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“

Head for the Meuse! Part I

General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel was angry. Several matters irritated the baron on 20 December, but no more so than his subordinate’s failure to take Bastogne on the evening of the 18th. He came over to Panzer Lehr’s HQ in person and berated Fritz Bayerlein for his stupidity in choosing a muddy track to Mageret ‘like an officer cadet who couldn’t read a map’. He blamed him for undue caution throughout the 19th and a ‘lack of fighting spirit’ within the division – accusations which could get a commander shot in the Third Reich of late 1944. Lüttwitz had little doubt that, had Bayerlein chosen an alternative route, he would have broken through the roadblocks of Teams Desobry or O’Hara, neither of whom were fully deployed, and gained the town easily – the 101st being off-balance, in the process of arriving and short of ammunition. Kokott’s Volksgrenadiers would have assisted in mopping up many of the straggling GIs in the vicinity. History suggests that Manteuffel and Lüttwitz were probably correct.

On the other hand, Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers, struggling through the mud on foot with wagons and artillery drawn by 3,000 horses, had done a magnificent job of keeping up with the tanks. Henceforth their task would be to stay and subdue Bastogne, in place of the panzers which had by then begun to hurry westwards. In fact, Lüttwitz and Manteuffel had already recommended Kokott for promotion to Generalmajor, which came through on 1 January. Meanwhile, Bayerlein was instructed to leave one of his Panzergrenadier Regiments, the 901st, to stay behind with Kokott, while the rest of the division moved on. Part of Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was also sent to Bastogne, but for the panzers – next stop, the Meuse!

The most northerly of Manteuffel’s three panzer divisions was Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division (the Windhund, or Greyhounds), which, accompanied by Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, belonged to Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps. The Windhund Division had fought hard at Lützkampen to the north of the 2nd Panzer in the initial assault on the 16th. Despite attempts to build a bridge at Ouren, on the night of 16–17 December and throughout the 17th, they crossed the River Our using 2nd Panzer’s bridge at Dasburg, captured Heinerscheid and Hupperdange on 17 December, destroying sixteen tanks and taking 373 prisoners (from Nelson’s 112th Regiment), for similar losses of their own. They were under constant pressure from their superiors, Fifth Army and LVIII Corps, to get westwards as quickly as possible, using the opportunity of the ‘German-friendly weather – fog and drizzle’, but a heavy mortar shell exploded in the middle of a circle of commanders, the division’s War Diary noted, killing twelve including ‘our excellent Division physician, Professor Bickert’.

By late on 18 December the 116th Panzer’s advance guard had entered Houffalize, capturing or destroying ‘many trucks and vehicles and one Sherman’ and seizing the Ourthe river bridges undamaged. Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were making ‘quite an effort’ to keep pace with them, though at this stage, aware of the clock ticking, Army Group ‘B’ ordered the pace of advance accelerated. Manteuffel, meanwhile, was concerned about the division’s order of march. ‘Spearheads [are] too thin and narrow. When [you are] near the enemy, attack him from broader formations with fire. Heavy weapons throughout [are] much too far back. Armoured groups [must be] to the front everywhere, not just Panzergrenadiers by themselves.’ On this day the first complaints about fuel shortages surfaced in the war diary, ‘No fuel’, reported some of the artillery formations. ‘All units that have arrived have enough for 20 kilometres, the advance battalion for 10 kilometres. Roads in the back jammed. [Which prevented trucks bearing fuel from moving forward.] Nothing coming in. Some tanks usable only by siphoning.’

Just as Bayerlein was grinding down his atrociously muddy track into Mageret, Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th Division’s IIa (Adjutant for officers), with supreme optimism, reflected their experience of Belgian roads. He noted, ‘Now, everything is rolling smoothly in both directions, but above all, into the area of the breach … The weather is again misty, damp, cold and rainy. For our offensive it could not be any better! However, mud and dirt on the ruined roads and in the torn-up terrain almost remind one of Russian conditions! In most cases the grey of our uniforms show only in a few places between the layers of mud … The hole in the enemy front now finally seems to have been bored through. Merrily, the attack rolls west – hopefully for long!’

South of Houffalize, 116th Panzer came up against American units, where ‘a large number of tanks and motor vehicles were captured or destroyed’ along with 400 prisoners taken. There was, however, a cautionary note that ‘the division attack on the morning of 19 December suffered considerable delays due to lack of fuel’. Fortunately that evening they overran Gives-Givroule, where a large fuel and supply depot was captured, enabling vehicles to top up – but petrol was becoming an ever-present concern for the 116th’s commanders. By the evening of the 19th, Generalmajor Waldenburg had established his HQ near Bertogne, seven miles north-west of Bastogne, but the division was having to sideslip south-west to find intact bridges over the rivers. His formation was becoming dangerously spread out, a situation governed by centres of opposition, destroyed bridges and the road network.

The enthusiasm of the initial advance was caught in Adjutant Vogelsang’s record for 20 December, which also reflected the deprivations all German soldiers had suffered during the preceding couple of years. ‘The Americans are completely surprised and in constant turmoil. Long columns of prisoners march toward the east, many tanks were destroyed or captured. Our Landsers are loaded with cigarettes, chocolates, and canned food, and are smiling from ear to ear. The combat units were able to fill the gaps caused by missing vehicles in their convoys with captured ones. Along the roads are immense piles of artillery ammunition. I estimate the amount to be 25,000 rounds. How wonderful that this blessing will not fall on our heads!’

Even though his advance looked promising, Waldenburg had already run out of intact bridges west and south of the Ourthe, with no time and few facilities to build replacements. Risking the loss of a whole day, he reluctantly ordered his division to turn around, retrace their steps to Houffalize and cross to the north and east bank of the Ourthe river, and thence head for La Roche and Noiseux. These are journeys of a few minutes today, with scarcely a blink of the eye when a small local river is crossed. Back in 1944 the loss of a single bridge could send a whole division scurrying hither and thither, wasting their two most precious resources in short supply – time and fuel. This gave the Americans time to strengthen their defences, for example at La Roche, where twenty-four tanks were observed on the morning of 20 December, when before there had been none.

There was some compensation when at 4.00 p.m., in Samrée, when Waldenburg destroyed twelve tanks guarding a supply depot containing 26,400 gallons of fuel, neatly stacked in five-gallon jerrycans for ready use. The 16th Panzer Regiment’s War Diary recorded, ‘The successes of the last past days create great enthusiasm among our soldiers, especially since many prisoners were brought in …’ A beaming Manteuffel congratulated Waldenburg by radio on the 21st: ‘Appreciation and gratitude to your magnificent men, your commanders and to you. Your successes adhere to proud tradition.’ More succinctly, as the divisional adjutant put it, ‘The faces of the prisoners are full of disbelief and amazement’.

Yet the loss of time was crucial, for it allowed Major-General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division to deploy opposite the 116th on the 20th, followed by General Alex Bolling’s 84th ‘Railsplitters’ Infantry Division (also known as the ‘Hatchet Men’) on the 21st – both units of J. Lawton Collins’ US VII Corps. With the 84th were Harold P. ‘Bud’ Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell, both with Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry Regiment (not connected with the artillery unit of the same number). As they arrived in Serinchamps, a hamlet due west of Marche, the local mayor told them, ‘this was 1940 all over again; he seemed sure of it. He seemed to take perverse pride in explaining that Rommel had personally led his panzers through the region en route to the Meuse four years earlier’. Looking at Company ‘K’s weaponry, the mayor asked about American tanks, clearly anxious they had more than rifles to halt the German armour. ‘The local phones were working’, the mayor told them, ‘and he’d received calls an hour earlier reporting panzers rolling through villages ten miles away.’ Behind them, along the west bank of the Meuse, Montgomery had started to position the British XXX Corps, with fifty tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade defending the bridges at Namur, Dinant and Givet. Lieutenant D.H. Clark of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered their Sherman tanks ‘rumbling past, massive and effective-looking; the drivers were Hussars who had fought in them all the way up from Normandy. The tanks looked like tinkers’ caravans, with cooking pots, wine flagons, bed rolls and miscellaneous loot dangling from the camouflage netting.’

On the shortest day of the year, 21 December, the Windhund Division lunged for the little bridge over the Ourthe at Hotton, which is where this study of the Bulge campaign began. There, the mixed bag of defenders, numbering no more than 200, armed with one 57mm anti-tank and two 40mm anti-aircraft guns, were now wiser and perhaps the attackers over-confident. The Americans were fortunate to have present some combat engineers, who not only prepared the bridge for destruction but hastily laid mines and overturned vehicles to make roadblocks.

Using the cover of a forest that came close to the town, at 08.30 a.m. seven of the Windhund’s tanks and half-tracks suddenly hit Hotton after the briefest of artillery barrages. The 116th Division’s War Diary noted that ‘Nobody was expecting an attack, though the village, especially the bridge, was well secured by enemy tanks [in fact there were only two present to begin with], anti-tank guns and sharpshooters. A platoon was guarding a pedestrian footbridge upriver at Hampteau. Due to the loss of Oberleutnant Köhn’s leading Panther and the wounding of several commanders by headshots, the attack, which was only escorted by weak infantry units, came to a halt. Köhn lost an eye and three men from his crew were killed. There was heavy fighting with enemy tanks, in which the opponent suffered heavy losses … our units in Hotton were under heavy fire all day.’

Although the Windhund had the advantage of surprise, and the two US tanks were destroyed, the assault came to a halt because the Germans were too cocky. Had the attack been properly coordinated between tanks and Panzergrenadiers, Waldenburg would have got his bridge. However, his panzers went in without a proper reconnaissance and pretty much alone, and were picked off one by one. The town was not well defended at all, though the Germans perceived it to be. A strong, well-planned attack would have removed the defenders in a trice and one is left with the impression of a botched attempt to take Hotton on 21 December. Failure to take the town in the morning led to US reinforcements from 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and Bolling’s 84th Infantry Division arriving from Soy, to the north-east, at exactly the right moment in the afternoon, as the Germans tired, and eventually they began to outnumber the attackers.

The US defenders also dominated the terrain north-east of Hotton as far as Soy, and constantly threatened to outflank their attackers, who were compelled to use their armour in defence. Using up fuel by manoeuvring off-road remained a concern, although the almost empty panzer regiment had been able to refuel completely with the petrol captured at Samrée. Oberfeldwebel Pichler, commanding three Panthers, destroyed five Shermans at Soy, but the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (to which the future Medal of Honor-winner Melvin E. Biddle was attached), and a company of tank destroyers on 22 December emphasised the fact that any further German advance by way of Hotton was out of the question.

By 22 December the 116th Division’s attack at Hotton had culminated, although the Fifth Army orders received that night commanded ‘Bypass resistance, only [lightly] cover the flanks, bulk [effort] remains the advance towards Maas [the Meuse]. Continue to confuse, split up, surround, reconnoitre in force, and deceive [the Americans]’. However, the reality of the campaign was already apparent. The assault was hopelessly behind schedule. The Hotton attack emphasised just how alert the US Army in the once-sleepy Ardennes had become.

To the 116th Division’s north, the Sixth Panzer Army remained stuck on the Elsenborn Ridge, and General Lücht’s LXVI Corps on their immediate right had just finished fighting for St Vith (it was captured on the night of 21–22 December). On their left, Panzer Lehr had reached Rochefort (south-west of Marche) and 2nd Panzer Division, Bande (between Marche and La Roche); part of Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps was still delayed at Bastogne. Behind them, Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were attacking at Dochamps, midway between Manhay and Marche, while reinforcements in the form of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich were attacking the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, north-east of La Roche.

