The Final Matanikau Offensive

Marines cross the Matanikau River aboard a permanent ferry, complete with landing stages at both ends. The raft was fashioned by Marine engineers from 55-gallon fuel drums. (Official USMC Photo)

Map of the U.S. Marine offensive around the Matanikau, 7–9 October 1942.

November 1942 was the month in which the tide was seen to turn on Guadalcanal. It was the month in which the beleaguered Marines in the Lunga Perimeter went on the offensive.

In late October 1942, only days after the reinforced 1st Marine Division turned back the supreme Japanese ground effort to destroy the Lunga Perimeter and retake Henderson Field, General Vandegrift authorized a major offensive of his own. The Marines’ objective was to push elements of the Japanese 17th Army far enough to the west to obviate the use of Japanese 150mm long-range artillery against the American air-base complex at the center of the three-month-old land, sea, and air campaign. In what was to be the largest and strongest coordinated American ground operation to date on Guadalcanal, Vandegrift foresaw the use of six Marine infantry battalions in the attack, a U.S. Army infantry battalion in reserve, and elements of two Marine artillery regiments in support. The immediate objective was the coastal village of Kokumbona, which had once, briefly in August, been in Marine hands and which, for some weeks, had been the headquarters of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s corps-level 17th Army. If it was possible for the Marine battalions to drive beyond Kokumbona, they were to do so.

There were mitigating factors to be reckoned with. The main power of the new offensive was to be provided by Colonel Red Mike Edson’s 5th Marines. This renowned regiment had made the initial landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on August 7, and it had since been in a number of serious battles and skirmishes. The 5th Marines was a regiment in name, and its morale remained high, but it was no longer a regiment in strength. Illness, hunger, and battle casualties had withered each of the battalions, and most of the officers and men who remained were malnourished and nearing the limits of physical and emotional endurance. Two battalions of the 2d Marines, a 2d Marine Division regiment that had been on loan to the 1st Marine Division since the start of the campaign, were in slightly better shape. These somewhat larger and stronger battalions had seen far less direct action against the Japanese, but they had been subjected to as much physical and emotional abuse as the battalions of the 5th Marines. Likewise, 3/7, which had been ashore since mid-September and had seen virtually no action, had suffered losses through illness and in the course of several major bombardments leading up to the 17th Army’s October offensive. The army battalion, 1/164, ashore on Guadalcanal for a little over two weeks, was by far the strongest of the battalions assigned to the Kokumbona offensive, and it was in by far the best shape. But it had seen no combat, and that was a factor. Of the artillery battalions, all fielded short-range 75mm pack howitzers whose shells had very limited effect in the closed terrain of rain forests and coconut groves that would be encountered during the coastal sweep.

The Japanese living in the target area were known to be veteran jungle fighters, and Marine scouts reported in advance that the Japanese had dug into several formidable defensive sectors between the Matanikau River and Kokumbona. No one knew how many Japanese soldiers the assault force might encounter, nor how many other Japanese soldiers might be called in to help parry the assault.

The Marine assault battalions moved into their jump-off positions on October 31. At 0630, November 1, a platoon of Company E, 2/5, paddled across to the west bank of the Matanikau River in rubber assault boats and, without opposition, established a shallow bridgehead. Then, in the first operation of its kind undertaken in World War II, three Marine engineer companies threw three prefabricated footbridges across the Matanikau River. The rest of 2/5 quickly crossed to the west bank and attacked straight into the rain forest. At 0700, 1/5 attacked parallel to 2/5, straight up the beach and right across the sandspit at the mouth of the river. The regimental reserve, 3/5, followed 1/5. Farther inland, 1/2 and 2/2 crossed the river and hunkered down to await further orders. The last battalion to cross was 3/7, which passed through the units of the 2d Marines and advanced on 2/5’s inland flank to screen against Japanese countermoves from that direction. The supporting artillery and 1/164 remained east of the river. Working ahead of the advancing battalions were two U.S. Navy cruisers and a destroyer, which were able to deliver pinpoint, on-call fire support as well as area gunfire. And overhead, Marine SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, Army Air Forces P-39 fighter-bombers, and even Army Air Forces B-17 heavy bombers struck Japanese supply dumps, lines of communication, and the Japanese base at Kokumbona.

2/5 met very little opposition as it advanced westward along a line of inland ridges running parallel to the beach, but 1/5 bumped into powerfully manned Japanese emplacements almost as soon as it began its advance on the regimental right, along the beach. Farther south, 3/7 couldn’t find a single Japanese.

The remnants of the 2d Infantry Division’s 4th Infantry Regiment had holed up in a complex of extremely well-camouflaged mutually supporting bunkers and pillboxes around the base of Point Cruz. 1/5 had advanced directly into outposts screening the eastern side of the complex, but 2/5 had passed around the defensive position. Movement along the coast slowed to a crawl as the two leading Marine infantry companies became entangled within the Japanese defenses.

Gains by 1/5 were eventually measured in feet until, during the afternoon, the Japanese counterattacked a platoon of Company C that had extended itself too deeply. Many Marines retreated under the intense pressure, but one who did not was a determined machine gunner, Corporal Louis Casamento. Loading and firing his .30-caliber machine gun alone, Casamento stopped the Japanese in his sector and killed many of them, even though he was soon delirious with blood loss from fourteen separate gunshot wounds. As Casamento finally passed out, Company C swept forward again and retook the lost ground. Because all of the eyewitnesses to Louis Casamento’s incredible stand were wounded and scattered to the winds, it would be nearly forty years before his heroism was officially recognized in the form of a Medal of Honor.

The fight seesawed through most of the day. The 1/5 reserve company was committed without much effect, and finally two reinforced companies of 3/5 were fed in along the beach while 1/5 shifted to the left to try to find the extremity of the Japanese position. No more forward progress was made on November 1, but 1/5 and 3/5 did seal the 4th Infantry Regiment bunker complex on the eastern and southeastern flanks.

The next morning, 2/5 advanced around to the western side of the Japanese position and stretched itself to the beach. The attachment of a company from 3/5 enabled 2/5 to link up with 1/5. The 4th Infantry Regiment was sealed in at the base of Point Cruz, but it remained to be seen if the 5th Marines had the strength to root it out and destroy it.

Heavy artillery concentrations were laid on the dug-in 4th Infantry, but the shells were for the most part unable to penetrate the thick jungle growth, much less the formidable coral-and-log pillboxes that protected the Japanese. Attack after attack was beaten back by the cornered defenders, but a number of Japanese positions were inevitably reduced, so some gains were made.

On November 4, two companies each from 2/5 and 3/5 attacked toward one another along the beach. Hand-to-hand fighting on both flanks reduced several more Japanese pillboxes, and then a 37mm antitank gun was carried by hand to the 2/5 front line. Canister tore away a good deal of the dense growth in that sector and revealed a number of pillboxes, which could then be taken more easily. And so on, until the defense simply collapsed in the middle of the afternoon. A total of 239 Japanese corpses were counted, including those of the commander of the 4th Infantry Regiment and most of his staff.

After burying the Japanese dead on the spot and carrying away tons of stores and weapons, the 5th Marines prepared to continue toward Kokumbona. Before the attack could resume, the regiment was ordered to return to the defense of the Lunga Perimeter. It appeared that a Japanese attack against the perimeter’s eastern flank was imminent. The 5th Marines did withdraw, but the Point Cruz area—which had been repeatedly attacked and even occupied several times since August—was not abandoned; 1/2 and 2/2 were left on the newly conquered ground, and 1/164 was placed in a reserve position a short distance away. The Marines had fought their way across the Matanikau River for the last time.


In 1933 Werner Heisenberg was at his peak, one of Germany’s youngest and most brilliant physicists and with aspirations to be at the helm of German science. That year, at the age of 31, he received both the Max Planck Medal from the German Physical Society and the Nobel Prize. The great days of Planck and von Laue as research scientists were well past; Heisenberg’s were still ahead, and his dilemma was all the greater because he could have easily found a position abroad.

Heisenberg was — and still is — world-famous for his formulation of the Uncertainty Principle. The culmination of a series of papers completed over two years from 1925 to 1927, it was immediately hailed as a new direction for atomic physics. Rudolf Peierls described his contribution: ‘In 1925, at the age of 23, he wrote the paper that laid the foundations of quantum mechanics on which all subsequent generations have built.’ It was not just an extension of previous work but a new direction for atomic physics. Heisenberg’s early work, before the Uncertainty Principle, was crucial to quantum theory. Nearly three centuries of Newtonian physics had been contravened first by Max Planck with the idea of the quantum of energy, and then in 1913 by Niels Bohr, who realized that the quantum theory applied to matter as well as energy. But there were gaps and contradictions in their new theory. Newton’s laws concerning the motion of the heavenly bodies and gravity were derived from precise, directly observable measurements; the atom “was thought to be similar to the solar system, a central nucleus, like the sun, with orbiting electrons, like the planets, around it. It was assumed that similar laws applied to the infinitely minute subatomic particles with which theoretical physics was concerned.

