SEMPACH, 9 July 1386

1889 painting by Karl Jauslin

Swiss pike square in the battle near Sempach on the 9th of July, 1386. Painting by Hans Ulrich Wegmann (1638/41) from the Battle Chapel at Sempach.

Illustration of the battle of Sempach in the chronicle of Diebold Schilling.

The Battle of Sempach, 1386. (a) Phase I: Marching north-east from Sempach (1), Duke Leopold’s Austrian army is unaware of the approach of a Swiss force moving towards him on the same road (2). The Swiss vanguard and the Austrians’ first division spot each other and begin to deploy (3). (b) Phase II: Recognizing the threat from the Swiss phalanx, Leopold orders his lead division to dismount (1) and deploys light infantry crossbowmen (2) to fire into the Swiss battle square to begin chipping away at the formation (3). (c) Phase III: The Swiss battle square begins to lose cohesion (1) and Leopold orders his dismounted knights into the fight (2). The Austrians inflict heavy losses on the Swiss, and Leopold readies his mounted knights for a charge (3) to finish off the disintegrating phalanx, but before the duke can order his horsemen forward, the Swiss main body appears over the rise towards Hildisrieden (4) and heads down the slope towards the action. (d) Phase IV: The Swiss quickly deploy from column into battle square (1) and smash into the flank and rear of the dismounted first division (2). Fatigued after an hour of fighting and faced with a seemingly unstoppable mass of fresh halberd-wielding infantry, the Austrians begin to rout (3). Leopold leaps from his horse and orders his division forward against this new menace (4). (e) Phase V: Before Leopold can launch his counter-attack, the Swiss wheel their square in a devastating assault on the Austrian flank (1). Though the Austrian knights fight bravely, they are gradually overcome by the Swiss halberdiers (2). The count of Hohenzollern, commanding the Austrian reserve, panics and orders a precipitate retreat (3), causing the squires and pages tending to the second division’s horses to look to their own safety and flee as well, abandoning their masters, including Duke Leopold, to certain death at the hands of the Swiss infantry (4).

Date: 9 July 1386.

Location. On the shores of Lake Sempach 10 miles north-west of Lucerne, near Road 2. 186.

War and campaign: The War of Independence of the Eight Swiss Cantons.

Object of the action: The Austrian Hapsburgs were trying to crush the rebellions of Confederate cantons.

Opposing sides: (a) Cantonal commanders leading the forces of four cantons, (b) Duke Leopold III commanding an Austrian army. Forces engaged: (a) Swiss: all infantry. Total: 1,600. (b) Austrians: including a large contingent of cavalry. Total: 4,000.

Casualties: The Austrian dead totalled 676 men including Leopold, a margrave, 3 counts, 5 barons, 7 bannerets, and 28 Austrian and 35 Tyrolean knights. The Swiss lost some 120-200 men, more than half of them Lucernese.

Result: The Swiss victory had wide repercussions owing to the death of Leopold and the flower of the Hapsburg nobility. It established the Swiss military reputation. As a result of this battle (from which the military reputation of the Swiss in part dates) the imperial towns were able to negotiate a truce which lasted until February 1388.

The battle of Sempach represents one of the most significant encounters in Swiss history-if not for the decisive way in which it was won, then certainly for the w a y in which the halberd became the primary Swiss weapon.

During the last quarter of the fourteenth century waves of political and social unrest swept over all western Europe. In Germany, in order to combat the encroachment of the Princes and lesser nobility, the towns made a supreme effort at co-operation and created a union in 1381. To this, in February 1385, Zurich, Berne, Solathurn and Zug adhered. The Forest Cantons however refused to join and Lucerne offered only indirect support. Despite this Lucerne considered the moment favourable for an attempt to throw off the last vestiges of Hapsburg overlordship, and in December 1385 war was started by her seizure of the Hapsburg administrative centre of Rothenburg while the town of Sempach, discontented with Austrian rule, was given co-burghership. All the confederates except Berne joined in.

After the death of the Emperor Charles, the Habsburg dynasty was divided up and the western approaches to Austria were handed over to the precocious young Duke Leopold III. Leopold, anxious to reassert the claims of his house on Swiss territory, soon incurred the wrath of the Confederation, which by a succession of alliances now had five new member cantons: Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Zug and Glarus (1352), and Berne (1353). After hostilities between Lucerne and the Austrian fortress at Rothenburg in December 1385, war was declared; and by the middle of 1386 Leopold had mustered a formidable army of 4,000 knights and mercenaries, and carefully prepared his campaign.

However, the Confederates were well aware of his troop movements and swiftly marshalled some 1,600 troops from Lucerne and the three Forest Cantons. The two armies met to the northeast of Sempach by the hamlet of Hildesrieden. Here the two main Austrian columns were confronted by the Swiss van speedily advancing to gain their needed advantage of terrain. As it was, neither army had time to deploy effectively.

The Swiss, however, had achieved their aim, for Leopold had ordered his young knights in his ‘vaward battle’ to dismount-not only on account of the terrain, but also because the Duke wished to prove the effectiveness of the dismounted lance against the halberd. The Swiss for their part hastily formed a wedge with the wider right wing forming the point.

Shortly before mid-day the two armies crashed together in combat. With the first wave the dismounted Austrian vaward battle inflicted considerable losses in the front ranks of the Lucerne contingent, including the Hauptmann, Petermann von Gundoldingen. Soon the weight and superiority of the Austrian ‘pike’ began to show. Their crossbowmen gave the Swiss considerable trouble. Realizing the ineffectiveness of the frontal onslaught, the Swiss commanders ordered a sudden change in formation in which the rear left flank of the wedge widened to counter the Austrians from the flank. The arrival of fresh Swiss contingents from Uri gave new impetus to the ploy. Almost at once the Confederates succeeded in gaining a lodgement in the Austrian front. It is said that this was achieved by the brave feat of a certain soldier known as Winkelried, who threw his body at the Austrian ‘pike’, thus taking out a number of their points and snapping the shafts in the process. Once this decisive breakthrough had been achieved the Swiss halberdiers poured through, swinging their weapons above their heads and causing tremendous damage to the Austrians. On seeing this, Leopold ordered his second column to counter, but it advanced in considerable disorder and the momentum of the Swiss was too great for it to have any effect. Seeing the Austrian front fold, the rearguard panicked, and the train was the first to flee, taking the horses and leaving many of the dismounted knights stranded. Within two hours the battle had been turned and won. and 1,800 Austrians lay dead on the battlefield among 200 Swiss. Sempach illustrated the ability of the halberdier to hold his own against the knight, although the inappropriate nature of the terrain made it necessary for the Austrian horse to fight the battle on foot.


Battle of Wenzenbach 1504

Battle of Wenzenbach

Behamisch facht (Böhmisches Gefecht) aus dem Weißkunig, Holzschnitt 175. The Bohemians are positioned on top of a hill at the center; tree-covered hills recede into the background at the right. The Bohemian troops’ shields form a protective barrier while they point their spears outward against the cavalry approaching from the right and the foot soldiers from the left. A mass of spears pointing inward from both sides of the composition leads the eye to the doomed soldiers in the middle. On the left behind the advancing forces, Schönberg Castle burns, blasting billows of smoke upward into the sky.

Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilians I. (die Böhmenschlacht und der böhmische Trophäenwagen) von Albrecht Altdorfer (Regensburg um 1512–1515). In this work, begun around 1512, a section of the frieze attributed to Altdorfer himself shows two battles from the War of Succession displayed on banners, one helpfully inscribed `Der Bayrisch krieg’ (showing the Siege of Kufstein) and the other, `Die Behemisch slacht’ (Fig. 13.2). Altdorfer’s miniature faithfully follows Treitzsaurwein’s instructions, as behind the scene of the `Bayrisch krieg’, three men parade on horseback holding banners with the coats-of-arms of the three territories Maximilian claimed for himself at the Kölner Spruch.

Battle of Wenzenbach in Codex Germanicus. Note Emperor Maximillian I’s fall left foreground.

The `Bohemian battle’, also variously referred to as the `Battle of Wenzenbach’ and the `Battle of Schönberg’, took place on September 12, 1504 and was an important battle in the Landshut War of Succession, a conflict that marked the culmination of over a hundred years of territorial squabbling among the four Wittelsbach lines of Bavarian dukes. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the deaths of two dukes without male issue had consolidated the four duchies into two: Bavaria-Landshut and Bavaria-Munich. Lacking an heir, Duke Georg `the Rich’ of Bavaria-Landshut named the Palatine branch of the Wittelsbachs as his beneficiaries in his 1496 will, hoping to keep his territories out of the hands of the Munich line. However, these dynastic machinations were not legally valid, as they expressly went against the stipulations worked out by previous Wittelsbach rulers in their divisional agreement of 1392 (and its subsequent renewal in 1450) that when one line died out the territories would go to the other Bavarian Wittelsbach lines. Georg’s own advisors counseled him that the will could not be upheld. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I agreed and sustained the provision that should Georg die without male issue, the surviving Wittelsbach duke of Bavarian territories-Albrecht IV of Bavaria-Munich- would succeed him. In December 1503, Georg died without having rescinded his will of 1496, and the Landshut War of Succession broke out the next year between the Palatine supporters and the Munich faction with Habsburg and imperial backing. The Battle of Wenzenbach proved to be the largest and bloodiest meeting of troops during the war. Ludwig’s father, Albrecht IV, and his maternal uncle, Maximilian I, achieved a resounding victory over the Palatine forces, which included a huge number of Bohemian mercenaries (hence the battle’s nickname). The battle was not all smooth sailing, however. Maximilian’s horse stumbled and the emperor fell; he was almost trampled to death before being pulled free and helped back into the saddle by Duke Ernst of Braunschweig-Lüneberg. As a result of the Battle of Wenzenbach, the war subsequently fizzled to its eventual conclusion. At the Reichstag in July 1505, the Emperor brought an end to the conflict with the Kölner Spruch (verdict at Cologne), in which he gave rulership of the duchy of Bavaria-Landshut to his brother-in-law, Albrecht, and claimed for himself the three most profitable Bavaria-Landshut territories located in the Alps, in effect a commission for resolving the conflict. The Battle of Wenzenbach proved to have been a critical factor in the war’s eventual outcome.

Georg von Frundsberg

Georg von Frundsberg fought for the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I against the Swiss Confederacy in the Swabian War of 1499, where he had to realize that the era of the heavy armoured knights was well and truly over. In the same year he was among the Imperial troops sent to the aid of Ludovico Sforza, who had been deposed as Duke of Milan by King Louis XII of France. When Maximilian appointed him Tyrolean military captain, he recruited a powerful army of pike square infantry formations following the Swiss example.

Still serving Maximilian, he took part in the 1504 War of the Succession of Landshut, fighting against Count Ruprecht of the Palatinate and his father Elector Palatine Philip. Frundsberg distinguished himself leading a Landsknecht regiment into the decisive Battle of Wenzenbach, whereafter Maximilian I personally bestowed knighthood on him: armed with muskets and culverines, the Frundsberg regiment broke a breach into the wagon-wall of the Bohemian mercenaries (composed 300+ wagons), which were then routed. Convinced of the necessity of a native body of trained infantry, Frundsberg assisted Maximilian in the organization of the Landsknecht troops. One year later, he became the commander of the Landsknechts in the Habsburg Netherlands.

