The Sea Battles for the Dardanelles II

A naval artillery observation post on land: standing left, Lieutenant Franz Wodrig, right Lieutenant Rolf Carls.

Meanwhile, a major Allied landing operation at Kumkale on 3 March underlined the urgent nature of the munitions question. The almost 400 man strong landing detachment of the Royal Marine Light Infantry was, however, beaten back. The attackers suffered casualties totalling seventy dead and wounded. From the equipment left behind, the Turks concluded that this was not just a temporary landing but was apparently intended to occupy permanently the extreme tip of the Asian side of the Dardanelles.

However, the attacks now beginning to be made against the inner defensive positions only made little progress. To carry these out the fleet had to enter into the waters of the Dardanelles and thus loose its freedom of movement and ‘passive’ protection. In addition to the danger from the guns of the defence emplacements and the minefields in the waterway, the attackers also faced the threat of the mobile 15 cm howitzer batteries on both sides of the coast. The ships were therefore forced to manoeuvre quickly, which consequently reduced their firing accuracy. Thus they succeeded in neither destroying the Turkish batteries nor in clearing the numerous minefields.

On 5 March the batteries at Kilid Bahr, on the opposite side of Canakkale, were shelled by indirect fire. This attack was reciprocated by indirect fire from the Turkish ships of the line, Barbarossa and Torgut. In anticipation of these battles, the German captain of the Barbarossa, Lieutenant Commander Joachim von Arnim, had already been ashore to set up a fire control observation post on the heights of the southern peninsula. Although this post came under fire later, as it had revealed its position by the use of signal ammunition, by a rapid relocation the post could continue support the Turkish ships for effective fire. In the days which followed these observation posts were expanded, surveyed and connected to telephone exchanges. Lieutenant Rolf Carls, the gunnery officer of the Breslau, was commended for his actions in this work.

On the morning of 7 March, two large British warships, the Agamemnon and the Lord Nelson, accompanied by several French vessels, entered Karanlik Bay and began shelling Dardanos and the inside forts. Firing at the same time from Kaba Tepe, the Queen Elizabeth bombarded the forts, while HMS Dublin shelled the Bulair fortifications from the Gulf of Saros. The British warships moved inside the straits to push closer to the forts, but then they came within range of the Turkish coastal artillery. The naval guns fired in quick succession, but the warships withdrew after a short time because of the hefty resistance and without having inflicted (or incurred) any significant damage. During the bombardment it was observed that the Allied ships remained mostly in the Bay of Erenkeui, where they were largely outside the range of the fortress guns. Again and again, the 15-cm howitzers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle, expending the then huge tally of 800 shells, had fired on the enemy warships in the Dardanelles, which forced them to keep moving and thus ensured that the ships simply ‘wasted ammunition’.

Even though by night there were entire flotillas of ships, protected by smaller vessels and destroyers, trying to clear the minefields, the Turks were constantly laying new mines. A special line of mines, which had been laid in the turning circle of retiring Allied warships, was to acquire decisive significance. The planning was carried out by Major Nazim Emin, the Chief of the Dardanelles Mine Service, who had a comprehensive knowledge of the currents and depth conditions. The Coastal Inspectorate assigned the minelayer Nusret for this task, while Naval Engineer Lieutenant Commander Arnholdt Reeder, of the German Imperial Navy, represented the SoKo (Special Command) on board. A torpedo specialist, Lieutenant Commander Paul Gehl, was assigned by the Straits Command to be on board Nusret as well.

Lieutenant Commander Reeder submitted his report to the MMD on this operation, which made a major contribution to thwarting the Allied naval attack of 18 March 1915:

‘On 7 March, at 11.30 in the afternoon [sic], I went on board the minelayer Nusret with Hafis Nasimi, the Turkish Mine Captain and Petty Officer Rudolf Bettaque, the German torpedo-man, to make the necessary preparations for minelaying. While I was personally double-checking the engine room and then got the boilers ready for smokeless sailing, the torpedo-man, Bettaque, and the Turkish mine-laying crew cleared the mines ready for launch. Two German NCOs and stokers were at my disposal for the operation of the engines and boiler. This was to guarantee that my commands were executed quickly and correctly. At 5 o’clock in the morning I had the anchor raised. The weather was good for this operation. A light mist lay on the water, which gradually turned into a steady rain. With an average of 140 revolutions, the minelayer made its way from Nagara along the Asian coast.

Since it was still dark and several minefields had to be negotiated, great caution was needed. However, the Turkish Mine Captain knew the critical points exactly, and so Nusret arrived safely at its destination. Throughout the voyage, [engine] revolutions were maintained according to my orders. This enabled me to sail completely smokeless, although the Turkish Eregi coal is very unsuitable for this purpose. At 07.10 hrs I had us turnabout and bound for home; simultaneously, I had the mines laid at 15 second intervals by Hafis Nasimi, the Turkish Mine Captain. Overall, 26 mines were laid in the general direction of SW-NE. Meanwhile the morning was already beginning to turn grey. The enemy guard piquet had apparently already withdrawn; within the Dardanelles no enemy ship could be seen. The visibility towards Canakkale was too low due to the rain and the dark background. With reasonable certainty I can therefore assume that the laying of the mines was not noticed by the enemy. At 8 o’clock in the morning, I was able to anchor again at Canakkale.’

This line, which had been laid with twenty-six Carbonit mines supplied from Germany, remained undetected until the attack on 18 March 1915. Churchill later wrote that ‘the Nusret may have changed the world’, as these mines shattered the dream of reaching Istanbul. This example of effective cooperation between Turkish and German military personnel has unfortunately been wholly ignored since by the Turks and this successful minelaying operation attributed exclusively to the Turkish crew.

The Allied fleet attacks on the Dardanelles, as well as mine clearance, were therefore far less successful than was assumed by the British and French. Nevertheless, rumours were heard in Istanbul that a successful attack by the Entente was imminent, causing unrest and sometimes panic in the city. When an official visit to the fortifications by the Diplomatic Corps was organised, the Austro-Hungarian Military Attaché, Josef Pomiankowski, reported:

‘We left Constantinople on the morning of 14 March. As far as I could tell, Enver Pasha had organised this excursion mainly for the American Ambassador, Mr. Morgenthau, who spread the most alarming rumours among the diplomatic corps, about the hopeless situation of Turkey and the forthcoming appearance of the Anglo-French fleet off Istanbul. […] The greatest interest was aroused by the battery at Dardanos, so named after the still visible ruins of the eponymous city of antiquity. This battery was located at the top of the heights and visible from afar, consisting of a one-metre high earthen breastwork of the ordinary type, behind which cannons were placed so that the barrels could shoot just above the ridge line. To protect the gun crew, they were provided with small steel shields., The enemy ships (especially on 7 March) had already bombarded this battery with a thousand shells, without somehow damaging it. By contrast, the entire area in front, as well as the forward part of the earthworks, were literally ploughed up and turned over by shells. On the protective shields one noticed only two dents, which apparently originated from exploding fragments. The crew serving the guns had suffered no losses; however, on 7 March, a shell had hit the observation post of the battery commander, which was about 15 steps away, and had killed him, along with other soldiers near him. In the afternoon we visited the forts of the European side, then returned aboard the Jürük, which started the journey back in the evening and arrived in Istanbul on the morning of the 16th.’

On 18 March the major Allied naval attack began, aiming to force a passage through the Dardanelles. Sixteen large warships, accompanied by many destroyers and minesweepers, approached the entrance of the Dardanelles. However, their approach had already been discovered in the early morning of that same day during the first flight of the new squadron at Canakkale. Captain Erich Serno, together with Lieutenant Commander Karl Schneider, the 2nd General Staff Officer at von Usedom’s headquarters, had made a reconnaissance flight. They spotted the enemy fleet and immediately afterwards warned of the apparently imminent attack. Schneider reported:

‘Early in the morning, we climbed up […]. We were flying at an altitude of 1,600 metres. The aircraft was at its ceiling. We realised that we had just flown over old Troy. At Tenedos we easily counted forty ships at anchor. All types were represented […]. Six battleships now headed in line towards the mouth of the Dardanelles. The battleship Inflexible led with the admiral’s flag flying.’

Both knew what this gathering of ships meant and flew back immediately to report the impending attack. As far as was possible in the short time available, coastal batteries and artillery units could be forewarned, Six large British battleships, including the Queen Elizabeth, with her 38-cm guns, started to attack the defences at Canakkale and Cape Kephes at around 11.30 am – initially staying out of range of the forts.

The Turkish coastal batteries and the mobile artillery units returned fire at the incoming French squadron, which consisted of four battleships and passed the line of British warships at about noon. All the battleships now came closer to their targets – but also within the range of the defending artillery. At around 2 pm the French squadron, which was under great pressure, was relieved by a squadron of six older British battleships. The battle then took an unexpected turn for the Allies, as the French battleship Bouvet hit a mine at about 2 pm, capsized in just two minutes and dragged almost the entire crew of 600 men down into the depths with it. Some of the other French ships were badly damaged and retired; the Gaulois was heavily damaged by artillery and a mine explosion and had to be beached at Tenedos. At 4 pm the Inflexible hit a mine and was barely able to escape out of coastal artillery range into safe waters. Shortly after, the Irresistible was hit so badly that she was abandoned and sank in the evening. These heavy losses caused the Allied Fleet Commander to break off the attack at 5 pm. When trying to take the Irresistible in tow, the Ocean also hit a mine and later had to be abandoned as well. The remaining nine English warships departed the Dardanelles westwards at full speed.

That date, 18 March 1915, marked an unforgettable day of victory for the defenders of the Dardanelles and is still celebrated every year in Turkey – especially in the Armed Forces – as ‘Canakkale Day’. The attackers had suffered heavy losses and forfeited the initiative, while the defenders had suffered relatively little damage. Admiral Souchon wrote home about the day’s events:

‘Yesterday’s heavy attack by the English [sic] and French on the Dardanelles ended as a great success for us. Here there is a great joy of victory. The French battleship Bouvet ran on to one of the mines laid on 6 March, and sank immediately. The English [sic] battleship Irresistible remained shot up, lay immobilised, the English [sic] battleship Ocean managed to steam away slowly with a heavy list. A destroyer sunk. Minimal loss on the Turkish side. In total, 2 heavy guns are damaged, of us Germans 2 dead, 7 badly, 7 slightly wounded. Hopefully the Englishmen [sic] will come again today and suffer such losses again. If they really want to succeed, they will have to do it before all the damage to the earthworks, telephones, etc. is completely repaired. Patching up will naturally be the case again this morning.’

As recognised later, the losses suffered by the Allies had been achieved to a large extent by the mines laid on 8 March by the Nusret. The Allied fleet had thought this area was already swept clear. In addition, in the days prior to 18 March, there had been no incidents in the area of this particular line of mines. However, it is not clear whether all the ships that sank were all as a result of mines. Von Usedom wrote about this in his report:

‘When Bouvet came into sight of the headquarters observation post at around 14.00 hrs, a strong smoke emission and listing could be observed, which got bigger and bigger. Three minutes later, Bouvet sank. From the speed of its sinking it was concluded that it had run into one of the mines set in the Erenköy Bay on 8 March, especially as it was also in the longitudinal location of this barrier. From later reports by the forward observers and Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle, commanding the howitzer batteries on the European shore, it became clear that the ship had suffered its heavy damage, whilst east of the mines, through artillery fire from Fort Anatoli Hamidié, causing the rapid sinking. It can also be concluded from the behaviour of the other ships that the enemy itself had not reckoned with the presence of mines, for Triumph, Majestic, Suffren, Gaulois and Charlemagne were heading for the scene of the accident. Suffren launched a boat. Motor boats, destroyers and later some mine-sweepers were trying to fish out survivors. In the process, a destroyer sank when hit by shells from the howitzer batteries, and sometime later a mine-sweeper. […] During this time, Dardanos had been able to clear its guns and at 6 o’clock in the evening, opened a lively and effective fire against Irresistible, which was sunk at quarter-past seven in the evening.’

