A Humber Armoured Car Mk II, one of the few armoured vehicles to use the 15-mm (0.59-in) Besa heavy machine-gun as its main armament. Originally known as a wheeled tank, these vehicles gave sterling service in many theatres through the war.
The Humber armoured cars were numerically the most important types produced in the United Kingdom, for production eventually reached a total of 5,400, The type had its origins in a pre-war Guy armoured car known as the Tank, Light, Wheeled Mk I, of which Guy produced 101 examples by October1940. In that month it was realized that Guy’s production facilities would be fully occupied producing light tanks, so production was switched to the Rootes Group and Karner Motors Limited of Luton in particular. There the Guy design was rejigged for installation on a Karrier KT 4 artillery tractor chassis, Guy continuing to supply the armoured hulls and turrets. Although the new model was virtually identical to the original Guy design it was subsequently re-named the Armoured Car, Humber Mk I.
The Humber Mk I had a relatively short wheelbase, but it was never manoeuvrable and used a welded hull. The turret mounted two Besa machineguns, a heavy 15-mm (0.59-in) and a lighter 7.92-mm (0.31-in) weapon, The type had a crew of three: a commander who acted as his own wireless operator, a gunner and the driver in the front hull. The first production batch ran to 500 vehicles before the Armoured Car, Humber Mk II introduced some improvements, mainly to the front hull which had a pronounced slope. The Armoured Car, Humber Mk III had a larger turret that allowed a crew of four to be carried, while the Armoured Car, Humber Mk IV reverted to a crew of three as the turret housed an American 37-mm ( 1.45-in) gun. An odd feature of this vehicle was that the driver was provided with a lever which raised a hatch covering an aperture in the rear bulkhead for use as rear vision in an emergency.
The first Humber armoured cars were used operationally in the North African desert from late 1941 onwards, while the Humber Mk IV did not see service until the early stages of the Italian campaign, but thereafter all four marks were used wherever British and Allied troops fought in Europe. A version was produced in Canada with some changes made to suit Canadian production methods. This was known as the Armoured Car, General Motors Mk I, Fox I, and the main change so far as the troops in the field were concerned was that the main armament was a 12.7mm(0.5-in) Browning heavy machine-gun plus a 7.62 mm (0,3-in) Browning medium machine-gun. There was also an extensive conversion of the Humber Mk III as a special radio carrier known as a Rear Link vehicle. This had a fixed turret with a dummy gun. Another radio-carrying version was used as a mobile artillery observation post, and numbers of Canadian Foxes were converted for this role. A later addition to many Humber armoured cars was a special antiaircraft mounting using Vickers ‘K’ machine-guns that could be fired from within the turret; this mounting could also be used with Bren Guns. Smoke dischargers were another operational addition. A more extreme conversion was made with the Armoured Car, Humber, AA, Mk I, which had four 7.92-mm (0.31-in) Besa machine-guns in a special turret. These were introduced during 1943 at the rate of one troop of four cars for every armoured car regiment, but they were withdrawn during 1944 as there was no longer any need for them.
Humber Armoured Cars, Mark III and Mark IV, U. K.
Humber Armoured Cars were numerically the most important British-built armoured cars of World War II, well over 5,000 being produced by the Rootes Group between 1940 and 1945. The earliest Humber Armoured Car, the Mark I, was almost identical externally to the Guy Mark IA Armoured Car, and its mechanical layout although based, of course, on Rootes components was on similar lines to that of the Guy. Service experience suggested improvements and a cleaned-up front end, incorporating the driver’s visor in the glacis plate, and radiator intake improvements were introduced in the Mark II. The Armoured Car, Humber Mark III, which entered production in 1942 had a roomier turret than the Marks I-II, which allowed the crew to be increased to four. The first three Marks of Humber Armoured Car all had an armament of two Besa machineguns, one of 7.92-mm. calibre and the other 15-mm. The latter was never an entirely satisfactory weapon, being prone to stoppages, and in the Humber Mark IV Armoured Car the American 37-mm. gun was introduced in its place. Because this reduced the turret space available, the crew was reduced to three men. All the Humber Armoured Cars weighed about 7 tons and their 90- b. h. p. six-cylinder engines gave them a top speed of 45 m. p. h. They were used by both armoured car regiments (where they tended to be used at regimental and squadron headquarters if Daimlers were also available) and Reconnaissance Regiments (of infantry divisions) in most theatres of war in which British and Commonwealth troops were engaged up to the end of the war. The illustrations show a Mark III as it appeared in the North African desert about 1942, and a Mark IV of 1st Reconnaissance Regiment in Italy in 1944.
After 1945 many Humber armoured cars were sold or otherwise passed to other armies. Some were still giving good service to armies in the Far East as late as the early 1960s.
From the very beginning of the war, the employment of railway batteries in the form of guns placed at the head of trains came into use at several different locations on the front line, either on the initiative of the high command or of especially inventive local commanders. For example, in May 1861, in order to protect the network of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Union General McClellan ordered the mounting of artillery at the head of troop trains. The Dictator was another example, made famous during the siege of Petersburg between June 1864 and March 1865. This 13in coast-defence mortar lacked armour protection, and fired from a simple platform wagon. However, in this chapter we will confine ourselves to an examination of those armoured artillery batteries which demonstrated the modern aspects of the American Civil War, and which provided the inspiration for similar construction in many future conflicts, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War, until surpassed in ingenuity during the Boer War.
During the very first days of the war the Federal Government ordered the construction of an armoured wagon to protect the track workers on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. It was placed under the orders of General Herman Haupt, a renowned railroad engineer, but he refused to use it, considering the wagon to be a ‘white elephant’. Nevertheless, the idea of armouring railway vehicles had taken root.
The Union Army built several armoured wagons. In the Summer of 1862, General Burnside ordered the construction of armoured wagons to counter the incursions of guerrillas and Southern raiders, but they were not meant to resist artillery. These wagons were mainly built in the workshops of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
In 1862 a captain in the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment designed an armoured artillery wagon which was built by the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad and used for patrolling the line to the west of Newberne, where the Confederates were posted in some force. Propelled ahead of an engine with an armoured cab, this wagon bore the name Monitor. The wagon front, sides and rear were all inclined vertically inwards by some 15 degrees, and were painted black, with red firing loopholes. Its front end, pierced by an embrasure for a small naval gun, was armoured with vertical rails, and the sides and rear by boiler plate. The sides were bulletproof, and the front armour resisted projectiles from field guns. The roof was left open for ventilation and light, and covered by a tarpaulin. One Confederate artillery lieutenant expressed puzzlement and alarm at the first appearance of what the Southerners called the ‘Yankee gunboat on wheels’.
Faced by the cottonclad wagon of General Finegan (see the chapter on the Confederate States of America) during the Confederate attempt to recapture Jacksonville, in Union hands ever since 10 March 1863, the Northerners built their own armoured railway battery, armed apparently with a 10pdr Parrott rifle. The fighting between the two was the first example of combat between armoured railway wagons. The siege of Jacksonville would be lifted by the Union forces on 29 March.
In the same year, the Scientific American described trials by the Northerners of an armoured engine named Talisman, on which the cab and connecting rods were protected by an iron plate four-tenths of an inch (10mm) thick, on the advice of General Haupt. However, the trials showed that only small-arms projectiles would be stopped.
A Union armoured train was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad with the aid of the 2nd Maryland Regiment, and was given the task of protecting the region around Cumberland. The train was arranged symmetrically on either side of the engine, which had an armoured cab. At front and rear there was an armoured battery protected by rails on three sides, the roof and rear of the wagon being left open, and then an armoured van with firing loopholes. In spite of its armour, a projectile in the boiler of the engine followed by a second striking an armoured wagon led to its destruction by the Confederates in July 1864.
The siege of Petersburg (June 1864–April 1865) saw the employment of railway artillery by the Union forces who wished to seize this strategic railroad centre where five major lines converged. The United States Military Railroad (USMR) which was by this time fully operational, deployed these weapons to such good effect that the Confederate Army was gradually cut off from outside aid. The town fell on 3 April 1865.