A detailed description of this battle can be found in Friedrich Dörnhöffer, `Ein Cyclus von Federzeichnungen mit Darstellungen von Kriegen und Jagden Maximilians I’, Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, 18 (1897): 45-46.

An Alternative Battle of Austerlitz, 1805

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

Allied (red) and French (blue) deployments at 1800 hours on 1 December 1805

The decisive attacks on the Allied center by St. Hilaire and Vandamme split the Allied army in two and left the French in a golden strategic position to win the battle.

The weather had turned bitterly cold and the news of the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar had further dampened French morale. The astonishing victory at Ulm, where the Austrian General Mack’s advance army had been surrounded and compelled to capitulate, though just two months earlier, seemed a distant memory. Even after the surrender of 60,000 Austrian troops and the occupation of Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, refused to come to terms with the Emperor of the French. The reason for this was the belated arrival of the Russian army, the other major participant in the Third Coalition of countries opposed to France along with Great Britain. Tsar Alexander’s men gave the Coalition force a decided numerical advantage, and Francis insisted in fighting on.

For his part, Napoleon needed a rapid resolution to the conflict. He was 700 miles from home and outnumbered. Back in France, the departure of the Grande Armée, and Nelson’s victory off the Spanish coast, had encouraged the supporters of the deposed Bourbon monarchy to rebel once again. There was also the possibility that Prussia, which was known to be mobilising its forces, would join the Coalition. Somehow Napoleon had to draw the Austrians and Russians into a battle on ground and under circumstances of his own choosing – and quickly. But how?

The combined enemy force, some 90,000 strong, was positioned towards Olmütz on the Morava River, in the present day Czech Republic, but then in the eastern regions of Francis’ empire. The Austro-Russian army had secured communications running back through Poland and Silesia. If Napoleon tried to attack the allied army, it could quite easily fall back on its lines of communication, and in doing so, further elongate the Grande Armée’s already severely over-stretched supply chain. Indeed, the French army was in poor shape, with their weapons, equipment, clothing and shoes all showing the signs of excessive wear. If the allied army did withdraw, the French were in no position to follow and if Prussia did declare war on France, Napoleon might well find his armies cut off from France and surrounded by enemies. Rarely had Europe’s finest general found himself in such a predicament.

The Field of Battle

The principle Austro-Russian force was concentrating at around Olmütz, some thirty miles to the northeast of Brünn (today’s Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city) and it was the area in the region of Moravia’s historic capital that Napoleon scouted to gain an appreciation of the ground to see if it could offer him any advantage. It was following one such reconnaissance that the soldier-historian Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, famously described an incident on the journey back from Wischau: ‘ turning off towards the south he entered a high plain contained between two embanked streams running from the north to the southwest.

‘The Emperor slowly and silently went over this newly discovered ground, stopping several times on its most elevated points, looking principally towards Pratzen. He carefully examined all its characteristics and during this survey turned towards us saying, “Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully, it is going to be a battlefield; you will have a part to play in it.” This plain was indeed to be within a few days the field of the Battle of Austerlitz.’

Having chosen his battleground, Napoleon had to bring on the action that he sought, and induce the Tsar and Francis to commit their troops to battle. He proposed to do this by pretending to be weak and worried, hoping that the prospect of defeating the great Napoleon would prove too tempting an opportunity to dismiss. Consequently, he planned to place a proportion of his army close to the main Austro-Russian force. This small, but significant French body, would give all the appearance of being isolated and within striking distance of the allied force. Hopefully, this would tempt the Tsar to attack and, once committed, Napoleon would then spring his trap, with the rest of Grande Armée suddenly appearing, to pounce on the unsuspecting enemy. It would a highly dangerous operation which would require perfect arrangement and impeccable timing.

Corps de Armée

Such an operation was only made possible because of the manner in which Napoleon had organised his army. It was divided into seven corps, whilst varying in size depending on the talents of its commander or the assignment it had been tasked with, each of which was a force of all arms capable of holding off an enemy of similar or larger numbers for at least a full day until reinforced. This meant that the corps in front of the Austro-Russian army could hold their own until the other corps marched to deliver the decisive blow. Added to this was the creation of a cavalry reserve of such a size that it could crash through the enemy’s line at the critical moment in a battle. This reserve totalled around 22,000 men including two full divisions of heavy cuirassiers.

Everything, though, would depend upon Napoleon’s brilliant chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, to bring all the Grande Armée’s corps together at the right moment. A corps of 30,000 men on the march took up five miles of good road, sixty guns with their caissons required two and a half miles, and 6,000 cavalry, riding four abreast, extended for about four miles. The length of such a column made it necessary for the corps to move along several parallel roads, keeping in mind the need for lateral communications if the situation required a sudden change of plan.

A Weak Front

The corps of Murat (Cavalry Reserve), Lannes (V Corps) and Soult (IV Corps) were to advance towards Wischau and Olmütz (present-day Olomouc) and occupy Austerlitz and the adjacent Pratzen Heights, with one cavalry brigade pushed towards Olmütz. This move would give all the appearance of an aggressive approach by Napoleon, indicating that he was still on the offensive. This was an obvious double-bluff. It would appear that Napoleon was putting a bold face on a rapidly deteriorating situation in the hope this would frighten the allies into remaining cautiously on the defensive. The Tsar, whose army constituted by far the bulk of the allied force and therefore who dictated strategy, would see through this and attack this comparatively small body of French troops which amounted to no more than 53,000 men. By 25 November, the move forward by this detached force was completed and Napoleon now had to wait to see if Tsar Alexander would take the bait.

Command of the Austro-Russian army was nominally under the command of Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, though he had to take orders from Alexander. The Tsar saw what he thought was a golden opportunity and wanted to attack immediately, as did many of the Austrian and Russian generals. Kutuzov saw no need for such action and the Emperor Francis, on whose territory this was all taking place, urged caution. If the allies were defeated, the Russians could simply abandon the expedition and return to Russia, whereas Francis would be forced into a humiliating capitulation. Francis, therefore, had the most to lose.

With all this in mind, an allied delegation was sent to Napoleon to discuss the possibility of an armistice, but in reality to get a closer look at the state of the French army. Napoleon played his part to perfection, being charming and accommodating and indicating that he was only too happy to consider discussing terms.

This did the trick. It seemed clear that Napoleon was in some trouble and would happily accept a negotiated way out of the difficulties he was in. Never had there been a better chance for any of France’s enemies, in ten years of almost continual warfare, to strike such a blow. The Tsar had indeed sniffed the bait, and was about to swallow it.

The Eve of Doom

On 28 November, Austro-Russian troops attacked Murat’s outposts and pushed them back towards Soult’s corps. This was attended by impossibly high armistice demands from the Tsar and the Emperor. With this Napoleon knew the allies were going to fall into his trap and urgent messages were sent to the other corps commanders to march for Brünn with all speed. Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps and Marshal Davout’s III Corps were soon on the road, with a thick cavalry screen ahead of them to conceal their movements from the enemy. Napoleon would still be outnumbered, but only slightly so, and he would have surprise on his side.

Before committing his troops to battle, the Tsar wanted confirmation that he was doing the right thing, and to allay the fears of those around him that doubted the wisdom of attacking Napoleon. So another delegation was sent to the French camp. Once again, Napoleon put on a display which made the returning Count Dologorouki tell the Tsar that ‘the French army was on the eve of its doom’.

Believing that he had convinced the enemy, Napoleon started the moves that would draw the enemy into his clutches, by ordering Soult to abandon Austerlitz and the Pratzen Heights, and in doing so to give all the appearance of near-panic. Kutusov was quick to take advantage of the French withdrawal and occupy the Heights.

No-one would relinquish the high ground if they were intent upon attacking, or even holding a defensive stance. The French, it seemed, knew the game was up and that they had better withdraw or be annihilated. To confirm this, the rest of the French cavalry pulled back from Wishau, again in an apparent state of disorder, followed now by the slow but increasingly confident Austro-Russian army. But as the Tsar’s men lumbered towards Austerlitz, Bernadotte’s I Corps arrived secretly behind Napoleon’s front, on 30 November, with Davout and the III Corps just a day’s march away. The following day was spent by Napoleon inspecting his troops and ensuring that everything was in place for the battle on the morrow.

He also issued an Order of the Day, which, rather than just appealing to the soldiers’ patriotism and sense of honour as such addresses usually did, actually explained an element of his plans for the battle:

‘SOLDIERS – The Russian army is before you, come to avenge the Austrian army of Ulm …

‘The positions which we occupy are formidable, and while the Russians march upon our batteries I shall attack their flanks.

‘Soldiers, I shall in person direct all your battalions; I shall keep out of range if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder and confusion into the ranks of the enemy. But if victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself the foremost to danger; because victory must not hesitate an instant today, when, above all, the honour of the French infantry is concerned, which bears with it the honour of the whole nation.

‘Note that no man shall leave the ranks under the pretext of carrying off the wounded. Let everyman be filled with the thought that it is vitally necessary to conqueror these paid lackeys of England who so strongly hate our nation.’

As well as taking them into his confidence regards his plans, Napoleon was using clever psychology here, in that if the men did not see Napoleon at their head, they knew they were on course for victory and would keep on fighting, believing they were succeeding.

That evening Napoleon slept until 22.00 hours and then rode around part of the battlefield with twenty men of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale, narrowly being captured by a party of Cossacks. He returned through the French camp. It was a foggy, moonless night and the Chasseurs lit torches of fir and straw to light the Emperor’s passage. ‘Seeing in the light of their torches a group of mounted officers approaching them, the soldiers quickly recognised the Imperial party, and many torches were lit,’ recalled Pierre Daumesil, ‘Soon the entire French line was ablaze, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” echoed across the Goldbach stream to the Russian lines. Regimental bands added their music to the exhilaration of the moment.’ Napoleon was moved by the scene, and as he later settled back in his tent, he was heard to murmur: ‘This has been the finest evening of my life.’ The following day would be remembered as the worst of his thirty-five years.

The Fog of Austerlitz

The field of battle for 2 December 1805, stretched from the villages of Welatiz and Bosenitz, just to the north of the road from Brünn to Austerlitz in the north, to the lake of Satschan, about six miles to the south. From east to west it spread from the Goldbach stream to the town of Austerlitz itself. The ground is slightly hilly but fairly open, dominated by the Pratzen plateau, with a wide, swampy region running northeast from the Satschan lake, along the River Littawa, on the eastern base of the plateau towards Austerlitz. On the day, the Austro-Russian army amounted to something between a little more than 85,000 to almost 88,000, compared to the 73,000 which Napoleon would eventually have under his command.

