrhae was a body-blow because a superior Roman force had been destroyed with comparative ease. It was not until the reign of Augustus, when Parthia conceded control of Armenia following a campaign led by the emperor’s stepson Tiberius, that the standards were returned. Tiberius received the standards on 12 May 20 BC, after Tigranes II was restored to the Armenian throne; he also recovered the standards lost by Mark Antony when Orodes II’s son Phraates defeated his army in 36 BC.31 With their return, some Roman dignity had been restored and the shadow of the defeat laid to rest. Over four centuries later, the tale of Crassus’ defeat and how he had been ‘annihilated’ was well remembered in Roman lore.


In 19 BC Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ general, right-hand man and son-in-law, went out to Spain to deal with a rising among the Cantabri. Enslaved after their defeat in a war earlier in Augustus’ reign, the Cantabri had killed their masters, returned to their tribal homelands in northern Spain, and whipped up a rebellion that involved making plans to attack the Roman garrisons. ‘But he had some trouble with his soldiers’, said Cassius Dio of Agrippa. Many were too old and worn out by the continuous wars of recent years; evidently the recruitment of new, younger soldiers had fallen short of requirements.

Once Agrippa had weighed in, telling them off, encouraging them and trying to inject some optimism, eventually they agreed to obey his orders. Agrippa might have thought he had sorted out the problems, but he was soon to discover he had not. The Cantabri proved to be an intractable foe. They had ‘gained practical experience’ of fighting and were highly motivated by the thought that if they were captured they were bound to be killed. Strabo described how the Cantabrians had a ‘ferocity and insensibility’ to suffering that meant when they were captured and crucified they sang ‘their paean of victory’. No wonder then that a large number of Roman soldiers were lost in the fighting, and Agrippa had to punish numerous other men ‘because they kept being defeated’. He even stripped Legio I of its title ‘Augusta’ out of disgust at its failure in the war. Only then did he manage to turn round the fighting, killing many Cantabrian fighters and capturing others.

Agrippa had won a victory, but he turned down the triumph Augustus offered him, perhaps because it had been such a close-run thing. Legio I later redeemed itself in Germany, possibly in the aftermath of the disaster of AD 9 (see below), becoming known as Legio I Germanica. Meanwhile Legio IIII Macedonica and Legio X Gemina had to be stationed in Spain to control the area for several generations to come.


In AD 9 Publius Quinctilius Varus was in his third year as governor of Germania, a region in which the Romans still only held certain districts. Confident that the province was at peace, Varus was managing a programme of urban colonization designed to encourage the locals into Roman ways of life. The Germans had been left in no doubt about Roman military prestige. A magnificent twice life-size bronze equestrian statue, undoubtedly of Augustus, was erected at Waldegrimes, a civilian settlement. The bronze horse’s head survives, decorated with a figure of Mars on the bridle.

In fact Varus was being willingly lulled into a false sense of security by the German tribes, who helpfully pretended to be acquiescent and peaceful. Two tribal leaders, Arminius and Segimerus, posed as his friends and were allowed to share his tent, even while they plotted against him; so trusted was Arminius that he was made a Roman citizen and an equestrian. As far as the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus was concerned, ‘fate took control of Varus’ plans and blindfolded the eyes of his mind’. Consequently, the foolhardy governor ‘did not keep his legions together’. Instead he gave in to various requests from widely dispersed settlements for the dispatch of soldiers to act as police by guarding locations and supply traffic, and catching thieves. When the Germans instigated an uprising, so that Varus would have to set out to suppress it, Arminius and Segimerus excused themselves, claiming they were heading off to put together units of allied auxiliary soldiers to help out. It was, of course, a lie. They killed the Roman soldiers sent by Varus and then waited for the governor and his army to arrive.

Varus blithely led a Roman army of three legions, XVII, XVIII and XVIIII, from Xanten to Mainz right into the Teutoburg Forest, a dangerous place for soldiers who preferred to fight pitched battles in the open. The force of more than 15,000, together with its baggage train, which included women and children and other followers, swanned into a trap ‘hemmed in by forests and marshes’. The soldiers had been mixed up with the wagon train, an unforgivable lack of planning, so it was impossible to get into any defensive formation when the Germans attacked. When the bewildered Romans counterattacked they found themselves crashing into each other and into the trees. Foul weather hampered their progress as they desperately tried to cut down the trees and build the roads the army so depended on for movement and control of the terrain, while floundering in the mud during constant attacks from the tribesmen.