At the same time, 2nd Panzer Division was pulling away on its dash to the Meuse, largely because it had managed to avoid American strongpoints after Bastogne. Viewed from the air (which was not yet possible), Lauchert’s division would have looked like a finger, stretching for seven miles north-westwards, from Bastogne towards Dinant. However, there were no units to guard its flanks, for both Panzer Lehr to its left and 116th Panzer on its right had encountered tougher opposition and fallen behind. The 2nd Panzer was having to use some of its own combat power to protect its flanks, which inevitably slowed its advance. The further it lunged towards the Meuse, the weaker its spearhead became. The freezing weather took its toll on vehicles as well as people.

Hans Behrens, a wireless operator in a Panzer IV following behind with Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, recalled of his opponents, ‘The Americans came amiss as they had rubber pads on their tank tracks, and when the roads were icy, they just slid all over the place … Roads were just six inches of solid frozen gleaming ice … One saw an unending succession of lorries that had crashed out of control … On the camber of a road two men could slide one [panzer] sideways by merely pushing it.’ Due to widespread American knowledge of the massacre of GIs by Waffen-SS soldiers at Malmedy on 17 December, panzer crewmen like Behrens also learned that US troops had taken to shooting SS men automatically on capture. This often extended to tank crews, whose black panzer uniform and death’s head badge was frequently mistaken for membership of Himmler’s legions. Behrens spent the Bulge dreading capture. The reaction of Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry was that ‘the SS was going to have to pay, and pay heavily’. They ‘just wanted to start killing Germans’.

Already it was apparent that the Americans were reacting far quicker than expected, both in terms of delaying the advance but also in terms of flooding the area with reinforcements. The daily report from Army Group ‘B’, Model’s headquarters, acknowledged that ‘the continuous action of the 116th Panzer Division and the 2nd Panzer Division, under difficult terrain conditions and heavy enemy resistance, has caused combat effectiveness to drop heavily’. In fact, the Windhund Division started 22 December with no battle-worthy tanks at all, but six replacement panzers arrived at midday, with twenty-seven soon following from the repair workshops. Some personnel began to trickle through to replace casualties, but shortages of fuel and ammunition still concerned the divisional staff.

Two last (and largely pointless) attempts were made to seize the bridge at Hotton at midnight on the 22nd and 02.15 a.m. on 23 December, using a battalion of Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks, after which responsibility for Hotton was handed to Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers (in whose ranks sixteen-year-old Grenadier Werner Klippel was serving) and the 116th Windhund disengaged. The latter were now weak from casualties, equipment losses and lack of fuel, but some troops slipped south towards Marche, discovering that US blocking forces were in place, ready to meet them.

On Saturday, 23 December, Manteuffel had his three panzer divisions ready to strike for the Meuse; on the left, Panzer Lehr was about to attack Rochefort. In the centre, 2nd Panzer was closest to the Meuse, though strung out and not concentrated, with its advance guard four miles east of Celles and only eleven miles from the river line. The 116th Panzer was still fixed in the Hotton–Marche area. Behind these three panzer divisions, the second echelon of von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, in company with Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade and part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, were struggling forward, but all of these formations suffered from the same afflictions – superior Allied numbers, lack of fuel and ammunition and the crushing weight of hostile air power when the weather permitted.

Just as Manteuffel had skilfully rebalanced his forces and was poised to strike at the Meuse, the weather changed. The 23rd saw the first good flying conditions since the campaign began and the skies soon filled with Allied aircraft. The 116th War Diary lamented, ‘continuous air raids on supply roads and towns of the rearward areas. No Luftwaffe.’ They were there, but perhaps not visible to the 116th on the ground.

Men of the US 333rd Infantry Regiment recorded, ‘Hundreds of planes, German and American, but mostly American as far as we could tell, crisscrossed the sky, leaving long contrails from horizon to horizon. The dogfights were fascinating. Near noontime five smoking planes went down simultaneously. Flight after flight of low-flying Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings roared overhead toward the German lines. The planes gave a big boost to our morale … They were like geese in the sky.’ Lloyd Swenson was a twenty-year-old B-26 bomber pilot whose squadron had been getting ready to abandon its airbase on the Franco-Belgian border ‘because the Germans were getting so close. We couldn’t take anything with us, except our uniform and a toothbrush. Then on the twenty-third the fog lifted and it was a bright, clear day.’ In the morning his squadron of twin-engined B-26 Marauders, ‘a medium-range bomber, fast and very maneuvrable with a crew of five’, was assigned a mission to destroy a vital rail bridge supplying the Bulge. Thirty-six aircraft from the 387th Bomb Group set out with Swenson, who remembered ‘a few miles off Bastogne about twenty-five Messerschmitt 109s hurtled into our formation. As they did some of our P-51s [Mustang fighters] responded to our Mayday call. Over the intercom the tail gunner described the dogfight but I had to keep my eyes on flying the plane.’

Down below, the Windhund Division noted, ‘Across the entire western horizon the countless streaks of white vapour trails moved across the sky, an impressive, but scary show. The air was filled with uninterrupted humming. The number of bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters could not be counted!’ No sooner had Swenson returned from his bombing mission (in which five from his group of thirty-six were shot down) than he was assigned another in the afternoon to hit a communications centre at Prüm, just behind the German lines. Flak and fighters took a heavy toll of Allied aircraft that day and forty-one Ninth Air Force B-26s were shot down – ‘by far the blackest day in Marauder history,’ added Swenson. The following day, equally good for flying, he added another two missions over the Ardennes and eventually accumulated sixty-one before returning home.

Despite air attacks, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr ground forward through that Saturday and when darkness fell he and fifteen panzers had reached the outskirts of Rochefort, where Companies ‘K’ and ‘I’ of the US 335th Regiment (belonging to the Railsplitters’ 84th Division) were waiting in defence. Few of the inhabitants had fled and numbers were swollen with refugees; none of the 4,000 civilians had anywhere to go but huddle in their cellars. The Lehr assaulted the town through the night of 23–24 December, as Obergefreiter Schüssler recalled: ‘Dismount! The panzer we had been riding on rolled forward a bit, hit a low garden wall and knocked it over. The enemy machine-gun which had fired at us disappeared with a crunching impact … An arrow of tracers turned on us and threw us behind the cover of another wall. My machine-gun shuddered in my hands. The bolt ate the belt of ammo and spat out the empty cases. It fell quiet abruptly … We reached a back courtyard. As I was running I saw the brilliant flashes of bursting mortar rounds; I saw the “dark mice” [as he dubbed the mortar rounds] descend and impact on the roof. A hand grenade flew over our heads into the room where the Americans were. Its ear-deafening blast made us hit the deck. The enemy guns, set up on sandbags along the windows, fell silent.’

Head for the Meuse! Part II

The Americans in Rochefort put up a tough fight, but the town fell an hour after first light, with fewer than 150 of the two US infantry companies escaping. During the 24th, Panzer Lehr found themselves following the march route of 2nd Panzer Division; around Humain (north of Rochefort) they found the burned-out half-tracks of an entire Panzergrenadier company; ‘the battle-group directed to Buissonville encountered ten knocked-out German tanks right outside the village,’ recorded the Division. Christmas Day found the headquarters of Panzer Lehr in St Hubert (south-east of Rochefort), a town of 3,500, where they received a concerted Allied bombing campaign from noon. ‘The wrecks of divisional vehicles smouldered after the attacks … Through his binoculars the commander [Bayerlein] could see gliders heading in towards Bastogne, which was being supplied by air.’ Meanwhile, an American patrol watched a Panzer Lehr convoy heading towards Rochefort, which reflected a typical mix of German and impressed US vehicles, including ‘one company of infantry, five German tanks, two Sherman tanks, fifteen half-tracks, two American Jeeps, one American 2½ ton truck, and three German ambulances’.

By 24–25 December, the 116th Panzer Division was essentially fixed along the terrain between Hotton and Marche by General Alex Bolling’s US 84th Infantry Division and its accompanying 771st Tank Battalion. In continuous skirmishes, the latter were able to split the panzer division into separate battlegroups and sub-units, around the villages of Verdenne, Marenne, Menil-Favay and Hampteau south of the Marche–Hotton road. The panzers were unable to fight as larger formations because of the strength of US troops in the vicinity, minefields and air support the GIs had on call. Early on 24 December the hamlet of Verdenne and its château were attacked and taken by Major Gerhardt Tebbe’s 16th Panzer Regiment with a platoon (five) of Panzer IVs under Leutnant Grzonka, and another of four Panthers, led by Hauptmann Kuchenbach, supported by a weak battalion of Panzergrenadiers. Major Tebbe, an Ostfront veteran, who would be awarded a German Cross in Gold for his leadership in the Bulge and command panzers again in the future Bundeswehr, had already been obliged to abandon one of his Panthers along his line of march, in Houffalize. It is still there, mounted on a concrete plinth overlooking the right side of the road as you drive in from the direction of Bastogne and Noville.

Company ‘K’ of the 84th Division was detailed to investigate the Verdenne area, for the German incursion threatened to sever the important Marche–Hotton road, running south-west to north-east, effectively the 84th’s front line and crucial to their scheme of defence. Assured of support from Shermans of the 771st Tank Battalion, and under a clear Christmas Eve sky with ‘the feel of snow in the air, the ground lightly frozen and covered with frost’, they set off down a track which connected Verdenne with Bourdon, a mile to the north. ‘Just ahead a tank loomed out of the darkness, its huge bulk filling the narrow road, branches pressing in on either side brushing its steel plates. Sergeant Don Phelps went forward to liaise with the tankers, pounding on the side of the hull with his rifle, “Hey, you guys, open up!” The hatch opened slowly, a creak of metal, and the head and shoulders of a man appeared. “Was ist los?” Machine-guns started to chatter, tracers lit up the sky, tank guns fired, mortar rounds exploded, and Company ‘K’ scattered – and leapt straight into the foxholes of the Panzergrenadier battalion protecting their tanks. Major Tebbe reckoned he may have had around forty panzers and half-tracks hidden in the woods at this point. The German salient near Verdenne “had been discovered in a curious way”.’

When this began, Major Gerhardt Tebbe, the panzer commander, recalled to me that on Christmas Eve he was in his Befehlspanzer (command tank), studying his maps. The radio relayed a programme from Cologne Cathedral where the bells were ringing in the festive season. Suddenly his reverie was broken by gunfire nearby, and he slammed shut his turret hatch.24 On Christmas morning, some of the Railsplitters noticed ‘Two German soldiers came stumbling forward toward our positions in the half-light, hands held high, yelling “Nicht schiessen!” (“don’t shoot!”). We discovered that they actually understood very little German, and they finally made us understand they were Ukrainians, drafted into the German army.’

Their appearance in this sector puzzled intelligence staff, but they turned out to be from Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, by far the weakest German formation in Herbstnebel, whose ranks included many older men from garrisons in Norway, with waif and strays from Russia and Ukraine. It is a sad reflection that many East European Volksgrenadier ‘volunteers’ never got the opportunity to surrender in this way. When suddenly faced with a figure in field grey waving his arms about and shouting incoherently (few Volksdeutsche had a good grasp of German, much less English), most nervous, trigger-happy GIs tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the end of Christmas Day, Verdenne had been cleared and 289 Windhund prisoners taken, though nine panzers counter-attacked in the afternoon, each one of which was destroyed by waiting Shermans. By then, many of the Windhund’s sub-units were scattered and encircled by stronger US forces in the Verdenne area. On 26 December, the 84th Hatchet Men went on to ambush an armoured column at Menil-Favay. The leading panzer ran over a pile of anti-tank mines which exploded with such force so as to blow the tank on to its side, ripping a hole in its belly armour, and killing the crew; this blocked the advance of the vehicles behind, leading to the destruction of twenty-six Windhund vehicles, including six tanks.

