The Second Battle of Kharkov

Gen. Maj. Hans Valentin Hube Divisional HQ

12–28 May 1942

The Second Battle of Kharkov was one of the costliest battles for Soviet forces during the war, with almost 300,000 casualties suffered. A Soviet army group, cut off inside the Barvenkovo pocket, was exterminated from all sides by German firepower.

In early 1942, after the German defeat at Moscow, the Soviet High Command pressured Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, commander of the South-Western Front, to recapture Kharkov, which had fallen to the German Sixth Army on 24 October 1941. At the start of the war, Kharkov was the fourth-largest city in the Soviet Union, with a population of 833,000. It was also the industrial centre of the Ukraine and an important rail transportation hub.

On 1 January 1942, Timoshenko had launched an offensive with four armies to conduct a double envelopment of Kharkov from the north and south. Over several weeks of brutal fighting, this had managed to tear a great hole in Army Group South’s front. For the next two months, Army Group South was forced to fight a desperate battle to contain the Soviet breakthrough. Following reinforcement, Timoshenko’s offensive made further progress and created the Barvenkovo salient. However, by mid-February, it was clear that Timoshenko’s forces were nearly spent and Army Group South was finally able to establish a very thin defence around the Barvenkovo salient. After a final, unsuccessful Soviet push, less intense fighting continued around the salient throughout March and April 1942, before the spring thaw imposed an operational pause upon both sides. When the weather cleared, both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht intended to launch a major offensive that would decide the issue at Kharkov.

Soviet offensive planning for May 1942 was based on the three armies from South-Western Front conducting a dual pincer attack, from the Barvenkovo salient and from the Staryi Saltov bridgehead, bludgeoning their way through the German defences towards Kharkov. Timoshenko optimistically hoped to complete the encirclement of Kharkov and the German Sixth Army within 15 days of the beginning of the offensive. However, Stalin’s impatience for action resulted in another hastily planned attack with inadequately trained and supplied forces, and the plan lacked unity of command.

One of the operational prerequisites in the German planning for May 1942 was the destruction of Timoshenko’s armies in the Barvenkovo salient. This was known as Operation Fridericus, and comprised a classic pincer attack against the base of the Barvenkovo salient, using assault groups from Sixth Army and Army Group von Kleist. However, Army Group South’s strained logistical situation made planning for a large-scale offensive difficult. Operation Fridericus would also have to share resources with Operation Trappenjagd in the Kerch Peninsula in the Crimea. Yet Army Group South’s commander Field Marshal Fedor von Bock was in no rush: he would only attack when he had the best prospects for victory.

The Soviet offensive, one of the largest Soviet set-piece offensives of the war to date, was launched on 12 May 1942 with a dual pincer movement from the Volchansk and Barvenkovo salients. The Soviets achieved a successful breakthrough, and had advanced 10km by the end of the first day. The Soviet 28th Army captured Peremoga and encircled Group Grüner in Ternovaya on the 13th, but was shattered two days later by a counter-attack from the German 3rd Panzer Division. The Soviet 21st Army encircled Murom, and heavy fighting also took place around Efremovka.

However, by 14 May the Luftwaffe’s IV Air Corps had gained air superiority over the Kharkov sector, and aviation support had been drafted in from the Crimea. The Soviet offensive began to grind to a halt in the face of withering close-air support attacks, while Luftwaffe air supply missions helped hard-pressed German units to hold out.

The German counter-offensive, Operation Fridericus, was launched at 5.00am on 17 May. A well-planned artillery preparation was followed by devastating Luftwaffe raids and then III Army Corps’ ground attack, which tore a hole in the Soviet 9th Army’s front. The 3rd Panzer Division fought its way through to Ternovaya to relieve Group Grüner on the opening day, and the following day von Kleist’s Panzers reached the southern part of Izyum. On 19 May, the Soviet 21st Army at Murom was forced to retreat by Kampfgruppe Gollwitzer’s advance. As the Soviets were forced back, the Luftwaffe targeted the bridges over the Donets River to hamper retreating Soviet forces.

On 19 May, Timoshenko regrouped his forces into Army Group Kostenko inside the Barvenkovo salient. The following day, he halted Sixth Army’s northern offensive, realizing that his forces within the Barvenkovo salient were in dire peril as the German Sixth Army reoriented itself to defeat the pocket. By 22 May, von Kleist’s Panzers had linked up with LI Army Corps, cutting off Army Group Kostenko. Over the following days, the 3rd and 23rd Panzer Divisions attacked the northern side of the Soviet Barvenkovo pocket, and were joined on the 24th by German VIII Army Corps and Romanian VI Corps. The remnants of Army Group Kostenko, desperately attempting to fight their way out, were now pulverized by German artillery and air attacks. By 28 May, organized resistance within the pocket ended, prompting Timoshenko to order all other forces in the South-Western and Southern Fronts to shift to the defence. Operation Fridericus had been a complete success.

Timoshenko’s South-Western Front had suffered a catastrophic defeat at Kharkov. All told, 16 rifle divisions, six cavalry divisions and four tank brigades were annihilated. Another dozen divisions were badly mauled and needed to be pulled out of the line for rebuilding. Of the 765,000 Soviet troops committed to the May 1942 operation, a total of 277,190 became casualties – a 36 per cent loss rate. The Germans claim to have captured 239,000 prisoners. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Kharkov debacle was the loss of vital command cadre. In contrast to other encircled Soviet armies in 1941–42, the collapse of the Barvenkovo pocket was so rapid that virtually no senior commanders escaped.

Axis personnel losses during the Kharkov Campaign were nearly 30,000, including at least 5,853 dead and 2,912 missing. Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army suffered 45 per cent of the total casualties.

16. Panzer-Division: Kharkov 1942

Commanders: Gen. Maj. Hans Valentin Hube (1. VI. 1940-14. IX. 1942), Gen. Maj. Günther Angern (15. IX. 1942-2.11.1943), Oösffi. Burkhart Müller-Hildebrand (3-28.11.1943, m. d. F. b.), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Rudolf Sieckenius(5. lll.-31. X. 1943), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Hans Ulrich Back (1. XI. 1943-14. VIII. 1944), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Dietrich von Müller (15. VIII. 1944-18. IV. 1945), Oberst Kurt Treuhaupt (19. IV.-V. 1945).

16. Pz. Div. was raised on 1 November 1940 from 16. lnf. Div.(mot.). It was given Pz. Rgt. 2, drawn from 1. Pz. Div. The general staff of its 16. Schützen-Brigade was disbanded in November 1942.

In December 1940, the division set off for Rumania. Codenamed Lehrstab-R II, it was subordinated to the German military mission at Bucharest and trained the Rumanian army. It was held in reserve (as part of L. A. K., 12. Armee) during the invasion of the Balkans in April 1941. In June 1941, it took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union as part of XIV. and XXXXVIII. A. K. (mot.) (Pz. Gr. 1, Army Group “Süd”). It fought in the Ukraine, took part in the battle of Uman, captured Nikolaiev and was later engaged at Kiev. It was on the Mius at the launching of the Soviet counter-offensive of the winter of 1941-42. In the spring of 1942, it took part in the offensive on the Don and the Volga (Operation “Blau”) with XIV. Pz. K. attached to 6. Armee.

A German account describes action on 18 May 1942:

‘With the Donets line gained, 257th Infantry Division and 101st Light Infantry Division took over the eastern flank cover for the deep thrust by the armoured striking groups, a thrust aimed at the creation of a pocket. The 16th Panzer Division, acting as the spearhead of Lieutenant-General Hube’s striking force, drove through the Russian positions with three combat groups [Kampfgruppen] under von Witzleben, Krumpen and Sieckenius. They then drove on, straight through, into the suburbs of Izyum. At 12.30 hours on 18 May, tanks and motorcyclists of the Westphalian 16th Armoured Division were covering the only major east-west road crossing the Donets at Donetskiy. Combat group Sieckenius, the mainstay of which was 2nd Battalion, 2nd Panzer Regiment, turned left and drove on westward, straight into the pocket. The main blow of Operation ‘Friderikus’, however, was to be dealt by General of Cavalry von Mackensen with his III Panzer Corps. He attacked with 14th Panzer Division from Dresden in the centre and with the Viennese 100th Light Division and the Bavarian 1st Mountain Division on the right and left respectively. The Russians were taken by surprise and routed in the swampy Sukhoy Torets river. Barvenkovo was taken. A bridge was built. The 14th Panzer Division crossed over and pushed on toward the north. Eddying clouds of dust veiled the tanks. The fine black earth made the men look like chimney-sweeps.

The 14th Panzer Division took Protopopovka on the 20th 1942, which reduced the mouth of the bulge between there and Balakleya to twelve miles. The bridgehead was then 8 miles wide but only a mile or two across. The III Panzer Corps main force, still on the westward orientation, gained almost twelve miles, however, with disappointing results. The object was to smash Fifty-seventh Army in the western end of the bulge, but the outer ring of the front there was held by Romanian divisions and they showed little determination and less enthusiasm. One of the Romanian division commanders had sent himself home on leave when he heard the attack was about to start. Having an alternative that he also preferred, Kleist began turning the 16th Panzer Division, 60th Motorised Division and 1st Mountain Division around after dark and sending them into the Bereka bridgehead behind 14th Panzer Division. On Bock’s urging, Paulus agreed to shift the 3rd and 23rd Panzer Divisions south from the Volchansk salient and thus partially to reconstitute his former ‘Friderikus’ force. Bock observes, ” . . . tonight, I have given orders aimed at completely sealing off the Izyum bulge. Now everything will turn out well after all!”

On 21 May the Germans began to transfer 23rd and 3rd Panzer Divisions from Kharkov to deliver an attack from the Andreevka region against Chervonyi Donets and link up with Group Kleist. At the same time, having concentrated two Panzer divisions (14th and 16th), one motorised division (60th) and two infantry divisions (389th and 384th) in the Petrovskaia, Krasnyi Liman and Novonikolaevka region, the Germans attacked powerfully to the north. By the close of the day, German infantry and tanks had succeeded in seizing Marevka and joined battle for Protopopovka. 6th Army units repelled German attempts to penetrate to Dmitrievka and Katerinovka.

On 22 May the enemy delivered his main attacks – to the north against Chepel using formations from Group Kleist and to the south from the Chuguev salient employing units of 23rd and 3rd Panzer Divisions – in order to link up with Group Kleist so that both of these groups would reach the lines of communication of our forces operating in the Barvenkovo salient. Having concentrated up to 230 tanks of 14th and 16th Panzer Divisions in the Protopopovka and Zagorodnoe region on the night of 22 May, the Germans renewed their offensive on the morning of 22 May in the general direction of Chepel and Volobuevka. By the close of the day, having penetrated deeply into our forces, the Germans reached a front running from Chepel through Volobuevka, Gusarovka, Shevelevka, Aseevka, Novopavlovka, Zapolnyi and Krasnaia Balka to Marevka.

A German account cryptically recorded the day’s actions and correctly identified the perilous consequences for Timoshenko’s command:

‘In co-operation with the Panzer companies of Combat Group Sieckenius, the Bereka River was crossed. Soviet armoured thrusts were successfully repulsed. In the afternoon of 22 May, 14th Panzer Division reached Bayrak [south of Balakleia] on the northern Donets bend.

‘This was the turning point. For across the river, on the far bank, were the spearheads of Sixth Army – companies of the Viennese 44th Infantry Division, the “Hock-und-Deutschmeister”. With this link-up, the Izyum bulge was pierced and Timoshenko’s armies, which had driven on far westward, were cut off. The pocket was closed.

Too late did Timoshenko realise his danger. He had not expected this kind of reply to his offensive. Now he had no choice but to call off his promising advance to the west, turn his divisions about, and attempt to break out of the pocket in an easterly direction, with reversed fronts. Would the thin German sides of the pocket stand up to such an attempt? The decisive phase of the battle was beginning.’

On 23 and 24 May, fierce battles continued in the Barvenkovo bridgehead. The German command strove to widen the corridor which cut off Soviet forces operating in the Barvenkovo salient from the crossings over the Northern Donets River.

What the German command had to do was clear. The only question remaining on 23 May was, ‘Could they do it?’ Again, a German source recounts the German command’s challenge:

‘Colonel-General von Kleist was faced with the task of making his encircling front strong enough to resist both the Soviet breakout attempts from the west and their relief attempts mounted across the Donets from the east. Once more it was a race against time. With brilliant tactical skill, General von Mackensen grouped all infantry and motorised divisions under his command like a fan around the axis of 14th Panzer Division. The 16th Panzer Division was first wheeled west and then moved north towards Andreyevka on the Donets. The 60th Motorised Infantry Division, the 389th Infantry Division, the 384th Infantry Division and the 100th Light Infantry Division fanned out toward the west and formed the pocket front against Timoshenko’s armies as they flooded back east.

‘In the centre, like a spider in its web, was Gen Lanz’s 1st Mountain Division; it had been detached from the front by von Mackensen to be available as a fire brigade.

This precaution finally decided the battle. For Timoshenko’s army commanders were driving their divisions against the German pocket front with ferocious determination. They concentrated their efforts in an attempt to punch a hole into the German front, regardless of the cost, in order to save themselves by reaching the Donets front only 25 miles away.’

It fought at Stalingrad with XI. A. K. Encircled along with all the rest of 6. Armee, it was wiped out in January 1943. Its commanding officer, Generalmajor Günther Angern, committed suicide on 2 February.