The fog of the night had not lifted when dawn broke on 2 December which hindered the assembly of the Austro-Russian formations. The allied plan, devised by the Austrian General Franz von Weyrother, was to direct the main effort against the seemingly weak French right, which was held by Soult. This would cut Napoleon’s line of retreat back to Vienna. As the French flank was being turned, another strong body would attack along the Olmütz-to-Brünn road on the French left, which also appeared to be held by a single corps, that of V Corps. What von Weyrother did not know was that already Bernadotte had joined Lannes, and Davout was closing in upon Soult. Von Weyrother’s plan also called for other columns to move from the Pratzen Heights as the French reeled under the blows of the two flanking columns to strike at the French centre to complete the victory. There were two complimentary flaws in this plan. The concentration of effort on the two flanks meant that the allied centre was very weak, and the Pratzen Heights – the high ground that dominated the battlefield – would be abandoned. Apparently General Langeron pointed out these dangers but his concerns were ignored. Napoleon, it was argued, was looking for a way out of the dangerous position he was in and he would never dream of sending troops to actually attack. This, though, was exactly what Napoleon hoped would happen.

Once the Russians and Austrians were on the move, a mass of 65,000 men would erupt from behind the Santon stream at its confluence with the Goldbach to confront the allied main force, whilst the divisions of Vandame and Saint-Hilaire (16,000 men and two batteries of artillery), would seize the Pratzen Heights. This would split the allied army in two, and whilst the enemy’s right flanking move was held by Lannes corps, the main French force would wheel round to the south and crush the left half of Kutuzov’s army. It was a brilliant and ambitious plan but, if the Russians abandoned the Heights, it could hardly fail.

First Moves

Tsar Alexander was anxious for the start of the great victory he visualized and, as the minutes ticked by he finally voiced his growing frustration. He addressed his commander in chief: ‘Mikhail Illarionovich why haven’t you begun your advance?’ Kutusov replied ‘I am waiting for all the columns of the army to get into position.’

‘But we are not on the Empress’s Meadows [a parade ground near St Petersburg], where we do not begin a parade until all the regiments are formed up!’

‘Your Highness, if I have not begun it is because we are not on parade, and not on the Empress’s Meadow. However, if such be Your Highness’s order …’

Ready or not, the Austro-Hungarian divisions moved off, and by 06.00 hours most of the attacking formations were on the move. General Buxhwden was in overall command of the main striking force which would crush the French right, and it was the five battalions of General Kienmayer’s 1st Infantry Brigade of his Advance Guard, leading the way, which first came into contact with the French as the Austrians approached the village of Telnitz on the banks of the Goldbach. The Austrians, anxious to show the Russians that they could fight as well as themselves, assaulted the village ‘with great resolution’. The ground, though, was difficult as the Goldbach at this point ran in ditches, behind which was a low height covered with vineyards and houses. Telnitz was held by a battalion of line infantry, the 3rd, as well as the Légion Corse. ‘Covered behind the inequalities of the ground,’ wrote the nineteenth century historian, Adolph Theirs, ‘these clever tirailleurs, taking cool aim at the hussars that had been sent forward in advance, brought down a great number of them … The Austrians, tired of a murderous conflict productive of no result, assaulted the village of Telnitz in a body of five united battalions which did not succeed in penetrating into it owing to the firmness of the 3rd of the line, which received them with the courage of well-tried troops.’

The other columns of Buxhwden’s force (First Column, Lieutenant General D. Doctorov; Second Column Lieutenant General A. Langeron; Third Column Lieutenant General I. Przbyswski; Fourth Column, lieutenant generals M. Miloradovich and J. Kollowrath) followed but not in the coordinated fashion that Von Weyrother would have hoped, but Kutuzov had predicted. Eventually, though, the allied main force overpowered the French left wing and Davout’s corps had still not reached the battlefield.

This was a critical moment in the battle. All Napoleon’s calculations were based on being able to hold back Buxhwden until he had taken the Pratzen Heights and broken through the Russian centre. Fortunately, Berthier’s arrangements proved to be satisfactory as usual, and the first until of III Corps finally marched into view. Corporal Blaise was with Heudelet’s division which was ordered to counter-attack: ‘General Heudelet put himself at our head and we marched boldly forward in battle order until we were halted by a ditch which was too large for us to cross. General Heudelet thereupon ordered our colonel to move us over a bridge away to our left. This necessary movement was the cause of our undoing, for the soldiers were so eager to come to grips with the vaunted enemy infantry that they disordered their ranks … and when we tried to reform our battle order under heavy fire, some Austrian hussars … in the thick smoke and fog which was a feature of the day, wounded a great many of us and captured 160 man including 4 officers.’

Despite such setbacks, Davout’s men helped recover Telnitz, only for a renewed assault by General Doctorov’s column to succeed in recapturing the village. Though the allies had the upper hand in the south, the easy breakthrough which had been anticipated by von Weyrother, upon which the whole of his plan depended, had not yet happened. This was in part because the Russian Second Column had become involved in what has been described as a massive traffic jam caused by the decision from the Russian staff on the Pratzen Heights to move the Fifth (Cavalry) Column across the front of Langeron’s men, causing a delay of almost an hour. All this meant that the French right was holding, just as Napoleon hoped it would, and the battle was developing exactly as Napoleon and anticipated.

Crossing the Goldbach

Eventually, though far later than had been planned, Langeron arrived on Doctorov’s right followed by Przbyswski’s Third Column on the right. Telnitz was retaken and the allies began to cross the Goldbach. It seemed that by sheer weight of numbers that the allies were overcoming the French. Then, as they crossed the stream, they were attacked by General Bouchier with six regiments of dragoons, followed by the rest of Heudelet’s infantry, and the Russians were thrown back in disorder. Davout’s men continued to push forward, taking advantage of the confusion in the Russian ranks. Astonishingly, a total of only 10,500 Frenchmen had not only stopped, but driven back, more than 50,000 Russians and Austrians. Often in history smaller, well disciplined and organised, bodies of troops, have defeated much larger enemy forces which are much harder to control and manoeuvre. Such was the case on the morning of 2 December on the banks of the Goldbach stream.

‘It was not yet eight o’clock,’ wrote Captain Segur, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, ‘and silence and darkness were still reigning over the rest of the line, when, beginning with the heights, the sun suddenly breaking through the thick fog disclosed to our sight the plateau of Pratzen growing empty of troops from the flank march of the enemy columns. As for us who had remained in the ravine which defines the foot of the plateau, the smoke of the bivouacs and the vapours which, heavier on this point than elsewhere, still hung around, concealed from the Russians our centre deployed in columns and ready for the attack.’

Napoleon turned to Soult, who was to lead the assault upon the Pratzen, and asked him, ‘How long will it take to move your divisions to the top of the Pratzen Heights?’ The marshal replied, ‘Less than twenty minutes, Sire, for my troops are hidden at the foot of the valley, concealed by fog and campfire smoke.’ Napoleon hesitated for a moment, and then said, ‘In that case we will wait another quarter of an hour.’ Napoleon wanted the last of the allied columns to leave the heights before delivering the blow that would decide the battle, and end the Third Coalition.

But the sun which shone on the Pratzen Heights suddenly penetrated the mist that had concealed Soult’s division. The wary Kutusov, who had been opposed to the entire idea of attacking the French at all, immediately understood what he saw – a large body of French infantry that had not been engaged which was poised to cut right through the Austro-Russian line. The normally lethargic Russian general was a bustle of activity. The troops still on the Heights preparing to march down the slope were halted and orders were sent recalling Kollowrath’s Austrians and Miloradovitch’s twenty-five Russian battalions which were descending on the left towards Sokolnitz.

Napoleon had waited too long. For many years afterwards, Russians and Austrians who had been at the battle, would talk of the ‘sun of Austerlitz’, which had shed its light on the French, and shone its glory upon the Tzar and the Emperor of Austria.

Another few minutes and Miloradovitch would have been engaged and unable to extract his troops in time. But Kutusov’s urgent appeal reached the Russian general in time, and he wheeled his battalions round and headed back up the slope before Soult could begin his advance.

It was a race for the top of the Heights, but, despite the speed of the French columns, it was a race the Russians were always going to win. As Soult neared to within 200 yards of the summit, he saw the dense line of green-jacketed infantry stretched across the skyline.

To loud cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ Thiébault’s and Saint-Hilare’s divisions attacked with their usual impetuosity. But the Russians were stern opponents, and after a single volley, the men of the Novgorod, Apsheron, Little Russia and Smolensk regiment strode out purposefully, bayonets levelled.

The clash of arms was a terrible one, but weight of numbers and gravity was in the favour of allies. As the French were slowly pushed back, two brigades of von Lichtenstein’s cavalry, which had also been summoned by Kutusov, crashed into rear of Soult’s isolated regiments.


Witnessing the confused scene on the slopes above, Napoleon knew that the battle hung in the balance. True to his word, he galloped up the Heights to show his men that the result was in doubt. But when the French troops saw their Emperor, it only served to confirm what they knew – they were in trouble. Instead of galvanizing them into greater efforts, it had the opposite effect. It was clearly a case of every man for himself.

The French soldiers had never known defeat under Napoleon. They had supreme confidence in him, believing he would never fail. All that was shattered in moments. Napoleon watched the Grande Armée dissolve in front of him. It was the end of the dream.

The news of the French defeat soon reached Berlin and King Frederick William responded quickly, ordering those regiments that were fully mobilzed to take advantage of the situation, cutting off a large part of the retreating French infantry divisions. The Grande Armée was destroyed. So sluggish had been Kutusov’s pursuit, Napoleon could well have rallied his men and, with the help of reinforcements from France, held the allies on the Rhine, but the intervention of the Prussians proved fatal to what was to prove to be Napoleon’s weak grip on his adoptive country.

Though there was still a strong army in the south fighting the Austrians in Italy, there was little hope for France. Whilst Napoleon dreamt up ambitious schemes to attack the approaching enemy columns, his marshals knew that the only way to avoid France being overrun was to remove Napoleon. So it was, that on Christmas Eve, 1805, Louis XIII returned to Paris and was installed in his capital. Napoleon, however, was granted generous terms by the allies and he was permitted to retire with dignity to Corsica, the island of his birth. His had been a great adventure – until it came to an end on a low range of hills to the north of Vienna.


The Battle of Austerlitz was probably Napoleon’s greatest victory, which resulted in the destruction of the allied army. Around 27,000 Austrians and Russians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, amounting to more than thirty per cent of the total allied force. This happen because Tsar Alexander had taken over command of the allied army from Kutusov, who had shown nothing but distain for von Weyrother’s plan and had argued against attacking Napoleon in the first place. Once Napoleon saw the Russians moving off the Pratzen, he send Soult’s IV Corps up the slope to push through the now extremely thin allied centre, cutting Kutusov’s army in two. Supported by Bernadotte’s corps and the Imperial Guard, Soult then swung round to the south, trapping Buxhwden’s force against the Satschan lakes. The allied troops tried to escape across the frozen lakes, and seeing this, Napoleon ordered up twenty-five cannon to fire upon the ice. The effect of the cannon balls, crashing onto the ice which was already under severe strain from the thousands of fleeing soldiers and the heavy artillery teams, began to crack. Though the number of men drowned in the freezing water was thought to have been many thousands, when the lakes were drained shortly after the battle only a few corpses were recovered. What the breaking of the ice did was block the allies only line of retreat, which why as many as 12,000 became prisoners.

