Ia Drang Valley

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The 1st Cavalry Division deploys the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, at Ia Drang two miles to the northeast of Landing Zone X-Ray. There they are ambushed by Communist forces and nearly overrun until rescued by the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry. American losses are 276 men to an estimated 400 Viet Cong.

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The most significant individual battle of the Vietnam War was fought on November 14, 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. It was the first engagement of North Vietnamese Forces and an American unit, bolstered by the technology of the helicopter to deliver troops into battle. The 1st Air Cavalry Division prevailed, but not without sustaining significant casualties, and the victory was sealed when US airpower was unleashed against the numerically superior forces of the PAVN. This earliest of battles is described with great detail using eyewitness accounts in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway ‘ s We Were Soldiers Once and Young (2004 [1992]). Such writing was possible because the authors had been involved in the battle as commander and reporter, respectively. They not only chronicle the battle moment by moment, but they offer a gripping analysis of the impact of the outcome of the battle on decision – making in Washington, Saigon and Hanoi. The American leadership assumed massive force and technology would always prevail, and the PAVN leadership decided to minimize force size to avoid casualties. They also realized that Cambodia provided sanctuary: “I was always taught as an officer that in a pursuit situation you continue to pursue until you either kill the enemy or he surrenders… Not to follow them into Cambodia violated every principle of warfare. It became perfectly clear to the North Vietnamese that they then had sanctuary; they could come when they were ready to fight and leave when they were ready to quit “. Ultimately, the North Vietnamese analysis of the battle and subsequent battlefield strategy would prevail.

Operations in mid-October by units of the 1st Air Cavalry provided intelligence on PAVN dispositions and General Westmoreland decided on a spoiling attack. This resulted in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, a forested area just east of the Chu Pong massif, from 23 October to 20 November. It was the first major battle between PAVN and US Army units and one of the war’s bloodiest encounters.

On 27 October Westmoreland committed a brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry to search-and-destroy operations. For two weeks there was sporadic but light contact between the opposing sides. This changed on 14 November. Over the next four days savage fighting erupted over landing zones (LZS) X-Ray and Albany. It began when Lieut. Col. Harold Moore’s understrength 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment-some 450 men-landed at LZ “XRay” almost on top of two PAVN regiments of 2,000 men. Outnumbered and in unfamiliar terrain, the Americans fought desperately. In bitter, sometimes hand-to-hand combat, the Americans drove back the attackers. Beginning the next day, 15 B-52 bombers from Guam began six days of Arc Light strikes on the Chu Pong massif. It was the first time that B-52s were employed in a tactical role in support of ground troops. Moore’s battalion was relieved by Lieut. Col. Robert Tully’s 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was then ordered to vacate LZ “X-Ray” and march overland to “Albany” two miles away. Three PAVN battalions ambushed the Americans en route, and in the most savage one-day battle of the war 155 Americans were killed and another 124 wounded.

The battle ended when PAVN units withdrew across the border into Cambodia. In a month of fighting the 1st Air Cavalry had lost 305 killed. The Americans estimated PAVN losses at 3,561, less than half of these confirmed. Both sides claimed victory. The PAVN learned they could survive high-tech American weapons and the new helicopter tactics. They also learned to minimize casualties by keeping combat troops close to US positions in what Giap referred to as his “grab them by the belt” tactic.

The PAVN had inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, even while suffering horrendously themselves. But the PAVN leadership believed that even lopsided body counts favoured them and would eventually wear down American resolve. The Americans believed they had prevented a decisive PAVN success before the US deployment could be completed. Westmoreland and his chief deputy, General William DePuy, both of whom had learned their trade in the meat-grinder battles of World War II, saw their estimated 12 to 1 kill ratio advantage as proof that the war could be won through attrition, by carrying the conflict to the PAVN in search and destroy operations. Indeed, Time magazine selected General Westmoreland as its Man of the Year for 1965. In that year the United States lost 1,275 killed, 5,466 wounded, 16 captured, and 137 missing. RVN forces lost 11,403 killed, 23,296 wounded, and 7,589 missing. The Allies estimated VC/PAVN dead at 35,382 killed and 5,873 captured.