In March 1943, a second 16. Pz. Div. was formed in France in the Vitré-Mayenne-Laval sector from the remnants of the division reinforced by verst. Gren. Rgt. (mot.) 890. It was dispatched to Italy in the Taranto sector (June 1943) then placed in the reserve in the Sienna sector until September. It later moved on to the Salerno sector just before the American landing in Sicily. It took the brunt of the American attack, inflicting heavy losses on the attackers, meanwhile losing two thirds of its own strength during the fighting. The division continued to fight to the north of Naples until the end of the year 1943, when it set off for the southern sector of the Eastern front. It arrived in the Bobruisk sector in December 1943 and took part in the defensive battles in the Parichi area. It was involved in the counter-thrust west of Kiev, a battle in which it was severely tested. It then retreated to the Baranov sector on the Vistula. During the summer of 1944, it fell back across Poland. In October, it was stationed at Kielce where it was reformed. In January, it was sent back to the Baranov sector where it fought hard until it was pushed back to Lauban (March 1945) then Pilsen (Plzen) and Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) (April 1945). It was then assigned to LIX. A. K. (1. Pz. Armee, Army Group “Mitte”), by which time it was down to the size of a Kampfgruppe. One part of this Kampfgruppe surrendered to the Russians, the other to the Americans…

From 1941 to 1945, 16. Pz. Div. produced 33 Knights of the Iron Cross (including 10 from Pz. Rgt. 2), 3 with Oak Leaves and one with Swords (Dietrich von Müller, divisional commander, on 20 February 1945, n° 134).

Battle of Kadesh

The Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II (green) bordering on the Hittite Empire (red) at the height of its power in c. 1279 BC. Kadesh marked as Qadesh.

A famous confrontation between RAMESSES II (r. 1290-1224 B. C. E.) and MUWATALLIS of the HITTITES, taking place c. 1285 B. C. E. on the Orontes River in modern Syria, the battle was recounted in 10 inscriptions, including a poetic form, bulletins, and reliefs on temple walls. Ramesses II marched out of Egypt on the ninth day of the second month of summer, stopping at Tjel, an Egyptian outpost. He had the Regiment of Amun, as well as three other major units with him, and the Sherden infantry, composing a force of 20,000 men. Reaching Ramesses-Meryamen, an Egyptian fortress in the Valley of the Cedars in modern Lebanon, Ramesses II saw no sign of the Hittites. Tricked by two “Shoshu,” Hittite spies posing as local inhabitants, Ramesses II stretched his forces 30 miles into the enemy territory, divided his forces, and then made camp. When Muwatallis began a series of raids and ambushes, Ramesses II beat the “Shoshu” and received confirmation of the Hittite trap and his peril.

Globally, Ramesses II intended to retake the city of Kadesh which had switched sides after the withdrawal of the large Egyptian army under Seti I. His strategy was a simple one: march to the city and take it. From the background to the eventual combat it is clear that Ramesses with his four divisions did not intend to meet the Hittites. The “Poem” begins the narration at the departure from Sile, and then continues with the arrival at a royal fortress in the “Valley of Cedar.” There was no opposition in Palestine; combat was expected only in Syria. He is then described as crossing the ford of the Orontes, which was south of the city and at a point where the river coursed in a westward direction, perpendicular to the march of the king.

Earlier, Ramesses had received false information from two Shasu at the town of Shabtuna (modern Ribla), who stated that his Hittite opponent, Muwatallis, with his army, was in Aleppo, north of Tunip. In other words, the king felt that he could reach Kadesh unopposed and settle for a battle or a siege. A series of background points can now be made. The first is the simplest, and one that I have referred to on more than one occasion. The war was known to all and sundry. Both the local princes in Palestine and Syria as well as the leaders of the two great states of Hatti and Egypt could not hide their feelings, their war preparations, indeed their war aims. The journey of Ramesses, though not rapid by today’s standards, nonetheless covered the same number of miles per day as, for example, Thutmose III did when approaching Megiddo. The march was thus ca. 12.5 miles/day and no lengthy delays occurred. If we allow about 10 days from Sile to Gaza, and then about 12 days to get to Megiddo, we can place him in central Palestine about three weeks after his departure from Egypt. He left Egypt approximately at the close of March to early April, following the practice of his Dynasty XVIII predecessors. On day nine of the third month of the harvest season he was at Shabtuna south of Kadesh, and about one month had passed. (The departure from Sile is dated exactly one month before the arrival at Shabtuna.) At this point he received the false news that the Hittites were not around the city of Kadesh. The Egyptians were approximately 14 km from Kadesh. Ramesses then advanced, and it would have taken at most half of a day for the first division to set up camp opposite the city.

More details help to elucidate the final stages of the march to Kadesh. In the morning the king awoke and prepared his troops for the march. Sometime after that the army reached Shabtuna. This would have taken time. Ramesses’s extended army was composed of four divisions, all marching separately and behind one another; the advance would have been slow. The temporary halt at Shabtuna did not last long. Moreover, the king discussed with his commanders the oral evidence of two Shasu “deserters” who falsely reported that the Hittites were not at Kadesh but away in the north. Again, we can assume the passing of time, at least one hour, but probably more. One line of the “Poem” (P 60) states that a distance of 1 Egyptian iter separated that ford south of Shabtuna from the position of Ramesses when the second division (Pre) was crossing the Orontes. The distance from the ford to the camp, or even to Kadesh, was at most 16.5 km. To march it would have taken 3/5 of a day. We cannot but assume that the time when Ramesses settled peacefully in his camp must have been in the afternoon. One final point needs to be brought into the discussion; namely, the length of the Egyptian iter. There were two: a larger one of about 10.5 km and a smaller, of approximately 2.65 km. It is evident that the former was employed here.

We can perhaps better understand why the Egyptian monarch failed to take cognizance of the Hittites. According to the Poem the latter were “concealed and ready to the northeast” of Kadesh. The first division of the Egyptians was at the northwest of the city, settled beside a local brook that was so necessary for the animals and men. They had pitched the tents, and from the scenes of relaxation the army had already settled down for the day. However, as one relief caption indicates, they were not completely finished with the preliminary tasks of pitching the camp.

But no attack by Ramesses was planned on day nine. The city of Kadesh was not directly approached. Indeed, the king settled down on the west, across the Orontes, and arranged his camp for the arrival of the following divisions. We must assume that either he expected a military encounter with the enemy forces stationed within Kadesh on at least the following day or that he intended a siege of the citadel. The second alternative is a secure and economical way to victory, provided that time is not of the essence. Such a blockage prevents additional men from supporting the enemy, and eventually the lack of food and water becomes a major problem for the defenders. Yet in this case there is no evidence that Ramesses immediately proceeded to invest Kadesh. Indeed, he was somewhat removed from that citadel. The topography of the region indicates that west of the city and around the Orontes there was a relatively level plain, one suitable for chariot warfare. The Egyptian camp and the advancing three other divisions were well placed to suit their purposes. If this analysis is accepted, then we may very well wonder if once more the possibility of a “pre-arranged” battle was understood. That is to say, soon after dawn on the following day, the clash of the Egyptians and the foes within Kadesh was expected, provided that no surrender took place.

The Hittites reportedly had 3,500 chariots, manned by three men each, and an infantry of 18,000 to 19,000 with auxiliary units and escorts totaling 47,500. Ramesses II, becoming alarmed, sent for the Regiment of Ptah and scolded his officers for their laxity in assessing the situation. While this was happening, however, the Hittites were cutting their way through the Regiment of Ré, sealing the trap. Hundreds of Egyptians began to arrive at Ramesses II’s camp in headlong flight. The Hittite cavalry was close behind, followed by some 2,500 chariots. The Regiment of Amun was almost overwhelmed by the panicking soldiers who had suffered the first losses in the battle. The unit therefore raced northward in the same disorder.

Undaunted, Ramesses II brought calm and purpose to his small units and began to slice his way through the enemy in order to reach his southern forces. With only his household troops, a few officers, and followers, and with the rabble of the defeated units standing by, he mounted his chariot and discovered the extent of the forces against him. His chariot was drawn by his favorite horses, “Victory of Thebes” and “Mut Is Content,” and he charged the east wing of the assembled force with such ferocity that they gave way, allowing the Egyptians to escape the net that Muwatallis had cast for them. The Hittite king watched the cream of his command fall before Ramesses II, including his own brother. The Hittites and their allies were being driven into the river, where they drowned.

Within the abandoned Egyptian camp, the enemy soldiers were looting, and they were surprised by a group of Ramesses II’s soldiers and slain. Ramesses II gathered up the victorious unit, determined to stand his ground until reinforcements arrived. The Hittite king, in turn, threw his reserves of 1,000 chariots into the fray, but he was unable to score against Ramesses II and his men. Then the banners and totems of the Regiment of Ptah came into sight and both camps knew that the Egyptian reinforcements had arrived. The Hittite cavalry was driven into the city, with terrible losses, and Muwatallis withdrew. Ramesses II did not capture Kadesh, and Muwatallis claimed a Hittite victory and the acquisition of the city of Apa (modern Damascus). Ramesses II claimed victory and executed all of the Egyptians who had not rushed to his aid. This battle would not end the conflicts between Egypt and the Hittites. Almost two decades of confrontations finally led to the Egyptian Hittite Treaty.

This war had opened with the Battle of KADESH, a military campaign commemorated in the Poem of PENTAUR (or Pentauret) on the walls of KARNAK and in the SALLIER PAPYRUS III.

This particular campaign provided a temporary truce but then continued in a series of three phases. After pushing the Egyptian domain to Beirut, (modern Lebanon), Ramesses II met the enemy at Kadesh. Later he battled to recover Palestine, which had been encouraged to revolt. Lastly, Ramesses II conquered Hittite lands far from Egypt and deep inside the enemy’s empire, bringing the Hittites to the treaty table.

Egyptian Army

With the exception of cavalry, the Egyptians developed every kind of military arm known at the time. The bulk of their forces were infantry, carrying shields and armed with lances or bows. Light infantry carried slings or javelins. For sidearms, the infantry usually carried short, double-edged swords. However, some pictures show them with a khopesh, which has a wide curved blade vaguely resembling a meat cleaver. Their shields were curved on top and straight or slightly curved along the sides, wooden and covered with leather. A shield was roughly about half the height of a man. Armor was unknown for the common soldier, his protection being little more than a quilted tunic and cap. The higher ranks are depicted in Egyptian artwork as wearing links of metal fastened loosely to permit freedom of movement. The king is usually depicted wearing a metal helmet and often carried a battle-axe or a mace. More than any other weapon, however, the Egyptians depended on the bow. The one they employed was five to six feet long with arrows up to 30 inches long.

The glory of the Egyptian army was the chariot, the weapon they had adopted from the Hyksos. Tomb paintings almost always show the pharaoh in a chariot, usually alone with the reins tied about his midriff as he defeats his enemies. This is probably artistic license, as the two-wheeled vehicles they drove were designed to carry two men, a driver and an archer, and are usually shown with attached quivers of arrows and short spears. The horses were not only decorated with headdresses, but covered at their joints with metal ornaments doubling as protection. The most famous story concerning the use of chariots in Egypt is that of the Exodus, wherein the whole of Pharaoh’s force of 600 chariots was employed in chasing the Hebrews. Although the Book of Exodus mentions cavalry, contemporary Egyptian artwork almost never shows men on horseback, and those who are depicted are usually foreigners.

The army of the New Kingdom was a thoroughly professional force, although conscripts were used: One man in 10 was liable for military service. Egyptian units were given names of gods for their titles (for example, Anubis, Phre, Thoth, etc.), which probably reflected the local divinity where the unit was raised. The divisions usually numbered 5,000, subdivided into 250-man companies and 50-man platoons. The artwork of ancient Egypt depicts the soldiers marching in order, but the battles seem to have no structure, just a melee. It is therefore difficult to know what military doctrines may have been developed in Egypt. However, as the point to the artwork was to glorify the pharaoh, the actions of the regular soldiers would not have mattered. In the depictions of attacks on fortifications, no reference exists for any sort of siege engines, like catapults or battering rams. In the pictures only arrows and extremely long pikes are being used in order to clear the walls of defenders, and scaling ladders are then employed. Art work at Abu Simbel shows how the Egyptians set up camp when on campaign. They did not dig entrenchments, but surrounded the camp with a palisade made of the soldier’s shields. The pharaoh’s tent is in the center of the camp, surrounded by those of his officers. Separate sections hold the horses, the chariots, the mules, and the pack gear. A hospital section is depicted, as well as another area of camp for drill and punishment. Outside the camp, charioteers and infantry are shown exercising. In the center of the camp is a lion, although whether this is literal or the symbol of the pharaoh is disputed.

Once liberated from the Hyksos, the Egyptians apparently understood that the more distant the frontier they could de fend, the safer would be the homeland. Thus, Egyptian campaigns began up the east coast of the Mediterranean toward modern Syria. Inscriptions of the time praise war as a high calling, whereas in previous days the main accomplishment of warfare was looting and the acquisition of wealth. (That, of course, remained a goal, and the pillage and tribute the Egyptians gathered financed the impressive buildings for which they are justly famous.) The problem they faced was that, unlike the nomads and bandits they had fought in earlier times, they now had to fight trained soldiers of other kings. The Egyptians apparently learned the art of war fairly quickly, however, for the contemporary inscriptions describe the joy the pharaoh felt when he got to go to war. “For the good god exults when he begins the fight, he is joyful when he has to cross the frontier, and is content when he sees blood. He cuts off the heads of his enemies, and an hour of fighting gives him more delight than a day of pleasure” (Erman, 1971).

The Egyptian military maintained a strong presence in the Palestine/Syria region for centuries, sometimes farther away and sometimes closer, depending on the nature of their opponents. They also expanded their borders southward at the expense of the Nubians.

Suggested Readings: Road to Kadesh a Historical Interpretation of the Battle Reliefs of King Sety I at Karnak. Chicago: Oriental Inst., 1990; Healy, Mark. The Warrior Pharaoh: Ramesses II and the Battle. London: Osprey, 2000.

