About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“


Perhaps it was chance. Peter, at first, had no thought of building a city, much less a new capital, on the Neva. He wanted first a fort to guard the mouth of the river and then a port so that ships trading with Russia could avoid the long journey to Archangel. Perhaps if he had captured Riga first, St. Petersburg would never have been built—Riga was a flourishing port, already a great center for Russian trade, and it was free of ice for six weeks longer than the mouth of the Neva—but Riga did not fall into Peter’s hands until 1710. The site of St. Petersburg was the first spot where Peter set his foot on the Baltic coast. He did not wait; who knew what the future would bring? Seizing the moment, as he always did, he began to build.

Many things about St. Petersburg are unique. Other nations, in the flush of youth or a frenzy of reform, have created new national capitals on previously empty ground: Washington, Ankara and Brasilia are examples. But no other people has created a new capital city in time of war, on land still technically belonging to a powerful, undefeated enemy. Moreover, 1703 was late in the history of Europe for the founding of a major city. By then, large towns and cities had sprung up even in Europe’s American colonies: New York was already seventy-seven years old, Boston seventy-three, Philadelphia sixty. And St. Petersburg, for 200 years the capital of the Russian empire, now the second-largest city of the Soviet Union, is the northernmost of all the great metropolises of the world. Placing it at the same latitude on the North American continent would mean planting a city of three and a half million on the upper shores of Hudson Bay.

When Peter came down through the forests and emerged where the Neva meets the sea, he found himself in a wild, flat, empty marsh. At the mouth of the Neva, the broad river loops north in a backward S and then flows westward into the sea. In the last five miles, it divides into four branches which intersect with numerous streams flowing through the marshland to create more than a dozen islands overgrown with thickets and low forests. In 1703, the whole place was a bog, soggy with water. In the spring, thick mists from melting snow and ice hung over it. When strong southwest winds blew in from the Gulf of Finland, the river backed up and many of the islands simply disappeared underwater. Even traders who for centuries had used the Neva to reach the Russian interior had never built any kind of settlement there: It was too wild, too wet, too unhealthy, simply not a place for human habitation. In Finnish, the word “neva” means “swamp.”

The fort at Nyenskans was five miles upriver. Nearer the sea, on the left bank, a Finnish landowner had a small farm with a country house. On Hare Island in the center of the river were crude mud huts which a few Finnish fishermen used in the summer months; whenever the water rose, the fishermen abandoned them and retreated to higher ground. But in Peter’s eyes the river sweeping past in a swift and silent flood broader than the Thames at London was magnificent. It was here that Peter decided to build a new and larger fortification to defend the newly seized mouth of the river. The first digging began on May 16, 1703, the date of the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg.

The fortress, named after St. Peter and St. Paul, was to be large, covering the entire island, so that on all sides it would be surrounded by the Neva or its tributaries. The southern side was protected by the fast-flowing river, while the northern, eastern and western approaches were morass, crisscrossed with streams. As the island itself was low and marshy and sometimes covered by flood, the first stage of work was to bring in earth to raise the level of the island above the water’s reach. The Russian workers had no tools except crude pickaxes and shovels. Lacking wheelbarrows, they scraped dirt into their shirts or into rough bags and carried it with their hands to the site of the rising ramparts.

In spite of everything, within five months the fortress began to take shape. It was in the form of an oblong hexagon, with six great bastions, each constructed under the personal supervision of one of the Tsar’s closest friends and each named for its builder: the Menshikov, the Golovin, the Zotov, the Trubetskoy and the (Kyril) Naryshkin. The sixth bastion was supervised by Peter himself and named after him. The fortress was built of earth and timber; later, Peter ordered the ramparts rebuilt with higher, thicker walls of stone. They rose grim, brown, implacable, jutting up thirty feet from the Neva waves, commanded by rows of cannon. Near the end of Peter’s reign, Friedrich Weber, the Hanoverian ambassador, noted that, “On one of the bastions they hoist every day after the Dutch manner the great flag of the fortress on a great mast.… On festival days they display another huge yellow flag which represents the Russian eagle grasping with his claws the four seas which touch Russia’s borders, the White, the Black, the Caspian and the Baltic.”

Just outside the fortress was the small one-story log house in which Peter lived while the work progressed. Constructed by army carpenters between May 24 and 26, 1703, it was fifty-five feet long and twenty feet wide and had three rooms: a bedroom, a dining room and a study. There were no stoves or chimneys, as Peter meant to occupy it only in the summer months. Its most interesting feature is the effort that the Tsar made to hide the fact that it was a log cabin: the mica windows were large and latticed in the style of Holland, the shingles on the high-angled roof were laid and painted to imitate tiles, and the log walls were planed flat and painted with a grid of white lines to give the impression of brick. (The house, the oldest building in the city, has been surrounded by a series of outer shells for preservation. There it remains to this day.)

Battle of Systerbäck

Work on the fortress was intensive because in those early years Peter never knew when the Swedes would return. In fact, they returned every summer. In 1703, within a month of Peter’s occupation of the delta, a Swedish army of 4,000 approached from the north and camped on the north bank of the Neva. On July 7, Peter personally led six Russian regiments, four dragoon and two infantry—in all, a force of 7,000—against the Swedes, defeated them and forced them to retreat. The Tsar was constantly under fire, and Patkul, who was present, was forced to remind his tall patron that “he was also mortal like all men and that the bullet of a musketeer could upset the whole army and place the country in serious danger.” Throughout that first summer, too, the Swedish Admiral Nummers kept nine ships lying at anchor in the mouth of the Neva, blocking Russian access to the gulf and awaiting a chance to move against the growing Russian entrenchments upriver. Peter, meanwhile, had returned to the shipyards above Lake Ladoga to spur construction, and eventually a number of vessels, including the frigate Standard, arrived off the new fortress on the Neva. Unable to challenge Nummers’ stronger force, the ships waited here until the approach of cold weather forced him to withdraw. Then, Peter sailed the Standard out into the Gulf of Finland.

It was an historic moment, the first voyage of a Russian tsar on a Russian ship on the Baltic Sea. Although skim ice was already forming over the gray waves, Peter was eager to explore. On his right, as he sailed westward away from the Neva, he could see the rocky promontories of the coast of Karelia fading away northward toward Vyborg. On his left were the low, gently rolling hills of Ingria, stretching westward to Narva, beyond the horizon. Dead ahead, just over fifteen miles from the Neva delta, he saw the island which came to be called Kotlin by the Russians and which was to be the site of the fortress and naval base Kronstadt. Sailing around the island and measuring the depth of the water with a lead line in his own hand, Peter found that the water north of the island was too shallow for navigation. But south of the island was a channel which led all the way to the mouth of the river. To protect this passage and to install an outpost fortification for the larger work he was building on Kotlin Island, Peter ordered that a fort be constructed in the middle of the water at the edge of the channel. It was difficult work: Boxes filled with stones had to be dragged across the ice and then sunk beneath the waves to form a foundation. But by spring a small fort with fourteen cannon rose directly from the sea.

From the beginning, Peter had intended that his foothold on the Baltic would become a commercial port as well as a base for naval operations. At his instruction, Golovin wrote to Matveev in London to encourage commercial vessels to call on the new port. The first ship, a Dutch merchantman, arrived in November 1703, when the new port had been in Russian hands for only six months. Hearing of the ship’s arrival at the mouth of the river, Peter went to greet her and to pilot her upstream himself. The captain’s surprise at discovering the identity of his royal pilot was matched by Peter’s pleasure on learning that the cargo of wine and salt belonged to his old friend Cornelius Calf of Zaandam. Menshikov gave a banquet for the captain, who was also rewarded with 500 ducats. To further honor the occasion, the ship itself was renamed St. Petersburg, and was granted a permanent exclusion from all Russian tolls and customs duties. Similar rewards were promised to the next two vessels to arrive in the new port, and before long a Dutchman and an Englishman anchored to claim their prizes. Thereafter, Peter did everything possible to encourage use of St. Petersburg by foreign merchantmen. He reduced the tolls to less than half what the Swedes levied in the Baltic ports they controlled. He promised to send Russian products to England at very low prices, provided the English would pick them up in St. Petersburg rather than Archangel. Later, he was to use his power as tsar to divert vast portions of all Russian trade away from its traditional path to the Arctic and toward the new ports on the Baltic.

To strengthen his grip on his new possession, Peter also made great efforts to build new ships in the Lake Ladoga yards. On September 23, 1704, he wrote to Menshikov, “Here, thanks be to God, all goes fairly well. Tomorrow and the day after, three frigates, four snows, a packet-boat and a galliot will be launched.” But the Ladoga waters were stormy and treacherous, and too many of these ships were foundering or going aground on the southern shore as they approached the Schlüsselburg fortress at the Ladoga end of the Neva River. The remedy, Peter decided, was to move the main shipyard to St. Petersburg so that the Ladoga voyage could be avoided. In November 1704, he laid the foundation of a new construction yard on the left bank of the Neva, across the river and just downstream from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally, the Admiralty was only a simple shipyard. A large, open rectangle was established beside the river with one side on the water and the other three made up of rows of wooden sheds which served as workshops, forges, living quarters for the workmen and storehouses for ropes, sails, cannon and timber. From the central section, which was used for offices and eventually became the headquarters of the Russian fleet, rose a tall, thin wooden spire, surmounted by a weathervane in the form of a ship.* Beneath this spire, in the open space surrounded by the sheds, Peter’s ships were built. The sizable hulls were constructed beside the Neva, then slid into the river and towed to wharves for fitting out. Soon after its founding, Peter became concerned that the Admiralty was too exposed to possible Swedish attack and the three land sides were fortified with high stone ramparts, glissaded slopes and moats, giving the city a second bastion almost as powerful as the Peter and Paul Fortress.

In the years that followed, Swedish probing attacks and harassment of the new city continued, both by land and by sea. In 1705, the Russians drove tall stakes into the waters of the channel off Kotlin Island and tied ropes between them to keep Swedish craft from penetrating up toward St. Petersburg. An approaching Swedish squadron, seeing from a distance the mass of tall stakes and ropes, took them for the masts of a sizable Russian fleet and withdrew after an ineffectual long-range bombardment. In 1706, Peter himself, sailing far out in the gulf, sighted a Swedish squadron headed in his direction and returned immediately to report the news by agreed-on cannon signals to Vice Admiral Cruys, the Dutch officer in command of the Russian fleet. Cruys, however, refused to believe the Tsar’s report and was convinced only when he saw the Swedish ships with his own eyes. Some time after that, Peter touched on the episode with ironic humor. Cruys, reporting on naval matters, complained to Peter of the general ignorance and insubordination of his fleet officers, saying, “His Majesty, with his skill, knows the importance of perfect ‘subordination.’ ” Peter responded warmly, “The Vice Admiral [Cruys] is himself to blame for the want of skill of the naval officers as he himself engaged nearly all of them.… As concerns my skill, this compliment is not on a very firm footing. Not long ago, when I went to sea and saw the enemy’s ships from my yacht and signaled according to custom the number of ships, it was thought only to be amusement or the salute for a toast, and even when I myself came on board to the Vice Admiral, he was unwilling to believe until his sailors had seen them from the masthead. I must therefore beg him either to omit my name from the list of those whom he judges skillful, or in future cease from such raillery.”

With the passage of time, Peter’s vision of St. Petersburg grew broader. He began to see it as more than a fortress guarding the mouth of the Neva, or even a wharf and shipyard for commercial and naval vessels on the Baltic. He began to see it as a city. An Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini, who had built a handsome palace for King Frederick IV of Denmark, arrived in Russia at exactly this moment. His style, like that of most architects practicing then in Northern Europe, was heavily influenced by Holland, and it was this Dutch, Protestant, northern-baroque design which Trezzini brought to Russia. He had signed a contract on April 1, 1703, to become the Tsar’s Master of Building, Construction and Fortification, and Peter quickly brought him to the Neva to supervise all construction there. For nine years, as the first buildings were converted from simple log structures to brick and stone, Trezzini put his stamp on the city. While laborers were still toiling on the earth foundations of the fortress, Trezzini began to build a small and functional church within its walls. Lacking elegant materials to decorate its interior, Trezzini covered the walls with yellow stucco in imitation of marble. In 1713, Trezzini began construction of the baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral, which, with numerous modifications, still stands on the site today, its Germanic golden spire soaring 400 feet into the air.



The ceaseless building operations required an appalling amount of human labor. To drive the piles into the marshes, hew and haul the timbers, drag the stones, clear the forests, level the hills, lay out the streets, build docks and wharves, erect the fortress, houses and shipyards, dig the canals, soaked up human effort. To supply this manpower, Peter issued edicts year after year, summoning carpenters, stonecutters, masons and, above all, raw, unskilled peasant laborers to work in St. Petersburg. From all parts of his empire an unhappy stream of humanity—Cossacks, Siberians, Tatars, Finns—flowed into St. Petersburg. They were furnished with a traveling allowance and subsistence for six months, after which they were permitted, if they survived, to return home, their places to be taken by a new draft the following summer. Local officials and noblemen charged by Peter with recruiting and sending along these human levies protested to the Tsar that hundreds of villages were being ruined by the loss of their best men, but Peter would not listen.

The hardships were frightful. Workers lived on damp ground in rough, crowded, filthy huts. Scurvy, dysentery, malaria and other diseases scythed them down in droves. Wages were not paid regularly and desertion was chronic. The actual number who died building the city will never be known; in Peter’s day, it was estimated at 100,000. Later figures are much lower, perhaps 25,000 or 30,000, but no one disputes the grim saying that St. Petersburg was “a city built on bones.”

Along with human labor, the materials with which to build the city had to be imported. The flat, marshy country around the Neva delta had few large trees to supply wood and was almost devoid of rock. The first stones for the new city came from demolishing the Swedish fort and town of Nyenskans upriver and bringing its materials downstream. For years, every cart, every carriage and every Russian vessel coming into the city was required to bring a quota of stones along with its normal cargo. A special office was set up at the town wharves and gates to receive these stones, without which the vehicle was not allowed to enter the city. Sometimes, when these rocks were greatly in demand, it required a senior official to decide the fate of every stone. To conserve wood for building, it was forbidden to cut trees on the islands, and no one was allowed to heat his bath house more than once a week. Timbers were brought from the forests of Lake Ladoga and Novgorod, and newly constructed sawmills, turned by wind and water power, reduced the trunks to beams and planks. In 1714, when it developed that building in St. Petersburg was being delayed by a shortage of stonemasons, Peter decreed that until further notice, no stone house could be built in Moscow under “pain of confiscation of goods and exile.” Soon after, he extended this decree to the entire empire. Inevitably, stone and brick masons throughout Russia picked up their tools and headed for St. Petersburg in search of work.

The city needed a population. Few people chose voluntarily to live there; therefore, in this matter, too, Peter employed force. In March 1708, the Tsar “invited” his sister Natalya, his two half-sisters, the Tsarevnas Maria and Feodosia Alexeevna, the two Dowager Tsaritsas, Martha and Praskovaya, along with hundreds of noblemen, high officials and wealthy merchants, to join him in St. Petersburg during the spring and no one, according to Whitworth, “was allowed to excuse themselves by age, business, or indisposition.” They came unwillingly. Accustomed to an easy life in the countryside of Moscow where they had large houses and where all their provisions were brought from their own neighboring estates or bought cheaply in the flourishing Moscow markets, they were now obliged to build new houses at great expense in a Baltic marsh. They had to pay exorbitant prices for food imported from hundreds of miles away, and many calculated that they had lost two thirds of their wealth. As for amusements, they hated the water on which the Tsar doted, and none set foot in a boat except by compulsion. Nevertheless, having no choice, they came. The merchants and shopkeepers came with them and found solace in the fact that they could charge outrageous prices for their goods. Many laborers—Russian, Cossack and Kalmuck—having served the required time in building public works, stayed on, being unwilling or unable to walk the long distance home, and were engaged by noblemen in building the private houses commanded by the Tsar. Eventually, thousands of these laborers settled and built homes for themselves in Petersburg. Peter encouraged these efforts by coming, whenever invited, to lay the first stone of any new building and to drink a glass to the success of the owner.

Neither the location nor the design of these houses was left to free will or chance. Noble families were required to build houses with beams, lath and plaster “in the English style” along the left bank of the Neva (noblemen owning more than 500 peasants were required to build two-storied houses); a thousand merchants and traders were instructed to build wooden houses on the opposite side of the river. Built in haste by unwilling labor for unhappy owners, the new houses were often flawed by leaky roofs, cracking walls and sagging floors. Nevertheless, to add to the grandeur of the city, Peter ordered that all substantial citizens whose houses were only one story high must add a second story. To aid them, he instructed Trezzini to make available free plans of different-sized houses of suitable design.

Most of the new city was built of wood, and fires broke out almost every week. Attempting to contain the damage, the Tsar organized a system of constant surveillance. At night, while the city slept, watchmen sat in church towers looking out over the silent rooftops. At the first sign of fire, the watchman who spotted it rang a bell whose signal was immediately picked up and passed along by other watchmen throughout the city. The bells woke drummers, who turned out of bed and beat their drums. Soon the streets were filled with men, hatchets in hand, running to the fire. Soldiers who happened to be in the city also were expected to hurry to the scene. Eventually, every officer, civil or military, stationed in St. Petersburg was given a special fire-fighting assignment for which he was paid an extra monthly allowance; failure to appear brought swift punishment. Peter himself had such an assignment and received a salary along with the rest. “It is a common thing,” said a foreign observer “to see the Tsar among the workmen with a hatchet in his hand, climbing to the top of the houses that are all in flames, with such danger to him that the spectators tremble at the sight of it.” In the winter when water was frozen, hatchets and axes were the only tools that could be used to fight fires. If the houses standing next to the house in flames could be chopped apart and dragged away quickly enough, the fire could be isolated. Peter’s presence always had great effect. According to Just Juel, the Danish ambassador, “As his intelligence is extraordinarily quick, he sees at once what must be done to extinguish the fire; he goes up to the roof; he goes to all the worst danger points; he incites nobles as well as common people to help in the struggle and does not pause until the fire is put out. But when the sovereign is absent, things are very different. Then the people watch the fires with indifference and do nothing to help extinguish them. It is vain to lecture them or even to offer them money; they merely wait for a chance to steal something.”

The other looming natural danger was flood. Petersburg was built at sea level, and whenever the Neva River rose more than a few feet, the city was inundated. Peter wrote to Menshikov in 1706:

The day before yesterday the wind from west-southwest blew up such waters as, they say, have never been before. In my house, the water rose twenty-one inches above the floor; and in the garden and on the other side along the streets people went about freely in boats. However, the waters did not remain long—less than three hours. Here it was entertaining to watch how the people, not only the peasants but their women, too, sat on the roofs and in trees during the flood. Although the waters rose to a great height, they did not cause bad damage.