The Battle

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LTC Hal Moore, Commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, on the radio during the fight for LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam. Hal Moore regarded the battle as a draw, and I agree with that assessment. Another veteran put it, “The survivors of Landing Zone X-Ray have always had an aura of fame about them. They fought in the first violent “stand up” fight of the war, and they won… barely.”

The North Vietnamese Army attacked a Special Forces camp at Plei Me; when it was repulsed, Westmoreland directed the division to launch an offensive to locate and destroy enemy regiments that had been identified in the vicinity of the camp. The result was the Battle of the Ia Drang, named for a small river that flowed through the valley, the area of operations. For thirty-five days the division pursued and fought the North Vietnamese 32d, 33d, and 66th People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) Regiments, until the enemy, suffering heavy casualties, returned to his bases in Cambodia.

With scout platoons of its air cavalry squadron covering front and flanks, each battalion of the division’s 1st Brigade established company bases from which patrols searched for enemy forces. For several days neither ground patrols nor aeroscouts found any trace, but on November 4 the scouts spotted a regimental aid station several miles west of Plei Me. Quick-reacting aerorifle platoons converged on the site. Hovering above, the airborne scouts detected an enemy battalion nearby and attacked from UH-1B Huey gunships with aerial rockets and machine guns. Operating beyond the range of their ground artillery, Army units engaged the enemy in an intense firefight, killing ninety-nine, capturing the aid station, and seizing many documents.

The search for the main body of the enemy continued for the next few days, with Army units concentrating their efforts in the vicinity of the Chu Pong Massif, a mountain range and likely enemy base near the Cambodian border. Communist forces were given little rest, as patrols harried and ambushed them.

The heaviest fighting was yet to come. As the division began the second stage of its campaign, enemy forces began to move out of the Chu Pong base. Units of the U. S. 1st Cavalry Division’s 3d Brigade, which took over from the 1st Brigade, advanced to establish artillery bases and landing zones at the base of the mountain. Landing Zone X-RAY was one of several U. S. positions vulnerable to attack by the enemy forces that occupied the surrounding high ground. Here on November 14 began fighting that pitted three battalions against elements of two North Vietnamese regiments. Withstanding repeated mortar attacks and infantry assaults, the Americans used every means of firepower available to them-the division’s own gunships, massive artillery bombardment, hundreds of strafing and bombing attacks by tactical aircraft, earth-shaking bombs dropped by B-52 bombers from Guam, and, perhaps most important, the individual soldier’s M16 rifle-to turn back a determined enemy. The Communists lost more than 600 dead, the Americans 79.

Although badly hurt, the enemy did not leave the Ia Drang Valley. Elements of the 33d and 66th PAVN Regiments, moving east toward Plei Me, encountered the U. S. 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, a few miles north of X-RAY at Landing Zone ALBANY, on November 17. The fight that resulted was a bloody reminder of the North Vietnamese mastery of the ambush, as the Communists quickly snared four U. S. companies in their net. As the trapped units struggled for survival, nearly all semblance of organized combat disappeared in the confusion and mayhem. Neither reinforcements nor effective firepower could be brought in. At times combat was reduced to valiant efforts by individuals and small units to avert annihilation. When the fighting ended that night, almost 70 percent of the Americans were casualties and almost one of every three soldiers in the battalion had been killed.

Lessons!?

Despite the horrific casualties from the ambush near Landing Zone ALBANY, the Battle of the Ia Drang was lauded as the first major American triumph of the Vietnam War. The airmobile division, committed to combat less than a month after it arrived in country, relentlessly pursued the enemy over difficult terrain and defeated crack North Vietnamese Army units. In part, its achievements underlined the flexibility that Army divisions had gained in the early 1960s under the Reorganization Objective Army Division (ROAD) concept. Replacing the flawed pentomic division with its five lightly armed battle groups, the ROAD division, organized around three brigades, facilitated the creation of brigade and battalion task forces tailored to respond and fight in a variety of military situations. The newly organized division reflected the Army’s embrace of the concept of flexible response and proved eminently suitable for operations in Vietnam. The helicopter was given great credit as well. Nearly every aspect of the division’s operations was enhanced by its airmobile capacity. During the battle, artillery units were moved sixty-seven times by helicopter. Intelligence, medical, and all manner of logistical support benefited as well from the speed and flexibility helicopters provided. Despite the fluidity of the tactical situation, airmobile command and control procedures enabled the division to move and keep track of its units over a large area and to accommodate the frequent and rapid changes in command arrangements as units moved from one headquarters to another.