Nicopolis 25 September 1396 Part II

The Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396 was disorganised and badly led: the result was a catastrophic defeat. However, it was the aftermath of the battle which produced the greatest impact in Europe. Jean de Froissart described in Book 4 of his Chronicle how, after the battle, the Sultan ordered the execution of many of his noble prisoners, harsh recompense for the slaughter of Ottoman prisoners by the French. A miniature in one edition of Froissart shows the bodies of the decapitated men beginning to pile up before the Sultan, who wished to make an example that his enemies would not forget. The watercolour in Loqman’s sixteenth-century Ottoman court history, like Froissart, shows the Turk as a fearsome enemy. By the time the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople in 1453, the image of their implacable cruelty had been formed and reinforced over almost three generations.

Whilst besieging Nicopolis, the crusader army became aware of Bayezid’s advance. It was Sigismund’s intention to deploy his unreliable vassals, the voivodes of Wallachia and Transylvania, in -front of his main body in order to force them to fight. But the French demanded the honour of the van and charged directly at Bayezid’s position. Behind a screen of Akinji light cavalry, and invisible to the westerners, lay a belt of sharpened wooden stakes, at chest height to the horses, full of Janissary archers. As the Turkish light cavalry melted away to the flanks, the crusaders lost their horses to both the arrows and the obstacles. Undeterred, they abandoned their mounts and attacked on foot, routing the unarmoured bowmen. Unfortunately, when they saw the crusaders’ horses galloping back across the plain, the Wallachians and Transylvanians made off. Meanwhile, the French arrived at the top of the hill, exhausted by their efforts, to find the cream of Bayezid’s heavy cavalry – the Spahis – awaiting them. Surrounded and overwhelmed, they surrendered en masse. Sigismund’s Hungarians arrived too late, and were themselves driven off by the flanking attack of Bayezid’s Christian Serbian vassals. The outcome epitomized the difference between Bayezid’s well-balanced defence in depth and a headstrong western charge. Numbers on both sides are difficult to assess, but there is no reason to believe that the Turks greatly exceeded the crusaders. They were Simply better disciplined and better led.

The Battle

This was the battle that ended the ill-fated crusade, largely financed by the Duke of Burgundy, that had been organised in response to appeals for aid against the Ottoman Turks from the future emperor Sigismund, king of Hungary. Contemporary chroniclers claim that the combined Hungarian and crusader forces comprised 50-62,000 Hungarians (26,000 of them mercenaries), 10,000 Wallachians under Mircea the Old, 16,000 Transylvanians, 10-14,000 Frenchmen and Burgundians, 6,000 Germans, 1,000 Englishmen and 12-13,000 Poles, Bohemians and Italians. These figures, however, are fantastically high and can probably be largely discounted; in reality they may have totalled only 12-16,000 men (Schiltberger, an eyewitness, says 16,000, while Froissart puts the French crusader cavalry at no more than 700 men). Similarly, although another eye-witness (the author of the ‘Religieux de Saint-Denis’) reported the opposing Ottoman forces, commanded by Sultan Bayezid, as comprising a vanguard of 24,000, main battle of 30,000 and rearguard and household troops of 40,000, the Turks perhaps really numbered no more than 15-20,000 men, two Ottoman sources actually putting their own strength at just 10,000 men. Whereas the Christian forces were almost entirely cavalry, those of the Turks included a substantial number of infantry.

Marching to the relief of besieged Nicopolis, Bayezid chose a defensive position on a rise, straddling the road to the city with his flanks protected by ravines. His first line comprised irregular horse (i. e. akinjis, 8,000 of them according to Froissart), behind which infantry archers were drawn up in 2 large companies behind a line of stakes that was 16 feet deep. Behind these were his feudal cavalry, and behind these again, on his flanks, were two reserves, that on the left of Serbs under Stephen Lazarevic, that on the right being composed of the troops of the Porte under Bayezid himself, ‘hidden in a certain copse to avoid detection’ according to Doukas, the Religieux confirming that Bayezid’s division was hidden behind a bill.

Sigismund’s sound proposal that his own light troops should open the attack, to soften up the Ottomans for the decisive charge of the Western European heavy cavalry, was met with hostility by the haughty French and Burgundian crusaders, who regarded it as an insult to be put in what they deemed the rearguard position. Consequently, claiming that Sigismund wanted only to rob them of ‘the honour of striking the first blow’, they spurred ahead of their allies and approached the Ottoman position totally unsupported. As they came within range the Turkish light cavalry opened fire with their bows, then wheeled left and right (though not without casualties) to reveal the stakes and infantry archers, who outflanked the crusaders on both sides. These too now opened fue, upon which the crusaders charged uphill against them, negotiating the stakes with considerable losses, and many of them either dismounted or unhorsed, until they finally reached the Ottoman infantry, of whom they allegedly killed 10,000.

However, while thus disordered (as Bayezid had planned), the crusaders were counter-attacked by the Ottoman feudal cavalry. These too they managed to break through after a hard struggle in which 5,000 more Turks are claimed to have died, only to then be finally overwhelmed by Bayezid’s 10-40,000 men, who came in on one end of their line. Most of the understandably biased Western chroniclers claim that Sigismund’s Hungarians had fled by this time, but the eye-witness Schiltberger reports that a second battle now took place as the Hungarian and crusader main battle – although abandoned by its left flank (the Wallachians) and right flank (the Transylvanians) as it became apparent, from the riderless crusader horses stampeding past, that Bayezid was the victor up ahead- advanced in the wake of the French and Burgundians, cutting down the reformed Ottoman infantry, 12,000 in number, as they came. The feudal cavalry too were being pushed back when suddenly Bayezid’s Serbian vassals emerged from ambush and overthrew Sigismund’s banner, upon which the Hungarians broke and fled, to be pursued in rout to their ships anchored on the Danube.

In a battle that had lasted only 3 hours contemporaries estimated that the Christians had lost 8-100,000 men, the reality undoubtedly lying somewhere in between; Schiltberger says they lost 10,000. The Turks also suffered severe losses (Western contemporaries exaggeratedly claimed 6-30 were killed for every Christian), figures ranging from 16-60,000. Enraged by his heavy casualties, the next morning Bayezid executed the majority of his prisoners (300 according to Froissart, 3,000 according to the Religieux and 10,000 according to Schiltberger), the survivors being given to his army as slaves, except for a small handful of the very highest rank who were eventually ransomed.

Naval Crusade

The so-called “crusade of Nicopolis” started as a Burgundian and Hungarian affair. The chronology, the events and the outcome of the expedition are well known. Less clear are the actions of the fleet. In February 1396 four Venetian galleys were already in partibus Romanie but the captain of the Gulf was instructed to avoid any clash with the Ottoman ships. In April the Venetians expressed their concern about the slow preparations of the crusade and their impression that the expedition seemed to rely only on Hungarian forces. Even in these circumstances the Venetians assured King Sigismund that the Venetian fleet would wait for Christian forces from July until the middle of August. Sigismund was asked to keep the Venetian commander informed about the progress of the crusade and especially if the expedition was cancelled.

The naval strength of the crusade of Nicopolis seems to have been composed exclusively of Venetian and Hospitaller knights’ ships. Nevertheless, there was no joint action or coordination between the two squadrons and it seems that each fleet followed its own plan. This situation was caused by older disputes between the Order and the Republic, but also by the fact that Venice recognised the authority of the Roman pontif, Boniface IX, while the Hospitallers were faithful to the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII.

The Venetians were unable to break through the Straits because of defensive measures undertaken by Bayezid I at Gallipoli. For this reason, the Venetian galleys may have stopped at Tenedos. As a matter of fact, Francisc Pall suggested that the episode regarding the Venetian ships’ entrance on the Danube was just a tale of the Venetian chroniclers who were eager to underline, on the one hand, the Republic’s attachment to the crusade and, on the other, the ingratitude of the King of Hungary who, in 1396, owed his salvation to the Venetian galleys. The Hospitallers’ fleet headed from Rhodes towards Smyrna, but from this point on, the itinerary is very hard to know. Jean Christian Poutiers assumed that the ships commanded by Philibert of Naillac might have entered the Black Sea and the Danube. Should this scenario prove correct, it might explain the way in which Sigismund of Luxemburg reached Constantinople after the defeat.

The results of the naval expedition from 1396 are far from being spectacular. The fleet could not make the junction with the land forces and was not able to stop the disaster of September 25, 1396. The sultan’s victory compelled Venice to take defensive measures not only for its own territories, but also in Constantinople, which was in a dire situation. After the success of Nicopolis, Bayezid I was willing to grant the Venetians peace “on sea”, but not also on land, where he claimed the Venetian possessions Argos, Nauplion, Atena, Durazzo and Scutari. Venice, in turn, wished to get an agreement for its possessions in the Peloponnese and Albania, but refused to accept peace on sea because of increasing activity by Turkish pirates. Given these conditions, the last years of the fourteenth century were very difficult for Venetian possessions in Romania.

Composition of crusader forces

From France, it was said about 2,000 knights and squires joined, and were accompanied by 6,000 archers and foot soldiers drawn from the best volunteer and mercenary companies. Totaling some 10,000 men. Next in importance were the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, who were the standard bearers of Christianity in the Levant since the decline of Constantinople and Cyprus. Venice supplied a naval fleet for supporting action, while Hungarian envoys encouraged German princes of the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony and other parts of the empire to join. French heralds had proclaimed the crusade in Poland, Bohemia, Navarre and Spain, from which individuals came to join.

The Italian city-states were too much engaged in their customary violent rivalries to participate, and the widely reported and acclaimed English participation never actually occurred. The report of 1000 English knights comes from contemporary Antonio Fiorentino, and was taken as fact by historian Aziz S. Atiya and others following him. A thousand knights would have actually amounted to “four to six thousand men and at least twice as many horses”, counting foot-soldiers and other retainers. However, there are no records of financial arrangements being made in England to send a force abroad, nor of any royal preparation needed to organize and dispatch such a force. Reports of Henry of Bolingbroke or other “son of the Duke of Lancaster” leading an English contingent must be false since the presence of Henry and every other such son, as well as almost every other significant noble in the land, is recorded at the king’s wedding five months after the crusade’s departure. Atiya also thought that the invocation of St. George as a war cry at Nicopolis signified the presence of English soldiers, for whom George was a patron saint; but Froissart, who mentions this, claims that the cry was made by the French knight Philippe d’Eu. Furthermore, there was no collection of ransom money in England to pay for captives, as there was in every other country that had sent men to the battle. Sporadic mention in contemporary accounts of the presence of “English” may be attributed to Knights Hospitaller of the English tongue subgrouping, who joined their comrades for the crusade after leaving Rhodes (where the Hospitallers were based at the time) and sailing up the Danube. Possible reasons for the English absence include the increasing tension between the king and the Duke of Gloucester, which may have convinced the two that they had best keep their supporters close, and the antipathy caused by the long war between the English and French, resulting in the English refusing to consider putting themselves under a French-led crusade, regardless of the recently concluded peace.

Nevertheless, obviously inflated figures continue to be repeated. These include 6-8,000 Hungarians, ~ 10,000 French, English and Burgundian troops, ~ 10,000 Wallachians led by Mircea cel Batran (Mircea The elder) the prince of Wallachia, ~ 6,000 Germans and nearly 15,000 Dutch, Bohemian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Bulgarian, Scottish and Swiss troops on the land, with the naval support of Venice, Genoa and the Knights of St. John. These result in a figure of about 47,000 – 49,000 in total; possibly up to 120,000 or 130,000 according to numerous sources, including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah who gives the figure of the Crusader army as 130,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih.

Composition of Ottoman forces

Also estimated at about 20-25,000; but inflated figures continue to be repeated of up to 60,000 according to numerous sources including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah, who gives the figure of the Ottoman army as 60,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih; alternately described as roughly half of the Crusader army. The Ottoman force also included 1,500 Serbian heavy cavalry knights under the command of Prince Stefan Lazarević, who was Sultan Bayezid’s vassal since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, as well as his brother-in-law after the Sultan married Stefan’s sister, Princess Olivera Despina, the daughter of Prince Lazar of Serbia (Stefan’s father) who had perished at Kosovo.

Battle of Vigo Bay, (12 October 1702)

Naval battle of the 1701-1714 War of the Spanish Succession.

En route back to England after an unsuccessful attempt to seize Cadiz, the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Admiral Sir George Rooke, carrying troops under command of General James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, attacked the Spanish silver fleet with its French naval escort under Admiral François de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault, anchored behind a protective boom and defended by fortifications at Vigo Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean on the northwestern coast of Spain’s Pontevedra Province.

The silver fleet had sailed from Veracruz, Mexico, with a cargo of silver valued at 13,639,230 pesos. At a contemporary exchange rate of about three pesos to the pound sterling, this equaled £4.5 million. Calling at Havana, where Chateaurenault and his naval escort joined together, the combined fleet of 22 Spanish vessels and 34 French vessels sailed on 24 July 1702. The English and Dutch forces had intelligence of this movement and attempted to intercept the fleet. At Cadiz, the silver fleet’s normal port, Rooke remained on the lookout while Sir Cloudesley Shovell tried intercepting the vessels at sea. Unknown to the allies, Chateaurenault safely anchored his convoy in Vigo Bay on 23 September 1702. Captain Thomas Hardy in the Pembroke heard the news when he called at Lagos Bay, Portugal, and immediately reported it to Rooke, earning Hardy a knighthood and a £1,000-pound reward.

Arriving off Vigo on 22 October, Rooke landed Ormonde’s troops and with Dutch Lieutenant Admiral Philips van Almonde divided the 15 English and 10 Dutch ships into seven squadrons, each headed by a Dutch or English flag officer. On 23 October, the squadrons commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Hopsonn and Vice Admiral Philips van der Goes approached the narrow entrance of the bay, while the large ships bombarded the fortifications in support of Ormonde’s troops. Captain Andrew Leake in the Torbay broke the boom, for which he and Hopsonn were knighted. Allied forces took the forts and 18 French warships, of which five were incorporated into the Royal Navy and one into the Dutch navy. The remainder were burned.