With US infantry and tank attacks proving too costly to subdue the 116th Panzer Division, the Americans used artillery instead. Their opponents noted, ‘the deployment of American guns was overwhelming’ – there were about 150 US cannon of varying calibres, including 155mm guns and eight-inch howitzers – which broke up every German attempt to break out. The 84th Division thought it ‘the heaviest, most devastating bombardment we had ever witnessed. When the fire stopped, the cries for help from wounded and dying Germans carried clearly to our lines. We admitted to ourselves that we were sorry for the poor bastards up there.’ Eventually, on hearing that further reinforcement or relief of the Windhund was not possible, Waldenburg ordered the vehicles in the Verdenne pocket abandoned and the division went over to the defensive. Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade had almost reached him and the Hotton area, with Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer trailing behind – both with a view to continuing the push westwards – when Berlin switched Remer back to Bastogne on Hitler’s personal whim.

There is nothing remarkable about the Verdenne woods today, except that they are full of the defensive trenches and foxholes dug by both sides, where old ammunition boxes, mortar fragments and shrapnel still litter the forest floor.

The 2nd Panzer Division, which had advanced further, was in a similar predicament, being spread out in scattered battlegroups between an area south-west of Marche and as far as Foy-Notre-Dame, near the Meuse, which Hauptmann von Böhm’s Reconnaissance Battalion reached at midnight on 23 December. At the same moment a jeep manned by three Americans failed to stop at a joint Anglo-US manned checkpoint on the east bank of Meuse, at Dinant. When the vehicle careered through the Rocher Bayard feature – a narrow slit in the rock through which a Sherman could just squeeze – by a prearranged signal Sergeant Baldwin of the 8th Rifle Brigade (a British infantry battalion), a few hundred yards further on, pulled a necklace of anti-tank mines across the road, blowing up the jeep and killing its occupants. All three were found to be wearing US helmets and greatcoats over German uniforms; in their pockets were found very detailed plans of the Allied defences. These were almost certainly not Skorzeny commandos, but a scouting patrol of 2nd Panzer Division sent on ahead in an improvised disguise.

Lauchert immediately pushed forward another battlegroup of Panzergrenadiers, tanks, artillery and engineers under Major Ernst von Cochenhausen, which reach Celles soon after. As with the Windhund along the Marche–Hotton line, 2nd Panzer was, in the words of its War Diary, ‘hindered in its mobility through lack of fuel’. In other words, the Germans could advance no further. In two groups, Böhm at Foy and Cochenhausen at Celles, they dug in and virtually waited to be counter-attacked, but all the while hoping that 9th Panzer Division would break through behind them, or Panzer Lehr or the Windhund Division to their left and right flanks. The Germans’ right flank was unguarded because 116th Panzer had not been able to move forward beyond Hotton, and the left was similarly unprotected because Panzer Lehr also lagged behind.

Thanks to intelligence gathered by two former Belgian army officers, Baron Capitaine Jacques de Villenfagne and his cousin, Lieutenant Philippe le Hardy de Beaulieu, who, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing white gloves, trekked through the crystal-clear night in minus 30 degrees of frost to map the panzers’ positions, British troops in nearby Sorinnes were furnished with the exact locations and precise strengths of Kampfgruppe von Böhm. During 24 December, Shermans of Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Brown’s British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) stationed on the east bank of the Meuse duelled cautiously with the forward tanks of Böhm’s Kampfgruppe; at the same time rocket-firing Typhoons and P-51s harassed the Germans. Aerial observers also appeared in the skies, directing ground artillery onto targets with great accuracy. It was also obvious the latter were short of fuel as each Panther was seen to be towing up to three trucks.

Hitler spent Christmas Eve, der Heilige Abend, in the Führerbunker at the Ziegenberg Adlerhorst complex, elated that 2nd Panzer was so close to the Meuse. The flag noting their position was duly moved on the situations map. He disregarded the fact that they were out of fuel and under air attack. In the afternoon, his staff remembered, he had stood outside the command bunker, watching as thousands of tiny specks glittered in the winter sky overhead. They were American bombers, heading eastwards to bomb the heartland of the Reich.

Knowing that two battlegroups of his division were dangerously exposed, Lauchert asked for permission to withdraw his forward elements and regroup. His request did not get beyond Manteuffel, who knew that neither Model nor Hitler would permit it. Afterwards, Lauchert’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weitz, recorded, ‘During the night the front line elements sent urgent calls for reinforcements and supplies of ammunition and fuel. More and more reports came in stating that the enemy was constantly reinforcing and was, in some cases, on our own supply road. The process of marching on Dinant had come to a halt.’

On Christmas Day, Major-General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2nd Armored Division attacked Lauchert’s exposed right flank at Foy-Notre-Dame, squeezing it between two task forces to the north and south. The US 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and 3 RTR also attacked from the west, forward of the Meuse. Major Noël Bell, serving with the British 8th Rifle Brigade, watched from a nearby vantage point. ‘A squadron of P-38 Lightnings roared over us and circled low, determined to have a festive Christmas Day. Three Panthers, a certain amount of transport and a large number of entrenched infantry … were subjected to merciless and incessant attack from the Lightnings which soon began to dive to rooftop height with machine-guns blazing, dropping bombs at the same time.’

The result was that Kampfgruppe von Böhm was surrounded, smashed and the survivors forced to surrender. After the Christmas Day battle, General Harmon reported that he ‘destroyed or captured eighty-two tanks, sixteen other armoured vehicles, eighty-three guns, and 280 motor vehicles. Twenty vehicles were captured and pressed into Allied service, including seven US trucks seized only days earlier. Harmon had taken the “panzer” out of the 2nd Panzer Division.’ The fact that only 148 men, including Böhm himself, were taken prisoner out of the thousand-plus personnel illustrated the crushing blow that had descended on the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division. It had ceased to exist.

For the Führer’s last Christmas, Oberscharführer Rochus Misch told me in 1993, Hitler’s staff at the Adlerhorst conjured up a small Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) complete with candles, under which lay modest gifts of cigarettes, of which the Führer disapproved, Stollen (fruit cake) and chocolates (he had a sweet tooth), wrapped in newsprint or bright paper. All present realised that any wistful references to the Christkind (Christ Child), a Krippenspiel (nativity play) or the Weihnachtsmann (St Nicholas or Santa Claus), who delivered a sack full of presents to good children, belonged to a different era, and were banned. The headquarters staff, secretaries and generals toasted one another with champagne; Hitler shared the intoxication of the moment, although he had not drunk alcohol: he was already high on the success of his armies. Yet the only Christmas present for which the Führer wished, victory in the Ardennes, was already unattainable.

‘That evening the Americans occupied the Farm Mayenne (formerly home to a Panther platoon)’, wrote Noël Bell. ‘Foy Notre Dame was a smouldering ruin in which half of “B” Squadron 3 RTR and the Americans leaguered for the night, after going round the village and getting Germans out of cellars, like ferrets after rats.’ Several Catholic GIs were recorded as lining up to confess their sins – with the aid of a pocket dictionary – to Father Coussin, a veteran of the Great War and the priest of Celles.

Tactically, Lauchert had overstretched 2nd Panzer, which was in any case out of fuel. The unrelenting pressure for progress came from General von Lüttwitz, who hovered nearby, protective of the division he had commanded from February to September in 1944, and forever breathing down Lauchert’s neck. Today, one of the 2nd Panzer Division’s Panther tanks has survived the attentions of the post-war scrap dealers, and – minus its road wheels and tracks – stands guard outside the crossroads in Celles, where a series of signboards with maps explain the battle in detail, reminding passing motorists how close the Fifth Panzer Army came to their goal of reaching the Meuse.

Thus the spearhead of the entire Herbstnebel campaign had been halted and blunted. The Army Group War Diary noted, ‘On 25 December, the attack by Army Group “B” was the target of strong enemy counter-attacks from the north and west against spearheads of the Fifth Panzer Army. The back-and-forth battles lasted the whole day.’ Panzer Lehr observed that their divisional logistics elements suffered terribly over 24–25 December. Every drop of gasoline had to be brought forward by vehicle and the division lost thirty fuel trucks during their march to the front, not including those bogged down in the mud, broken down or caught in accidents. ‘A Flak battery that attempted to reply to an attack of P-38 Lightnings simply disappeared under a hail of bombs. Hardly any men of the battery survived and the division’s armoured maintenance workshops were swept up in a maelstrom of fire.’

By the time Army Group ‘B’ ordered the Sixth Panzer Army to disengage from the Elsenborn Ridge and strengthen the effort of Fifth Army on 25 December, it was too late. On his own initiative, Bayerlein withdrew the forward elements of Panzer Lehr back into Rochefort during the night of 25–26 December. This was an acknowledgement that Hitler’s original plan of putting most weight on the German right, favouring the Waffen-SS, had been a disaster, and that Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army sector had always shown the greatest promise.

This was not just because of Manteuffel’s fighting qualities and judgement as a commander, but because the terrain was far better suited and offered more alternatives to fast-moving armoured troops. Surprise was the major advantage the Germans possessed and that had largely been thrown away by the length of time the panzer formations took to bridge their river lines during the first couple of days. Had the Fifth Army possessed Dietrich’s bridging equipment, engineering assets and weight of artillery support, enabling it to bridge efficiently and effectively on 16–17 December, it might have made the Meuse, but even then would not have managed to get much beyond.

On 26 December, 116th Panzer Division was ordered ‘onto the defensive’, in theory to await the arrival of second echelon relief units, but in reality acknowledging that the offensive was over. The battle would thenceforth be to retain whatever gains had been made. ‘The Other Fellow’, as Bradley habitually referred to his opponents, ‘reached his high-water mark today’, he reported to Bedell Smith at Ike’s headquarters. On this day Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th’s Divisional Adjutant, noted, ‘This morning, fighter-bombers and bombers turned La Roche into a smoking pile of rubble. Our anti-aircraft guns were able to shoot down some of the attackers … if only the weather would turn bad again!’ Vogelsang also assessed the accumulated personnel losses since the 16th, as at least 1,907 killed or wounded, 1,278 taken prisoner and an unspecified number missing; a total of 113 armoured vehicles of all types had been destroyed – only seven tanks and four tank destroyers were still battleworthy.

‘The Division lost much of its combat value, inner strength, quality, speed and flexibility of leadership. It will be able to compensate for these losses through its reserves, but not for those valuable officers, including a large number of battalion commanders, adjutants and company commanders and most of the junior leaders … of special impact is the loss of fifteen radio and three other armoured communications vehicles … Losses are so high that the two Panzergrenadier regiments, where all four battalion commanders became casualties, have to be considered as nearly destroyed.’ The combined battle strength on 29 December of the two Panzergrenadier regiments totalled 1,184 out of the nearly 5,000 who started the campaign. Divisional headquarters came in for some harsh treatment on the same day; in despair, as Major Vogelsang recorded, ‘Fighter-bombers appeared and took care of some of the few houses … Then artillery planes began to circle and directed well-controlled fire from heavy guns. Explosions everywhere! Finally it became too uncomfortable; nobody can conduct a paper war from a foxhole!’


Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort and a Batavian cohort.


By far the most famous defensive barrier in the Roman Empire; served for nearly 300 years as one of the major dividing lines between Roman Britain and the barbarians of Caledonia. With the exception of the Wall of Antonius, built just to the north, the Wall of Hadrian was unique in all of the imperial provinces. Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction in 122 A. D., and work was begun by Platorius Nepos, governor of Britain, who completed it around 126. The wall extended some 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend (Segedunum) to Bowness-on-Solway (or the Solway Firth). It was intended not as a formidable bastion but as a base from which Rome’s presence could be maintained. Roman troops, mainly auxiliaries, manned its turrets and were to fight any large enemy force in the field while keeping watch on the frontier. In the event of a direct assault, the defenses were only adequate, perhaps explaining the collapse of Roman power in Britain from time to time.