Yet for all the advantages the division accrued from airmobility, its performance was not without blemish. Though the conduct of division-size airmobile operations proved tactically sound, two major engagements stemmed from the enemy’s initiative in attacking vulnerable American units. On several occasions massive air and artillery support provided the margin of victory, if not survival. Above all, the division’s logistical self-sufficiency fell short of expectations. It could support only one brigade in combat at a time, for prolonged and intense operations consumed more fuel and ammunition than the division’s helicopters and fixed-wing Caribou aircraft could supply. Air Force tactical airlift became necessary for resupply. Moreover, in addition to combat losses and damage, the division’s helicopters suffered from heavy use and from the heat, humidity, and dust of Vietnam, taxing its maintenance capacity. Human attrition was also high: hundreds of soldiers, the equivalent of almost a battalion, fell victim to a resistant strain of malaria peculiar to Vietnam’s highlands.

Westmoreland’s satisfaction in blunting the enemy’s offensive was tempered by concern that enemy forces might reenter South Vietnam and resume their offensive while the airmobile division recuperated at the end of November and during most of December. He thus requested immediate reinforcements from the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii and scheduled to deploy to South Vietnam in the spring of 1966. By the end of 1965, the division’s 3d Brigade had been airlifted to the highlands and, within a month of its arrival, had joined elements of the 1st Cavalry Division to launch a series of operations to screen the border. Army units did not detect any major enemy forces trying to cross from Cambodia into South Vietnam. Each operation, however, killed hundreds of enemy soldiers and refined airmobile techniques, as Army units learned to cope with the vast territorial expanse and difficult terrain of the highlands.

Moore, Hall G., and Joseph L. Galloway ( 2004 [1992] ). We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang – the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio Press.

Battle of Reports – Gettysburg I

In the orders, issued less than a month before the Battle of Gettysburg, Adjultant General and Inspector General CS Army Samuel Cooper[1] required all officers to “confine their statements to the facts and events connected with the matter on which they report.” This included “sieges, campaigns or battles.” He emphasized further that: “No extraneous subject, whether of speculation or of collateral narrative, has a proper place in the official reports of military operations. As much conciseness as is consistent with perspicuity and fullness of statement, will be observed in such communications.”

Problems had come up earlier in the war over Confederate officers’ fulminations against other officers in their official reports. General Joseph E. Johnston returned one of Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s after-action reports during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 because it criticized Longstreet, and Longstreet tried to quash one of Major General Daniel H. Hill’s reports on the operations around Suffolk in the spring of 1863 for its intemperate language. Those earlier tiffs very likely helped provoke Cooper’s directive in June.

Years later, Dr. Hunter McGuire, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s physician, elaborated on what constituted a good report in his opinion, as exemplified by Lee and Jackson: “Everyone has noticed how free from boasting and exaggeration are the reports of Jackson and Lee. They are simple, modest, unpresuming records of the facts as they knew them.” Lee could be sarcastic and disparaging face-to-face, but he exercised admirable restraint when it came to criticizing others in his military dispatches. He did not seem to think criticism in the official record served any useful purpose, and he often glossed over the failures of subordinates by striking any mention of them from his staff-prepared reports. His aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, who often prepared those reports, said, “Never in a public dispatch did the commanding General blame anyone under his command.” In the case of Lee’s two Gettysburg reports, Marshall wrote that the commanding general “struck from the original draft many statements which he thought might affect others injuriously, his sense of justice leading him to what many considered too great a degree of leniency.” Marshall declared that Lee’s official report was “substantially true, as far as it goes,” but added that, “it is not complete in many particulars which should be known to understand the campaign fully.”

Brigadier General Alfred Iverson

Thus did Lee repress any urge he might have felt to condemn one or more of his trusted lieutenants who let him down in Pennsylvania, starting at the top with Longstreet and Brigadier General James E. B. Stuart. Even Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, Jr.-who had badly mishandled his brigade on July 1, getting the majority slaughtered, turning the survivors over to Brigadier General Dodson Ramseur, and then trying to lie his way out of it all in his official report-was not singled out for censure. Iverson is significant because his blundering could well have been the difference between a brilliant Confederate triumph at Gettysburg on July 1 versus the heartbreaking defeat that ultimately transpired, and because he was the only officer at Gettysburg whose conduct caused Lee to relieve him of command. Lee was not hesitant about trying to court-martial Iverson and boot him out of the army, yet when it came time to write his reports, Lee passed over Iverson’s role in the defeat without saying a word.