By 1925 Heisenberg was ‘convinced that one needed a theory which abandoned the classical description of the electron orbits inside the atom, and instead concerned itself with quantities that were accessible to observation …’ That summer, laid low by an attack of hay fever, he escaped for a respite to the bare coast of Heligoland, and there he made the mathematical breakthrough that filled in crucial gaps in the existing quantum theory. ‘Heisenberg discarded the concept of orbits, which could not in principle be observed — and he proposed that the physicist should deal only with observable things …’ Max Born, Heisenberg’s professor in Göttingen, was quickly won over by Heisenberg’s new formulation, and with Pascual Jordan added another paper which completed the structure of matrix mechanics, as the new system came to be called.

In 1927 Heisenberg consolidated the theoretical structure of the new physics with the Uncertainty Principle, in which he said that the method of observation itself affected the results. An electron could not be seen; its presence and its movement could be deduced only by the effect it had on particles directed at it, which were deflected by the electron. The same “was true for particles in a cloud chamber — the track of these particles when they hit something else gave information about them. Thus the act of observation altered the behaviour of the particle observed. Certain variables are related to each other — position and momentum, or energy and time — and the more precisely one such variable is measured, the less precise can be the simultaneous measurement of its related variable.

Although the term ‘Uncertainty Principle’ is universally used, Heisenberg himself in his original publication in 1927 called it the ‘Inaccuracy Principle’, which perhaps would have made the concept easier to understand. Most physicists were convinced by its revolutionary concept, although Einstein could never accept it and Schrodinger always hoped that ‘some new development might avoid the need for this limitation of our concepts’.

Heisenberg’s set of laws helped to seal the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of atomic theory, and made him second only to Einstein — deservedly so, for his work has been the basis of much of modern physical science and its practical application in the electronics industry, notably radio and laser technology.

Born in 1901, Heisenberg was still young during the chaotic aftermath of the First World War, and the Youth Movement’s patriotic ideals and aims for a better future left a lasting impression on him. He became a youth leader and even after becoming a famous scientist still went hiking with his group. He studied at Munich under Arthur Sommerfeld, then joined the famous seminar at Göttingen led by James Franck and Max Born. He studied in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, who immediately recognized his brilliance. The two worked profitably together, ‘work often taking the form of discussions on country hikes. His string of papers, each more original than the last, confirmed his reputation, which grew so quickly that in 1927, at 26, he was offered two professorships, in Leipzig and Zurich. He chose Leipzig and rapidly started building up his own seminar there.

Heisenberg was an attractive, outgoing young man; Born said he looked like a bright-eyed farm boy. He excelled not only at science but also in music, languages and mountain-climbing, and played ferociously competitive table tennis with his colleagues. As a chemistry student in Vienna, Max Perutz describes going to a lecture by Heisenberg, who had recently received his Nobel Prize. Perutz was expecting to see ‘a portly professor, in came a slim young man who looked like one of us students and was quite without pomp’.

After the dramatic exodus of his Jewish colleagues in 1933 Heisenberg did what he could to preserve the old atmosphere. But his sense of isolation was acute. ‘The immediate pre-war years, or rather what part of them I spent in Germany, struck me as a period of unspeakable loneliness, he wrote. The Third Reich’s policies alienated its scientists from the rest of the world. There could be no hope of change from within, and as Germany became increasingly cut off from international dialogue by growing distrust, Heisenberg missed his contacts with the scientific fraternity abroad.

He had visited Britain, the United States and Denmark, in each of which countries the atmosphere of personal and political freedom beckoned; emigration to the New World was, he wrote decades later, ‘a constant temptation. But he decided to remain, and build up his own group of young scientists in order to ensure German participation in scientific advances and to make sure that ‘uncontaminated science can make a comeback in Germany after the war’.

In 1935 Heisenberg was nominated as successor to his old teacher Sommerfeld in Munich, a tempting post in his early home town, to which he was very attached. But after virulent attacks by Stark, Lenard and the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps denouncing him and the theoretical physicists as ‘white Jews’, the authorities decided otherwise. The attacks grew so vicious that Heisenberg’s mother, who knew Himmler’s mother slightly, contacted her to ask for advice; on her recommendation Heisenberg wrote directly to Himmler to ask if Stark’s actions had the support of the SS, in which case he would resign. After a long interval he heard in 1938 that Stark’s attacks would stop, and he could stay. Even so, he did not move to Munich and he had to promise not to mention Einstein when teaching about relativity.

In 1939 he visited the United States because, as he later wrote, he wanted to see his friends there ‘before the war started’ and they might never meet again. He added another reason: If I was to help in Germany’s reconstruction after the collapse, I would badly need their help.’ This remark, made 25 years after the war, smacks of hindsight. According to Heisenberg, he was already sure that Germany would lose since the territory and resources controlled by Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were overwhelming compared with Germany’s capabilities. But in 1939 the United States was determinedly neutral, and that August the Soviet Union signed a pact with Hitler; so his comments about the inevitable defeat of Germany lack conviction.

While lecturing that summer in Ann Arbor and Chicago, Heisenberg met Enrico Fermi, who had only recently left Fascist Italy. Fermi tried hard to persuade him to stay in the United States, arguing that new immigrants like himself were in ‘a larger, freer country where they could live without being ‘weighed down by the heavy ballast of their historical past. In Italy I was a great man; here I am again a young physicist and that is incomparably more exciting.’ Heisenberg understood his arguments and already knew that life under Hitler was hard; that the compromises he was forced to make with the regime would look bad to his scientific friends in the West; that if Germany lost he would have to take the consequences. The dilemma facing him was perhaps greater than for any other German scientist, since he was genuinely sought after in the West. Whatever one may think of his decision, his constancy was impressive.

On his return to Germany, Heisenberg was called up in September 1939, not to the Mountain Rifles, the regiment in which he had done his conscript service, but to the Army Ordnance department in Berlin. There the possible use of atomic energy was discussed and Hahn, the co-discoverer of atomic fission, declared, If my work should lead to a nuclear weapon, I shall kill myself It did, but he did not. At this time the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics became the centre for nuclear research — the ‘Uranium Club, as it became known — and Heisenberg was a regular visitor. Peter Debye, its head, went on a lecture tour to Switzerland and the United States and never came back, and eventually (in April 1942) Heisenberg took over as director. His colleagues abroad concluded he had sold out to the Nazis, and the fact that he was the head of an established group of German atomic physicists in Berlin became a major spur to the efforts of his former colleagues to develop a bomb for the Allies, in the belief that his team might be doing the same for Hitler.

Since then there has been endless conjecture about how close the Third Reich came to producing its own atomic bomb, and why it failed. The story is complex, and Heisenberg was intimately involved in it. His own account of the war years is ambiguous, and he remains a problematic figure for historians, who have continued to speculate about his war record.

In particular, Heisenberg’s visit to Copenhagen in the autumn of 1941 with his younger colleague, von Weizsäcker, ostensibly to give a lecture at the German embassy, but in fact to see his mentor and friend Niels Bohr, has aroused intense speculation ever since. In his play Copenhagen Michael Frayn makes Heisenberg say, ‘There are only two things the world remembers about me. One is the uncertainty principle, and the other is my mysterious visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. Everyone understands certainty. Or thinks he does. No one understands my trip to Copenhagen.’ The play offers several intriguing variations on what could have happened during this fateful meeting.

After the lecture Heisenberg met Bohr at his house and took a walk with him. The two men remembered the occasion quite differently. Almost immediately the meeting went disastrously wrong. Both men knew that Bohr’s house was under surveillance, and Bohr was suspicious of the German physicist’s motives in making the visit. Meanwhile Heisenberg knew that any comment he made betraying Germany’s war interests would be relayed to Berlin, where it would be regarded as treason.

While Heisenberg had to be extremely careful about what he said, Bohr was better at talking than at listening. He never wrote down an account of the occasion. According to Heisenberg’s version, he asked if Bohr believed scientists would be justified in working on uranium research in wartime. Bohr, scientifically isolated in Denmark, had believed that practical application of nuclear fission was inconceivable in the immediate future. Aghast, he asked if Heisenberg believed the process could be used to make weapons; to which Heisenberg replied that he knew it was possible.