The day after the battle the Emperor Francis sought an armistice, whilst the remnants of the Russian army retreated to the east. When news of the scale of the Austro-Russian defeat reached London, Prime Minister William Pitt is reported to have said, in reference to a map of Europe, ‘Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.’ He was proven, at least partially, correct. The Third Coalition was brought to a speedy end and the map of Europe was redrawn. The principle effects of this was that Napoleon created a grouping of the western German states, called the Confederation of the Rhine, to act as a buffer between France and Prussia. These states were formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire. Robbed, therefore of much of his authority Francis relinquished his title and the Holy Roman Empire, which had stood for almost 900 years, ceased to exist. Its demise was unquestionably one of the factors that enabled Prussia to become the dominant Germanic country which, in 1871, absorbed the smaller German states to form the German nation that we know today.


October 732

Forces Engaged

Franks: Unknown. Commander: Charles Martel.

Moslems: Approximately 20,000-80,000. Commander: Abd er-Rahman.


Moslem defeat ended the Moslem’s threat to western Europe, and Frankish victory established the Franks as the dominant population in western Europe, establishing the dynasty that led to Charlemagne.

Historical Setting

During 717–718, Moslem forces tried and failed to capture Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. That was a major setback for the Moslems, whose forces (intent on spreading their faith) had been virtually unstoppable in conquests that spread Islam from India to Spain. Although that defeat kept the followers of Mohammed out of eastern Europe for another seven centuries, it must have motivated other Moslems to attempt to spread the faith into Europe via another route: North Africa into Spain into western Europe.

Moslem forces had spread across the southern Mediterranean coast through the later decades of the seventh century and in the process of converting their conquered enemies absorbed them into the armies of the faithful. In North Africa, some of the most ardent converts were Moors (called Numidians by the Carthaginians of Hannibal’s time), the Berbers of modern Morocco. In 710, Musa ibn Nusair, Moslem governor of the region, decided to attack across the Straits of Gibraltar and raid Spain. Without ships, however, he turned to Julian, a Byzantine official, who loaned him four ships. Julian did this because of a grudge he bore against Roderic, the Visigoth king that ruled in Spain. With four ships able to carry 400 men, Musa launched a raid that netted him sufficient plunder to whet his appetite for more.

In 711, he ferried 7,000 men across the straits under Tarik ibn Ziyad. Although this was originally intended to be simply a larger raid, Tarik’s victory over Roderic opened the Iberian peninsula to Moslem troops. Within a year, Musa was back in command and master of Spain. Recalled to the Middle East by the caliph, Musa’s successor, Hurr, pushed deeper into Spain and through the Pyrenees into the province of Acquitaine during 717–718. Over the next several years, Moslem power ebbed and flowed through southern, central, and even northern Gaul (France).

The arrival of the Moslems was fortuitously timed, as internal feuds divided the population of Gaul. The dominant population, the Franks, were in a slump. Upon the death of Pepin II in 714, the Frankish throne was disputed between Pepin’s legitimate grandson and illegitimate son. Eudo of Acquitaine saw an opportunity to escape Frankish domination, so he declared his independence and received in return the wrath of Charles Martel, Pepin’s illegitimate son who finally succeeded to the throne in 719. After defeating Eudo, Charles then turned toward the Rhine River to secure his northeastern flank. He made war against the Saxons, Germans, and Swabians until 725, when Moslem successes in southern Gaul diverted his attention.

While Charles was off fighting in Germany, Eudo feared for his future because he was located between aggressive Moslems to the south and a hostile Charles to the north and east. Eudo entered into an alliance with a renegade Moslem named Othman ben abi Neza, who controlled an area of the northern Pyrenees. That alliance provoked Abd er-Rahman, Moslem governor of Spain, who marched against Othman in 731. After defeating him, Abd er-Rahman decided to drive deeper into Gaul, spreading Moslem influence and, more importantly, looting the wealthy Gallic countryside. He defeated Eudo at Bordeaux and proceeded north toward Tours, whose abbey was reputed to hold immense wealth. To spread as much terror and accumulate as much loot as possible, Abd er-Rahman divided his army, probably some 80,000 strong, into several columns and sent them pillaging.

Eudo fled to Paris, where he met with Charles and begged his aid. Charles agreed on the condition that Eudo would swear loyalty and never again try to remove himself from Frankish dominion. With that promise, Charles gathered together as many men as he could and marched toward Tours.

The Battle

The army that Charles amassed was probably some 30,000 men, a mixture of professional soldiers whom he had commanded in campaigns across Gaul and Germany and a mixed lot of militia with little weaponry or military skills. The Franks were hardy soldiers that armed themselves as heavy infantry, wearing some armor and fighting mainly with swords and axes. How much the Franks depended on cavalry has been disputed, for infantry had long dominated the European battlefield, and cavalry was only at this time becoming common. The strength of both infantry and cavalry was their determination in battle, but their weakness was their almost complete lack of discipline. Further, Charles lacked the wherewithal to maintain any sort of supply train, so his army lived off the land.

The army he marched to face was made up primarily of Moors who fought from horseback, depending on bravery and religious fervor to make up for their lack of armor or archery. Instead, the Moors fought with scimitars and lances. Their standard method of fighting was to engage in mass cavalry charges, depending on numbers and courage to overwhelm any enemy; it was a tactic that had carried them thousands of miles and defeated dozens of opponents. Their weakness was that all they could do was attack; they had no training or even concept of defense. They, like the Franks, lived off the land.

The two armies approached each other in the early autumn of 732. Abd er-Rahman’s army had succeeded in plundering many towns and churches, and they were overwhelmed with their loot. They met in an unknown location somewhere south of Tours, between that city and Poitiers. Abd er-Rahman was surprised by the arrival of the Franks. Exactly how large the opposing forces were is the point of much disagreement. The Moslem army is numbered by modern writers as anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000, whereas the Frankish army has been described as both larger and smaller than those numbers. Abd er-Rahman faced a dilemma: to fight, he would have to abandon his loot, and he knew that his men would balk at that order. Luckily for him, Charles did not attack, but merely kept his distance and observed the Moslems for about a week. Abd er-Rahman used that break to send men south with the loot, where they could recover it after they beat the Franks. In the meantime, Charles was awaiting the arrival of his militia, whom he used primarily as foragers for his fighting men and less as fighters themselves.

After 7 days of waiting, watching, and certainly a bit of probing by both sides, Abd er-Rahman felt his loot sufficiently safe to focus on the battle. The exact date of the battle is unknown, although some sources (Perrett, The Battle Book) name 10 October. Charles knew the nature of the Moslem fighting style, and he had just the troops to counter it. As the Moslems massed to launch their charge, Charles formed his men into a defensive square made up primarily of his Frankish followers, but supplemented with troops from a variety of tribes subject to the Franks. No detailed account of the battle exists, but later reports relate that the Moslem cavalry beat unsuccessfully against the Frankish square, and the javelins and throwing axes of the Franks inflicted severe damage on the men and horses as they closed. The Moslems, knowing no other tactic, continued to attack and continued to fail to break the defense. Isidorus Pacensis wrote staunch Frankish square: “The men of the North stood motionless as a wall; they were like a belt of ice frozen together, and not to be dissolved, as they slew the Arab with the sword. The Austrasians [Franks from the German frontier], vast of limb, and iron of hand, hewed on bravely in the thick of the fight.” It was this display of strength that earned for Charles his nickname Martel, or “the Hammer.” Eudo, fighting with Charles, led an attack that turned the Moslem flank; they either panicked or feared for their loot. Creasy (Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, p. 166) quotes a Moslem source: “But many of the Moslems were fearful for the safety of the spoil which they had stored in their tents, and a false cry arose in their ranks that some of the enemy were plundering the camp; whereupon several squadrons of the Moslem horsemen rode off to protect their tents.” The departure of some of the cavalry apparently had a bad effect on the rest, and the Moslem effort collapsed.

At day’s end, the Moslems withdrew toward Poitiers. Charles kept his men together and did not pursue, thinking that the battle would resume the following day. In the night, however, the Moslems learned that Abd er-Rahman had been killed in the fighting, so they fled. When the Franks found the Moslem camp empty of men the next morning, they contented themselves with recovering the abandoned loot. No accurate casualty count for either side was recorded.


Survivors of Abd er-Rahman’s army retreated back toward Spain, but they were not the last Moslems that ventured across the Pyrenees in search of easy wealth. They were, however, the last major invasion. Pockets of Moslem power remained along the southern frontier and Mediterranean coast until 759, but, for the most part, Islam settled into Spain and went no farther. Although the effectiveness of Charles Martel’s tactics was certainly a factor, it was internal struggles within Islam that limited continued expansion. When factional fighting broke out in Arabia, the effects spread throughout the Moslem empire. This not only divided the fighting forces, it also isolated the Moslem occupants in Spain from any religious leadership from the Middle East. Thus, consolidation seemed preferable to expansion.

Had the Moslems been victorious in the battle near Tours, it is difficult to suppose what population in western Europe could have organized to resist them. On the other hand, Abd er-Rahman’s force was rather limited, and the religious schism that flared soon after the battle could well have stopped his campaigning as effectively as did the Franks. Thus, whether Charles Martel saved Europe for Christianity is a matter of some debate. What is sure, however, is that his victory ensured that the Franks would dominate Gaul for more than a century. For a couple of centuries, the ruling Merovingian dynasty had produced young, weak kings that ceded much of their ruling power to men who held the position of majordomo, or mayor of the palace. As the representative from the king to the aristocracy, the majordomos were able to coordinate public activity more than order it. By the time of Pepin II, however, the role of the majordomo was virtually indistinguishable from that of the king, and the monarch ruled in name only. Indeed, Charles was majordomo without a king, and upon his death in 741 his sons claimed kingship and divided the realm between them. During this same period, the aristocrats began exercising hereditary rights to their lands, rather than receiving their positions at the king’s pleasure. This was the start of the feudal era, which dominated European society for centuries. To exercise control over these aristocrats, Charles Martel also granted land in payment for military service rendered, but to acquire that land he had to take it from the greatest landowner, the Catholic Church. That earned him the displeasure of Rome, but similar actions on the part of Charles’s grandson actually brought the military power of the Franks and the religious authority of the church closer together. His grandson was also called Charles, later termed “the Great,” or Charlemagne. Under his rule, the Franks rose to their greatest power both politically and militarily.

The nature of the European military changed after this battle. The concept of heavy cavalry was forming in the eighth century. The introduction of the stirrup made stability on horseback possible, and stability was vital for both carrying an armored rider and using heavy lances. The age of the armored knight, a fighting machine that was both the result and the foundation of feudalism, was being born. Although infantry remained key to winning European battles, it was paired with or subordinated to cavalry from this point until the fifteenth century.

Thus, the establishment of Frankish power in western Europe shaped that continent’s society and destiny, and the battle of Tours confirmed that power.


Creasy, Edward S. Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. New York: Harper, 1851; Dupuy, R. Ernest, and Trevor Dupuy. Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: Harper & Row, 1970; Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World, vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1954; Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Translated by Ernest Brehaut. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916; Oman, Charles. The Art of War in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1953 [1885].