Iverson offers a different study in Gettysburg after-action reports. On the first day of the battle, Iverson, as part of Major General Robert E. Rodes’s division, sent his brigade into action on Oak Ridge while he himself hung back. When the leaderless troops went astray and marched straight into a slaughter pen, Iverson went to pieces and abjectly turned over command of his brigade to Ramseur. Iverson tried to cover up his “misconduct” in two reports, in which he said among other things, that “General Rodes took upon himself the direction of the brigade”; that “the regiment promised me… did not report to me”; and that “I endeavored… to make [another] charge with my remaining regiment and the Third Alabama, but in the noise and excitement I presume my voice could not be heard.” None of this dissembling made any points with Lee, who relieved him of duty and wanted Iverson court-martialed but was prevented from doing so by Jefferson Davis’s intervention. In the meantime, he assigned him to provost marshal duty. As soon as possible he had Iverson reassigned to the cavalry and exiled him forever from the Army of Northern Virginia. Iverson thus became the only general officer to be punished for his performance at Gettysburg.

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Armistead led his brigade from the front, waving his hat from the tip of his saber, and reached the stone wall at the “Angle”, which served as the charge’s objective. The brigade got farther in the charge than any other, an event sometimes known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, but it was quickly overwhelmed by a Union counterattack. Armistead was shot three times just after crossing the wall. Union Captain Henry H. Bingham received Armistead’s personal effects and carried the news to Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was Armistead’s friend from before the war.

Pickett’s report.

Because we do not have Pickett’s own words, and because Lee’s terse Gettysburg reports are models of obfuscation and ambiguity, we are forced to try to reconstruct Pickett’s report from limited historical evidence-bits and pieces of information plus passing references and paraphrasing by those who claimed to have read the thing. There are two primary questions to be answered. First, what exactly did the report say? Second, whom did Pickett blame for the disaster of July 3? Each of these fundamental questions, however, raises a graduate exam’s worth of related questions.

As for what the report said, we can find hints of it in the comments of others. What quickly emerges is that everybody from the commanding general down agreed that “support”-or lack thereof-was the crucial issue. On the night of July 3, an exhausted Lee told Brigadier General John D. Imboden: “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did to-day in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been-but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not- we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.”

The same lament was heard from the officers of Pickett’s division. Peyton and Aylett, being Virginians and having the same perspective on the day’s events, provide strong clues to what would have been going through Pickett’s mind when he wrote his own report. Both of them expressed barely-contained anger, though they refrained from identifying any culprits in their plain vanilla reports. Peyton said the division was “unsupported on the right and left” by the time it reached the stone wall, implying criticism of the divisions of Brigadier General Henry Heth and Major General W. Dorsey Pender and of the two brigades under Wilcox, all of which were part of the assault formation from the beginning. Heth’s division, commanded by Pettigrew, and Pender’s division, commanded that day by Isaac Trimble, were both on Pickett’s left flank when they went into action. In Lee’s plan they were part of the main attack on the center of the Union lines, but in the eyes of the Virginians of Pickett’s division, they were no more than “support troops.” Wilcox’s two brigades on the right were aligned en echelon to Pickett’s division; their job was to cover that flank, so, by the military definition, they were definitely in a support role. The advance of Pettigrew’s, Trimble’s, and Wilcox’s troops was poorly coordinated with Pickett’s advance-a fact that was glaringly apparent to everyone on the Confederate side. In this light, Major Peyton’s statement could be interpreted as a criticism of all three officers and their troops.

Aylett’s remarks on the fight at the stone wall echoed Peyton’s: “No supports coming up, the position was untenable, and we were compelled to retire.” This implies that the blame rested with Longstreet, Anderson, or the troops back on Seminary Ridge, who did not “come up” at the critical time. Neither Peyton nor Aylett were trained professional officers who could be expected to make a distinction between “supports” and “reserves.” They probably regarded all troops who were not part of Pickett’s division as supports. So, although Peyton and Aylett provide some clues as to what Pickett might have thought in the days after the charge, the clues, like the language the two officers used in their reports, are too vague to give us much insight.