Shovell’s squadron arrived on 27 October after the main action and stayed behind after Rooke’s departure to manage the final phase. Most of the silver had already been off-loaded and the Spanish treasury recorded the largest amount of silver ever obtained from America in one year: 6,994,293 pesos. Spain contributed 2.2 million of this to the French war effort and soon replaced its lost warships. The allies, however, acquired a sum of silver valued at about £14,000. Modern scholarship has yet to account for the remainder.

François Louis de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault


French admiral during the wars of Louis XIV. Born at Chateaurenault on 22 September 1637, Chateaurenault, like many young men of his class, favored a military career. He joined the French army in 1658 as a musketeer. The expansion of the Royal French Navy under Minister of Marine Jean Baptiste Colbert offered numerous opportunities to young officers, and Chateaurenault transferred to the naval service in 1661. He proved to be a capable, if somewhat difficult, officer. In the short span of only five years, Chateaurenault advanced to captain.

Chateaurenault saw his first action in the Mediterranean against Barbary pirates. In 1677 and 1678 he commanded small squadrons during fighting between France and Holland. His forces obtained the only two French naval victories during those years.

In 1688 when the War of the Grand Alliance began, Chateaurenault commanded the French fleet at Brest and led the squadron transporting soldiers to Ireland in support of the deposed James II. Chateaurenault also escorted a convoy of 3,000 troops to Bantry Bay in 1689. On 11 May, as the troops were disembarking, an English fleet attacked. Despite poor maneuvering by his captains, Chateaurenault in the Ardent was able to drive the English fleet out to sea. The action was indecisive, but Chateaurenault had accomplished his mission of providing soldiers and stores for James II, and his ships returned safely to Brest.

In June 1690 Chateaurenault led the van division of the combined French fleet under Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville. On 10 July the opposing Anglo-Dutch fleet attacked off Beachy Head. Chateaurenault was able to double the attacking Dutch ships and he contributed decisively to the defeat of the Allies.

In 1701 upon Tourville’s death, Chateaurenault succeeded him as vice admiral of France. In 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, he received the delicate task of protecting the annual Spanish treasure fleet from Anglo-Dutch forces. King Louis XIV’s secret orders instructed him to bring the Spanish fleet into a French port, a difficult task given that some Spanish officers were serving aboard French ships.

Chateaurenault managed to elude a powerful Allied fleet and bring the treasure fleet into Vigo. Believing he would soon be attacked, Chateaurenault ordered the harbor fortified. On 22 October 1702, an Allied fleet under Sir George Rooke broke through the defensive boom. Every ship in the harbor was captured or destroyed, and an enormous amount of treasure was lost. Chateaurenault was not blamed for the defeat and was elevated to marshal of France in 1703. However, he never again commanded at sea. He died at Paris on 15 November 1716

Sir George Rooke

 (c. 1650-1709)

English admiral. Born about 1650, George Rooke was commissioned in 1672. He first served in the London, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Edward Spragge, and followed Spragge to the Prince Royal, fighting in her at both the 28 May and 4 June 1673 Battles of Schooneveld and the 11 August 1673 Battle of the Texel. After the latter engagement, Rooke earned praise for bringing the damaged ship home. He served with Sir John Narbrough in the Mediterranean from 1678 to 1679, then under Arthur Herbert, First Earl of Torrington, at Tangier, from 1680 to 1681. Commanding the Deptford, he fought in the 1 May 1689 Battle of Bantry Bay. Promoted to rear admiral in 1690, he was in the Duchess at the 30 June 1690 Battle of Beachy Head. Promoted to vice admiral, he served as extra commissioner of the Navy Board from 1692 to 1694.

Rooke fought in the 19 May 1692 Battle of Barfleur under Edward Russell, Earl of Orford, then pursued the French into the Bay of La Hogue, burning 12 French ships of the line. Knighted in 1693, he escorted the 400-ship Smyrna convoy toward the Mediterranean until the French intercepted it at Lagos Bay, taking or destroying 92 ships and scattering the remainder.

Rooke became Admiralty commissioner during 1694-1702 and commander in chief, Mediterranean, from 1695 to 1696. He was appointed admiral of the fleet in 1696 and was elected to Parliament for Portsmouth, serving from 1698 to 1705. In 1700 he commanded the Anglo-Dutch-Swedish Squadron off Copenhagen at the opening of the Great Northern War. He served on the Lord High Admiral’s Council during 1702-1705 and commanded the unsuccessful Anglo-Dutch expedition to Cadiz in 1702, attacking the Spanish galleons at Vigo Bay on his return on 12 October. In 1704 he led the allied attack on Gibraltar and commanded the Anglo-Dutch Fleet in the 13 August 1704 Battle of Vélez-Malaga. Rooke resigned for health reasons in 1705 and died in Canterbury on 24 January 1709.

References Kamen, Henry. “The Destruction of the Spanish Silver Fleet at Vigo in 1702.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 39 (1966): 165-173. Veenendaal, Augustus J., Jr. De Briefwisseling van Anthonie Heinsius, 1702-1720. Vol. 1, 1702. The Hague: Institute for Netherlands History, 1976. Calman-Maison, J. J. R. La Marechal de Chateau-Renault. Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1903. Jenkins, Ernest H. A History of the French Navy: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1973. Symcox, Geoffrey. The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974. References Hattendorf, John B. “Sir George Rooke and Sir Cloudesley Shovell (c. 1650-1709) and (1659-1707).” In Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding, 42-77. London: Chatham Publishing, 2000. Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Journal of Sir George Rooke, 1700-1704. Publications of the Navy Records Society. London: Navy Records Society.

Battle of Grocka

Had the Turkish wars ended conveniently with the Habsburgs’ apogee at the Peace of Passarowitz in 1718, then the conventional assumptions about Ottoman decay and decline would have been triumphantly vindicated. But they did not end then. There were two more wars which destroyed the euphoric confidence generated by the victories won by the generation of heroes. The aggressive war fought against the Ottomans between 1737 and 1739, and the defensive war between 1788 and 1791, were probably the most pointless and inept campaigns in the annals of Habsburg warfare. In hindsight, both were ill considered, created solely to meet diplomatic expedients, by Habsburg officials with scant understanding of the military realities. Nevertheless, in 1737 the war began with huge optimism and a grand flourish.

On July 14 a great procession including representatives of the religious orders, judges, ministers, the court and the emperor himself wound its way from the Hofburg to St Stephen’s Cathedral to announce to the citizens of Vienna that war had broken out. Gathered before the great door of the church all heard the declaration of war and an edict proclaiming that the bells of the city churches would ring every morning at 7.00 and each individual was to fall to his knees wherever they were and whatever they were doing and pray for the blessing of the Almighty upon the army of the emperor.

 This was the only part of the war that passed off according to plan.  

All along the long frontier there were inadequate supplies, not enough troops, and, by late August 1737, no evidence of a plan of campaign. The Austrians were dilatory in attacking the Turkish fortress of Vidin, which would have fallen to a swift attack, while a thrust into Bosnia to take the town of Banjaluka ran into a large Ottoman force and had to retire rapidly on the far side of the River Sava, leaving 922 men and 66 officers dead on the battlefield. The final failure of the year was truly humiliating. The only real success of the campaign had been taking the strategic town of Nish, on the road south to Istanbul. The pasha there had surrendered as soon as the Austrian army had appeared. In Vienna the seizure of such a famous town as Nish had been taken as a great victory, and confirmation that the Ottomans had indeed lost their old fighting spirit.

But in October 1737 a mass of Turkish sipahis arrived before the city and sent a message to the commander that the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Köprülü, was on his way with his entire army. General Doxat calculated that supplies were low and he had no hope of relief: when Köprülü arrived, Doxat offered to surrender the city in exchange for a safe conduct to Austrian lines for his men and himself. This appeared to be precisely the kind of craven conduct that the Turks had shown when they had given up the city in July 1737. There was popular outrage in Vienna at this cowardice: after a swift court-martial, Doxat, who had designed and built the massive new fortifications protecting Belgrade, was beheaded.

Doxat was not the last officer to be punished. By the end of the war in 1738, every senior commander had been cashiered, suspended from duty or lampooned in the press. Public outrage in Vienna grew as rabble-rousers asked: `Where is the new Eugene?’ The old prince had died barely two years before. He had no obvious replacement. The field commander, Field Marshal Seckendorf, was recalled and placed under house arrest to await court martial. He was a Protestant, and Father Peikhart preached from the pulpit of St Stephen’s that `a heretical general at the head of a Catholic army could only insult the Almighty and turn his benediction away from the army of his Imperial and Catholic Majesty’. For reassurance that the dynasty’s Catholic credentials were still paramount, the Emperor appointed his son-in-law, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, to the titular command for the 1738 campaign season, and he left for the southern frontier. This failed `to win the people’ until it was reported that young Lorraine had `issued orders calmly under fire’: at this point the court hailed him both as a second Eugene (unlikely) and as a true grandson of Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, who had saved Vienna in 1683.

Soon Seckendorf ‘s replacement, Count Königsegg, also suffered a loss of nerve and ordered a strategic withdrawal away from contact with the Ottomans; his junior officers protested, demanding he should pursue the enemy as Prince Eugene would have done. The Emperor decided that his inexperienced son-in-law possessed better credentials to lead the army to victory and gave him full command. Francis Stephen wisely fell sick and returned to Vienna, so the duty devolved back on Königsegg, while Francis Stephen and his wife, Maria Theresa, were rusticated to their duchy of Tuscany, to their delight. Meanwhile, the Emperor was `in the middle of the general discontent . . . violently agitated and in the agony of his mind exclaimed “Is the fortune of my empire departed with Eugene?”‘ He continued to look for a commander with some spark of daring. Running out of plausible candidates, he eventually chose Field Marshal George Oliver Wallis, of an old Jacobite family with a long record of service to the Habsburgs. Wallis had fought under Eugene at Zenta in 1697, at Petrovaradin, in the capture of Timi, soara, and at the occupation of Belgrade in 1717-18. He had been passed over before because he was not an easy subordinate: difficult, overbearing and hot-headed. His first instinct was to attack, although he had learned a degree of prudence in his later career. If Charles VI wanted a new Eugene, then the elderly Wallis was probably his best option.

By mid-July 1739 he had joined his new command of thirty thousand men encamped at Belgrade, and scouts brought him news that the Grand Vizier’s army was marching towards him from the east: their advance party was at the small town of Grocka on the Danube, a few hours’ march away. The events that followed were graphically described by a Scots officer in the British army on secondment to the Austrian command. The young Scottish nobleman, John Lindsay, 20th Earl of Crawford, had fought as a volunteer with Prince Eugene on his last western campaign in 1735, and joined the eastern army for the war in 1737. He left a remarkable manuscript account of the savage fighting. As Crawford relates, part of Wallis’ army was still north of the Danube with General Neipperg, and the advice was that he should wait for the additional 15,000 men to reach him. Wallis sent a messenger to Neipperg to meet him on the road to Grocka and began to march his men overnight to seize the village from the few Turks that supposedly held it. Then he could await the Grand Vizier on ground he had chosen. It was a good road from Belgrade through low hills, and it began to rise towards a line of higher ground behind Grocka.

Just before the village, the track narrowed and entered a gully that then opened out on to the plain before reaching the riverside town. It then came out in a southerly direction, heading towards higher ground. Wallis knew that speed was essential so he pushed forward with the cavalry – mostly cuirassiers and dragoons, with some hussars – sending them through the gully to take possession of the land below, driving away any Turks occupying the ground. Led by Count Palffy’s cuirassiers, they burst out of the gully and began to trot down into the more open ground in front of Grocka. It was first light, and they dimly saw a large body of men below them and then there was a sudden cacophony of fire from the front and from each side of the road. They still had the advantage of the higher ground, but it was clear that this was not just an Ottoman advance party. In fact the entire Ottoman force had taken up position on the hills and in the valley below, with a complete command of the road in front of the Austrian horsemen. Many had been killed or wounded in the first salvo of Turkish fire, and the ground was littered with dead or dying men and horses.

One of the wounded was the Earl of Crawford. He survived the battle, but was seriously injured by a musket ball in the groin, a painful, suppurating wound that would kill him ten years later. In the interval he managed to write his vivid account of the battle and what followed.

From dawn to mid-morning they kept the janissaries at bay, by constant carbine fire and support from the troops behind. At midday the infantry arrived, and eighteen companies of grenadiers pushed through the gap and heavy fire to relieve them. Through the morning the Grand Vizier had ordered men to move forward up the slope to the crown of the hills on either side of the Austrian cavalry so that they could envelop them, unleashing musket fire from directly above their makeshift positions. On the other side of the gully, Field Marshal Hildburghausen, in command of the infantry, ordered his men to storm the heights and throw the Turks back. Field guns were pulled up the slope and began to duel with the Ottoman artillery on the hillside opposite. The battle lasted the whole day, with more and more of the Austrians pushing through the gully while the Ottomans kept up a murderous fire. As night fell, the Grand Vizier pulled his men back in good order and, apart from the cries of the wounded, a still ness fell over the battlefield. The carnage was horrifying: in a single day from dawn to dusk, 2222 Austrians were dead and 2492 wounded. This was more than 10 per cent of Wallis’ entire force. The Palffy cuirassiers had lost almost half their number, including the majority of their officers. Even a year later, it was still like a charnel house. A traveller described how `Today one cannot go ten steps without stepping on human corpses piled on top of another, all only half decomposed, many still in uniforms. Lying about are maimed bodies, hats, saddles, cartridge belts, boots, cleaning utensils, and other cavalry equipment. Everything is embedded in undergrowth. In the surrounding countryside, peasants use skulls as scarecrows: many wear hats, and one even wears a wig.’ Some of Wallis’ senior officers suggested a hot pursuit, but he rightly feared another ambush: he did not want to face the Ottomans, now in the hills, again from positions designed to entrap him, as they had done so successfully at Grocka.