This report puts into better perspective the sometimes over-exaggerated performance and impact of the mines laid down by the Nusret. It also shows the viciousness of this merciless battle, as even vessels that were clearly engaged in saving the lives of shipwrecked sailors and which had already put themselves into the minefield danger zone were nevertheless fired upon. Today this would be a clear violation of international military law, which prevailed at that time. This indictment must be made against the German and Turkish forces that took part in this battle and, in retrospect, casts a shadow on their victory over the Allied fleet.

The losses of the Allied fleet were high. Of eighteen ships, six had sunk or been put out of action for a long time. On the side of the defenders, however, only 114 men, including twenty-two German soldiers, were killed or wounded. Of a total of 176 guns, including those of the mobile howitzer batteries, only nine were destroyed. The forts had not been substantially damaged – even though massive numbers of shells had been fired at the fortifications. Of the ten lines of mines in the Dardanelles, nine were still intact. However, the ammunition situation on the Turkish side was critical after this battle. The medium howitzers and minefield batteries had fired half of their ammunition. The five 35.5-cm guns of the fortress artillery had only rounds left; for the eleven 23-cm guns there were only between thirty and fifty-eight rounds available per gun; while the reserve of high-explosive shells, the only effective munition against the battleships, was almost completely used up. A second, similarly heavy, attack would therefore have been difficult to fend off due to a lack of ammunition; a third attack would probably not have been opposed.

In the course of the battle, Major Binhold, a German commander of a field artillery battery, experienced an example of the Turkish custom whereby it was not common practice to pass on bad news. Binhold despatched his Turkish aide-de-camp to find out what had happened to a 15-cm howitzer that was being brought forward. The adjutant found the gun; it had fallen down a slope and the crew were in the process of recapturing the oxen. Returning to his CO, the ADC reported that the howitzer was not far off. Hours later, the aide was sent again to look for the long overdue howitzer. He found that the recovery work was still in progress, but reported back that the howitzer would arrive soon. Not a word of the accident was mentioned as such, as it would surely just lead to trouble. As more time passed by, Binhold set off on horseback himself during a lull in the fighting and saw that the ox-team was finally approaching the position. The circumstances of the delay were eventually explained; because he was familiar with the Turkish mentality, Major Binhold took a lenient view and closed the matter with a simple admonition.

After the 18th, the Commander-in-Chief of the Straits sector, Admiral von Usedom, immediately transferred the remaining ammunition available in the Bosphorus batteries to the Dardanelles. He also had ammunition from the fleet reworked for the calibres in use at the Straits. Mines were brought from Trebizond and Smyrna, even though they were indispensable there too. Although some stocks could be replaced from the modified munition factories in Istanbul, the Turkish government continued to urge Germany finally to provide adequate supplies.

Three days after the Allied naval attack, von Falkenhayn again tried to persuade his Austrian ally to campaign actively against Serbia. Enver Paşa also urged support for the opening of the land route to Germany and said optimistically in a letter to von Falkenhayn on 23 March:

‘I do not want our alliance with Germany and Austria to be a burden for these powers, but I am only anxious to help the allies with all we have at our disposal. This would be done to a much greater degree if Serbia is subjugated, thereby ensuring a reliable Bulgaria, as well as making Romania docile, and establishing an open route between us and Germany-Austria. I hope to be able to make other significant forces available for common purposes. Turkey still has half a million trained soldiers in reserve, who can be deployed immediately if armaments are available.’

This letter underlined the strategic importance of Turkey and strengthened von Falkenhayn in his planning. The resulting demand by the German government to the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, to carry out the Serbian campaign was answered with requests for troops from Turkey. Austria thought such an advance would be possible if Bulgaria took part, Germany provided four divisions, and Turkey ‘[protects] Bulgaria against Greece and Romania if they intervene and […] as far as possible, with about two corps [participate] under the Bulgarian Supreme Command directly.’ At the beginning of April 1915, von der Goltz was able to deliver a letter from the Kaiser to the Sultan, which announced the start of a Serbian campaign in the ‘near future’. This came after von der Goltz himself had been appointed as mediator to Conrad von Hötzendorff to explain the necessity of the war option against Serbia.

Enver responded to the demand from Vienna for troop dispositions on 12 April. In a letter to von Falkenhayn, Enver agreed to ‘provide two Army Corps to the Bulgarian Army for a joint operation against Serbia’.315 But once again the campaign against Serbia did not materialise, which is why Berlin had to think of different ways of solving the transportation problem for ammunition. It even considered using Zeppelins and large aircraft but, unsurprisingly, these methods were rejected because they were impractical.

The defence against an Allied landing operation at the Dardanelles, which was growing more likely with each day that passed, now had to be planned quickly, taking into account the lack of material support from Germany.

Mortars on the Eastern Front

The Soviet 120-HM 38 was one of the most successful mortar designs of World War II, and was even copied direct by the Germans for their own use. It combined heavy firepower and mobility and often replaced support artillery with some formations. It was simple and easy to use in action, and fired a heavy HE bomb.

The Soviet 82-PM37 had a calibre of 82 mm (3.228 in) and was a close design relative of the French Brandt mortars. The Soviets introduced a circular baseplate and used recoil springs between the bipod and barrel to reduce recoil forces on the laying and sighting arrangements.

The German 8-cm sGrW34 was greatly respected by the Allies, who came to fear its accuracy and rapid rate of fire, but it was not an outstanding design and much of the praise it earned was mainly due to the careful and thorough training of them mortar crews.

The war was twenty-one months old and still going in Germany’s favour when Hitler ordered Directive 21, or ‘Case Barbarossa’, the code to launch the attack against the Soviet Union. At 3.15am on 22 June 1941, a single gun fired to signal the start of the attack, and from that moment on all other aspects of the war seemed to be of secondary importance. Japan may not have known of Hitler’s intentions, even though they were allied in the Pact of Steel. Italy, on the other hand, knew full well and Mussolini had ordered the deployment of Italian troops to support the attack. Hitler had never attended a military academy but he had a general grasp of strategy. His generals presented him with information and made suggestions, but the final decision was his. If things went according to plan he took the credit, and if they went wrong he laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of others. He believed that the Soviet Union was so corrupt that all ‘we have to do is kick in the front door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down’. In ordering the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler plainly had no idea of the scale of problems which lay before the German Army in this vast country. The distances covered with apparent ease during the early phase of the campaign led the Nazi leader to believe that another victory lay ahead. German intelligence assessments said the Red Army had an armoured force of some 24,000 tanks but believed that most were obsolete and would pose no problem to the modern tank forces and anti-tank guns of the German Army. The Red Air Force would be overwhelmed as their outdated aircraft were shot down by the Luftwaffe’s modern fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Within days of the start of the campaign, German troops had advanced deep into the Soviet Union with seemingly nothing to prevent it.

The scale of the attack was unprecedented and included 3 million troops in 146 divisions supported by three air fleets with over 1,800 aircraft. Seven armies and four Panzer groups with 3,580 armoured fighting vehicles, 7,184 pieces of artillery, 600,000 other vehicles for transport and liaison roles and 750,000 horses were committed to the attack. The tank force included 1,440 PzKw III and between 517 and 550 PzKw IV, with the remainder being made up of 410 older PzKw I and 746 PzK II tanks, along with a number of PzKw35(t) and 3(t) tanks. This was blitzkrieg on a grand scale and it looked as though the tactics which had worked so well in Western Europe and against Poland would soon add another victory to Germany’s list of conquests. Some believed that Hitler may have taken on an enemy that was too strong for his armed forces; after all, the Soviet or Red Army was estimated to number around 3 million. Other strategists thought the Soviets were fatally weakened by the army purges of 1937–1938 in which Stalin had ordered the liquidation of around 35,000 officers, robbing the Red Army of 90 per cent of its generals.

The strength of the Soviet Red Army in June 1941 stood at 5.5 million troops in all branches, and it was equipped with 91,400 pieces of artillery and mortars, but only 2,780,000 troops and 43,872 pieces of artillery and mortars were deployed in the west to oppose the German attack. The German Army also had the combined support of a further 1 million troops from their allies of Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, who between them had almost 12,700 pieces of artillery and mortars. A typical Soviet tank division at the time had eighteen mortars to provide fire support and forty guns for anti-tank and anti-aircraft defence. A German panzer division at the time had thirty mortars and seventy-two guns for anti-tank and anti-aircraft roles. A Soviet artillery division had more than 100 HM38 heavy mortars of 120mm calibre organised into a special mortar brigade to provide fire support, something to which the Germans did not have any equivalent. The fighting was fierce from the very beginning and just three weeks after the start of the German attack the Soviet Army had lost 8,000 tanks, along with 9,427 pieces of artillery and mortars. Soviet losses continued to mount over the following weeks. For example, in the fighting around the Smolensk Pocket between July and September 1941, the Red Army lost 486,000 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner along with more than 1,300 tanks destroyed and 9,920 artillery pieces and mortars destroyed or captured. Six months later, having lost much ground by withdrawing before the Germans, the Soviet Army had lost hundreds of thousands more men killed and captured, while vast stocks of weapons and ammunition were either destroyed or captured in the fighting. Tank and aircraft losses were huge and available artillery and mortars were reduced to fewer than 22,000. The number of 120mm calibre mortars captured by the Germans and the stocks of ammunition was so great that they were pressed into action against their former owners without any need to convert them for service. Indeed, the Germans were so impressed with this weapon they even developed their own version, known as the 12cm calibre GrW42.

Soviet armaments production fell, and resupplying all the lost weapons and re-equipping new divisions would take time. The Soviet Red Army realised that it needed time to regroup, rearm and reorganize if it were to stop the advance of the German Army. Once that had been achieved it would then be in a position to push the invader back. One strategy used was the age-old tactic of giving up ground, called ‘scorched earth’. This meant that the Red Army left nothing behind in its wake that would be of any use to the Germans. This placed a heavier burden on the already over-stretched supply lines of the German Army, which had to bring everything forward as it pressed ever-deeper into the country. In turn this tactic bought the Soviets time to gather sufficient forces and weapons to mount a counter-offensive. The number of troops killed, wounded and taken prisoner continued to rise, and the levels of weapons, tanks, vehicles and aircraft lost was a testimony to the ferocity of the fighting. After six months of seemingly unstoppable advance, the German Army finally ground to a halt in the temperatures of —30 degrees in the outer suburbs of Moscow. The Red Army seized the opportunity to mount a counter-attack on 5 December, and with 720,000 men supported by 670 tanks, 5,900 pieces of artillery and mortars and over 400 rocket launchers they pushed the Germans back almost 150 miles to recapture the city of Smolensk. Moscow was safe for the time being but far from completely secure.