The Dry Land Merrimac
In June 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on the Confederate capital of Richmond. General Robert E Lee looked for a means of countering the enemy’s preponderance in heavy siege artillery, which they would be transporting into position by rail. On 5 June he asked Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the Chief of Ordnance, if it would be possible to mount a heavy gun on a railway car. The challenge was taken up by the Navy, who already had experience of armouring the famous Virginia (ex-Merrimac), which had taken on the Union blockaders and fought the first ironclad battle with USS Monitor.
On 26 June, Captain M Minor reported to Lee: ‘The railroad-iron plated battery designed by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32-pounder of 57 cwt, has been mounted and equipped by Lieutenant R.D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the Army.’ The railway gun was manned by Lt James Barry CSN, Sergeant Daniel Knowles and thirteen gunners of the Norfolk United Artillery Battery, many of whom had previously served on the Virginia.
The Battle of Savage’s Station, fought on 29 June 1862, was a Union defeat, watched by Confederate Major General Magruder from the rail overbridge. The railway gun was propelled towards the Union lines along the track of the Richmond & York Railroad by an unarmoured steam engine, with obstacles being removed or pushed aside by the gun itself. Firing explosive shells as it advanced, it forced the Union troops to abandon their lines across the track and take up flanking positions beside it, which the gunners could not counter as they had no means of training the gun to one side. Eventually, the gun had progressed so far in front of the Confederate lines that it risked being lost due to the Union flanking fire, and Lieutenant Barry ordered it to pull back.
Fifty-nine years after the event, the Confederate veteran Charles S. Gates described from memory the famous ‘Dry Land Merrimac’, as the railway gun was called by Richmond newspapers in 1862. Later descriptions, and reconstructions in model form, have been based on his recollections,5 including the painting above.
Fortunately we also have an eyewitness to the action, who fixed the scene in a watercolour. Private Robert Knox Sneden of the Union Army was a topographical engineer, who produced maps for the Army of the Potomac. Among his almost 1000 watercolours, sketches and maps was a painting of the Battle of Savage’s Station, with the railgun as the centrepiece. While answering many questions, his depiction poses others.
Private Sneden may have painted this scene from memory afterwards, as the Army of the Potomac was forced to withdraw from in front of Richmond in some disorder. He certainly stretches the platform wagon to a unbelievable length, which would be too weak to support the weight of the gun, never mind withstand the recoil. As he obviously observed the event from a considerable distance away, his rendering of the moving flatcar may not be all that accurate. Nevertheless, what his illustration does reveal is the ‘Virginia-like’ armoured casemate surrounding the cannon and its gunners, with armour on the sides as well as the front. He has correctly depicted the Union force being obliged to take up position flanking the railway track, which would ultimately oblige Lieutenant Minor and his men to pull back, for fear of being fired upon from the rear.
There has been some confusion in the minds of railway enthusiasts between this gun and the Union railway gun used at the siege of Petersburg, mounted on a fourteen-wheel wagon (see the United States of America chapter). The latter gun, however, is clearly protected by timber baulks alone, even if they do cover the sides as well as the front, and there is no covering of iron as mentioned in all the accounts of the Confederate piece.
Accounts differed as to its effects in action, and certainly the Union commanders did not make much of it in their reports. But then, mentioning the attack of an unstoppable railway weapon adding to the debacle of the battle would be like rubbing salt in one’s own wounds. After the battle, presumably recognising its tactical drawbacks, the Confederate Navy retrieved their valuable gun and the platform would be returned to freight work.
No naval league materialized during the pontificate of Benedict XII, but his successor, Clement VI, oversaw the formation of two naval leagues, the first in 1343, which formed the preliminary wave of the Crusade of Smyrna, and the second in 1350. The first operation was officially proclaimed as a crusade by Clement VI in the summer of 1343, although negotiations between the Hospitallers, Cypriots and Venetians had been ongoing since 1341. In total it was decided that twenty galleys were to be fitted out for this league: six from Venice, six from the Hospitallers, four from the papacy, and four from Cyprus, a number slightly lower than the league of 1333-4 and with the absence of the French. The fleet was to gather at Negroponte on the Feast of All Saints (1 November) 1343.
Once the captains of the galleys were appointed and other logistical considerations taken care of, the fleet assembled in the Aegean in the winter of 1343-4. In the following spring naval operations were undertaken against the Turks, which initially achieved a similar level of success to those in 1333-4. In one encounter in May, the crusader galleys won a notable victory against the Turks at Longos, a harbour on Pallena (the western promontory of the Chalkidike peninsula), where they ambushed and burned a fleet of some sixty vessels and captured a close relative of a Turkish emir. In October this was followed by an even more impressive feat when the crusaders launched a surprise attack on Smyrna, where they managed to capture the harbour and harbour fortress of the city from Umur Pasha, but not the acropolis overlooking the city which remained in his hands. Thereafter, it is likely that some of the combatants on the galleys remained to garrison the fortress at Smyrna, but the league, presumably now somewhat depleted in strength, still managed to repel an assault from the Turks led by a high-ranking naval officer, Mustafa, who was captured.
These initial successes, however, proved to be short-lived, as on 17 January 1345 the crusade leaders, including the papal legate Henry of Asti, and the captains of the papal and Venetian galleys, Martino Zaccaria and Petro Zeno, were killed outside the walls of the city. The Venetians and the Hospitallers diverted reinforcements to Smyrna in the spring, but soon after the Aydin-oglus began launching new raids in the Aegean from their other ports, especially Ephesos. In the wake of this setback and the ensuing stalemate, Clement VI looked to the West for a suitable commander to lead a relief army to Smyrna and revive the fortunes of the failing crusade. The most enthusiastic and possibly only response to Clement’s call came from Humbert II, the young and wealthy Dauphin of Viennois. He took the cross and was officially named as captain-general of the Christian army in May 1345. After marching through northern Italy, where chronicles report many people taking the cross, Humbert, accompanied by an army of around one hundred knights and eight hundred footsoldiers, sailed from Venice for the Aegean, reaching Negroponte in December 1345, where he joined up with six galleys from the league; the four papal galleys and one each from the Hospitaller and Venetian contingents. When in the Aegean, Humbert made several unsuccessful attempts to recruit allies to bolster his force before he was attacked by a Genoese fleet commanded by Simone Vignoso who went on to capture the island of Chios, which Humbert had been considering as a potential base for the crusaders. After this setback, the dauphin sailed to Smyrna, arriving in July 1346. Despite Humbert’s arrival, however, after this point the unity of the league began to crumble as the Venetians sought peace with the Turks and the Hospitallers sided with the Genoese, even preventing Venetian ships from entering the port at Smyrna. This infighting, plus the outbreak of disease amongst the crusader camp, forced Humbert to withdraw to Rhodes, whence he soon after departed for western Europe. Fortunately for the crusaders, by 1347 the Hospitallers and the Venetians had managed to settle their differences and in the following spring the galleys of the league, combined with Hospitaller reinforcements, won a notable victory against the Turks of Aydin and Sarukhan off the island of Imbros. In the spring of 1348 the Latins were given another boost when Umur was killed at Smyrna, apparently shot by an arrow when assaulting the walls of the harbour fortress.
However, the progress of the crusaders was quickly put on hold by the arrival of the Black Death. The great pandemic had been contracted by the Genoese during the siege of Caffa by the Mongols of the Golden Horde in 1346, after which it was carried to Constantinople the following May and then to the western coast of Asia Minor and the European side of the Straits in autumn. By 1348 it had spread to most parts of Anatolia and the Aegean, where it reportedly killed more than in any other area. The disease also reached Italy and southern France, where it is estimated that up to half the population of Avignon died during a seven-month period. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, who is one of the most reliable informants on both western European and Aegean affairs, leaves a vivid testimony of the progress of the plague from the eastern Mediterranean:
Having grown in strength and vigour in Turkey and Greece and having spread thence over the whole Levant and Mesopotamia and Syria and Chaldea and Cyprus and Rhodes and all the islands of the Greek archipelago, the said pestilence leaped to Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and Elba, and from there soon reached all the shores of the mainland [.] And many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague lasted till -.