[1] Samuel Cooper (June 12, 1798 – December 3, 1876) was a career United States Army officer, serving during the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. Although little-known today, Cooper was also the highest-ranking Confederate general during the American Civil War. After the conflict, he remained in Virginia as a farmer.

Battle of Reports – Gettysburg II

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Map of the third and final day during the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are, however, other trails to follow. Several Confederate officers who fought at Gettysburg, who knew Pickett well, and who were likely to be familiar with his report later talked about its contents. These included E. P. Alexander, Longstreet, and Colonel Taylor of Lee’s staff. Alexander, who commanded Longstreet’s artillery on July 3, said in his Military Memoirs that Pickett’s report “reflected unjustly upon the brigades of Hill’s corps [the divisions of Pender/Pettigrew and Heth Trimble] among which the break first occurred.” Alexander did not claim to have seen the report himself, but he wrote knowingly of its contents, and he was certainly well acquainted with everyone at both Longstreet’s and Lee’s headquarters who would have handled the report. Still, in the absence of direct observation, Alexander’s comments must be considered hearsay.

Longstreet, who was Pickett’s corps commander and, equally important, was as close to him as any man in the Army of Northern Virginia, could have cleared up the mystery easily in any of the several postwar accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg he wrote for publication. Unfortunately, he seems either to have been completely in the dark, or to have been covering for his old friend, when he wrote disingenuously in Battles and Leaders: “The only thing Pickett said of his charge was that he was distressed at the loss of his command. He thought he should have had two of his brigades that had been left in Virginia; with them he felt that he would have broken the line.” Like Alexander, Longstreet did not claim here to be quoting directly from the report. Even so, his description of Pickett’s sentiments hardly indicates anything so potentially destructive of good morale that Lee should have ordered the report suppressed.

Colonel Taylor, who received the report at army headquarters and passed it on to General Lee, is hardly more helpful than Alexander or Longstreet, but he does offer one vital clue about the document’s contents. In his Personal Reminiscences, Taylor wrote: “The report passed through my hands, but was not carefully perused. Not realizing then the extent to which we were making history, I took no note of the contents of the report; but the inference is clear from reading General Lee’s letter that General Pickett complained of the lack of support and charged it home to some one [emphasis added].”

Reading between the lines, we can infer that Pickett pinned the blame on a specific person (“some one”), not an entire unit, which seems to let Pettigrew’s North Carolinians, the most frequently mentioned villains, off the hook.

If Pickett’s report was indeed a personal attack on a fellow officer, that alone would have given the commanding general grounds to “suggest” that the report be rewritten. If we pursue Taylor’s lead by seeking an individual culprit in Pickett’s report, there are plenty of suspects among those who fell down in their duty that day. The list of suspects must begin with Longstreet, who exercised overall command of the assault, including the troops borrowed from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps. Lee told his First Corps commander that morning, “I am going to take them…on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s division and make the attack.” It was as clear as that. When Longstreet demurred, Lee insisted, causing his subordinate to lament later, “Lee should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.” But Lee chose instead to rely on Longstreet’s professionalism and loyalty to do everything necessary to make the attack succeed. This was in keeping with Lee’s oft-demonstrated willingness to leave all arrangements up to his corps commanders, a fact which must have been known to Pickett from long experience.

When Pickett made his troop dispositions on the morning of July 3, it was under Longstreet’s watchful eye. It was also Longstreet who placed the artillery batteries in position, put Alexander in charge of the bombardment, and decided when and if the assault should be made. Pickett stood face to face with Longstreet just before moving his men forward. Longstreet had one further, crucial bit of responsibility during the assault-the authority to order forward the reserves after Pickett’s men had engaged the Federals on Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately, none of this was written out in formal orders; the division of responsibilities was arrived at in discussions with Lee on the morning of July 3.

In the initial advance, Longstreet refused to commit the divisions of Major Generals John B. Hood and Lafayette McLaws, despite being “so ordered” by Lee. Then he refused to send reinforcements forward at the height of the charge, feeling it was “useless” and a further waste of men. The Comte de Paris described the situation in his early account: “Longstreet did not give to Pickett’s desperate attack the support of all the force placed at his disposal, and did not cause any diversion to be made in his favor by the two divisions under Hood and McLaws.”