The weight of the German attack made the Soviets recognise that their industrial centres were at risk of being captured or destroyed, and a massive effort was put into moving hundreds of factories, especially those producing weapons for the army, thousands of miles to the east beyond the Ural Mountains. This placed them beyond the range of German bombers and armaments production could begin to replace losses. Britain and America sent military aid in the shape of tanks, aircraft and trucks. Britain even produced versions of the HM38 120mm calibre mortars to replace the losses incurred by the Soviet Red Army. This was a special production because the British Army had never at any time used such a weapon. Once the relocated Soviet factories were firmly established, weapon production began to increase and the losses of the early months were made good. The factories also produced heavier calibre mortars such as the M43 160mm, which weighed 1.15 tons in action and could fire a HE bomb weighing 90lbs out to ranges of over 5,600 yards. These heavier mortars were breech-loading weapons and regiments equipped with them were formed to serve with the Artillery Armies. Armed with this combination of weapons, such artillery units would unleash massive bombardments to smash the German forces with weight of firepower.

The Soviet Army was not entirely without combat experience, having sent advisers to support the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. They also sent weapons including tanks, aircraft and artillery which were operated by small numbers of Soviet troops. The Red Army had also been engaged in frequent border clashes with Japan, such as the incident near the Soviet port of Vladivostok in 1938. On another occasion, between March and September 1939, Soviet and Japanese troops fought a series of engagements in the area of Khalkin Gol which saw Soviet troops defeating the Japanese. At the time, Japanese troops were engaged in fighting in China and these border clashes with the Soviet Union had caused thousands of casualties to both sides. The short but bloody Russo-Finnish War between November 1939 and March 1940 had also added to the combat experience of the Red Army. In all of these engagements, troops and weapons had been tried and tested in combat, which would later be used during the opening engagements against the German Army in 1941. After the early German successes, which led to the capture of vast stocks of Soviet equipment, some of these weapons would end up being used against them.

To support the German attack against the Soviet Union, the Hungarians and Romanians deployed 44,000 and 358,000 troops respectively. Hungary had been Germany’s ally in the First World War as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Romania had been Germany’s enemy in the First World War, but in the war against the Soviet Union, Romanian troops fought alongside German troops as allies and together with Hungary they deployed between them a combined force of 3,445 artillery pieces and mortars. Now, as Germany’s allies once more, they deployed between them a combined force of 3,455 pieces of artillery and mortars. Only a year earlier, in June 1940, Romania had been militarily undecided and as the main oil-producing country in the region it was seen as strategically vital to both Germany and the Soviet Union. Germany had pre-empted any move which may have been made by the Soviet Union by infiltrating troops into the country on the pretext of training the Romanian Army. In reality they were deployed to safeguard supplies of oil to the German Army, along with those of Hungary and Bulgaria. By September there were some 18,000 so-called German instructors in Romania, whose presence was still being explained as necessary to help modernise the army. By November all pretence was dropped when the country’s Prime Minister, Ion Antonescu, signed the Axis Pact which allied Romania with Germany.

The Romanian Army incurred heavy losses throughout the Soviet campaign, especially during the fighting in the region of the Ukraine and Crimea. In June 1941, Romanian troops were serving as part of the German Eleventh Army to capture Sevastopol, where a force of over 720 mortars was engaged in the action. By August 1942, the Romanian Third and Fourth armies were engaged in the fighting at Stalingrad. Germany supplied the Romanian Army with a large proportion of weaponry, including anti-tank guns and mortars. Some of these weapons were from captured stocks of French mortars such as the Brandt 60mm Model 1935. They also received 81mm Brandt Model 1927/31 and Model 1939 weapons. Romania had an armaments industry capable of producing machine guns, small arms and mortars, including a 120mm calibre weapon called the Model 1942, built by Resita. This weapon was towed on a two-wheeled carriage and had a barrel length of 6.1ft and weighed over 617lbs in action. It could fire HE bombs weighing 35.25lbs out to ranges of 6,780 yards. The Romanians also had pre-war permission to build the French 50mm Brandt Model 1937 mortar under licence, which the Romanian Army later used during fighting against the Red Army. This weapon weighed 7.27lbs in action and could fire HE bombs weighing 1lb pound out to ranges of 550 yards. It also used other mortars, including a version of the German heavy calibre 12cm GrW42 produced by Rosita.

The Hungarian Army made its first military incursions of the war when it independently invaded neighbouring Slovakia in October 1939. The country was pro-German but it did not commit itself to joining the Axis Pact until November 1940. The Hungarian Army had a peacetime strength of just 80,000 troops and like Bulgaria and Romania its weaponry was outdated and it was largely reliant on horses to move artillery. With German support the country very quickly expanded its strength and, in June 1941, put troops in the line alongside German and Romanian forces during Operation Barbarossa. Within a month of the campaign starting, a unit called the Hungarian Rapid Force (also known as the Hungarian Rapid Corps), comprising about 40,000 men, and composed of troops from VIII Corps and 1 Mountain Brigade, advanced deep into the Donets Basin alongside the German Seventeenth Army, where it took part in the Battle of Uman which garnered thousands of Red Army prisoners. The Second Hungarian Army was composed of nine light infantry divisions, each of which had two infantry regiments with their structure supported by obsolete tanks such as Panzer Mk I which only had machine guns. The Second Army was deployed to Stalingrad, where it was given the task of holding a front line some ninety miles long. When the Red Army offensive of January 1943 was launched it very quickly penetrated the positions held by the Hungarian troops, who fell back leaving some 148,000 killed, wounded and captured, losing much weaponry in the process, including more than 400 mortars of 81mm calibre.

As Germany’s ally, the Hungarian Army continued to fight and at the beginning of February 1945 still had 214,000 men deployed. Some elements had surrendered in late 1944 but other units staunchly held out by the side of Germany until the end of the war in May 1945. The fighting would eventually cost 300,000 casualties and many taken prisoner. The weapons used by the infantry units included mortars such as the 50mm calibre 39M produced by FÈG and a Hungarian-built version of the GrW36, known as the 36M. Hungarian factories such as Dimàveg, EMAG and Bàmert produced 81mm calibre mortars such as the 36/39M and 100mm calibre 41M. The 36/39M was a Brandt design weighing 187lbs in action and capable of firing a HE bomb weighing 9lbs out to ranges between 55 and 4,700 yards. Also produced by the factory of Diòsgyor, these weapons were in service at the rate of four per battalion. Factories also produced the 120mm calibre 43M, a Hungarian version of the German GrW42, and Dimàveg also produced the 90mm calibre 17M, a version of the Czechoslovakian Lehky Minomet vz/17 produced by Skoda. Hungarian troops also used captured Red Army weapons such as the 42M 82mm calibre mortar.

Finland also joined the war against the Soviet Union, referring to their renewed fighting as the Continuation War; to some this was seen as an ideal opportunity to complete unfinished business from two years earlier. The Finnish Army deployed more than 300,000 troops with over 2,000 pieces of artillery and mortars. Although Finnish troops did fight in other areas of the Soviet Union as volunteers serving with the Nordost Battalion of the SS Wiking Division, the main effort was concentrated in the northern area of the Karelian Isthmus. Here they took up positions and maintained the blockade whilst the Germans occupied positions to the south to besiege the city of Leningrad in an operation which would last almost 890 days or twenty-nine months between September 1941 and January 1944. Volunteers from occupied countries such as France and Belgium came forward to fight in SS units known as the Charlemagne and Wallonien divisions respectively, and even some Dutch nationals volunteered to serve in the Nederland division, all of which had to be equipped with standard service weaponry. Germany’s European allies, Romania, Hungary and Finland, also had to be supplied with weapons, which placed a strain on support services to keep them equipped and production output was also under pressure.

Germany’s other European ally was the state of Bulgaria, which had also been allied to Germany in the First World War. The Bulgarian Army consigned itself to conducting anti-partisan campaigns in Greece and Yugoslavia and by mid-1944 comprised twenty-one infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions, along with other units such as two frontier brigades. It was an outdated force, despite its armoured brigade being equipped with over 120 tanks of French and German design, and lacking in modern anti-tank guns. It made extensive use of horses for transport of supplies, which actually turned out to be ideal for use in the mountainous regions in sweeps against partisans. Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact on 1 March 1941 but did not participate in the fighting in the Soviet Union. The army was equipped mainly with German weapons, including mortars of 8cm and 5cm calibre, along with a range of captured enemy weapons which were considered sufficient for the role in which the troops were engaged.

The Germans had been halted and forced back when some units were within 15 miles of Moscow. Weather conditions had played a significant part, with sub-zero temperatures preventing ammunition and fuel from being brought forward. The Red Army pressed forward and by February 1942, under the command of General Georgi Zhukov, had pushed the Germans back between 90 and 180 miles in some places. The Soviets kept up the pressure, hoping to surround the Germans as they consolidated at Kharkov. Sensing the threat, the Germans moved first and attacked. By 23 May they had surrounded their attackers and captured 200,000 men and killed a further 70,000. Hoping to seize the initiative again, Hitler ordered the 6th Army to change the axis of its advance and head south against the great industrial city of Stalingrad on the western bank of the Volga River. This was demanding too much of his armies, but despite warnings from his generals that their forces would be overstretched, Hitler insisted his orders be carried out.

The advance forces arrived at the outskirts of Stalingrad in August and more troops and weapons followed. At first it seemed like a relatively easy campaign. With the Germans receiving plenty of supplies and the Luftwaffe maintaining air superiority, the army was guaranteed support. But first appearances crumbled as Soviet resistance strengthened. As the fighting intensified, so the expenditure in ammunition increased dramatically. By the end of September, after the first full month of fighting, the 6th Army had fired 23 million rounds of small arms ammunition. In addition the artillery and tanks had fired 685,000 shells and the troops had thrown 178,000 hand grenades and fired 750,000 mortar bombs. It was a level of expenditure in ammunition that would increase as the battle spread to encompass the whole of a city which, by the end of December, lay in ruins. As another winter set in, the demand for ammunition and fuel became unsustainable, with German supply lines overburdened and overstretched.

The supply routes were broken completely when the Soviet Army encircled the city in a massive manoeuvre designed to isolate the Sixth Army from the rest of the German forces. There was nothing coming in by road or rail, and in an effort to support the army the Luftwaffe tried to fly in supplies. Despite promises of 600 tons of supplies per day, the air force could not meet even the most basic needs of the besieged army. Mortar bombs were lighter than artillery shells and these were transported in preference, but eventually the supply of this ammunition also failed. The Soviet Army on the other hand had no problems with resupply, though production had to be increased to meet demand. Manpower levels were not a problem to the Soviet Army either, whereas the German losses could not be made good. The end came on 30 January when the German commander, Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, surrendered. The battle had cost the Germans 300,000 men killed and wounded, with more than 100,000 taken prisoner. Germany’s allies had sustained 450,000 casualties. It was the turning point of the war in the east.

At the time of Stalingrad a Soviet infantry division had 9,500 men organized into the standard triple formation with regiments and battalions. The military planners reorganized this structure to distribute weapons to provide a division with an increase in artillery support and a company with six 120mm mortars, which gave each regiment more field guns and 160 mortars. Further changes were made in the structure which, by 1944, saw a Soviet tank corps equipped with a specialist mortar regiment within its organization equipped with twenty-four mortars of 120mm calibre, and each of the three battalions of the mechanized infantry brigade had six 82mm mortars. In April 1945, when the Red Army was fighting in the suburbs of Berlin, even cavalry divisions with a troop strength of 5,040 men, with 5,128 horses and 130 vehicles to tow antitank guns, would be equipped with eight heavy mortars and supplied with trucks to transport the division’s eighteen medium mortars and forty-eight light mortars, along with the ammunition required for the weapons.