What were his motives in raising the subject? According to Heisenberg, Bohr was by then so shaken that he missed his main point, which was that enormous cost and technical effort would be needed to develop a bomb and that the physicists would have the terrible responsibility of advising their governments whether to go ahead or not. As Bohr understood it, Heisenberg was asking how far Allied research had got, and was proposing a common policy on both sides not to proceed with it. First Hitler had expelled Germany’s Jewish physicists, and now that they were working in America on nuclear weapons research his chief atomic scientist was proposing to Bohr that they should stop!

The meeting ended abruptly, and back at his hotel Heisenberg, dismayed, told von Weizsäcker that the encounter had failed. In 1947 he visited Bohr again in Copenhagen to try to unravel the misunderstanding, but this meeting also ended in disaster. Whatever his motives had been — to seek ‘absolution’ from Bohr for going ahead with the project; to find out how far Allied scientists had got with developing a bomb; to arrange a secret bargain with them not to go any further – from then on he was regarded with suspicion by scientists abroad.

Given the situation in which the two physicists met – Heisenberg, from the invading power, visiting Bohr, the ‘uncrowned king’ of occupied Denmark — a friendly meeting was virtually inconceivable, and Heisenberg was remarkably insensitive in not anticipating this. However, Just as tactless on other occasions is when Francis Simon recalled Heisenberg remarking to him after the war: ‘The Nazis should have been left in power longer, then they would have become quite decent – this after the discovery of the death camps, to a man who had lost relatives in them.

Meanwhile British and American Intelligence were intensely interested in the German team’s progress on atomic research throughout the war. There were clues that the Germans were trying to build an atomic bomb: the use of heavy water (needed to slow down neutrons), access to radioactive uranium ore in Czechoslovakia, But there were also contradictory clues: the relevant physicists mostly stayed at their separate universities rather than clustering in a single research centre. No one could be certain; no one wanted to take any risks; and no one could have the slightest doubt that if a German atomic bomb existed Hitler would use it.

Some have argued that Heisenberg and his colleagues held back from the project. It is true that he told Albert Speer, the Armaments Minister, in 1942, that Germany had no chance of developing an atomic bomb in wartime. Instead he and von Weizsäcker asked for relatively small funds for his team to work on an experimental nuclear reactor for atomic energy, which they then worked on for the duration of the war. This was indeed the case; the question is whether Heisenberg was hiding the fact that he believed a bomb programme was feasible, whether he actually hadn’t made the fundamental calculations needed to ‘start building a bomb’, or whether — as he reported – he had concluded that the project could not be managed in time to be used during the war.

British Intelligence was fairly sure as early as January 1944 that the Germans were not carrying out any large-scale work on an atomic bomb. Nonetheless, General Leslie Groves, the American in charge of the Manhattan Project, took no chances. At his instigation the United States Air Force bombed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, where the small-scale atomic research was being carried out, and Heisenberg and Hahn were listed as personal targets. Hahn’s chemistry department was destroyed, though Hahn himself escaped injury, as did Heisenberg and his physics department.

As we now know, the German team came nowhere near to developing an atomic bomb. Its failure was partly due to the immense size and complexity of the effort required to produce it, as Heisenberg said in 1939. The United States succeeded, but its situation was very different from that of Germany in that it had huge economic resources, vast space, immunity from air attack and numerous enthusiastic and highly trained scientists (including many refugees from Europe). Germany, on the other hand, after the first two years of the war was subjected to extremely heavy air bombardment. Under these circumstances, and with the Axis armies retreating and space contracting after late 1942, it is hard to see how Germany could have mounted the massive enterprise needed. Furthermore, Hitler thought only in the short term where weapons were concerned, and ordered that no enterprise was to be started that would not deliver the product to the army in less than nine months. So a project that would take years “would never have been approved, and Heisenberg could tell Speer with a clear conscience that quicker production was impossible. Finally, the German scientists confidently believed that the Allies were nowhere near to producing nuclear weapons right up to the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima — as we know from the Farm Hall Transcripts.

When Allied troops entered Germany in early 1945, a special intelligence force, the Alsos mission, was sent to identify the places and people (Heisenberg in particular) who would be working on a bomb if there was one. Its leading operator was Samuel Goudsmit, who, after searching the office of Heisenberg, his former colleague and friend, realized that the German team had got nowhere near to producing a bomb. Even so, American and British speculation about German research was still intense and at the end of the war the atomic physicists, Including Heisenberg, von Laue, Hahn and von Weizsäcker, were captured In the French sector by the British, smuggled out to England and Interned at Farm Hall, near Cambridge, formerly used by British Intelligence.

Whether the German physicists were held to prevent their capture by the Russians, or for the secrets they might reveal or both, every room was bugged and transcripts were secretly made of the recording cylinders. Not until 1992 were the files opened to the public and the English translation of the transcripts published.3 The main revelations came when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August. The interned scientists were thunderstruck and Heisenberg at first refused to believe it was an atomic bomb. The transcripts show they had had no inkling that the Americans could have made the massive industrial and technological investment needed to produce atomic weapons so quickly. Their next reaction was to reproach themselves and one another for their own failure to make one. Von Weizsäcker alone suggested that they had held back for moral reasons but he was quickly contradicted.

Heisenberg, speaking privately with Hahn that night, confided that ‘quite honestly I have never worked it out as I never believed one could get pure [uranium] 235 …’ He now revised his estimate of the critical mass needed to create a fast chain reaction, which would dictate the size of a bomb, and a week later gave his colleagues the correct calculations in an informal seminar. Rudolf Peierls, a former student of Heisenberg’s whose answer to the same question had launched the Allied bomb project in 1940, commented drily that ‘Heisenberg, though a brilliant theoretician, was always very casual about numbers …’ The German team had made other mistakes, notably in ruling out graphite as a moderator to slow down neutrons in a nuclear pile. In fact the graphite needed further purification, as Fermi and Szilard realized.

Heisenberg lived on for 30 years after the war, respected if no longer trusted — during a trip to the United States in 1949 half the guests invited to meet him at a reception organized by his former colleague Weisskopf stayed away rather than meet the man who had headed Hitler’s atomic research team. His postwar career “was outwardly successful. In Germany he opposed the development of atomic weapons while promoting the peaceful use of nuclear power, and helped to launch CERN, the European nuclear research centre. As director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics he moved with it to Munich, his home city, in 1958 and stayed there until he retired in 1970.

When he had decided to stay in Germany in the 1930s he probably foresaw the risks – to his country from Hitler’s uncontrollable aggression and to himself from inevitable contamination by his association with the Nazi state. Heisenberg was a patriot as well as a physicist: ‘It would be [an] easy mistake to make, to think that one loved one’s country less because it happened to be in the wrong,’ as his dramatic counterpart comments in Copenhagen. He was caught by a relentless fate, and had his been a more profound or sensitive personality his predicament would have had the force of Greek tragedy.

Heisenberg’s reputation was clouded by his failure to explain his wartime record satisfactorily. But then, whatever account he and his colleagues gave of the war years (apart from von Laue and Hahn, who thanked God that they had failed to make a bomb), they were trapped in a dilemma: they did not want the Allies to think they had worked on a bomb for Hitler, but were equally reluctant to face condemnation by their countrymen, either as traitors or as incompetents, for having failed to produce one.

Sparta I

Spartan Hoplites. Illustration by Richard Hook.

There are two rather curious impediments to writing an account of early Spartan history—in addition, that is, to the paucity and unreliability of our sources for Archaic history in general. The first arises from the fact that Sparta was, by the Classical period, a somewhat xenophobic society, not an attractive place for foreigners to stay. In fact, from time to time the Spartans expelled foreigners from their territory. As usual, rumor filled the void created by lack of solid information, leaving us with as many exaggerations as hard facts, and rarely any way of telling which is exaggeration and which is fact. For instance, the Spartans were said to weed out unfit and deformed infants and put them to death.1 But we know that one of the Spartan kings, Agesilaus II, was lame from birth, and he was not put to death as an infant. So probably the Spartans did not practice infanticide—or at least no more than other Greek states—and this was just a rumor.

The second impediment is that the Spartans themselves constantly reinvented aspects of their early history. Most of the literary evidence is tainted by the ideas that, instead of the piecemeal legislation that we have found typical of early Greek states, the Spartan constitution was drafted in its entirety by a single individual, a man called Lycurgus, way back in the mists of time, and had remained in force, unchanging, ever since.