“On the 9th at midnight, there came out of the sea from the southwest so strong a wind that the town was completely under water,” wrote an English resident in January 1711. “Many people would have been surprised and drowned if the bells had not been rung to wake them and make them go up to the roofs of their houses. The greater part of their houses and livestock were destroyed.” Nearly every autumn, the Neva overflowed, cellars were swamped and provisions destroyed. So many building planks and beams drifted away that it became a capital crime to take such floating objects from the water before the owner could retrieve them. In November 1721, another tremendous southwest wind backed up the river again, carrying a two-masted schooner through the streets and leaving it stranded against the side of a house. “The damage is beyond words,” the French ambassador reported to Paris. “Not a single house is left that has not had its share. Losses are reckoned at two or three million roubles. [But] the Tsar, like Philip of Spain [after the loss of the Armada], made the greatness of his soul clear by his tranquility.”

Even fifteen years after its founding, as tall, windowed palaces were rising along the Neva embankments, and French gardeners were laying out formal, geometric flowerbeds, daily life in St. Petersburg remained, in one foreigner’s description, a “hazardous hand-to-mouth bivouacking.” One problem was that the region simply could not feed itself. The Neva delta, with its great stretches of water, forest and swamp, seldom produced good harvests, and sometimes, in wet years, crops rotted before they ripened. Wild nature was helpful; there were strawberries, blackberries and an abundance of mushrooms, which Russians ate as a great delicacy with only salt and vinegar. There were small hares, whose gray fur turned white in winter, which provided dry, tough meat, and wild geese and ducks. The rivers and lakes teemed with fish, but foreigners were chagrined to find that they could not buy it fresh; Russians preferred fish salted or pickled. But despite what could be gleaned from soil, forest and waters, St. Petersburg would have starved without provisions sent from outside. Thousands of carts traveled from Novgorod and even from Moscow during the warmer months bringing food to the city; in winter, the lifeline was maintained on a stream of sleds. If these supplies were even slightly delayed along the way, prices immediately soared in St. Petersburg and in the villages nearby, for, in reverse of the normal process, the town supplied its satellites with food.

In the forest around St. Petersburg, an endless horizon of scraggly birches, thin pines, bushes and swamps, the traveler who ventured off the road was quickly lost. The few farms in the region lay in clearings reached by unmarked paths. And in these thickets and groves roamed bears and wolves. The bears were less dangerous, for in summer they found enough to eat and in winter they slept. But wolves were plentiful in all seasons, and in winter they appeared in aggressive packs of thirty or forty. This was when hunger drove them to enter farmyards to catch dogs and even attack horses and men. In 1714, two soldiers standing guard in front of the central foundry in St. Petersburg were attacked by wolves; one was torn to pieces and eaten on the spot, the second crawled away but died soon after. In 1715, a woman was devoured in broad daylight on Vasilevsky Island, not far from Prince Menshikov’s palace.

Not surprisingly, few Russians chose to live in this wet, desolate and dangerous region. For a while, it was empty, as war and plague swept away most of the original Finnish-speaking inhabitants. Peter gave land to his noblemen and officers, and they brought families and even whole villages of peasants from the interior of Russia to settle here. These simple people, uprooted from the pleasant hills and meadows around Moscow, suffered greatly but did not complain. “It is surprising to see with what resignation and patience those people both high and low submit to such hardships,” wrote Weber. “The common sort say that life is but a burden to them. A Lutheran minister related to me that on occasion when he examined some simple Russian peasants about their belief and asked whether they knew what they ought to do in order to obtain eternal salvation, they answered that it was very uncertain even whether they should go to heaven at all, for they believed that everlasting happiness was reserved for the Tsar and his great boyars.”

It was not just the common people who hated St. Petersburg. Russian noblemen and foreign ambassadors grumbled and wondered how long the city would survive its founder. Tsarevna Maria declared, “Petersburg will not endure after our time. May it remain a desert.” Only a few saw more clearly. It was Menshikov who said that St. Petersburg would become another Venice, and that the day would come when foreigners would travel there purely out of curiosity and to enjoy its beauty.

The Swedes never understood Peter’s fierce attachment to this marshy site. The Tsar’s determination to keep the new city became the chief obstacle to making peace. When Russian fortunes in the war were low, Peter was willing to give up all he had conquered in Livonia and Estonia, but he would never agree to yield St. Petersburg and the mouth of the Neva. Few in Sweden understood that the Tsar had split the Swedish Baltic empire permanently, that the wedge driven between Sweden’s northern and southern Baltic provinces, interrupting the lines of communication across the Neva delta, presaged their eventual total loss. Most Swedes considered the loss to be relatively minor and only temporary and thought Peter a fool. Knowing how the winds driving up the gulf piled water into the Neva delta and flooded many of the marshy islands, they assumed that wind and water would quickly destroy the fledgling town. The new settlement became the butt of jokes. The attitude of Sweden was that of its supremely confident King: “Let the Tsar tire himself with founding new towns. We will keep for ourselves the honor of taking them.”

Peter called the new city St. Petersburg after his patron saint, and it became the glory of his reign, his “paradise,” his “Eden,” his “darling.” In April 1706, he began a letter to Menshikov, “I cannot help writing you from this paradise; truly we live here in heaven.” The city came to represent in brick and stone everything important in his life: his escape from the shadowy intrigue, the tiny windows and vaulted chambers of Moscow; his arrival on the sea; the opening to the technology and culture of Western Europe. Peter loved his new creation. He found endless pleasure in the great river flowing out to the Gulf, in the waves lapping under the fortress walls, in the salty breeze that filled the sails of his new ships. Construction of the city became his passion. No obstacle was great enough to prevent his carrying out his design. On it he lavished his energy, millions of roubles and thousands of lives. At first, fortification and defense were his highest considerations, but within less than a year he was writing to Tikhon Streshnev in Moscow asking for flowers to be sent from Ismailovo near Moscow, “especially those with scent. The peony plants have arrived in very good condition, but no balsam or mint. Send them.” By 1708, he had built an aviary and sent to Moscow for “8,000 singing birds of various sorts.”

After Peter, a succession of empresses and emperors would transform the early settlement of logs and mud into a dazzling city, its architecture more European than Russian, its culture and thought a blend of Russia and the West. A long line of majestic palaces and public buildings, yellow, light blue, pale green and red, would rise along the three-mile granite quay which fronted the south bank of the Neva. With its merging of wind and water and cloud, its 150 arching bridges linking the nineteen islands, its golden spires and domes, its granite columns and marble obelisks, St. Petersburg would be called the Babylon of the Snows and the Venice of the North. It would become a fountainhead of Russian literature, music and art, the home of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky, of Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, of Petipa, Diaghilev, Pavlova and Nijinsky. For two centuries, the city would also be the stage on which the political destinies of Russia were enacted as Russia’s sovereigns struggled to rule the empire from the city Peter had created. And in this city was played the final act of the drama in which Peter’s dynasty was overthrown. Even the name of the city would change as the new regime, seeking to honor its founder, decided to give Lenin “the best we had.” The new name, however, still sticks in the throats of many of the city’s citizens. To them, it remains simply “Peter.”


Martim Afonso de Sousa

This Portuguese courtier was born at Vila Viçosa toward the end of the 15th century. His father had been a loyal retainer in the household of Bragança, so young Martim was first made a page to Duke Jaime’s son, Teodosio. He later became a page under the crown prince Joao, who would ascend the Portuguese throne in December 1521 as King Joao III.

At that time, de Sousa was absent with the retinue that accompanied the widowed Queen Leonor de Austria back to her native Spain. He stayed on there to serve under the emperor Charles V and fought against the French. De Sousa also married a Spanish lady, Ana Pimentel, with whom he would have five children. In 1525, he was recalled to Portugal by Joao III. De Sousa’s cousin Antonio de Ataide, a childhood friend of the young monarch, was ennobled as Conde de Castanheira and appointed ambassador to France. His influence helped de Sousa obtain the titles of prado and alcoentre, as well as a knight- hood in the Ordem de Cristo.

De Sousa also displayed an interest in mathematics and navigation. He started studying in 1527 under the young royal tutor Pedro Nunes who was named royal cosmographer two years later. De Sousa’s interest helped him obtain command of the Brazilian expedition when it was proposed by his cousin to the king in 1530. De Sousa’s two years of exploration were judged so satisfactory that he was rewarded on his return with the title of governor general of the Portuguese East Indies.

He set sail from Lisbon on March 12, 1534, to assume office in the Far East. His first term proved highly successful, with the creation of a fortress at Diu in Cambodia and vigorous campaigns against the rajah of Calcutta. Therefore, after de Sousa’s tenure expired in 1538, he was named for a second time late in 1541. His squadron reached Goa by May 6, 1542, but his second administration was marred by corruption and dissension. The Portuguese even fought among themselves, and de Sousa was recalled in 1545. He returned under suspicion of financial irregularities and was never again employed by the Crown. He died in Lisbon on July 26, 1564.


As Spain’s settlers forsake their original Antillean outposts for the rich new kingdoms of the American mainland, traders from other western European nations begin drifting into the void. Madrid will vainly attempt to stem this transatlantic traffic into the West Indies, increasing the envy already taking hold against the Spaniards for their rising fortunes. Old World conflicts soon are transposed to the New World, beginning during the first half of the 16th century, when the rulers of Spain and France fight a series of intermittent conflicts known collectively as the Habsburg-Valois Wars (so named for their respective dynastic surnames). These are largely territorial disputes originating in Italy and Flanders that flare into open conflict during 1494-1495, 1499-1505, 1508-1514, 1515-1516, 1521-1526, 1526-1529, 1536-1538, 1542-1544, and 1552-1559, but which actually constitute an almost continuous period of strife from 1494 to 1559.

The coronation of 20-year-old Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in October 1520 intensifies this rivalry because-already being king of Spain and duke of the Netherlands-his dominions now completely encircle France. The ensuing round of hostilities from 1521 to 1526, called the First Franco-Spanish War, features numerous depredations by French privateers off the coasts of Spain, the Canaries, and the Azores Islands as they waylay vessels bound to and from the Americas. One such pair of ships, bound from recently conquered Mexico with exotic Aztec spoils, is captured in 1522 by Giovanni da Verrazano or Verrazzano-a Florentine-born navigator in the service of Jean Ango of Dieppe-and the fabulous beauty of the spoils helps to persuade François I to sponsor his own exploration of North America in quest of a Northwest Passage to Asia.

Verrazano makes landfall with his 50-man, 100-ton caravel Dauphine near what will later be- come known as the Carolinas in late February or early March 1524, coasting northward and penetrating through the Narrows into what is today New York City’s Upper Bay, hoping that it might prove to be the ephemeral waterway leading to Cathay. After a brief survey, he exits and continues his continental exploration as far northeastward as Newfoundland before regaining Dieppe on July 8 and submitting a favorable report to the king. However, it is not until after that monarch is captured at the Battle of Pavia and compelled to sign the Treaty of Madrid on January 15, 1526, and then responds by forging the so-called Cognac or Clementine League on May 2-uniting France with Florence, Venice, Pope Clement VII, and eventually England-that another three-year round of fighting explodes and the first French corsairs actually strike out across the ocean to make at- tacks in the West Indies proper.

MARCH 1526. The 130-ton Spanish galleon San Gabriel of Rodrigo de Acuña, separated by storms from Juan Garci Jofre de Loaysa and Juan Sebastian de Elcano’s seven-ship expedition bound from La Coruña (Galicia) into the South Pacific via the Strait of Magellan, is attacked by three French vessels off  the coast of Brazil before anchoring off  Santa Catarina Island on March 26 to recuperate over the next few months.

LATE 1527. After touching at Puerto Rico, the English ship Mary of Guildford under the explorer John Rutt or Rout-who has previously visited Newfoundland and the North American shoreline in quest of the fabled Northwest Passage-arrives at the city of Santo Domingo to trade and is amiably received by the city’s Spanish inhabitants. However, after the authorities in the harbor castle fi re a round at Rutt’s anchored ship, he stands back out to sea, disembarking nearby a few days later with 30 or 40 armed men seeking to barter goods for provisions. When this request is refused, the Englishmen pillage a plantation and then depart.

SUMMER 1528. The French corsair vessel Sainte Anne out of La Rochelle, which is guided by the Portuguese pilot Diogo Ingenios and accompanied by a Spanish caravel seized off  Lanzarote in the Ca- nary Islands, traverses the Atlantic and appears near Margarita Island, then briefly seizes the pearl fisheries on June 24 at Cubagua (Venezuela).

Apparently, this same pair of raiders later attacks and sinks a Spanish caravel near Puerto Rico’s Cape Rojo on August 11 before sacking and torching the inland hamlet of San German at the mouth of the Añasco River the next day, then standing away back across the Atlantic by October. San German’s residents rebuild and fortify their hamlet.

AUGUST 3, 1529. In Europe, Franco-Spanish relations are temporarily patched up after a month of negotiations by the signing of the Treaty of Cambrai (known as the “Ladies’ Peace” because it is negotiated between Charles V’s aunt, Margaret of Austria, and the French queen mother, Louise of Savoy).

DECEMBER 3, 1530. Portugal Claims Brazil. Fearful of French designs upon Brazil, which include a few trading outposts that are already beginning to dot its coastline, King Joao III decides to supersede Portugal’s sporadic private eff orts to rescue Brazil by dispatching a royal expedition of two ships, two caravels, and a galleon bearing 400 men under his retainer Martim Afonso de Sousa and his brother Pero Lopes de Sousa.

This expedition arrives from Lisbon off  Pernambuco on January 31, 1531, and sights Cape Santo Agostinho the next day. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese capture three French ships laden with rare woods and other Brazilian produce. The commodore thereupon detaches his subordinate Diogo Leite with two caravels to reconnoiter northeastward from Pernambuco, and Joao de Sousa is sent back to Europe with a report for the monarch; the main body departs southwestward by February 17 to continue its exploration. They enter Baia de Todos os Santos and encounter a long-time Portuguese resident named Diogo Alvares Correia, who has married a Paraguaçu woman and is known among the Indians as Cararmuru or the “God of Thunder.”

APRIL 30, 1531. At midday, de Sousa’s expedition enters Guanabara Bay-dubbed Rio de Janeiro three decades previously by Amerigo Vespucci-and because of its vast, sheltered expanse and abundant resources, the Portuguese explorer decides to pause and refresh his ships. A tiny fortification is erected beside his careening beach, and peaceable relations are established with the local Tamoio natives. When de Sousa finally departs on August 1, a small group of Portuguese remain behind, although this foothold will not prosper and is soon abandoned.

AUGUST 12, 1531. De Sousa’s expedition gains Cananéia Bay, where other Portuguese and Spanish ships are found lying at anchor. Also found is a decades-old resident named Cosme Fernandes, a Jewish convert and university graduate-hence referred to as the Bacharel or “Bachelor”-who was marooned by Vespucci’s expedition as long ago as January 22, 1502. He has since married a Carijo princess. There is also a deserter from Rodrigo de Acuña’s 1526 visit, named Francisco de Chavez.

Familiar with the native trade patterns, they in- form de Sousa of rich mines lying far up the Iguaçu River in Incan territory, so the commodore dispatches 40 harquebusiers and 40 crossbowmen up- stream on September 1 under Capt. Pero Lobo Pinheiro, along with native auxiliaries and with de Chavez as their guide-none of whom will ever return; they are instead lured out into the Parana River and massacred by tribal warriors. Unaware of their fate, de Sousa puts to sea again on September 26 to continue his reconnaissance as far southwest as the River Plate estuary.

JANUARY 8, 1532. Having wrecked his flagship, de Sousa’s depleted expedition returns into Cana- néia Bay to recuperate before setting out southward 10 days later to establish a permanent Portuguese colony at what is then known as the Porto do Escravos or “Slaves Port.”

Appearing outside its bar by January 20, de Sousa’s vessels cross over after two storm-tossed days to begin erecting a fort and town, from whence they hope to probe inland and finally reach the ephemeral mines of the Incas. This settlement is christened Sao Vicente-January 22 being St. Vincent’s feast day on the Church calendar.

MAY 12, 1532. Having departed from Sao Vicente to return to Portugal for more colonists, a squadron under Pero Lopes de Sousa learns of a 30-man French outpost recently installed on Itamaraca Island by the Marseillan privateer Jean Barrau du Perret, commander of the 120-ton Pelerine. He therefore interrupts his homeward passage to capture it after an 18-day siege and supplants this stronghold with a Portuguese garrison before proceeding out across the Atlantic.

OCTOBER 10, 1532. De Sousa leads a group of settlers inland from Sao Vicente guided by the Portuguese castaways Joao Ramalho and Antonio Rodrigues-they have married the daughters of the local Guiana tribal chieftains Tibiriças and Piquerobi and are therefore familiar with the terrain and trusted by the natives. Pushing through the dense man- groves along the Quilombo River Valley, they ascend the formidable Serra do Mar onto the Piratininga Plain to found a second outpost (which will eventually become the modern city of Sao Paulo).

JANUARY 1533. Joao de Sousa reaches Sao Vicente from Portugal, bringing letters from the king informing Martim Afonso de Sousa that he is to be relieved, but he is also to be rewarded with one of the 15 new “hereditary captaincies” into which Brazil will be divided, depending on whether he chooses to remain in the New World or return to Portugal.

MAY 1533. Martim Afonso de Sousa departs Sao Vicente, leaving his brother Pero in charge of his properties while he returns to Lisbon, where he will be promoted to governor general of the Portuguese East Indies.

Shortly before leaving Sao Vicente, Martim Afonso de Sousa learns of the annihilation of Pero Lobo’s lost expedition up the Iguaçu River, which he believes has been engineered by the Bacharel Cosme Fernandes and his Spanish associates. He therefore suggests to the acting military commander who is left behind-the mill owner and militia captain Pero de Gois da Silveira-that they be arrested.

SUMMER 1533. A body of Portuguese troops under Captain de Gois advances on Iguape to detain Fernandes, who has taken up residence there with his family near his Spanish-born friend Ruy Garcia Mosquera. Apprised of the Portuguese captain’s intent, the defenders rally their numerous retainers, other disgruntled residents, as well as some 150 native archers, and prepare to resist.

To better do so, Fernandes and Garcia Mosquera seize a French privateer anchored off Cananéia and land its artillery to prepare an ambush at a trench that they have dug, covering Icapara Bar outside Iguape (modern Trincheira Bay). De Gois’s disembarkation is therefore crushed, 80 of his troops being slain and himself wounded and captured, after which Fernandes and Garcia Mosquera use his ship to mount a destructive counterattack against Sao Vicente. They thereupon decamp beyond Portuguese jurisdiction, along with their followers.

French crossbowman of the Cartier-Roberval expedition in Canada.

MAY 10, 1534. The 42-year-old explorer Jacques Cartier arrives off Newfoundland with two ships and 61 men from Saint Malo (France), searching for the Northwest Passage to Asia. After charting part of what are today the shorelines of New Brunswick and Quebec, he returns to Europe by September 5.