A bad situation became a great deal worse over the several days it took the disaster to unfold. More torrential rain and a gale on the fourth day meant the Romans became weighed down with equipment that they could not use; their hands were soaked and they could not throw javelins or fire arrows, or even hold their shields. It was a decisive moment. Varus’ surviving men were unable to escape or even effectively defend themselves. They were now besieged in the middle of a forest. More Germans had arrived, ‘largely in the hope of plunder’. The Romans who had survived thus far were starting to run out of food. They decided to show their few German prisoners that they had excellent stocks of food and could hold out. Next, having cut the prisoners’ hands off, they set them free so they could go back to Arminius’ men and tell them there was no chance of starving the Romans into surrendering.

In reality the position was hopeless. One of the camp prefects, Lucius Eggius, surrendered and gave himself up to be tortured to death. A legionary legate, Numonius Vala, fled but was captured and killed. Varus had the presence of mind to fall on his sword, as did his other surviving officers. It was an honourable way out and had the useful bonus of avoiding an agonizing death at the hands of the enemy. The eagle standards were seized by the Germans from the spot where Varus died. When the remaining soldiers realized what had happened, some committed suicide and others gave up, throwing down their weapons and waiting to be killed. Escape was impossible. They were slaughtered to a man ‘like cattle’. The German tribes took delight in mutilating Varus’ body before decapitating it and sending the head to Tiberius, the stepson and heir of Augustus and currently in command in the region. When the news reached Augustus in Rome he was devastated and incredulous.

During his campaign in 15, six years later, Germanicus came across the grisly remains of Varus’ camp. He found the remains of the Roman soldiers’ bodies ‘cut to pieces, in a ditch and on the plain nearby bleached bones either in piles or scattered’, no doubt where wild animals had carried them off to feast on. There was worse to come. Dying in battle was one thing, but those captured had suffered far worse fates. ‘Skulls were impaled on the trunks of trees. In the groves of trees nearby were barbarian altars where the tribunes and the most senior centurions had been slaughtered.’ Even the animals had been butchered. Germanicus found the remains of horses that had been hacked to pieces. The few survivors who escaped to tell the tale had reported how Arminius had made a speech from a tribunal on the spot. They pointed out the gibbets and torture pits his men had specially prepared for the massacre.

Germanicus’ men set about the grim task of gathering up the bones and burying them properly. They had already recaptured the eagle standard of Legio XVIIII when they attacked the Bructeri tribe en route to the site of the disaster. One of the other standards would have to wait until the next year when an informant told Germanicus it was buried in a grove and had only a light guard; the third did not turn up until 41, when Publius Gabinius recovered it after defeating the Chauci.

Miraculously, the tombstone of one of Varus’ men, found at Xanten, has survived. Marcus Caelius, a centurion in Legio XVIII, died in the horror in the Teutoburg Forest along with thousands of others. Of course, in reality his body had never been recovered; if it had been, it was jumbled up among the piles of mutilated and bleached bones found by Germanicus, and could never have been identified. The tombstone was thus really a cenotaph, set up in commemoration by his brother Publius. It also depicted and named Marcus’ freedmen, who must have accompanied their former master and died alongside him. Publius added a note, more in vain than in hope, that their bones could be interred there too if they were ever found and identified. As for the equestrian statue of Augustus erected at Waldegrimes, it was hacked to pieces by tribesmen and the head thrown down a well, ironically ensuring its survival.



Tacfarinas was a Numidian Berber leader who had once fought for the Roman army as an auxiliary. He turned out, like Spartacus, to be one of many men trained in Roman military skills who subsequently became major threats. In 17, during the reign of Tiberius, he deserted. Using his Roman military training he formed a band of rebels in North Africa, organizing them into ‘detachments and squadrons’. He used Roman discipline and gave his men Roman-type weapons, though that same year he was routed by a Roman army led by the governor of Africa, Furius Camillus.