Battle of Telamon 225 BC

The Gallic War II – The Battle of Telamon (225 BC)

It is only during the Gallic retreat northwards that Polybius reintroduces the second Consul, C. Atilius Regulus. We have no details of his activities in Sardinia, and only know that he was detained long enough to leave eastern Italy under-defended, allowing the Gallic tribes to push through unopposed. We must assume that when the Gallic army did invade western Italy, messengers were sent to him at the same time as Aemilius in the east. Again, Polybius does not provide us with a timescale, but whilst events were transpiring at the Battle of Faesulae, Atilius seemingly ended his campaign in Sardinia (though we are not told with what level of success) and transported his army across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the city of Pisa. Polybius states that Atilius marched south towards Rome, which he must have assumed was the intended objective of the Gallic force. At this point it is clear that he did not know of the events of Faesulae or that the Gauls were heading directly towards him. He naturally sent scouts out ahead of the main force and it was they who first encountered the retreating Gallic army near the city of Telamon (modern Talamone) on the Etrurian coast:

When the Celts were near Telamon in Etruria, their advanced foragers encountered the advance guard of Caius and were made prisoners. On being examined by the Consul they narrated all that had recently occurred and told him of the presence of the two armies, stating that the Gauls were quite near and Lucius behind them. The news surprised him but at the same time made him very hopeful, as he thought he had caught the Gauls on the march between the two armies.

The Battle of Telamon (225 BC) – Polybian Version

Thus, through a change of circumstance Atilius found his fortunes drastically changed; from having been held too long in Sardinia and missing the Gallic invasion, he now found that he was in prime position to fight and defeat the Gauls, and set his army to give battle. We are fortunate to have a detailed narrative of the battle preserved in Polybius, probably based on a first-hand account from Fabius Pictor:

He ordered his Tribunes to put the legions in fighting order and to advance thus at marching pace in so far as the nature of the ground allowed the attack in line. He himself had happily noticed a hill situated above the road by which the Celts must pass, and taking his cavalry with him, advanced at full speed, being anxious to occupy the crest of the hill before their arrival and be the first to begin the battle, feeling certain that thus he would get the largest share of credit for the result.

It seems that Atilius was over-eager to claim the glory of defeating the Gauls for himself and neglected to link up with the army of Aemilius, which was trailing the Gauls. Once again two Roman commanders failed to link up properly and deliver a decisive blow to the Gauls, and utilise the numbers of both armies catching the Gauls in a pincer. Nevertheless, Atilius’ decisiveness had allowed him to select his own battle site and occupy the high ground. The first clash of the battle was a light skirmish between an advance force of Gallic cavalry and infantry and Atilius’ cavalry on the top of the hill:

The Celts at first were ignorant of the arrival of Atilius and imagined from what they saw, that Aemilius’ cavalry had got round their flank in the night and were engaged in occupying the position. They therefore at once sent on their own cavalry and some of their light-armed troops to dispute the possession of the hill. But very soon they learnt of Caius’ presence from one of the prisoners brought in.

Although Polybius gives us no details of this first skirmish between the two sides at Telamon, his narrative does indicate that the Gauls were able to take prisoners and thus ascertain the nature of the threat they faced, and were able to make the appropriate tactical decisions. Thus Atilius seems to have lost some of the initiative:

[the Gauls] lost no time in drawing up their infantry, deploying them so that they faced both front and rear, since, both from the intelligence that reached them and from what was happening before their eyes, they knew that the one army was following them, and they expected to meet the other in their front.

Whilst the fighting was continuing for the hill between Atilius’ cavalry and the Gauls, fortune again favoured the Romans, as Aemilius was now close enough to learn of Atilius’ disposition and lend aid:

Aemilius, who had heard of the landing of the legions at Pisa but had not any idea that they were already so near him, now, when he saw the fight going on round the hill, knew that the other Roman Army was quite close. Accordingly, sending on his cavalry to help those who were fighting on the hill, he drew up his infantry in the usual order and advanced against the foe.

Thus a third force of cavalry entered the battle on the hill, to join Atilius’ cavalry and the Gallic cavalry supported by Gallic infantry. Away from the hill, it seems that Aemilius was in fact closer to the main body of the Gallic army than Atilius’ main force, which must have been further ahead. Polybius presents us with a detailed disposition of the Gallic force:

The Celts had drawn up facing their rear, from which they expected Aemilius to attack, the Gaesatae from the Alps and behind them the Insubres, and facing in the opposite direction, ready to meet the attack of Caius’ [Atilius’] legions, they placed the Taurisci and the Boii from the right bank of the Po. Their wagons and chariots they stationed at the extremity of either wing and collected their booty on one of the neighbouring hills with a protecting force round it. This order of the Celtic forces, facing both ways, not only presented a formidable appearance, but was well adapted to the exigencies of the situation. The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army, thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with brambles which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons.

Despite the Gauls being caught between two Roman armies, the lack of Roman co-ordination and the skirmish on the hill had allowed them time to make adequate dispositions to face both Roman armies with confidence. Facing the north and Atilius’ army were the Boii and Taurisci, and to the south and facing Aemilius’ army were the Gaesatae and the Insubres.

As before, the initial phase of the battle was between the cavalry of all three armies and focussed on gaining control of the hill, though we do not know the number involved:

At first the battle was confined to the hill, all the armies gazing on it, so great were the numbers of cavalry from each host combating there pell-mell. In this action Caius [Atilius] the Consul fell in the mêlée fighting with desperate courage, and his head was brought to the Celtic kings; but the Roman cavalry, after a stubborn struggle, at length overmastered the enemy and gained possession of the hill.

Thus, the Romans emerged victorious in this initial phase, but lost the Consul Atilius. It is difficult to know what to make of Atilius’ tactics. He seems to have made the decisive move to offer battle at Telamon and chose his ground well, but we must question his decision to take the fore with his cavalry on the hill. From the information we have, it does seem that he struck out too far from his main army and made himself a tempting target sat on top of that hill. At first the Gauls were able to attack him in force, capturing prisoners, and thus learn of the nature of the force that awaited them, avoiding any attempt at ambush.

Furthermore, his force seems to have been overwhelmed on that hill, leading to his death in battle. Ultimately, his decision not to link up with the army of his Consular colleague appears to have cost him at least his life, but not the battle; an outcome which was only avoided by Aemilius’ timely arrival rather than any co-ordination between the two men.

With the cavalry battle concluded and the Romans victorious on the hill, the main armies moved to engage. Despite the loss of the Consul Atilius Regulus, it seems that the Romans armies were able to co-ordinate their actions, possibly thanks to the cavalry of the two Roman armies intermingling on the hill. We have no timescale for the lapse between the cavalry battle and the advance of the main armies. Now, however, the Gauls found themselves attacked on two fronts:

The infantry were now close upon each other, and the spectacle was a strange and marvellous one, not only to those actually present at the battle, but to all who could afterwards picture it to themselves from the reports. For in the first place, as the battle was between three armies, it is evident that the appearance and the movements of the forces marshalled against each other must have been in the highest degree strange and unusual. Again, it must have been to all present, and still is to us, a matter of doubt whether the Celts, with the enemy advancing on them from both sides, were more dangerously situated, or, on the contrary, more effectively, since at one and the same time they were fighting against both their enemies and were protecting themselves in the rear from both, while, above all, they were absolutely cut off from retreat or any prospect of escape in the case of defeat, this being the peculiarity of this two-faced formation. The Romans, however, were on the one hand encouraged by having caught the enemy between their two armies, but on the other they were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry. Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets. The sight of them indeed dismayed the Romans, but at the same time the prospect of winning such spoils made them twice as keen for the fight.

As was custom, the Romans opened with a volley of pila, which seemed to have a particularly devastating effect on the Gaesatae facing Aemilius’ army:

But when the javelineers advanced, as is their usage, from the ranks of the Roman legions and began to hurl their javelins in well-aimed volleys, the Celts in the rear ranks indeed were well protected by their trousers and cloaks, but it fell out far otherwise than they had expected with the naked men in front, and they found themselves in a very difficult and helpless predicament. For the Gallic shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were the better chance had the missiles of going home. At length, unable to drive off the javelineers owing to the distance and the hail of javelins, and reduced to the utmost distress and perplexity, some of them, in their impotent rage, rushed wildly on the enemy and sacrificed their lives, while others, retreating step by step on the ranks of their comrades, threw them into disorder by their display of faint-heartedness. Thus was the spirit of the Gaesatae broken down by the javelineers.

With the volleys of pila exhausted, the two sides met head on:

…but the main body of the Insubres, Boii, and Taurisci, once the javelineers had withdrawn into the ranks and the Roman maniples attacked them, met the enemy and kept up a stubborn hand-to hand combat. For, though being almost cut to pieces, they held their ground, equal to their foes in courage, and inferior only, as a force and individually, in their arms. The Roman shields, it should be added, were far more serviceable for defence and their swords for attack, the Gallic sword being only good for a cut and not for a thrust.

It seems, however, that the two sides were evenly matched until the decisive move was made by the Roman cavalry on top of the hill, attacking the Gallic force from the flanks:

But finally, attacked from higher ground and on their flank by the Roman cavalry, which rode down the hill and charged them vigorously, the Celtic infantry were cut to pieces where they stood, their cavalry taking to flight.

Thus it seems that both Consuls had a hand in the tactics that led to the Roman victory; Atilius for recognizing the importance of taking control of the hill top which would give the Romans access to the Gallic flank, and Aemilius for having the presence of mind to send reinforcements to the hill top when it seemed that Atilius had overreached himself and placed his position in jeopardy. In the end, despite the disjointed start to the battle, the Roman emerged totally victorious, with the defeated Gauls trapped between three Roman forces and annihilated. Polybius, supported by other sources, places the total Gallic dead at 40,000, with 10,000 taken prisoner; the most comprehensive Roman victory over the Gauls in Roman history to date. Given that our sources stated that the Gallic forces were 70,000 strong (50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, see above), this must mean that some 20,000 Gauls escaped. Of the Gaesatae chieftains, Concolitanus was taken prisoner and Aneroëstus fled, but committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.

The Battle of Telamon (225 BC) – Non-Polybian Versions

Although Polybius preserves by far the best account, written less than 100 years later and based on first-hand accounts, a number of other sources provide shorter versions of the campaign, some of which add some interesting details or variations. Both Diodorus and Orosius offer short accounts of the campaign and the Battle of Telamon; both are remarkably similar:

The Celts and Gauls, having assembled a force of 200,000 men, joined battle with the Romans and in the first combat were victorious. In a second attack they were again victorious, and even killed one of the Roman Consuls. The Romans, who for their part had seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry, after suffering these two defeats, won a decisive victory in the third engagement. They slew forty thousand men and took the rest captive, with the result that the chief prince of the enemy slashed his own throat and the prince next in rank to him was taken alive.

Battle was joined near Arretium [modern Arezzo]. The Consul Atilius was killed and his 800,000 Romans, after part of their number were cut down fled, even though the slaughter on their side ought not to have panicked them, for historians record that only 3,000 of them were killed.

After this a second battle was fought against the Gauls in which at least 40,000 of them were slaughtered.

Both sources seem to make the same mistake on the Roman numbers, interpreting Polybius’ figures for total available manpower as the number of soldiers Rome had in the field, and Orosius seems to believe that all eight hundred thousand Roman soldiers fled the field. Diodorus interestingly has three battles in his campaign; two Roman defeats and a victory. However he states that a Consul (Atilius) was killed in the second battle, which indicates that both sources, or their source, separated the Battle of Telamon into two separate battles; the cavalry action on the hill and the infantry clash, the former of which he believes to have been a Roman defeat. Similarly Orosius has separated the battle into two, with Atilius being killed in a defeat, followed by a victory.