AUGUST 9, 1535. Cartier returns to Newfoundland with his 120-ton flagship Grande Hermine, the 60-ton Petite Hermine, and the 40-ton Émerillon and penetrates the Saint Lawrence Seaway as far south- west as Hochelaga (modern Montreal) by October 2 before retiring to winter at the Saint Charles River mouth (modern Quebec City). Although disappointed at not discovering a passage all the way through to the Far East, the Frenchman is nonetheless convinced that this new territory is “rich and wealthy in precious stones,” so he kidnaps a dozen natives before weighing anchor on May 6, 1536, carrying them to Saint Malo by July 16. Cartier’s hope is to spark interest in this new land and thus be granted Crown permission to found a colony, which he mistakenly believes to be called Canada- actually the Huron-Iroquois word for “village.”

LATE AUTUMN 1535. Relations between Paris and Madrid again begin to deteriorate regarding disputes in Savoy and Milan, so numerous French corsairs begin taking up station off the western approaches to Spain and threatening returning ships- especially those bearing treasure from recently conquered Peru. As a result, the Spanish Crown orders the establishment of an armada de la guardia de la carrera de Indias or “guard fleet for the Indies route.”

FEBRUARY 1536. War officially erupts between France and Spain when the former occupies Savoy and penetrates the Piedmont, to which the latter replies in June by invading Provence.

NOVEMBER 1536. A lone French corsair vessel cuts out a Spanish ship anchored at Chagres (Panama).

JANUARY 1537. Emperor Charles V and King François I agree to a short-lived truce.

FEBRUARY 1537. Apparently the same single French corsair ship is sighted between Cartagena (Colombia) and Nombre de Dios (Panama), where it captures a Spanish merchantman near the latter port as it is arriving with a consignment of horses from Santo Domingo.

MARCH 15, 1537. This same French vessel materializes before Havana, prompting Gov. Gonzalo de Guzman to order three of five 200-ton Spanish merchantmen anchored in his port to sortie under Lt. Juan Velazquez. They overtake and trap the shallow- draught intruder inside the harbor at Mariel (then known as the “Puerto de Tablas”), only to run aground when the French vessel escapes out to sea, and so are boarded when this raider reverses course. Two of the Spanish prizes are burned and the third manned by the triumphant Frenchmen, who return before Havana to extort ransom from its hapless villagers. Other French trespassers are also sighted near Santo Domingo.

MAY 31, 1537. A French corsair vessel enters Santiago de Cuba’s harbor and carries off some merchantmen.

JUNE 14, 1537. A dozen Spanish warships and two caravels sortie from Seville under Capt. Gen. Blasco Nuñez Vela, becoming the first fleet of warships officially assigned to escort an outward-bound American convoy, reinforce garrisons throughout the Caribbean, lift the blockade of Havana, and then return to Spain.

OCTOBER 1537. A French ship and auxiliary out of Bayonne, bearing a total of 150 men, arrive off the Lesser Antilles to prowl the Spanish West Indies.

SPRING 1538. This pair of Bayonne ships raid Ocoa, Puerto Hermoso, and La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti), bringing maritime traffic off Santo Domingo to almost a complete standstill.

APRIL 4, 1538. The large Bayonne ship pillages a Spanish brigantine exiting from Santiago de Cuba, then the next day penetrates its harbor and engages the caravel Magdalena of Diego Pérez as well as a small two-gun battery ashore. The shallow draught of Pérez’s craft allows him to gain the Frenchmen’s quarter, though, peppering the intruders with his four culverins from 11:00 a. m. until they finally withdraw an hour past midnight on April 6, having sustained about a dozen casualties. Three Spaniards die during this fray, and the French ship eventually exits Santiago Bay three days later.

MAY 1538. A French corsair ship appears near Havana and robs several houses and churches ashore. Upon learning of this attack at the island’s capital of Santiago de Cuba, 500 miles farther east-southeast, the new captain general, Hernando de Soto, dis- patches the military engineer Mateo Aceituno with 100 men. Within a few weeks of their arrival, they throw up the 6-gun fort, Castillo de la Fuerza, to guard Havana’s entrance channel (see “June 7, 1538” entry in “Expansion beyond Mexico”).

JUNE 1538. San German de Puerto Rico is sacked and burned by 80 French raiders from the Bayonne ship. During their retirement back toward their boats, they are overtaken during a rainstorm by 30 mounted Spaniards, who attack while the French- men’s powder is wet. Fifteen raiders are therefore killed and another three taken prisoner, who then are exchanged for San German’s looted church bells, plus other booty.

JUNE 15, 1538. In Europe, French and Spanish plenipotentiaries agree upon a 10-year truce negotiated at Nice by Pope Paul III, although it is some time before word of this cessation of hostilities reaches the New World.

EARLY JUNE 1540. French corsairs disembark from a single ship near San German de Puerto Rico, sacking and burning the town, along with its outlying district.

AUGUST 1540. A leaking, 400-ton English ship with a French pilot commandeers a Spanish merchantman laden with sugar and hides off Cape Tiburon (southwestern Haiti), setting its crew ashore before transferring aboard their prize. They then send their leaking vessel to the bottom and sail home in safety.

MAY 1541. As Franco-Spanish relations again be- gin to fray over differences regarding the succession in Milan, a 35-man French corsair ransacks a Spanish caravel off Puerto Rico. This same craft then sinks another victim off Mona Island before disembarking some men to loot ashore. It proceeds next to Cape de la Vela (Colombia) and robs a Spanish caravel of 7,000-8,000 ducats’ worth of pearls at Portete.

AUGUST 1541. Cartier returns to Canada with five ships, having brought an advance contingent of a few hundred settlers from France to establish a foothold for a new colony. The titular head of this enterprise-the impoverished, 41-year-old courtier Jean-François de La Rocque, Seigneur de Roberval-is to follow next year with many more colonists, hoping in the process to rebuild his fortune by serving as “lieutenant general of Canada” and exploiting its rich mineral deposits.

While awaiting his arrival, Cartier erects a small fort called Charlesbourg Royal at Cap Rouge, nine miles above present-day Quebec City, and explores the Saint Lawrence River until wintertime.

EARLY DECEMBER 1541. Thirteen well-armed French vessels ransack a Portuguese caravel off Guyana, then are joined by three other vessels to press deeper into the Caribbean and pillage the coastlines of Margarita Island, Curaçao, and the entrance to the Lake of Maracaibo (Venezuela).

JUNE 8, 1542. Roberval reaches Newfoundland with the ships Valentine, Sainte Anne, and Lechefraye, bringing 100 more French colonists to join Cartier at Charlesbourg Royal (Quebec). Instead, he is surprised to meet his subordinate in the Newfoundland harbor of Saint John’s. Cartier had earlier abandoned this advance foothold because of the harshness of the past winter and the hostility from the Iroquois. Cartier refuses Roberval’s order to return to Canada with him, instead continuing toward France with his own survivors.

Undismayed by Cartier’s disobedience, Roberval proceeds to Charlesbourg Royal and reestablishes that outpost, then begins exploring Canada. How- ever, although the population of his community is too numerous to be directly assaulted by the Indians, many of the French settlers are ill prepared to withstand the ensuing winter, and so they suffer cruelly from cold, famine, and disease. The next September (1543), they are retrieved by a rescue mission under Paul d’Austillon, Seigneur de Sauveterre, and France’s North American aspirations will be entirely forsaken for the next 60 years.

MID-JULY 1542. In Europe, tensions once more escalate between France and Spain, the Pyrenees becoming the scene of clashes one month later, followed by open declarations of war by both nations before the end of August.

FEBRUARY 1543. Two French ships and a small auxiliary attack San German de Puerto Rico, burning it and making off with four caravels lying in its harbor. A pair of Spanish galleons and two lateen- rigged caravels on the neighboring island of Santo Domingo are manned with 250 volunteers and set out in pursuit under Ginés de Carrion, captain of the galleon San Cristobal. Five days later he returns, having captured the enemy flagship and 40 of its crew, while sinking the smaller French consort.

Despite this victory, San German’s inhabitants are too frightened to return to their dwellings, preferring instead to relocate their town to Santa Maria de los Remedios in Guadianilla Bay (modern Guayanilla).

JUNE 16, 1543. Antillean Sweep. Five French corsair ships and a smaller consort bearing 800 men as- sault Venezuela’s Margarita Island, then the next month burn the once-rich pearl-fishing town of Nuevo Cadiz on adjoining Cubagua, whose population has already declined to scarcely 10 Spanish inhabitants because of the exhaustion of its pearl beds and the devastation suffered by a destructive hurricane on Christmas Day 1541. According to some Spanish sources, these raiders are commanded by Roberval (“Robertval” or “Roberto Baal”), but the French raiders may have borne commissions from him or been intending to visit his Canadian colony on their homeward leg.

JULY 16, 1543. Four of these same large French corsair vessels and a smaller consort arrive undetected before Santa Marta (Colombia), landing be- tween 400 and 500 men the next noon to occupy the port. They remain in possession for seven days, destroying everything of value before retiring with four bronze cannons and other booty.

JULY 24-25, 1543. Under cover of darkness, the French squadron-piloted into Cartagena’s bay by a Spanish turncoat embittered at a punishment received from Lt. Gov. Alonso Vejines-deposits 450 raiders ashore, who then carry this Colombian port with ease in a three-pronged attack. Its newly consecrated bishop, Fr. Francisco de Santamaria y Benavides, and an overawed populace surrender 35,000 pesos in specie, plus another 2,500 from the royal coffers, before the enemy withdraws. The next month, the raiders are anchored off Cape de la Vela, selling their booty to local residents.

SEPTEMBER 7, 1543. A single 20-man vessel detached from this same French squadron pillages a rich Spanish merchantman off Santiago de Cuba, then attempts a disembarkation, only to be repelled by its two-gun battery under Andrés Zamora. The raider emerges from the bay and proceeds westward, intending to reunite with its main force off Isla de Pinos. The French squadron, meanwhile, seizes five vessels in early October that are anchored off the new Spanish town of Santa Maria de los Remedios in Guadianilla Bay (modern Guayanilla), although the raiders are prevented from disembarking.

OCTOBER 31, 1543. The reunited, homeward- bound French squadron appears before Havana, disgorging more than 200 men at San Lazaro Inlet. Advancing across open country, the invaders are checked by fire from La Fuerza Fortress. They retreat toward their ships, leaving behind 20 dead. The rovers then depart the Caribbean altogether via the Straits of Florida.

SEPTEMBER 18, 1544. After an imperial army has fought its way to within sight of Paris, the Treaty of Crepy is signed in Europe, marking an end to this latest round of Franco-Spanish hostilities. Although François I has been constrained by this treaty to recognize Spain’s sovereignty in the Caribbean, some fighting will still persist in the New World. Cuba and Puerto Rico, in particular, continue to be harassed by French interlopers.

LATE OCTOBER 1544. Three French ships prowl past San Juan de Puerto Rico, landing at depleted San German to pillage and burn the town. Off Cape de la Vela (Colombia), another trio of French interlopers intercepts passing vessels; they also sell contra- band items to local Spanish citizens. 1545. Five French corsair vessels and a small auxiliary surprise the new Colombian port town of Riohacha (constituted only as of February 2), seizing five Spanish vessels lying in its roadstead. Unable to disembark, the raiders subsequently arrange a truce with its residents, eventually selling them 70 slaves. A similar visit by these same Frenchmen, albeit entirely peaceful, ensues at Santa Marta.


The Chevalier de Villegagnon

Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon was born at Provins in the Seine-et-Marne region of France sometime in 1510. His father was a local magistrate, who was ennobled a few years later. He died when Nicolas was only 11 years old. Nicolas was already adept at Latin, and his mother sent the young boy that same year to the Hotel de Auges in Paris. He studied at the religious schools of La Manche and Montaigu in preparation for the University of Paris. John Calvin was among his classmates.

Durand graduated from that university in 1530 with a law degree and was admitted to the bar at Orléans. But his attempt to find a post in the Parlement of Paris failed. As a result, he approached his uncle Philippe Villers de l’Isle-Adam, grand master of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, and was admitted into that order the next year, which had just been granted the island of Malta by King François I. (Although his proper name was Nicolas Durand, Seigneur de Villegagnon, this knighthood meant that he became more commonly known as “the Chevalier de Villegagnon.”)

Tall and athletic, the 21-year-old Villegagnon plunged into military and naval pursuits. In 1534, he served as an observer in the fleet gathered at Mallorca by the emperor Charles V to make an attempt against Tunis or Algiers. Six years later, he was sent to the French ambassador in Venice (incidentally befriending the poet François Rabelais). Villegagnon was given a letter from the French king to the Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, and returned to Turin next year with his reply. He also presented François with diagrams of the duke of Milan’s forts.

Pleased with his services, the French government included Villegagnon among the 400 knights of Malta attached to Charles V’s expedition against Algiers in 1541. Although only an observer, Villegagnon was wounded by a lance thrust into his left arm. While convalescing in Rome, he published a brief account of this campaign in Latin. The next year, he was sent to Budapest to report on a clash between the emperor and the Turks. Villegagnon returned in time to take part in the French defeat of the Milanese at Cerisoles and was put in command of the castle at Ponte Stura until 1547.

That same summer, he was recalled by the new French king Henri II to sweep the Brittany coast of English raiders. Villegagnon then sailed his four galleys in 1548 around Scotland and up the River Clyde to Dumbarton Castle to bring away the six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots. More sorties ensued against Scotland and Guernsey, until he was sent to Malta in 1551, which was besieged by the Turks. While bringing back word of the order’s victory, Villegagnon was briefly held in Cremona Castle by the Austrians.

Released thanks to the emperor, Villegagnon was appointed in September 1552 vice admiral of Brittany, with orders to fortify Brest against the English. While engaged in this work, he heard tales of Brazil, so made a discreet visit to Cabo Frio two summers later. He learned that the Portuguese avoided Guanabara Bay because of its hostile natives, so he decided to plant a colony there. Returning to France, he made a four-hour presentation before Henri and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The king agreed late in 1554, granting 11,000 livres toward this project. Villegagnon raised the rest from investors at Dieppe. However, his dream of a Utopian settlement in the New World ended bitterly. He died at Beauvais on January 9, 1571.

JANUARY 17, 1546. More than 100 French raiders under one “Hallebarde” disembark from a caravel and a smaller vessel. They ransack Baracoa in northeastern Cuba, scattering most of its inhabitants inland. The second of these Huguenot craft-after becoming separated in a storm-proceeds westward to Havana, where it extorts 700 ducats to spare its terrified citizenry’s dwellings.

APRIL 17, 1546. Hallebarde sneaks into Santi- ago de Cuba under cover of darkness, boarding a Spanish caravel at dawn that has recently arrived from Tierra Firme or the “Spanish Main” (modern Venezuela-Colombia). In little more than one hour, he carries this vessel out, with its crew still locked below decks, to loot at his leisure-an action described as “of great daring” by Gov.  Antonio de Chavez.

SPRING 1547. Two privately raised Spanish coast- guard caravels capture a French ship off Mona Island. JULY 25, 1547. Henri II ascends the throne of France.

SEPTEMBER 1547. A French ship approaches Santa Marta (Colombia) but retires when its 16- man boat crew is lured inshore and captured.

LATE MAY 1548. A French corsair vessel is sighted prowling off Santo Domingo.

AUGUST 1548. A French two-master sneaks into the harbor at Santa Marta under cover of darkness, and although crewed by only 40 men, sends a boarding party to seize Pedro Diaz’s merchantman in its roadstead. The next dawn, the rovers threaten to burn this prize if a ransom is not paid from the town. When local garrison commander Luis Manjarrés calls out his militiamen, the French bombard the town’s buildings throughout most of the day, killing two black slaves.

Shortly thereafter, these same attackers seize two Spanish caravels farther east off Cape de la Vela, as the caravels make from La Yaguana (modern Léo- gane, Haiti) toward Nombre de Dios. Both Spanish craft are robbed and scuttled.

NOVEMBER 1548. A trio of French vessels are seen prowling off San German de Puerto Rico, Mona Island, and Santo Domingo, allegedly wishing to trade, though the region’s Spanish inhabitants remain too mistrustful to oblige.

AUGUST 1549. A French corsair galliot, propelled by 18 oars per side, falls upon a homeward-bound Spanish convoy off Santo Domingo, cutting out a ship laden with sugar and hides, a caravel bearing 150 slaves, plus two smaller island traders.

NOVEMBER 1550. After pillaging a Spanish caravel off Dominica, the 80-man French ship Sacre of Bordeaux under Capt. Menjouin de La Cabane and a smaller consort attempt to snap up two stragglers from a nine-ship convoy off Santo Domingo; they are repelled by its warship escort. Unfazed, the rovers then descend upon La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti) and rob a pair of Spanish vessels of 20,000 pesos. They make off with one ship as a prize, eventually sailing to Bayonne to dispose of their booty.

LATE DECEMBER 1551. The 42-year-old French Huguenot captain Guillaume Le Testu of Le Havre, sailing past the Island of Trinidade after exploring Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, clashes with two Portuguese ships, and his ship sustains heavy dam- age before winning free and returning to Europe.

APRIL 1552. With hostilities flaring up in Europe between France and Spain, various disembarkations are made by French corsairs on Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, as well as interceptions of four Spanish merchantmen.

JUNE 18, 1552. A French ship becomes becalmed before Nombre de Dios; its 14-man crew is captured.

AUGUST 29, 1552. Three Spanish warships and an auxiliary, manned by 130 men-the coast-guard force for Hispaniola under Cristobal Colon y Toledo, Columbus’s 29-year-old grandson-are lost in a hurricane, along with 16 vessels anchored in Santo Domingo’s harbor.

SEPTEMBER 1552. A French corsair ship and smaller consort pillage a Spanish ship off Santo Domingo before retiring to Saona Island. These same French- men then return to Santo Domingo’s southeastern shore to make off with a ship recently launched at the Zoco River.

EARLY FEBRUARY 1553. A Spanish caravel serving as a dispatch vessel or aviso is taken by French rovers off Mona Island.

MARCH 1553. Le Clerc’s Sweep. A French squadron from Le Havre comprising the royal warships Claude under peg-legged Commo. François le Clerc (alias “Jambe de Bois” or “Pie de Palo”), Espérance under Jacques de Sores, and Aventureux under Robert Blondel arrive in the Antilles accompanied by three large and four small privateers, plus two Spanish prizes seized at Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canaries. They bear a total of 800 men with which to raid Spain’s West Indian outposts.

San German de Puerto Rico, Mona and Saona islands, and Azua are attacked in quick succession before Le Clerc deposits a large landing force on April 29 to sack Monte Cristi on northern Santo Domingo and then La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti), after which the rovers stand back toward Puerto Rico. Spanish residents among the islands feel powerless to resist, for not only are four of these French craft galliots “whose oars ensure none can escape


” but half their total complement consists of harquebusiers. Laden with hides, sarsaparilla, and other booty, the French raiders make a final descent upon Santiago de Cuba before exiting the Caribbean in late May.

MARCH 1554. Having reentered the West Indies the previous month, three French ships under Le Clerc and Sores appear before San Juan de Puerto Rico, and on Palm Sunday-March 18-they raid more than three miles inland near San German. Afterward, they take up station off Saona Island, intercepting Spanish vessels, then later switch their base of operations to Mona Island.