Here Villani deliberately left a blank space after the word `till’ to be filled in once the disease had been lifted from Florence – a task that was never fulfilled: Villani too fell victim to the Black Death before completing his work. Considering the virulence of this pandemic, it comes as no surprise to learn that crusading operations were severely hampered by this outbreak. To add to this, Romania was suffering a severe shortage of grain caused by the closure of the Black Sea markets. The crusaders were thus forced to seek a truce with Aydin, the negotiations for which dragged on for some years. By the time the leaders of the league met at Avignon in 1350 to discuss its future, the Turks had begun launching new raids into the Aegean, which led to the renewal of the league and not the agreement of a truce. This new league was officially confirmed in August 1350, when it was decided that a small flotilla of eight galleys was to be assembled in the Aegean; three each provided by Venice and the Hospitallers, and two more from Cyprus. However, only a few weeks later war broke out between Venice and Genoa, thus ending any hopes of a Venetian contribution to this league. Due to the Venetian-Genoese war, the lack of funds and the ravages of the Black Death, less than a year after it was re-formed, this second naval league was officially dissolved by Clement VI in the summer of 1351. A year later the pope, who had done so much to facilitate the formation of two naval leagues, died.
Lorenzo Castro – A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs
Contrary to popular myth, the corsairs did not prey indiscriminately on all Christian shipping. The regencies frequently made treaties with individual European powers, by which their ships would be left alone in return for some form of tribute (sometimes financial, sometimes in the form of naval supplies, in which the regencies were singularly deficient). Even the more independent, and thus less easily constrained, ‘Sallee rovers’ made treaties with the Dutch during the 1650s. Inevitably, there were mistakes and misunderstandings which sometimes triggered fresh conflicts; these included disputes over the wording of passes which ‘cleared’ a ship from the corsairs’ attentions, and the presence of the goods of an ‘enemy’ country in a ‘friendly’ ship. The regencies were by no means always in the wrong when a breach occurred, for Western navies usually and indiscriminately regarded corsair ships as ‘pirates’ even during periods of peace, seizing them and enslaving their crews. The evidence is patchy, but it seems that at any one time many hundreds of North African Muslims were being held in captivity in Britain: far fewer than the many thousands of Westerners held in the regencies, but still a significant number.
Corsair booty was divided up in roughly similar ways in all the regencies, and in Salé. A proportion – about 10–12 per cent – went to the central authority, which in the case of the three North African regencies included a payment to the nominal overlord in Istanbul. Of the remainder, half went to the shipowners and half to the crew, with the captain receiving ten or twelve parts to the lowest seaman’s one or two. Even Christian slaves received two shares each on Algerine ships, the same as the gunroom crew and the best soldiers. This was all markedly more egalitarian than the distribution in Western European privateers, where the captain could expect up to forty times more than an ordinary crew member. To bring in this income, the corsairs usually opted for quite short voyages lasting for less than two months. The Algerines tended to operate in the western Mediterranean and around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, as well as heading out into the Atlantic. The corsair ships of Tunis and Tripoli usually operated in the eastern Mediterranean and around Sicily. About half of Salé’s ships usually scoured the coasts of Spain and Portugal while the remainder operated further south, off the Canaries and Azores. All corsair crews were fully conversant with the seasonal patterns and favoured routes of Western merchant shipping; after all, many corsair captains and crewmen had first-hand knowledge of those trades from their previous careers. In addition to these everyday operations, corsairs sometimes ventured much further afield, sometimes with spectacular results in unsuspecting coastal communities. In 1627 they raided Iceland; in 1631 an attack on Baltimore, County Cork, carried off virtually the entire population of the village; and in 1654 they raided St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. ‘Sallee rovers’ were found at various times off the coast of Wales and Newfoundland, and even in the Thames estuary; in 1670, even when a British fleet was operating against Algiers itself, three Algerine warships were in the mouth of the English Channel. The agreement of a definitive peace with Algiers in the 1680s brought a squadron of Algerine ships on a ‘courtesy visit’ to Harwich in 1686, a circumstance that generated much correspondence from Pepys and his clerks. Although these distant voyages never formed a major part of corsair strategy, such as it was, their spectacular raids on foreign shores, set alongside the stories of Christian slaves in need of redemption from Barbary slavery, served to create a ‘black legend’ of the corsairs and a demonisation of Islam that pervaded Western perceptions for generations.
The North African regencies operated ships that were owned by the state and others that were owned by consortia of private shareholders. Prospective captains, or rais, were interviewed before a panel of serving officers prior to appointment, a meritocratic system that contrasted markedly with the patronage-based appointments made in most Western navies, including Britain’s. About half of the captains were Christian renegades, not all of whom necessarily converted to Islam before starting to prey on their co-religionists. The most notorious was probably Murad Reis, formerly a Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who operated from Algiers and Salé at different times and commanded several of the most daring corsair raids, including those on Iceland and Baltimore. There were probably around 15,000 renegades in Barbary at any one time. They included the English renegade Jonas, known to the Moors as ‘Alcayd Abdalla’, who acted as an interpreter to the Moroccan ambassador Mohammad bin Haddu during his visit to England in 1681–2. A renegade Dover man named Wood was reportedly the lieutenant of a corsair ship in 1659, and a Welshman was found aboard an Algerine corsair in the Channel in 1671. Teonge encountered an English lieutenant on an Algerine ship in 1676. Five years later, Admiral Arthur Herbert took an Algerine prize in which he found an English renegade who had served under him in the Dragon ten years earlier; Herbert reported that ‘I caused him, after half an hour’s time to pray, to be hanged at the main yard arm, as I intend to serve all that I can take, that so infamously renounce their religion and serve against their country’.
The regencies relied exclusively on galleys until the early years of the seventeenth century, when renegade influence led to the adoption of sailing men-of-war. The corsairs operated a wide variety of ships: the largest were of about sixty guns, the equal of Third or Fourth rates, but the smallest were feluccas mounting three or four guns and carrying twenty to thirty men. Algiers had by far the largest fleet, comprising between twenty and forty vessels during the second half of the seventeenth century; in 1659 it had twenty-three large galleys, each with fifty guns and manned by 400 men. Its fleet suffered devastating losses at the hands of the British at Cape Spartel and Bugia Bay in 1670–1, but replaced them with twenty-five new ships of twenty to forty guns each built during the following four years. The fleets of Tunis and Tripoli were much smaller and consisted only of about ten to fifteen ships each. The sailing ships of all the corsair states were lighter, faster and lower in the water than their Christian counterparts. Salé ships were the smallest of all: the mouth of the Bou Regreg river was shielded by a treacherous sandbank which made it difficult for European ships to come in close enough to bombard the city of Salé, which was thus spared the fate that befell other corsair strongholds (at any rate until 1829, when longer-range naval ordnance finally ended the rovers’ activities), but it also forced the rovers to eschew the larger ships favoured by the North African regencies. Corsair tactics depended on boarding, a process accompanied by the ‘psychological warfare’ of making as much noise as possible during the approach to the potential prize. Consequently, corsair ships carried a large number of soldiers: about 140 on a galley, and between one and two hundred on the larger sailing ships.
Several captured corsair ships were incorporated into the British navy, albeit only briefly. The Tiger Prize, captured in 1678, saw much service in the early years of the French war before being expended in 1696 as part of a breakwater at Sheerness. The 46-gun Golden Horse of Algiers, taken in March 1681 after a fierce fight with the Adventure, became one of the guardships at Chatham before also ending up as a breakwater. Seven other Algerine prizes, taken between 1677 and 1683, were taken into Charles II’s navy, but all but one was sold off or lost before the ‘Glorious Revolution’. The same was true of three out of four Sallee rovers taken in 1683–4; the fourth, commonly and delightfully called the Sally Rose, was employed as a Sixth Rate until 1696.