The possibility of Longstreet being held culpable by Pickett is supported by something Lee told Colonel William Allen after the war: “The imperfect, halting way in which his corps commanders fought the battle gave victory finally to the foe.” If Pickett did in fact blame Longstreet, he would have received a lot of moral support in the years after the war from such prominent Longstreet bashers as Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, and J. William Jones, long-time secretary of the Southern Historical Society, all of whom pinned the blame for the failure at Gettysburg squarely on the First Corps commander.

Representative of their opinions are the words of Jones, written to the editor of the Richmond Dispatch in 1896. In the letter, he accused Longstreet of not making his attack “as ordered, with his whole corps, supported by A. P. Hill.” Instead, Longstreet sent Pickett forward “with a bare 14,000 men against Meade’s whole army while the rest of our army looked on.” These words reflected a long-running feud between Jones and Longstreet, but could they have been the same sentiments Pickett felt and perhaps expressed when he sat down to write his report? Perhaps. One of Pickett’s own colonels, Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia, harbored an even blunter version of the same view. “It seems clear,” he wrote, “that if Longstreet had supported Pickett by the rest of his corps… and by part of Hill’s corps… he would have penetrated and held the lines of Meade.” At least some of Pickett’s officers, it seems, thought the buck stopped with the First Corps commander.

While Pickett wrote no memoirs and remained aloof from the war of words between former comrades after Appomattox, he was not completely silent on the central event of his life. Fortunately for us, he expressed himself on the subject of the battle, although it was done, not for the general public, but for a more select and sympathetic audience. About a decade after the war, Pickett addressed a reunion of his division’s veterans in Richmond. In a speech long on oratorical flourishes and short on facts, he recounted a version of events the veterans must have loved:

We marched across one mile… into the jaws of death under fire from 200 pieces of Ordnance and upon the center of the foe… without support and without faltering. Oh grand but fatal day…. Had we been supported, had others followed to hold what we had gained at such heroic sacrifice then would our freedoms have been secured. If the views Pickett expressed on this occasion were the same as his feelings in the weeks after Gettysburg, then the principal objects of his wrath seem to have been the “supports” back on Seminary Ridge who failed to come forward at the critical time. This view certainly agrees with the accounts of Colonels Allan and Mayo and Major Timberlake: It was those behind Pickett’s men-not those on the flanks-who failed in their duty that day.

PT-Boats in Surigao Strait

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Battle of Surigao Strait – US Navy PT Boats, IJN Fuso & Yamashiro.

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PTs 130, 131, and 152, three of six boats positioned furthest into the Mindanao Sea, were the first to spot the Japanese on radar. As the Japanese ships drew close, the three boats revved engines and dashed south. By 11:50 P.M., they actually saw the Japanese ships and began transmitting contact reports by radio. Within moments, lookouts on destroyer Shigure spotted the PTs. While Fuso and Yamashiro hung back, Shigure turned on searchlights, lofted illuminating star shells over the PTs, and advanced to confront them. Seconds later, 4.7-in. projectiles from Shigure’s main batteries bracketed the PTs. The Battle of Surigao Strait began.

To Bob Clarkin on the 152 Boat, the next moments were a riotous blur. “The first thing I remembered was the boat hauling ass away. We hadn’t fired torpedoes and we were caught in a searchlight. The noise was incredible.” Bob heard an explosion forward. “Charlie Midgett, the guy on the bow thirty-seven-millimeter gun was down. He looked pretty bad to me. He probably died right away.” Fires flared topside and below decks. “Some of the guys carried Charlie and a couple of wounded down to the skipper’s cabin. The mattresses in crew’s quarters were burning, so I went below, hauled them up, and tossed them over the side.” By then, 152 was covered by screening smoke from the 130 Boat, but incoming rounds still howled and splashed around them. “The skipper signaled me to roll one of the stern depth charges.” The charge exploded behind them. It was meant to fool the Japanese, but Bob doubted they’d even notice.