Three years later Tacfarinas reappeared, though his plans to fight with trained men seem to have gone awry. He started with a guerrilla war, burning villages, but then ‘blockaded a Roman cohort’ in its fort. This must have been an auxiliary infantry unit in an outpost. Its commander was an officer called Decrius, a brave and experienced man who regarded being besieged as shameful. He drew his men up outside the fort so they could fight a battle in the open when Tacfarinas attacked. Unfortunately the cohort crumbled at the first attack, leaving Decrius to race around under a hail of projectiles chasing after the men who were running away and cursing his standard-bearers for standing by while that happened. Decrius was wounded in the chest and hit in one eye but he fought on singlehandedly until he was killed, completely forsaken by his men.

The engagement showed how a Roman force, albeit an auxiliary one, could give up on the spot when confronted with an unexpected and frightening foe. The fallout was devastating for the cohort. The new proconsular governor of Africa, Lucius Apronius, was disgusted at the dishonour the men had done the Roman army and ordered a decimation of the unit. ‘In a rare deed for that time and of ancient memory he chose by lot every tenth man of the disgraced cohort, and executed them by cudgel.’ In other words the men were beaten to death by their comrades. The brutal punishment seems to have motivated other troops. Shortly afterwards a force of 500 veterans routed Tacfarinas’ army, and a soldier called Rufus Helvius who saved a Roman citizen was decorated for his bravery.


In 62, following several years of war in Armenia, violence started up again when the Parthians under Vologaeses attacked. Lucius Caesennius Paetus, the governor of Cappadocia, had Legio V and Legio XII at his disposal but had been rather too lax in authorizing leave applications from soldiers, with the result that the legions were not up to strength. In the Battle of Rhandeia that followed the Romans were severely beaten, and Paetus had to send a desperate request to Corbulo in Syria for help. The legions fled, even allegedly being forced to go through the humiliation of walking under the yoke. Corbulo was forced to withdraw the demoralized Legio XII and send it to Syria, its best men lost ‘and the rest terrified’.

Just four years after that humiliating defeat, Legio XII found itself once more confronted with a challenge, and an opportunity to recover its dignity. During the Jewish War then being prosecuted by Vespasian, a general at the time, and his son Titus, the legion was involved in an another ignominious defeat. Tension, which had existed for centuries between the Greek inhabitants of Alexandria and the Jewish colonists, had erupted into violence. The Jews of Alexandria had been given their own quarter in the city, along with various legal privileges that allowed them to pursue their way of life without harassment. A particularly ugly incident took place when the Jews tried to join in a public assembly discussing a proposed embassy to Nero. Three Jews were captured and taken off by the Greeks to be burned alive. The Jewish population rose up in outrage and attacked the Greeks. The Roman governor of Alexandria, Tiberius Alexander, tried to ease the tension with negotiation but his plan failed.

Unfortunately, Tiberius Alexander then decided to order Legio III Cyrenaica and Legio XXII Deiotariana, both based in Alexandria at the time, along with 2,000 additional troops recently arrived from Libya, to attack the Jewish colony. According to Josephus, 50,000 (a figure unlikely to be accurate) lay dead before Alexander called off his men, but the Greek mob continued the violence against the Jews until they were forced to back off.

Cestius was governor of Syria between 63 and 67. When the news from Alexandria reached him in Antioch he decided he would have to intervene. He took a substantial army with him: Legio XII Fulminata, 2,000 soldiers each from the three other legions based in Syria, six auxiliary infantry cohorts (about 3,000 men), and four cavalry wings (at least 2,000 troopers), alongside another 11,000 men supplied by client kings in the region, as well as soldiers from the legions stationed in Judaea (VI Ferrata and X Fretensis). With an army numbering at least 27,000, Cestius headed south into Judaea to punish the Jews. He started by sacking Acre (Akko in modern Israel) before dividing up his army so that he could widen his impact. This started badly. When Cestius left Acre he installed 2,000 men there, but they were killed by a Jewish attack. Cestius was not swayed from his plans. One of his detachments sacked Joppa successfully, and another ravaged territory near Caesarea.