Arbogastes’ continual high-handed treatment of the emperor Valentinian II caused the latter to give him publicly a letter that terminated his command. Arbogastes, however, after having read the letter simply tore up it and stated that Valentinian had not given him his command and therefore could not sack him. Now the rift had become public and could no longer be kept under wraps. Valentinian sent numerous letters to Theodosius in which he complained about Arbogastes’ behaviour and asked Theodosius to help him. Valentinian stated that he would flee to him immediately if the latter would just promise to help him. Theodosius turned a deaf ear to these, but then on 15 May 392 the unthinkable happened. Valentinian was found hanged in his quarters. The desperate Valentinian appears to have committed suicide, but this still aroused suspicions that Arbogastes had had him killed. Arbogastes attempted to prove himself innocent, but to no avail. Theodosius I immediately started to make preparations for war. He was married to Valentinian’s sister and had no other alternative in the circumstances. When it became apparent that there would be no reconciliation, Arbogastes appointed his trusted friend Eugenius as emperor at Lugdunum on 22 August 392. Eugenius was harmless enough to stand as Arbogastes’ figurehead. He was Arbogastes’ client (introduced to him by his uncle Richomeres) who was by profession a teacher of rhetoric who had become a civil servant. Most importantly Eugenius was native Roman and Christian while Arbogastes was a pagan Frank. The new rulers still attempted to court Theodosius and sent two embassies to him, but to no avail. Theodosius temporised because there was still the problem of the ongoing war in Macedonia and Thessaly, but the raising of Honorius to the position of Augustus in January 393 at the latest showed what was to come.
Arbogastes and Eugenius had their own problems. They also needed to secure their own backyard, the Rhine frontier, before they could move on into Italy. Consequently, Eugenius and Arbogastes led their army all the way up to the Rhine frontier in the winter of 392/3 to impress the barbarians with the huge size of their army as a result of which the Franks and Alamanni renewed their treaties.169 I would suggest that in practice this meant that the rulers raised Federate troops from among the barbarians for military service against Theodosius. In April 393 Eugenius and Arbogastes then marched to Italy where they were welcomed with open arms and recognised by the Senate. The pagan Praetorian Prefect Flavianus was particularly enthusiastic in his welcome of the new rulers. Before this the pagans of the Senate had already twice tried in vain to get the Altar of Victory restored back to the Senate because Arbogastes still attempted to reconcile himself with Theodosius, but now that it was clear there would be war, the new rulers were more cooperative. However, since Eugenius also needed to keep the Christians happy he did not officially re-establish the old religion like Julian had done, but restored the Altar out of his own pocket. The new rulers needed to play it on both sides of the fence, but Flavianus went overboard in his enthusiasm of pagan revival with the result that the Christian opponents of the regime could claim with good reason that the new rulers were working for Satan.
In the meantime, in 392 Theodosius had appointed his son-in-law Stilicho as Promotus’ successor. The appointment proved very fortuitous because Stilicho proved himself to be a competent general. The order in which he achieved his successes is not known with certainty, but we know that he managed to finish the wars that had been raging in the Balkans since 388. Stilicho’s first success was against the Bastarnae who had ‘killed’ Promotus. According to Claudian, Stilicho annihilated in a huge slaughter all the Bastarnae globi of cavalry and infantry at Promotus’ tomb. The likeliest date for this campaign is the summer of 392. This operation would have secured the Danube frontier and cut off the barbarian rebels of Thrace from any outside help. Stilicho’s campaign against the Visigoths, Alans, and Huns in Thrace to last from late 392 to the summer of 393. According to Claudian, Stilicho drove the savage Visigoths back to their wagons and then penned within the narrow confines of a single valley all of the barbarians, which consisted of the ‘charging Alans, fierce Nomadic Huns, falx-wielding Geloni (were there still falx-wielding ‘Dacians’ or Scythians from the Don, or is this an antiquarian comment?), Getae (Goths) with bows, and the Sarmatian contarii. All that was left for Stilicho to do was to kill them all, but then the ‘traitor’ Rufinus supposedly convinced Theodosius to grant them a treaty. his was actually a sound decision in the circumstances and symptomatic of Theodosius’ general policy of appeasement. It was better to harness the barbarians under the famous Alaric for useful service against the usurper Arbogastes than to waste valuable manpower in their destruction. The fact that Theodosius was willing to conclude a treaty with the rebels is highly suggestive of his urgent need to collect forces against the usurper. Now both sides could start to make their preparations for war.
According to Zosimus, Theodosius had intended to appoint the very experienced Richomeres as Magister Equitum and supreme commander of the army, but he died of disease in the spring before the campaign could start – or did the emperor poison Richomeres as a precaution because Arbogastes was his nephew? Once again Theodosius recruited large numbers of barbarians from within and without the borders, but the loyalty of the Goths was wavering. When the barbarian leaders were invited to the Emperor’s table in the spring of 393, the drunken Goths quarrelled amongst themselves and the dispute became public. When the emperor had learnt what each of the Goths thought he ended the banquet, after which Fravitta, who had stayed loyal, killed the disloyal Eriulphus (at the instigation of Theodosius?). When Eriulphus’ retinue attempted to kill Fravitta, the imperial bodyguards intervened on his behalf. After this, Theodosius did not intervene when the Goths fought against each other evidently because his side was winning. On 30 December 393 Eugenius and Arbogastes appointed Gildo as Magister Militum per Africam to secure at least his neutrality in the forthcoming conflict (CTh 9.7.9). Theodosius confirmed the decision, because it also suited his goals, but still failed to convince Gildo to support him.
Theodosius began his invasion of Italy in the spring of 394. He appointed Timasius and Stilicho as magistri, and Gainas (Gothic comes), Saul (Alan), and Comes Domesticorum Bacurius (former Prince of Iberia) as commanders of the foederati. The Federates included Goths, Alans, Huns (under their own phylarchoi), Caucasians, Armenians, Arabs, and others. As noted above, thanks to the destruction of the eastern field armies in 376–378 and thanks to the corruption, the regular eastern field army did not possess adequate numbers of high-quality soldiers. It was now absolutely necessary to obtain as many allies and mercenaries as possible to strengthen the army. Regardless, a significant portion of Theodosius’ eastern cavalry consisted of cataphracts in scale or lamellar armour (lamina) under the Dragon banners that must have belonged to the regular army (Claud. II Ruf. 353–365). After all, the cavalry had escaped the disaster at Adrianople almost unscathed. The prophetic services of the hermit John of Lycopolis were once again used to encourage the men. Just at the moment when Theodosius was about to begin his campaign horrible news arrived, his wife and child had died in childbirth. Theodosius could not mourn for more than a day, but one can imagine that he was grief-stricken.
After this, Theodosius marched his army rapidly through the provinces and crossed the Julian Alps (Emona, Nauportus, Longatium, Ad Pirum) with equal speed. This begs the question why Arbogastes had left the fortified passes undefended. The likeliest answer appears to be that Arbogastes had purposely left the route open because he wanted to lure Theodosius to the end of the pass so that he could then ambush and blockade the enemy within the pass itself. Before the arrival of Theodosius, Flavianus performed pagan rites in an effort to raise the morale of the army, but it is uncertain what the effect of this was because the bulk of the usurper’s forces probably consisted of Christians despite what the Christian propagandists claimed. In fact both forces resembled each other in outlook. Both had sizable barbarian contingents fighting alongside the Romans and both armies included men professing different kinds of beliefs and creeds.
Unfortunately, the sources for the Battle of Frigidus on 5–6 September are mutually contradictory even if most of them include the same details, and the following should be seen as just my attempt to make sense out of those. We use the accounts of Eunapius and Zosimus as the base around which other elements are added. Arbogastes’ plan appears to have been to let Theodosius come as far as the plain of Frigidus so that the ambushers that he had placed in hiding in the mountains under Comes Arbitio would take control of the heights and surround and cut off Theodosius’ route of retreat. Theodosius took the bait and advanced to the end of the pass. Arbogastes was by far the better general of the two. In addition Theodosius’ judgment may still have been clouded by his recent personal loss, as well as which he no longer had the able Promotus to advise him.