The original plans were probably drawn by Hadrian. The barrier was to extend some 70 miles and be made mostly of stone, 10 feet thick, while the rest would be constructed of turf, 20 feet thick. The turf wall was completed, but the stone sections had only just begun when the plan was extended several miles to ensure that the barrier covered the area from sea to sea. Further, the stone portions were to be only 8 feet thick, instead of 10, and approximately 20 feet in height; the turf portions, 13 feet high. Forts were distanced some 5 miles from each other, with so-called mile-castles spread out every Roman mile, connected by watch-towers. Two ditches were dug. The one in front was approximately 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, designed for defense and V-shaped. The ditch behind the wall has caused considerable archaeological debate. Called the Vallum (trench), it was straight and flat-bottomed, 20 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 10 feet across at the bottom, fortified on both sides by earthen walls (but then filled in). Scholars have speculated that it was once used for some other, non-military purpose.

Until the construction of the Antonine Wall in 142, Hadrian’s Wall was the only frontier marker in Britain. With the Antonine Wall in the north, its importance decreased briefly until 180, when the Antonine Wall was destroyed. In 196-197, Clodius Albinus took with him every available soldier in Britain for his bid for the throne, thus allowing the wall to be ruined, Septimius Severus repaired it from 205 to 207. Peace was maintained until the late 3rd century A. D., when the chaotic situation in Roman Britain following the deaths of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus brought the Picts down from Caledonia, Constantius I launched a restorative campaign but throughout the 4th century barbarian inroads put pressure upon the wall as Roman influence diminished. More invasions poured over the wall, only to be repulsed by Count Flavius Theodosius in 369. The last garrison on the wall withdrew around 400 as the barrier became a monument to Rome’s past.


A typical Roman fort of the Imperial period was shaped like a modern playing card, with two short sides and two long sides, and rounded corners. This is the evolved version of a Roman fort, since the earlier fortified camps of the early Empire were not so regularly shaped and were not generally designed as permanent bases for troops. The fort and supply depot at Rödgen in Germany was ovoid in shape, and while the fortress of Haltern was more regular in plan, it does not compare with the later permanent forts of the Empire.

Typically, early Roman forts were built of earth and turf ramparts (called murus caespiticus), topped by a timber breastwork, with access by timber gateways with towers on either side. There were usually interval towers ranged along the walls and at each corner. Forts were usually surrounded by one or more ditches, shaped like a letter V but with an aptly labelled “ankle-breaker” drainage channel at the bottom. The Romans usually took this drainage feature seriously, judging by the number of excavations that show that the ditch had been cleaned out and squared off. In the second century AD from the reign of Trajan onward, when the majority of forts had become permanent bases rather than semipermanent ones while the provinces were pacified and Romanized, forts and fortresses were generally, but not universally, built of stone. In some cases this meant refronting existing forts by cutting back the turf rampart, and in others building in stone from the outset.

Depending on the type of unit stationed in them, forts varied in size from 0.6 hectares for the small numerous forts in Germany and Dacia, to 20 hectares for a legion. There were a few double legionary fortresses such as Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Mogontiacum (modern Mainz, Germany) until the failed revolt of Saturninus, who gathered the combined savings of his legionaries to attempt a coup against the Emperor Domitian. After this, Domitian decreed that no two legions were to be housed together.

The internal arrangements of fortresses and forts was on the whole standardized, but with regional or local variations. The center range usually housed the headquarters building (principia), flanked by the commander’s house (praetorium) and the granaries (horreae). There were four main streets within the fort, and the orientation of the fort was taken from the direction that headquarters faced. The road running across the fort in front of the headquarters was the via principalis, with its two gates labeled for the right and left sides (porta principalis dextra and porta principalis sinistra). The road that connected the principia to the front gate (porta praetoria) was the via praetoria, and behind the headquarters another road, the via decumana, ran to the rear gate (porta decumana).

In several forts archaeological evidence shows that there were other communal buildings, for example the workshop (fabrica) where metalworking, woodworking, and repair of equipment and weapons would take place. There was also a hospital (valetudinarium). It should be acknowledged that from the ground plans alone, the workshops and the hospitals might have been confused, each consisting of small rooms off a central courtyard, but in a few cases medical instruments have been found, which strongly supports the label “hospital.” The forts on Hadrian’s Wall at Wallsend and Housesteads, and the fortresses at Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Novaesium (modern Neuss, Germany) are among examples where hospitals have been found. The majority of the buildings inside the fort would be the barrack blocks. For the infantry in legionary fortresses and auxiliary forts, barracks were normally laid out with ten rooms subdivided into two parts, one for sleeping and eating and one for storage, each room accommodating eight men, and therefore housing one complete century of eighty men. A verandah ran the full length of the ten rooms, and at the end of the barrack block there was usually a suite of rooms for the centurion. Cavalry barracks were different, reflecting the organization of the turma. From the evidence at the fort at Dormagen on the Rhine, and Wallsend on Hadrian’s Wall, it seems that the men and their horses were housed together. In at least three of the Dormagen stable blocks, there were double cubicles, with soakaway pits in those along one side, and hearths in those on the other, indicating that men and mounts shared the blocks (Müller, 1979; Dixon and Southern, 1992).

Roman Watchtowers

There is no real consensus as to what such monumental linear boundaries as the walls in northern Britain or between the Rhine and Danube in Germany were for and how they functioned. Almost as puzzling are cases where Roman soldiers were distributed in very small detachments, often less than ten men, manning watchtowers, constructed in lines following roads or along ridges. Such deployments seem to make little sense if the primary aim of the Roman army was to defend the provinces since any serious attack would surely have overwhelmed these weak defences.

Neither the view of the Roman Empire during the Principate as essentially defensive, nor the view that it was aggressive and still hoping to expand, explains properly what the army was actually doing. Mattern has recently suggested that the defensive-offensive distinction is anachronistic, and that we should view Roman foreign relations more in terms of concepts of honour and power. The theme of her book was essentially the ideology of empire, and it did not really explain how the army operated or whether or not its activities were effective. The shift in emphasis was very useful, for it is important to understand how the Romans conceived of their relations with other peoples, and it is within this framework that we should attempt to understand what their armed forces were actually doing.

For all the insights generated by this debate, the question remains of whether or not the Romans developed something which could reasonably be described as grand strategy. As with so many labels, there is a tendency for each contributor in the debate to provide his own definition for this term, making it easier to prove that the Romans either did or did not have one. The term was created in the twentieth century, and most of the definitions employed by modern strategic literature assume the existence of institutions and ideas utterly alien to the Roman Empire. For most modern states the ideal of international affairs is peaceful coexistence with their neighbours. Each state is considered to have a right to govern itself in its own way and by its own laws. In the modern world war is the anomaly, shattering the natural state of peace. For many societies in the ancient world the reverse was true, and peace was an interruption of the normal international hostility. The Romans were inclined to think of peace as the product of an enemy’s utter defeat, hence the verb `to pacify’ (pacare) was a euphemism for `to defeat’.

Peaceful coexistence with other nations, and most of all former enemies, was never a Roman aspiration. In some way we must relate our understanding of Roman ideology to the reality of military deployment in the frontier zones, many areas of which were constantly occupied for centuries on end. It is therefore worth considering the army’s deployment in these areas and trying to reconstruct what it was doing. In doing so we must try to look at the fringes of the Roman Empire from both directions.

Raiding does appear to have been endemic in the tribal societies of Spain, Britain, Gaul, Germany, Thrace, Illyria and Africa. Caesar claimed that the Helvetii migrated to occupy lands which would give them more opportunity to raid their neighbours (B Gall. 1.2).We are told that German tribes tried to keep a strip of depopulated land around their borders as a protection against enemy raids. This was also a measure of a tribe’s martial prowess and thus a deterrent to attacks. The Belgian tribes grew thick thorn hedges as boundary markers that were intended to delay raiding groups. They may also have been a sign that crossing them would be met with force, and it was probably no coincidence that Caesar’s army had to fight a battle at the Sambre soon after passing such a barrier (B Gall. 2.17, 6.23). The archaeological record of weapons burials in many regions of Europe confirms a picture of societies in which martial symbols were very important, and it is implausible to suggest that many Celtic tribes were not warlike warrior societies.

Our sources inevitably only report raids carried out on a large scale, usually by thousands of warriors. Only well-established leaders in reasonably united tribes could ever have mustered such forces. The warriors in many societies were strongly independent, choosing whether or not to join a leader who proclaimed that he was to lead a raid. Most raiding bands were probably much smaller. Even Ammianus, who provides far more detailed accounts of activities in the frontier provinces than any earlier source, never specifically mentions groups of fewer than 400 marauders. The distribution of Roman troops in penny packets to man lines of watchtowers might make a lot more sense if they were facing raids by equally small or smaller groups of warriors. The distinction between warfare and banditry blurs at this level, but there are many hints that small-scale violence was common in the empire.

Conspiracy Theory

The British security situation deteriorated in the 360s. At the start of the decade we are told that `savage tribes of the Scots and Picts, who had broken the peace that had been agreed upon, were laying waste the regions near the frontiers’. Worse followed in 367, when a crisis known as the `barbarian conspiracy’ unfolded. Raids by Franks and Saxons targeting Gaul, and Picts, Attacotti, and Scots striking Britain brought devastation and suspicions of collusion. In Britain, one high-ranking Roman commander was slain and another, by the name of Fullofaudes, was `cut off by enemy ambush’. Fullofaudes was a dux, and therefore quite possibly the dux Britanniarum responsible for the Wall zone. His fate is not clear, but potentially he, too, was killed. Meanwhile, the attackers were `ranging widely and causing great devastation’ as far south as London, while scores of surviving Roman soldiers aggravated the catastrophe by deserting. In response, a force perhaps 2,000-strong under the command of Theodosius – the father of a future emperor with the same name – was dispatched from the Continent.

By the time Theodosius arrived, the enemy forces had splintered and were seeking out booty. To restore the situation, his soldiers adopted tactics once considered borderline banditry. They `secured beforehand the places suitable for ambushing the savages’, rather than – so far as we can tell – fighting setpiece battles. This approach proved provident and, after the danger had passed, Theodosius is credited with protecting `the frontiers with watch-posts and defence works’, and disbanding a group referred to as the areani. Its members reportedly ranged far and wide to gather information, making it likely they were a late incarnation of the Wall’s intelligence-gathering apparatus. If so, they expose an inherent danger of such outfits, as the areani were reportedly turned by the enemy and bribed into betraying Roman secrets. That assumes, of course, they were not simply singled out as a convenient scapegoat for a spectacular military catastrophe.

Although we do not know whether the 367 invaders directly targeted the Wall garrisons, or sought to bypass them, the killing of one senior Roman commander, and ambushing of another, emphasises that the attackers were powerful enough to inflict serious losses. There is no sign in the written sources that the Roman forces in Britain could have salvaged the situation without aid from overseas. If securing booty was the attackers’ principal aim, attempting to bypass the Wall garrisons would have an obvious appeal. Theodosius’ strengthening of the frontier defences may be relevant here. There is no sign of major upgrades to the Wall, but a chain of fortifications was raised along the north-east Yorkshire coast at around this time. These small installations are recognisable as a variant of a fortification type popular on the Continent and comprise stout stone towers set within high masonry ramparts boasting projecting bastions. Creating such a cordon could fit with the 367 conspirators simply sailing past the Wall and landing to its south. One complication is that the garrisons of these new coastal stations are unlikely to exceed about eighty soldiers, which would leave them wellsuited to counter small-scale incursions, but powerless to repulse a fullblown invasion. They do, though, perfectly match the implication of the western coastal forts at Maryport and Lancaster: it was securing the shore that warranted heightened protective measures during this era. Even so, this developing threat may be partially attributable to Hadrian’s Wall curtailing overland raiding so effectively it incentivised striking by sea.