So a third campaigning season degenerated into a fearful torpor, only to be crowned by the ultimate misfortune. Belgrade, taken in 1717, had been turned into a fine town, but only for German speakers; it had been brilliantly fortified by the luckless Doxat. In the chaos of the campaign, it was surrendered by mistake to the Turks. The Grand Vizier, negotiating in his camp with Neipperg, managed to persuade him that the Ottomans were bound to capture the city, and, to save lives, it should be surrendered to him immediately. Neipperg eventually agreed, extracting a single concession. The fortifications built since the Treaty of Passarowitz, paid for by the Pope and Catholics throughout Europe, would be demolished so they did not fall into infidel hands. The vizier readily agreed, provided his janissaries should first occupy the gates and walls of the citadel.

After this agreement, which Neipperg had plenipotentiary power to negotiate, the court in Vienna redoubled its quest for scapegoats. Both men were recalled and imprisoned, while a court of enquiry eventually drew up forty-nine charges against Wallis and thirty-one against Neipperg. The latter, by signing away Belgrade, had committed a crime with `no precedent in history’. Both men looked likely to suffer the same fate as Doxat, but they were saved by the unexpected death of Emperor Charles VI in October 1740. His twenty-three-year-old daughter, the Archduchess of Austria, Maria Theresa, wanted to bring an end to the whole catastrophe, so she closed down all the investigations and pardoned those who had been punished. She restored their ranks and privileges, and even made up their lost pay.


Here Skorzeny meets with two of his principal commanders in the bridgehead, SS-Obersturmbannführer Siegfried Milius (centre), the commander of SS- Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600, and SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus (right), commander of the battalion’s 3. Kompanie. The location is the Von Humbert Estate in Hohen-Kränig, the command post of SS-Jagdverband Mitte. In the first days of the bridgehead, the supply sergeant of SS-Jagdverband Mitte, SS- Oberscharführer Glas, discovered a depot full of winter camouflage clothing. Confiscating the entire stock, he had it distributed throughout Kampfgruppe Schwedt, making it, in Glas’s words `the unit best equipped with winter clothing on the entire Eastern Front’. Skorzeny is wearing the Winter-Wendetarn-Jacke, a jacket specially insulated for the winter, which could be reversed from splinter-pattern camouflage to plain white.

When Bernickow and Königsberg were lost on February 5, the Germans fell back on the village of Grabow, which was the keystone of the German main line of defence in the bridge- head. The Soviet tanks immediately followed up and in their first attack, despite fierce opposition from the Fallschirmjäger in close combat, managed to drive the Germans out of the village. However, reinforced with newly-arrived assault guns, SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600 managed to recapture it on the 7th and, although it was attacked many times after that, Grabow remained in German hands until the final evacuation of the bridgehead. Here SS-Obersturmführer Marcus (in the long leather motorcycle coat) and some of his men approach one of the T-34/85 tanks of the 49th Guards Tank Brigade that was knocked out or abandoned in Grabow during the fighting on February 5. Note the soldier with the sniper rifle on the right.

Map of the Schwedt bridgehead showing the three German defence lines set up by Kampfgruppe Schwedt and the outpost position at Königsberg. [1] Oder Canal Bridge. [2] Oder River Bridge. [3] Von Humbert Estate. [4] Raduhn Farm.

Schwedt is a small town on the west bank of the Oder. Dating back to the 13th century and featuring a large castle, a hospital and several military barracks, in 1945 it had a population of some 9,000. The Oder in this area is lined by the Friedrichsthal Canal, which runs parallel to the river on its western side, the three-kilometre-wide strip in between being swampy marshland. The road running east out of Schwedt across the swampland crossed a series of six bridges, the two main ones being a long steel bridge over the canal just outside the town and a five- span bridge over the main course of the Oder river just before it reaches the village of Nieder-Kränig (today Krajnik Dolny in Poland) on the east bank.

First orders to create a bridgehead east of Schwedt were issued on January 27. However, they could not be followed up immediately due to a lack of forces. In the early evening of January 30, SS-Obersturmbann- führer Otto Skorzeny – Hitler’s favourite commando officer, famous for his rescue of the Italian Duce Benito Mussolini in September 1943 and his commando operations behind enemy lines during the Ardennes counter-offensive in December 1944 (see The Battle of the Bulge Then and Now) – was sitting in his office in Friedenthal Castle, at Sachsenhausen near Oranienburg 20 kilometres north of Berlin, writing a report when the phone rang. It was Himmler, who ordered Skorzeny to march `at once’ with every soldier he could scrape up to Schwedt and establish a bridgehead east of the river.

The only units immediately available to Skorzeny were his own SS special forces units, notably the SS-Jagdverbände and SS- Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600.

In late 1944, Skorzeny’s various types of commando troops had been organised into five so-called Jagdverbände (Hunter Units), battalion-sized units named after the region of Europe where they were to be deployed (SS-Jagdverband Mitte, Ost, Südost, Süd- west and Nordwest). Home base of the SS- Jagdverbände was Friedenthal, since the spring of 1943 the HQ of Skorzeny’s SS- Sondereinsatz-Abteilung z. b. V. Friedenthal. The only units immediately at hand when Himmler’s call came in were SS-Jagdverband Mitte under SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fucker, and one composite company from SS-Jagdverband Nordwest under SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Hoyer. (The latter unit formally consisted of a 1. Kompanie made up of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes; a 2. Kompanie of Flemish, and a 3. Kompanie of Dutch troops but all three were at such low strength that they were combined into a composite company and put under command of Jagdverband Mitte.) Total strength of the two Jagdverbände was about 680 men.

SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600 was the only parachute unit in the Waffen-SS. Formed in September 1943, and originally known as Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 500, it had been deployed in anti-Partisan operations in Yugoslavia, its most notable operation being Operation `Rösselsprung’, the surprise raid on Marshal Tito’s headquarters in Drvar in May 1944. Commanded since June 1944 by SS-Sturmbannführer Siegfried Milius, and renumbered from 500 to 600 on October 1, on November 10 the battalion was incorporated into the SS-Jagdverbände under Skorzeny’s overall command. Having participated, together with elements of the SS-Jagdverbände, in the Ardennes offensive as part of Skorzeny’s Panzerbrigade 150, by late January the battalion had returned to its barracks at Neustrelitz, 100 kilometres north of Berlin. With 689 men, it was at full strength and fully equipped with modern arms, including Sturmgewehre, machine guns and LG40 7.5cm light artillery guns, and its own transport

Also available to Skorzeny were the SS- Sturm-Kompanie, an armoured reconnaissance company equipped with armoured cars and half-tracks under SS-Obersturmführer Otto Schwerdt; the SS-Scharfschützen-Zug, a sniper platoon of 40 men under SS-Unter- sturmführer Odo Wilscher; and the schwere SS-Infanterie-Geschütz-Kompanie, a bat- tery-sized unit equipped with 15cm sIG 33 heavy infantry guns under SS-Hauptsturm- führer Reiche. All these units at Friedenthal and Neustrelitz were immediately alarmed for deployment to the East.

The first vehicles with Waffen-SS soldiers left Friedenthal at 3 a. m. on January 31 and arrived at Schwedt early in the morning. Skorzeny himself arrived there about 7 a. m. They found the town still in German hands, the six road bridges over the canal and river still intact, and the two waterways and the marshes in between thickly frozen. However, the area was devoid of any German units capable of resisting an enemy attack. The replacement units that had been stationed at Schwedt – Pionier-Ersatz-Bataillon 12 and Panzergrenadier-Ersatz-Bataillone 3, 9 and 83 – had by this time all been sent eastwards to help save the situation after the collapse of Heeresgruppe A. This left the whole area virtually defenceless. The ground crew from the Luftwaffe airfield near Königsberg-Neumark had carried out a slipshod destruction of the airfield and then hastily moved west- wards to avoid the onrushing Red Army. The difficult military situation was made even worse by the flight of local civilian and Nazi Party authorities and by the hundreds of refugees moving in harsh winter conditions in search of safety behind the Oder.

Realising that no Soviet forces had crossed the river in the Schwedt area, Skorzeny set up his command post in the village of Nieder-Kränig on the east bank and promptly began preparations for the inevitable clash. Reconnaissance patrols were sent across the river, sallying out deep into enemy-held territory to seek out and monitor the movement of the Soviet units; take and bring in prisoners for interrogation, and warn the main force of the incoming assault. An immediate evacuation of the civilian population was ordered, a task which Skorzeny delegated to the Stadtkommandant (Town Commandant) of Schwedt, a war-invalided but efficient Oberst, and to the town’s Bürgermeister, Wilhelm Schrader- Rottmers. Stragglers from Wehrmacht units destroyed in the east were gathered and sent to the military barracks in Schwedt, where an assembly point had been set up to re-organise them into so-called Alarm-Einheite (emergency units). In this way, in the days to come, several alarm battalions and companies would be formed, named after their respective commanders, and sent to reinforce the bridgehead.

In the meantime, an Organisation Todt labour unit, OT-Regiment 122 from Stettin – helped by civilian labourers recruited and organised by the NSDAP-Ortsgruppenleiters (Nazi Party Local Group Leaders) of Schwedt and the surrounding villages – got to work on digging trenches, foxholes and machine-gun emplacements. With the help of the major commanding Pionier-Ersatz-Bataillon 12, Skorzeny staked out his bridgehead perimeter. They devised three lines of defence, all running in a semi-arc around the eastern end of the Oder bridge, each one in a wider radius.

The outer one started some four kilometres north of the Schwedt bridges at the confluence of the Oder with the small Rörike river, followed the wooded south bank of the latter stream south-east to Wachholderberge, passing north of the Krimo-See (a small lake) to cross the Grabow (today Grabowo) to Königsberg road, continuing on to Hills 42 and 40 where it turned south-west towards Hill 62.9, and from there across Hills 83.6 and 98.2 and via the Amalienhof Farm to the Elisenhöhe Farm where it crossed the Raduhn Farm to the Hohen-Kränig road, running through the flat fields to pass south of the village of Nieder-Saathen and then back to the Oder.

The inner line started at the Oder some two kilometres north of the Schwedt bridges, ran due east along the southern edge of the Peetzig/Röderbeck Forest, then veered south to cross the Nieder-Kränig to Grabow road west of the latter town, turning south-west to pass in front of the village of Hohen-Kränig (Krajnik Gorny), cross the road between that village and the Raduhn Farm, and run on to Hill 99.4 where it turned due west to reach the Oder again near the so-called Thal der Liebe.

The third and innermost line ran in a semi- arc of about one kilometre around the east- ern end of the Oder bridge, defending the crossing and the village of Nieder-Kränig. The lines were well sited and made the bridgehead difficult to attack, because the northern part was covered by dense forests and the line of the Rörike river, while the southern part had trenches located on hills overlooking open ground.

The Oder river and canal, thickly frozen as they were, offered little in the way of an obstacle to an advancing enemy but the engineer major had his men blow gaps in the ice, reinstating the flow and thus creating a proper hindrance.

As it turned out, Skorzeny’s men had five days – from January 31 to February 4 – to prepare for the coming battle, assemble forces and gather weapons. Initially, Kampfgruppe Schwedt, as it was now called, had only five main infantry components: in addition to SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600 and SS-Jagdverband Mitte with its supporting units, there were three Volkssturm (home guard) battalions. One was from Schwedt, raised locally and commanded by the town’s Bürgermeister Schrader-Rottmers; the second was from Königsberg, led by its Bürgermeister Kurt Flöter; and the third strangely enough, came all the way from Hamburg, 400 kilometres away. Sent east to reinforce the Oder front it arrived in the sector on February 4. Nearly 600 strong, it was a remarkably tough unit, comprising sturdy stevedores and dockworkers from the ocean port, well equipped and fully armed with rifles and Panzerfäuste.

In addition to infantry, Skorzeny needed heavy weapons. He had brought his six 15cm heavy infantry guns with him but he definitely needed more. Told that no anti-tank guns were available, Skorzeny’s supply officer, SS-Hauptsturmführer Reinhard Ger- hard, scoured the region looking for means to bolster up the force’s firepower. From the Ardelt-Werke, an armaments factory in Eberswalde 50 kilometres to the south, which had been evacuated because of the approach of the Russians, he collected a dozen 7.5cm PaK 40 anti-tank guns and ammunition. From a dump near Frankfurt- an-der-Oder his men got a large number of brand-new MG42 machine guns plus ammo. Two home-defence Flak battalions arrived with 32 heavy 8.8cm and 10.5cm Flak guns. A number of 2cm Flak guns arrived from the Königsberg airfield. Ten of the big guns were deployed inside the bridgehead, the others were set up on the west side of the river.

Thus Kampfgruppe Schwedt took shape. Later on many other units would be assigned to it, often only temporarily, including several of the alarm units. In all, German strength added up to approximately 4,000-5,000 men. However, many of them were poorly armed and their fighting ability was low.

Skorzeny positioned his forces in the bridgehead as follows. Occupying the outer line was SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600, with the 1. Kompanie under SS-Obersturm- führer Fritz Leifheit holding the southern sector in front of Nieder-Saathen (Zaton Dolna), and the 2. Kompanie under SS- Obersturmführer Walter Scheu defending the village of Grabow in the centre. To delay the enemy attack that was certain to come, an outpost position was set up in the town of Königsberg, some 13 kilometres further east (and 17 kilometres from the Oder), held by the 3. Kompanie under SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus, some 50 men strong, rein- forced by the Volkssturm battalions from Königsberg and Hamburg. The northern part of the outer line, running along the Rörike river, was manned by the first of the new alarm units, Bataillon Jacobs (863 men strong). Manning the inner lines were the SS hunter units, with SS-Jagdverband Mitte concentrating its forces around Nieder- Kränig and the composite company from SS- Jagdverband Nordwest defending the imme- diate area around the Oder bridges.