Arbogastes’ army, consisting of both infantry and cavalry, was fully deployed opposite the mouth of the pass and ready to engage anyone descending into it. Theodosius’ vanguard consisted of barbarians and he ordered Gainas to attack first the infantry phalanx blocking the way followed up by the other barbarian commanders with their cavalry, mounted archers, and infantry. Unsurprisingly the vanguard suffered heavily and was forced to give ground. According to Orosius 10,000 Goths were killed. The barbarians were on the point of breaking when Bacurius launched his attack (Federates with the Scholae and Equites Domestici?) that saved the day. He broke through the enemy ranks and enabled the rest of Theodosius’ army to deploy for combat. It is probable that Bacurius was helped by the ‘eclipse of the sun’ mentioned by Zosimus and Eunapius which we interpret to be the arrival of the storm with the famous Bora wind. The wind threw back the missiles thrown by Arbogastes’ men and dashed and threw their shields about with the result that their shield wall was broken. Contrary to what Christian apologists say this did not decide the battle. Arbogastes’ men were able to regroup and steady the situation, apparently with the help of the reserves and because their ambushers had become visible behind Theodosius’ army. Theodosius had no other alternative than to call off the attack and retreat his men back to the heights.
Arbogastes had won the first day and Eugenius rewarded his men and let them eat. The desperate Theodosius had no alternative but to pray for God. His prayers were answered. It was then that Arbitio’s envoys arrived. He and the other officers promised to betray Arbogastes in return for high positions in the army. Theodosius grasped the opportunity eagerly and gave his promises in writing, and the ambushers duly joined Theodosius’ army. Just before dawn Theodosius’ army repeated their attack and penetrated the enemy camp because the opposing army was still resting. This means that the deserters from the enemy army had also included the guards posted opposite Theodosius. Eugenius was caught and brought before Theodosius and then beheaded. Arbogastes managed to flee to the mountains where he hid for two days before committing suicide rather than be caught. Arbogastes had clearly been the better commander, but this did not help him when his probably Christian military commanders proved disloyal to the pagan Frank.
About 392–4 there happened an event on the Egyptian border which may have changed the balance of power in the area for a while. The Blemmyes were able to defeat the Nubians who had protected the Roman frontier in this area ever since their settlement as foederati by Diocletian. The Blemmyes took over at least five towns and established their capital at Kalabsha – notably the emerald mines were located right next to it. We do not know whether this resulted in hostilities between the Romans and Blemmyes, but this is probable because the Blemmyes became allies of Rome only in about 423. The Romans seem to have left the punishing of the Blemmyes to their Nubian allies. In fact, since the Romans did not conduct any major campaigns against the Blemmyes with their own forces, it is clear that the Blemmyes did not stop the trade with the Aksumites, even if it may have increased the costs of trading along the Nile.
Military technology is likely to be transferred to the enemy whenever it is used against them. Through battle the enemy at least learn of the existence and capabilities of the weapons and techniques used against them, and may attempt even on that basis to reproduce them. Thus Cato was said (by Pliny, NH pref. 30) to have been educated by Hannibal, as well as by Scipio. Or they may capture a specimen and/or people who know how to use it, and copy that with advice from the captive(s). If they do secure a specimen, they will also know more of its shortcomings (every weapon has some). The Nervii learned how to make siege-works by watching the Romans and being instructed by prisoners of war; Caesar elsewhere commented that they were very good at copying, and were inventive too, and some technologies could be transferred simply by intelligent copying. That, no doubt, was one method by which catapult technology was diffused, and would explain why some worked well and some did not.
The Romans were extremely adept at adopting technologies from peoples they conquered. In this process pragmatism was apparently unhindered by prejudice, and the best of ancient technology, wherever it originated, was absorbed into Roman traditions, where it met, modified, and was modified by other technologies, old and new. Their armor and weapons were in constant evolution because of contact and conflict with other peoples. For example, most forms of “Roman” helmet seem to have been based on Celtic designs, the pilum may have originated with the Etruscans, “Moorish” javelins came from Africa, and cataphract cavalry-archers were adopted from the Persian/Parthian tradition. The emperor Antoninos was nicknamed Caracalla after the Celtic or Germanic word for a type of cloak that he adopted and adapted—a full-length hoody. Sometimes the debt was explicit and acknowledged, for example, Polybios tells how the Romans first learned to build a fleet by copying a Karthaginian vessel that ran aground, and later copied Rhodian ships. Centuries later Vegetius added that experience in battle showed the Romans that their Liburnian allies’ warships were of a better design than anyone else’s, including their own, and as a result the Romans copied both the design and the name.
The Egyptians were reputed by Caesar so good at copying Roman tools and techniques that “no sooner had they seen what was being done by us than they would reproduce it with such cunning” that they seemed to be the originators. Away from the southern Mediterranean, in northern Europe, the Batavians, who were evidently much less skilled than the Egyptians at copying by sight, used deserters and captives to teach them how to make and use Roman siege engines and sheds. The Romans’ expertise with catapults meant that such “crude” machines were soon destroyed by Roman shot or firebrand, but the Batavians in due course became the Germans’ artillery experts, and other German tribal leaders asked them to build machines and siege works for later campaigns. It is likely that engineers, usually stationed by their machines, were captured if not killed whenever machines were captured; thus we are told that one of Pompey’s chief engineers, one L. Vibullius Rufus, twice fell into Caesar’s hands. Another method of technology transfer through battle was by accident, so to speak. Hanno moved Utica’s artillery to his camp, after (as he thought) chasing away the mercenaries who were besieging the town, but while he and most of his forces were celebrating in said town, the mercenaries came back and seized his camp, and thus obtained both his and the town’s artillery. Some Spaniards, after causing a Roman force to abandon its camp under cover of dark, entered the deserted camp and armed themselves with the equipment that had been left behind “in the confusion.” The Iapydes of the transalpine region used against Augustus Roman machines that they found lying around some years earlier, after a civil war clash in their territory between Brutus, on the one hand, and Antony and Octavian on the other. The tale of Bousas, who taught the Avars how to build helepoleis, siege towers, is another example.
Another vector is the arms dealer, moving either between allies, or between suppliers and customers whoever and wherever they may be. A negotiator gladiarius, procurer of swords, who pops up in the records of Mainz, was perhaps such an arms trader. This trade is notoriously secretive, as well as dangerous, and it would be naïve in the extreme to think that the paucity of evidence for arms traders in antiquity was an accurate reflection of the state of the business at the time. The largest businesses known from classical Athens were arms manufacturers (shield workshop and blade maker, respectively), and it is inconceivable that the arms trade was not flourishing in a world where warfare was more common and regular than tax collection. The Codex Theodosius laid down capital punishment for anyone caught teaching the barbarians how to build ships, but the Vandals (who had moved down from inland Eurasia) nevertheless had found out how to build a decent navy by A.D. 419. Cassiodoros meanwhile lamented that Italy (being governed by the Goths when he was writing) lacked a navy despite the abundance of timber.
To the victor went the spoils, and on surrender of a town, their catapults, along with their arms, ships, and money, were usually handed over. This could be a very effective method of acquisition of new technologies. Consider a comparative case from Hawaii. In 1790, the lightly armed American merchant ship Eleanor fired a broadside and killed about 100 natives. The natives responded by seizing the next American ship to reach the islands. They unloaded its weapons, and captured a white man (haole) who was able to teach them how to use the guns. Over the next few years they captured more ships and seized their weapons and gunpowder stores. By 1804, one of the chiefs could deploy 600 muskets, fourteen cannon, forty small swivel guns, and six mortars. Returning to antiquity, paperwork might be an asset to be exploited by the conquerors, or not, depending on the particular conqueror’s appreciation of the contents. Thus it appears that the Karthaginian libraries were given away by the Romans in 146 B.C., when they destroyed the city, making an exception only of Mago’s twenty-eight volumes on agriculture, of which the senate ordered a Latin translation be made. Polybios records that Philip V, not relying on another bout of such absent-mindedness by the Romans, kept his head in such an emergency and ordered the burning of his papers before the Romans could get their hands on them. Papers might include blueprints or other scientific or technological information of use to the enemy, as well as diplomatic documents. Certainly, Pompey recognized the value of Mithridates’ toxicology results, which arose from a program of research into poisons so successful that Mithridates was reputedly immune to all known venoms and toxins so that when he wanted to commit suicide he had to fall on his sword. Pompey ordered a Latin translation be made of them, apparently for his own use rather than that of the Roman reading public, since there is no hint that it was ever published either in its original Persian or in Latin.