Religious practices were also changing during the final decades of Roman Britain. At Corbridge, temples were torn down after 370, with elements reused in the road. Offerings at Coventina’s shrine seemingly cease sometime around 388, while broken fragments of superstructure were reportedly found in her well, which would fit with a deconsecration ceremony analogous to those sometimes found in fort headquarters buildings. This suppression of longstanding ritual sites can presumably be attributed to Christianity. With occasional exceptions, official tolerance for the religion had grown since Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge. In 391, an edict made sacrifice illegal and closed the temples. The degree to which Christianity penetrated the Wall communities remains unclear, and some see the military garrisons as bastions of the old gods. However, the evidence for a military uptake of Christianity seems reasonably good. A few overtly Christian objects have been found, perhaps most obviously those bearing the chi-rho emblem. This device superimposes the first two Greek letters for Christos and is sometimes set within a circle. On such occasions it evokes a six-spoke wheel, which would surely have elicited knowing smiles from any remining adherents of the Celtic sky god. Recent excavations at Maryport revealed a cluster of graves, some of which might have a Christian origin. These lay near an enigmatic concentration of large pits, many of which contained earlier altars reused as packing to support sizeable timber uprights for some sort of monumental structure erected during the twilight of Roman control. As this complex occupied the highest point of the local topography, it was presumably intended to be as visible as possible. Churches are suspected within South Shields, Housesteads, Vindolanda, and Birdoswald forts, while Christianstyle gravestones are known at Vindolanda and Maryport. Although these memorials probably date to the century or so after the end of Roman Britain, if Christianity was being practised by the descendants of fort garrisons, it seems reasonable to propose that the religion took root during the Roman era.

Magnus Maximus, an important commander in Britain and possibly another dux Britanniarum, is known to have been baptised in 383. He is also credited with successes against the Picts and Scots, but in 383 was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Maximus initially proved a proficient usurper, and successfully took Gaul and Spain, before invading Italy in 387, where he was captured and executed. It is likely that his continental adventures were powered in part by troops withdrawn from Britain. Thereafter, pressure on the island continued to mount. In around 398, reinforcements were sent against perils including a sea that `foamed with hostile oarsmen’. Less than a decade later, the army in Britain mutinied in 406 or 407, setting up a succession of usurpers as the situation on the Continent steadily deteriorated. In around 409, it was either invaders from beyond the Rhine frontier or perhaps even a desire to remove unwelcome military units brought in by the army that sounded the death knell for Roman Britain. Zosimus records that they `made it necessary for the inhabitants of Britain and some of the nations among the Celts to revolt from Roman rule and live on their own, no longer obedient to Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms, and braving danger for their own independence, freed the cities from the barbarians threatening [or billeted in] them’. While this passage implies that Roman Britain came to a neatly defined end, archaeology demonstrates the reality was less clear cut.

Rather than the Wall garrisons being withdrawn and the forts abandoned around 409, evidence for continued occupation is mounting. The classic sequence was teased out at Birdoswald during Tony Wilmott’s trailblazing 1987-1992 excavations. There, important changes to the two fort granaries began c. 350, when the subfloor spaces in the southern structure were filled in, while its northern counterpart collapsed at around this time. That the refurbishing of the southern granary marks a shift from storage to highstatus activity is implied by what is probably either a foundation or abandonment deposit: a gold earring, glass ring, and silver coin of 388-395, found near hearths. The last two continue the round objects theme, while the earring is hexagonal, but features a decorative scheme vaguely evocative of wheel spokes. Sometime afterwards, a new floor surface was laid on top, before the south granary was seemingly abandoned in favour of a timber building inserted into the shell of the northern granary. This was, in turn, superseded by a sizeable timber hall, which stood on postpads. Wilmott observed that the adapted granaries are explicable as venues where the unit commander could address his troops, while the final timber edifice resembles an early medieval chieftain’s feasting hall. The chronology fits this, with the adapted southern granary probably not abandoned until 420, the first quasi-timber structure lasting to perhaps 470, and the timber hall standing until 520 or later. This puts us over a century beyond the end date of Roman Britain. Crucially, though, no break in occupation was detected at the fort. Instead of marching away, the Roman garrison seemingly stayed put, gradually mutating from a regular army unit into an early medieval warband.

The centre cannot hold

The Wall changed immensely over the course of the 4th century. Failure to upgrade the military posts with cutting-edge new defences left them resembling relics from a bygone era. But inside, change was underway. Fort layouts designed to reinforce a hierarchy stretching all the way to the emperor, and hold storage and workshop facilities commensurate with sophisticated long-distance supply lines, were morphing into something new. Ruined or redundant monumental architecture could be quarried to patch humdrum but essential structures, such as defences and roads, or surrendered to industry, thereby helping to tackle the immense logistical challenges associated with becoming more self-sufficient. This shift surely involved local producers in the vicinity of forts supplying more goods for the military market, suggesting close links with rural communities. Currently, we can only see hints of this, but in the west, it is likely that some late Roman sites south of the Wall were successors to longstanding settlements with prehistoric origins. In the east, the endurance of Local Traditional Ware also supports a degree of continuity. A chronic reduction in overseas imports, and indeed products from southern Britain, robbed Wall life of a distinctive facet over the course of the 4th century. Yet transitioning to regional supply probably enabled soldiers to weather the early-5th-century turmoil. Rather than the end of Rome’s financial and material support forcing an abandonment of the forts, local suppliers offered a lifeline. In turn, the protection fort garrisons could extend provided an incentive for rural producers to nurture this relationship.

Severing links with Rome spelled fundamental change for existing power structures. No longer were unit commanders beholden to a distant dux, probably based in York, who was in turn just another cog in the imperial hierarchy. Instead, individual unit commanders would have had greater autonomy than ever before. Even this development, though, seemingly has its roots in the later 4th century. If the refurbishment of the southern granary at Birdoswald was designed to create a venue where a commander could address his men, it marked an important shift from the arrangement in previous centuries. Once, such gatherings occurred in the headquarters building, beside the unit shrine and the trappings of imperial power. The new arrangement at Birdoswald would have increased the focus on individual commanders. By this reading, the eventual shift to a timber feasting hall symbolises how regular military commanders gradually transformed into early medieval chieftains. The end of Roman authority over the Wall, then, was not accompanied by an evacuation of the heavily armed soldiers manning its forts. Instead they remained, to become part of the region’s future.


Modern Recreation of an Ancient Egyptian Relief Depicting the Races of Man Known to the Egyptians – From Right to Left: Egyptian, Canaanite/Asiatic, Nubian, and Four Different Libyan Chieftains


The separation of the two lands into their constituent parts might have been the new political reality, but it was anathema to traditional Egyptian ideology, which emphasized the unifying role of the king and cast division as the triumph of chaos. As the Hyksos had shown five centuries earlier, the sheer weight and antiquity of pharaonic beliefs had a tendency to win in the end. And, as the Libyan elite became more entrenched, more secure in its exercise of power, a curious thing happened. In certain important aspects, it started to go native.

It was at Thebes, heartland of pharaonic orthodoxy, that the first signs of a return to the old ways manifested themselves. After the “reign” of Pinedjem I (1063–1033), subsequent high priests eschewed royal titles, dating their monuments instead to the reigns of the kings at Djanet. Not that men such as Menkheperra, Nesbanebdjedet II, and Pinedjem II were any less authoritarian or ruthless than their predecessors, but they were willing to recognize the supreme authority of a single monarch. This was an important, if subtle, change in the prevailing philosophy. It reopened the possibility of political reunification at some point in the future.

That moment came in the middle of the tenth century. Near the close of the reign of Pasebakhaenniut II (960–950), control of Thebes had been delegated to a charismatic and ambitious Libyan chieftain from Bast, a man named Shoshenq. As “great chief of chiefs,” he seems to have been the most forceful personality in court circles. Moreover, by marrying his son to Pasebakhaenniut’s eldest daughter, Shoshenq reinforced his connections with the royal family. His calculations paid off. After Pasebakhaenniut’s death, Shoshenq was ideally placed to take the throne. The chieftain’s accession marked not just the beginning of a new dynasty (reckoned as the Twenty-second), but the start of a new era.

From the outset, Shoshenq I (945–925) moved to centralize power, reestablish the king’s political authority, and return Egypt to a traditional (New Kingdom) form of government. In a break with recent practice, oracles were no longer used as a regular instrument of government policy. The king’s word had always been the law, and Shoshenq felt perfectly able to make up his own mind without Amun’s help. Only in far-off Nubia, in the great temple of Amun-Ra at Napata, did the institution of the divine oracle survive in its fullest form (with long-term consequences for the history of the Nile Valley).

Despite his overtly Libyan name and background, Shoshenq I was still the unchallenged ruler of all Egypt. Moreover, he had a practical method of imposing his will over the traditionally minded south, and reining in the recent tendency toward Theban independence. By appointing his own son as high priest of Amun and army commander, he ensured Upper Egypt’s absolute loyalty. Other members of the royal family and supporters of the dynasty were similarly appointed to important posts throughout the country, and local bigwigs were encouraged to marry into the royal house to cement their loyalty. When the third prophet of Amun married Shoshenq’s daughter, the king knew he had the Theban priesthood well and truly in his pocket. It was just like the old days.

To demonstrate his newfound supremacy, Shoshenq consulted the archives and turned his attention to the activities traditionally expected of an Egyptian king. He ordered quarries to be reopened and sat down with his architects to plan ambitious building projects. While ordering further removals of New Kingdom pharaohs from their tombs in the Valley of the Kings, he nonetheless took pains to portray himself as a pious ruler and actively sought opportunities to make benefactions to Egypt’s great temples. For the first time in more than a century, fine reliefs were carved on temple walls to record the monarch’s achievements—even if the monarch in question was unashamed of his Libyan ancestry. But for all the piety and propaganda, the art and architecture, Shoshenq knew that there was still one element missing. In days of yore, no pharaoh worthy of the title would have sat idly by as Egypt’s power and influence declined on the world stage. All the great rulers of the New Kingdom had been warrior kings, ready at a moment’s notice to defend Egypt’s interests and extend its borders. It was time for such action again. Time to reawaken the country’s long-dormant imperialist foreign policy. Time to show the rest of the Near East that Egypt was still in the game.

A border incident in 925 provided the perfect excuse. With a mighty army of Libyan warriors, supplemented—in time-honored fashion—by Nubian mercenaries, Shoshenq marched out from his delta capital to reassert Egyptian authority. According to the biblical sources,1 there was murky power politics at play, too, with Egypt stirring up trouble among the Near Eastern powers and acquiescing in, if not actively encouraging, the breakup of Solomon’s once mighty kingdom of Israel into two mutually hostile territories. Whatever the precise context, after crushing the Semitic tribesmen who had infiltrated Egypt in the area of the Bitter Lakes, Shoshenq’s forces headed straight for Gaza, the traditional staging post for campaigns against the wider Near East. Having captured the city, the king divided his army into four divisions (with distant echoes of Ramesses II’s four divisions at Kadesh). He sent one strike force southeast into the Negev Desert to seize the strategically important fortress of Sharuhen. Another column headed due east toward the settlements of Beersheba and Arad, while a third contingent swept northeast toward Hebron and the fortified hill towns of Judah. The main army, led by the king himself, continued north along the coast road before turning inland to attack Judah from the north.