This entire picture, including the person of Lycurgus, might be an invention; at least some of it is demonstrably false. For instance, Lycurgus was said to have banned coined money, but there was no coined money anywhere in the world at the time he is supposed to have lived. Furthermore, even though the Spartans did not mint their own money until early in the third century, other forms of currency were recognized (especially weighed ingots of iron), and of course they must have made use of coined money for international trade and so on. An inscription exists, for instance, from the end of the fifth century, detailing the receipt of money from Sparta’s allies. Full Spartan citizens did not sully their hands with moneymaking activities, but that did not mean there was no money circulating in the state.

The idea that the traditional Spartan way included a ban on coined money was most likely invented early in the fourth century, when the state was having to cope for the first time with great wealth, and avarice had become a real social problem. A great debate raged about the issue, and some conservative group in Sparta must have tried to invoke Lycurgus (who was worshipped as a god) for the idea that Sparta should remain austere. It worked: the private possession of coined money (but not its public use) was officially banned for a few decades in the early 300s. But other aspects of the “Lycurgan system” were probably invented even later, during the revolutionary reigns of Agis IV and Cleomenes III in the third century; they too, as we shall see, attributed their reforms to Lycurgus as a way of validating them.

All other evidence suggests that early Sparta was, apart from its exceptional size, a normal Greek polis. It was a center for the manufacture of luxury goods for the internal elite market and for export; it was particularly famous for its ivory carving (the ivory was imported), lead figurines, fine black-figure pottery, and bronzes. More poetry was being crafted in seventh-century Sparta, by both native-born and foreign poets, than anywhere else in Greece at the time. The competitive Spartan elite were importing luxuries from the Near East, making conspicuously valuable dedications in their sanctuaries, forging links with their peers abroad, and entering all the equestrian events at Olympia. But, early in the sixth century, their priorities changed. There was a sharp decline in artistic production, and no literary production at all. The Spartans had set their collective face against such things. Even laws were rarely written up and archived; justice was administered on principle, and the chief guiding principle was the preservation of Spartan society.

The Conquest of Messenia

In the middle of the eighth century, a cluster of four villages in the Eurotas River valley of the district of Laconia annexed the territory of a fifth, a short way south. The newly formed statelet of Sparta then followed the pattern typical of prosperous early Greek states by expanding into its hinterland, Laconia, and establishing borders. But Laconia was apparently not enough for them. The First Messenian War (probably more like a series of raids) was over by about 690, though the dates are uncertain, and gained the Spartans southeastern Messenia, the exceptionally rich Pamisus River valley—and even more subjects. Next they tried to challenge Argos for Cynouria, the southeastern coastline of the Peloponnese, especially for the fertile plain at its northern end called Thyreatis. The attempt was sustained for several decades, but Sparta was finally and decisively defeated at the battle of Hysiae in 669, not far southwest of Argos, creating a permanent enmity between them and the Argives. But the Spartans had completed the annexation of Messenia by about 610, as a result of the lengthy Second Messenian War. In territorial terms, Sparta had become by far the largest state in Greece.

With the conquest of Messenia, the Spartans were hugely outnumbered by subjects who had reason to hate them. At the same time, they seemed incapable of getting the better of Argos. Their response presumably took some years to implement, but by the end they had turned themselves into a landowning elite of full-time servants of the community, who underwent a special form of training and adopted a particular lifestyle designed to make them supreme battlefield warriors, capable of keeping their subjects quiescent and enemies at bay. That is why the leisurely habits of earlier times had to be abandoned.

Perioeci and Helots

Spartan subjects fell into two categories. Closest to independence were the inhabitants of the eighty or so outlying towns and villages of Laconia and Messenia, known as the perioikoi, “those who live around us.” They retained self-government and were personally free, but had no say in policy-making, even though they were required to serve in the army. A Perioecic community was little different from any other Greek town, with the same ranges of wealth and occupations, from hoplites to slaves. Full Spartan citizens, known as Spartiates, did not engage in farming, crafts, or trade. They had serfs for agriculture, but most of the rest of Spartan economic activity was in Perioecic hands.

The rest of the population of Laconia and Messenia was reduced to serfdom. It is not clear why Perioeci remained free while others did not. Perhaps they occupied a higher social rung at the time of the Spartan conquest and were allowed to remain free while their tenants and dependents were not. These serfs were called “helots,” which means “captives” or “the conquered,” so it seems that they were reduced en masse as a result of conquest.

Gangs of helots worked the farms of their Spartiate masters and were obliged, on pain of death, to hand over 50 percent of the produce to sustain their masters and their families, who lived in Sparta itself, and to allow them to dedicate themselves full time to service to the state. Helots were publicly owned, because only the state could emancipate them, but otherwise were entirely subject to their particular masters. This was not slavery, because they were not bought and sold, and they lived apart from their masters and were allowed a family life and their own culture. There were slaves in Laconia, owned by both Spartiates and Perioeci, but otherwise the Spartans were little involved in the international slave trade, since the helot population was self-perpetuating. Sparta was always closer to self-sufficiency than other states, thanks to its huge territory.

Although Laconian helots generally lived on their masters’ estates, their counterparts in Messenia were more likely to be found in nucleated villages. In terms of security, both systems had advantages: dispersed helots would find it hard to organize; nucleated helots were easier to watch. But compliance was won chiefly because, besides having family lives, helots could even make money, since they were obliged to hand only half of their produce over to their masters. In the third century, when there were far fewer masters, and therefore far more well-off helots, Cleomenes III of Sparta raised five hundred talents by offering freedom at five minas a head—so six thousand helots, at least, had considerable wealth to spare. But the same factors that made for compliance also made for rebellion, because they meant that, over time, helots could develop a sense of identity, the prerequisite for rebellion. Nevertheless, helots were not infrequently armed and incorporated into the army, with the state providing their weaponry.

The arming of helots implies that the Spartans thought they had the situation under control, and even that they could expect loyalty. There may have been an implicit threat: their families at home could have been considered hostages for the helots’ good behavior while out on campaign. Anyway, it is remarkable that the majority of the helots, those in Messenia, lived on the other side of the Taygetus mountain range from Sparta, where all Spartiates lived; since the Taygetus is one of the more formidable barriers in Greece, the helots were unsupervised except by Perioeci or trustees from their own number. Helots fought alongside their masters because they too were defending their homes, ancestral shrines, and families.

The two major helot rebellions of which we know (one in the mid-460s and the other, the decisive one, in 369) were both prompted by extraordinary circumstances. There probably were more uprisings, but they were small enough to be successfully quelled and successfully kept from the knowledge of outsiders. But the precariousness of Spartan society was underlined by the attempted coup in 399 of a former Spartiate called Cinadon, now demoted to Inferior status, who claimed (before being flogged to death by the authorities) that all non-Spartiates would happily eat the Spartiates, even uncooked.

Helots were kept in fear of their masters. As part of their training, a few twenty-year-old Spartiates (perhaps ten or fifteen in any year), selected from their year-group, were sent out into the Messenian wilderness for a week or two. They were lightly clad and armed only with daggers. They were under orders to stay hidden in the daytime, and after dark to come down from the hills where they were hiding to hunt down helots. The selected young men had been earmarked for greater things, and were to prove their manhood and their absolute loyalty to the state by means of this challenging and brutal ritual. It was a form of initiation; the number of helots killed in this way was not enough to keep the population down—but it was enough to keep them terrified. At the start of every year, war was formally declared by the Spartiates on their helots, so that the killing of a helot would be legitimate and would not pollute the state with wrongly spilled blood.

The Agōgē

Absolutely central to Spartan society was its educational system, the agōgē or “raising.” Uniquely for the Greek world, this was compulsory education: the sons of rich and poor alike were educated—as long as they were Spartiates. The evolution of the agōgē is impossible to recover. It is never certainly mentioned in our sources until the third quarter of the fifth century, but it or some elements of it must have been in place earlier, since it fits so well with other Spartan practices.

Up until the age of seven, a Spartiate boy lived at home. Then there were two phases of school education, from seven to twelve and from thirteen to eighteen. There were similarities between the two stages—bonding activities such as dancing, singing, and sports continued throughout, and evening meals were eaten in year-groups—but the second phase was far tougher than the first. Softer aspects such as reading and writing were de-emphasized in favor of more exercise, now including weapons training, tactical exercises, drilling, hunting, and mock battles in which real violence was encouraged and failure was punished. The emphasis now was not just on lessons but on austerity: cold baths, food that was plain at best and came in small portions, reed beds, thin clothing.

The boys lived away from home. Their rations were occasionally made so short that they were encouraged to steal food (but nothing else); they were punished only if they were caught. They were being trained to act as foxes. Their success at this was constantly monitored by their elders, and talented boys, those who conformed exceptionally well to Sparta’s values, would find themselves on graduation rewarded with privileges. Rivalry was encouraged, competitiveness was the dominant dynamic, and honor the constant goal. The point of the agōgē was not just military training; it also allowed elders to judge who was likely to serve the state well in any capacity.