By 1944, a German infantry division fighting on the Eastern Front had 12,352 troops still divided into three regiments, though manpower shortages had reduced the number of battalions down to only two for each of these. By now the light 5cm mortar had been taken out of service, but some units continued to use the weapon as long as they had supplies of ammunition. The situation with manpower levels for the German Army continued to worsen, and by 1945 an average infantry division had barely 7,000 men and was desperately short of weapons, ammunition and other essential supplies such as food, fuel and medical support. By comparison, the Soviet Army infantry division had 9,200 men with three infantry regiments, each with three infantry battalions. Part of the artillery support for the divisional firepower was provided by a specialist mortar company with six 120mm calibre heavy mortars. In contrast, a German panzer division had 13,725 men with an armoured regiment and a motorised regiment of panzer grenadiers, each divided into two battalions and each equipped with four 120mm and six 81mm calibre mortars. A Soviet tank corps had 10,500 men, with an integral regiment of mortars equipped with twenty-four weapons of 120mm calibre, and three battalions of infantry, each with 600 men and their own 81mm mortar units. On paper the German divisional strength was greater but in reality the manpower levels were very rarely operational. Whilst Soviet manpower levels were lower than the German equivalent, they had more divisions deployed overall to give greater troop concentrations. The problems the Germans faced were further compounded by lack of resupply with ammunition and replacement weapons. The Soviets’ logistical routes, on the other hand, were secure and supplies of ammunition, weapons and reinforcements could be moved without fear of being attacked.

5 cm FlaK 41 & 5.5 cm Gerät 58

The 5-cm (1.97-in) Flak 41 was one of the least successful ofall the German anti-aircraft guns, for it had excessive recoil and flash and the carriage traversed too slowly. Despite their shortcomings, 60 were used until the war ended.

In World War II air warfare terms there was an altitude band that extended from approximately 1500m (4,921ft) to 3000m (9,843ft) that existing anti-aircraft guns could cover only with difficulty. Aircraft flying in this band were really too high or too low for small- or larger-calibre weapons. What was obviously required was an interim-calibre weapon that could deal with this problem but, as artillery designers in both the Allied and German camps were to discover, it was not an easy problem to solve.

The German solution to the interim-altitude band situation was a gun known as the 5-cm Flak 41, and the best that can be said of it was that it was not a success. It was first produced in 1936, and was yet another Rheinmetall Borsig design that was preferred over a Krupp submission. Development of the prototype was carried out with no sense of urgency, for it was 1940 before the production contract was awarded and in the event only 60 guns were completed, The first of them entered service in 1941 and the type’s shortcomings soon became apparent. The mam problem was the ammunition: despite its 50-mm (1.97-in) calibre, this was rather underpowered and on firing produced a prodigious amount of muzzle blast and flash that distracted the aimer, even in broad daylight. The carriage proved rather bulky and awkward to handle in action, and despite the characteristics of the expected targets the traversing mechanism was also rather underpowered and too slow to track fast targets.

Two versions of the Flak 41 were produced: a mobile one using two axles to carry the gun and carriage, and a static version for emplacing close to areas of high importance such as the Ruhr dams. Despite their overall lack of success the guns were kept in service until the war ended, but by then only 24 were left. During the war years some development work was carried out using the Flak 41s, not so much to improve the guns themselves but to determine the exact nature of the weapon that was to replace them. In time this turned out to be a design known as the Gerät 56 (Gerät was a cover name, meaning equipment) but it was not finalized before the war ended, One Flak 41 development was the formation of one battery operating under a single remote control.

In action the Flak 41 had a crew of seven men. Loading the ammunition was no easy task for it was fed into the gun in five-round clips that were somewhat difficult to handle. Though designed for use against aircraft targets, the Flak 41 was also provided with special armour-piercing projectiles for use against tanks, but this AP round appears to have been little used as the Flak 41 was one of the few German weapons that was not selected for mounting on a self-propelled carriage.

If the Germans were unsuccessful in their attempt to defend the interim-altitude band, it has to be stated that he Allies were no more successful. Typical of their efforts was the British twin 6-pdr, a 57-mm (2.244-in) weapon that never got past the trials stage because of its indifferent performance.
Altogether 60 examples of the 5 cm Flak 41 were produced, starting from 1941. Some of them were still in use in 1945.


German designation: Flak 41

Calibre: 50 mm (1.97 in)

Length of piece: 4.686 m (184.5 in)

Weight: in action 3100 kg (6,834 lb)

Elevation: -10° to+90°

Traverse: 360°

Muzzle velocity: 840 m (2,756 ft) per second

Maximum effective ceiling: 3050 m (10,007ft)

Rate of fire: (cyclic) 180 rpm

Projectile weight: 2.2kg(4.85lb)
Later German attempts to create a medium anti-aircraft gun focused on 5.5 cm weapons (Gerät 58) and the 5 cm Pak 38-derived Gerät 241.

5.5 cm Gerät 58

Was designed as part of an integrated weapons system which included radar and fire control equipment. The development started in 1943 but not concluded before the end of the war. The carriage has an unusual feature: the differential recoil or soft recoil, based on the Flak 41 carriage and named Sonderanhänger 206, but the gun itself is no more than an enlarged version of the 5 cm Flak 41. A number of completed carriages are converted to take 5 cm Flak 214 guns in 1945. Only three guns were built.

One of the many things to note about this gun was its sophisticated servo drive systems intended for computerized aiming. Instead of the defective (in terms of accuracy) limited angular rate deflection system generally used for for aiming it was to calculate the complete and total firing solution in Cartesian co-ordinates. It was a one hit to kill weapon. It was not only for tanks but for naval systems as well as for ground based FLAK.

Post war the Soviet 57 mm AZP S-60 evolved from this weapon.

German designation: Gerät 58
Caliber: 55 mm
Length of piece: 6.150 mm
Length of barrel: 4.211 mm
Breech mechanism: Gas-operated vertical sliding block
Traverse: 360º
Weight travelling: 5.490 Kg
Weight in action: 2.990 Kg
Weight of gun: 650 Kg
Elevation: -5º to 90º
Type of feed: 5 rounds clips
Muzzle velocity: 1.050 mps
Shell weight: 2,03 Kg (with Zerl 18V fuze)
Rate of fire: 140 rpm

Here is the entire list of Flak weapons (German Designations):

2 CM Flak 30
2 CM Flak 38
2 CM GebFlak 38
2 CM Flak Sondergeschütz
2 CM Flakvierling 38
2 CM Flakvierling 38/43
MG 151/20
3 CM Flak 103/38
3.7 CM SKC/30
3.7 CM Flak 18
3.7 CM Flak 36 oder 37
3.7 CM Flak M 42
3.7 CM Flak 43
3.7 CM Flakzwilling 43
Gerät 339 B.Kp. (3.7 CM)
Gerät 341 3.7 CM
3 CM Flak M 44
3 CM Flak M 44 (300 M)
3 CM MK 303 (Br)
Fledermaus 3.7 CM
2 CM Flak 28 und 29
2 CM Flak Madsen
2 CM Flak Breda or 2 CM Breda(i) or 2 CM MG 282(i)
2 CM Flak Scotti oder 2 CM Scotti(i)
2.5 CM Flak Hotchkiss or 2.5 CM Flak Hotchkiss 38 und 39
3.7 CM Flak Breda or 3.7 CM Breda(i)
3.7 CM Flak M 39a(r)
4 CM Flak 28
5 CM Flak 41
Gerät 56 V 1a 5 CM
Gerät 56 G 5 CM
Gerät 56 M 5 CM
Gerät 56 K 5 CM
Gerät 58 5.5 CM
Gerät 58 K 5.5 CM
5 CM Flak 214
5 CM Automatic Flak (A Skoda Prototype manufactured close to end of war. The actual German designation was unknown)
4.7 Flak 37(t)
8.8 CM Flak 18, 36 oder 37
8.8 CM Flak 41
8.8 CM Flak 37/41
8.8 CM Flak 39/41
8.8 CM Flak 41/2 (these 7 cannons were based on the classic 88’s)
10.5 CM Flak 38 und 39
10.5 CM Flak 39/2
12.8 Flak 40
12.8 Flak 40/1
12.8 Flak 40/2
12.8 Flakzwilling 40
12.8 CM Flak 45
7.5 Flak L/60
7.5 CM Flak L/59 or 7.5 CM Flak P L/65
Gerät 42 8.8 CM
Gerät 50 14.91 CM
Gerät 55 14.91 CM
Gerät 60 14.91 CM
Gerät 65 14.91 CM
Gerät 60F 14.91 CM
Gerät 65F 14.91 CM
Gerät 80 23.8 CM
Gerät 85 23.8 CM
7.5 CM Flak (b)
7.5 CM FK 97(f)
7.5 CM Flak M 17/34(f)
7.5 CM Flak M 30(f)
7. CM Flak M 33(f)
7.5 CM Flak M 36(f)



While barrels for small artillery pieces were easily cast as early as the 13th century, most larger cannon and the great bombards were constructed by the hoop-and-stave method. It was not until improved casting techniques and mature foundries were developed that large barrels could be made as single pieces of cast metal, first in iron and bronze, and later still in brass. By c. 1550 cast barrels of muzzle-loaders were cooled as a single, solid piece, after which the bore was reamed and a touch-hole drilled. Iron cannonballs were also being cast from greased, clay molds. Women from among the camp followers were frequently employed as laborers to dig the pit in which the mold was cast, gather faggots for the casting fire, dig out the gun after the metal cooled, and drag it to its siege site or for emplacement on the walls of a nearby castle or fort. During the 17th century Jesuit priests taught Chinese gunsmiths and generals up-to-date Western casting methods. English gunsmiths worked with local forges in India, and Dutch traders and governors brought the new technology to the Spice Islands, where guns of varying caliber were cast in local forges for use in Dutch fortifications and ships. Late medieval and early modern artillery varied greatly in size, caliber, and utility, but over time certain locales gained reputations as centers of quality gun manufacture. Permanent, large-scale foundries were set up and an international trade in cannon, it must be said, boomed. Northern Italy, Flanders, and Nuremberg were known for casting the best bronze guns. England and Sweden grew famous for casting cheap iron cannon in very large numbers that were nonetheless of excellent quality.

As cannon grew in importance in land and sea warfare in the mid-16th century the Spanish crown set up arsenals and foundries at Medina del Campo, Malaga, and Barcelona, and another at Seville in 1611. However, Spain lacked the skilled labor to meet its foundry needs-partly because its economy stagnated after expelling the Jews and Moors-and so remained dependent on additional purchases from the cannon markets of Flanders, Italy, and Germany. This lack of foresight and strategic planning cost Spain dearly as the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) led to an acute crisis in armaments that was compounded by war with Elizabethan England and later also with France. This lack of cannon hamstrung Spanish armies and fleets. Due to shortage of skilled labor, Spain’s foundry at Seville barely produced three dozen average caliber guns per year during the first half of the 17th century. In contrast, England, the Netherlands, and Sweden each had multiple foundries that cast 100-200 cannon per year. Spain was cut off from these northern markets by its wars with England and the Dutch rebels, although merchants in England sometimes sold to Spain in evasion of royal bans on exporting cannon outside the realm. Portugal also failed to develop a serious cannon production capability. Its chronic shortage of cannon for ships and fortified bases overseas was a significant factor in the loss of empire in Asia to the better armed Dutch and English in the 16th-17th centuries.