The Germans had organised their defence in the nick of time for already the enemy was advancing on the bridgehead. The Soviet 1st Mechanised Corps, part of the Second Guards Tank Army, was moving toward Königsberg from the area of Küstrin. Its mis- sion was to capture the town, reach the Oder bridge at Nieder-Kränig and clear the east bank of German forces. The first encounters with reconnaissance patrols from Skorzeny’s force occurred on February 1 at the small town of Bad Schönfliess (today Trzcinsko- Zdroj), eight kilometres east of Königsberg and 25 kilometres from Schwedt.

It was in the early morning of the 4th, returning to his command post after a night at the front, that Skorzeny bumped into Königsberg’s burgomaster, Kurt Flöter, who excitedly told him he had been waiting all night to report that all was lost in Königsberg. Judging that the man had deserted the troops under his command in the face of the enemy – which had caused the Königsberg Volkssturm to crumble and flee in panic – Skorzeny promptly had him arrested. Put before an SS court-martial chaired by Skorzeny himself, Flöter was publicly hanged from a tree on Schlossfreiheit, the park boulevard in front of the town castle, a sign hung around his neck declaring `I, Kurt Flöter, am hanging here because I deserted my town’. The corpse was left dangling for five days and was seen by all of the troops passing through the town en route for the bridgehead. (The incident produced a furious reaction from Martin Bormann, the Nazi Party secretary, who sent Gauleiter Emil Stürtz of Gau Mark-Brandenburg to tell Skorzeny that senior Party members could only be tried by a Party tribunal. Skorzeny retorted: `We tried your man not as a Party official but as a soldier – but are not cowardice and desertion punishable in Party leaders too?’) In all, during the bridgehead fighting, Skorzeny had at least a dozen men – both soldiers and civilians – hanged for defeatism or desertion.

On the late afternoon of February 4, just as darkness was falling, T-34/85 tanks from the 49th Guards Tank Brigade (temporarily subordinated to the 1st Mechanised Corps) clashed with the SS paratroopers at Bernickow (Barnkowo), a village just two kilometres east of Königsberg. The first assault was repulsed but the Soviets soon resumed their attacks. In the meantime, the Hamburg Volkssturm battalion, defending Königsberg itself, faced another attack of Soviet tanks, this time by Shermans (supplied to the Soviets under the Lend Lease programme) from the 219th Tank Brigade advancing south from Uchtdorf (Lisie Pole). Seven tanks from the brigade stormed into the town but five of them were destroyed with Panzerfäuste whereupon the remaining ones retreated. In all, the two Russian tank brigades lost ten tanks between them.

Despite their initial successes, the defenders of Bernickow and Königsberg were soon outnumbered and outgunned. They fell back to the centre of town, behind the medieval walls, but they managed to withstand only till 5 a. m. on February 5 when they pulled back to the bridgehead proper, taking up positions in the outer trench line. Following the Soviet capture of the town, the German citizens – those that had not fled or been evacuated by Marcus’ company – suffered a terrible ordeal. They were robbed, murdered and driven out from their homes, and many women and girls were raped.

The Soviet tank forces pushed on towards the Oder bridge but were stopped in Grabow by the SS paratroopers. Dodging behind buildings, fences and hedgerows, the Fallschirmjäger stalked the Soviet tanks with Panzerfäuste and engaged the infantry with small-arms fire. One of those who fell during this battle was Lieutenant Oleg Matvejev, later awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Time and again the Soviets renewed their attacks until finally the Germans were thrown out of the village, falling back to the bridgehead’s inner trench line. A small force from the 219th Tank Brigade even managed to break through to within sight of the Oder bridge but, after losing one Sherman, had to pull back towards Reichenfelde (Garnowo). The Soviet advance came to standstill.

The short lull in the fighting gave the Germans time to reinforce Kampfgruppe Schwedt with two batteries of assault guns from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 210 (Major Dietrich Langel) and with Fallschirm-Panzer- Jagd-Bataillon 54, a paratrooper anti-tank unit 285 men strong. These new forces enabled them to regain the terrain just lost. On February 7, three German battalions – SS-Jagdverband Mitte, SS-Fallschirmjäger- Bataillon 600 and Fallschirm-Panzer-Jagd- Bataillon 54 – supported by the newly- arrived StuGs stormed Grabow. The village was defended by elements of the 35th Mechanised Brigade and 219th Tank Brigade. German superiority in guns and numbers left the Soviets no chance to withstand this assault. Immediately after the recapture of the village, the German force split into two, one group moving south-east to capture the important crossroads of the Grabow-Königsberg and Reichenfelde-Hanseberg roads, while the other attacked toward Hanseberg (Krzymow) and forced elements of the 37th Mechanised Brigade to withdraw from that village. A large quantity of very useful mortars, anti-tank guns, heavy machine guns and ammunition was captured.

It was on this day, immediately after the recapture of Grabow, that the Kampfgruppe received an unexpected visitor. While the battle was still in full swing, Skorzeny received a signal at his advanced command post that Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, was in Schwedt, waiting to see him. Göring’s grand estate Carinhall was only some 40 kilometres from the Oder and, from the first, Göring had shown a benevolent interest in the bridgehead, frequently telephoning Skorzeny to ask how it was going. After one of these calls, he had even sent Fallschirm-Panzer-Jagd- Bataillon 54 to reinforce the position. Now the Reichsmarshall himself had come to visit the bridgehead. Clad in plain field-grey, without any medals, he went with Skorzeny almost up to the front line near Nieder- Kränig, doling out cigarettes and brandy, and showing a particular interest in the knocked- out Soviet tanks that stood around still burning. He made a point of visiting one of his 8.8cm Flak guns that were being used in an anti-tank role, congratulating the crew on their achievements. He also visited the command post of SS-Fallschirm-Bataillon 600 at Hohen-Kränig and it was well after dark when he departed.

Two days after the recapture of Grabow, on February 9, the SS paratroopers, supported by the assault guns, moved even further and retook the forester’s lodge near the Tanger-See lake. It was around this time that the Germans managed to bring in more of the alarm units to man the outer line, the sec- tor to the south of Grabow being occupied by Bataillon Zapf (767 strong), and the southern end of the bridgehead being taken over by Bataillon Aschenbach (486 strong). SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600 now held the centre part of the line, from the Krimo- See to Hill 62.9, while SS-Jagdverband Mitte went into reserve around Nieder-Kränig.

The Soviets quickly recovered from the surprisingly strong German counter-strokes, hastened reinforcements forward and in turn counter-attacked the following day, February 10. Heavy fights raged along the Grabow-Königsberg road and on Hill 62.9. The Germans suffered heavy losses, particularly SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600. Two company commanders – SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus of the 3. Kompanie, and SS-Obersturmführer Wilhelm Schmiedl of the 2. Kompanie – fell in battle and the 3. Kompanie, which took the brunt of the assault, had only 30 men standing by the end of the day.

That same day, the 37th Mechanised Brigade, with support of SU-122 assault guns from the 347th Guards Heavy Assault Gun Regiment, was sent to recapture Hanseberg. The Germans held on to it until the following day when the village fell to the Red Army. On the night of February 11/12 the 1st Mechanised Corps moved north and was replaced by units of the 8th Guards Mechanised Corps: the 20th and 21st Guards Mechanised Brigade (the latter supported by the 294th Penal Company). Both fresh, they immediately resumed the attacks on the bridgehead but the German resisted with determination and the line was not penetrated.

On February 13 there were fierce fights on the flanks of the bridgehead. At the northern end, a reconnaissance company from the 20th Guards Mechanised Brigade assaulted and captured the hamlet of Nipperwiese (Ognica), the weak Luftwaffe company there being no match for the Soviet infantry. Meanwhile, at the bridgehead’s southern end a Soviet infantry company supported by ten T-34 tanks from the 21st Guards Mechanised Brigade was sent to capture the hamlet of Raduhn (Radun). The German outpost there was soon forced to withdraw. Perhaps even worse, Kampfgruppe Schwedt’s offensive capabilities were considerably weakened on this day by the withdrawal of the two assault gun batteries from the bridgehead.

At 4 p. m. – right in the middle of these desperate battles – Skorzeny received a signal from Heeresgruppe Weichsel, ordering him to report to Himmler right away. He decided to stay with his men until the Soviet attacks had been halted and only arrived at Himmler’s command post (code-named SS-Kommandostelle `Birkenwald’) at Birkenhain in the woods outside Prenzlau, 50 kilometres north of Berlin, at 8.30 p. m. Himmler was furious and began berating him for being late and having disobeyed an order, but particularly for having refused to relieve a Luftwaffe officer who had given up Nipper- wiese and withdrawn to the inner line. Skorzeny explained that he himself had ordered the officer to do so. Thereupon Himmler simmered down and invited Skorzeny, who had arrived dirty and in combat uniform, to dinner. Skorzeny sat through the meal and then quickly returned to the bridgehead, disgusted but having secured from Himmler a promise to send him another assault gun unit. (It difficult to accurately date this episode, if it really happened at all. The I. Batterie of StuG-Brigade 210 was in the bridgehead from February 10 till the end, and the II. and III. Batterie were there from February 6 till the 13th. It could be that the order had originally called for all three batteries to be pulled out and that Skorzeny’s visit to Himmler caused the I. Batterie not so much to return but to be allowed to stay.)

On February 16, the German counter- offensive in Pomerania, already announced by Himmler in his initial telephone order to Skorzeny on January 31, finally got under way. Code-named Operation `Sonnenwende’, it was the last hope for the Germans to strike a massive blow at the Red Army and stop it before the final assault on Berlin.

The original idea for the offensive, designed by Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, was to have a strong two-pronged attack by two armies. The 11. SS-Panzer-Armee in Pomera- nia would strike south from the Stettin area while the 6. SS-Panzer-Armee, freshly trans- ferred from the Ardennes front, would launch a northward attack from the Gluben-Glogau area. Both armies were each to cover a distance of 70 kilometres but, if they succeeded in linking up, they would cut off the forward formations of the First Byelorussian Front. However, in early February Hitler dismissed the plan for a double envelopment, deciding instead to use the 6. SS-Panzer-Armee in an operation to relieve Budapest.

He now opted for a `small solution’, a single-prong attack, whereby the 11. SS- Panzer-Armee would strike south from Pomerania with two corps from the region of Stargard and link up with the Oder bridge- heads. On the left, the III. SS-Panzerkorps would drive south via Arnswalde all the way to Küstrin and on the right the XXXIX. Panzerkorps would drive from south of Stargard via Pyritz towards Schwedt, linking up with troops driving up from Skorzeny’s bridgehead. This would entail a drive of 70 kilometres, half the distance compared to the original plan. If it succeeded, it would relieve several besieged cities, result in the destruction of all Soviet troops west of the drive, and considerably shorten the German front line.

However, after the first few days it was already clear that the offensive had failed. The attacking forces only managed to get to the surrounded towns of Arnswalde, Pyritz and Bahn – a penetration of a mere ten kilometres at the deepest – but they were too weak to penetrate toward Küstrin and turn the tide of war on the Eastern Front. On February 19, Himmler stopped the offensive, a decision confirmed by a formal Hitler directive on the 21st. With this outcome of `Sonnenwende`, all reason for holding on to the Schwedt bridgehead disappeared. How- ever, Heeresgruppe Weichsel must have considered a continued German presence on the Oder’s east bank still of some value for it did not give orders for its evacuation.

On February 17, Division Schwedt, as it was now called, launched an assault on the Amalienhof Farm (Krzymowek). Thanks to support provided by the battery from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 210, two Soviet tanks, two anti-tank guns and six mortars fell prey to the Germans. There was also activity on the northern flank where the newly-arrived III. Bataillon of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 26 (Major Hans-Heinrich Hacker) re-occupied Nipperwiese, which had been abandoned by the Soviets.

At this time another change of forces occurred on the Soviet side, the 8th Guards Mechanised Corps being withdrawn and its positions taken over by the 132nd Rifle Division (comprising the 498th, 605th and 712th Rifle Regiments) and the 143rd Rifle Division (487th, 635th and 800th Rifle Regiments) from the 129th Rifle Corps. Over the next few days both sides went over to the defence, limiting themselves to reconnaissance patrols. With all quiet on the front, snipers came to the fore, the marksmen of the SS-Scharfschützen-Zug claiming 260 confirmed kills by February 24. They operated in no man’s land and also from camouflaged positions on the large ice-floes that were floating down the Oder river, thaw having set in on February 12.

On February 24, the III. Bataillon of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 26 was relieved at Nipperwiese in the northern sector by a company from Bataillon Aschenbach. (The paratroopers were later sent to Breslau to help defend the encircled and besieged city.)

Two days later, on February 26, the Soviets launched their final offensive to liquidate the bridgehead. In the south, the 605th Rifle Regiment, supported by ISU-122 assault guns from the 334th Guards Heavy Assault Gun Regiment, attacked towards Hills 66.4, 99.4, Hohen-Kränig and Hill 81.5. The fights raged all day but all the Soviets could gain was Hill 81.5. In the centre, following an artillery preparation, two battalions from the 487th Rifle Regiment and one from the 800th Rifle Regiment launched an attack on Grabow supported by four IS-2 tanks from the 70th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. The Soviets met stiff opposition and did not break through the German lines. The only important gain was in the north where two companies of the 635th Rifle Regiment, supported by four SU-76 assault guns from the 1416th Assault Gun Regiment, recaptured Nipperwiese. To sum up, the attacks of both divisions proved to be only minimally successful.