In order to graduate, fledgling Spartiates had to undergo, or survive, certain rites of passage, which could be extreme. The most famous was a development of the Spartan virtue of stealing: in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, the boys had to try to steal as many cheeses as possible from the altar while avoiding whip-wielding adults. Marcus Tullius Cicero, writing in the first century BCE, and Plutarch, 150 or so years later, assure us that in their day boys died during this ritual;5 but Sparta had by then become a tourist destination, a museum of customs attributed to Lycurgus, and the rite had become a spectator sport, with banked seats from which the audience could watch blood fly. Endurance of the flogging had become the perverted point, and we hear nothing about cheeses.

Another institutionalized practice was pederasty: at age thirteen, a Spartiate boy received an older man, aged twenty or so, as a lover. This man was his “inspirer” (the word also connotes “inseminator,” the idea being that the older man injected valor into his lover along with his semen), and his job was to teach the boy Spartan virtues. Socially regulated, compulsory pederasty is known from other societies, such as Crete, as an initiatory procedure: the boys are thought to be tamed by their older lover and initiated into adulthood. The boy and his inspirer remained a couple throughout the final phase of the boy’s education, and the older man retained some responsibility for his younger charge for the rest of their lives, but it is not clear whether he remained a lover past the boy’s graduation. If comparative anthropological data are anything to go by, he did not.

In short, the agōgē discouraged affection for anyone or anything except the state itself and a man’s fellow Spartiates, with whom he messed, participated in religious rituals, competed, danced, played sports, and suffered. This was where his loyalty lay. A Spartan man got married in his twenties, but did not spend time with his wife until he was discharged from sleeping over at the mess (but not from military call-up) at the age of thirty; even then, the center of his life remained the mess. In any case, being in his twenties, he was involved at the time in a homosexual relationship as an “inspirer” of a teenager. From the middle of the fifth century, faced with declining Spartiate numbers, the Spartans introduced a form of eugenics: an elderly husband could get a younger man to sleep with his wife if he felt that a good soldier would be the result, and brothers might share wives. In the developed system of Classical Sparta, loyalty might not be given in the first instance even to the family.

Having fully absorbed his social conditioning and undergone the same education as his peers, a Spartiate was now one of the homoioi, the “Similars.” This was reflected in a certain uniformity of appearance and lifestyle, which was reinforced by state-instituted restrictions on the use of wealth. In reality, things were not quite so uniform: men who were considered exceptional were rewarded with higher ranks in the army, as I have already mentioned, and with occasional posts such as ambassadorships. Some messes were more prestigious than others. Three hundred soldiers who had proved their valor formed the kings’ lifeguard on the battlefield and policed the city at home; their name, the Knights, reveals their origin as mounted warriors, but by the time we hear about them they were hoplite foot soldiers. There were plenty of inequalities among the homoioi, but everyone equally served the state to the best of his abilities.

Sparta II


From the age of twenty onward, a Spartiate took his evening meal with his messmates. Each mess consisted of only about fifteen men (symposium-size), so there were a lot of them, but the small numbers made for tight bonding, critical for Spartan military success. Graduation from the agōgē was the precondition for membership in a mess, which in turn was the criterion of citizenship. In order to retain his membership, a man had to supply his own daily rations from his farm, plus some extra (for the mess servants; for those, like the kings, who were maintained by the state; for guests), and a modest, but not negligible state tax.

At the age of thirty, he was allowed to leave the barracks and spend time at home with his wife, but until he stopped soldiering at the age of sixty he continued to take his evening meals in his mess, and to exercise and dance with his mates. A Spartiate was eligible to attend the assembly at the age of twenty; ten years later, as at Athens, he also became eligible for political office. He was expected to keep fit in case of military need and to play a part in the chastisement of the young that he came across: every senior Spartiate was a surrogate father in this way, tasked with the constant scrutiny to which juniors were subjected.

If a man failed to keep up his contribution to his mess, he was expelled from it and lost his citizenship, to his everlasting shame. He was classified as an “Inferior,” along with those who failed to graduate from the agōgē, and treated with disdain. A fundamental dynamic of Spartiate society was the struggle to avoid becoming an Inferior. Citizens would always be Similars, because anyone dissimilar was denied citizenship. But it was possible for the son of an Inferior to regain his lost status if a wealthy family agreed to sponsor him through the agōgē as their own son’s suntrophos (“brother by upbringing”).

It is curious that, without the cooperation of his helots, a man would not be able to retain membership of a mess and would be demoted. This dependency had to be denied, and Spartiate boys were taught to identify themselves as the very opposites of helots. To this end, helots were sometimes brought into the messes and ritually abused or humiliated. They might be forced to get drunk, for instance, to remind the Spartiates present of the importance of self-discipline, the fundamental Spartan virtue; or they might be made to perform degrading dances, to contrast with the sober dances of the agōgē. This too the helots tolerated—until they reached breaking point.

The Great Rhetra

Plutarch of Chaeronea was an essayist and a biographer—very good in both fields—who died around 120 CE. Despite the distance in time and the possibly dilettantish nature of both genres in which he worked, he was a good researcher and often preserves precious information. Thanks to him, we have the authentic wording of a fundamental Spartan constitutional document, which was known as the Great Rhetra (“covenant”). The Spartans themselves, of course, attributed this Rhetra to Lycurgus, and it has commonly been dated to the early seventh century in the belief that their national poet, Tyrtaeus, displayed knowledge of it. But Tyrtaeus’ words are not that precise, and the document was probably formulated a few decades later, when the state was beginning to cohere in its enduring form.

The Great Rhetra reads as follows:

Having founded a sanctuary for Zeus Syllanios and Athena Syllania, having divided the people into tribes and obes, and having established a Council of thirty Elders including the Leaders, perform Apellai season in and season out between Babyka and Knakion and in this way introduce and set aside proposals. To the people belongs the right to give decisive verdicts, but if the people make a crooked decision, the Elders and the Leaders are to be dismissers.

There is much that is obscure about this—perhaps deliberately so, to give it an aura of ancient authority, as though the divine Lycurgus were making a covenant with his people. But basically, in the manner of early legislation from other states, the Rhetra establishes procedure: assemblies are to be held at regular intervals (every Apella, the seventh day in the month, sacred to Apollo) and at a determined place. Proposals are introduced to the assembly by the Council, made up of twenty-eight Elders and the two kings (called here “Leaders”).

The assembled Spartiates had the authority to approve decisions, but the Elders could ignore or veto their preferences if they felt they were “crooked.” Clearly, the assembly’s decision-making power was more or less a formality, and this is corroborated by the fact that voting was by shouting, which is a crude and fallible method. They were more like troops being addressed by their officers than political participants. The assembly existed to confer legitimacy on decisions taken elsewhere, by the leading men, and many decisions were taken without its slightest involvement. There were no written laws; as already mentioned, the memory and judgment of the ruling class were considered sufficient.

The Officers of the State

Despite the deliberate archaizing, the Rhetra does not reflect a primitive stage of Spartan politics. Judging by their title, the kings must have wielded greater power in the past, but in the Rhetra they are simply two special members of the Council of Elders (Gerousia). The two kings were members of aristocratic families that claimed descent from Heracles via a different twin son, the Agiads from Agis and the Eurypontids from Eurypon. In theory, the latter was the junior branch, but in practice the king who had ruled longest often wielded more authority than the other, whichever house he was from.

As the titular heads of state, the kings were sacred. No one was allowed to touch their persons, and on dying they received ten days of extravagant mourning. All ancient kings based their legitimacy ultimately on their alleged relationship with the gods, and the Spartan kings constantly reinforced their aura of sacredness by their conspicuous role in public ceremonies and sacrifices. Their families were among the wealthiest in Sparta, with landholdings all over Laconia, but their mess was maintained at public expense. They were excused the agōgē: in so far as that was a way to test the fitness of a man to be a Spartiate, it was assumed that the kings already had what it took. They were a cut above all the Similars. As figureheads, they tended to become the focus of political factions in Sparta, so that, not uncommonly, the Agiad king and the Eurypontid king might have different political agendas.

By the time we first meet them, the kings were embedded within the collegiate leadership of Sparta. By the Classical period, they were further humbled by having to declare on oath, once a month, that they would obey the laws or risk impeachment and deposition, and their judicial powers had been greatly restricted: they judged only cases concerning heiresses, adoptions, and public roads. Kings came closest to being absolute monarchs at times of war, and they also had the important right to address the assembly first on any issue. With the help of these ceremonial and military powers, along with his wealth, a determined king could accumulate sufficient personal capital and followers to gain authority. Besides, kings were lifelong members of the Council of Elders, and a young king could spend years, even decades, learning how to bend it to his will, while Elders came and went. Some kings—we have already met Cleomenes I, and Agesilaus II will prove to be another—gained and retained sufficient dominance to develop long-term policies.