It is interesting to see how the narrative of this battle has evolved over time, with Atilius’ action evolving into a Roman defeat, which was then avenged at Telamon, rather than being seen as two parts of the same battle. Ancient historians seemed to have judged Atilius poorly, mostly for being killed in battle, which then discredited his actions on the hill. As it was, it was his tactical move to secure the hill for the Roman cavalry which proved to be the turning point of the battle, securing Roman victory, though he needed Aemilius’ force to secure control of the hill, having seemingly overstretched his own position. Despite his short and garbled account, Orosius is the only one to provide us with a figure for the Roman dead; three thousand as opposed to the forty thousand killed on the Gallic side.

The theme of Atilius’ role being downgraded as time passed can be seen in the account preserved by Eutropius, who erases him altogether:

When Lucius Aemilius was Consul, a vast force of the Gauls crossed the Alps; but all Italy united in favour of the Romans; and it is recorded by Fabius the historian, who was present in that war, that there were eight hundred thousand men ready for the contest. Affairs, however, were brought to a successful termination by the Consul alone; forty thousand of the enemy were killed, and a triumph decreed to Aemilius.

Here Eutropius goes out of his way to state that it was Aemilius alone who was responsible for the Roman victory. Florus too has a short account of the war, which although severely lacking in detail, states that it was Aemilius who defeated the Gauls.¹⁷ The only exception to this trend is Pliny, who does not provide detail of the campaign, but does comment on Aemilius and Atilius raising nearly 800,000 men (again a misreading of Polybius, who stated that that number were available, not mobilized. Plutarch comments on the early years of the war without even mentioning either Consul of 225 BC:

The first conflicts of this war brought great victories and also great disasters to the Romans, and led to no sure and final conclusion.

The figure of 40,000 Gallic dead is a common one throughout all accounts of the battle. Even Jerome preserves the figure in an entry. Dio has a fragment on the Gallic character, which may reveal some small additional detail about the battle:

The Gauls became dejected on seeing that the Romans had already seized the most favourable positions.

Zonaras, however, preserves an interesting variation on the campaign, no doubt mirroring the original account of Dio:

The barbarians plundered some towns, but at last a great storm occurred in the night, and they suspected that Heaven was against them. Consequently they lost heart, and falling into a panic, attempted to find safety in flight. Regulus pursued them and brought on an engagement with the rear-guard in which he was defeated and lost his life. Aemilius occupied a hill and remained quiet. The Gauls in turn occupied another hill, and for several days both sides were inactive; then the Romans, through anger at what had taken place, and the barbarians, from arrogance born of their victory, charged down from the heights and came to blows. For a long time the battle was evenly fought, but finally the Romans surrounded the others with their cavalry, cut them down, seized their camp, and recovered the spoils.

Here we have some significant differences. The first notable one concerns the early Gallic campaigns, which ignores the Roman defeat at Faesulae and has the Gauls turning back due to divine omens. Next we have the role of Regulus, who again is relegated to a supporting role, killed fighting the Gallic rearguard, which is interesting as he actually lay in the path of the Gauls and was attacked by an advance contingent of Gallic cavalry, whilst it was Aemilius who was to their rear. Dio again separates the two engagements, this time inserting a number of days between the clashes. During the final battle, again unnamed, both sides occupied opposing hills and then charged at each other, though again the battle is won by the Roman cavalry.

This is a fascinating example of the divergences we see in the ancient sources. If we did not have the account of Polybius, then it would be Zonaras who provided the most detail. We would conclude that there were indeed two final battles to the campaign, separated by a period of time, with Atilius and Aemilius not joining up their forces and Atilius dying in battle first. Given this disparity, it does beg the question how many other accounts of Roman battles and campaigns we have which are similarly skewed towards one version without us even being aware of it.

Last Polish Battles 1939

General Franciszek Kleeberg

Modlin surrendered on 30th September. The Germans claimed to have taken there 219 officers and 5,000 men, as well as 58 guns and 183 machine-guns.

The German campaign in Poland was not yet over and there was still fighting on the Baltic coast. Danzig had been captured and the port of Gdynia fell on 14 September. Polish defences were now concentrated on the Hela peninsula, a narrow spit of land, 20 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, stretching into the bay of Danzig. It was defended by about 2,000 men under the command of the head of the Polish admiralty, Vice-Admiral Jozef Unrug. The Hela peninsula was remorselessly bombarded from the sea by the Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesein and bombed by the Luftwaffe, but German infantry had to attack to force its surrender on 1 October.

The garrison of He! surrendered on 1nd October. It consisted of 52 officers, including Rear-Admiral Unrug, about 4,000 soldiers and ratings, and nearly as many German prisoners.

Until 18th September Lwow was surrounded on three sides by the Germans, who made a number of rather half-hearted attack and endeavoured to obtain a capitulation. On 18h September the Soviet forces approached from the east, from Winniki, and also proposed capitulation. There was a peculiar form of rivalry, for the headquarters of the defence refused at first to reply to either of the proposals. Then the Germans sent an ultimatum, demanding surrender by 10 A.M. of 20th September and threatening air reprisals in case of refusal. The resistance continued, and it was on 22nd September that a capitulation in favour of the Russians was signed on honourable terms (which were not kept by the Soviet army). The enemy took about 10,000 prisoners.

The command of the defence of Polesie decided on 19th September to concentrate its forces in the region Kamien Koszyrski-Datyn-Krymno-Wyz, from which they were to proceed to Warsaw, crossing the Bug at Wlodawa. The strength of the units was as follow: (a) Coil. Brzezinski (80th and 79th infantry reserve regiments)-4 battalions, (b) Colonel Epler-4 battalions, (c) Colonel Gorzkowski-2 battalions, (d) Commodore Zajaczkowski-2 battalions of marines, (e) the Suwalki and Podlasie cavalry brigades (the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 10th uhlan regiments, the 9th mounted rifles, the 3rd chevau-legers, and the cavalry squadron of the Frontier Defence Corps of Niewirkow).

The artillery consisted of 6 batteries (20 guns). The total summed up to 11,000 men. At the same time the command of the Frontier Defence Corps was concentrating its units for 23rd September in the region Mroczno-Serniki-Kuchocka Wola-Rafalowka. The command was in the hands of General Ruekemann, the vice-commander of the K. O. P. (Frontier Defence Corps). The units were 3 battalions from the Polesie brigade of the K. O. P. and the 135th Infantry Reserve Regiment, which was going by train from Ossowiec to eastern Malopolska (south-eastern Poland), but was unloaded in the Sarny region and took part in fighting against the Bolsheviks. There were about 4,000 men and 6 guns.

General Franciszek Kleeberg collected about 16,000 troops under his command and intended to move westward to reinforce the Warsaw defences. Out of radio communication, they had no idea that Warsaw had fallen and they continued to push west. General Franciszek Kleeberg commanded Special Operational Group Polesie, and by incorporating into it the remnants of Special Operational Group Narew and various other units, he had at least 16,000 men under his command. They fought a series of actions against the Red Army near Milanow, inflicting over 100 casualties on the Red Army. Kleeberg then turned his attention towards the Germans. Realising that his ad-hoc force had little chance of reaching the capital, he planned to raid the main Polish Army arsenal near Deblin and seize enough weapons and ammunition to wage guerrilla warfare.

General Fr. Kleeberg ordered action for 23rd September, reckoning with the fact that the Soviets had reached already on the 20th Brzesc in the north and Kowel in the south. The K. O. P., which had behind it 170-250 kilometres of march, could not reach the region of Kamien Koszyrski before 25th September, and that is why the two groups never joined their forces. They had to fight separately.

At Kock, however, his force ran into General Gustav Anton von Wietersheim’s XIV Motorised Corps, and fierce fighting and high casualties ensued. Encountering the German 13th Motorised Infantry Division, they fought a four-day battle around Kock before finally surrendering on 6 October 1939.

Weak German forces retreated before the Polesie group and General Fr. Kleeberg, rolling up Soviet units in the north and the south, crossed the Bug without encountering very serious resistance and reached on 2nd October the region of Radzyn. In consequence of that movement the K. O. P. forces had to fight already during their march for Ratno and Szack on 24th September and for Mielniki on the 27th. They forced the Bug on 29th September at Wlodawa and Grabow, reaching on 30th September the region Hansk-Wytyczne. There they were surrounded, and according to orders endeavoured to break out in individual groups. Some of them escaped and the rest were captured. The Soviets claimed the capture of 8,000 prisoners.

The German divisions from Lukow-Garwolin-Deblin barred the way of the Polesie forces. A battle was fought, and in spite of the great superiority of the enemy’s artillery of about 100 guns it lasted until 5th October. When Soviet armoured divisions approached from Miendzyrzecz and Parczew, the remaining Polish force had to surrender.

The German communique claimed the capture of 1,234 officers, 15,600 men, 2 divisional staffs, 20 guns, 180 heavy machine-guns, and 5,000 horses. It was the last battle of a Polish army, against 75 German divisions, 30 Soviet infantry divisions, 12 motorised brigades, and 10 cavalry divisions which were operating on 27th September on the territory of Poland.

Guerrilla warfare continued well into the winter months.

The Polish campaign is not yet over. It is waged on one side by the population of Poland and the army reconstituted on French and then British soil, and on the other by the German and Soviet invaders, who try to break down the spirit of national resistance by means of cruel reprisals against the defenceless people of Poland.

Polish Air Units

The last major formation to fight in regular combat operations was Samodzielna Grupa Operacyjna ‘Polesie’ under gen. Kleeberg. In an attempt to break through to besieged Warsaw they fought the last battle of the campaign on 2-5 October, at Kock. A separate chapter of SGO ‘Polesie’ operations was written by 13 Eskadra Szkolna also known as the Pluton Rozpoznawczy Lotniczy. The unit was formed by por. pit. Edmund Piorunkiewicz. On 18 September he assumed command of a part of the ground party of 13 Eskadra Obserwacyjna, subordinating it to SGO ‘Polesie’. The unit was formed around a PWS 26 trainer aircraft found at Adampol near Wlodawa. 13 Eskadra Szkolna was joined by cadet officers Bandor, Matz and Wieczorek, who brought with them two RWD 8 aircraft. On 25 September the name of ’13 Eskadra Szkolna’ was officially accepted, and the unit reported directly to gen. Kleeberg. During their short period of combat (25 September-5 October) pilots flew many reconnaissance missions over enemy troops in their unarmed aircraft. Since the aircraft had no bomb racks, the crews attacked the Germans with hand grenades. These were the last aircraft with Polish markings in the sky over Poland in 1939.


Men from No.2 Commando (No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion) who participated in Operation Colossus

Hughes, Norman; Tragino Aqueduct; Airborne Assault Museum;

In June 1940, Britain had withdrawn its army out of the jaws of death from Dunkirk. In just under 50 days, the German Wehrmacht had overrun Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. France was on the verge of defeat. Despite these developments, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke envisioned only offensive strategies. Clarke, a Royal Artillery officer, was the Military Assistant to the Chief, Imperial General Staff. After Dunkirk, he studied what other countries in the past had done in circumstances similar to those in which Britain now found itself. He recalled the tactics used by the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsula War; the South African Boers during their war with Britain; and, in his own experience, the role of the irregulars in Palestine in the mid-1930s. Based on this study, Clarke devised a strategy to employ small but hard-hitting units that would mount attacks from the sea striking at German targets from Narvik to the Pyrenees, then quickly withdraw back to the sea. He submitted the idea to the Imperial General Staff, which eventually adopted it. The Imperial General Staff called the units Commandos, after the mounted Boer units of the South African War.