During the 15th and 16th centuries German foundries cast guns for use in Italy, by Spanish armies, and in the Netherlands. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) created a huge domestic demand for cannon, but so disrupted the metals trade and skilled labor markets that German production declined. English, Dutch, and Swedish guns were imported and dominated that war. German cannon foundries recovered quickly after 1648, however, and soon challenged England and Sweden in international gun exports.

Netherlands foundries supplied the Dutch army’s growing need for artillery, which was driven by its prolonged war with Spain, its ultimately very large blue water as well as coastal navy, and the huge requirements of fortifying border towns as well as a growing overseas empire. The Netherlands also became a major exporter of first-rate artillery pieces of all calibers. This was not the case at first. The Dutch rebellion cut off the northern provinces from the industries of southern Flanders and the important metals market of Antwerp, which the Spanish still occupied. Over much of the last four decades of the 16th century, until foundries were built north of the rivers and skilled labor imported or trained, the Dutch imported cast iron cannon from England that were happily supplied by Elizabeth I to a Protestant ally against Spain. By 1600, Dutch foundries were so efficient they met domestic needs and began exporting ordnance to other European markets. Eventually, the Dutch set up a system whereby bronze ordnance was cast at home while iron cannon were cast in Dutch-owned foundries in Germany and at overseas bases. In Asia, the Dutch cast bronze cannon in Batavia for local use using “red copper” from Japan, but cast iron cannon wherein sufficient ore was available and nearby forests provided charcoal fuel.

Sweden and Russia were late starters in the foundry business. Both had great natural advantages-large deposits of iron, copper, and tin, and rich and abundant forests to produce charcoal for the blast furnaces of their great foundries-but only Sweden took full advantage in the 16th and 17th centuries to catch up to the rest of Europe, once social and military-cultural inhibitions to the adoption of gunpowder weapons were overcome. In Sweden the crown played a central role in encouraging casting of guns. Wrought-iron cannon were made from the 1530s; casting of bronze ordnance began in the 1560s; cast iron foundries overtook the older method of making iron cannon after 1580. By the time of Gustavus Adolphus, Swedish foundries were among the world’s best. Using both local labor and imported “Walloons” (gunsmiths from the Low Countries), Sweden emerged as a leading maker and exporter of cast guns in the 17th century. Tolerance of imported Catholic master gunsmiths in Sweden contrasted sharply with Spain, where Protestant gunsmiths eventually refused to work because they were not exempted from torments and execution by the Inquisition. The Dutch brought iron casting techniques to Russia, establishing a foundry at Tula in the 1630s. As skilled labor did not exist in Russia at that time, gunsmiths were imported from the Low Countries and Sweden, while unskilled peasants hewed the forests and worked the charcoal pits. Despite foreign aid, Russia remained a minor power in terms of both gun casting and artillery deployment until the great military reforms of Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century.

English gun casting declined in the 17th century as the countryside was badly stripped of forests to feed the blast furnaces of the foundries and the shipbuilding industry. England’s long continental peace also sapped innovation and profit from its military industries. France similarly went into decline after an early lead in gun design and manufacture. The great French siege trains of the early Italian Wars (1494-1559) were no longer seen in the 17th century, as royal armies declined and skilled workers left for better-paying markets or to escape religious persecution of the French Civil Wars (1562- 1629), during which Frenchmen killed each other mainly with imported cannon. This situation was not reversed until Richelieu reestablished the French cannon industry to meet the demands of the Thirty Years’ War on land, and of a vastly expanded French navy.

Suggested Reading: Carlo Cipolla, Guns, Sails, and Empires (1965).

Medieval Armor And Weapons




Cold Steel Arms: Axe heads, maces, morningstars

The armor worn in France throughout the medieval period was directly derived from that worn in the Migrations Period by the leaders of Germanic war bands, and its basic structure, which included a shield, helmet, and coat, changed little between ca. A. D. 100 and 1150. In the early period, the shield (Lat. scutum, OFr. escu) was normally constructed of wood covered with leather and reinforced with strips of bronze or iron centered on a hemispherical metal boss that covered the grip. Down to ca. 1000, the shield was usually ovoid or round and about three feet in diameter. A round shield of similar construction continued to be used by infantry into the 15th century, but a longer and narrower shield of Byzantine origin, shaped like an elongated almond, was introduced in the 11th century for use by heavy cavalry and predominated from ca. 1050 to 1150. The normal type of helmet (MHG helm, OFr. helme, MidFr. heaume) in the period before 1150 took the form of a more or less convex cone, most commonly constructed from four or more triangular sections of metal or some other hard material bound by iron bands. It was usually supplied with a nasal bar and until ca. 750 with hinged cheek plates as well.

The coat was almost always made of mail (OFr. maille), a mesh of interlocking iron rings of uniform size. The names most commonly given to the mail coat in the period before ca. 1300 were derived from the Old Germanic word *brunaz ‘bright’: Lat. brunia, OFr. brunie or bro(i)gne. Down to ca. 800, no protection for the neck was generally worn, but in the 9th century it became customary to wear a mail hood with attached shoulder cape over or partially under the mail coat and under the helm. This caped hood was apparently known as the halsbergen ‘neck guard’ in Frankish and by a derivative word variously spelled halberc, halbert, (h)auberc, etc. in Old French. This word (in English in the form “hauberk”) has been applied since at least the 17th century to the mail coat or brogne itself, but this was an error of the antiquarians, and historically it had designated only the caped hood as long as the latter was still in use—that is, until the 14th century. The hood proper, which was often attached directly to the brogne, was called the coiffe, and from the 12th century onward the brogne with attached coiffe was called an haubergonne.

Helmets and mail coats were expensive, and before ca. 800 they were worn only by kings, nobles, and their most distinguished companions-in-arms. In the 9th century, however, they came to be distributed to the ordinary members of royal and noble military retinues, newly named vassals, and from ca. 950 they were to be characteristic of knights, who were always expected to appear for battle in the most complete and up-to-date armor.

The period 1150–1220 saw the first major changes in the form of armor used in France since the Frankish conquest. Most of these changes were in the direction of increased protection for the body, already begun with the adoption of the long shield. In the late 12th century, the sleeves of the brogne were extended from the elbows to the wrists and finally acquired attached mittens. Mail leggings, or chausses, though occasionally worn earlier, similarly came into general use among knights ca. 1150 and were worn to ca. 1350. Also ca. 1150 began the custom of wearing a surcoat (OFr. surcote, cote a armer)—a loose, generally sleeveless cloth coat probably borrowed from the Muslims— over the coat of mail. The surcoat was universally adopted by ca. 1210 and worn thereafter until ca. 1410. Throughout this period, it was commonly emblazoned with its wearer’s heraldic “arms,” but these new ensigns were primarily displayed on the shield— which between 1150 and 1200 also lost its traditional boss, between 1150 and 1220 was made progressively shorter and wider, and between 1200 and 1250 was given an increasingly triangular shape through the leveling of its upper edge.

Although the traditional conical helm continued in use until ca. 1280, several new forms emerged in this period that were destined to supersede it. The most important were the flat-topped “great” helm, which between 1180 and 1220 evolved to enclose the whole head in a cylinder of steel pierced only by slits for seeing and holes for breathing, and the close-fitting hemispherical bascinet, which emerged ca. 1220. The great helm survived with little further structural change from 1220 to 1400, and from ca. 1300 its apex was often provided with a distinctive heraldic “crest” (cimier) of wood or boiled leather, worn primarily in the tournaments to which, by 1380, the helm was restricted. The bascinet was at first worn under the helm and over the coif of the mail hood, but from ca. 1260 the hood was increasingly replaced with a mail curtain (the camail or aventail) suspended from the outside of the bascinet, and the bascinet thus augmented gradually replaced the clumsy great helm as the principal defense for the head in real warfare. In consequence, the bascinet became steadily larger and more pointed, and acquired in the last decade of the 13th century a movable “visor” (vissere) to protect the face.

The eight decades between ca. 1250 and ca. 1330 witnessed a major change in the history of European armor, stimulated in large part by the development of weapons capable of piercing mail: the gradual introduction of pieces of plate (at first of whalebone, horn, and boiled leather, as well as of the iron and steel that ultimately prevailed) to cover an ever larger part of the mail. By 1330, every part of the body of a knight was normally protected by one or several plates, including a poncholike “coat of plates” concealed by the surcoat. By 1410, the various pieces of plate, including a breastplate and backplate instead of the earlier coat of plates, were all connected by straps and rivets in an articulated suit, or “harness,” of polished steel. After ca. 1425, this “white” armor was usually worn without a surcoat or any other covering.

The adoption of elements of plate to protect the body steadily reduced the importance of the shield, which between 1250 and 1350 diminished steadily in size until it was only about 16 inches in height. Even this diminished shield was finally abandoned between 1380 and 1400. A new form of shield called the targe, of similar size and structure but roughly rectangular in outline, concave rather than convex, often deeply fluted and cusped, and provided with a notch, or bouche, for the lance, was introduced in the same two decades, but it was used primarily in tournaments, and knights of the 15th century seem to have done without any shield in battle.

The only offensive weapons commonly borne by the Frankish warriors who seized power in Gaul in the 5th century were the lance, or framea, of sharpened ash; the barbed javelin, or ango; and the throwing ax, or frankisca. The lance or spear, whose more expansive form, equipped with an iron head, was destined to displace the sharpened form and survived with little basic change until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond—for many centuries the only weapon generally available to ignoble as well as noble warriors.

Kings and the leaders of war bands also carried swords, usually of the long, straight, double-edged type called in Latin spatha, first developed by the Celts of Gaul ca. 400 B. C. and later borrowed by Germans and Romans. As the Old French use of espee for “sword” suggests, the spatha (whose blade was ca. 30 inches long) was ancestral to most of the later forms of sword developed in western Europe, of which some thirty-three types and subtypes have been recognized by scholars, four of them antedating A. D. 600. Around 600, the Frankish king and nobles temporarily abandoned both spatha and frankisca in favor of a machete-like single-edged sword called a saxo, whose 18inch blade permitted it to be used for stabbing and even throwing as well as slashing; but under Viking influence the spatha, which the Scandinavians had continued to use and develop, was reintroduced into Frankish lands and quickly became the principal weapon not only of the rulers and nobles but of the rank-and-file members of the new heavy-cavalry units ancestral to the knights of the 10th and later centuries.

Lesser weapons were also employed by knights after 1050. Special forms of ax, hammer (bec), mace, club, and flail were introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries to supplement the sword, but it was only after 1300 that these were both fully developed and commonly used. Most knights and squires also carried a stiff dagger on their sword belt after ca. 1350. All of the knightly weapons were used by the nonknightly combatants who could acquire them, but among the base-born infantrymen a number of weapons scorned by the knightly class were also employed. The simple bow, despised by most Germanic tribes outside of Scandinavia, was little used in France outside of Normandy before the 14th century, when six mounted archers were included in the “lance,” or standard tactical unit of the royal army. The crossbow, or arbaleste, was reintroduced into France ca. 950 and was commonly used thereafter to ca. 1550, primarily by special infantry units placed from ca. 1200 to 1534 under the overall authority of a grand master of the crossbowmen (arbalest[r]iers). After ca. 1350, the bow and crossbow were supplemented on occasion by a primitive handgun. In addition to these projectile weapons, the infantryman of the 14th and 15th centuries had at his disposal new forms of polearm, which were in essence lances with special forms of head.