APRIL 29, 1554. Off Cabo Frio (Brazil), the French ship Marie Bellotte of Dieppe captures a Portuguese vessel.

JULY 1, 1554. Destruction of Santiago de Cuba. Le Clerc’s subordinate, the Huguenot corsair Sores of La Rochelle, leads four ships and four smaller auxiliaries into Santiago de Cuba harbor under cover of darkness and slip 300 men ashore; they fall upon its sleeping residents and occupy the city without resistance. Bishop Fernando de Uranga and a half- dozen other prominent citizens are subsequently held hostage for almost a month and a half, until a ransom of 80,000 pesos can be raised. The French thereupon destroy Santiago’s fortress and burn several buildings before retiring on August 16, sparing the church in exchange for all its silver plate.

LATE AUGUST 1554. The French privateers Barbe and Marguerite under Vincent Bocquet of Dieppe, recently arrived in the West Indies, espy five large merchantmen and nine caravels off San German de Puerto Rico who have departed Santo Domingo around August 20 for Spain. Patiently tracking them across the Atlantic for more than 40 days, as far as the Azores, Bocquet finally seizes the caravel Tres Reyes Magos of the master Benito Garcia when it becomes becalmed early in October, along with the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe of Alonso Gonzalez and the Santiago of Diego Marin. The Santa Catalina of Francisco Morales Camacho is furthermore ransacked before sinking, while the Maria of Francisco Hernandez de Leon, the San Andrés of Alonso Cano, and the San Juan of Rodrigo Madera all run aground in the Azores and lose most of their cargoes. The triumphant rovers return home ladened with gold, cochinilla, and pearls, leaving the shrunken remnants of this Spanish convoy to limp into Cadiz by December 7.

OCTOBER 1554. French blockaders encircle the entrance of Santiago de Cuba.

French sweeps through the Caribbean in 1555.

MARCH 1555. Three French ships disembark 150 men on southern Cuba, who march inland and burn Sancti Spiritus.

JULY 10, 1555. Sack of Havana. At dawn, two sails are spotted near this port, piloted by a Spanish renegade. They disgorge several score corsairs a mile and a half away at San Lazaro Inlet, under the Huguenot leader Sores. They advance inland and take Havana’s 12-gun Fuerza battery from the rear, burning its wooden door to gain access, and thereby compelling its two-dozen defenders under alcaide Juan de Lobera to surrender by sunup of July 12. The French then occupy the town and bring four vessels into its harbor to careen.

While in possession of Havana, Sores demands a ransom of 30,000 pesos, bread, and meat in ex- change for sparing its buildings, plus 500 pesos for every Spanish captive that he holds and 100 for each slave. Instead, Gov. Dr. Pérez de Angulo (who has managed to escape into the interior) launches a surprise assault at dawn of July 18 with 35 Spanish, 220 black, and 80 Indian volunteers, only to have this attack repelled; the startled French corsairs slaughter their 30 Spanish prisoners (all except Lobera).

The next morning, a wrathful Sores hangs numerous slaves by their heels at prominent places along Havana’s outskirts, using them for target practice in a brutal gesture intended to discourage any further Spanish assaults. His men then level the town and buildings throughout its surrounding countryside up to five miles inland before finally retiring back out to sea on August 5 with the fort’s 12 cannons.

AUGUST 1555. French Huguenots land at Santa Marta, sacking and burning its churches.

SEPTEMBER 30, 1555. A boatload of 12 French raiders from Guy Mermi’s trio of ships-anchored off Mariel (Cuba)-cut out a Spanish caravel laden with hides.

OCTOBER 4, 1555. Mermi’s trio of French ships penetrates Havana’s harbor, landing 50 men to occupy its town. Discovering it to be still defenseless since Sores’s raid in July, they are followed within a few days by at least a dozen other intruders, who rest their crews and careen their vessels. Foraging parties probe inland, securing some commercial booty-principally hides-before putting back out to sea some three weeks later. This same month, a French assault also occurs at Puerto Plata in northern Santo Domingo.

OCTOBER 25, 1555. In Europe, the emperor Charles V abdicates, dividing his territories between his son, who becomes Philip II of Spain and Sicily, and his brother Maximilian, who becomes the new Holy Roman Emperor.

NOVEMBER 10, 1555. Villegagnon in Brazil. Two well-armed vessels arrive outside Rio de Janeiro’s uninhabited Guanabara Bay (known to the French as Iteronne or Geneve), having departed Dieppe on August 14 with a mixed group of 600 Calvinists and Catholics under 45-year-old Nicolas Durand, Seigneur de Villegagnon, knight commander of the Order of Saint John of Malta and vice admiral of Brittany, who is bearing orders from Adm. Gaspar de Chatillon, Comte de Coligny, to found a new settlement in this region to be called France Australe or “Southern France” (also France Antarctique or “Antarctic France”).

His colonists disembark on Ratier (modern Laje) Island, then transfer northwest on November 13 to nearby Sergipe Island, the name of which is in the process of being changed to Villegagnon (modern Villegaignon Island). Atop this island, they erect a redoubt named Fort de Coligny, with a smaller two-gun battery commanding its channel. A town named Henryville is also founded, and a couple of relatively prosperous years ensue, with the settlers planting crops and enjoying peaceable relations with their Tamoio and Tupinamba neighbors.

The Portuguese governor general Duarte da Costa at Salvador (Bahia) is informed early the next year by Sao Vicente’s regional governor Bras Cubas about this French toehold, but the former treats the report dismissively, believing the foreigners’ presence to be merely a transitory shore camp set up by rovers. Upon realizing its permanent nature, though, King Joao III has his ambassador Joao Pereira Dantas lay protests before the government in Paris and on July 23, 1556, appoints the energetic Mem de Sa to replace the Brazilian governor general. Mem de Sa takes ship from Lisbon in late April 1557 but is slowed by a difficult Atlantic crossing.

The French colonists, in the meantime, have been reinforced on February 26, 1557, by a second expedition of three ships under the flagship Rosée that brings an additional 18 cannon and 300 people under Villegagnon’s nephew Paris Legendre, Sieur de Bois le Compte le Meaux. Religious dissension, however, also arrives with this second contingent, eventually fracturing the colony’s harmony and prompting Villegagnon to revert to Catholicism. A group of Calvinist dissidents departs aboard the old ship Jacques on January 4, 1558, followed by Villegagnon himself in October 1559-four months be- fore Mem de Sa’s first Portuguese descent.

EARLY 1556. A lone French vessel raids Santa Marta, Cabo de la Vela, Puerto Plata, Havana, and Margarita Island.

FEBRUARY 5, 1556. In Europe, a truce-the Treaty of Vaucelles-is arranged between France and Spain, which is meant to endure for five years but promptly begins to break down when the French monarch Henri II sends troops under Henri, Duc de Guise, to Italy that same spring in support of the anti-Spanish machinations of Pope Paul IV.

SPRING 1556. Capt. Guillaume Mesmin of La Rochelle appears in the Antilles with a large ship and smaller auxiliary, manned by 150 men in total, and seizes a Spanish ship that becomes wrecked on Bermuda during its homeward passage.

SUMMER 1556. A couple of skirmishes occur off Jamaica, as its local Spanish authorities succeed in capturing a few French smugglers who have come to trade.

SPRING 1557. Hispano-French warfare resumes openly in Europe, with an army invading France and defeating the forces of Henri II outside St. Quintin by August 19.

NOVEMBER 17, 1557. On orders from the Crown directed to Chile’s governor Jeronimo de Aldunate, the Spanish seaman Juan Fernandez Ladrillero sets sail from the port of Concepcion with his ship San Luis and the San Sebastian under Francisco Cortés de Ojeda to chart the Strait of Magellan. A storm separates the vessels on February 15, 1558, the latter being lost and its crew extemporizing a craft from their wreckage named San Salvador, aboard which they regain Valdivia by October 1. Fernandez Ladrillero has meanwhile struggled into the strait’s western entrance by late July 1558, charting much of its shorelines before reemerging early in March 1559, returning into Valdivia by mid-June.

JANUARY 1558. After a storm-tossed Atlantic voyage, Mem de Sa finally reaches Salvador (Bahia) to assume office as Brazil’s new governor general. His first task is to dispatch his son Fernao de Sa to assist Capt. Vasco Fernandes Coutinho at Espirito Santo, as well as to travel himself to Ilhéus, as both captaincies are in the grip of native unrest.

SPRING 1558. French corsairs renew their West Indian depredations, and the Spanish merchantman Ascension of Capt. Bernaldino Rizo is taken off Saona Island. Four French ships out of Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz also sack Puerto Caballos (modern Puerto Cortés, Honduras).

JUNE 1558. French vessels appear within Santiago de Cuba’s vast harbor, occupying its desolated town for 10 to 12 days before receiving a meager ransom of 400 pesos, then departing.

EARLY 1559. Seven French corsair vessels under Jean Martin Cotes and Jean Bontemps appear off Santa Marta (Colombia), taking a small amount of booty, against token opposition. APRIL 3, 1559. In Europe, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis is signed between Philip II of Spain and Henri II of France, marking an end to the Habsburg- Valois Wars.

The Most Perilous Moment of the War: ‘I am convinced that man is mad’ July–November 1942 Part I

It is well that we should avoid unwarranted complacency and remind ourselves that if we did win the last war it was not without moments of extreme peril.

Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke [below] at a Unionist luncheon in Belfast, 1949

No sooner had one great argument between the British and Americans ended than the next ones began, primarily over the issues of where, when and how to carry out Operation Torch. Marshall wanted to land on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, and gradually move eastwards along the coast towards Algiers, whereas Brooke wanted to land at Casablanca and Algiers but also further east too, indeed as far to the east as possible, in order swiftly to gain control of the vital channel between Tunisia and Sicily, over which the Afrika Korps was resupplied. The final compromise, which was to attack at eight points along the North and North-west African coast, three near Casablanca, two near Oran and three near Algiers–but nothing further eastwards–came about only once Roosevelt and Churchill intervened.

‘No staff officer as far as I know, certainly none in the Operations Division, recommended the North African operation,’ recalled General Hull, ‘but they supported it completely once the decision had been made.’ When it came to departmental unanimity, or group-think, the OPD was even more monolithic than the British Planners. Even thirty years later, speaking to the SOOHP, Generals Hull and Handy had views so similar on almost every aspect of personality and strategy that they might have been Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

On the debate with the British Chiefs of Staff, Hull said the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘insisted on going to the west coast of Africa because we wanted a foot toward the home base so that at least we could get out of there and we couldn’t see [ourselves] throwing everything into the Mediterranean. The Germans could have gone right down to Gibraltar most any time they wanted to…We were scared to death they would come down there even after we went into North Africa.’ It was the reason that the US 3rd Division was held back from the Tunisian campaign until almost the last moment. The Straits of Gibraltar, only 8 miles wide, Handy said, provided ‘a focal point for the German subs, too’.

There was also the question of who was going to command Operation Torch. In CCS 94 the British had accepted that this would be an American. After a long talk with Marshall on 30 July, Dill telegraphed Churchill and Brooke urging that Marshall himself was ‘clearly the man for the job, and I believe he would accept. Equally clearly, he cannot be spared from here at present, but Eisenhower could well act with his authority.’ Because Roosevelt had not yet approached Marshall–which Dill thought ‘may be due to the President’s fear of losing him’–and the self-effacing general did not wish to canvass for the job, Marshall wanted Churchill and Brooke to initiate discussions. Dill warned that the ‘risk of whittling’ forces away to the Pacific ‘may still exist’, but the President was ‘entirely sound on this point’.

Roosevelt might well have been sound, but there was a very definite whittling away of resources towards the Pacific going on. Although the Commander-in-Chief made grand strategy, he could not effectively prevent the US Navy pursuing a de facto Japan First-Equal policy, and for the rest of 1942 ‘resources flowed as fast to the Pacific–where the struggle for the Solomon Islands had begun in August–as they did to the Mediterranean, while those to the UK died to a trickle.’ Guadalcanal was invaded on 7 August and fierce fighting ensued there until February.

Dill also thought it wise, since Sledgehammer was now moribund, for the Americans ‘to delegate the planning and preparations for Sledgehammer to someone else, obviously a Britisher’, so that Eisenhower could concentrate entirely on Torch. (The term ‘Britisher’ is not one Britons use, making this cable from Dill sound all the more like one initiated by Marshall, unless it was meant facetiously or jokingly, or Dill really had gone as native as some in the War Office thought.) Churchill ordered the lines to Washington to be cleared for a ‘most secret, most immediate cipher telegram’ to Dill, which stated: ‘I am sure that the President’s wish is full steam ahead Torch at earliest possible moment. We regard this as decided absolutely with overriding priority. No one here is thinking of anything else. You should ask to see the President urgently.’ Dill replied that the President had ‘issued orders for full steam ahead’ on Torch, adding that the Americans believed that Torch made Roundup impossible before 1944. This might have been chagrin on Marshall’s part, or perhaps Themistoclean foresight in already spotting the way that 1943 would be spent following up Torch in places far from the beaches of north-western France.

Churchill cabled Roosevelt the next day, sending a copy to Brooke, to say that he would be grateful for an early decision about the commanders of Bolero, Sledgehammer, Roundup and Torch. ‘It would be agreeable to us if General Marshall were designated for the Supreme Command of Roundup and that in the meantime General Eisenhower should act as his deputy here.’ Meanwhile he would appoint General Alexander as the British Task Force commander to work under Eisenhower. ‘Both these men would work at Torch and General Eisenhower would also for the time being supervise the Bolero–Sledgehammer business,’ wrote Churchill. ‘It seems important to act quickly, as committees are too numerous and too slow.’ Yet Roosevelt was curiously tardy in making a decision about Marshall and Torch–it was to happen again, in even slower motion, with Overlord–and Churchill got no direct reply to this request even though Roosevelt wanted action in North Africa before the mid-term elections less than four months hence.

Instead, that same day at 12.10 p.m., Roosevelt–who was weekending at Hyde Park–asked Hopkins to put a series of questions to Marshall, who drew up ‘a hasty reply’ that nevertheless neatly encapsulates the general’s strategic thinking at that time.8 When FDR asked whether there were any moves the United States could make that might favourably affect the situation in the Middle East, Marshall replied, ‘No, none that can affect the immediate situation.’ He argued that the maximum number of planes was already en route to Cairo and that any more could not be properly serviced by the American personnel there. ‘What is your personal opinion about the coming course of events?’ Marshall answered that G-2 (US Military Intelligence) estimated that Rommel would be in Cairo in one week, whereas US Army Operations thought two, with one week to refit before he undertook ‘the destruction of the remaining British forces’.

With prognostications as doleful as that, it was understandable that Marshall did not want to throw USAAF squadrons into the fray. His view was that he would be able to judge General Auchinleck’s position in the Western Desert better forty-eight hours hence, and that if the Auk could check Rommel the long German supply lines from Tunis might place the Afrika Korps in a difficult position. After discussing British plans to block the Suez Canal in the event of defeat–which Dill estimated would take six months to reopen–Marshall suggested that the defeated British would retreat to the upper Nile, Mosul, Basra, Palestine, Aden and Colombo, while the defence of the Iraqi oil fields from Rommel ‘would depend upon success of Russian defense in the North’.

To Roosevelt’s question about whether America could hold Syria against Rommel, Marshall was frank. With the Mediterranean open to Germany but not the United States, the American Army would have to send nine divisions and about ten air groups, ‘an expansion far beyond our capacity’. As for defending Basra and the Black Sea, the Germans would be in a far better position than the Americans, who would have ‘long and vulnerable’ lines of communication through the Mediterranean. Consequently, ‘A major effort in this region would bleed us white.’ The conclusion was obvious: the United States could do nothing to prevent Rommel’s victory in the Western Desert from denying Middle Eastern oil to the Allies. For America, which took most of her oil from the western hemisphere, this would not be so dire; for Britain it was much more serious.

Marshall’s sober assessment of what would happen if Cairo fell was far too pessimistic about Auchinleck’s chances of preventing it happening. It nonetheless ought to have enthused Roosevelt all the more for the surprise attack on Rommel’s rear in the west and on his hundreds of miles of vulnerable supply lines in the east. Almost every can of petrol poured into panzers close to the Egyptian border had to be taken there by lorry down a very long coastal road through Libya. In the War Office, the Director of Military Operations, John Kennedy, noted that ‘Auchinleck is now on the last line of defence for Egypt. And in a war in which the defence has been so unsuccessful this is not a happy situation.’ The Second World War had indeed been, at least until the battle that was about to begin at Stalingrad, a conflict where all the laurels had so far gone to those who took the offensive.

It can hardly have come as much of a surprise to Roosevelt when Churchill told him that he was going to Cairo the next day, taking along Brooke, Smuts and Wavell. He wished to investigate personally why Auchinleck was being so cautious. That same day, Churchill received a message from Stalin inviting him to Moscow ‘to consider jointly the urgent questions of war against Hitler’, and adding, ‘The presence of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff would be extremely desirable.’ Churchill and Brooke had never met Stalin, and although they knew that they could expect a freezing reception as a result of cancelling Sledgehammer and postponing Roundup, they accepted immediately. Churchill then asked Eden’s advice about whether Beaverbrook should be invited along on the trip to Egypt and Moscow, saying: ‘I like to have a pal with me.’ Eden advised that since ‘Max was an object not only of suspicion but hatred to many, it would not be politic’.  Brooke would go, of course, but he could never have been counted as a ‘pal’ of the Prime Minister.

Jan Christian Smuts, by contrast, was held in very high esteem by Churchill, Brooke and the British public as a whole, and not just because he had managed to bring South Africa into the war against Germany in 1939. The British have long demonstrated a soft spot for brave, defeated former foes, and in 1901 Smuts had been in command of the Boer forces fighting against them in Cape Colony. Smuts was lionized in Britain, in that strange way that also happened to other antagonists such as Napoleon after his surrender, King Cetewayo of the Zulus, Mahatma Gandhi during the 1920s, and even Erwin Rommel during the Desert War. Over lunch at Buck’s Club in November 1942–stout and oysters, steak and kidney pie, two bottles of claret–Churchill told Eden and Lord Cranborne that Smuts was how he imagined Socrates might have been like.