Allies will copy good technology too, of course. Polybios’ belief in Greek superiority over the Romans leaks out through his text here and there. At one point he compares in detail the Greek and Roman methods of cutting and setting stakes around a palisade, and having concluded that the Roman way was better, said that if any military contrivance was worth copying from the Romans, then this was it. One could be forgiven for thinking (erroneously) that the phalanx had beaten the legion.
It is not just technology that is reproduced by enemies; fighting techniques are, too. Caesar observed that troops adopt the fighting techniques of the enemy if they fight them continuously over a long period. We are reminded of the Spartan Antalkidas’s criticism of his king, when he said that by persistently fighting the Thebans, Agesilaos had thereby provided them with the means necessary to defeat the Spartans. Agesilaos had apparently ignored a decree of the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lykourgos that forbade campaigning frequently against the same people, for that very reason.
Rome’s enemies did not always want captured ordnance, of course, and might destroy it instead. Thus the Parthians destroyed the siege engines apparently left behind by Antony in his haste through their country, including an eighty-foot-long battering ram and other equipment whose scale is indicated by the fact that it was being transported on three hundred wagons and protected by more than 10,000 troops. In the third to sixth centuries A.D., the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and sometimes even the Romans themselves destroyed more than they copied, and the western empire descended into the Dark Ages.
The Mark XI PR Spitfire relied on speed and agility for protection. Travelling at 400 miles per hour, the aircraft, which flashed low over the Merville Battery at 1,000 feet, had been ‘cottonized’. By stripping out their guns and radios, the weight of their airframes had been reduced to allow them to carry a configuration of photographic reconnaissance equipment. The sortie that flew over Rommel and his party were fitted with F.24 cameras with fourteen-inch focal lenses, which enabled them to take low-level oblique-angle photos. The aircraft could also carry F.52 cameras with larger lenses to take vertical pictures from altitudes of up to 30,000 feet, but the mission they flew over the Merville Battery required greater detail and that meant going in low.
Each Spitfire carried one sideways-looking F.24 mounted in a porthole behind the cockpit on the port side of the fuselage. Producing a five-by-five-inch negative, each exposure provided a coverage of 1,667 by 1,667 yards of ground. Once enlarged, the negatives produced a 1:12,000 scale image, with sufficient detail to pick out a single man, or a group of men running for cover. But it wasn’t just the scale that was important. Two additional F.24s, with smaller five-inch lenses, were fitted under the wings and angled towards each other so they could take overlapping photos of the same target. When consecutive photos were viewed with a stereoscope, they gave a three-dimensional effect, akin to looking at a still from a modern film with 3-D glasses.
Achieving the 3-D effect depended on the interval of exposures between frames being matched against the speed of the aircraft. Consequently, flying a low-level ‘dicing’ mission to get the necessary detail was a tricky and intricate business that required skill and entailed risk, as, lacking height, the pilots were more vulnerable to enemy aircraft above them and flak below them.
To capture the right image, the pilots’ navigation had to be spot-on; even a small deviation from the pre-planned flight path could lead to missing the target by several hundred yards. Flying close to the ground at high speed, the lead pilot had little time to line up his aircraft and aim the camera by aligning a tiny black cross etched on the blister of his bubble canopy with a small black strip painted on his aileron. At the same time he had to mentally calculate his speed and adjust the camera control box on his joystick to ensure it was set at the right exposure to start taking the pictures.
Trusting that his wingman was with him, the aviator glanced at his airspeed dial, checked his bearing and then focused on the crosshair and target alignment. He thumbed the camera control switch as the terrain of green fields and hedgerows flashed past beneath him; at the moment when all three points of reference lined up, he flicked the switch on his control column and the cameras started taking photographs at one-second intervals.
Surprise was also an important part of the aircraft’s protection and the pilot put more faith in it than in the single sheet of armoured plating in the back of his seat. He knew he had to get the alignment right first time. There would be no second chance. He had to bounce the target and get in and out fast, before the anti-aircraft gunners had time to react and fill the air around him with flak. If he missed the target, or his photos were not of the right quality, he would not be allowed to revisit the target for several days.
The pilot in the lead Spitfire was concentrating too hard to realize that the gunners of the single 20mm 38 Flak gun at the battery had failed to get their cannon into action against him or his wingman. He hoped he had got what he wanted as he flicked off the camera control switch and pulled back aggressively on his joystick to begin climbing hard for altitude.
The danger was far from over. The pair of reconnaissance aircraft may have been too fast for the crew of the 20mm gun mounted on the cookhouse bunker of the battery, but they still had to run the gauntlet of the nearby anti-aircraft positions stationed along the coast if they were get home safely with the information they had captured. By now the Germans were alerted to the presence of enemy fighters in the area and thick black puffs of exploding flak and tracer marked the air as the Spitfires pulled up steeply to reach a height of 5,000 feet to give them a chance of evading enemy fire as they crossed the coast. This is where the two-stage supercharged Merlin 60 engine, with its excellent climb rate, did its business.
The engines screamed for power, calling on the maximum performance of their 1,560-brake horsepower to get their aircraft out of trouble. Both pilots fought against the crushing effects of the G-force, as the horizon dropped away below them and their airframes surged upwards. They were not out of it yet. As the blood began to drain to their lower extremities, they struggled to remain focused. The need to keep scanning the skies above them and the rear-view mirror for enemy aircraft was paramount, as was checking that the aircraft’s fuel gauges, oil pressure and heading were all still good.
Within an hour of clearing the coast the two aircraft were back at their base at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As their props feathered and wound down at their stands on the apron of the airfield, the ground crews of the squadron’s photographic section were already waiting to meet them. While the crews switched off their engines, unstrapped and climbed out of their cockpits to head for debriefing by the intelligence officer in the operations room, the magazines of the cameras were being unloaded. The film was taken to a requisitioned manor house in the neighbouring village of Ewelme, where it could be developed. Within forty-eight hours the negatives had arrived at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire for detailed analysis.
Medmenham was a sister organization of Bletchley Park and specialized in photographic intelligence and interpretation. Much of the work they conducted was in 3-D using a stereoscope. The stereoscope was a bi-optical viewing device, akin to a pair of magnifying spectacles mounted on a small four-legged metal frame. When positioned over an overlapping air photograph, it gave the 3-D image. Being able to view captured images in three dimensions was crucial, because it brought the enemy landscape and installations they studied to life, and allowed the interpreters to examine features of an object, such as the angles of shadows, to make assessments about the height of a particular structure or weapon types. It was a monotonous and painstaking task, but the photographic intelligence work at Medmenham was instrumental to the planning of D-Day in assessing enemy dispositions, strengths and capabilities.
In the run-up to the invasion, the teams of interpreters at Medmenham would study and file reports on 16 million photographs of enemy-occupied territory. It was an immense undertaking and the interpreters worked round the clock to provide those charged with planning D-Day with vital information. The majority of effort was concentrated along the coastline between Calais and Cherbourg, but no one area received particular attention so as not to give away the intended location of the invasion.
The stereoscope was Medmenham’s secret weapon; while the British and Americans worked in three rather than two dimensions, the Germans did not. Scouring the prints of the Merville Battery for every detail, the interpreters could give an appraisal of the progress of the casemates’ erection, noting that two had been completed and that two remained under construction. They could also provide an estimate of the thickness of the concrete protection, pick out the detail of perimeter defences and compare the progress of the work against later photographs. This was all important information, but the study of the photographs could not confirm the calibre of the guns at Merville. It was a vital piece of missing detail, as the position of the battery and the frantic work being conducted to improve its defences were of profound concern to the man responsible for planning the Allied invasion of France.
By January 1944, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan had been working on the planning for D-Day for several months. At a meeting in Washington in May 1943 the Combined British and American Chiefs of Staff had taken the final decision to invade Nazi-occupied north-west Europe and had set a provisional date of May 1944. Morgan had been selected as the Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Command. As COSSAC, he and a small team of Anglo-American officers were responsible for the joint planning of the largest, most complex combined arms operation ever to be mounted. They had decided to codename it Operation Overlord and had also decided that it would take place in Normandy.