On that day, February 26, Skorzeny handed over command of his Kampfgruppe to SS- Obersturmbannführer Hans Kempin, previously in command of the 547. Volksgrenadier- Division. Skorzeny had already been relieved of his duties on the 21st but had stayed on another five days before effecting it.

The next day, February 27, Division Schwedt received orders to prepare evacuation of the bridgehead. According to the scheme the first to leave were the artillery and heavy flak, then on the night of March 1/2 the infantry, armour and covering units. Before the last German troops left, all the disabled tanks were mined, and buildings booby-trapped. The retreat went well and was unnoticed by the Soviets. The last unit leaving the Oder’s east bank was SS- Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600. Due to a lack of explosives, the bridge at Nieder-Kränig was only partially destroyed.

For their actions in the bridgehead, three SS officers were awarded the Deutsche Kreuz in Gold: SS-Hauptsturmführer Werner Hunke (the Kampfgruppe’s operations officer), SS-Hauptsturmführer Siegfried Milius and, posthumously, SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus. The battles that had raged for the Schwedt bridgehead for nearly a month had been very costly for both sides. Soviet casualties amounted to around 700 men killed and 1,400 to 2,000 wounded. Soviet losses in armour are hard to determine but are assumed to be between 30 and 40 tanks and assault guns. German casualty figures were also high, some 800 men having been killed and wounded. Practically every town and village in the bridgehead was reduced to rubble, Königsberg losing 75 per cent of its buildings and Grabow 60 per cent.

Emperor Galba Down: Otho versus Vitellius 69AD

Praetorian Guard at the First Battle of Bedriacum or Cremona, 69 AD

Map of the Roman Empire during 69AD, the Year of the Four Emperors. Coloured areas indicate provinces loyal to one of four warring generals. The Battle of Bedriacum refers to two battles fought during the Year of the Four Emperors (69 CE) near the village of Bedriacum (now Calvatone), about 35 kilometers (22 mi) from the town of Cremona in northern Italy. The fighting in fact took place between Bedriacum and Cremona, and the battles are sometimes called “First Cremona” and “Second Cremona”.

It was a cheap and ugly death that had overtaken Galba, the emperor, to be cruelly murdered by one of his own soldiers. Perhaps he would have avoided that if he had adopted Otho instead of Piso Licinianus. If he had done that, he may have lived a little longer to enjoy the power he had usurped.

On the other hand, perhaps not.

Military revolts almost always did fail, mainly for two reasons. First, all the Iulio-Claudians bar Nero had worked hard to build links with the soldiers independent of the chain of command. Soldiers received gifts on imperial accessions and anniversaries, gifts paid in good coin that often celebrated the military achievements of the Augustan family. A ruler who depended on military support could not afford to be indifferent, and sensible emperors made sure that they and those who featured in their dynastic plans visited camps and met the men. Take for instance the military revolt of Lucius Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus. When he tried to get the soldiers to march against Claudius the eagles could not be anointed with perfumed oils and dressed with floral garlands, and the standards resisted all efforts to remove them from their turf altars. The soldiers took it as an omen and backed down. For soldiers to go against an emperor, who was virtually a living god to them, was no easy matter by a long chalk.

The second obstacle was the fragmentation of the Roman élite, the only body from which any plausible successor could emerge. Empire wide at any one time there were some twenty-five senators commanding legions, and about as many governing provinces. Then from the ordo equester there were a clutch of governors of the smaller provinces, the commanders of the main fleets, the prefect of Egypt in Alexandria along with two praefecti legionum, and a few dozen procurators here and there. In Rome there were the rest of the senators, five hundred or so, and the commanders of the Praetorian Guards and of the cohortes urbanae. Staging a coup d’état meant forging some sort of consensus among all these. It did work out for Otho in Rome, but only at first and not elsewhere.

Marcus Salvius Otho was one of Nero’s closest friends and confidants, and as a member of the emperor’s inner circle this made him a powerful figure. But influence cannot be counted on to last for long, and Otho’s imperial favour wavered when the emperor took too strong a liking to his wife, the gorgeous but notorious Poppaea Sabina who was said to bathe in the milk of 500 donkeys, and the jilted husband was ‘banished’ to the remote Atlantic province of Lusitania to serve as its governor. This he did for ten years ‘with considerable moderation and restraint’.4 Out of revenge (and in hopes of great personal gains) Otho assisted Galba to become emperor.

When the elderly Galba, whose two sons had both died at a young age, adopted as his son and successor Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus, a long-named but a little-known scion of old Roman nobility – he was a descendant of those republican warlords Pompey and Crassus – a firm friend was turned into a mortal enemy. Although the Iulio-Claudians had used adoption, the idea that a successor might be selected on the basis of merit and not on the basis of his familial relationship to the emperor was a novel one. The thirty-one-year-old Piso Licinianus was highly acceptable to the Senate, enjoying as he did the considerable advantage of having been one of Nero’s victims, not, like Otho, one of his favourites. However, he was entirely unknown to the army and extremely inconvenient for others in the Galban camp. The scene was now set for the horrors of AD 69.

Friendship in these dark days is ironic at best, treacherous more commonly. The coal of resentment was perhaps burning brightly now, and so Otho decided to deal with Galba the biblical way: ‘No man, no problem.’ If Galba believed in omens, as he obviously did in prophecies, then the clearest sign of his impending downfall came on 15 January, the day of his death. While he was making a sacrifice on an altar before the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, the haruspex Umbricius, on examining the entrails of the victim, warned the emperor that danger was lurking and his liquidators were close by. Otho, by contrast, who was standing just behind Galba, interpreted this warning as a favourable omen. He felt sure of success when one of his freedmen came and informed him that the architect and the contractors were waiting for him. ‘It had been arranged thus to indicate that the soldiers were assembling, and that the preparations of the conspiracy were complete.’

Having turned to the praetorians, who happily proclaimed him emperor, Otho then had them remove Galba, along with the detested Piso Licinianus, who, for a brief five days, had been officially Servius Sulpicius Galba Caesar, son of Augustus. One cannot help but wonder, with the twilight of eternity closing down over his principate, if Galba recalled his own triumphant elevation and formal recognition all those months ago. Perhaps he felt a sudden cold certainty that this was how it had been meant to end, in a short and meaningless spate of violence, a fulfilment of a prophecy of the first emperor. For Augustus had once beckoned the young Galba to him, quizzed him on personal matters and finally conjured up a one-line horoscope in Greek: ‘You too will taste a little of my power, child.’9 And a little taste it was indeed. The Senate, in indecent haste, recognized Otho on the same day.

Otho’s claim to power depended partly on his association with Nero. In age and appearance, style and taste – even taste in women, we are told – he was closest to the man whom he had helped Galba to topple. In supplanting Galba, Otho revived causes that had been Nero’s. Otho was even billed as the ‘New Nero’ and ‘Otho Nero’, a desperate attempt to find popular support for his principate, which did initially work. The legions of the Danube took the oath of fidelity to Otho, as did those in Syria, Iudaea, Egypt and Roman North Africa. Fortune did not favour the new emperor, however, because, as Tacitus points out, law and order were in the hands of the soldiers who now named their own officers and demanded reforms, such as an end to the paying of bribes to centurions so as to escape menial tasks. Still, Otho’s biggest problem was the fact that his forces were scattered and he was immediately faced with Vitellius’ powerful provincial army (the seven Rhine legions having given him the imperial salutation), which was now marching rapidly on Rome. Though he had been the prime beneficiary of the toppling of his predecessor, he realized that it could be repeated to his cost. Otho therefore proposed a system of joint rule and was even willing to marry Vitellius’ daughter, or so said Suetonius. All this to no avail as we shall see, and besides, the Rhine tide could not be turned. Otho had no diplomatic cards left to play. For the emperor there was no other solution than to face his rival’s army.

On 14 March Otho left Rome and made camp at Bedriacum (now the village of Tornato), just north of the Po. On 14 April the decisive confrontation took place, in a neighbourhood dotted with vineyards somewhere between Bedriacum and Cremona. Badly outnumbered by that of Vitellius, Otho’s army was overcome, the restlessness of the praetorians being a factor in the result too. Vitellius’ generals had delivered on his behalf in open battle the knockout blow, and he travelled to Rome at his convenience. Deserted, Otho, having put his affairs in order and burnt all letters containing disparaging remarks about Vitellius, had taken his own life. He had been emperor for a little more than three months, dying ‘in the ninety-fifth day of his reign’.

Modern commentators, amateur and professional alike, have found one major problem with Otho’s campaign in the alluvial wetlands of the Po basin, namely its timetable. Galba fell on 15 January, but Otho did not quit Rome and head north until 14 March, the battle being fought one month later on the 14 April. Why did Otho start the campaign to save his principate so late? Was this a strategic blunder on the emperor’s part? Those who argue so are indulging in the second guessing that is so simple long after the event. Moreover, not only are they making too much of the luxury of hindsight, but they are also failing to consider three significant facts.

First, the Vitellian forces were certainly not expected to be in northern Italy by mid-April, the month the main Alpine passes were thawing. Unfortunately for Otho, the winter of AD 68/9 turned out to be an unusually mild one.

Second, the Othonians themselves were expecting to engage the Vitellian forces outside Italy and, as Tacitus says, ‘within the limits of Gaul’. Events would soon show how badly mistaken they were.

Third, Otho needed time to muster his army, particularly the four legions from Dalmatia and Pannonia.

This last point is more important than many a modern commentator will readily admit, but for myself, I shall make no bones about it. All Otho’s planning was frustrated by the Vitellian generals who led the invasion forces, Aulus Caecina Alienus, legate of legio IIII Macedonica, and Fabius Valens, legate of legio I Germania. Despite their faults, which seem to be many, they were both very able men who wasted no time in traversing the trouble-free Alpine passes much earlier than expected.19 Caecina Alienus even found the time en route to pick a quarrel with the Helvetii, many of whom, ill-armed and ill-trained, were either slaughtered or sold into slavery. But why did the Othonian legions seem slow to mobilize and march to join the emperor in Italy?

According to Tacitus the four legions of Dalmatia and Pannonia, ‘from each of which a vexillatio of 2,000 were sent on in advance’, exhibited ‘a tardiness of movement proportionate to their strength and solidity’. However, he does not provide us with any details on the progress of these Danube vexillationes marching to northern Italy. We do know that the vexillatio of legio XIII Gemina took part in a skirmish action prior to First Cremona, and that the whole legion fought at the battle itself, and the vexillatio of legio XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix actually made the battle but not its main body, which was ‘a few days away’. But what of the other three legions from Dalmatia and Pannonia, especially the one commanded by Marcus Antonius Primus? Of this matter concerning this particular legatus legionis more will be said later. The one legion from Dalmatia (XI Claudia pia fidelis) arrived far too late to participate in First Cremona, while the three legions from Moesia (III Gallica, VII Claudia pia fidelis, VIII Augusta) got no further than the town of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic.

Otho wasted no time in vain regrets for what might have been, and it is now time for us to consider the background to the council of war called by the emperor, the issue at stake being to either fight immediately or hold back and delay. Tacitus only offers one side of the argument, that is to say, the case for delaying. Plutarch, on the other hand, presents both sides of the argument, the high moral of the Othonian army after the initial skirmish with the Vitellians having prompted many senior officers to push for an immediate decision there and then, and besides, they saw no sense in waiting for the Vitellian army to be reinforced.

Among Otho’s generals was Caius Suetonius Paulinus, onetime legate governor of Britannia and nemesis of Boudica. It was he who had defeated, along with Publius Marius Celsus, Caecina Alienus during a brush at a location Tacitus calls ad Castores. This was a small wayside shrine on the Via Postumia rather less than thirteen Roman miles east of Cremona, which was dedicated to Castor and Pollux of heavenly origin, Leda’s twin boys, eternally fixed in the ephemeral stardust. However, victory gained, Suetonius Paulinus would not allow his men to follow up their advantage and was consequently accused of treachery. As Tacitus reports, ‘it was very commonly said on both sides, that Caecina and his whole army might have been destroyed, had not Suetonius Paulinus given the signal of recall’. Worse still, in the eyes of his accusers, now that Fabius Valens had joined his forces with those of Caecina Alienus, Suetonius Paulinus was very much in favour of further caution, arguing that the Vitellian generals, unlike themselves, would have no more troops to hand. Moreover, he reasoned, it was preferable to wait for the summer, by which time the Vitellians would be tightening their belts for want of supplies.

Notwithstanding, Otho overruled the very experienced Suetonius Paulinus and made the decision to fight post-haste, with no reason being given. This may seem astonishing. But we must remember, it is far easier to recognize disaster the day after, than the day before. To know and understand the motives of another person is practically impossible even when those concerned live in daily contact with each other, and to evaluate correctly the motives behind the decision made by the emperor on this occasion is well-nigh impossible. Both Tacitus and Plutarch speculate upon why the scales were tipped in favour of immediate action, the latter authority reckoning the high moral of the praetorians, champing at the bit and thirsting for victory, prompted Otho to stake all on the lottery of battle. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that there was a move afoot, initiated by the senior officers of both sides, to seek a peaceful settlement, and certainly some of these trimming gentlemen were quite prepared to jettison one or both emperors, and even contemplated offering the throne once more to Verginius Rufus.

At the time Otho made his fateful decision one does not need to be possessed of an overly vivid imagination to appreciate that the emperor was probably rather anxious about the loyalty of his soldiers, not to mention some of his senior officers, and a sustained defensive stand along the Po could possibly see his army gradually melt away. All these thoughts must have run through the emperor’s head as he made up his mind. Besides, if Plutarch is to be believed, with the enthusiasm of the praetorians at fever pitch, these stalwart Othonians would have been in no mood for a long, uneventful defensive campaign. And, like a good general, Otho decided quickly enough that the best defence is attack.