At that point Cestius detached Legio XII Fulminata with its commander Caesennius Gallus and sent him into Galilee. All went well for the Romans to begin with. Cities in the region offered no resistance, while any rebels had melted away into a mountainous region near the city of Sepphoris. Caesennius Gallus decided to attack the rebels even though it ought to have been obvious that they were in an advantageous position. They managed to kill 200 Romans before Gallus’ men positioned themselves on even higher land. After killing 2,000 rebels in return, Gallus returned to Cestius in Caesarea convinced that Galilee was under control. Cestius believed he could now advance his army towards Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, the Jews abandoned their celebrations of the Feast of the Tabernacle and attacked Cestius’ army. A near-disaster occurred when the Roman front line was broken, being averted only when some cavalry and infantry managed to regroup and plug the gap. The Jews lost a trivial number of men compared to the several hundred Romans who died, managing to escape back to the hills with some of the Roman baggage animals. Cestius had to take refuge in his camp for three days while the Jews watched for any sign of further attacks or movements. Attempts at diplomatic negotiations to resolve the impasse failed when the most extreme rebels refused to cooperate and attacked the Roman ambassadors.

Cestius ordered a full-scale attack on Jerusalem, for which he spent three days preparing. On the fourth day his men fought their way towards the city, but Cestius made a crucial error. On the advice of some of his officers, Cestius did not tell his men to attack the Upper City, instead ordering them to pitch camp outside its walls. The assault, when it came, was protracted and dangerous. The Romans organized a testudo (tortoise) formation which would allow them to undermine the walls without being battered by stones thrown down on them. The most extreme rebels began abandoning the city, believing all was lost. That meant the more moderate citizens were able to start planning to surrender and save themselves. Thinking his assault was going nowhere, Cestius told his men to stand down, with the effect that the rebels suddenly realized they had a chance of victory after all. During the lull they burst out of the Upper City and attacked the Romans. Cestius was chased back to his camp pursued by the Jewish rebels, who attacked and killed numerous men. Among the casualties was the legate commanding Legio VI Ferrata. Cestius decided he would have to withdraw.

The retreat needed to be conducted as fast as possible. Cestius knew his men were in a tight corner. Except those that carried ammunition or pulled the artillery machines, the baggage animals were all killed. The route meant having to pass down through a narrow ravine which trapped the Romans beneath an ambush by the Jews, who hurled down missiles. It was impossible for the Romans to defend themselves and they were only saved when night fell and they could make their way to Beth-horon.

Here Cestius came up with a plan. While 400 men were posted to make it look as if his whole army was still at Beth-horon, the rest crept out under cover of darkness and relocated 3-1/2 miles (5 km) away. When the sun rose the Jews realized they had been tricked. They broke into Beth-horon and killed the 400 men left behind. Next they set off after Cestius, who was still on the move and accelerating as he ordered his siege and artillery equipment to be abandoned. The Jews failed to catch him but helped themselves to the free gifts, which they would subsequently use against the Romans.

Cestius’ campaign and the humiliating midnight retreat from Beth-horon had been a shameful affair. Legio XII was singled out for humiliation as the principal legion involved. Josephus reported that 5,300 infantry had been lost, along with 480 cavalry. The losses were huge for a Roman army and seem to have been the largest ever incurred in a province that was supposed to have been under Roman control. More alarming still was the relatively small number of enemy casualties. No doubt bearing in mind the defeat the legion had suffered in 62 under Caesennius Paetus at Rhandeia, Titus ordered Legio XII to leave Syria permanently when the Jewish war ended in 73. It had to abandon its base at Raphanaeae and was relocated far to the east at Melitene by the Euphrates, on the border between Armenia and Cappadocia. There it stayed until it disappeared from history after the late fourth century.

There was a gruesome aftermath to Cestius’ experiences. In 67 Vespasian ordered an attack on the town of Gabara. His soldiers, filled with loathing for the Jewish people after what had happened to Cestius, massacred all the inhabitants, regardless of their age. Gabara was burned to the ground, as were the nearby settlements, their inhabitants being sold into slavery if they had not already fled.