At the War Cabinet of 1 August, Churchill said Auchinleck’s report indicating that he would not resume offensive operations before mid-September was ‘very depressing’ and he was flying out in order to arrange ‘a more vigorous handling of matters’. This was a euphemism for Auchinleck returning to his job as commander-in-chief Middle East and someone else taking over the day-to-day command of the Eighth Army. On the morning of 3 August, Churchill and Brooke flew into Cairo West, an airfield on the Alexandria road 25 miles north-west of the Egyptian capital, and stayed at the British Embassy. ‘Instead of sitting at home waiting for news from the front,’ Churchill later wrote, ‘I could send it myself. This was exhilarating.’ Jan Smuts arrived in time for lunch, over which he teased the Prime Minister for not giving the British people ‘truly spiritual inspiration’, such as Gandhi gave the Indians. Churchill replied that he had appointed no fewer than six bishops that year, and ‘If that’s not spiritual inspiration, what is?’ ‘But has that done any good?’ asked Smuts, whereupon Churchill went on the offensive, saying to the South African Prime Minister: ‘You are responsible for all our troubles in India–you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: ‘When I put him in prison–three times–all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’

After the war, Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur Tedder, who had commanded the RAF in the Middle East, recalled that Churchill, ‘fretting that there was to be no offensive action until September’, urged Brooke that Auchinleck should turn the Eighth Army over to Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott, commander of XIII Corps and an outstanding desert fighter. Brooke, who unlike Churchill knew Gott, had the highest opinion of his abilities but judged him ‘very tired’. (He based this on a letter Gott had written to his wife, that Brooke had somehow got to hear about.) In the early hours, Churchill offered Brooke himself the Eighth Army command. ‘I shall have a job to convince him that I am unsuited for the job,’ Brooke recorded at the time, ‘having never been trained in the desert.’

In contrast to this laconic, stiff-upper-lipped contemporaneous dismissal of the idea, Brooke admitted years after the war that Churchill’s suggestion ‘gave rise to the most desperate longings in my heart! I had tasted the thrill of commanding a formation in war…For sheer thrill and excitement it stood in a category by itself, and not to be compared to a Staff appointment. Even that of CIGS, when working for a man like Winston, must mean constant frustration, friction, and untold difficulties in achieving the results one was after.’ With many of the preparations already in place for what was soon to be the battle of El Alamein, Brooke might well have been in the position of the national–indeed international–hero that fell instead to his protégé Bernard Montgomery.

On the afternoon of 5 August, Brooke visited Eighth Army HQ for tea with Auchinleck. ‘I was much impressed by the beauty of the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean along this coast,’ he noted. ‘The colour is caused by specially white sand along this coast line.’ He was less impressed with Gott, whose HQ he had just left and who he thought would not be as energetic as Montgomery in command of the Eighth Army, and equally unimpressed with Auchinleck.

Brooke recorded Thursday 6 August as ‘One of the most difficult days of my life, with momentous decisions to take as far as my own future and that of the war was concerned’. While he was getting dressed that morning, ‘and practically naked’, Churchill suddenly ‘burst’ into his room ‘Very elated’ and told him that ‘his thoughts were taking shape and that he would soon commit himself to paper!’ Brooke ‘rather shuddered and wondered what he was up to!’14 Ten minutes later the Prime Minister ‘burst’ into Brooke’s room again and invited him to breakfast. For an upper-class Ulsterman of conventional mien, one can understand that Brooke found working with Churchill discombobulating at times, but, as Colonel Aubertin Mallaby pointed out, there were no ‘off’ times for the Prime Minister; he was thinking about the war every waking hour.

Over breakfast, Churchill outlined his plan to split the Middle East Command into two, between a Near East stretching along the coast of North Africa to the Suez Canal and a Middle East comprising Syria, Palestine, Persia and Iraq. He wanted to move Auchinleck to the latter as he had ‘lost confidence in him’. He then offered Brooke the Near East Command, with Montgomery as his Eighth Army commander. ‘This made my heart race very fast!!’ wrote Brooke, who was offered a short time to think it over. He nonetheless declined ‘without waiting’, giving as his overt reasons his ignorance of desert warfare and the fact that he would ‘never have time to grip hold of the show to my satisfaction before the necessity to attack became imperative’. Neither argument was convincing: Montgomery was not a desert general either, but he managed to ‘grip hold of the show’ quickly enough before El Alamein.

Privately, as he told his diary, Brooke also felt that after working with Churchill for almost nine months he finally believed that he could ‘exercise a limited amount of control on some of his activities and that at last he is beginning to take my advice’. By implication, he thought that the Vice-CIGS Archie Nye or someone else might not have been able to restrain the Prime Minister, and he was probably right. Churchill was not pleased with Brooke’s refusal, ‘but accepted it well’. Only afterwards did Smuts–clearly encouraged by the Prime Minister–take Brooke aside to try to persuade him to take up the offer, telling him ‘what a wonderful future’ he would have if he defeated Rommel. This was no more than the truth: the achievements of ‘Alex’ and ‘Monty’ are known by millions around the world today, that of Brooke only by the cognoscenti of grand strategy.

Brooke was not persuaded by Smuts, not least because, as a gentleman, he couldn’t bear the idea that Auchinleck ‘might think that I had come out here on purpose to work myself into his shoes!’ He thought over the offer throughout the day, but remained convinced that his decision was the correct one, and that he could ‘do more by remaining as CIGS’. By putting his commitment to the wider war effort above any personal ambition for fame, or desire for the ‘thrill’ of independent command, Brooke did his country a very great service. We assume that politicians are driven by personal ambition, but soldiers are too, and although in career terms to swap the job of CIGS for Near East commander-in-chief might have looked like a demotion, in fact it would have afforded, as Smuts intimated, a ‘wonderful future’.

At a lunch party of the Army Council at the Dorchester Hotel in November 1943, Smuts claimed it had been his idea to appoint Brooke commander-in-chief Near East, and that Brooke had replied: ‘This is a very tempting thing–but my place is by the Prime Minister,’ a view Brooke reiterated after sleeping on it. ‘That was a great thing to do,’ concluded Smuts.16 One of those present later wondered whether Brooke ever regretted his decision, and concluded that ‘Knowing now the victorious campaign that was to follow he would hardly be human if he did not.’ The fact that he decided to stay beside a near-unmanageable prime minister, because he felt that no one else could do the job, thereby missing his chance of victorious generalship after a lifetime’s training for it, might well explain his exasperation with Churchill on so many occasions thereafter.

Churchill explained Brooke’s decision in his memoirs as having been taken because ‘he had only been CIGS for eight months, he believed he had my full confidence, and the Staff machine was working very smoothly. Another change at this moment might cause a temporary dislocation at this critical time.’ Was Churchill being disingenuous with Brooke, and vice versa? Might Churchill have offered the post because he wanted a more malleable CIGS? The secret reason why Brooke declined was that he feared that might be the case. When the American serialization of The Hinge of Fate was published in 1950, Brooke wrote to Henry Pownall, who was researching the next volume for the former Prime Minister, to say that Churchill had entirely ignored two of the three reasons he had refused the Near East command, so Churchill inserted them in the British edition. As Professor David Reynolds comments, ‘It must have been galling to Brooke that Churchill had clearly forgotten “one of the most difficult days of my life”.’

On the evening of 6 August, Churchill sent the War Cabinet a telegram whose terms had been agreed by Brooke and Smuts. This proposed an immediate splitting off of Persia and Iraq from the Middle East Command, making them an independent Army command, just as he had proposed to Brooke that morning. This command would be offered to Auchinleck, whom Churchill didn’t want to lose altogether. He believed–or professed to–that if Auchinleck had earlier been freed from responsibilities covering the Levant and Caspian Sea he might have been able ‘to concentrate his forces in the Western Desert, turned the scale and given us a victory instead of a defeat’. Meanwhile, as Jacob recorded, Brooke agreed with the plan, ‘though for a rather different reason. He felt that it was wrong for an area of such vital importance as Persia and Iraq to remain any longer as the Cinderella of either the Middle East or of India.’ As so often, when Brooke and Churchill agreed on something, it happened–even if they came to the decision for different reasons.

Brooke and Churchill also agreed that Alexander should succeed Auchinleck in Cairo, Lieutenant-General Thomas Corbett and Brigadier Eric Dorman-Smith were to leave their commands altogether, and Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott was to lead the Eighth Army, although Brooke had misgivings about this. Yet on his way to take up his new command the very next day, 7 August, flying the Burg el Arab to Heliopolis route, which was considered safe, Gott’s slow transport plane was shot down ‘in flames’ by a lone German fighter. Churchill and Brooke then quickly settled on the man whom Brooke had wanted originally, Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery.

The War Cabinet meeting in London on 7 August was a good illustration of the way that Churchill and Brooke dominated military policy even in their absence. It had met at 11.15 p.m. to consider the plan to divide the Middle East Command, but before the meeting ended at 2 a.m. on the 8th a telegram arrived saying that Gott had been killed. Archie Nye said that the situation was: ‘In [the] hands of [the] PM and CIGS. They have in mind a General Montgomery. Not enough [is] known of the form of commanders to know that any particular man will fit the bill.’ The use of the indefinite article before Montgomery’s name led Burgis to assume, as he told Churchill’s son Randolph years later, that none ‘of those present knew him from a crow then’.

At the meeting, Bevin pointed out that it was a ‘Strong team. PM, Smuts, CIGS’ and for the War Cabinet it was ‘Difficult to arrive at a concrete judgment at this distance’. To this Attlee added that he would like to see Alexander running the Eighth Army with Wavell in overall command of the Middle East; however, ‘We must either put up counterproposals or acquiesce.’ They acquiesced, telegraphing the Prime Minister to say: ‘As you, Smuts and CIGS who are on the spot are all in agreement, we are prepared to authorise action proposed.’ Frankly, anything else was unthinkable, and there is no example during the war of a united Churchill and Brooke being overridden on a military issue by the War Cabinet. So Montgomery flew out from Britain, taking up his command on 12 August.

In Washington, meanwhile, Henry Stimson was still deeply pessimistic about any operations in North Africa, and on 10 August he made Marshall promise that he would take a final stand against Operation Torch if ‘it seemed clearly headed for disaster’. Marshall had no difficulty in making that promise, which was after all no more than his duty, but it is indicative of the lack of confidence felt by many senior strategists at the time. Stimson’s doubts remained, and as late as 17 September he was writing that the undertaking was risky but, ‘the Commander-in-Chief having made the decision’, it had to be seen through.

Stimson also drew up a sharp note to the President that he did not eventually send, but of which he gave a copy to Marshall. ‘The objections to the hazards of Torch had been stated to you in previous conferences with your advisers,’ it read, ‘and the objection that it was a purely defensive operation instead of an offensive was inserted in the London memorandum on the Chief of Staff’s sole insistence and against British opposition.’ Marshall and the Staff now ‘believe the operation should not be undertaken’. Stimson foresaw a risk of defeat in Africa that would emasculate Roundup until 1944, and thought that Torch wouldn’t help Russia either.

In its somewhat formal summation of recent history, and reiteration of what Roosevelt already well knew, the draft read more like the preamble to a resignation, but it merely ended with an ‘earnest recommendation’ that ‘before an irrevocable decision is made upon the Torch operation you should make yourself familiar with the present views of these your military advisers.’ Stimson might have been using this unsent letter much as Brooke used his journal–partly to let off steam–and a surprising number of people do write letters they never truly intend to send, for precisely that purpose. Yet Stimson would hardly have written in such terms if Marshall had supported Torch wholeheartedly.

From 12 to 15 August, Churchill and Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Stalin, conferred with the Russians in Moscow. Because of the danger of a fire in their B-24 Liberator bomber, Brooke, Cadogan, Wavell, Jacob and Tedder had been forced to turn back to Teheran, and only arrived on the 13th. They therefore missed a four-hour meeting with Stalin from 7 to 11 p.m. on Wednesday 12 August, of which, Churchill reported to Roosevelt, the first two hours were ‘bleak and sombre’. The Prime Minister explained at length with maps why Sledgehammer–which he and Roosevelt had promised Molotov in writing back in June–had been indefinitely postponed. Stalin argued hard the other way, and as Churchill reported to Washington, ‘Everybody was pretty glum. Finally he said that he did not accept our view but we had the right to decide.’

Everyone cheered up once Churchill passed on to what he called ‘the ruthless bombing of Germany’. He then brought up Operation Torch, at which Stalin ‘became intensely interested’. The conversation ranged over the whole of the rest of the war in the west, with Churchill concluding that once ‘Brooke and the others arrive…the military authorities on both sides are to sit together and check up both on strategy and technical detail.’ The British military authorities arrived safely in a Russian plane at a small aerodrome on the outskirts of Moscow at 7.45 p.m. the next day and were taken straight to State Villa No. 7, where Churchill was staying, for a debriefing. After dinner, the British party and Harriman set off for the Kremlin at 11 p.m. ‘It was a dark night,’ wrote Jacob, ‘and Moscow is completely blacked out. No headlights are allowed on cars, so that we crawled along at a very slow pace. As a result we were half an hour late.’

They were conducted to the 600-square-foot office inhabited by Stalin, whose desk was tucked away on the right-hand side at the far end. Two pictures of Lenin and one of Marx provided the only decoration. Stalin was lounging in a chair sideways on to the table at the head, puffing at a large, curled pipe. After everyone had taken their places, with Brooke next to Churchill and only the interpreter on his other side, the meeting started, badly, with another ‘desultory argument about the possibility of a second front and similar matters’.

Jacob wrote that Stalin spoke ‘in a very low, gentle voice, with an occasional gesture of the right hand, and never looked the Prime Minister in the face’. The reason he averted his eyes was that ‘Stalin was coming out with all kinds of insulting remarks, but one could not really tell whether they were being faithfully put across by Pavlov, because his vocabulary was limited.’ Stalin’s translator, Vladimir Pavlov, was in fact excellent. At this first meeting with Churchill his English was hesitant, but he would take great care not to distort Stalin’s words. Stalin was simply intending to be as rude as possible and ‘was suggesting that we were not prepared to operate on the Continent because we were frightened of the Germans’.

According to Jacob’s minutes, the entire conversation was carried on by Stalin and Churchill, with only four short interventions by Harriman and one by Tedder. At the post-mortem back at Churchill’s villa, Harriman suggested that the explanation ‘was probably that Stalin had to adopt an uncompromising attitude at one stage of the negotiations, in order to satisfy his own people’. That too was absurd, but indicative of the way that many Westerners still failed to recognize that Stalin was an all-powerful dictator–indeed, as the title of a recent biography puts it, ‘the Red Tsar’.

Four months later, Brooke threw a dinner party in Chelsea where he gave his views of Stalin, saying that the Marshal ‘gave him the creeps. He looked pale and even grey with the flesh hanging from the bones of his face. Stalin did not “register” when Winston came into the room–it might have been a footman.’ Brooke added that the Russian dictator showed ‘no sign of humanity except once when he said to Churchill, before the interpreter could translate an impassioned speech, “I like your sentence although I do not know what it means.”’

On 14 August the traffic situation in Moscow could not have been more different. This time in daylight they ‘drove through the streets entirely regardless of red and green lights, or of policemen or pedestrian crossings. If there are pedestrians in the way, so much the worse for them.’ Brooke’s was ‘a peculiarly carefree driver. He never actually had a crash, but he ran down one man, who was then extricated from the wheels, and moved away to one side, so that the car could go on. The drivers treat the citizens like so many cattle.’ With the experience of the loss of his first wife, Brooke could not have found this pleasant.

The meeting on 15 August went badly. At noon Brooke went to the Soviet Government Hospitality House, 17 Spiridonovka Street, to deliver a statement and discuss the Second Front with Marshal Voroshilov and Marshal Shaposhnikov, the Russian Chief of Staff, who both displayed what Brooke considered an astonishing lack of understanding of how to attack over large stretches of salt water. ‘Finally,’ recorded Jacob, ‘the CIGS told them that the Americans and ourselves had come to very definite conclusions on this subject and were not prepared to alter them.’ Voroshilov then refused to discuss the fighting in the Caucasus with Brooke, who in turn replied that he had not been authorized to discuss Torch with him.

It was on this visit that Churchill made the error, while attempting to explain to Stalin the attractions of attacking the Axis from the south before attempting an invasion of France, of drawing a sketch of a crocodile with, he said, a ‘soft underbelly’. Once the image was lodged in the Prime Minister’s mind, he used the concept of ‘attacking the under-belly of the Axis’ in a letter to Roosevelt the following month, and subsequently to other audiences on other occasions until it became a well-known phrase associated with him. Given that the future struggles in the south–especially in the Italian peninsula–were to be anything but soft, it was to be a gaffe that would long be held against him. The one disadvantage of having such a vivid, fizzing imagination and verbal dexterity as Churchill was that the law of averages meant that very occasionally it must misfire, and when it did a memorable but ultimately unfortunate phrase was born.

When they were in Teheran on their way back home from Moscow–which also involved travelling to Cairo, El Alamein and Gibraltar–Churchill and Brooke heard of yet another disaster for British Commonwealth forces, to add to Dunkirk, Narvik, Greece, Crete, Singapore and Tobruk. An operation to attack the French Channel port of Dieppe that they had authorized, but then left entirely up to Lord Louis Mountbatten, as director of combined operations, had resulted in catastrophe. At dawn on 19 August, 252 ships, thirty tanks and 6,100 men–two Canadian infantry brigades totalling over five thousand men and over one thousand Commandos–had taken part in Operation Jubilee. It was intended as a ‘reconnaissance in force’, but had no clear follow-up plan. Even at this distance of time, it is hard to know what the Dieppe Raid was meant to achieve.

A small German convoy in the Channel alerted the shore defences before the assault could take place, so the element of surprise was lost, yet Mountbatten ordered it to go ahead anyhow. The tanks landed on the shingle beach but could not negotiate the sea wall successfully. German machine-guns accounted for most of the 4,100 Allied casualties, more than two-thirds of the attack force. The Canadians lost 907 killed and 1,874 captured; the Royal Navy suffered 550 casualties; the RAF and RCAF lost ninety-nine planes, the worst single-day total of the war, including during the battle of Britain. The Germans by contrast lost only 314 killed and 37 captured.

Although no German troops were moved from east to west as a result of the débâcle, coastal defences were massively strengthened. ‘If I had the same decision to make again,’ Mountbatten nonetheless averred, ‘I would do as I did before. It gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory.’ This is tripe, unless the lesson of not attacking a well-defended town without proper intelligence and a preliminary aerial and naval bombardment is a ‘priceless secret’, rather than the kind of assumption a lance-corporal might have made. Yet even as late as 2003 historians would still take Mountbatten at his word, with one writing: ‘The catastrophe provided priceless lessons for a full-scale amphibious invasion.’

(It is surprising how little influence the Canadians enjoyed in the higher direction of the Second World War. They had the world’s third largest navy at one point, pushed furthest inland of any of the armies on D-Day, were fabulously generous to British coffers throughout the war, contributing much more than the Americans per capita, and provided the only two armed and trained divisions standing between the south coast and London after Dunkirk. Yet they had virtually no say on the various bodies that ultimately decided how, when and where Canadians would fight.)

The writer Leonard Mosley claimed in 1971 that ‘The only people in any way satisfied by the Raid were those advisers of Winston Churchill, like Cherwell and Sir Alan Brooke, who thought it would prove to the Americans once and for all that a Second Front across the Channel was unthinkable for at least another year.’ Brooke had served with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and admired them. The idea that he could have taken any satisfaction in so many of them being killed, wounded and captured is monstrous. ‘The casualties were undoubtedly far too heavy,’ Brooke commented in his diary; ‘to lose 2,700 men out of 5,000 on such an enterprise is too heavy a cost.’ Furthermore he did not in fact use the Dieppe Raid as an argument against Roundup, because both he and Marshall knew that in both size and objective a reconnaissance in force was very different from a full-scale invasion, and by the time Dieppe was undertaken Sledgehammer was already off the table for 1942.