Before the end of June 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill prodded the Army to raise a force of paratroopers, in a note that said: “We ought to have a corps of at least five thousand parachute troops. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these troops who can nonetheless play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence.” Within two days Major John F. Rock, Royal Engineers, was charged with organizing the prime minister’s airborne force. Soon after, Rock was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The recruiting process used for candidates for the Commandos also served as the basis for obtaining Commandos who would jump. Those being screened were told that Commandos would be in two categories, seaborne and airborne, and they were asked to state a preference. Early volunteers were a mix of those who had enlisted in the Regular Army and those in the Territorial Army (or T.A., which were locally raised units similar to the U.S. Army Reserve). No. 2 Special Service Company was the initial designation for the first parachute unit; this was later changed to No. 2 Commando. As with the other Commando units, it was subordinate to the Chief of Combined Operations, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. Keyes had gained fame late in World War I for planning and executing a Commando-style raid on the port of Zeebruge. His son, Geoffrey, would later be killed on a Commando raid whose objective was to kill or capture Rommel.

Parachute training was conducted at Ringway RAF Station. Ringway was initially known as the Central Landing School for security reasons. Later, the name was changed to Central Landing Establishment, in part because incoming mail was being received addressed to “Central Laundry School” and (worse) “Central Sunday School.” The name change also confirmed that Ringway would serve as the focal point for “the co-ordination and direction of all work required in the development and training of an airborne force.” Since there was no previous military application of British soldiers being delivered to the battlefield by parachute, the training literally started on the ground floor. Physical training NCOs were designated as the first instructors. One of the instructor sergeants was nicknamed “Bags o’ guts” because of his fondness for yelling at the students while trying to get them “into the most horrible contortions.”

The instructors at Ringway had to literally start from scratch. They first constructed a series of physical training devices designed to toughen muscle groups needed in parachute jumping. Next, after studying intelligence reports about German training methods, they put together a rough training outline. This outline was subject to many changes often dictated by innovations in training techniques, tactical studies, and progression in general knowledge. The initial airborne equipment they had available consisted of a captured German parachute and jump helmet. With this humble beginning, Britain’s parachute program began to take form.

Obviously, equipment was the first prerequisite—more parachutes and airplanes were required. The RAF was extremely reluctant to give up any of its planes, saying that all the bombers were needed for bombing raids on Europe. After some higher-level arm-twisting, four Whitley bombers were allocated to Ringway and immediately dubbed “flying coffins” by the parachute students. Several different methods of exiting the Whitley were tried. The instructors, who were learning their trade only about a step or two ahead of their students, decided that the most reliable method was for jumpers to drop through a hole in the belly of the plane. At about the same time that the Whitleys were delivered, the school also obtained a Bombay transport plane; this had a side door for jumping. Both types of aircraft came to be used in the early days of training at Ringway.

The first airborne jump was on 13 July 1940, using the pull-off method. In this method, the jumper stood at the rear of the plane on a platform built especially for this purpose. He faced the front of the plane and, on command, pulled his rip cord. The force of the parachute opening and catching the wind jerked him out of the plane. Needless to say, only one man jumped at a time. The early classes were organized into 50-man units and these included officers. The men came from various regiments. Corporal Philip D. Julian, a sapper from the Royal Engineers, was in K Troop. He had volunteered for special service after being successfully evacuated from Dunkirk.

When their jump training was completed, the new airborne troopers were sent to Scotland. There they underwent about six weeks of basic Commando training at the hands of Lord Lovat and his Lovat Scouts at their School of Irregular Warfare. Here they went on “wee walks” up nearby Ben Nevis, a massive fog-shrouded peak and the highest point in Scotland. Days off from training usually meant “a wee run” to the top of Ben Nevis.

In the course of their training, two men, introduced only as Sykes and Fairburn (both former police officers in Shanghai), taught the paratroopers the basics of unarmed combat and how to kill by fair means or foul. “Remember, gentlemen,” the instructors told them, “go for the eyes, ears, or testicles.” One month later, in early September, the students had completed the Commando phase of their training. Now, while they waited for an operation, the best among them began to fill out the ranks of trainers and instructors needed on staff at Ringway.

This new cadre of instructors did not stop their own training. Soon they were conducting night jumps. The first of these jumps included putting lights on the descending jumpers. As air crews and paratroopers gained experience and confidence, the lights were no longer used. On one of the night jumps, R.D. “Jock” Davidson was dragged below the plane. He remembers that “my static line got twisted round my wrist.” Soon thereafter, the static line became untwisted and “no one would have been happier than when I heard the canopy of the chute snap open and knew that all was well.”

In November, a demonstration jump was conducted for visiting dignitaries. At the same time, work began on the selection of a target for an operational jump. An unspecified area in Italy was chosen and it was given the codename Operation Colossus.

At about the time that Italy was designated to be the site of the first airborne operation, an engineering firm in London suggested that the RAF might consider bombing a huge aqueduct near Monte Vulture, 30 miles inland from Salerno, in the “ankle” of the Italian boot. The engineering firm had originally built the aqueduct over the Tragino River and was able to supply a copy of the construction plans. The aqueduct was the main water supply source for most provinces in southern Italy, including the towns of Brindisi, Bari, and Foggia. These all had military factories and dockyards that depended on the water. Eventually, a decision was made to use the new paratroopers instead of RAF bombers against the aqueduct.

As planning for the operation began, the unit was again redesignated; this time to 11th Special Air Service Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Jackson, commander of the unit, told his assembled troops that a “top secret” mission was being planned and asked for 40 volunteers. Almost in perfect unison every officer and man took one step forward. “Very well,” Jackson said. “I thank you all, but I’m afraid this means the men who are to take part will have to be selected.” The first one selected was Major Trevor A.G. Pritchard, Jackson’s second-in-command and leader of K Troop. Pritchard was told to pick five other officers and then each officer was to pick five men. The team was designated “X Troop,” 11th Special Air Service Battalion. The six officers were told only that they would have to train X Troop to blow up a bridge somewhere in enemy territory. Later, one officer and two men were added to X Troop as reserves.

A separate area was assigned to X Troop at Ringway. Mornings were devoted to runs and forced marches with full equipment. During the afternoons, the paratroopers rehearsed on a bridge mock-up in Tatton Park, located about five miles away from Ringway. At about the same time, eight Whitley bombers were set aside for use by X Troop. Pritchard planned to put six men into each of six planes. Sling containers, with weapons and explosives, were to be located in the bomb-bays and rigged for parachute drop. The other two planes, if they were still available, were to be used for a diversionary bomb run in Foggia, near the target area. He hoped that this maneuver would allay suspicion as to their true nature and mission.

Prior to the mission dress rehearsal, two additional men were added to X Troop. One was a civilian whose real name was Fortunato Picchi but rostered as Trooper “Pierre Dupont.” The other was forty-year-old Flight-Lieutenant Ralph Lucky, who wore ribbons denoting service in the World War. Both were introduced as interpreters. The dress rehearsal went terribly, with some of the men suffering minor injuries. “Jock” Davidson called the jump “a bit of a fiasco. The wind was far too strong,” he added, “and normally we would never have jumped in it, but it was our last chance before leaving so off we went.” Not one of those injured allowed himself to be taken off the mission. Philip Julian injured his knee but X-rays taken at a hospital showed “all was OK” and he returned to X Troop. Most of the men thought the bad dress rehearsal was a good sign; they were wrong.

In late January, Lieutenant Anthony Deane-Drummond, one of the six officers of X Troop, was informed as to the true nature of the real target. He was to leave England immediately and proceed to Malta where he would act as the unit’s liaison office in establishing an advance base. Deane-Drummond also learned that the plan called for the paratroopers, once their demolition mission was complete, to move west from their target to the Italian coast, some 50 miles away. There they were to be picked up by a submarine. Soon after his briefing, the signals officer left for Malta. He had to find accommodations for the unit, draw explosives and other necessary supplies, and arrange for the unit to be transported to the airfield on the night of the operation. A late change in the plan called for the paratroopers to go in under the cover of darkness.

On 4 February, X Troop departed Ringway by special bus, bound for Mildenhall RAF Base. Before leaving England, X Troop conducted a parade inside a hangar for Admiral Keyes, who offered a few encouraging words to the unit after inspecting it. On the morning of 9 February, X Troop and all eight Whitleys arrived on Malta and were met at the airfield by Deane-Drummond.

On the 10th, X Troop studied an aerial photograph of the target area taken on the day before. The photograph showed that there were actually two aqueducts across the Tragino. They were situated about 200 yards apart and one was larger than the other. In the end, the larger one, on the east, was designated as the target.

Final supplies were issued to the men. These included food, a six-day supply of water, and cigarettes. Each man carried three hand grenades. Personal weapons issued to officers included .38 caliber revolvers while each man carried a .32 caliber Colt automatic with four extra clips. Each man strapped a Commando knife to one leg. Explosives, rifles, and sub-machine guns were loaded into weapons containers stowed in the Whitleys’ bomb racks. In an effort to anticipate every feasibility, the paratrooper battle uniform was augmented to hide a variety of escape-related items, including: 50,000 lire in notes sewn into shirt collars and trouser waistbands; two silk maps (one of north Italy, the other of south Italy) sewn into sleeve linings; a hacksaw blade sewn into the left breast pocket of each shirt; and a special metallic collar stud was added that contained a small compass.

At 1700, X Troop had a meal of hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. As they ate, Major Pritchard briefed the men, telling them where they would be going and detailing the escape items in their uniforms. During their training, the men of X Troop had been led to believe that they would be blowing up a bridge in Abyssinia. Now they all knew they were headed for Italy. Many of the men were less concerned about executing their mission than they were about making their escape afterwards. It was obvious that they could only travel at night and through territory where the local military and civilian population would be looking for them. And it was mid-winter. They did not, however, express any reservations about their ability to blow up the aqueduct and make a clean getaway.

At the conclusion of the briefing, the men loaded into the Whitleys and took off. The plan was for the three planes carrying the infantry paras to leave first, followed 30 minutes later by the three planes transporting the sappers (combat engineers who were explosives experts). One of the planes carrying the sappers was delayed further when one of the paras got sick and had to be taken off the plane. Many of the men slept on the way to the target.

At 2137, seven minutes later than scheduled, the paratroopers in Deane-Drummond’s plane were alerted that the target was near. Flying on a general southeasterly course, the planes passed over the target area and disgorged their cargo. Deane-Drummond, fifth man out of his plane, made what he called “ … the best landing I had ever made.” He landed about 100 yards from the target. Within a few minutes, he and the men in his stick had retrieved their weapons and secured the immediate areas above and below the aqueduct. He made a quick inspection of the target and realized that the information from the London engineering firm was wrong in one major respect: the aqueduct was not made of concrete; it was made of reinforced concrete. As he made this discovery, the lieutenant could hear the far-off sounds of bombs exploding in the direction of Foggia. That would be the diversionary air-raid.