Playing a major role in medieval warfare, artillery evolved parallel to the art of fortification. Although Roger Bacon introduced gunpowder to the West ca. 1260 and the English used cannon at Crécy in 1346, it took a further century of experimentation before cannon supplanted trébuchet (i. e., tension) artillery. Improvement of explosives, projectiles, and guns was impeded by the difficulties in obtaining adequate amounts of matériel and equipment. But by 1400 cannon had come into regular use, and the final campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War made their superiority unmistakable. Either protecting sappers or breaching walls themselves, they became an indispensable tool in sieges. In response, defense tactics and military architecture changed rapidly after 1450. Governments were compelled to modernize fortifications, and every town was driven to acquire artillery for its own defense.

Following French use of artillery at Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453), where cannon were shown to be useful on the field as well as in siege warfare, the Valois monarchy led the way in the perfection of technology, in the development of an institutional infrastructure, and in the exploitation of the full potential of the new arms. Gaspard Bureau, maître de l’artillerie for Charles VII, formed a permanent force of cannoniers that grew steadily thereafter. Limited range, inadequate rates of fire, and immobility limited reliance on artillery for the remainder of the 15th century, and cannon remained auxiliary to cavalry and infantry in the army of Louis XI. Only the triumphs of Charles VIII, who made dramatic use of artillery in Brittany and in the Italian campaign of 1494, removed all doubt that only armies with adequate artillery could hope to prevail in modern warfare.





The word catapult is a generic term used to describe all ancient and medieval non-gunpowder propelled missile-throwing artillery. The first catapult may have been invented in the early fourth century BCE. In 399 in Syracuse, King Dionysius I, threatened by the Carthaginians and other enemies, assembled a large group of engineers to create an arsenal of weapons. Among these was the first non-torsion artillery piece, the gastraphetes. In essence the gastraphetes (which in Greek means “belly-bow”) was little more than a large, powerful, and flexible bow. The flexibility of the weapon came from the material of the bow itself, which was a composite of wood, horn, and animal sinew: a wood core covered by a tension layer of sinew in front and a compression layer of horn in the back. This, using a sinew bowstring, supplied the propulsive force to the missile.

It was, in fact, not much different, although larger, from the handheld composite bow, which by the fourth century BCE had been known for several centuries. However, the difference between the handheld weapon and the gastraphetes was its power, supplied by the latter’s elaborate stock apparatus. It consisted of a heavy stock, made in two sections. The lower section, the case, was fixed solidly to the bow. The upper section (or slider), of approximately the same dimensions as the case, fitted into a dove-tailed groove in the case and was able to slide freely back and forth. On each side of the case was a straight ratchet with two curved bars, or pawls, fitted into the ratchets and attached to a claw-like trigger mechanism. At the end of the stock was a concave rest that the operator placed against his stomach and, with the front of the bow fixed on the ground, allowed him to withdraw the slider, attach the string to the trigger, load a missile, and discharge it. A man could thus draw the bowstring and discharge a missile with much greater power than was possible with the traditional hand-drawn bowstring. The gastraphetes had a range of between 50 and 100 meters greater than the hand-drawn composite bow, which has been estimated to have had a maximum range of 500 meters. More importantly, the missile was launched at greater velocity so that few pieces of armor could withstand it, although it was probably still too weak to breach the walls of even earth-and-wood fortifications.

Non-torsion artillery technology spread quickly throughout the ancient world, and soon improvements were made to the design of the original gastraphetes. By about 360 BCE, winches had been added to the stock, allowing for easier and greater drawing power; this ultimately brought increased force, and therefore velocity, to the missile. A base was also added, increasing both the stability and size of the weapon. Still, non-torsion artillery continued to be limited in force and power, both of which remained dependent on the strength and flexibility of the bow. If these were exceeded the bow simply broke. While some gastraphetes were equipped to fire stone balls, most fired only heavy, arrow-shaped bolts that also limited the force of impact.

To increase the velocity of the projectile, making the gastraphetes more powerful, it was necessary to change both the bow and the size and type of missile fired. Increasing the power of the bow was achieved by replacing the single, flexible bow of the earlier weapon with two non-flexible arms set in “springs” made from sinew. The users of the gastraphetes were probably aware that it was the sinew in the bow’s composition that gave it its power, so by using the sinew to form tightly twisted “springs,” the power of the artillery could be increased. Apart from this development, the rest of the torsion catapult remained little altered from its non-torsion predecessor, with a heavy sinew string, slider, winch, ratchet apparatus, and trigger mechanism. The springs were the only significant change in technology, and this allowed for much more powerful devices firing missiles, now almost always stone, weighing from 13 to 26 kilograms, although stones as large as 162 kilograms are known to have been fired. When the bowstring was drawn back on a torsion catapult, the force was transferred to the sinew springs which, when the trigger was pulled, made the bow arms spring forward, discharging the missile. The short, stout arms were able to withstand a much greater force than the flexible bow of earlier devices and together with the use of stone balls as ammunition meant that this weapon was capable of breaching the walls of fortifications and towns.

It is believed that the first torsion-spring catapults were made by Macedonian engineers between 353 and 341 BCE and used afterwards by Philip II in his conquest of Greece. The technology then passed to Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who used it in his conquest of Persia, the Middle East, Egypt, and India. Alexander seemed to have been particularly impressed by his catapults’ power and used them successfully to take towns, such as Tyre in 332 BCE, which would have been nearly impossible to conquer by other siege methods.

After Alexander’s death, torsion artillery technology, which had by then clearly supplanted non-torsion pieces, passed to his successors and from them to Carthage, Rome, and other lands. Over time, improvements to the mechanism were made to increase its flexibility, power, and range. Most important among these was the addition of washers to the springs, which meant that the distance that the arms of the catapult could be drawn back was easily adjusted. In this way the amount of force delivered to the missile at discharge could be varied: a close target could be struck by a looser tension on the springs, while a more distant target needed a tighter tension. The springs could also be loosed when not being used in military campaign, to keep from weakening the sinew from the constant stress of being tightly wound. Other important innovations were the addition of bronze coverings over the springs, which kept them dry during rain or river crossings, and tripod swivel mounts, which allowed for a rapid change of direction in discharging missiles. Improvements were also made in the operation of torsion catapults. Training and thorough practice in their use developed and actively encouraged by competitions between catapult operators. Training schools, especially those at Samnos, Ceos, and Cyanae, also resulted in increased skill in their use. Rhodian operators were particularly highly prized for their proficiency in catapult firing, and they were frequently employed by both Greece and Rome as mercenary artillery operators.

In the ancient world the most sophisticated artillery was made at Alexandria under the Ptolemies, and their machines were much sought after. It is highly plausible that both Carthage and Rome, during the First and Second Punic Wars, faced each other using Alexandrian catapults. This gave Alexandria the impetus to construct some highly experimental catapult models. One of the most curious examples was a chain-driven repeating catapult described by Philon in the last part of the third century BCE. In this machine, bolts were fed one at a time from a magazine into the slider trough by means of a revolving drum. The chain-link drive, operated by a winch, then fired the bolt and recocked the weapon by engaging the lugs on the chain links with a pentagonal gear. A trigger claw was locked and fired at the appropriate time by pegs mounted in the stock of the weapon, past which the slider moved. There were, however, many problems with this machine. First, because it was so elaborate, the need for it to be constantly repaired must have been great. Second, it fired only along fixed lines, and thus would have been useful only against fixed targets, like a fortification wall. There is, in fact, no indication that this weapon was ever constructed, and it may indeed have been only an engineer’s dream design.

The Romans made two important alterations to the traditional torsion catapult—which they called a ballista. First, they made it smaller and more portable. Known as the cheiroballistra, this variation of the older torsion model contained all of the former’s parts and was probably not too much lighter. It was, however, more compact, easier to assemble, and easier to transport. In addition, the springs were set farther apart, giving a wider field of view, which made aiming easier. The bow arms seem to have been capable of greater range than larger torsion artillery. Clearly, this weapon was meant to be used on the battlefield, or at sea, rather than against fortifications.

The second alteration to the traditional ancient torsion catapult was more extreme. Rather than simulating a bow using two vertical sinew springs with two arms swinging horizontally, the onager used only one horizontal spring and one arm swinging upwards. There was no bowstring; at the end of the single arm was a sling in which a missile, presumably a stone ball, could be placed for launching. The trigger was a piece of rope used to anchor the arm for loading. The arm was mounted on two large, heavy main horizontal beams held apart by a number of crossbeams. The onager was much more like our modern perception of a catapult than other ancient models. However, it should be noted that this weapon was infrequently used by the Romans, who continued to prefer traditional torsion artillery. Apparently, it appeared only at the end of the Empire and is mentioned only by one author, Ammianus Marcellinus (330–390 CE).

That torsion catapults were effective in sieges and on the battlefield is without question. Although their range seems not to have differed much from nontorsion catapults or even from strong bowmen without a substantial decrease in accuracy—most stone-throwing artillery needed to be within 150 meters of a fortification to be effective—the force of impact of a missile fired from one of these weapons was astonishing. At the siege of Gaza, Alexander the Great was wounded in the neck by a catapult bolt that pierced both his shield and his breastplate. A skull unearthed at Maiden Castle in Dorset was pierced by a catapult bolt moving at such a high velocity that it did not smash it; had the missile been an arrow from a handheld bow, the skull would surely have shattered. Perhaps the most vivid picture of the awe-inspiring power of these weapons comes from the pen of Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first-century Roman conquest of rebellious Judea, who details their use by the Romans at the siege of Jotapata in 67 CE:

The force with which these weapons threw stones and darts was such that a single projectile ran through a row of men, and the momentum of the stones hurled by the engine carried away battlements and knocked off corners of towers. There is in fact no body of men so strong that it cannot be laid low to the last rank by the impact of these huge stones.… Getting in the line of fire, one of the men standing near Josephus [the commander of Jotapata, not the historian] on the rampart had his head knocked off by a stone, his skull being flung like a pebble from a sling more than 600 meters; and when a pregnant woman on leaving her house at daybreak was struck in the belly, the unborn child was carried away 100 meters.

When the barbarian tribes invaded the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, they were met by an enemy using artillery—ballistae, cheiroballistae, and onagers. Indeed, the Romans might have had catapults to defend nearly every fortification besieged by the invaders, and it is reported that several arms factories continued to supply artillery pieces for military use during the early invasions. It is similarly recorded that in some engagements these catapults were successful in thwarting barbarian attacks. For example, Ammianus Marcellinus describes how one attack by the Goths was halted when a single large stone fired from an onager, despite hitting no one, caused such mass confusion that the attackers were routed. And Procopius, writing about the defense of Rome in 537–38, provides a colorful witness to catapult destruction:

… at the Salerian Gate a Goth of goodly stature and a capable warrior, wearing a corselet and having a helmet on his head, a man who was of no mean station in the Gothic nation… was hit by a missile from an engine which was on a tower at his left. And passing through the corselet and the body of the man, the missile sank more than half its length into the tree, and pinning him to the spot where it entered the tree, it suspended him there a corpse.