On Friday 21 August, Sir John Dill threw a dinner party at his London flat for Eisenhower, Mark Clark and Thomas Handy, the War Office strategists Nye and Kennedy, and the new commander of the First Army in North Africa, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson. Dill told them that Marshall worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. then ‘went out on the river with his wife and took a picnic supper or something of that sort’, before going back to work. He also said ‘what a fine and powerful agent’ Marshall was with Roosevelt, and spoke of Brooke’s relations with Churchill.29 Infuriatingly, the next paragraph in Kennedy’s diary was later very heavily scored through in ink on the Whitehall foolscap writing paper.

After dinner, the group settled down to discuss Operation Torch. Kennedy said the present plan–to attack Casablanca and Algiers but not Oran–‘would lead to a fiasco’ because the numbers involved needed to be trebled. Dill was non-committal, as was Nye, since, Kennedy wrote, ‘both have more formal positions to preserve vis-à-vis the Americans than I have.’ Anderson sided with Kennedy. Ike was also non-committal, beyond saying that so far no one had said ‘anything cheerful’ about the plan. The Americans left around 10.30 p.m., after which Kennedy said, ‘It was almost incredible that after the Americans had been in the war for a year, their share of this plan should be so small. It is perfectly obvious that their hearts are not in it (anyhow King’s) and that the Pacific War is eating up resources that should be here.’ He further accused them of not carrying out the agreed ‘Germany first then Japan’ strategy. Copying the complaint Marshall often made about overall British strategy, Kennedy said that the Torch plan suffered from lack of ‘concentration of effort’.

Dill then asked why the War Office had had ‘no outline plan’ for Torch ready when Marshall had visited in July, a direct criticism of Kennedy as director of military operations. Kennedy responded that the project had only come up during the visit. ‘Before he came we intended only to press for the continuation of the American movement to this country and then to decide how to use the forces.’ The Torch plan ‘had therefore started from the top without a detailed examination’. Now that his War Office Planners had looked at it carefully, Kennedy said, ‘we find that the difficulties especially of maintenance and shipping are greater than had been anticipated and that the forces are not nearly big enough.’ This brought the conversation round to Churchill, and Dill said that the Prime Minister had ruined Auchinleck by having ‘pressed and harnessed’ him. ‘In fact he has dwarfed him just as he dwarfs and reduces others around him.’

Kennedy’s defence of himself to Dill reinforces the suspicion that Torch–then still called Gymnast–was decided upon by Churchill and Roosevelt at Hyde Park, and that they subsequently prevailed upon the Chiefs of Staffs, Brooke because it was the only offensive alternative to Jupiter, Sledgehammer and Roundup, and Marshall because Brooke had blocked Sledgehammer and Roundup. When Kennedy said Torch had ‘come from the top’ he was more right than maybe even he knew. The reason he did not have a presentable version of it ready for Marshall’s visit was perhaps because Brooke was known not fully to approve of it.

On Sunday 23 August 1942 the German Sixth Army launched Operation Blue, the all-out offensive to capture the city of Stalingrad, the industrial (especially armaments) centre on the River Volga, home to six hundred thousand Russians. At 4 p.m. the 16th Panzer Division moved into the outskirts of the city and thereafter a quarter of a million German troops laid day-and-night siege while one thousand German planes bombed the city, which had virtually no anti-aircraft defences, into mountains of rubble and corpses.

Hitherto the Germans, fighting in open country, had managed to force the Soviet Army back further and further, but at Stalingrad house-to-house combat blunted their advantage and played to the strengths of the far more numerous Russians. Instead of tanks and mobile artillery, the weapons that mattered most were grenades, bayonets, sniper rifles, small arms and sometimes even spades as the Russian Sixty-second Army was mobilized to defend the metropolis that bore their leader’s name. By 12 September, German troops had got inside the city, and the next day took some key positions, such as the ferry terminal, which changed hands thrice in two hours. (The train station is said to have changed hands no fewer than sixteen times in the course of the battle.)

By 27 September two-thirds of Stalingrad was in the Germans’ hands as a result of vicious, merciless fighting they termed Rattenkriege (rat warfare). The Russians used the sewers to stage counter-attacks, but by 11 November they controlled only about one-tenth of the west bank of the city. Such waste of strength over a place that was no longer strategically valuable could have only one explanation: prestige. Hitler had publicly promised that Stalingrad would be taken; his eponymous city was equally totemic for Stalin. In mid-November, Russian forces numbering over one million men under Georgi Zhukov smashed through the Roumanian army north and south of Stalingrad and on the 23rd Red Army units met each other at Kalach, thereby trapping the Sixth Army within the city.

The outcome was by no means certain even then, however. The superiority of German combat efficiency over that of the Russians in the early part of the war meant that, on average, ‘one German division was a match for three Russian divisions of comparable size and firepower, and that under favourable circumstances of defence, one German division theoretically could–and often actually did–hold off as many as seven comparable Russian divisions’. Nonetheless, attempts to relieve Stalingrad failed, and Hitler refused to countenance a break-out. The stalemate continued through the rest of 1942.

The Most Perilous Moment of the War: ‘I am convinced that man is mad’ July–November 1942 Part II

It was Stalingrad that finally, in Stimson’s words, ‘banished the spectre of a German victory in Russia, which had haunted the Council table of the Allies for a year and a half’. It also greatly reduced the likelihood of a German attack through Spain, cutting off the American forces from their supply lines. Just as Wellington’s campaign in the Iberian peninsula had been a small but significant ‘ulcer’ for Napoleon, but certainly not the Russian ‘coronary’ that destroyed him, so too the North African and Italian campaigns would be ulcerous for Hitler, but it was the Eastern Front that annihilated the Nazi dream of Lebensraum (‘living space’) for the ‘master race’. Four in every five German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front, an inconvenient fact for any historian who wishes to make too much of the Western Allies’ contribution to the victory.

Between 24 August, when Churchill received what he called the ‘bombshell’ news that Brooke and Marshall were deadlocked over Torch–with Marshall wanting to attack only Casablanca and possibly Oran, but Brooke wanting Algiers too–and 2 September, when Roosevelt changed his mind and supported the inclusion of Algiers, there was renewed transatlantic struggle between the Staffs. Marshall feared that the American forces would get cut off if they landed too far east; Brooke wanted to try to stop Rommel escaping from Tripoli, and so wanted to land as far eastwards as possible. Moran thought that Churchill ‘was never so unhappy as when he was at odds with his military advisers or his American allies’, but when he had to make a choice between them, he came down firmly on Brooke’s side, not least because he had emphasized to Stalin the comprehensive nature of Torch.

At 11 a.m. on 24 August, Kennedy and Major-General Francis Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence, were summoned to Churchill’s private rooms in the No. 10 Annexe. ‘Winston lay in bed in his black dressing gown with dragons, a half-sucked cigar in his mouth which he lit and re-lit during the next hour and a half, without making any appreciable progress with it, a glass of water on the table beside him.’ He had just returned from Gibraltar, and told the two men how in Egypt ‘with the change of commanders a new wind was blowing, how the Army was all in bits and pieces and that would be put right now’ and of ‘the terrible wastage the “poor” Army had suffered’.

Reporting on Russia, the Prime Minister said that Stalin had not made out that his situation was bad, ‘as he might have been expected to in pressing for a Second Front’. Indeed he had been optimistic enough to remark: ‘Dieppe will be explained by Torch.’ Churchill added that he had bet Brooke half a crown at odds of evens that the Russians would hold the Caucasus, and boasted: ‘I drank as much or more than Stalin and Molotov together–they only sip their liquor you know–and I was in quite good order.’

Kennedy then gave Churchill a blunt assessment on the planning for Torch, specifically the inadequacy of the American contribution, the need for overwhelming force, and a warning about ‘the first manifestation of divergent strategies’. The bonhomie of the early part of the meeting disappeared immediately as ‘Winston’s hackles rose at once and his eyes, which were rather watery, began to flash.’ Anyone, he said, could make a plan involving overwhelming force, but there could be no delay, especially for further American forces coming from the Pacific. He wanted to bring forward the date rather than delay it, saying that fighting Vichy France ‘was a soft job–not like fighting Germans’, and that he would even ‘be prepared to go ahead without the Americans themselves so long as they had plenty of American flags to wave. What we wanted was a big show in the shop window.’

Kennedy replied that, although three divisions would be ready in three weeks, it would take three or four months to get thirteen together, yet the limiting factor was not troops so much as shipping, naval escorts, aircraft carriers and, as ever, landing craft for the invasion force. He argued that ‘the Americans should be in the thing wholeheartedly not only at the beginning but subsequently’, pointing out that the growing American commitments in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific showed that they were diverting shipping and naval craft away from Germany First. ‘Winston was distinctly ruffled’ before the meeting ended at 12.45 p.m.

On 25 August, Churchill reported to the War Cabinet about Stalin, whom he described as a ‘large man’ of ‘great sagacity’. His visit had ‘Explained some past mysteries’ about Stalin’s behaviour before the war, and the rebuffing of the British military mission to Moscow in August 1939. Led by Admiral Sir Ranfurly Drax, this had been Britain’s last-minute attempt to prevent the Nazi–Soviet Pact taking place. Churchill reported that Stalin had been ‘certain Britain didn’t intend war…This was confirmed by our offers–France of 80 divisions, Britain of 3 divisions. Stalin had been sure Hitler wasn’t bluffing. At Munich an effort might have been made, after that nil was our offered strength.’ To Churchill, who had denounced Munich at the time and called for a united front with the Soviets against the Nazis thereafter, Stalin’s assurances that the weakness of the Chamberlain Government in 1938–9 had left the Russians with no option but to sign the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was confirmation of his stance during his Wilderness Years. To those Chamberlainites and Munichois still left around the Cabinet table, Stalin’s assertions must have been galling. As for Torch, ‘Stalin did not exaggerate his plight in order to exploit or extort help from us,’ said an impressed Churchill.

That day Churchill and Brooke received a document from the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that the attack on Algiers would be too risky. ‘We are all profoundly disconcerted by the memorandum,’ Churchill replied on the 27th. ‘It seems to me that the whole pith of the operation will be lost if we do not take Algiers as well as Oran on the first day. In Algiers we have the best chance of getting a friendly reception and even if we got nothing except Algeria a most important strategic success would have been gained.’ Not to go east of Oran, he went on, ‘is making the enemy a present not only of Tunis but of Algiers’.

‘Torch is a great confusion,’ wrote Eden’s private secretary Oliver Harvey in his diary. ‘It is very difficult to make plans on both sides of the Atlantic and expect them to coincide. We are in favour of two prongs–US think they will only have enough for one. We don’t like the East prong without the West. Behind and above all this are Winston and Roosevelt goading each other on to fix dates, etc, while all is vague.’ Kennedy meanwhile rightly spotted that ‘It is a political operation and stands or falls by the correctness of the political appreciations–reactions of the French, Spaniards, etc, etc.’

Some American Planners thought that because the Vichy French were supposed to prefer the United States to Britain, the Stars and Stripes might be welcomed in North Africa whereas the Union Jack would be fired upon. This led to the Americans attempting to persuade the British to play a junior role in the landings, which was resented in some areas of the War Office and Cabinet. Quite why this should be, beyond feelings of national pride, is hard to say. The Americans had diplomatic relations with the Vichy Government, whereas Britain did not, so it made sense for the operation to be presented as an American liberation, and if that required the United States to spearhead it, the Churchill Government should not have baulked at an opportunity to save British lives. If national pride was the reason, as the war progressed there were to be many more such turf wars over symbolism and prestige, which rarely redounded to the credit of those involved.

‘We are undertaking something of a quite desperate nature and which depends only in minor degree upon the professional preparations we can make or upon the wisdom of our military decisions,’ wrote Eisenhower in his diary that week. ‘In a way it is like the return of Napoleon from Elba–if the guess as to psychological reaction is correct, we may gain a great advantage in this war; if the guess is wrong, it would be almost as certain that we would gain nothing and lose a lot.’ He feared that there might be ‘a very bloody repulse’ and that Vichy France and even Spain might enter the war against the Allies. Axis propaganda indeed began to give out that there was a concentration of German forces near the Pyrenees, which there was not; and Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s worry that the Germans might be invited by Franco to march through Spain and outflank the Allies by closing the Straits of Gibraltar, trapping American forces in the Mediterranean, failed to take into account Hitler’s and Franco’s considerable mutual mistrust. (After their only meeting, at Hendaye in October 1940, Hitler said that he would rather have three or four teeth pulled out than sit through another conversation with Franco.)

Staying at Chequers on the night of Saturday 29 August, Eisenhower and Mark Clark received a courier from Marshall saying that the President had definitely decided to attack Oran and Casablanca with eighty thousand US troops, but that the British should not arrive until a week afterwards, and the attack on Algiers would be omitted altogether. As Roosevelt was not planning to inform Churchill of this until the following Monday, for Clark ‘this admonition to silence came at a difficult moment’. Brooke, Eden, Mountbatten and Ismay were also present, trying to finalize plans for Torch, so while ‘Churchill was enthusiastic’ and ‘Eden expressed optimism,’ Clark ‘fidgeted and boiled inside, and I imagine Ike did too.’ Clark recalled how embarrassing it would have been ‘to air the latest word from Washington’ and he and Eisenhower left on Sunday the 30th having ‘answered no more questions than was necessary’.

It might have been this occasion that Eisenhower recalled in his book At Ease, when he wrote of a meeting at Chequers where British and American views were not meshing too well. Brooke said to him: ‘Naturally, you cannot be expected to oppose violently something that Washington apparently wants.’ Ike recorded: ‘Although I am sure he did not mean to imply that I was swayed by fear of a reprimand, I explosively put him right. I told him flatly that only the merits of a proposal, not its place of origin or its sponsorship, mattered to me when the fortunes of nations were at stake.’ For all his charm, Eisenhower could be waspish at times, even with Brooke. After the Chequers meeting, Eden wrote in his diary: ‘Greatly impressed by Eisenhower and Clark, as I have been before. We are lucky to have them as colleagues.’ Clark meanwhile went back to London where he addressed thirty-seven British and American generals, saying: ‘Some of you men are less confused than others about Torch. Let’s all get equally confused.’

If Brooke assumed that Eisenhower could be swayed by Marshall, Marshall feared that the Torch commander might be swayed by Churchill, warning Admiral Leahy that at Chequers he was ‘very much under the guns’. Marshall asked Leahy to use his influence ‘to see that the President’s message gets off by Monday as the delays are fatal to the completion of the plans and therefore directly affect the date for the operation’. Although many important cables from Roosevelt to Churchill were drafted first by Marshall, they would often be radically redrafted by the President–sometimes in Hopkins’ handwriting–before being sent off. Some important messages, such as the one trying to persuade Churchill that British troops should take a junior role in Operation Torch, went through several redrafts over a number of days and emerged greatly different from Marshall’s original. This was even truer when Admiral King was let loose upon early drafts, since FDR had a sense of how to turn away wrath in a manner alien to the acerbic, straight-talking head of the US Navy.

When Roosevelt’s cable duly arrived on Monday 31 August it caused consternation. ‘I feel very strongly that the initial attacks must be made by an exclusively American ground force supported by your naval and transport and air units,’ it read. This was because Roosevelt believed that the French would offer less resistance ‘to us than they will to the British’. He suggested to Churchill and Brooke that a week after the operation, once French non-resistance was secured, ‘your force can come in to the eastward.’ The attack should preferably take place before 14 October, thought Roosevelt, but certainly no later than the end of that month. He did not have to remind anyone that the Congressional mid-term elections fell on Tuesday 3 November 1942.

At a War Cabinet meeting that day, Eden said that there was a general impression in the press that the Second Front in Europe had been cancelled for the rest of 1942. Although this was true, Churchill emphasized that it was nonetheless ‘Important to play [up] to the Germans, and not let them draw off troops from France.’ The last thing Churchill wanted was German troop movements from France either to Russia or to North Africa. If that meant encouraging the British press to believe that a cross-Channel operation was still possible in 1942, it was easily a price worth paying.

Churchill answered Roosevelt’s telegram on 1 September, arguing that not to attack Algiers simultaneously with Casablanca and Oran might lead ‘to the Germans forestalling us not only in Tunis but in Algeria’, and he urged that all three ports be targeted. Roosevelt replied the following day agreeing to this, but demanding that each of the attacking forces be led by American troops, with the United States controlling all relations with the Vichy authorities once they had landed. This was undoubtedly sensible at Oran, where the Royal Navy had sunk much of the Vichy fleet in July 1940.

There was a good deal of doubt over Torch in the British High Command even comparatively late in the planning stage of the operation: on 3 September Dill told Kennedy that he didn’t believe in it, and feared it would ‘destroy his credibility in the States when it failed’, in which event he would have to leave. After a Chiefs of Staff meeting that day, Kennedy told Brooke that the operation ‘would have no chance today’, but might work in November if Libya was softened up and Stalingrad held out. Kennedy also suspected that Brooke ‘is not wholeheartedly behind the plan now that the implications are coming to light more clearly’, especially those regarding the Navy and shipping. In reality, Brooke had not been wholeheartedly behind it from the start.

Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s first serious argument over strategy ended in a compromise whereby they agreed to split the difference, in terms of troops, between Algiers and Casablanca. ‘We are getting very close together,’ the President wrote on 4 September, offering to reduce the Casablanca force by five thousand men which, as five thousand had already been taken off the Oran operation, released an extra ten thousand for Algiers. ‘We should settle this whole thing with finality at once,’ he wrote. Churchill agreed the next day, even offering that British troops might wear American uniforms, and alleging that ‘They will be proud to do so.’ The President signalled the end of the haggling with a telegram simply stating, ‘Hurrah! Roosevelt,’ to which Churchill replied: ‘Okay full blast.’

The next meeting at Chequers with Eisenhower and Brooke was therefore far easier than the last. With Pound and the Minister of War Transport Frederick Leathers present, they decided that Torch must take place on 4 November at the earliest, 15 November at the latest, with Ike’s ‘best guess’ being 8 November.45 On 12 September Churchill had cause to thank Roosevelt, telling him that the 317 Sherman tanks and 94 self-propelled 105mm guns ‘which you kindly gave me on that dark Tobruk day in Washington’ had arrived safely in Egypt and ‘been received with the greatest enthusiasm…As these tanks were taken from the hands of the American Army, perhaps you would show this message to General Marshall.’