Let a general assemble his men for action and lead them on to the battlefield. He may not be prepared outwardly to admit it, but in the pit of his stomach he will probably know exactly how they may be expected to perform. He knows how well or badly they have been drilled in the use of their weapons, and how quickly they can change formation as the action demands. He knows how fast they have marched to the field. He knows if and when they were last rewarded or worse, perhaps they have been existing on promises. At his back he can hear their muttered grumbles, he can smell their fear. And being human himself he is caught up in the general feeling within his army, be it one of outright determination or abject terror. His outward calmness will have a limited effect, but will it be enough?

When his men advance into mêlée, the chips are well and truly down. The enemy, who until now are a mere faceless mass, are about to become individuals. It is kill or be killed. So we are faced with the simple truth of it, the fact that until each general puts his force to the test he has only a slight idea as to the final outcome. Sleeting missiles and cold steel are only partial battle winners. The key to victory is morale.

There does not seem to be much point in delving minutely into the meaning of the word ‘morale’, most people nowadays having a very good appreciation of what it means but, just for the record, let me quickly say that, in military terms, it is the state of mind of a single soldier in particular or of a unit in general, with special reference to his or its enthusiasm, expertise, training, faith in the immediate command element, physical state, fatigue and a host of other relevant factors. Morale, a movable factor, varies as the battle ebbs and flows, as casualties mount, as the enemy breaks and runs, as the unit standard bearer is cut down and his beloved standard is carried away in triumph by his killer. What it really boils down to is the question of whether soldiers will carry out the mission assigned to them, no matter how fraught with difficulties it may be, or whether, as a result of unwillingness – in this particular event, are they willing to fight and die for Otho’s cause or are they pressed men with little stomach for the job? – their experience, especially in regard to the battle losses they may already have suffered, or their lack of confidence or training, causes them to be incapable of obeying orders and to shrink from the perils involved in achieving the objective they have been assigned.

While, of course, it is abundantly apparent that the better the training, the greater the length of service, and the more genuine their enthusiasm for the cause for which they are fighting, the more likely it is that soldiers will obey orders that are likely to put them in the greatest danger, this yardstick of obedience and behaviour does not always hold good and, while still within the framework of the possible, the unpredictable could and did happen. Which brings us nicely back to First Cremona.

We are pretty sure that the Vitellian army included V Alaudae and XXI Rapax, and strong vexillationes from all the other five Rhine legions. There was also I Italica, which had been picked up en route at Lugdunum, the provincial capital of Gallia Lugdunensis. The Othonian army included I Adiutrix and XIII Gemina, as well as a vexillatio from XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix, the praetorians, and a force of gladiators from Rome. On the day, Otho himself remained behind with a sizeable force of praetorians at Brixellum (Brescello). Tacitus rightly sees this as a grave mistake on Otho’s part, not only because it meant the absence of those detailed to protect the emperor, ‘but the spirit of those who remained was broken, for the men suspected their generals, and Otho, who alone had the confidence of the soldiers, while he himself trusted in none but them, had left the generals’ authority on a doubtful footing’.

Leaving a strong detachment to guard their camp at Bedriacum, thereby reducing their numbers yet again, the Othonians marched towards Cremona along the Via Postumia. A short distance from that town they unexpectedly encountered the Vitellians, the Othonians evidently tired after their long march. It was now that the men of I Adiutrix, the leading Othonian legion, got it into their heads that their Vitellian opponents had decided to desert to their side. The cheers and greetings of the Othonians were answered by fierce yells and abuse from the Vitellians. This inauspicious incident was doubly unfortunate for the Othonians. It convinced the Vitellians that they had no fight in them, and the bizarre behaviour of the greenhorn I Adiutrix created the uneasy feeling amongst its fellow formations that it meant to forsake them.

One does not have to be a student of military matters to be aware that, in warfare, terrain features, whether they be woods, rivers or hills, exercise a powerful influence on the conduct of operations and that the possession of a certain piece of real estate, elevated ground for example, can be of inestimable value to a military force, operating greatly to the detriment of an enemy army. So, without further ado, we should turn to the real physical setting of these events, a flat landscape crossed by two linear features, the river Po and the Via Postumia, though visibility and movement were restricted by the water ditches, poplar trees, fields of millet and barley and vineyards. Thus, like the two opposing armies in chess, one the mirror image of the other, the Vitellians and the Othonians glared at one another across a maze of vineyards and watercourses, which made up the small deadly space between them. All that remained now was them to rush together and get to grips in the massive vulgar brawl provided by hand-to-hand combat.

Some of the heaviest fighting was where I Adiutrix, recently raised from the Misenum marines and eager to gain its first triumph, and the veteran XXI Rapax clashed head to head. Despite their initial faux pas, the former marines acquitted themselves extremely well, even managing to overrun the front ranks of their opponents and capture their eagle. The eagle, aquila, was the totem animal of the legions, so to lose it was the ultimate disgrace for a legion, and XXI Rapax gathered itself and charged the attackers in turn, which showed that the resolution of this legion was still unbroken and betokened the discipline of veteran soldiery. The fighting was obviously vicious, the legate of I Adiutrix, Orfidius Benignus, fell fighting as the Vitellians strove to retrieve their sacred eagle. This they failed to do, but they did harvest a number of standards and flags.

Much earlier we asked the question if the tall, fit and superbly disciplined men of legio I Italica could fight. In the centre of the battlefield Nero’s handpicked legionaries came face to face with the Otho’s praetorians who, as we know, had been itching for battle. The two sides, equally determined, slogged it out hand-to-hand, throwing against each other the weight of their armoured bodies and bossed shields.35 Before contact, the usual discharge of pila had been discarded, and gladii and axes were used to puncture metal and man. We will have more to say about Roman fighting techniques in a little while.

At the other end of the Othonian battle line, however, XIII Gemina and the vexillatio from XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix were roundly defeated by V Alaudae.

Tacitus’ details are rather vague at this point, but it appears that XIII Gemina turned on its heels and fled at the sight of the charging V Alaudae. This left the heavily outnumbered vexillatio of XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix in the lurch, and consequently it ‘was surrounded by a superior force’, and presumably either annihilated or the survivors given quarter.

While these events were unfolding I Adiutrix met its own fate. Reeling from the loss of its legate, and presumably many of those around him, the legion eventually gave way when the Batavi, flushed with their thumping victory over the gladiators, took them in the flank. Earlier in the day Otho had ordered Flavius Sabinus to stage a diversionary attack from the south bank of the Po, and consequently he had loaded his gladiators onto boats supplied by the classis Ravennas. Having landed on the other side and ventured a ways from the riverbank, they were suddenly pounced upon by the Batavi under Alfenus Varus. Most of them made it back to the river only to be cut down by other Batavi positioned there to block their escape. So, with the right and left now gone, we can safely speculate that the praetorians in the centre threw in the towel and called it a day. The surviving Othonians fled back to their distant camp at Bedriacum, and the next day, with some reluctance it should be said, took the oath of allegiance to Vitellius. These are the bare bones of First Cremona.

The Fall of Kalenga, October 1894

Chief Mkwawa

Map of Kalenga – Iringa in 1897 (showing the German attack)

Despite their success at Lugalo, and the raids which they were in the habit of launching against native enemies, Hehe strategy seems to have been essentially defensive. Oral tradition describes their immense confidence in the fort which Mkwawa had built at Kalenga, of which the people sang that ‘there is nothing which can come in here, unless perhaps there is something which drops from the heavens’ (Redmayne). It had originally been surrounded by a simple wooden stockade, but the king had sent an officer called Mtaki to the coast to study the Arab fortifications there, and – inspired by his report – had ordered it to be rebuilt in stone. Work began about 1887, and by 1894 the whole site – nicknamed ‘Lipuli’, or ‘Great Elephant’ – was surrounded by a stone wall about 2 miles long, 8 feet in height and up to 4 feet thick. The garrison was 3,000 strong and included the two Maxim guns captured at the Lugalo. However, the Hehe did not know how to operate these, so they played no part in the siege and were eventually recaptured intact by the Germans.

With hindsight Mkwawa’s confidence in this fort seems incomprehensible. The impressive perimeter was too long for the garrison to hold in strength, and there was no operational artillery to counter the German field guns, which had already destroyed stone forts at Isike and elsewhere in East Africa. Mkwawa must have been aware of this, because his garrison had been joined by a group of anti-German Nyamwezi who had survived the fall of Isike. Tom Prince, who fought in the siege, believed that if they had made a stand outside the fort the Hehe would probably have won another victory, but their ruler would not allow this. To make matters worse, Mkwawa still had his arsenal of 300 rifles under his personal control, and had only issued 100 of them when the attack came. According to Hehe tradition he had temporarily lost his wits, ordering his warriors to load their guns with blank charges, and placing his reliance on magic charms placed on the paths to deter the German advance.

So when the long-awaited German invasion force came, it encountered no resistance as it approached Kalenga and built a stockaded camp only 400 yards from the walls. The column was commanded by the provincial governor, Freiherr von Schele, and comprised three companies of askaris and a number of field guns. For two days the artillery battered the defences, then on 30 October a storming party under Tom Prince scaled the walls and broke into the fort. The walls themselves proved to be only lightly held, while the main body of the defenders was hidden among the huts inside, those with firearms shooting from concealed positions on roofs and in doorways. According to von Schele’s report (Schmidt), every house inside the stronghold had been specially prepared for defence, complete with loopholes and reinforced walls. But after four hours of fighting Mkwawa realized that the fort was lost: he allegedly tried to blow himself up inside one of the houses, but was led away to safety by his officers. At this point resistance collapsed and the Germans took possession of Kalenga with its stores of gunpowder and ivory. One German officer and eight askaris had been killed, with three Germans and twenty-nine askaris wounded. Von Schele claimed that 150 Hehe died in the fighting or were burnt to death when the attackers set fire to their huts. If correct this figure would represent only 5 per cent of the garrison, which does not imply a particularly determined defence: perhaps the Hehe were demoralized by the ease with which Prince’s men had surmounted the supposedly impregnable wall, or possibly Mkwawa’s departure had persuaded them that further resistance was useless.

But Hehe morale was quickly restored, and resistance continued in the hills outside the fort. On 6 November a force estimated at 1,500 warriors charged von Schele’s marching column on its return journey to Kilosa. They broke through the line of porters, but were stopped by the rifle fire of the askaris and retreated, leaving twenty-five dead behind. Once again the authorities tried to open talks with Mkwawa, but he wisely refused, no doubt aware of the German habit of arresting their enemies during negotiations. He continued to avoid attacking regular troops, while raiding the neighbouring tribes who had submitted. So in 1896 Prince was sent with two companies of askaris, each 150 strong, to establish a fortified post at Iringa, a few miles from the ruins of Kalenga. In an attempt to divide the Hehe, Prince recruited Mpangile, the victor of the Lugalo battle, who had recently surrendered to the Germans. He was given the title of ‘sultan’, and set up as a puppet ruler over the pacified Hehe villages. Mpangile gained nothing from his defection, however. In February 1897 Prince became suspicious that he was secretly ordering attacks on German patrols, and despite a lack of concrete evidence summarily executed him.

The war dragged on for two more years, but there were no more major engagements. The Hehe resorted to guerrilla warfare, ambushing isolated patrols and caravans and raiding the villages which were under German control. Prince sent his askaris out on regular patrols to hunt down hostile bands and burn the villages which sheltered them. On several occasions they came near to capturing Mkwawa, and gradually their scorched earth tactics bore fruit. Drought and famine intensified the pressure, and in the first half of 1897 more than 2,000 warriors came in and surrendered. Now only a hard core of loyalists remained around Mkwawa. In January 1898 one of Prince’s columns surprised the Hehe chief’s camp. Once again he got away thanks to a rearguard action by his followers, but many other warriors – described by Prince as ‘mere skeletons’ – were taken prisoner. Soon afterwards Mkwawa organized his last successful operation: an attack on a German outpost at Mtande, which took the thirteen-man garrison by surprise and annihilated it. The governor of German East Africa, General von Liebert, now offered a reward of 5,000 rupees for his head.

In July a patrol under a Feldwebel Merkl was following up information received from a local tribesman when it intercepted Mkwawa’s trail near the River Ruaha. The patrol followed it for four days, and eventually captured a boy who claimed to be Mkwawa’s servant and offered to lead them to where he was hiding. Near the village of Humbwe, Merkl was shown two figures lying on the ground, apparently asleep. It is an indication of how wary the Germans still were of their opponents that the Feldwebel made no attempt to take the men alive. Instead, obviously fearing a trap, he opened fire from cover. One of Merkl’s bullets struck Mkwawa in the head, but it was clear from the subsequent examination that both of the Hehe had already been dead for some time. Tired and ill, the king had first shot his companion and then himself. With his death all Hehe resistance ceased, but his surviving people continued to revere him, and in 1904 the Germans sent his sons into exile on the grounds that they were the focus of a potentially inflammatory cult honouring their father.

There was a further bizarre postscript to Mkwawa’s career. When the British took over Tanganyika in November 1918 at the end of the First World War, they received a request from the Hehe elders for the return of their king’s skull, which they said had been taken as a trophy by the Germans twenty years earlier. The German authorities continued to deny all knowledge of it, but the British governor of Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, continued to pursue the matter. He finally located the relic in 1953, in a museum in Bremen. It was formally identified by a German forensic surgeon from the bullet wounds, and in 1954 it was returned to Mkwawa’s grandson Chief Adam Sapi. It remains in the custody of the Hehe, as a memorial to their country’s finest hour.


Cameron, Thomson and Elton all have eyewitness accounts of the Hehe during Munyigumba’s reign. Redmayne’s article, based largely on anthropological fieldwork among the Hehe, provides a comprehensive overview of the history and organization of the kingdom. The main source for the war from the German side is Schmidt.