In 70, during the Jewish War, the general and future emperor Titus threw a legionary cavalryman out of the army. He was one of two soldiers captured alive during the assault on the royal palace and temple in Jerusalem. The other was an infantryman whom the Jews killed immediately by cutting his throat and dragging his body through the city. The cavalryman faced the same fate as his fellow captive but claimed he had information which would help the Jews survive. Brought before the leader Simon bar Giora, it turned out he had nothing to say, so he was promptly handed over to a Jewish commander called Ardalas for punishment. Ardalas had the cavalryman bound and blindfolded and took him out where the Romans could see him, so that he could be publicly executed as an example. However, as the executioner was drawing his sword, the cavalryman broke away and dashed back to the Roman ranks. This put Titus in a difficult position. He could not execute the man himself, yet the trooper had disgraced himself by being captured alive in the first place. Titus therefore cashiered him. His arms were taken away and he was expelled from his legion, a fate generally considered worse than death. His treatment was officially known as missio ignominiosa, ‘dishonourable discharge’, a sanction that could be applied to any soldier for committing a misdemeanour of similar significance.

During the same assault the Jews decided to use fire as a weapon against the Romans, who were building ramps up to the building. They lured Roman soldiers up to the west colonnade by pretending to withdraw, but had packed it with wood and pitch. The soldiers clambered up without an order being given, only to find themselves engulfed in flames. Many were killed, or jumped and broke their limbs. A few managed to dodge the fire and held out against the Jews, who picked them off one by one. The last man standing, a soldier called Longus, did as a Roman soldier was supposed to do under the circumstances. Another soldier, Artorius, turned out to be rather less heroic:

At the last a young man among them, whose name was Longus, became a decoration to this sad affair. While every one of them that died was worthy of a memorial, this man appeared to deserve it beyond all the rest. Now the Jews admired this man for his courage but were unable to kill him. They persuaded him to come down to them, promising him his life. From the other side his brother Cornelius persuaded him not to tarnish his own glory, or that of the Roman army. Longus followed this last advice. Lifting up his sword so both armies could see he killed himself. There was one called Artorius among those surrounded with the fire, who escaped by an underhand trick. For when he had with a loud voice called to him Lucius, one of his mess-mate fellow soldiers, and said to him, ‘I will make you heir of all my possessions if you will come up and rescue me.’ Lucius came running up to receive him readily. Artorius then threw himself down on Lucius, and saved his own life but his weight crushed Lucius on the stone pavement, who died immediately. This disaster demoralized the Romans for a while.


Around 150 years later, the emperor Septimius Severus embarked on a vast campaign into Caledonia in northern Britain. The land beyond Hadrian’s Wall had proved an intractable issue ever since the earliest days of the province. Despite a short-lived attempt to build a new frontier (the Antonine Wall) beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the Romans seem to have resigned themselves to Hadrian’s frontier as marking the end of Britannia, apart from a hinterland beyond which some outpost forts were built. Severus, however, had other ideas. Severus was keen to toughen up his indolent and swaggering sons Caracalla and Geta and give them proper experience of a military campaign. He, his sons, his empress Julia Domna and a vast army, set out for Britain in 208.

Severus took care to do everything he could to ensure the campaign’s success. He ordered the construction of supply forts and preparation of logistics and communications to service the war. As the contemporary historians Cassius Dio and Herodian reported, the plans soon started to go wrong. The Severan army in Britain ‘experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling the swamps, and bridging rivers’, said Dio. Even worse, Severus could do nothing to bring the Caledonians to battle. They declined to play by the same rules, avoiding a confrontation and never organizing themselves into battle formation. Instead, the Caledonians left sheep and cattle out to attract the Romans and encourage them to advance ever further into the unknown. These were not enemy tactics the Roman army could cope with. The soldiers became trapped in the swamps, despite their efforts to use pontoons to provide a firmer footing. Rome was not the first superpower to be sucked into a war with an enemy that knew the land and was able to melt into the shadows, and nor would it be the last.

The Caledonians swam in the swamps virtually naked, carrying a small shield, a sword and a spear, and spurning the use of armour which they knew would prevent them from making headway through the marshes. ‘The enemy finds it easy to escape and hide in the woods and marshes’, said Herodian. Bogged down in every sense and disoriented by the mist which hung over the marshland, the Roman soldiers were easy meat for the Caledonians, who were of course in their element. The idea was that the Romans would end up killing their own incapacitated and injured so they could beat a hastier retreat. According to Cassius Dio, 50,000 Romans died in the guerrilla war, an implausibly high figure since it equates to ten legions, but it is clear the losses must still have been enormous. In reality, Severus’ soldiers faced an enemy that harried and persecuted the Roman columns as they marched into the highlands of what we call Scotland.