Because the system of Allied convoys that were taking large amounts of war matériel to northern Russian ports to help the Soviet war effort was about to be suspended in order to provide shipping for Torch, Churchill argued that further consideration should now be given to his favourite project in the north, Operation Jupiter. In Moscow, Stalin had said that he would contribute three Soviet divisions to seizing northern Norway if Churchill put in two. In a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff, Churchill reiterated the case for invasion, in order to keep Russia supplied and therefore to prevent ‘the whole mass of the German armies’ being let ‘loose upon us’. He underlined the American aspect first, saying that Roosevelt regarded the maintenance of the convoys as ‘an operation of equal magnitude as Torch, although he is ready to skip one or perhaps two for the sake of Torch’. Then he presented his plan to ‘clear the Germans out of the north of Norway’, which he believed would incur fewer losses than making the Merchant Navy take such lethal risks at least thrice every two months.

Churchill objected to the Canadian First Army commander General Andrew McNaughton’s very negative report on the feasibility of Jupiter, complaining that ‘the exaggeration of difficulties’ seemed to be ‘customary’ in military reports, and stressing that ‘It follows that if Jupiter as well as Torch should get going, there could be no Roundup till 1944. This is already the United States view. But Torch by itself is no substitute for Roundup.’ This seems like a more or less blatant attempt to get Brooke to support the Norwegian operation in order to stymie the cross-Channel one for 1943. Churchill brought his plan up at the War Cabinet of 21 September, grumbling that, with Torch under way, the Chiefs of Staff ‘took a rather unfavourable view’ of providing the necessary shipping for Jupiter too. The phrase belies the genuine strength of feeling the Chiefs of Staff had against attacking Norway, which Brooke hardly ever mentioned in his diary without invective and hyperbole.

As before when repulsed by his own Chiefs of Staff, Churchill turned to Roosevelt. On 21 September he wrote a draft telegram about Jupiter, pointing out that with Stalin, ‘simply to tell him now no more


till 1943 is a great danger.’ This was especially serious because Stalin had ‘gained the impression’ at the Moscow Conference that Roundup was not only ‘delayed or impinged upon by Torch but was to be regarded as definitely off for 1943. This will be another tremendous blow for Stalin.’ As a result, ‘We ought now to make a new programme.’

Churchill predicted that Torch would be successful and ‘we might control the whole North African shore by the end of the year, thus saving some of the masses of shipping now rounding the Cape. This is our first great prize.’ In that case, he thought,

We might decide to do Jupiter instead of attacking the under-belly of the Axis by Sardinia, Sicily and even possibly Italy…To sum up, my persisting anxiety is Russia, and I do not see how we can reconcile it with our consciences or with our interests to have no more [convoys] till 1943, no offer to make joint plans for Jupiter, and no signs of a Spring, Summer or even Autumn offensive in Europe. I should be most grateful for your counsel on all this.

The telegram sent the next day reflected all these arguments and more, but neither Marshall nor King would countenance Jupiter as a result. Churchill had nevertheless allowed the Americans to glimpse the future Mediterranean strategy he intended to adopt if prevented from attempting to liberate northern Norway.

Although Marshall, King and Eisenhower appreciated that undertaking Torch probably meant writing Roundup off for 1943, Roosevelt would not admit as much, at least on paper. Churchill was keen that, despite Torch, large numbers of American troops should continue to come over to Britain under Bolero, not least because ‘if things go badly for us’ Britain would once again ‘have to face the possibility of invasion’. Keeping Roundup an open possibility meant that the United States would continue to reinforce metropolitan Britain, and Churchill asked Roosevelt to send him ‘revised programmes of what we may expect in the next twelve months between now and next September under the Bolero–Roundup scheme’. His fear–which was well founded–was that Admiral King was siphoning (or ‘whittling’) off resources to the Pacific that should have been coming to Britain instead. Meticulous research by Professor Mark Stoler on troop, ship and landing-craft movements during this period suggests that this was indeed the case.

Churchill wrote, in what reads like a begging letter to Roosevelt, that over the next six months ‘it will be necessary for you…to send at least eight US divisions to the United Kingdom in addition to your air force programme’. These were large numbers, and could be justified only if Roundup was still a possibility, for as Churchill put it: ‘Every argument used for Sledgehammer and/or Roundup counts even more in 1943 and 1944 than it did in 1942 and 1943.’ Here, for the first time, Churchill used the word Roundup and the date 1944 together.

The rest of the letter was yet another plea for Jupiter, which only Churchill failed to recognize was a non-starter. He nonetheless continued to promote it right up to the 1943 Quebec Conference, at one point ordering Ismay to ‘suspend’ the entire War Office Planning Staff for opposing it. ‘Winston has been particularly active in suggesting all sorts of schemes,’ noted Kennedy on 24 September. ‘He always wants to do more than we have resources for and nothing seems to convince him that some things are impossible or that dispersion is a dangerous business and that concentration is a principle of war. Brooke says repeatedly, after seeing him, “I am convinced that man is mad.”’

An undated (and eventually unsent) telegram from Roosevelt to Churchill was drafted by Marshall on 25 September, which allowed the US Chief of Staff to explain why Churchill’s Jupiter project ran flat against Allied strategy. It was an answer to Churchill’s request for ‘a new programme’, and a devastating one. In the course of a very long exposition of policy, which Marshall must have known would not be sent as drafted, he drew attention to the complete contradiction between Churchill’s regular statements about the need for concentration of forces and his tendency to ‘advance urgent proposals requiring further dispersion of means’.

Marshall wanted Churchill to be told that Torch must go ahead on time, that the harsh fate of Convoy PQ-18–thirteen merchantmen sunk out of forty between leaving Iceland on 2 September and reaching Murmansk on the 18th–meant that the northern convoys had to be discontinued, with supplies going through the Persian Gulf and the Alaska–Siberia routes instead, and that the US refused to take part in Jupiter because ‘the disadvantages in the plan far outweigh the advantages’. Furthermore, ‘The more forces we employ on the perimeter of Continental Europe, obviously the fewer forces will be able to penetrate vital enemy areas.’ Marshall even hoped that Roosevelt might say to Churchill: ‘I do not believe that Stalin attaches to the Jupiter operation the great importance implied in your message.’

As well as accusing Churchill of misrepresenting the Soviet position, Marshall hoped that Roosevelt would tell the Prime Minister bluntly that, as Torch had effectively wrecked any hopes of a 1943 Roundup, ‘The United States does not plan to send to the United Kingdom during the next ten months landing craft in excess of the number for which there will be operating personnel, and adequate to carry troops for any probable 1943 offensive which might be based on the UK.’ Since two paragraphs earlier he had stated that Torch ‘definitely precludes’ Roundup in 1943, this would have been devastating to Churchill. For all the debates about Roundup versus Torch, by October 1942 only one and a half American divisions had actually reached Britain. This was partly because of the massive amount of food, vehicles and services that went with them. It took 144,000 tons of shipping space to move a US infantry division, and a quarter of a million tons if it was armoured. Though never sent, the draft telegram did set out Marshall’s overall strategic thinking unambiguously for Roosevelt:

In the implementation of plans such as Jupiter, Allied military resources would be employed on the perimeter of the enemy citadel


…the Allied forces would not have sufficient and appropriate means remaining for the initiating of a strong, decisive blow in any selected area. On the other hand, a concentration of our means is most desirable in an area where it will be possible to deal the enemy a decisive blow and come to grips with him.

The tension between Churchill’s and Marshall’s strategies could hardly be clearer.

Instead of Marshall’s draft, Roosevelt sent Churchill a very short telegram merely stating that the next convoy should not sail to Russia. He could see no advantages in a major row with his principal ally only a few weeks before Torch. The suspicion must remain that Marshall wrote the draft more for the President’s benefit than for the Prime Minister’s.

In 1953, Moran asked Churchill which were ‘the two most anxious months of the war’. Without hesitation the Prime Minister answered September and October 1942. On the first day of October, Eden visited Downing Street after dinner, and found Clement Attlee there. ‘If Torch fails,’ Churchill told the two men, ‘then I am done for and must go and hand over to one of you.’ With many more Conservative than Labour MPs in parliament as a result of Stanley Baldwin’s 1935 election victory, all three knew it would have been Eden rather than the deputy premier.

Later that week Kennedy recorded that Churchill ‘was like a cat on hot bricks about the future development of the war’. Lunching with the Prime Minister at Downing Street, he mentioned that he had a tin of snuff to give him, a present from Admiral Richard Stapleton-Cotton. ‘I thought of giving up cigars till we were back in Benghazi,’ Churchill said on accepting it. ‘Then I thought I’d give up snuff. Then I decided to do neither. I didn’t see why I should give up anything for any German.’ Kennedy later wrote that although Churchill was funny at Cabinet Defence Committee meetings, ‘It is rather like the headmaster making jokes to the boys–the laughs come very easily!’ This was unfair; Churchill genuinely was funny, and humour was needed to leaven the stress. When he had a sore throat he complained to Brooke that his doctors ‘have knocked me off cigars. That is the worst of having a high-class job–you have to go in for high-class cures. I should have said a wet stocking round my neck would cure me in a night.’

After dinner on 6 October, Eden and Oliver Lyttelton had a drink with Churchill in the No. 10 Annexe, where they were joined by Randolph Churchill, who at one point said, ‘Father, the trouble is your soldiers won’t fight.’ Eden was indignant, recording: ‘It was a revelation to me that Randolph is so stupid.’ Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that although the British High Command thought their soldiers would fight, there was indeed an underlying fear that the Germans were man for man better soldiers, and this was one of the reasons that the invasion of France was postponed to 1944, until victories had been won over the Wehrmacht in the lesser theatres of North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

On 9 October Kennedy went to see Eisenhower, who had retained his post as commander of the European theatre as well as becoming supreme commander for Torch. ‘I found him in a very wrought up state…he said he was being continually bombarded with political, operational and administrative problems…I was sorry to see that he was feeling the stress so much.’ Eisenhower was unhappy with the British Government’s instructions to their commanders, which he felt gave them carte blanche to appeal over his head directly to Churchill. Kennedy pointed out that every British commander had always received pretty nearly identical instructions, but it hadn’t prevented Lords Haig and Gort from working with foreigners. Eisenhower then told Kennedy that he had ‘always considered this operation to be unsound strategically but he had been chosen for a variety of reasons to head it and he would drive it through in a spirit of loyalty and close cooperation’. When this amazing statement was reported to Brooke, the CIGS retorted: ‘What a bloody fool the man is!’59

Meanwhile, in Washington, Hopkins warned Marshall on 10 October that Roosevelt had received a ‘very urgent wire’ from Stalin asking that for the next few months deliveries of aircraft to Russia be more than doubled to five hundred per month. The President, through the Soviet Ambassador Maxim Litvinov, sent word that he would look into it at once. That morning Stalin followed it up with ‘a very urgent request’ for an immediate answer. Although Roosevelt knew that such a figure was completely impossible, he asked if Marshall could send Stalin three hundred extra aircraft over and above what had been agreed in the protocol, beginning immediately and starting with coastal defence fighters. ‘The President is anxious to get off a message to Stalin tonight,’ he was told.

Marshall replied that same night: ‘Any immediate increase beyond the 212 airplanes per month now scheduled for Russia could only be managed by a reduction of planes urgently needed for our units in combat theatres,’ primarily Guadalcanal and Torch. US coastal defence units were ‘actually operational training units’, which had only half their proper complement of planes, and which in any case ‘weren’t suitable for an active theater’. Moreover, they were an important defence ‘against a possible trick carrier raid’. In short, Marshall’s answer to Stalin was no. By that stage in the war, he felt secure enough in Roosevelt’s regard to be able to take such a firm line, and know that it would be accepted.

Marshall was also subjected to regular demands from Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, such as one of 17 October about ‘the critical situation’ in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, which concluded, ‘I urge that the entire resources of the United States be diverted temporarily to meet the critical situation; that shipping be made available from any source; that one Corps be dispatched immediately; that all available heavy bombers be ferried here at once,’ and so on. Marshall not surprisingly disliked the high-handed tone of the messages he received from MacArthur, who, rather than being sent ‘the entire resources of the United States’, had to be content with a heavy bomber group that was flown from Hawaii to Australia.

On 14 October Brooke received Montgomery’s detailed plan for a great attack to be unleashed on Rommel at El Alamein in nine days’ time. He decided that he would not pass it on to Churchill, even though the Prime Minister ‘was continually fretting to advance the date’ and asking him ‘why we were not being informed of the proposed date of attack’. Brooke wanted to protect Alexander and Montgomery from being bothered by Churchill, and subjected to demands that the plans be altered. It was nonetheless a serious and insubordinate decision to have taken. Like Marshall, however, Brooke knew what he could get away with by then.

The searing summer heat meant that there had been little fighting in North Africa since July, and both sides had been able to reinforce themselves, with the Allies being strengthened disproportionately more than the Axis. With two hundred thousand troops and over one thousand tanks, Montgomery had almost double Rommel’s forces. The battle front was only 40 miles wide, as the geological phenomenon known as the Qattara Depression closed off Rommel’s opportunities for a southern flanking move by fast armour. Montgomery’s attack began at 9.40 on the night of 23 October with more than one thousand guns firing the first of more than one million rounds at the German positions, and over the next twelve days a savage battle was fought, costing thirteen thousand casualties on the Commonwealth side and thirty-five thousand on the Axis. After three days, Brooke felt able to give the War Cabinet tentative details of how it was going; five hundred German and one thousand Italian prisoners had been taken, but there had been ‘No major clash of armour yet’. Then he filled in the Cabinet on the situation in Russia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Burma.

There followed discussion of the accusation appearing in British left-wing newspapers that Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer, had had ‘friends’ in the British War Cabinet when he flew to Britain in May 1941, which had inflamed Soviet suspicions. Smuts said ‘We should…find out more about H[ess] to find out who were his friends in Cabinet…Misunderstand[ings are] bad for atmosphere of two allies. They are building up a case and we must meet it before it has gone too far.’ Cripps–who had until recently been the ambassador in Moscow–called for a ‘simple statement by someone about Hess, clearing up the matter’. Churchill then explained:

Hess arrived, hot from Hitler’s entourage, and came to do great service for Germany at great risk. He wanted to be…conducted to the King to say that we [that is, the Churchill ministry] had no backing here and to get a Government of the pro-Munich complexion installed. Hess was suffering from melancholia. We tried to make him talk…He gave us last chance for peace and the chance of joining the crusade against Russia. But he never said a word about his Cabinet friends who he had come to see. He had once met the Duke of Hamilton.

A minister then suggested that the Government should make the records of Hess’ interrogation available to the press, to which Churchill’s answer was no. Smuts warned that the ‘impression’ of the incident might ‘seriously’ affect Anglo-Russian relations and Cripps added that full disclosure would ‘Get rid of an air of mystery’. Churchill, however, believed that the Russians were worried about much more important matters, such as ‘their losses’, adding that he might consider allowing Cripps to make a digest of the Hess documents for press and parliament, and the Cabinet could then decide whether to hand it to Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador. In the event neither thing happened, and the conspiracy theories about the Hess flight therefore swirled around, inflaming Russian suspicions to the detriment of the British Establishment, until the interrogation reports were finally released somewhat piecemeal half a century later in the 1990s, entirely confirming what Churchill had said.

On Tuesday 3 November, the US Congressional mid-term elections produced the best result for the Republicans since 1928, increasing their representation by ten senators and forty-seven Congressmen. Nonetheless the Democrats still retained a 58–38 majority in the Senate and a 222–212 majority in the House of Representatives. Roosevelt had been in power for nearly a decade, and there was much criticism of the way the war was being fought, but his party still controlled all three branches of the American government. The elections would undoubtedly have gone far better for him had Operation Torch taken place beforehand, but Marshall told four Pentagon historians in 1949, ‘off the record’, that the President ‘had made no word of complaint when he was told the invasion date although some of his men yelled pretty loud because we could not go in five days earlier’.

Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein was clear to all by 4 November, when Rommel started his full withdrawal, though hampered by Hitler’s policy of refusing to contemplate retreats. Egypt was clear of the Afrika Korps by 10 November. ‘Rommel was a fool not to have gone back a month ago,’ wrote Kennedy on 2 November, with near-perfect hindsight. ‘We should then have been faced with the problem of moving forward and building up again for an attack with a long line of communications exposed to Rommel’s raids, etc. Rommel cannot be such a good general as we thought. On the other hand, Montgomery has had colossal luck in arriving at the moment when he did and not sooner.’64 (Or indeed any later, when his victory would have been ascribed to Auchinleck’s dispositions.)

Fourteen years later, Marshall identified this period as the tipping point for the balance of power between the United States and Great Britain:

For a long time they had supremacy and we had a minimum of divisions either organized or overseas. The apex of British supremacy was the victory of the Eighth Army in Africa. Later, their strength dwindled until in the Italian campaign some units wouldn’t fight. We had to turn three of our divisions over to the commander there. They had simply lost all their fight. We didn’t blame them a bit, because they were completely exhausted and under strength.

On Sunday 8 November, four days after Rommel began his full-scale retreat from El Alamein, he found simultaneous amphibious assaults taking place at eight places several hundred miles behind him, around Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. They were all successful. Eisenhower and his deputy Mark Clark were in overall command, and the American Western Task Force was under the command of Major-General George S. Patton. The Vichy French opposed the landings in all three places in their territory, but with differing intensity. Whereas Algiers had fallen by the first evening, and the fighting in Oran was over by noon on 10 November, the landing at Casablanca was bitterly contested until 11 November. Nonetheless, Torch was a success, and, unlike the Dieppe Raid, lessons genuinely were learnt for combined amphibious assaults in the future.

The counter-attack via Spain did not transpire; the weather was unusually fine; the feared losses to submarines and German bombers did not happen. Stimson ‘always believed Torch to be the luckiest operation of the war, although he was prepared to admit that those who had advocated the operation could not be expected to see it in that light’. The President had won his bet.

On the evening of 8 November, as the momentous news about Torch was coming in, Churchill was with Eden, Winant and Bedell Smith. ‘The PM was evidently much elevated by the success in Egypt and satisfactory initial stage of Torch and he talked even more frankly than customarily, the conversation lasting the greater part of the night,’ Bedell Smith telegraphed Marshall, who immediately passed the message on to Hopkins to show the President. ‘He is extremely anxious to have you and probably Admiral King come here at a very early stage for conference to reorient strategy in the light of new Mediterranean situation.’ Churchill had given up the Norway idea, thought Bedell Smith (wrongly), but he believed that a properly armed Turkey ‘will erupt’ into the Balkans against the Germans. (In fact, Turkey only declared war against Germany in late February 1945.) Bedell Smith concluded that Churchill ‘seems to be growing colder to the idea of Roundup except as a final stroke against a tottering opponent. As you know, the Pacific to him seems very far away and his constantly reiterated idea is that Russia, Britain and the United States must dispose of Germany and then concentrate on Japan. He hopes to clinch this strategy by your conference here.’

As for France, Winant reported to Roosevelt, and Bedell Smith simultaneously to Marshall, that Churchill ‘feels bound in honour to support de Gaulle, with all his faults, as the one man who stuck to the apparently sinking ship and whose name has a following in civilian France’. Churchill feared that the pro-Allied General Henri Giraud, whom the Americans had slipped into North-west Africa during Torch in the hope of establishing him in power there, would turn into a source of difficulty, and he insisted that ‘Britain and the United States cannot each have a pet Frenchman.’