The Council of Elders consisted of twenty-eight senior men aged over sixty (that is, past military age) and the two kings. Members other than the kings were elected by assembly acclamation when a place fell vacant; membership was for life, and a councilor never had to submit to an audit of his time in office. Only the most powerful and rich seem to have been represented on the council, so membership might have been restricted by some criterion to a select few families. The Council of Elders was an enormously prestigious institution, with real power, based on its preparation of business for the assembly. As the Rhetra shows, it even had the right to override the assembly. It also sat as a court for all the most important cases, including political trials and homicide suits, since it was the only body that had the right to impose severe penalties, such as exile, execution, and demotion to Inferior status.

The Rhetra makes no mention of another office that came to wield great power in Sparta, that of the Ephorate. The failure of the Rhetra to mention the Ephorate was, curiously, the occasion for the original publication of the document early in the fourth century: the exiled Spartan king Pausanias included the Rhetra in a pamphlet in order to prove that the Ephorate postdated the Lycurgan reforms and was therefore un-Spartan—and that therefore he should not have been exiled by a court that included them among the judges. The Spartans responded by claiming that the office began in the eighth century, but that was a fiction. Be that as it may, by the time we first hear about them, in the sixth century, five Ephors (“overseers”) were appointed by assembly acclamation for one-year terms from the entire male citizen body. The short list of five candidates, however, was probably drawn up by the Council of Elders, so that the acclamation was a mere formality. A man could be an Ephor only once in his lifetime, so many Spartiates gained political experience in this way. When the five voted, a simple majority won.

The office was created to “oversee” the kings, and gained its powers by taking them mainly from the kings. The Ephors’ ability to check the kings was symbolized by the fact that they alone were not required to rise to their feet when a king entered the room. By the Classical period, Ephors had wide-ranging powers. Two of them accompanied a king on campaign. At home, they were responsible for internal security, for which they were awarded the power of summary arrest, and could suspend any officer, even a king—and indeed we hear of seven cases of kings being put on trial just between the 490s and 370s. Kings were tried before a jury made up of the Ephors and the Elders, including the other king, and a majority vote won.

The Ephors also had broad judicial responsibilities in civil cases. They were responsible for the agōgē and for public finance. They received and negotiated with foreign embassies (and hence were fed at state expense, like the kings), and introduced business arising from these meetings to both the Council of Elders and the assembly, so that they effectively controlled much foreign policy. They convened meetings of the Elders and emergency meetings of the assembly, chaired all assemblies, and issued the orders that executed assembly decisions. In the event of war, they decided which and how many age-groups to call up. But the powers of the Ephorate were limited by the fact that every year it was made up of five different men, so that at times of uncertainty policies could rapidly change, even year by year.

Even if there was a degree of “similarity” among the Spartiates themselves, Sparta was a layered oligarchy. At the top, at least in a titular sense, were the two kings; they were supported by twenty-eight Elders and checked by five Ephors, who kept everyone on the Spartan straight and narrow path. Then there were the thousands of Spartiates who made up the assembly—eight thousand at the start of the fifth century. This was the ruling class, and their subjects were the mass of the disenfranchised or relatively disenfranchised populations of Laconia and Messenia.

The Peloponnesian League

Strengthened by the final acquisition of Messenia and by the new social system, the Spartans went on the warpath. Brimming with confidence, in about 560 they set off north to Tegea, with the intention of turning the Arcadians into helots as well and curbing Argive influence in Arcadia. They were defeated by the Tegeans, however, and this prompted a change of policy, from annexation to subordination by alliance. The change was marked by bringing the bones of Orestes, the legendary Peloponnesian hero (the son of Agamemnon and nephew of the Spartan king Menelaus), from Tegea to Sparta, and the bones of Orestes’ son Tisamenus from Achaea to Sparta. The idea was that leadership of the Peloponnese had passed from the others to the Spartans by hereditary right.

By about 550, Sparta had prevailed against the Tegeans and entered into an alliance with them. This seems to have triggered an avalanche, and before long others had agreed to treaties of alliance—above all, Corinth, Elis, Sicyon, Megara, and Epidaurus. The smaller states needed protection, the larger ones the knowledge that their oligarchies would have Spartan support. As the strongest state, Sparta would be the leader of the alliance. The deal was that, in return for Spartan backing for their regimes, they would supply troops for use against external enemies or helots. From 382, however, by which time the hiring of mercenaries was common, they were allowed to supply money in lieu of men, at a rate of three obols for one hoplite or two light-armed soldiers.

The Peloponnesian League, as we call it today, started as a fairly loose arrangement, but this became unsatisfactory from the Spartan point of view, since their so-called friends were not above disobeying Spartan orders or fighting one another. So, seizing opportunities as they arose, they gradually tightened things up until the oath sworn by members of the league obliged them to follow the lead of the Spartans, but the Spartans did not have the same obligation. Each of the member states had an alliance with Sparta, but not with other member states. This left all the league’s foreign policy in Spartan hands, although the allies were otherwise self-governing. Only the Spartans could call meetings of the League Congress, but the fact that each member state had a single vote in Congress meant that the vote could go against them.

The league came close enough to uniting the Peloponnese that members felt themselves to be part not just of a distinct geographical entity, but also of a distinct political entity, with its own interests and identity. The chief holdouts from the league, preventing the Spartans from turning the Peloponnese into a federal state, were Argos, the old enemy, and the Achaeans. In 546, the Spartans had another go at taking Cynouria from the Argives; this time they won, and gained much of the southeast coast of the Peloponnese and the island of Cythera. This was a severe defeat for Argos, which had long been an aggressive and expansive state, and the once-great city took a back seat in Peloponnesian affairs for quite a while afterwards. Its decline was hastened by a further defeat at Spartan hands in 494, in the battle of Sepeia, near Tiryns. Argive losses this time were so devastating that afterwards they had to enfranchise members of their subject populations, just to remain viable as a state.

Cleomenes I, ascending to the Agiad throne of Sparta in 520 or thereabouts, was committed to this policy of Spartan expansion. From early in his reign, he began to target Athens. In 519 the Boeotian town of Plataea approached Sparta for an alliance, since they did not want to get sucked into the orbit of Thebes, which was forming its Boeotian neighbors into a confederacy under its leadership. Cleomenes cunningly refused the alliance and told the Plataeans to ally themselves with Athens instead—which was, of course, far closer. An alliance was duly concluded between the Plataeans and the Athenians—and forever afterwards, unless really drastic circumstances overrode it, the fundamental attitude of the Thebans toward Athens (and vice versa) was one of hostility. Cleomenes had cleverly set two of the most powerful Greek states against each other.

By the time of the Persian invasion in 480, then, the Spartans, with their Peloponnesian allies, were by far the most powerful state in Greece; they had a good battlefield record and were known as professional and disciplined soldiers. They were the natural choice to lead the resistance against the invader.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 with Army Group Don in Southern Russia


Panzer VI Tiger of the Schwere Panzer Abteilung 503, tank number 123, winter camouflage. Near Rostov-on-Don January 1943



On 27 December 1942, OKH sent Heavy Tank Battalion 503 to Army Group Don to assist in stabilizing the front. This unit was needed to help protect Rostov so that the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies and other German units in the Caucasus could withdraw across the Don River to the Donets River, where the high command planned a new defensive line.

This battalion arrived at the beginning of 1943 and Army Group Don immediately assigned it the mission of securing bridges across the Manytch River for use by withdrawing forces. By this time there was not a continuous front in the area. German forces defended a series of blocking positions and strongpoints in an attempt to stop the Soviet advance. These were located at key points at road or railroad junctions and major river crossings. The fighting was characterized by rearguard actions, while the main body of troops took up new positions farther back.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 participated in this fighting from 1 to 17 January 1943, primarily securing important river crossing sites. Due to the fluid nature of the battlefield, however, they were sent from one important area to another, and in one instance covered 65 kilometers in one day.

Probably the battalion’s largest single employment occurred on 6 January 1943 when the battalion, supported by 2d Battalion, Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 128, attacked towards Stavropol. The 1st Company attacked frontal – ly with the battalion of panzergrenadiers, while the 2d Company attacked from the left flank. Altogether, the battalion fielded 17 operational Tigers out of 20 assigned and 20 Panzer IIIs out of 31. During the engagement, the Tigers knocked out 18 Soviet tanks and destroyed an armored car and five antitank guns. The enemy retreated, and during the pursuit the battalion lost its first vehicle during the entire engagement, a Panzer III, to artillery fire.