Soon the other planes began dropping their paras and almost immediately there were indications that things were starting to go wrong. Two planes carrying infantry were late because they had rerouted to avoid flak on their line of flight. Some of the weapons and explosives containers did not release, while others that did release were scattered over a wide area. Finally, the last plane, which was carrying Captain Gerry Daly and five sappers, dropped the paras on board in the wrong valley.

By about 2215, other troopers began to appear at the aqueduct. One of the first to arrive was Major Pritchard. Deane-Drummond immediately briefed his commander on the situation, informing him that Captain Daly and his plane-load of sappers were not yet at the target. Pritchard grabbed an engineer lieutenant named George Paterson and advised him to be prepared to oversee the demolition of the aqueduct should Daly not arrive in time. Paterson immediately reviewed the site and told Pritchard that the original plan would have to be modified because of the reinforced concrete. Furthermore, not all of the explosives had been successfully dropped. Pritchard told the lieutenant, “You’re the expert now, and I’ll stand by your judgment.”

As boxes of explosives were delivered to the aqueduct, Paterson and the 12 sappers who had landed near the target began arranging the material around the base of one of the aqueduct’s support piers. This group included Philip Julian and R.J. “Jock” Crawford. Covering parties commanded by Deane-Drummond, Captain Christopher Lea, and Lieutenant Arthur Jowett secured areas on both sides of the aqueduct. About a dozen Italian men, gathered up by the paratroopers for purposes of security were pressed into a labor gang to help. These civilians were later awarded medals by the Italian government for “gallant behaviour in the face of the enemy.” Deane-Drummond took the remaining two boxes of explosives and, with the help of two of his men, Lance-Corporal Robert Watson and Sapper Alan Ross, arranged them under one end of a small nearby bridge. This bridge, to the west of the aqueduct, was what had shown up on the aerial photograph of the target area. Deane-Drummond’s decision to take out this bridge was intended to stop or delay any vehicular troop movement from engaging and pursuing the British paratroopers.

By 0015, all was ready. The Italian men were moved to nearby buildings and the paratroopers moved to an area a short distance away from the aqueduct. Fifteen minutes later, Paterson and Deane-Drummond lit 60-second fuses at their respective targets. The charge at the small bridge went off. The charge on the main target should have gone off at about the same time but it did not. Pritchard and Paterson, both concerned as to what may have gone wrong, began to advance toward the support pier. They had only covered about a dozen yards when an explosion knocked them both off their feet. This was followed by a series of flashes and explosions that rumbled into the dark, distant mountains. Pritchard and Paterson picked themselves up and went forward to inspect the damage.

When they returned to update the rest of the unit, they were quickly surrounded and barraged by questions from every side. Pritchard held up his hand and said, “Listen to that sound.”

As the men quieted down they could hear the constant sound of running water. Half of the aqueduct had been knocked down; one of the support piers was gone and another “leaned at a crazy angle.”

Pritchard spoke quietly to his men as they gathered around him. “My thanks to you, you’ve done a splendid job. I’d just love to see old Mussolini’s face when he learns of our raid and what we’ve accomplished. We must now withdraw—and lose no time about it.” He reminded them of the plan for a submarine to pick up all those who could make it to the mouth of the Sele River in four days. Then he organized the men into three groups of roughly ten men and two officers each. All heavy equipment and rifles were buried. Lance-Corporal Boulter, who had broken his ankle during the jump, was left behind. At 0100, the three groups set off, moving west.

In another valley, Captain Daly and his men, including “Jock” Davidson, heard the sound of the explosion and decided that there was no longer a need to advance to the aqueduct. Daly briefed his four men on the submarine rendezvous and they set out. Daly’s last words, as they began their forced march west were, “We’ve got rather a long walk ahead of us.”

As a matter of fact, none of the parties involved in this plan made it to the rendezvous point on the Sele River. None of the paratroopers made it nor did the submarine. Within a matter of days, all of the paratroopers had been picked up by either Italian Army or Carabinieri units. After their capture and some initial interrogations, the Italians determined that Trooper Dupont was a civilian and a native of Italy. The next day he was executed by a firing squad. The rest of X Troop were sent to various POW camps throughout Italy. In time, some of the paras escaped and returned to England. Deane-Drummond was one of those who escaped; he later took part in the Arnhem jump in September 1944.

An incredible coincidence occurred during one of the escapes. In September 1943, after the Italian government had surrendered to the Allies, the Germans transported many of the Allied POWs north. “Jock” Davidson and three others were shielded by some Italians in an effort to keep them out of German hands. But the paratroopers got away from the Italians and headed south on their own. During their trek through the central mountains they saw a German plane towing a glider pass overhead. Three days later they were informed by some villagers in Tussio about Skorzeny’s raid on Campo Imperatore to free Mussolini. The paras had witnessed a part of Skorzeny’s assault force dispatched to the resort where Mussolini was being held!

Even if any of the paratroopers had actually made it to the rendezvous site after attacking the Tragino Aqueduct, they would not have been picked up according to the operation plan. One of the Whitleys that took part in the diversionary bombing raid over Foggia on the night of the attack lost an engine on its return flight. The crew bailed out safely but the plane crashed— at the mouth of the Sele River! Nervous staff officers at Malta believed that this crash caused too much attention to this area and cancelled the submarine pickup.

Mission Critique

The theme for this mission is that a special capability, that is, a fledgling parachute force, has been raised and trained. The planners then had to find some mission to test this capability and thereby justify the time and expense in it. This mission would determine if the special capability is worth having and if it is worthy of continued support.

Put in these terms, there is always some thought, as Vandenbroucke would say, that this justification, based strictly on a first mission result, may be mere wishful thinking. The desire is to see the mission succeed so that the original decision in creating such a force is proven correct. This desire may have entered into the line of thinking that finally resulted in the approval to execute the Tragino Aqueduct mission.

There seems little doubt that this mission was carefully considered by the planners as one that was directed against a necessary target and probably one that was within or contributed to the overall battle plan at the time. However, some juxtaposed reasoning was involved here. The planners took a target, the aqueduct, that was to be destroyed by aerial bombardment and decided, since the target was approved anyway, that the new paratroop capability could be used against it. It is this logic in the decision making process that seems faulty. A suitable target for one capability does not make that target suitable for any capability. When you compare the two capabilities being discussed here (aerial bombardment versus parachute force attack), the differences are startling. There is a saying among men who must be put in harm’s way that should be considered an axiom by all planners; it goes “Never send a man where you can send a bullet.” Had this principle been applied properly, the planners would have chosen a different target for X Troop.

So, while there appears to have been some justification for this target (however faulty the logic for choosing it), the question still remains as to whether using special operations forces to conduct the operation was necessary. In this case the answer should be an immediate “NO.” There are two things working to support this negative conclusion.

First is the fact that the target was approved for aerial bombardment— it had already been through a planning and approval process that brought it to that point. This does not mean that it should be automatically suitable or approved for attack by any method.

Second, we can see that what at first appeared to be a simple tactical plan was rendered almost completely worthless by a complicated and virtually unsupportable exfiltration plan. Only one method for getting the paratroopers out was considered. This plan necessitated the Commandos to move 50 miles through mountainous terrain during winter. The men were further limited to nighttime movement and evasion tactics. This limitation was a major hindrance even if the enemy was not aware of their presence. However, when the mission was executed, the men had literally announced their presence to the Italians. There was no external support until they would reach the coast. Now, this is definitely the kind of challenge that special operations forces can overcome, especially when they enter the target from an unexpected or unguarded approach. However, once the mission was underway, the exfiltration plan was scrubbed by a nervous planning/operations staff. Because of the lack of communications with X Troop, there was no way to tell them about this change.

While some mission had to be found for X Troop, there must have been a target available that gave them a better chance of getting out. Why go to all the trouble of investing these men with their specialized training if they are just going to be thrown away on the first plan that comes along? Why was the plan that was developed not reviewed from a critical perspective? This mission should have remained an aerial bombardment target.

Since it was more than one year before the next parachute operation was executed by the British—what was the almighty rush to conduct this one against this target? It seems that the unit was a solution looking for a problem. The planners were anxious to test the skills of the soldiers and prove the principle of airborne units. It seems to be a shame to have wasted such highly skilled and trained men on this mission. Yes, it produced a propaganda coup of sorts—but this coup could have been even more significant with a more suitable target and an attacking force that made it back. Special operations forces should not have been used against this target because such soldiers are not easily replaced.

Before examining this operation using the Vandenbroucke and McRaven criteria, the mission results must be analyzed. The aqueduct, which was the target, received some damage but not what the planners or the paratroopers expected. The damage was repaired in about three days, long before the local reservoirs were in any danger of drying up. The aqueduct was not of any strategic or tactical value. Photographic interpreters, after reviewing pictures taken almost two days after the raid, could not find any damage. The planning staff did not know if the paratroopers even got to the target until later in the month, when the Italians trumpeted the capture of the raiding force.

In a review of the criteria for failed operations several apply to this mission.

Inadequate intelligence on the aqueduct’s construction led to insufficient explosives being taken with the paratroopers. All that could be rounded up at the time of the attack had to be used to do the damage that was done.

Poor coordination was evident in several places. The paratroopers took no communications equipment with them and were thus unaware that the submarine pickup had been canceled because of the plane crash. There were no plans for an alternate pickup point.

Wishful thinking apparently guided the planning staff in its target selection. Too little time was spent looking at the plan as a whole to see that another target, closer to a pickup point (especially more than one possible point), should have been selected. After all, this mission was supposed to be a proof of principle type operation. If so then every effort should have been made to make it completely successful.

Cancellation of the submarine without a mechanism to notify the paratroopers heading to the pickup point was a classic case of in appropriate intervention of mission execution.

Conversely, most of the criteria for a successful mission were also present. The issuance of communications equipment with X Troop could have made the plan simpler than it was. Only the evasion and pick-up portions of the plan were complicated. The security, especially once the force was on the ground at the target, was a high point in the execution of the raid. All of the other criteria were definitely present, which should have made the mission one that the planners could look at with pride. After all, the paratroopers did their part very well. The fault was primarily with the planners and those overseeing the operation. Additionally, why the paratroopers said nothing about the lack of communication equipment is a puzzle.

Overall the execution was good and the planning was poor. The planning objective was to show that Britain could still project a force and cause troops to be tied up trying to protect potential targets. This mission only partly succeeded in the former and failed in the latter. The poor target selection was almost too big a hurdle to overcome.

Good lessons for future operations came from this raid. Probably most noticeable was the increased number of volunteers who wanted to join the parachute forces. News of the mission was released in response to an Italian news story that downplayed the damage and crowed about capturing the entire force. From an operational point of view, planning staffs learned to ask for and get more photo-reconnaissance of target areas and get it earlier in the planning process. Several changes were made in the procedures dealing with night jumps, although this continued to be a problem throughout the war. This first operational parachute mission also pointed out inadequacies with equipment containers. Eventually, both the equipment containers and release mechanisms on the planes were re-designed and improved. All of these changes were based on a good after-action review.