In one evening of exuberantly loose talk with two key Americans, therefore, Churchill had effectively warned Roosevelt and Marshall that he wanted to ‘reorient’ strategy away from Roundup and towards the Mediterranean, do nothing more than contain Japan, and run de Gaulle against their favoured candidate, Giraud. He thereby neatly encapsulated the three next great areas of discord between the Allied grand strategists and told the Americans what he had in mind, much sooner than he needed to have done. Torch had arisen from a negotiated deal whereby he and Roosevelt had effectively split the difference over the numbers of troops needed for each part of the operation, and compromised over the geographical areas to attack.

Yet Churchill deserved his moment of exultation. At the War Cabinet the next day he hailed it as the ‘Biggest combined effort since Hitler’s attack on the Low Countries, and the largest amphibian operation ever undertaken…I beg my colleagues and military authorities to look on this as a springboard. We must look at once at military operations undertaken from there. This is the moment for the offensive.’ He added that it would be a ‘Tragic mistake to think we can take our time with this war. Hitler is playing now for a stalemate. This is our real danger. Never has there been more need for urgency in the war.’ Smuts suggested that the ‘real victory front’ was to be found ‘from the South not from the West’, and Churchill agreed, adding: ‘President Roosevelt calls this the Second Front. We won’t contradict this.’ He proclaimed himself ‘very anxious’ to ring Britain’s church bells in celebration the following Sunday; they had not sounded since 1940 because they were to act as tocsins warning of a German invasion.

Churchill also wanted to ‘Bomb Italy, bring it forward as fast as possible,’ ordering Brooke to ‘Have it studied, worked out and report next week.’ He declared proudly that the ‘British Empire played the leading part of this terrific event,’ predicting that it ‘meant the obliteration of the German & Italian forces in Libya & Egypt’ and announcing that he would ‘Mark the victory in respect of Alexander and Montgomery with high reward and promotion’, since it was ‘One of the greatest victories won by the British Empire in the field. It’s a fine story.’ He then formally congratulated Brooke and Grigg, the War Secretary, for a ‘brilliant showing’, remarking that the ‘movement of the invasion convoy without loss was a marvellous story with 105 warships, 142 troop and supply ships’. Brooke then filled in the details of the successful operations at Oran, Casablanca and Algiers.

The Cabinet was a long one, a full three hours. ‘Winston revelled over our success!’ noted Brooke at the time. ‘But did not give the Army quite the credit it deserved.’ This was unfair: in fact the Prime Minister suggested that the Cabinet should congratulate the CIGS and Grigg ‘for the fine performance put up by the Army’. Brooke observed after the war: ‘I think this is the only occasion on which he expressed publicly any appreciation or thanks for work I had done during the whole of the period I worked for him.’

As well as being the first significant British Commonwealth land victory of the Second World War, El Alamein was also the last. Henceforth every major engagement was to be fought as part of an alliance. The peal of Britain’s church bells ringing to celebrate this great feat of Imperial and Commonwealth arms was also tolling the end of major unilateral military action, at least until the recapture of the Falkland Islands forty years later. Kennedy commented on how ‘remarkably thin’ the bells in London sounded that Sunday, and it reminded him how many churches had been destroyed.

13th Tactical Fighter Squadron F-4Ds Phantoms

432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. 13th TFS equipped with F-4Ds in Oct 1967. Redesignated 432nd Tactical Fighter Wing Nov 1974.

The squadron traces its heritage back to the 1942 activation of the 313th Bombardment Squadron. The squadron served in the continental United States as a training unit until its 1943 inactivation. The squadron was reactivated in 1966 as the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, fighting in the Vietnam War. The squadron flew Wild Weasel anti-SAM missions with the Republic F-105 Thunderchief and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, operating out of Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. The squadron moved to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in October 1967, flying F-4s in combat air patrols against North Vietnamese MiGs and ground strike missions. The squadron was inactivated with the end of the war in 1975. The squadron was reactivated in 1976 a training squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, and inactivated again in 1982. The squadron was reactivated as the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron in 1985 at Misawa, flying the F-16. It was redesignated the 13th Fighter Squadron in 1991.

All four October 1967 MiG kills were assisted by the more effective use of the QRC-248 IFF transponder interrogator that had been installed in College Eye EC-121Ds from May of that same year onwards. This device could read the SRO-2 IFF transponder installed in VPAF MiGs, enabling EC-121D crews to tell which of the radar blips over the North were hostile, particularly at low altitudes. North Vietnamese GCI relied on the SRO-2 when directing their fighters towards strike packages.

Initially, College Eye operators were forbidden to interrogate the transponders actively in case the QRC-248’s capability was accidentally revealed, so they had to wait for ground-based North Vietnamese GCI controllers to do this for them and then calculate the MiGs’ positions passively. Nevertheless, the device was still extremely valuable for it revealed the MiGs’ mission procedures and gave valid, specific MiG warnings to US aircraft over the North.

From 6 October the improved Rivet Top and College Eye EC-121 crews were allowed to interrogate actively, giving strike force crews much better information about the location of MiG threats so that they could be positioned to meet high-speed interceptions under far more favourable conditions. Despite this, the MiG-21 force achieved a 3-to-2 success ratio during October, and maintained this advantage throughout November thanks to the grounding of the EC-121 Rivet Tops for vital modification work.

By then some MiG-21 pilots had already sensed that they were being monitored, and they would routinely switch off their transponders. Little intelligence pertaining to this new technology was imparted to the F-4 units, however, as Don Logeman explained;

`Most aircrew at Ubon had at least a nodding acquaintance with the Rivet Top capabilities, but the in-depth understanding and tactical/strategic significance and application of it was all pretty much the property of the senior leaders and weapons/tactics guys.’

Logeman recalled another factor that assisted their 26 October duel;

`Our adversary MiG-17s came up to engage us well above their optimum manoeuvring altitude. We were taught that, whenever possible, we should engage the MiG-17 at as high an altitude as you could get him and the MiG-21 as low as you could get him in order to capitalise on their manoeuvring disadvantages relative to the F-4 in those operating regimes. The best turn rate (corner velocity) in the F-4 was about 380 knots.’

On 17 December the much-maligned AIM-4 achieved its second kill, this victory being the first for the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW). The latter had broadened its capabilities with the arrival of the F-4D-equipped 13th TFS at Udorn in October 1967. Uniquely, the wing’s opening victory fell to US Marine Corps exchange officer Capt Doyle Baker (who had flown F-4Bs in-country with VMFA-513 in 1965) and `GIB’ 1Lt John D Ryan.

Their F-4D (66-8719) was `Gambit 03′ in a MiGCAP flight escorting a substantial F-105/F-4 attack on three Route Package VI targets. In a break from routine procedure, the mission leader had declared prior to take-off that any flight member who spotted a MiG would be allowed by his flight lead to attack it.

Baker saw a low-flying, Gia Lam-based MiG-17 approaching from below, and he turned through 270 degrees before making a diving attack on it. Initially firing short bursts from his SUU-23/A gun pod, he then climbed back up to 10,000 ft in order to reposition himself for a second crack at the MiG. Baker made three more gun passes at it without success before eventually running out of 20 mm shells.

The VPAF pilot levelled out at 2000 ft and seemed to be making a dash for home. Baker set up an AIM-4 launch from two miles astern in a ten-degree dive. His description of what happened next is as follows;

`I ignited the afterburners and rolled the aeroplane, increasing speed to keep the MiG in sight. The forces of acceleration were so great that I could hardly see anything. Finally, at 500 ft and 600 knots I fired. The Falcon worked perfectly, going directly up the MiG-17’s tailpipe and exploding.’

In that engagement the VPAF fighter force had overwhelmed a two- pronged US attack with up to 20 MiGs. The MiG-17s had timed their attacks on the MiGCAP F-4s to coincide with a series of thrusts made by MiG-21s against the bombers, resulting in the loss of both a 388th TFW F-105D and an 8th TFW F-4D (66-7774, piloted by Maj Kenneth Fleenor, who was one of the first USAF pilots to convert onto the F-4).

The remaining three AIM-4 successes came in the early weeks of 1968, and the first was scored by a `Wolfpack’ crew on 3 January. A considerable F-4D/F-105 strike force was targeted on railyards and bridges in the Hanoi area, and despite some MiG-21 action on the way in, there were no losses. MiG-17s then harassed the strike elements of `Bravo’ force as they egressed, and one of the strike F-4Ds, crewed by Lt Col Clayton Squier and `GIB’ 1Lt Michael Muldoon of the 435th TFS, engaged four MiG-17s head on. The jets passed a mere 200 ft from his Phantom II, Squier cooling an AIM-4 as he chandelled in afterburner to pursue the enemy.

He positioned his jet for a stern attack on the trailing MiG, and the red and white Falcon sped away from the F-4 and exploded in the tail section of the target aircraft, which began to trail thick, grey smoke. Squier then broke off to evade cannon fire from other MiGs that had assailed him and his wingman as he was launching his AIM-4.

Perched above the strike force in a MiGCAP flight was F-4D `Tampa 01′ of the 433rd TFS, flown by Maj Bernard J Bogoslofski and Capt Richard L Huskey (`GIB’). This crew decided to dive and pursue the 923rd FR MiG-17 that was chasing Squier’s wingman, `Olds 02′. Curving after the MiG in a tight left turn, Bogoslofski held it in his gunsight pipper through some deft manoeuvring and then set fire to the jet’s left wing with his 20 mm SUU-23/A gun pod. The other `Tampa’ crews saw the pilot (probably Nguyen Hong Diep) take to his parachute.

Another Falcon kill occurred on a similar Rolling Thunder strike on 18 January, but on this occasion two F-4Ds were also lost, including the MiG killer, `Otter 01′. Its crew, Maj Kenneth A Simonet (who had fought with the US Marine Corps in World War 2, joined the Army post-war and transferred to the USAF in 1952) and `GIB’ 1Lt Wayne Ogden Smith became PoWs until March 1973.

With a MiGCAP flight reduced to a single element by ECM malfunctions, the four `Otter’ F-4D strike aircraft had taken on a persistent quartet of MiG-17s themselves. One pair hit Simonet’s wingman, Capt Bob Hinckley and 1Lt Robert Jones (`GIB’), and they ejected from their F-4D (66- 7581) to also become long-term PoWs. Simonet and Smith followed another MiG in a series of climbing turns while the pilot prepared and fired an AIM-4, causing flames to burst from the target fighter’s rear fuselage – it hit the ground with its pilot still in the cockpit. The F-4D had, in turn, been the target for a cannon-firing MiG-17 for much of the encounter, and it scored enough hits to force the crew to eject from their blazing Phantom II.

The final Falcon success went to a 13th TFS crew Capt Robert G Hill and 1Lt Bruce Huneke (`GIB’), who were flying as `Gambit 03′ in a MiGCAP flight for a 5 February attack that cost the force an F-105 shot down by an `Atoll’ from a MiG-21. Having briefly lost sight of the two attacking MiGs, Hill’s flight picked them up just as their leader completed his assault on the unfortunate `Thud’, and his wingman was seen to be climbing towards `Gambit’ flight. Capt Hill manoeuvred into the first MiG’s `deep six’ position and gave it 100 rounds from his 20 mm gun pod. Having inflicted no visible damage, he cooled a Falcon and fired it. The missile never completed its pre-launch sequence, and consequently failed to guide properly. However, a second missile hit the MiG’s rear fuselage and detonated.

For good measure Hill then followed through with a barrage of three AIM-7Es, only one of which actually launched and guided successfully. The second Falcon had already done its work, blowing away the rear fuselage of the MiG-21. Hill had, by then, climbed to 40,000 ft, and his wingman warned him that another MiG-21 had fired a K-13 `Atoll’ his way. The missile passed horribly close to their F-4D, but it survived and was eventually preserved at Carswell AFB, Texas.

Five Falcon kills out of 48 attempted launches during Rolling Thunder were not enough to justify the missile’s continued use as a major F-4 weapon, and its withdrawal proceeded as F-4Ds were progressively re-wired for AIM-9s. On 14 July 1968 the USAF terminated the engineering programme that would have produced a better Falcon by the following year (although it was resumed in 1970), but the missile remained in theatre until 22 August 1972, when the USAF declared 776 AIM-4Ds `excess to SEA needs due to their limited air-to-air capability’. It marked the end of the combat career for a weapon that Robin Olds described as being `as useless as tits on a boar hog’.


Including more USAF-specified equipment than the F-4C, the F-4D prioritized ground attack and changed the secondary armament from the US Navy’s AIM-9 Sidewinder to Hughes’ AIM-4D Falcon following “Dancing Falcon” tests at Eglin AFB in 1965. The F-4C’s primitive ground-attack capability was enhanced by a new AN/APQ-109A radar including solid-state components and an air-to-ground ranging mode. A wider range of ordnance, including guided air-to-ground weapons such as GBU-9 HOBOS, AGM-12 Bullpup, and AGM-65 Maverick could be carried, and an ASG-22 lead-computing gunsight was added. AIM-9 Sidewinder wiring was restored after the AIM-4D proved unsuitable for close combat use. Nuclear capability was kept, with up to three B61 “special stores” as a typical nuclear alert warload.

USAF F-4D deliveries of 793 aircraft began with a batch for the USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe)-based 36th TFW in March 1966 and continued into April 1968, with further export production of 32 for Iran until September 1969. It entered combat use with the 555th TFS at Ubon RTAFB in May 1967. Seventy-two had ITT AN/ARN-92 LORAN-D equipment installed, and most of these were also supplied to the 8th TFW at Ubon. LORAN-D, identifiable by a large “towel rack” on the aircraft’s back from mid-1969, could be linked to the aircraft’s ASN-63 inertial navigation system and bombing computer to calculate the F-4D’s position with sufficient accuracy for precision night-time bombing, or for more accurate navigation where the LORAN beacon system was available.

Twenty-two F-4Ds received an important addition from late 1968 in the form of AN/APX-80 Combat Tree. This was able to interrogate the SRO-2 IFF (identification friend or foe) transponders in MiGs, confirming their identity codes at up to 60 miles for attacks with AIM-7 missiles beyond visual range. Wartime rules in Southeast Asia generally required potential enemy “bandits” picked up on radar to be approached for visual identification, thereby losing the advantage of long-range missiles. With Combat Tree this was not required, although officialdom was still reluctant to relax the rules. Similar equipment was later fitted to the majority of USAF F-4Es, and it was used by Iranian F-4s in the Iran-Iraq War. Users: USAF, Iran, Republic of Korea.

Project Iceworm

According to the documents published by the Kingdom of Denmark in 1997, the U.S. Army’s “Iceworm” missile network was outlined in a 1960 Army report titled “Strategic Value of the Greenland Icecap”. If fully implemented, the project would cover an area of 52,000 square miles (130,000 km2), roughly three times the size of Denmark. The launch complex floors would be 28 feet (8.5 m) below the surface, with the missile launchers even deeper, and clusters of missile launch centers would be spaced 4 miles (6.4 km) apart. New tunnels were to be dug every year, so that after five years there would be thousands of firing positions, among which the several hundred missiles could be rotated. The Army intended to deploy a shortened, two-stage version of the U.S. Air Force’s Minuteman missile, a variant the Army proposed calling the Iceman.

Project Iceworm was a top-secret United States Army program of the Cold War, which aimed to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites under the Greenland ice sheet. The ultimate objective of placing medium-range missiles under the ice — close enough to strike targets within the Soviet Union — was kept secret from the Government of Denmark. To study the feasibility of working under the ice, a highly publicized “cover” project, known as Camp Century, was launched in 1960. Unstable ice conditions within the ice sheet caused the project to be canceled in 1966.

One of the most well-known US military bases in the Arctic is Thule Air Base, in Greenland’s frigid northwest. Less well-known is the now-defunct Camp Century. Just 150 miles from Thule,  the area surrounding Camp Century is bitterly cold. Nighttime temperatures dip to -70°F and wind whips ice and snow through the air at 125 miles per hour.

Camp Century was opened in 1960 rather openly— the US Army released a short documentary film outlining the new construction techniques used to build the camp. Publicly at least, the camp was supposed to be used for conducting scientific research in the Arctic.

In reality, Camp Century was cover for a top-secret weapons project. The Danish government was opposed to housing nuclear weapons on their soil, and was thus not informed about Camp Century’s true purpose.

At Camp Century, engineers developed and improved subterranean Arctic building techniques. Modified tractors cut deep trenches nearly 30 feet into the ice. These trenches were then covered with steel semicylinders and topped with snow and ice that froze them firmly into place, providing shelter for the small underground city.

Transporting or airdropping diesel to fuel power generators would have been prohibitively expensive, and impossible during extreme weather conditions. The solution was to install a portable nuclear reactor that addressed all of Century’s electricity needs.

Heating Up:

Building upon lessons learned from Camp Century, Project Iceworm was to be built on a massive scale. Iceworm would have been the world’s largest ICBM launch site— over 52,000 miles of tunnels cut deep into the Greenland ice sheet. Iceworm’s footprint would cover an about the size of the state of Indiana, and a whopping three times the size of the host country, Denmark.

600 modified “Iceman” Minuteman missiles would be transported underground on large road-sized tunnels via railcar to launching sites cut even deeper into the ice. The Iceman missiles would be constantly shifting to other sites to keep their exact locations a secret. The subterranean placement and a mandatory 4-mile distance between launch sites would offer a degree of protection and increase survivability in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union.

Greenland’s proximity to the Soviet Union would have given American Minuteman missiles an enormous strategic advantage. Greenland is much closer to Russia than the continental United States, and the Iceman ICBMs would have been able to strike almost any target within the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. The sheer size of the planned Iceworm complex and the missile’s relatively wide distribution would help to ensure the United States’ second-strike capability and to strengthen the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad.

Doomed to Die:

Alas, Project Iceworm was not practically feasible. Initial surveys had indicated that the Greenland ice sheet was rigid and ideal for tunneling. Later data gathered during the Camp Century experiment showed that the ice sheet was actually very elastic. Tunnels would have to be constantly maintained and be in danger of collapse every few years.

The extreme weather conditions also made steel building materials brittle and prone to cracking. Communications problems between the Pentagon and Camp Century were also an issue: sending or receiving messages during extreme weather events was problematic.

Ticking Time Bomb

In the 1960s global warming was not a part of Pentagon strategic thinking. After shuttering Camp Century in 1967, The Army Corp of Engineers left behind thousands of gallons of radioactive water used to cool the portable reactor, and an unknown amount of sewage to be forever entombed in Greenland’s ice shelf.

In 1997, the Kingdom of Denmark conducted an inquiry into Camp Century, revealing the deceptive nature of the camp and the remaining hazardous waste enclosed in the ice.

Estimates from the scientific community predict that by 2090, the ice under Camp Century will begin to melt, releasing radioactive and human waste into the ocean. It remains to be decided if either the United States or Denmark, or perhaps even the now-autonomous Greenland will be responsible for cleanup.