Possibly the most important mission given this battalion was its attack to reduce a Soviet penetration at Vessely. The battalion fielded 11 Tigers and 12 Panzer IIIs and was again supported by the 2d Battalion of Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 128, as well as by a battery of light howitzers. The attack began in the early morning of 9 January 1943. German forces made three attempts to achieve their objective during the day, but the Soviets repulsed all attacks.

The battalion managed to destroy eight T-34s during the attack, but also lost two Tigers and one Panzer III to enemy fire. In addition, the nine other Tigers were so badly damaged that the battalion had only one operational Tiger at the end of the day. Two of these Tigers were sent back to Germany for general repairs. In the space of six hours, one of these received 227 hits from antitank rifles and was struck 14 times by 57mm and 11 times by 76mm antitank rounds. It is a testament to the vehicle’s durability that despite this damage, the Tiger still traveled back 60 kilometers under its own power.

On 14 January 1943, the 2d Company, Heavy Tank Battalion 502 was attached to Heavy Tank Battalion 503. This became the only instance where three Organization D companies were combined under the control of a single battalion. This arrangement lasted only eight days because of losses to the battalion, however; on 22 January 1943, the battalion disbanded the 2d Company. The battalion integrated the remnants of this company into the 3d Company, and continued to operate with only two Organization D companies.

After partially rebuilding its strength, Army Group Don assigned the battalion missions that involved securing the important railroad centers around Rostov. The battalion participated in many minor local counterattacks that forced it to operate in company- and platoon-sized units. These elements operated with a wide variety of other units, usually in a subordinate role. In accomplishing these missions, the battalion demonstrated excellent flexibility in command and control and in company and platoon organizations, repeatedly changing command relationships and composition to accomplish the mission.

During this fighting, the battalion integrated Tigers and Panzer IIIs in many different ways. On two occasions the battalion formed a light company consisting of a company’s worth of Panzer IIIs and a heavy company equipped with Tigers and the remainder of the Panzer IIIs. This light company primarily covered other units’ withdrawals, but did participate in an attack of 8 February 1943 in the northwestern sector of Rostov, where it destroyed 12 enemy tanks and three antitank guns. The battalion commander employed this light company because of the difficult terrain, consisting of many ditches, across which the attacks were carried out.

From 19 February to 22 February 1943, the light company, starting with eight Panzer IIIs and two Tigers, conducted local counterattacks and occupied covering positions in the vicinity of Rostov. During this four-day period, the company destroyed 23 T-34s and 11 antitank guns while losing one Tiger and one Panzer III. After an engagement on 22 February 1943, the battalion had only two Tigers and five Panzer IIIs operational and withdrew to an area near Taganrog to refit. This battalion was not employed again until Operation Zitadelle in July 1943.

During the almost two months of combat with Army Group Don, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 destroyed more than 71 enemy tanks and 55 antitank guns. In so doing, they lost around 13 Panzer IIIs and had three Tigers knocked out due to enemy actions. Another Tiger was destroyed while waiting at the Budenny rail station for transport back to Germany for factory repair when the battalion was forced to retreat to Rostov. A total of four Tigers were so badly damaged in combat that they were transported back to Germany. This means that this battalion destroyed 23.6 enemy tanks for the loss of each Tiger, or 4.4 enemy tanks for the loss of any type tank, Panzer III and Tiger.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was much more effective than the units around Leningrad and in North Africa in recovering disabled Tigers. During combat that always involved retrograde movements, its soldiers destroyed only one Tiger to avoid capture. Additionally, this Tiger had already been recovered and loaded on a rail car for transport back to Germany. This battalion’s leadership was very reluctant to destroy its own vehicles and did everything possible to recover Tigers. In one instance, three Tigers broke down in a withdrawal; instead of destroying them, the crews stayed with the vehicles until they could be recovered, which was over 30 hours later. Diary entries are filled with examples of operational vehicles towing damaged vehicles back to the maintenance platoon to be repaired. In another instance, while the rest of the unit withdrew, six 18-ton recovery vehicles and two other Tigers recovered a Tiger that broke through the ice of a stream.

Despite the great efforts of the recovery elements, this battalion still suffered from a low operational readiness rate of its Tigers. On average, the battalion only maintained around 35 percent of its Tigers in operational condition. Probably one of the main reasons for Tigers being in need of repair was from damage due to enemy fire. Another reason may have been the great distances that the unit had to traverse. In one instance, the 2d Company conducted a 107-kilometer roadmarch in ten and a half hours. This unit did not lose any vehicles to maintenance breakdowns during the roadmarch, however, probably because the company commander ordered a maintenance halt every 20 kilometers.

Overall, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was very successful in its operations around Rostov. This unit played a large part in protecting the key road and rail networks that allowed the 1st Panzer Army to retreat. Some historians attribute the actions of this battalion to preventing the Soviets in breaking through to Rostov and cutting the road and rail lines.




Aztec warriors wielding macanas (macahuitl), which are oak swords or clubs fitted with rows of obsidian blades. Aztec warriors used these weapons to slash, inflicting long bleeding wounds, or sever, as when they decapitated a mare Cortés’s party brought.

Cortés did battle with thousands of Aztec warriors during his campaign of exploration in Central America. They were a fearsome people from warrior societies based around two predators – the eagle and the jaguar. Many dressed in the image of these animals to terrify enemies. Warriors could only join these societies if they had captured enemy soldiers or become renowned as great warriors through the rank and file of the Aztec military. Their weapon of choice was the macuahuitl sword, a club-like weapon with obsidian blades sticking out of the ends, which the warriors would use to beat their victims to death.

By far the single most important weapon used by Aztec soldiers was the macuahuitl, a kind of saw-sword carved of wood and affixed with an edge of obsidian razor blades and bitumen adhesive. Most examples were about three and a half feet (1.06m) long but others were of such size that they had to be wielded with both hands. It appears infrequently if at all in Mesoamerica during earlier times when war was more of an elite activity, so we presume that its widespread use among the Aztecs emerged in response to the need to arm and train large armies of commoners as quickly and efficiently as possible. During the Conquest, one Spaniard described seeing “an Indian fighting against a mounted man, and the Indian gave the horse of his antagonist, such a blow in the breast that he opened it to the entrails, and it fell dead on the spot. And the same day I saw another Indian give another horse a blow to the neck that stretched it out dead at his feet.” From such accounts we learn that the macuahuitl had little other purpose than to severely maim if not actually dismember the enemy. The Aztecs also employed a closely related weapon called a tepoztopilli as a halberd. These were carved from wood and featured a long, wide, wedge-shaped head fitted with a row of obsidian blades much like the macuahuitl. They varied in length from three to seven feet (1.06-2.13m) in length. Cuauhtli would have been assigned to wield such a weapon during his first battlefield experiences. It allowed him to stand at the rear of the line and shove or jab the weapon, harassing the enemy from a safe distance while the more experienced warriors fought in hand-to-hand combat at the front of the line.





Steel construction resulted in a hull lighter by some 35 percent. (The all-iron hull of Warrior absorbed some 52 percent of its entire weight.) Steel was considerably more expensive than iron, but improved production methods made steel cost-competitive by the 1870s. Here again, the French took the technological lead, laying down the first capital ship constructed completely of steel, Rédoubtable. (By contrast, wrought iron was far more long-lasting than steel, which undoubtedly accounts for the remarkable preservation of the surviving nineteenth-century ironclads more than 100 years after their completion.)

Redoutable was a central battery and barbette ship of the French Navy. She was the first warship in the world to use steel as the principal building material.

Compared to iron, steel allowed for greater structural strength for a lower weight. France was the first country to manufacture steel in large quantities, using the Siemens process. At that time, steel plates still had some defects, and the outer bottom plating of the ship was made of wrought iron.

All-steel warships were later built by the Royal Navy, with the dispatch vessels Iris and Mercury, laid down in 1875-1876.

When the Rédoutable was launched from the Lorient Dockyard in 1876, she was one of the most advanced composite-hulled (iron and steel) battleships in the world; her launch provoked more powerful copies in England and Italy. While the full square rig gives her an archaic look to our eyes, the radical hull shape and advanced Creusot process compound armor placed her on the cutting edge of technology in her day.

Brought into existence as an improvement of the 1870 Colbert, France’s last wooden-hulled ironclad, and modeled on her predecessor’s design, Rédoutable combined central battery mounting with some barbette-mounted guns. The central battery comprised a huge ironclad box (redoubt) protruding from both beams; exaggerated tumble-home created a “tunnel” form (right) allowing the central battery guns to fire either dead-ahead or -astern; or, theoretically, both at once.