The war went from bad to worse. In 210 Severus was infuriated by yet another tribal revolt. Dio said that he not only ordered total annihilation but had the wit to do so by quoting (and adapting) Agamemnon’s words to Menelaos in Homer’s Iliad:

‘Let no one escape sheer destruction at our hands,

Not even the babe in its mother’s womb; if it be male,

Let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.’

It was an optimistic instruction. The reality for the average legionary or auxiliary was a terrifying ordeal that made the war last longer than had ever been planned. The hostilities continued inconclusively until early 211, when Severus died of illness and old age at York. One of the unlucky men who participated in the war was Gaius Cesennius Senecio, a centurion serving with Cohors II Praetoria. According to his tombstone in Rome, his body (which presumably means his cremated ashes) was brought all the way back from Britain for burial.


Some legions had very mixed stories, experiencing successes and disasters. A few disappeared completely, their fates shrouded in mystery. The strange case of Legio VIIII Hispana remains an enigma. Its history dated back at least to Augustus’ time, when it served in Spain. Next it was relocated to Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic Sea in north-eastern Italy, and then, by the time of Augustus’ death in 14, to Pannonia, where it was garrisoned in one fortress with two other legions (VIII Augusta and XV Apollinaris). All three were involved that year in a dangerous mutiny about pay and conditions. The legion remained in Pannonia for a generation, apart from being sent in 20–22 with Legio III Augusta to fight in Africa against the rebellion of Tacfarinas in Numidia. In 42 Aulus Plautius was governor of Pannonia; he seems to have brought the legion with him when he invaded Britain the next year. After its drubbing in the Boudican Revolt when it lost around 40 per cent at least of its manpower, it built two legionary fortresses, first at Lincoln and then at York. During that time, between c. 78 and 84 the legion played a major part in the governor Agricola’s invasion of northern Britain; it was nearly destroyed when the Caledonians attacked it in the middle of the night,65 until Agricola sent cavalry and infantry to save the day, which they did in the nick of time as the sun rose. Legio VIIII Hispana fought well and recovered its dignity. The legion went on to participate in the victory over the Caledonian tribes at Mons Graupius in 84 and was last attested in York on a major building inscription in around 107, during the reign of Trajan.

Crucially, however, Legio VIIII Hispana was absent from the building of Hadrian’s Wall 15 years later and seems to have been replaced by Legio VI Victrix, which Hadrian brought with him during his visit in about 119. One of the VIIII’s commanding officers around this time, Titus Aninius Sextus Florentinus, went on to govern Gallia Narbonensis and Arabia, where he is known to have been in post in 127. By 130 Florentinus was dead, buried at Petra in Arabia, where his tomb inscription records most of the major stages of his career. Working backwards, he appears to have commanded VIIII Hispana around 120–2, although unfortunately we do not know where the legion was that year.

The mystery of what happened to VIIII Hispana endures to this day. It may have been destroyed in fighting in Britain at that period, going down in a blaze of heroic glory, but Florentinus’ career suggests the legion was still in one piece around the time Hadrian arrived in Britain, and could even have lasted to take part in the Jewish revolt that broke out under Hadrian in 132–5. It may therefore have been transferred from Britain and lost somewhere else. Alternatively, given its slightly chequered career, it may have been cashiered after failing to live up to expectations. Either way, it was never heard of again.

Oddly, Legio XXII Deiotariana disappeared from the records around the same time. Last attested in 119, it is completely absent from any later papyri or documents in Egypt, where it had previously been recorded on numerous occasions. Like VIIII Hispana it may have been destroyed in Judaea, but no unequivocal evidence has yet been found for its presence there either.

The stories covered show how poor leadership, bad or inappropriate planning, reckless ambition, the selfishness of an ordinary soldier or sheer bad luck could compromise the mighty Roman army. There are many other examples of campaigns and battles that went badly for the Romans. Fortunately for the Romans, resilience and resourcefulness on the part of many soldiers, and the timely presence of some of the greatest military leaders in history, more often than not brought astonishing success – sometimes in the aftermath of occasions when it must have seemed that all was lost.