According to the biblical chroniclers, Shoshenq “took the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem.” Curiously, the Judaean capital is conspicuously absent from the roll call of conquests that Shoshenq had carved on the walls of Ipetsut to commemorate his campaign, but it is possible that he accepted its protection money without storming the walls. The city’s lament—that “he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house; he took away everything”3—may indeed be a true reflection of events.

With Judah thoroughly subjugated, the Egyptian army continued its devastating progress through the Near East. Next in its sights was the rump kingdom of Israel, with its new capital at Shechem—the site of a famous victory by Senusret III nearly a millennium earlier. Other localities, too, echoed down the centuries as the Egyptians took Beth-Shan (one of Ramesses II’s strategic bases), Taanach, and finally Megiddo, scene of Thutmose III’s great victory of 1458. Determined to secure his place in history and prove himself the equal of the great Eighteenth Dynasty warrior pharaohs, Shoshenq ordered a commemorative inscription to be erected inside the fortress of Megiddo. Having thus secured an overwhelming victory, he led his army southward again, via Aruna and Yehem to Gaza, the border crossing at Raphia (modern Rafah), the Ways of Horus, and home. Once safely back in Egypt, Shoshenq fulfilled the expectations of tradition by commissioning a mighty new extension to the temple at Ipetsut, its monumental gateway decorated with scenes of his military triumph. The king is shown smiting his Asiatic enemies while the supreme god Amun and the personification of victorious Thebes look on approvingly.

Yet if all this sword-wielding and flag-waving was supposed to usher in a new era of pharaonic power, Egypt was to be sorely disappointed. Before the work at Ipetsut could be completed, Shoshenq I died suddenly. Without its royal patron, the project was abandoned and the workmen’s chisels fell silent. Worse, Shoshenq’s successors displayed a lamentable poverty of aspiration. They reverted all too easily to the previous model of laissez-faire government and were content with limited political and geographical horizons. Egypt’s temporary renaissance on the world stage had been a false dawn. The country’s renewed authority in the Near East withered away just as quickly as it had been established. And, far from being overawed by Shoshenq I’s brief display of royal authority, Thebes became increasingly frustrated at rule from the delta.

The specter of disunity stalked the city’s streets once more.


Shoshenq i’s policy of putting his own son in control of Thebes had succeeded in its objective of bringing the south under the control of the central government. This achievement, as much as Shoshenq’s drive and determination, had made his Palestinian campaign possible. It gave the king the ability to levy troops and supplies from the whole of Egypt, and to recruit mercenaries from Nubia. But the ethnic tensions between the largely Egyptian population of Upper Egypt and the country’s Libyan rulers were never far below the surface, and the capital city of Djanet was a world away from Thebes, both culturally and geographically. It was only a matter of time before southern resentment boiled over.

The king who tempted fate too far was Shoshenq I’s great-grandson, Osorkon II (874–835). During his long reign, he lavished attention on his ancestral home, Bast, especially its principal temple dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. Most impressive of all his commissions was a festival hall to celebrate his first thirty years on the throne. The hall stood at the temple entrance and was decorated with scenes of the jubilee ceremonies, many of them harking back to the dawn of Egyptian history. In conception, it was every inch a traditional pharaonic monument. In execution, too, it stood comparison with the grand edifices of the New Kingdom. But its location—the remote central delta, not the religious capital of Thebes—betrayed its patron’s provincial origins. Osorkon II further underlined his loyalty to his home city by building a new temple in Bast, dedicated to Bastet’s son, the lion-headed god Mahes. Yet, far from lionizing their sovereign for such pious works, the Thebans looked on in disgust.

Eventually, Upper Egyptian frustration reached the breaking point. The inhabitants of Thebes desperately wanted self-rule and looked for a figurehead to lead the charge. The spotlight, not unnaturally, fell upon the high priest of Amun, Horsiese. The fact that he was Osorkon II’s second cousin mattered less than the symbolic potency of his office. As head of the Amun priesthood, Horsiese represented the economic and political strength of Ipetsut and of Upper Egypt in general. So, in the middle of Osorkon II’s reign, Horsiese bowed to local opinion and duly proclaimed himself king in Thebes. Two centuries earlier, other high priests had similarly claimed kingly titles and ruled the south as a counterdynasty, separate from the main royal line in the delta but connected to it by family ties. Horsiese and his backers had obviously studied their history.

The declaration of independence by Thebes marked the end of Shoshenq I’s united realm, the end of his superpower dream, and a return to the fractured state of the post-Ramesside era. But the current sovereign, Osorkon II, seemed not to mind. For him, the devolution of power to the provinces was an honorable tradition, one that could be safely accommodated within the tribal system of alliances that was his inheritance from his nomadic forebears. He could tolerate breakaway rulers, as long as they were relatives. Keeping it in the family was the Libyan way.

In fact, Horsiese’s independent reign was a short-lived affair. Relations with the delta continued much as before, and any notion of real Theban independence was illusory. But the Amun priesthood, having savored the sweet taste of self-determination, had no appetite for a return to centralized control. The principle of southern autonomy had been reestablished, apparently with the tacit approval of the main royal line. The genie was out of the bottle. Henceforth, temple and crown would go their separate ways, with profound consequences for Egyptian civilization.

In 838, the new high priest of Amun, Osorkon II’s own grandson Takelot, picked up where his predecessor had left off, proclaiming himself king (as Takelot II) and establishing a formal counterdynasty at Thebes. Osorkon died just three years later, reconciled, it seems, to the explicit division of his realm and the diminution of his royal status. On his grave goods, he had himself shown undergoing the Weighing of the Heart, to decide if he was good enough to win resurrection with Osiris in the underworld. In the past, kings had enjoyed (or presumed) an automatic passport to the afterlife; only mortals had had to face the last judgment. Osorkon was not so sure on which side of the line he stood. In a gesture of farewell, the dead king’s faithful army commander carved a lament at the entrance to the royal tomb, but it was a threnody for a fellow traveler, not an elegy for a divine monarch. Within six years of Osorkon II’s death, even sporadic recognition of the northern dynasty ceased at Thebes, all monuments and official documents being dated to the years of Takelot II’s independent reign (838–812). The whole of Upper Egypt, from the fortress of Tawedjay to the first cataract, recognized the Theban king as its monarch. The future of the south now belonged to Takelot and his heirs.

But not everyone in Thebes rejoiced at this turn of events. Takelot and his family had their detractors, and their effective monopoly of the Amun priesthood’s great wealth caused serious resentment, not least among jealous relatives who harbored ambitions of their own. If the Libyan feudal system allowed for regional autonomy, it also encouraged vicious squabbles between different branches of the extended royal clan. Just a decade into Takelot II’s rule, one of his distant relations, a man by the name of Padibastet (perhaps a son of Horsiese’s), decided to chance his arm. In 827, with tacit support from the northern king, he proclaimed himself ruler of Thebes, in direct opposition to Takelot. There were now two rivals for the southern crown. For a dyed-in-the-wool Libyan such as Takelot, there was only one solution to the crisis—military action. From the safety of his fortified headquarters at Tawedjay—which was named, with characteristic lack of understatement, the “crag of Amun, great of roaring”—he dispatched his son and heir, Prince Osorkon, to sail south to Thebes with an armed escort to oust the pretender and reclaim his birthright.

Force won the day, and “what had been destroyed in every city in Upper Egypt was reestablished. Suppressed were the enemies … of this land, which had fallen into turmoil.” On reaching Thebes, Prince Osorkon took part in a religious procession to confirm his pious credentials before receiving homage from the entire priesthood of Amun and every district governor. Nervously, they all made a public declaration, swearing that the prince was “the valiant protector of all the gods,” chosen by Amun “amongst hundreds of thousands in order to carry out what his heart desires.” And well they might, knowing as they did the alternative. Once back in control, Prince Osorkon showed the rebels (some of whom were his own officials) no mercy. In his victory inscription, he callously describes how they were bound in fetters, paraded before him, then carried off “like goats the night of the feast of the Evening Sacrifice.”6 As a brutal warning to others, “Every one was burned with fire in the place of the crime.”

With his enemies literally reduced to ashes, Prince Osorkon set about putting Theban affairs in order. He confirmed the temple revenues, heard petitions, presided at the inauguration of minor officials, and issued a flurry of new decrees. And all this administrative activity came with an admonition:

As for the one who will upset this command which I have issued, he shall be subject to the ferocity of Amun-Ra, the flame of Mut shall overcome him when she rages, and his son shall not succeed him.

To this he added, modestly, “whereas my name will stand firm and endure throughout the length of eternity.” The stones of Ipetsut must have echoed back their approbation: after all the vicissitudes of recent history, here was a prince in the old mold.

The following year, Prince Osorkon visited Thebes on no fewer than three occasions, to take part in major festivals and present offerings to the gods. He had evidently calculated that more frequent public appearances might win over the doubters and prevent further trouble. He was sorely mistaken. Far from cowing the dissenters, his harsh treatment of the rebels had merely stoked further resentment and hatred among the priesthood. A second, full-scale rebellion broke out in 823, once again with Padibastet as its figurehead. The “great convulsion” precipitated outright civil strife, with families and colleagues divided between the two factions. This time around, Padibastet was the winner, thanks to support from senior Theban officials. He moved quickly to consolidate his position, appointing his own men to important offices. Thebes was lost to Prince Osorkon and his father, Takelot II. They retreated to their northern stronghold to lick their wounds and bemoan their fate. “Years elapsed in which one preyed upon his fellow unimpeded.”

But if recent events had shown anything, it was that Theban priests were fickle friends. Another decade later, and Prince Osorkon was back in Thebes, restored as high priest of Amun to the groveling acclamation of his followers: “We shall be happy on account of you, you having no enemies, they being non-existent.” It was, of course, all hot air. Padibastet had not gone away, and the death soon afterward of Prince Osorkon’s father, Takelot II, merely strengthened the rival faction. A third rebellion in 810 saw Padibastet seize control of Thebes once more, but by 806, Prince Osorkon was back in town and presenting lavish offerings to the gods. A year later, Padibastet had the upper hand again. The prince’s faction could not so easily bounce back from this latest setback, and Osorkon once again retreated to the “crag of Amun” to ponder his next move.

Finally, Padibastet’s death in 802 shuffled the pack anew, and his successor showed none of the same determination. So, in 796, nearly a decade after his latest expulsion, Prince Osorkon sailed again for Thebes. This time, he took no chances. His brother, General Bakenptah , was commander of the fortress of Herakleopolis, and hence was able to call upon a significant military contingent. Together, the two brothers stormed the city of Amun and “overthrew everyone who had fought against them.”

After a power struggle lasting three decades, Prince Osorkon was finally able to claim the kingship of Thebes uncontested. For the next eighty years, under him and his successors, the destiny of Thebes and Upper Egypt did indeed lie with the descendants of Takelot II, just as the old king had hoped. The family’s public devotion to Amun of Ipetsut had paid off. However, far to the south of Egypt, in distant upper Nubia, another family of rulers, even more devout in their adherence to the cult of Amun, had been watching the turmoil in Thebes with increasing alarm. In their minds, true believers would never stand for such discord in the supreme god’s sacred city. And so they came to a stark conclusion: only one course of action would cleanse Egypt of its impiousness. It was time for a holy war.

Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky


Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 1857, in the Russian village of Izhevskoye in the rural province of Ryazan, one-hundred twenty miles (195 km) southeast of Moscow. As a young boy, he was full of energy and displayed an eager quest for knowledge. But at age ten he was stricken with scarlet fever, which left him with a severe deafness problem for the rest of his life. Konstantin called his mother the spark of the family, and the one who guided him in coping with his disability. Her early death in 1870, when he was only thirteen, was a most unfortunate hindrance to his developing years.