COSSAC’s detailed planning had identified the advantages of landing in Calais, but their work also confirmed that it was heavily defended. The disaster of Dieppe highlighted the need to avoid landing in areas of main enemy troop concentrations and had been reinforced by the experience of Allied landings in Sicily and Italy. German troop dispositions in Normandy were more thinly spread and could be more readily isolated by bombing the bridges over the Seine, which the bulk of German reinforcing units would have to pass across. Intensive reconnaissance and intelligence analysis had also confirmed that the gently sloping beaches along the Cotentin Peninsula were suitable for a landing and were within the range of Allied fighter cover. Additionally, the terrain and inland road network were suitable for the logistic build-up of a beachhead and subsequent breakout towards Paris.
While Normandy offered clear advantages to Morgan and his planners, it also had its problems. One was a matter of logistics. Cherbourg was the nearest major port most suitable for the subsequent logistical build-up behind the main beach landing, but its heavy defences precluded a direct assault from the sea. This was overcome by the simple, but ingenious decision to take a port with them in the form of the Mulberry portable harbours and by laying fuel pipelines under the Channel. But the issue of neutralizing the gun battery at Merville was an altogether thornier problem, which could not be overcome by the application of physics and science alone.
On the other side of the River Orne from the Merville Battery lay the small seaside resort of Ouistreham, where the mouth of the river flows into the Bay of the Seine and the beaches of Normandy start their long curve west along the flat shelving shoreline of the Cotentin Peninsula towards Cherbourg. Codenamed Sword by the Allied planners, the beach at Ouistreham was at the eastern end of the Allies’ chosen landing area. It was also where the left-hand British assault division would touch down on the morning of D-Day.
Given their position, the guns at Merville were capable of sweeping the entire length of the beach with artillery fire. Drawing on the lessons from Dieppe, where British and Canadian troops had been caught out in the open shingle as they disembarked from their landing craft, Morgan and his team were in no doubt of the devastation that a well-defended battery could wreak on troops struggling to get ashore on Sword. Additionally, the position of the guns meant that they would be capable of engaging ships out to sea as well as the slow-moving landing craft as they ran into the beach.
Although it had not been confirmed by photo reconnaissance, the COSSAC planners suspected that the guns were 150mm-calibre field howitzers. While none of the artillery pieces had been captured on camera, when viewed under a stereoscope the shape and shadow at the rear of the casemates indicated that large entrances were being constructed. If they were naval ordnance, the guns would have been bolted permanently inside the bunkers and would have no need of large rear entrances. Consequently, photographic interpretation suggested that the casemates were designed specifically to take field guns, which could be manhandled in and out of the concrete shelters.
Given the extraordinary lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the guns, it was logical for the planners to deduce that they would be one of the heavier and more valuable Wehrmacht field types. The largest standard field gun the Wehrmacht possessed was schwere or ‘heavy’ Feldhaubitze 18. It had a calibre of 150mm and could hurl a shell weighing sixty pounds over ten miles, a distance that brought every inch of Sword Beach within range and meant that vessels could be engaged several miles out at sea.
While the Allies placed a heavy emphasis on PR aircraft to gain intelligence on the Atlantic Wall defences, they were not their only source of information on the preparations being made on the other side of the Channel. The build-up of German troops at the beginning of 1944 and the frenetic building activity had not gone unnoticed by the French Resistance. Eugène Meslin was the Vichy government’s chief engineer in Caen and was responsible for handling relations with the Todt Organisation. Meslin was also the head of the Resistance’s intelligence section at their western headquarters based in the city and his job meant that he was ideally placed to conduct the principal Resistance task of spying on the German coastal defences and reporting on their progress to the Allies. Through his network of fellow engineers and artisans working for the Germans on the defences, the details of every pill-box, wire entanglement and gun emplacement were being reported back to London by Meslin’s outfit.
Louis Bourdet was a member of Meslin’s network and had been subcontracted to work on the gun position at Merville. When completing electrical work at the battery he had managed to slip his hand into the mouth of one of the guns. Once his shift had finished, Bourdet raced home and measured the span of his hand with the aid of a piece of paper and a ruler. The ruler showed 120mm and the information was duly fed back to London. The Germans did not possess 120mm-calibre field guns, but the measurement of Bourdet’s hand suggested that the guns in the casemates were definitely larger than the Wehrmacht’s other standard-issue field howitzer, the smaller leichte or ‘light’ Feldhaubitze 18, which had a calibre of 105mm.
The lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the battery, combined with the information provided by the Resistance, was enough to convince Morgan that the guns at the battery must be of 150mm calibre. When considering the significance of artillery, size matters. The circumference of the barrel dictates the weight and the explosive content of the shell, which in turn dictates its lethal effect. The weight of the projectile it fired meant that a shell bursting from a 150mm gun would have a lethal splinter distance radius of up to 200 metres. A salvo from four 150mm guns, firing in close proximity, could spread their jagged metal shrapnel over the area of a football pitch and would easily devastate a unit of infantry advancing over an open beach in a matter of minutes.
The existence of the battery, set back a mile from the coast, presented a significant threat to the landings and it was vital that it was eliminated before the troops touched down on the beaches. Bombing lacked precision and offered no guarantee when the casemates could withstand anything but a direct hit from the heaviest Allied bombs. Morgan therefore needed an insurance plan that the guns would be put out of action before the troops landed on the beaches. A pre-emptive attack launched from the sea entailed too much risk; getting a raiding party to the battery undetected would be no easy task and could alert the Germans in advance of the landing of the main invasion force.
Morgan’s bosses shared his concern and had no illusions about the hazardous nature of mounting an amphibious landing on a defended shoreline against fifty enemy divisions who were expecting an invasion. General Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment as Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion had been confirmed at the Tehran Conference in December 1943, where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt decided to open the second front. Ike had arrived in Britain in January 1944 to assume command of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at the same time as General Bernard Montgomery returned from commanding the 8th Army in Italy to take over command of the British contribution to the landings. As well as commanding 21st Army Group, Montgomery had been selected to command all the Anglo-American land forces under Ike and was tasked with overseeing the planning for the entire operation.
The experience of Dieppe and near disaster of the invasion of Sicily and Italy a year earlier increased Ike and Monty’s apprehension of what the Allies were about to undertake. If the invasion failed the implications for the conduct of the war would be significant: an Anglo-American landing could not be reattempted for some considerable time, and defeat in France would allow Hitler to transfer the bulk of his divisions to face the onslaught from the Red Army in the east. Consequently, like the Germans, the Allies saw the success or failure of the invasion as a strategic decision point and agreed with Morgan on the need to eliminate as many risks as possible to get the maximum number of troops safely ashore.
While one of the risks centred on neutralizing the Merville Battery, Ike and Monty agreed with Morgan’s assessment that the risk of counter-attack by German mobile reinforcements into the flanks of the landing also needed to be reduced. But in reviewing Morgan’s plan they felt that his intended invasion frontage of three assaulting divisions in the first wave was too narrow. With Eisenhower’s agreement, Montgomery expanded the length of the invasion area to include the whole of the Cotentin Peninsula. He also increased the number of divisions in the first wave from three to five, landing on five separate beaches instead of three. Two US divisions would land in the western sector along two beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha. One Canadian and two British divisions would land to their east along Juno, Gold and Sword beaches.
The Allies had thirty-seven divisions stationed in England for the invasion, but it would take days and weeks to take them all across the Channel. To Montgomery, success depended on breaching the Atlantic Wall and getting enough troops ashore to consolidate the beachhead before the Germans could bring the combined weight of their panzer divisions against him. Like Rommel, he saw the first hours and days as critical. A successful breakout from Normandy could only come after the Allies had won the race to build up sufficient force ratios ashore to beat off the panzers as they moved to counter the landing.