Ultimately, however, even with the use of catapults, the Roman armies could not withstand the barbarian invaders. Indeed, it seems likely that there were many problems with their technology and use. First, many towns and fortifications probably did not have a large arsenal of catapults at the beginning of the barbarian invasions. After all, most western imperial towns had been very secure for a long time and had rarely, if ever, been threatened. Second, at this time many military detachments seem to have been unfamiliar with catapults and untrained in their use, a fact attested to by many contemporary authors. Finally, many of these machines were probably not in good working order. It has been estimated that the life of sinew springs was no more than eight to ten years, and many of the existing artillery pieces undoubtedly had strings that did not function properly.

Fall Of Constantinople – Ottoman Superguns






Ottoman superguns

It is not without some irony that bombards, all but abandoned as obsolete by most European powers by 1453, played a critical role that year in the fall of Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the East. For centuries the Byzantine capital’s great walls and defenders had repulsed invaders, including an earlier 1422 attempt by Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–1451). Although Murad had employed bombards against the city, they were rather ineffective, and he subsequently withdrew. His successor, however, Mohammad II, sometimes known as Mehmed II (b. 1432; r. 1444–1446, 1451– 1481), and also known as Muhammad the Conqueror, possessed an innate appreciation for artillery and its use in siege craft.

Muhammad, lacking technical experts among his own subjects, subsequently obtained the services of Christian gun founders to design and build cannons especially suited for the siege. Among these was reportedly a famed Hungarian cannon maker known as Urban. Urban (or Orban) had previously been hired by the Byzantines but had deserted their cause after they failed to meet his fees. Muhammad, unlike the Byzantines, appreciated Urban’s considerable, although mercenary, talents and “welcomed him with open arms, treated him honorably and provided him with food and clothing; and then he gave him an allowance so generous, that a quarter of the sum would have sufficed to keep him in Constantinople” (De Vries, X 356).

Urban quickly established a gun foundry at Adrianople where he oversaw the casting of both a number of large iron and bronze guns. These included at least one huge bombard of cast iron reinforced with iron hoops and with a removable, screw-on breech. Typical of such large breechloading cannons, the gun was fitted with slots around the breech’s circumference to accept stout wooden beams. For loading and unloading, these beams were inserted in the slots to act as a capstan and provide the leverage to unscrew the heavy powder chamber. Weighing more than 19 tons, the gun was capable of firing stone balls weighing from approximately 800 to 875 pounds. The sheer size of the bombard, known as Basilica, required forty-two days and a team of sixty oxen and a thousand men to traverse the 120 miles to its firing site at Constantinople.

Muhammad began preparations for the siege in February and ordered the positioning of fourteen artillery batteries around the city. As a further preparation, he ordered his navy, also equipped with artillery, to cut Constantinople off from the sea. For his part, the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (b. 1409; r. 1449–1453), did possess some artillery, but it was for the most part obsolete and numerically insufficient to reply to Muhammad’s forces. The Byzantines had long lost the technological superiority they had held in previous centuries, and they soon found themselves reckoning with their shortsightedness in snubbing Urban the Hungarian.

Muhammad began the bombardment of the city on 6 April 1453. With a keen eye for the city’s weaknesses, he concentrated his guns against its most vulnerable points, including the Gate of St. Romanus, where they affected a breach on 11 April. His success was short lived, however, as the defenders counterattacked and repaired the damage. Muhammad also faced other setbacks when Urban was killed when a cannon he was supervising exploded, and when his giant bombard cracked after a few days of firing, necessitating repairs. The sultan, however, proved his own resourcefulness in the use of artillery and made much better use of his smaller guns—weapons that were capable of a much higher rate of fire than Basilica’s three rounds a day and were also more maneuverable. These included eleven bombards capable of firing 500-pound shot and fifty guns firing 200-pound balls.

The Ottoman barrage continued day and night, wearing down both the city’s walls and its defenders. A witness described its effect:

And the stone, borne with tremendous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby. Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannon-ball. (ibid., X 357–358)

Finally, on 29 May 1453, the walls on either side of the St. Romanus Gate collapsed, and the Turks stormed the city. The Emperor Constantine fought valiantly in the defense of his city, but he was killed as overwhelming numbers of Turkish troops rampaged through the city for three days, killing, looting, and raping. With the fall of its capital, the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and with it the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.


Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. He occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. It lies on the Sea of Marmara, flanked to northeast by the Bosphorus and to the southwest by the Dardanelles, two narrow passages linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. The only direct route from Europe into Asia Minor is at Constantinople, so it has been an extremely strategic possession for land and naval warfare and trade.

Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. It not only was the political capital of much of the Mediterranean and Middle East, but also the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, rival to the power of the pope in Rome for the souls of Christians everywhere. In the end it was that religious rivalry that spelled Constantinople’s doom.

In the seventh century Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam. By coincidence (or divine intervention) he appeared in Arabia just as the two major Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He therefore conquered a massive amount of land hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persia and the Byzantines suffered major territorial losses as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

For seven hundred years the forces of Islam and Orthodoxy struggled, with both sides trading ascendancy. By the fifteenth century, however, the Byzantine Empire had shrunk to almost nothing: Constantinople and a handful of Aegean islands. An earlier Islamic threat to the city resulted in the Crusades in the twelfth century, but that too ended in further alienating the Catholic and Orthodox churches. When in 1452 Sultan Mohammed II, son of Murad II, decided to attack Constantinople, European responses to pleas for help were almost nonexistent. England and France were just winding down the very costly Hundred Years War; Germanic and Spanish princes and kings offered aid but sent none. Genoa and Venice, however, did not want to see Constantinople fall into the hands of Arab merchants, and Rome promised aid if the Orthodox Church would submit to papal will. The emperor did all that he could to prepare for the siege. Envoys were sent to Venice, Genoa, the Pope, the Western emperor, the kings of Hungary and Aragon , with the message that, unless immediate military help was provided, the days of Constantinople were numbered. The response was unimpressive. Some Italians, embarrassed at their government’s impotence, came as volunteers. Reluctantly Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus agreed to Rome’s demand, but it netted him a mere 200 archers for his meager defenses as well as the hostility of his people; many claimed they preferred Turkish domination to Roman.

In the spring of 1452 Mohammed II sent 1,000 masons to the Bosphorus to build a fort to protect his army while crossing the straits. Constantine could do little more than lodge a protest. Among his populace were a mere 5,000 native and 2,000 foreign soldiers. The Venetian colony in Constantinople and many citizens in Pera, opposite Constantinople, also stayed, as did Orhan, the Ottoman pretender with his Turks. Some 30,000 to 40,000 civilians who rendered valuable service by repairing the 18-mile-long walls of the city before and during the siege. He had tradition on his side, however, for the triple walls that blocked the city from the landward side had survived twenty sieges, even though at this point they were not in good repair. As of January 1453, he also had the services of Italian soldier of fortune Giovanni Giustiniani, who brought 700 knights and archers. Giustiniani was well known in Europe for his talents in defending walled cities. Mohammed also had some European assistance in the form of a cannon maker named Urban from Hungary, who provided the Muslim army with seventy cannon, including the “Basilica,” a 27-feet-long canon that fired stone balls weighing upwards of 600 pounds. It could only fire seven times a day, but did significant damage to anything it struck.

As part of the Ottoman military preparations, some 16 large and 60 light galleys, 20 horse-ships and several smaller vessels were constructed in the Ottoman arsenal of Gallipoli. The sultan’s army of 80,000 to 100,000 men was assembled in Edirne, the Ottoman capita l, In the Edirne foundry some 60 new guns of various calibres were cast. Some of them threw shots of 240, 300 and 360 kg (530-793 lb), The largest bombard that the Hungarian master Urban made for the sultan fired, according to the somewhat contradictory testimonies of contemporaries, stone balls of 400 to 600 kg (800-1,322 lb), It was transported to Constantinople by 60 oxen.

A single wall that ran the circumference of the city’s seaward sides defended the rest of Constantinople. Mohammed sent his men across the Bosphorus north of the city, so the southern approach to the Mediterranean was open. A chain boom protected the primary harbor, the Golden Horn, across its mouth supported by twenty-six galleys. Thus, if anyone sent relief, the route was open.

Mohammed II arrived on 6 April 1453. He led 70,000 regular troops and 20,000 irregulars called Bashi-Bazouks, whose sole pay was the loot they might gain if and when the city fell. The premier troops were the Janissaries, slave soldiers taken captive in their youth from Christian families and raised in a military atmosphere to serve the sultans. They were heavily armored and highly skilled, and at this time they were beginning to use personal firearms. Mohammed first seized the town of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. At first this action was little more than symbolic, but it had serious ramifications later. He then deployed his forces on the city’s western face and began the siege. A single wall near the imperial palace protected the northern end of the city. It was there, the Blachernae, that Constantine placed most of his men.

For twelve days the Muslim cannon pounded the city walls, and on 18 April Mohammed decided that had softened up the defenses sufficiently. The Byzantines easily defended a narrow breach in the walls, killing 200 attackers and driving off the rest without loss to themselves. On the 20th, four ships approached from the south: three Genoese transports with men and supplies from Rome and a Byzantine ship hauling corn from Sicily. After a hard fight with the Muslim fleet they broke through, cleared the boom, and entered the Golden Horn. Mohammed decided he had to control the harbor. He could not pass the chain boom, so he ordered ships dragged overland, through the town of Pera, to the harbor. It was a monumental engineering feat and on 22 April thirty Turkish ships were in the Golden Horn. An agent of the sultan betrayed the Byzantine counterattack, which managed to destroy only a single Turkish ship. In spite of this Turkish accomplishment, it had little effect on the siege.

Mohammed continued his cannonade against the walls. By 6 May it had opened a breach at the Gate of St. Romanus, where the Lycus River enters the city. Giustaniani built a new wall just behind the breach, rather than trying to repair the wall while under fire. The Turks attacked on 7 May but their 25,000 men were thrown back after three hours of fighting. On the 12th another force assaulted a breach in the wall at Blachernae; only quick reinforcement by Constantine and the Imperial Guard stemmed the tide. Mohammed then tried mining the walls. Constantine’s engineer Johannes Grant managed to locate each of the mining attempts and either undermine the mines or destroy the attackers inside with explosives, flooding, or the incendiary Greek fire. None of the fourteen mines succeeded.

Mohammed then determined to scale the walls. His men built a siege tower and rolled it into place before the Charisius Gate, the northernmost opening in the city walls. Muslim artillery fire had destroyed one of the defending towers, and the siege tower was able to provide covering fire for Turks filling in the moat. Constantine’s call for volunteers to attack the siege tower produced spectacular results. The sally surprised the Turkish guards and the Byzantines broke pots of Greek fire on the wooden siege tower. Meanwhile, their compatriots spent the night rebuilding the city wall and its destroyed tower. The next morning Mohammed saw the charred remains of his assault machine smoldering before the newly rebuilt tower in the city wall.

In both camps officers debated the progress of the siege. The defenders were exhausted and running out of supplies. In Mohammed’s camp, some factions wanted to end the siege before a rumored rescue fleet could arrive. The sultan favored those who counseled continuation and decided to launch one more attempt before withdrawing. As the most serious damage to the walls had been inflicted along the Lycus River entrance to the city, it was there he proposed to launch his final assault. Constantine learned of the plan from a spy, but could his dwindling force survive another battle? The Bashi-Bazouks began hurling themselves against the Byzantine defenses at 0200 on 29 May. For two hours the Byzantines slew them with arrows and firearms, but grew increasingly tired in the process. With the first attack repulsed, Mohammed threw in a second wave before the defenders could recover. Even though these were regular troops with better discipline and equipment, the narrow breach provided the defenders with less area to cover and they threw back that assault as well.