Shortly thereafter, Konstantin dropped out of school. So the years from 1868 to 1871 marked an understandably frustrating period in the young adolescent’s life. With first the handicap and then the loss of his mother, he cut himself off from the surrounding world. Nevertheless, at age fourteen, he awakened and his appetite for self-education took sudden acceleration.

Tsiolkovsky’s father Eduard must be given credit for holding the family together, and doing what he could on limited means. A forester by trade, he lost his job in 1867, then becoming a clerk. While not particularly successful in his professions, he was a man of strong integrity, devoted to his children, and a believer in hard work. Young Tsiolkovsky took his parents’ positive traits and applied his own brilliant mind, especially to a craving for mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and mechanical creations.

In 1874, when Konstantin was age sixteen, Eduard sent him to Moscow for self-study in the hope that this would lead to entrance to a technical school. He was on starvation wages, but his needs were few and desire for learning high. He continued overcoming his handicap, spending his days at the renowned Rumyantsev National Library and delving into books on mathematics and the sciences. He was also befriended by an influential, eccentric philosopher of the day by the name of Nikolai Fyodorov.

Fyodorov was known for mentoring young men in libraries who were poor – students like Tsiolkovsky. Fyodorov was a believer in a philosophy known as Russian “cosmism,” which espoused that a type of human immortality and salvation could be found through travel to the cosmos: outer space and its moons, planets, and stars. Humans were not to permanently die, but be reconstituted into another kind of life form and settle throughout the universe. Spaceflight and advanced technology were key tenants of the philosophy. So it was during this period that Konstantin was first exposed to visions of space exploration. He would say in later years that the writings of Jules Verne were also an inspiration.

After three years in Moscow, Konstantin returned to his hometown as a tutor. In 1879, he passed the examination required to become a teacher, and the next year took a math and science teaching position in provincial Borovsk. There he continued his readings, began some experiments in a home laboratory, and started recording his findings in a methodical manner. But his ruminations, calculations, and sketches at this time were on a wide variety of scientific problems. He was not yet mentioning rocketry and spaceflight.

Tsiolkovsky would always prove to be a superb teacher; he was one who could present material to his students with enthusiasm. He incorporated the latest teaching methods, and believed in practical experimentation to go along with theory and bookwork.

During his time in Borovsk, he married Varvara Sokolova, who he’d met during his Moscow years. She would prove to be a stalwart supporter of his work during their lifetime together. They would have seven children, although tragically four of these offspring would die during adolescence.

In 1881, at age twenty-four, Konstantin sent a report on the kinetic theory of gases to the Society of Physics and Chemistry in St. Petersburg. While his findings were not earth-shattering, and indeed had already been formulated by others, the esteemed scientists there saw that he had potential.

Then in 1883 he wrote a short work – more a long diary entry and unpublished at the time – titled “Free Space.” In it, he demonstrated a true understanding of the principle of obtaining motion in the vacuum of space by the reaction method. He also described concepts of life in space and zero gravity, drew a primitive design of a spacecraft, and proposed a gyroscope for stabilizing a flying vehicle.

Tsiolkovsky spent the next fifteen years testing the physics and mathematics of his various theories, all the time becoming somewhat more known in Russia through publication of articles in newspapers and his contacts with the Society. But he had many scientific interests at this stage of life. He constructed a wind tunnel – thought to be Russia’s first – and explored topics like air resistance and dirigibles (blimps or zeppelins).

In 1892, Konstantin gained a higher teaching position in the provincial town of Kaluga, to which he moved, living there the rest of his life. The home he eventually resided in with his family had an upstairs workshop. During his free time and among his handmade lathes, wind tunnel, tools, and assorted machines, he theorized and experimented on his inventions.

In 1898, he published research on air resistance in a scientific journal. Due to the interest generated, Konstantin submitted a request for funding in 1899 to the Imperial Academy of Sciences to support further efforts in this field. The Academy granted him some minor funds to continue studies. It was during these very last few years of the 19th century that Tsiolkovsky decided to also turn more of his attention toward solving the problems of the rocket, the reaction process, and flight in space.

Konstantin’s notes show that, from 1898 to 1903, he developed his famous mathematical equation (or formula) the “rocket equation” –which describes rocket acceleration in terms of (1) the velocity of gas exiting from the engine nozzle, and, (2) the decreasing mass a rocket has after liftoff due to consumption of propellants. While others in the 19th century had derived the basic equation, and used it in analysis of flight paths of various objects including rockets, Tsiolkovsky was the first to thoroughly describe and analyze all aspects of this fundamental formula of rocketry. His notes also reveal that he became convinced only liquid propellants – and not any of the known powder combinations – could provide the thrust necessary to launch a rocket-type vehicle out of the atmosphere.

He summed up his findings and sent them to the Russian journal Naootchnoe Obozreniye (Scientific Review). In 1903, Konstantin’s work would be published under an article titled “Investigation of World Spaces by Reactive Vehicles.”

This article was truly significant, as Tsiolkovsky described his rocket equation and the reaction rocket as the necessary vehicle for traveling to and in space. The vehicle he proposed for the mission was elongated to produce little aerodynamic drag, mixed and fired its propellants together in a combustion chamber, and had a compartment for passengers. He addressed multiple-stages as necessary to reach space, and also the propellants liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as the most powerful combination. He continued on to provide detailed mathematical calculations on the required escape velocity that his liquid-propellant rocket would have to achieve to break free from Earth’s gravitational force. This was all trailblazing material for the time. Sergei Korolev, in later years, would also give Tsiolkovsky credit for these ideas: a flared cone for the rocket nozzle, a combustion chamber to which propellants were supplied by pumps, and foreseeing the need for regenerative cooling.

After the article, Tsiolkovsky’s findings were not given much recognition of note. Konstantin would later blame this lack of early publicity on his being a self-taught scientist, laboring in the provincial town of Kaluga This was at a time when science was controlled by what he called the Tsarist cliques in the main Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. There was truth to his charges. Discouraged at trying to publish rocket theory, he would actually focus, over the first decade of the 20th century, on improving his dirigible designs and solving problems in the growing science of aeronautics.

However, he and his rocket work were not going totally unnoticed. In 1912, a Russian aeronautics journal republished the 1903 paper, having Tsiolkovsky expand on functions such as air resistance and atmospheric pressures on the rocket. Two years later, he self-published a supplement in which he detailed types of propellants to use with rocket engines, as well as further exploring space travel. These publications fit in nicely with a noteworthy pre-revolutionary surge of interest in all types of flight among the Russian populace. Works of popular science and space fiction were particularly sought after by enthusiasts.

The First World War erupted in August 1914, overwhelming all other events. At age fifty-six, Tsiolkovsky was too old to be considered for active duty with the military. Through the war years, Konstantin the genius would soldier on in Kaluga, teaching his pupils during the day, and after school doing research and theorizing on his various interests. In regards to rocketry and space exploration, he wrote science-fiction novels, technical papers, and short pamphlets, not only attempting to popularize these subjects, but to supplement his meager income.

But his lack of success in getting more widespread scientific recognition actually led to states of depression and withdrawal around 1916. Contributing factors were also his low teacher’s salary and failure to get any consistent financing for his experiments.

The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the ensuing turmoil that lasted up to the formation of the Soviet Union in late 1922, produced chaos that did not enhance most scientific work. The battle to the death between the remnants of the Tsarist regime (White Armies) and the Bolsheviks (Reds) would bring both positives and negatives to Tsiolkovsky’s fortunes.

On the upside, Konstantin benefitted from several initiatives. In 1918, the new regime’s revamped school system resulted in a better teaching opportunity. He also began receiving a small local education pension.

The revolutionary era had produced a thirsting among the masses for new ideas, science, and technology – all a reaction to discarding the primitive system of the tsars. There was hope for leading better lives. Tsiolkovsky’s ideas on space and aeronautics paralleled the new themes and dreams nicely. Demand for his talents would lead to Konstantin giving lectures on rockets and air flight at local universities, with this boosting his name recognition.

In July 1918, the Bolsheviks established a Socialist Academy of Social Studies as a center to promote Marxist ideas. One of the Academy’s policies was to be more egalitarian in the nature of who could enter its ranks. This standard immediately appealed to Tsiolkovsky, who with no formal education, had always felt shunned by the Imperial Academy elites.

In August 1918, Konstantin sent a letter to the new Socialist Academy promoting his ideas. The initiative was mainly a bid to get monetary support for his work. There has never been any evidence that Tsiolkovsky was politically active; he was first and foremost a pure scientist and theorist simply looking for a funding source. Shortly thereafter, he would be elected as a junior member to the organization for recognition of his achievements. He even started receiving a monthly stipend for this honor.

But in 1919, the revolution demonstrated the turmoil it could bring to individual lives. Konstantin’s initiative to the Academy took a disastrous turn when the money started drying up and he vocally complained; he thus fell into disfavor. He would next find himself ejected from the organization in July 1919, most likely for not being political enough in his views.

Tsiolkovsky’s fortunes continued to plummet. He would be arrested in November 1919 by the Soviet secret police and shockingly jailed in the notorious Lubianka prison in Moscow, charged with being a spy for the White Russians. He received a one-year sentence to a labor camp. Thankfully, a high-level official intervened and ordered him freed while he was still in Moscow, ruling that a former associate of Tsiolkovsky’s was unstable and had made false charges. But Konstantin barely survived the whole ordeal, staggering around the huge city after his release in a daze. He finally found his way to a train station and made his way back to Kaluga.

The year 1921 marked the beginning of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Russia; this a term used by the Bolsheviks for policies attempted from 1921 to 1927 to rejuvenate the generally pathetic state of affairs. One of the tenants of the NEP was to try to improve the lives of scientists. With his constant promotion of rockets and spaceflight, and dirigibles and aeronautics in general, Konstantin would find assistance under this policy.

The Council of People’s Commissars voted him a small government pension for his lifelong works. Added to his local education pension, this new state-level pension meant he could retire from teaching and truly devote himself to research and writing creativity He would receive these benefits the rest of his life, albeit irregularly. Another problem was that the two pensions really didn’t amount to much. Money troubles always plagued Konstantin, right up to his last years.

But Tsiolkovsky’s life had commenced an upward path by the early 1920s. With his retirement from the schoolhouse, he could focus on the cosmos – and his timing was perfect, as during the 1920s significant numbers of people were embracing rocketry and space travel.

Two main promoters of the subjects, in the Soviet Union, were a physics professor and editor of popular journals, Iakov I. Perel’man, and, another professor and space historian by the name of Nikolai Alexsevitch Rynin. Both men were inspired by the ideas of Tsiolkovsky, were in contact with him, and as part of their publications turned the genius’s theories and technical minutia into popular works for the masses.

Out of this popularization of space would come an informal network of believers, who then provided funding for Tsiolkovsky’s writing efforts. These money sources allowed the publication and dissemination of his prolific works during the decade.

In October 1923, attention came Konstantin’s way when the central government newspaper Investiia published a short article by an anonymous author that lauded the just released book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) by Hermann Oberth. Praise was heaped upon the German for his superb writing in regards to rocketry and spaceflight theory. Tsiolkovsky was given no mention or credit whatsoever in the piece.

This indignity spurred popular writers like Perel’man to rush to Tsiolkovsky’s defense, noting in a spate of articles the priority of the 1903 “Investigation.” Konstantin then found himself, in the last phase of his life, with recognition he never imagined. He personally got caught up in the wave; he was motivated to ensure his rightful place in rocket and space history.

He started by convincing some associates to assist in republishing an updated version of his 1903 work under the new title “A Rocket into Cosmic Space.” In 1924, the thirty-two page brochure was distributed mainly in Moscow, and proved highly popular among space enthusiasts.

Significant Russian interest in rockets and space travel in the 1920s was made apparent by a series of exhibitions that were sponsored by the Interplanetary Section of the Moscow Society of Inventors in 1927. Exhibits featured displays on Jules Verne, Robert Goddard, Oberth, and of course the homegrown hero Tsiolkovsky.