This was the first of a string of brief, unequal duels—a nuisance for the Japanese, chaos for the PT crews. Caught under destroyer star shells, searchlights, and gunfire, most boats had no time to line up a good torpedo shot. The 152 Boat—on fire, her bow splintered, one crewman dead and three others wounded—was the worst hit in the first duel. But Boat 130 also was pounded when its skipper Ian Malcolm slowed to lay covering smoke for 152. “We took a hit on our port forward torpedo. It shaved off most of the warhead’s TNT and ripped up twelve feet of deck before it left through the bow. The fish’s detonator cap was hanging by a wire. I dove for it, but one of the gunner’s mates got there first, tossed the detonator cap to me, and I batted it over the side.” The concussion silenced 130’s radio gear. Unable to communicate what he’d seen, Malcolm nursed the 130 southeast to link up with the three PTs waiting near Camiguin Island.

In 127’s chart house, Tom Tenner picked up something on his radar screen. “I saw some blips and called them out. The skipper wanted to know more, but it was hard to judge course and speed; sometimes the radar picked them up sometimes it missed them, depending on how high the waves were. It seemed there were about eight ships: two large blips, one medium, and the rest smaller. We finally estimated their speed at twenty to twenty-two knots.

“Just then Boat 130 came over. They’d been shot up and lost their radio, but their skipper was able to tell us what he’d seen.” Sitting topside as pointer on the forty-mm, Don Bujold heard Jack Cady’s greeting to Ian Malcolm. “The boat captains had these Rudy Valle-type megaphones. I remember Jack Cady shouting across to Malcolm: ‘Mai, are you scared?’ And Malcolm shouted back: ‘Hell, no, I’m terrified!'”

When the 130 Boat arrived, 127’s radioman Jake Hanley left his topside GQ station and went below. “We moved bow to bow with the 130, and Malcolm came aboard. We crowded into the chart room. Ian was pretty excited, but Cady was a man who could calm anyone down. Cady took down Malcolm’s information; I got the code book out and converted the information into coded groups of four or five letters to transmit by voice on the radio. I had to repeat the code groups over and over before I got an acknowledgment. I could tell the Japanese were trying to scramble the signal, but I finally got a confirmation.”

It was the 130’s information and 127’s transmission, received just after midnight, that first alerted the battleship, cruiser, and destroyer lines exactly what was coming and when to expect it. Meanwhile, Nishimura radioed Kurita: “Advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats.”

Battle of Talas River – Redux

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In 751 a Tang (T’ang) dynasty army commanded by Gao Xianzhi (Kao Hsien-chih), military governor of Anxi (An-hsi) in the Western Regions, met an Arab army in battle at Talas River near Samarkand. The Chinese were defeated. Although this was not a major military confrontation, it had great consequences.

Tang power and prestige stood at their zenith up to 750. Tang military forces had scored major successes and secured the frontiers from Tibet to Central Asia; the northern steppes were under a friendly semi-sedentary people called Uighurs, while the Khitans in the northeast and the Xixia (Hsi Hsia) in the southwest were contained. International trade flourished by land along the Silk Road, and by sea routes. However soon all would change. The aging Emperor Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung), infatuated with a young concubine, the Lady Yang (Yang Guifei), had been neglecting his duties while her corrupt family and favorites dominated the government. The military system that had made the empire strong during the previous 100 years was deteriorating. Many of the frontier garrisons were manned by nomadic mercenaries and commanded by non-Chinese generals. Meanwhile Muslim Arab power had been expanding eastward.

The conflict began as one between two local states, Ferghana, a Chinese client state, and Tashkent. It led to battle between Ziyad bin Salih, governor of Samarkand under the Ummayyad Caliphate, assisting Tashkent, and General Gao Xianzhi and his Chinese forces. Gao was badly defeated when his ally the Western Turks defected to the Arabs and retreated across the Pamir Mountains. The battle was not significant in the short term, because the Arabs did not press eastward to threaten China, but because of what followed in the long term. In the same year, nearer to home, the aborigines in Yunnan in southwestern China revolted and declared independence, creating a state called Nanzhao (Nan-chao).

Finally in 755 the Turkic general and once imperial favorite An Lushan (An Lu-Shan) began a rebellion that captured both Tang capital cities and threatened the throne. The immediate result of events in 755 was the recall of Chinese forces from Central Asia, creating a political vacuum. That left the Arabs in a strong position. Likewise the power vacuum enabled the Tibetans and the Xixia people to expand their power at China’s expense. Even as an ally the Uighurs expanded their power at the Tang’s expense. Without Chinese military protection the Buddhist states in Central Asia would fall to the rising power of Islam. Chinese power would not return to the region for another 600 years.