After another two hours of fighting the Byzantine troops could barely stand. Mohammed sent in the third wave, made up of Janissaries. Constantine’s exhausted troops managed to repulse them as well. During this fighting, a small band of Turks discovered a small open gate and rushed a handful of men through before it could be closed. They occupied a tower near the Blachinae and raised the sultan’s banner, and the rumor quickly spread that the northern flank had been broken. At the same moment, Giovanni Giustiniani was severely wounded. Hearing of his evacuation, coupled with the report from the north quarter, the defenders began to fall back. Mohammed quickly exploited his advantage. Another assault by fresh Janissaries cleared the space between the walls and seized the Adrianople Gate. Attackers began to pour through.

Constantine XI led his remaining troops into the Turkish onslaught, dying for his city and his empire. Almost all his co-defenders as well as a huge portion of the civilian population joined him, for the Turks went berserk. Mohammed II limited very little of the pillage, reserving the best buildings for himself and banning their destruction. He claimed and protected the Church of St. Sophia, and within a week the Hagia Sophia was hosting Muslim services. Thirty ships of a Venetian fleet sailing to Constantine’s relief saw the Turkish flags flying over the city, turned around, and sailed home.

The looting finally subsided and the bulk of the population that was not killed, possibly 50,000 people, were enslaved. The bastion of Eastern Christianity fell after more than 1,100 years as Constantine the Great’s city. Mohammed II proceeded to conquer Greece and most of the Balkans during the remaining twenty-eight years of his reign.

Western Europe, which had done so little to assist Constantinople, was shocked that it fell after so many centuries of standing against everyone. In Rome, the Catholic Church was dismayed that they would now have no Eastern Christians to convert, for they were all rapidly becoming Muslim. The Eastern Orthodox Church survived, however, for Mohammed allowed a patriarch to preside over the Church. It remained a viable religion, now far from the reach of the Catholic Church’s influence. As such, its survival encouraged others who resented the Catholic Church. Within sixty years Martin Luther led a major protest against the Church, starting the Reformation.

The trading centers of Genoa and Venice feared having to deal with hard-bargaining Arab merchants who now controlled all products coming from the Far East. The major cities of eastern Europe began to fear the Turkish hordes approaching their gates, and for the next 450 years Austria and the Holy Roman Empire carried on the European/Christian struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks established themselves as the premier Middle Eastern Muslim power, controlling at their height almost as much as had the Byzantine Empire: the Balkans, the Middle East, much of North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.

The flood of refugees from southeastern Europe, especially Greece, brought thousands of scholars to Italy, further enhancing the peninsula’s Renaissance. Italian merchants, shocked at the prices the Muslims charged for spices and silks from the East, began to search for other ways to get those goods. Certainly the age of European exploration came much sooner because of Constantinople’s fall.



Eighteenth-Century Artillery


Swedish Artillery of Charles XI- 17th-18th Century.


American colonial artillery crew.


18th-century cannon projectiles.

Spurred by evolving technology, organization, and tactics, smoothbore artillery achieved its maturity during the eighteenth century. Constantly improving metallurgy allowed for lighter and shorter gun tubes that did not sacrifice safety or accuracy. In addition, new gun carriages greatly aided the mobility of field artillery. The growing use of at least nominally interchangeable components also presented a valuable advantage in facilitating repairs, especially in the field. Except for slight national differences, typically in decoration, artillery designers went on to partially reach their elusive goal of standardization of basic gun types. The period of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries at last saw the end of cannons being designated by such confusing and fanciful names as saker, minion, and basilisk. Instead, artillery, still cast in both bronze and iron, was classified more precisely according to a basic type, as to its use, bore diameter, or the weight of its projectile.

Artillery’s growing complexity and sophistication attracted the attention of some of the most talented scientists, mathematicians, and engineers of the period. The English engineer and mathematician Benjamin Robins (1707-1751) published New Principles of Gunnery in 1742 and conducted experiments concerning the calculation of muzzle velocities. He published the findings of these tests-conducted with contemporary flintlock muskets-in London in 1747, and translations in German and French soon followed. In 1775, Robins’s fellow countryman and mathematics professor at the Royal Military Academy, Charles Hutton (1737-1823), continued his explorations. In that year Hutton applied Robins’s methods to experiments with a 6-pounder cannon at Woolwich. On the Continent, Bernard Forest de Belidor (1698-1761), a Spanish-born mathematician, engineer, and professor of artillery at the French military academy at La Fere, applied his talents to ballistics. His studies led to more efficient powder measurements to make possible the use of less powder while achieving the same results as earlier cartridges.

A number of influential artillerists emerged during the century to play major roles in pushing smoothbore artillery to the limits of its capabilities. Chief among these were Joseph Wenzel, Prince Lichtenstein of Austria, General John Armstrong of Britain, and General Jean Valliere of France. It was, however, Valliere’s fellow countryman Jean Baptiste Gribeauval who initiated considerable changes to all aspects of artillery design, organization, and tactics. By the end of the century the combination of perfected designs, organization, and tactics had elevated artillery to a role equal to that of the already established and celebrated infantry and cavalry. The Napoleonic wars further helped to establish artillery as an independent arm. Earlier theory, based on the regimental guns pioneered by Gustavus Adolphus, relied on relatively small numbers of light guns parceled out piecemeal to infantry units. The Napoleonic campaigns, however, proved the effectiveness of heavier massed artillery fire at decisive moments. To that end, England and France led in establishing a central artillery command capable of providing critical firepower when needed.

As ordnance and artillery theory matured, so did the appreciation that professional artillerists required specialized training, as did members of the other technical or “scientific” arm, the engineers. To that end, France and Austria led the other European powers in establishing the first artillery schools and in fully integrating their artillery arms into their overall military structures. French artillery held an advantage early in the period owing to a series of reforms under Louis XIV and the work of General Jean Valliere in the 1730s. England’s artillery initially lagged somewhat behind that of the major Continental powers, as early in the century it was not fully integrated into the army structure and remained under the overall authority of the master general of ordnance. Britain did, however, achieve a major advantage in the field, as it was the only power during the period to adopt the solid block trail carriage.

It eventually became evident that the training and education of artillerists must keep pace with the growing sophistication of their weapons. Having tentatively approached the issue with an informal training program at Douai in 1679, France took the lead in artillery schooling in 1720. In that year it established Europe’s first national artillery school that, in effect, also broke ground as the world’s first modern professional school. The French artillery school attracted some of the most brilliant teachers of the day and stressed a rigorous program incorporating mathematics, the sciences, and practical field exercises. Other nations soon followed the French example, providing a level of professionalism among artillerists matched only by their fellow “scientific” arm, the engineers. As the century progressed, both Valliere and Gribeauval continued to stress the need for educated artillery officers and men. Valliere emphasized mathematics, technical drawing, and theory, while Gribeauval added programs requiring hands-on skills and set up schools for noncommissioned officers.


The Canon de 12 Gribeauval was a French 12-pounder cannon and part of the Gribeauval system developed by Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval.

The Gribeauval System

French artillery at last reached prominence under the direction of Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715-1789). Having entered the French army as a volunteer, Gribeauval rose in the ranks and gained a reputation as a skilled artillerist. He was impressed early in his career by Prussian artillery while on an inspection trip to that country before the Seven Years’ War. During the Seven Years’ War, Gribeauval served on detached duty with the Austrian army as a general of artillery, for which service he received the rank of lieutenant general and the Cross of Maria Theresa. His talents were so apparent during his service with the Austrians that none other than Frederick the Great, who had personally witnessed Gribeauval’s handiwork against his own forces during the 1761 siege of Schweidnitz, offered him a commission in the Prussian army. Gribeuaval, however, remained loyal to France and was rewarded upon his return home in 1762 with the French rank of lieutenant general and the Order of Saint Louis.

Upon his return to active French service, he focused on rectifying the deficiencies of the Valliere System and pushed for more artillery reforms. Gribeauval also respected Lichtenstein’s work immensely but wanted to carry his ideas to the logical conclusion of a totally integrated artillery system. Upon his elevation to inspector-general of the artillery by Louis XVI in 1776, Gribeauval at last undertook a complete overhaul of the French artillery system. Touching nearly every aspect of cannon design, construction, carriages, and deployment, the so-called Gribeauval System served France into the Napoleonic Era. It was so far-reaching that it also profoundly influenced artillery in other nations, including that of the emerging United States. The general also designated French cannons by their specific use, including field, siege, garrison, and seacoast, with each type mounted on the appropriately specialized carriage. These reforms in combination with Gribeauval’s strong advocacy of close artillery support for infantry made France’s the most advanced artillery during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Gribeauval began his task by redesigning the French gun tubes to produce lighter, more efficient barrels. Following the method already adopted by a number of other powers, he at last ordered that the bores of French gun tubes be drilled rather than cast around a mandrel. This procedure produced more exact tolerances within the bore and reduced the windage between the projectile and the bore’s wall. That, in turn, reduced the loss of energy from the blow-by of the cannon’s detonation around the ball. As this improvement made the weapon more efficient, less powder was needed, and thus the barrel’s walls could be thinned to create a lighter piece, a goal that Gribeauval continued to seek by shortening the barrel tubes.

Gribeauval’s gun tubes were, however, still somewhat heavier than their Prussian and Austrian counterparts; he nevertheless considered the extra weight acceptable, as it helped lengthen the service life of the pieces. The ratio of the weight of gun metal to that of an individual shot in the Gribeauval System was 150 pounds of gun metal to 1 pound of shot, whereas that of the Austrians was 120 to 1 and the Prussians, 100 to 1.

Gribeauval also did away with Valliere’s ornate baroque embellishments in favor of a plainer, more businesslike appearance to his gun tubes. In the process the dolphins lost their ornamental sculpturing and instead became simple, functional handles. He also raised the trunnions to a point slightly below the barrel’s centerline and increased their diameter where they met the barrel with reinforcements known as rimbases.

Gribeauval’s extensive field service also influenced his introduction of one of the most practical field artillery accessories-the prolong. In effect nothing more than a thick, long rope, the prolong allowed artillerists to connect the piece to the limber without directly mounting the carriage to the limber. This gave the crews two significant advantages in combat-it still provided the pulling power of the horse team, yet allowed the piece to be more easily and quickly manipulated by the gun crew. In addition, it also allowed the horses and limber to be at a somewhat safer distance when under fire. To reduce the tendency of the rear of the carriage to dig into the ground when being dragged by prolong, Gribeauval also redesigned the lower end of the trail with a slight upward tilt.

His intimate understanding of the practical problems of field artillerists operating on rough, broken, or muddy ground was also evident in Gribeauval’s introduction of the bricole. A leather cross-belt, the bricole allowed gun crews to harness themselves to metal rings on the gun carriage to help manhandle it over rough terrain. Gribeauval’s other innovations included improved ammunition gauges to reduce windage and a better bore searcher. He also developed the hausse rear sight, a removable, highly accurate instrument that later saw adoption by numerous other powers.

Having worked with artillery and artillerists, Gribeauval also dictated that rather than drawing weapons from a general stockpile, individual artillery companies should be permanently assigned specific pieces. This innovation ensured that, as they were more invested in their cannons, crews would more properly maintain their pieces rather than perform any but the most perfunctory cleaning and repairs. Moreover, as all artillery pieces-regardless of the sophistication of manufacture-have unique quirks, crews would be more likely to understand and thus more efficiently serve their weapons.