A model of the Tsiolkovky-inspired spaceship that would take humans to the Moon in the 1936 Soviet movie, Cosmic Voyage.

During the last eight years of his life, Konstantin was cast in the role of the wise and respected old “rocket sage” residing at his Kaluga outpost, in contact with and a hero to a new generation of Russian rocketeers. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was sought out for advice by enthusiasts of the newly formed Gas Dynamics Laboratory of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Group for the Study of Reaction Motors in Moscow – the two historic groups which formed the basic organizational pillars of Russian modern rocketry.

Tsiolkovsky was a “living legend” and still publishing voluminously, but reaching the physical end. His works in later years included The Reaction Engine (1927–28), A New Aeroplane (1928), Jet-propelled Aeroplane (1929), The Theory of the Jet-Engine (1930–34), The Maximum Speed of a Rocket (1931–33), and a massive volume on multi-stage rockets titled Space Rocket Trains (1924–1934).

In the early 1930s, Konstantin was bestowed with an even higher level of recognition when the Stalinist state embraced him as a national hero and founding father of cosmonautics. He was honored as an example of a scientist who had struggled against adversity and could excel in the socialist system. The state also decided to finally start sponsoring his work.

Inserted here is a most interesting story concerning the origins of the term cosmonautique (“cosmonautics” equates to “astronautics”). In November 1933, the term itself was first introduced by Ary Sternfeld in his manuscript “Initiation à la Cosmonautique” (Introduction of Cosmonautics). Sternfeld was originally from Poland, studied and lived in France in the 1920s and early 1930s, then immigrated to the Soviet Union – attracted by the country’s socialist ideals – in 1935. While still living in Paris in 1934, he had been awarded the REP-Hirsch Prize for his manuscript. In the Soviet Union, he would find himself mostly relegated to working in his cosmonautics field of expertise in solitude, with his achievements receiving close to nil recognition the remainder of his life.

In 1932, the Communist Party awarded Tsiolkovsky the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, and his meager pension was doubled in size. He would show his appreciation by bequeathing all his personal papers and works to the state and party. In 1935, Konstantin was invited to give the feature speech at the May Day Parade in Moscow. Too frail and sick to attend, he taped a message that was broadcast over Red Square as planes and dirigibles flew overhead in formation – all a most dramatic presentation.

The late acclaim for Tsiolkovsky came despite a decline in interest among the populace toward space in the mid-1930s. Soviet leadership had directed a turn toward more practical rocketry, all due to the very real concerns associated with Hitler and the Nazis coming to power in Germany.

The visionary Tsiolkovsky died at age seventy-eight on September 19, 1935, and has been given the following credits:

––The first individual who thoroughly analyzed the reaction function in relation to rockets launched to outer space, and use of the rocket within space/vacuum.

––Advanced the rocket equation for use with spaceflight.

––Produced groundbreaking mathematical calculations, such as proving a very high escape velocity was required for a vehicle to exit Earth’s atmosphere.

––Earned the title “Father of Cosmonautics” in Russia.

The Soviet Union mythologized Tsiolkovsky late in his life, then let his legacy slip upon his death for two decades. But with satellite launches in 1957 coinciding with the centennial of the distinguished scientist’s birth year, his life and achievements were once again celebrated.

GBSD: The Case for Modernization So Obvious Even Two Think Tankers Get It.

Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of the United States Strategic Command, pushed back on the small but vocal disarmament advocacy clerisy who are trying to pressure the incoming Biden administration to eliminate the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.  While on a Zoom call with the Defense Writers Group, Adm Richard remarked, “I don’t understand frankly how someone in a think tank who actually doesn’t have their hands on the missile, looking at the parts, the cables, all the pieces inside” is qualified to make such recommendations.

The authors humbly disagree with the Admiral on this point.  You don’t need to put your hands on the physically atrophying cables or subject yourself to the unsafe and decaying launch control facilities to fully appreciate the necessity for modernizing the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad.  Even those of us in think tank world should be able to appreciate the pragmatism embodied in the GBSD program to protect the homeland and our allies in a cost-effective, threat-informed, and stabilizing manner.

GBSD is meant to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system (ICBM) system, which first entered service in 1970 and has been extended well beyond its original service life. The current Minuteman III system has been service life extended several times since its deployment and, according to GAO reports, is experiencing challenges “related to aging facilities, aging infrastructure, and parts obsolescence.”  Because of the extent of the asset and facility attrition in this 50-year-old weapon system, Air Force officials have warned that the Minuteman III will be “unable to meet full mission requirements should deployment be required” much longer. The reality is that choosing not to pursue GBSD, given the cost and difficulty of attempting yet another service life extension of Minuteman III, is choosing to give up the triad’s land-based missile leg.

Opponents of GBSD consistently make a series of poorly reasoned arguments for eliminating the triad’s land-based leg, and, as the saying goes, these points are so wrong, even the opposite wouldn’t be true.    

The triad’s land-based leg is the least expensive leg of the triad to operate and maintain over its lifetime.  It does not require large crews or expensive fuel and maintenance costs, like nuclear-powered submarines or heavy bombers.  GBSD does not require overseas basing or overflight rights, nor does it require large and expensive fleets of aerial refueling tankers, as does the bomber force.  It does not assume that an adversary will forever be unable to locate our submarines at sea, which, given the state of technology advancement –including artificial intelligence and “big data” – is not a safe assumption into the future.

ICBMs remain consistent, visible and responsible mainstays of our nuclear deterrent.  The only challenge that ICBMs now face is the failure to modernize them as planned, but this would result from policymakers’ will, not any change in the global threat or design or mechanical failure.

In particular, ICBMs and GBSD are stabilizing to the international order that the Biden Administration will inherit and seek to improve.  Our allies, specifically those in NATO and the Indo-Pacific, depend upon the safe, secure, and credible nuclear deterrent that the U.S. extends to them as foundational to their security.

The incoming Biden Administration, which seeks to improve the nation’s standing among its allies, would do well to support a strong modernized nuclear deterrent – including full support of GBSD – that is so vital to U.S. allies (many of which have foresworn their own nuclear weapons because we promised them the security made possible by extending our deterrent).

Lastly, we give much credit to previous Democratic administrations that started out with the admirable goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and ultimately realized such a vision, given current and likely future security realities, is folly.

The role, risks, funding, and programmatic questions associated with nuclear weapons capabilities is a legitimate and necessary public discourse that anybody in civil society should be welcome to contribute to, whether from a think tank, within the government, or in defense industry. But the reality is that our strategic competitors are also watching these debates and often interfere in them. Even those guided by the best of intentions must understand that their complicity in the erosion of a credible nuclear deterrent will only invite continued development and deployment of nuclear weapons by our adversaries that can end our way of life and that of our allies.

These two think tankers believe GBSD remains an integral part of our nuclear deterrent.  There is a term for a decision by the United States to choose to fail to modernize its ICBM force, while Russia and China are actively modernizing theirs: unilateral disarmament.

Tim Morrison was a Deputy Assistant to the President for national security for President Trump and is now a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.  Sarah Mineiro was the staff lead of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee for the House Republicans and is now an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Center for New American Security.


Hwasong-15 (KN-22) and Hwasong-16 (KN-27)

Hwasong-15 Transporter erector vehicle

Hwasong 16 at the 75th WPK anniversary parade 2020.

The Hwasong-15 (KN-22) was launched for the first time on November 29, 2017, when this liquid-fueled ICBM flew on a lofted trajectory to an altitude of 4,500 km. If flown on a standard trajectory, it could have a feasible reach of 13,000 km, which, according to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long-range tests.” According to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), this flight test was of “an intercontinental ballistic rocket tipped with super-large heavy warhead” which could reach “the whole mainland of the U. S.”

The new ICBM, presumably a Hwasong-16, appears to be approximately 25-26 m long and 2.5-2.9 m in diameter—about 4-4.5 m longer and about 0.5 m larger in diameter than the North’s Hwasong-15 ICBM flight tested once in November 2017. Indeed, the new missile has been correctly characterized as the world’s largest mobile ICBM—in part because countries with ICBMs generally seek to make their road-mobile ICBMs smaller so they can be more mobile and concealable.

That said, we estimate the new missile’s launch weight at roughly 100,000-150,000 kg, compared to some 80,000 kg for the Chinese DF-41 solid-propellant, road-mobile ICBM and about 104,000 kg for the former Soviet SS-24 rail-mobile solid ICBM.

The first stage of the new ICBM appears large enough in diameter to accommodate four of the Soviet RD-250-sized rocket engines believed to power the Hwasong-15 (which uses two in its first stage). The number and type of engine used in its presumed second stage are unclear, making the new missile’s throw-weight capability uncertain. Based on the assumption of four RD-250-type engines in the first stage, however, we estimate the new missile could, in principle, deliver 2,000-3,500 kg of payload to any point in the continental United States—much greater than the Hwasong-15’s assessed 1,000 kg payload capability to the same range.

But why would the North Korean’s need or want such a big missile? Especially since the Hwasong-15 would appear to have sufficient range/payload capability and room for improvement to meet North Korea’s operational targeting needs, and is much easier to move and conceal. There are two main possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive.

First, there may be a political rationale for producing or parading the new system. An unexpected “super heavy” ICBM would be a classically Khrushchevian statement of North Korea’s technical prowess, the robustness of its ability to threaten the US, and the permanence of its nuclear weapons status. It is worth noting that there has been no open-source evidence that the new ICBM’s apparent first-stage propulsion system has been ground-tested, and one analyst has noted that “no North Korean ICBM design that was *first seen at a parade* has seen flight-testing to date.”

Second, there may be operational reasons to make such a large missile. The North may want to be able (or to be seen as able) to deliver a much larger payload to anywhere in the US.

In terms of larger payloads, the North may be working toward developing multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Perhaps the North’s current nuclear RVs are larger and heavier than we expect, and so the Hwasong-15 cannot carry enough such RVs along with the size of post-boost vehicle (PBV) the North currently can provide to dispense them. Or perhaps the Hwasong-15 can be MIRVed but the North wants to be able to deliver more MIRVs per booster.

It should be noted that North Korea has not demonstrated a militarily useful MIRV capability, which is technically demanding. For example, it has yet to flight test a PBV, much less the deployment of MIRVs from a PBV. Given the technical demands of MIRVs, it might instead first deploy non-independently targetable Multiple Reentry Vehicles (MRVs) like the US, USSR, and UK did. Even in this case, the North might want more payload capability to deploy more or larger MRVs.

Another reason for having a bigger payload capacity is the desire to carry more and/or more RV-like (heavier) decoys to spoof US missile defenses than is possible with the Hwasong-15. Alternatively, the North may have decided that it wanted to possess or portray the capability to deliver a “super heavy” single large thermonuclear RV against US cities for political or deterrent effect. While this also is Khrushchevian in nature, one should recall that the Soviet SS-18, Chinese CSS-4 and US Titan-II ICBMs were deployed with massive single RVs having up to nine megatons of yield.

Another size-related question raised by the new ICBM is: why make it road-mobile? Here, too, there could be a political component; after all, it is the world’s biggest mobile ICBM. But to the extent the North truly intends to deploy this system, it would almost certainly judge that road-mobile basing would be more survivable than silo- or other fixed-basing, even though the sheer size and weight of the new ICBM would render it less mobile than the Hwasong-15 and more constrained in the portions of the road network it could use, (limited to smooth, paved roadways), and probably needing to fuel the missile after it was erected at a launch site (adding to vulnerability and reducing response time).

Missiles of North Korea

North Korea’s questionable ICBM “Hwasong-16” (HS-16)