The three barbette mountings were on either upper-deck corner of the central battery boxes (concealed by light-colored hangings in our top photo), and on the centerline aft, clearly visible in the photo below. French naval design was already becoming fixed as high-sided ships with a hull shape featuring extreme tumble-home. Generations of seasick French sailors could testify to the poor seakeeping characteristics of ships so shaped. But the tumble-home convention would continue long after the central battery disappeared. So would siting elements of the main armament in beam positions, either in wing turrets or in barbettes sponsoned over the sides. A gigantic plow ram disfigured Rédoutable’s bow; a single enormous flat funnel dominated her superstructure. Huge anchors with wooden stocks swung from her bows, and the ship featured a haughty raised forecastle. The overall effect was grotesque and homely, with many outsize features juxtaposed.

Her design was copied and enlarged in the sister-ships Courbet and Dévastation of 1878-79 and other combination central battery/barbette ships in the French Navy through the early 1880s, but preference shifted to all-barbette ships with their lighter-weight mountings. The Rédoutable had her sail rig removed in the early 1890s and replaced with armored military masts of the Neptune type. The ship was present during the negotiation of the 1901 treaty penalizing China for damages suffered in the Boxer Rebellion. Following the great extortion of the Celestial Realm, the venerable ship spent the rest of her days stationed at Saigon in the French colony of Indochina. Jane’s Fighting Ships of 1906-07 sourly noted Rédoutable was “of no fighting value” and assessed: “Rédoutable is worn out, also unseaworthy, and is to be dismantled …” (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1906, 152). After a very long career, the old ironclad was decommissioned and broken up in 1910.

Specifications for the Rédoutable:

Dimensions: 330’5″ x 64’8″ x 25’8″ Displacement: 9,200 tons. Armament: (7) 10.6″ BLR, (6) 5.5″ BLR, (12) Hotchkiss machine-guns on bridge and in fighting tops; (4) 14″ torpedo tubes. Compound armor: 13.75″ belt, 9.5″ battery, 2″ deck. Fuel capacity: 510 tons of coal. Propulsion: 12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; two 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 6,071 HP, shafted to twin screw. Sail plan: 3-mast barque rig as built, modified to 2-mast military rig, c. 1890. Maximum speed: 14.66 kts. Endurance: 2,800 nm at 10 kts. Crew: 706.

Metric Specs:

Dimensions: 100.7m x 19.7m x 7.8m Displacement: 9,200 tons. Armament: (7) 27 cm BLR, (6) 14 cm BLR, (12) Hotchkiss machine-guns on bridge and in fighting tops; (4) 356 mm torpedo tubes. Compound armor: 35 cm belt, 25 cm battery, 50 mm deck. Fuel capacity: 510 tons of coal. Propulsion: 12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; two 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 4,527 kW, shafted to twin screw. Sail plan: 3-mast barque rig as built, modified to 2-mast military rig, c. 1890. Maximum speed: 27.1 km/hr. Endurance: 5,186 km at 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 706.


The Hell-Burners of Calais


Under cover of darkness, and hidden in the midst of the English fleet, the fireships were prepared. Stripped of most of their equipment, they were then filled with combustible material of all kinds, including sails, spars, timber, and sacking, all smothered in pitch, tar and oil. More pitch and oil were applied to their masts and rigging. The guns were in many cases double-shotted, so that their explosions would add to enemy alarm. Manned by skeleton crews, equipped to light the network of slow match that covered each craft, every vessel towing a boat on which the men would escape, the fireships began to slip quietly towards the Armada.

The attackers were assisted by the freshening wind and a high spring tide, but the alarm was raised at about midnight, when two of the ships were apparently fired prematurely. ‘Two fires were seen kindled in the English fleet, which increased to eight; and suddenly eight ships with all sail set and fair wind and tide, came straight toward our capitana and the rest of the fleet, all burning fiercely.’ They would reach the Spaniards in about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Medina Sidonia’s pinnaces and other small craft went into action, and managed to grapple and pull ashore two of the attackers. But, aided by the wind and tide, the remainder continued to bear down on the Armada, their doubleshotted guns exploding as they did so. Logically, they might have been expected to fail. Calais Roads were wide, giving plenty of space for manoeuvre and evasion, and it would soon have become apparent that the fireships were not in fact the dreaded ‘hell-burners’, were too few in number, and contained no explosives. However, against the odds, they succeeded.

According to one angry Spaniard:

Fortune so favoured the English, that there grew from this piece of industry just what they counted on, for they dislodged us with eight vessels, an exploit which with 130 they had not been able nor dared to attempt. When the morning came they had gained the weather-gauge of us, for we found ourselves scattered in every direction.’

It is usually claimed the spectacle of the approaching flames caused panic among the ships of the Armada, but the English seem to have exaggerated their effects. Though one Spanish eyewitness hints at the alarm that had seized some of the crews of the Armada:

The eight ships, filled with artificial fire and ordnance, advanced in line at a distance of a couple of pike’s lengths between them. But by God’s grace, before they arrived, while they were yet between the two fleets, one of them flared up with such fierceness and great noise as were frightful, and at this the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea; and the whole eight fireships went drifting between the fleet and the shore with the most terrible flames that may be imagined.’

Most of the Spanish crews seem to have managed, despite the darkness and confusion, the difficult feat of setting sail and cutting their cables, the only apparent casualty being the San Lorenzo, flagship of the galleasses, which in the confusion collided with another galleass, the Girona, then with de Leiva’s Rata Encoronada, damaging her rudder.

With the fireships now burning themselves out harmlessly on the shore, Medina Sidonia’s plan had been for the Armada to re-form, recover its anchors and resume its previous moorings. That this did not happen was the result of several factors. The darkness, the wind, the strong currents, and the spring tide carrying them towards the North Sea made it virtually impossible for the Armada to return as planned. It also seems highly likely that some of those commanders who had all along been opposed to the halt at Calais made little effort to obey the duke’s orders.

The outcome was a major – and perhaps unexpected – English success. Unable, owing to the strong spring tide, to return to their original anchorage and pick up what were in most cases their best anchors, the Spanish ships found that their remaining ones were unable to grip in a seabed that provided poor holding, and they drifted north-east, in the direction of Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders. The Armada had not only lost the tight formation it had maintained for most of the past week, but it had now irretrievably lost any chance of linking up with Parma and the Army of Flanders. As dawn would reveal, Medina Sidonia’s situation was increasingly desperate.

And yet Medina Sidonia was still recovering from the panic caused by the appearance of fireships. His subsequent report reveals a fear of ‘fire machines’ and exploding mines:

At midnight two fires were perceived on the English fleet, and these two gradually increased to eight. They were eight vessels with sails set, which were drifting with the current directly towards our flagship and the rest of the Armada, all of them burning with great fury. When the duke saw them approaching, and that our men had not diverted them, he, fearing that they might contain fire machines or mines, ordered the flagship to let go the cables, the rest of the Armada receiving similar orders, with an intimation that when the fires had passed they were to return to the same positions again. The leading galleass, in trying to avoid a ship, ran foul of the San Juan de Sicilia, and became so crippled that she was obliged to drift ashore. The current was so strong that although the flagship, and some of the vessels near her, came to anchor and fired off a signal gun, the other ships of the Armada did not perceive it, and were carried by the current towards Dunkirk.’

Meanwhile, from the deck of his ship, Vanguard, Vice Admiral Sir William Wynter, their original proposer, keenly watched the effects of the fireships:

about twelve of the clock that night six ships were brought and prepared with a saker shot, and going in a front, having the wind and tide with them, and their ordnance being charged, were fired; and the men that were the executers, so soon as the fire was made, they did abandon the ships, and entered into five boats that were appointed for the saving of them. This matter did put such terror among the Spanish army that they were fain to let slip their cables and anchors; and did work, as it did appear, great mischief among them by reason of the suddenness of it. We might perceive that there were two great fires more than ours, and far greater and huger than any of our vessels that we fired could make.’

But not all of the English were unreservedly delighted at the success of the fireships. Captain Henry Whyte, whose ship the Bark Talbot, was one of those employed, was rather more concerned about compensation:

There [at Calais] it was resolved to put them from their anchor, and ships were allotted to the fire to perform the enterprise; among the rest, the ship I had in charge, the Bark Talbot, was one; so that now I rest like one that had his house burnt, and one of these days I must come to your honour for permission to go a-begging.’



This history of the fireship explains how the device became increasingly sophisticated, with purpose-built fireworks becoming their weapon of choice. From the earliest days until their decline in the early nineteenth century. Illustrated. ; 256 pages