In line with Morgan’s initial estimate regarding the risk of German attacks into the flanks during the early phases of the operation, the one aspect of the COSSAC planning work that Montgomery did not change was the simultaneous dropping of US and British airborne troops on the eastern and western ends of the invasion beaches. The east flank of Sword Beach where the 3rd British Division would land was a particular concern, given its proximity to the concentration of the majority of German formations around the Seine. Focused on responding to a threat of invasion in the Pas de Calais area, the panzers would come from this direction once the enemy realized that the real threat was in Normandy.
The quickest and most direct approach for German reinforcements moving westwards towards Sword Beach lay across the Dives and Orne rivers, which ran into the sea astride the wooded high ground of the Bréville Ridge. If the German mobile divisions were able to cross these rivers they would have an opportunity to roll up the flank of the invasion from east to west before the Allies had time to land sufficient numbers of their own armoured forces to counter such an attack.
The western side of the ridge, closest to Sword Beach, had the added benefit of the Caen Canal. Fed from the mouth of the Orne, it flowed beside the river along the bottom of the ridge towards Caen. There were only two bridges across the double water feature at the villages of Bénouville on the Orne and over the canal as it passed through Ranville. The bridges were the vital ground and the ridge was the key terrain to defending the left flank of the invasion. Whoever held the bridges would control the most direct access to Sword Beach, and whoever held the Bréville Ridge would have a marked advantage in controlling the high ground that dominated them.
Trying to take the ground from the sea by landing on the beaches to the east of the River Orne would bring the invasion fleet into the effective range of the Germans’ large-calibre naval guns at Le Havre. Consequently, Morgan’s plan to protect the left flank advocated using the British 6th Airborne Division to seize and hold the vital ground and terrain by dropping them behind the Atlantic Wall during the night immediately preceding the arrival of the main seaborne forces on the morning of D-Day. It was a daring and ambitious plan and not without its detractors, particularly among the British Air Staff.
Its leading opponent was Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Following the catalogue of errors that had occurred during the Sicily landings, the chief air planner in COSSAC had profound misgivings. Leigh-Mallory pointed to the heavy losses of gliders in the Mediterranean and the inaccuracy of the parachute drops where many of the paratroopers had been dropped wide of their drop zones, or DZs. Leigh-Mallory doubted that the fate of airborne forces in Normandy would be any different. In fact he expected it to be worse. The troops landing by parachute and glider would be lightly armed and dispersed, whereas their opponents would be able to concentrate and bring their heavier weapons systems, in terms of tanks and artillery, against them. Given the circumstances, he forecast that the airborne troops would expect to incur 75 per cent casualties.
The more powerful voices of Eisenhower and Montgomery were convinced of the utility of airborne forces and the critical role they had to play in D-Day. Sicily had been the first mass use of Allied glider and parachute troops. While it revealed the need for many improvements, landing airborne troops in advance of the main seaborne force had made a significant contribution to the success of the landing and also convinced Churchill of its possibilities in Normandy. Endorsed at the highest levels, and as a subset of Overlord, the British airborne phase of the invasion would be called Operation Tonga.
Although backing the use of airborne forces, SHAEF’s final adjustment of the plan was one of timing. The shortage of assault landing craft for the invasion meant that the date was put back to 5 June. Delaying by another month allowed more time for the pre-invasion bombings to continue to soften up German defences, and would also align the date of the Allied assault on the beaches with the launch of the Red Army offensive in the east. Additionally, it would provide more time to build up the capability of the airborne forces and improve on the lessons from Sicily. Monty had wanted to increase the number of British airborne troops taking part in the operation, but had been frustrated by the lack of available aircraft to lift them. While the US 82nd and 101st airborne divisions could be lifted in their entirety and dropped on the right flank at the western end of the Cotentin Peninsula, the RAF had insufficient aircraft to fly in all of 6th Airborne Division. With a month’s delay Monty hoped that he might just get the additional aircraft he needed in time.
Two weeks after the photographs of the Merville Battery had been taken, the nominal head of British Airborne Forces was in less optimistic mood as he drove to the headquarters of 6th Airborne Division to give its commander his orders for D-Day. Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning was a bright young Guards general with a dapper dress sense who had spotted the potential of parachute forces as a brigade commander at the start of the war. His early interest in the development of the airborne arm had led to his rapid promotion, command of the first British Airborne Division and his further promotion as it expanded into a corps-sized capability. But he didn’t feel particularly bright about the message he would have to give to its commander, General Richard Gale.
In terms of appearance, Richard Gale, or ‘Windy’ as he was nick-named, was everything Browning was not. With his regulation military moustache, he had the look of a typical Indian Army ‘Poona’ officer or affable uncle, who would not have seemed out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel. Although aged forty-three and without a trace of grey in his hair, he looked older and had a portly air about him, not helped by his incongruous style of wearing an open-zipped parachutist’s Denison smock and riding jodhpurs over standard-issue Army boots. He was awarded the MC as an infantry subaltern in the First World War, and might have ended his career as a passed-over lieutenant colonel had it not been for the outbreak of war in 1939. But by 1944, Gale had already worked on airborne staff matters in the plans directorate of the War Office and commanded a parachute brigade. Gale awaited Browning’s arrival with anticipation, eager to discover the role his division would play in the invasion. He was about to be disappointed.
Browning informed Gale that his division would be dropped at the British end of the beaches, around the Bréville Ridge and would then secure the left flank of 3rd Division prior to its landing on Sword Beach. But due to the shortage of lift for his two Para brigades and brigade of glider troops, he was told that he would have to accomplish it by providing only one of his parachute brigades under command to 3rd Division. For a commander who had built up his division from scratch since its formation in April of the previous year it was a bitter blow.
Gale’s single parachute brigade was given three principal tasks. The primary mission was to capture and secure the bridges across the Orne and Caen Canal and destroy the heavily fortified gun battery at Merville. These tasks were to be completed no later than half an hour before daylight on D-Day, prior to the start of the landing of the seaborne forces. The secondary task was to delay the movement of enemy reinforcements westwards by blowing the bridges over the River Dives not more than two hours after the landings, and then by holding key access points across the Bréville Ridge.
It was an ambitious undertaking for one brigade. Composed of 2,200 men formed into three battalion groups, each of approximately 750 soldiers, including supporting arms, such as engineers, signallers and medics, the units would be without the support of heavier conventional forces until the leading elements of 3rd Division landing across the beaches could link up with them. Until that happened, they would have to rely on naval gunfire support to bridge the gap in their limited firepower.
Gale was convinced that what he had been asked to do was beyond the means of one brigade. As he lobbied to be allowed to take his whole division, his staff began to make their plans for the mission with what they had been given. The majority of their planning took place in a heavily guarded farmhouse that had been requisitioned as the intelligence cell of 6th Division’s headquarters. The Old Farm at Brigmerston House was in the village of Milston two miles north of Bulford on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It was ringed with a thick concertina barbed-wire perimeter and a detachment of military policemen; no one got in or out of the building without a specially issued pass.
The precautions taken at the farmhouse reflected the tight ring of security and secrecy regarding all the planning for D-Day. Operation Tonga was no exception. The circle of knowledge beyond COSSAC was kept to an absolute minimum of a few key officers on Gale’s staff and the commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, Brigadier James Hill, whose brigade Gale had selected for the mission. The rest of the division were kept deliberately in the dark about what was afoot. But as the war tipped irrevocably against the Germans and the inflow of Anglo-American manpower and materiel began to build up in England from January 1944, most people knew that the second front was coming. But like the Germans on the other side of the Channel, they knew neither when nor where. As the planning continued in the Old Farm at Milston the lives of thousands of men of the 6th Airborne Division were being irrevocably drawn into the events that would unfold on 6 June 1944.
The 6th Airborne Division was one of two battle-ready airborne divisions stationed in England at the beginning of 1944 and had been raised specifically to take part in the invasion. Since its formation, Gale had worked the division hard to declare it ready for operations by the end of the year. It was a major accomplishment and although the division was still to be tested in battle, and regardless of the paucity of aircraft to lift it, the fact that the British could lay claim to having two airborne divisions in their order of battle was an impressive achievement in itself. Four years previously, the very existence of airborne forces was little more than a pipe dream in the minds of a few men and the vision of one man in particular was of seminal significance.