Further reading: Beckwith, Christopher I. The Tibetan Empire of Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987; Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes, a History of Central Asia. Trans. by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

tang-elite-soldiers-small

T’ang armies

The Sui dynasty was founded in northern China in 581 AD and had reunited the whole country by 589. Initial successes were followed by a disastrous war with Koguryo and several rebellions. A military family from the northern frontier succeeded in establishing the new T’ang dynasty, which united China by 623 and extended Chinese frontiers further than ever before. Sui and early T’ang armies were based on the fu-ping militia system, both infantry and cavalry being conscripted but thoroughly trained. The system could not cope with prolonged service on distant frontiers, however, and the militias were progressively replaced by professional troops until being abolished in 753. Some T’ang armies in the steppes were composed entirely of cavalry, though such armies were usually mostly Turkish auxiliaries. Other T’ang armies in Central Asia had all their infantry mounted. Sui armies must use infantry.

Tang-Dynasty-army-uniform

T’ang infantry were divided into pu-ping “marching infantry” and pu-she “foot archers”. Classification is awkward because it was the ideal that all troops should carry bows – even, apparently, if also armed with spears – but it is not clear how far this ideal was achieved. Some Sui cavalry carried lance, others sword and shield. Under the T’ang, most heavy cavalry were armed in originally Turkish style with lamellar armour, lance and bow; but occasional sources show lances only. Sui armies used wagon-laagers and chevaux-de-frise against Turkish cavalry, and T’ang forces also occasionally used defences. Mo-ho are the Manchurian tribes called Malgal by the Koreans. Some fought for the Sui against Koguryo and against Chinese rebels, and for the T’ang against Turks, Tibetans and Silla.

Final Assault on the Reichstag

A total of 89 heavy artillery guns and Katyusha rocket launchers were trained on the Reichstag for a thunderous barrage before the infantry stormed it, turning the structure into a ruin.

When the Reichstag was finally taken on 30 April 1945, Soviet soldiers swarmed through its elegant hallways to scrawl graffiti recording their presence, and their feelings about the Germans.

By the evening of the 28th April 1945, Marshal Zhukov’s lead forces were preparing the final assault on the Reichstag. Chuikov’s Eighth Guards advanced from the south, Berzarin’s Fifth Shock Army with 11th Tank Corps from the east, and Kuznetsov’s Third Shock Army the unit designated to make the actual seizure – from the north-west. The spearhead unit from Third Shock was General S. N. Perevertkin’s 79th Rifle Corps. They had two major obstacles to overcome before they reached the Reichstag building. First, the Moltke Bridge would have to be seized and a crossing of the Spree forced. To this task was assigned 171st Rifle Division. Then, after the corner building on the opposite Kronprinzenufer had been cleared, the 171st would have to join the 150th Division in neutralising the huge complex of the Ministry of the Interior – ‘Himmler’s House’ – which was expected to mount a terrific resistance. Late on the 28th, the Germans attempted to blow the Moltke Bridge, but the explosion left the centre section hanging precariously in place. The Soviet soldiers tried to force a crossing but were driven back by murderous fire from German pillboxes. Shortly after midnight, however, two Soviet battalions succeeded in blasting their way through the barricades and across the bridge, where they proceeded to clear the surrounding buildings to allow a crossing in force.

At 0700 hours the next morning, Soviet artillery began a 10-minute pounding of ‘Himmler’s House’. Mortars were also hauled up to the second floor of a next-door building and fired point-blank through the windows. The infantry began the assault, but it was another five hours before they managed to storm into the complex’s central courtyard. The fighting was intense and vicious. Close-range combat was pushed from room to room and up and down the stairways. Finally, at 0430 hours on 30 April, the Ministry of the Interior building was secured, and the Red Army troops began taking up their positions for the storming of the Reichstag.

While this battle raged, just a few hundred yards away, the last Fuhrer-conference was getting underway in the bunker. General Weidling reported on the situation, sparing nothing in his description of the city’s, and the Third Reich’s, plight. There was virtually no ammunition left, all of the dumps being now located in Soviet-occupied sectors of the city; there were few tanks available and no means for repairing those damaged; there were almost no Panzerfausts left; there would be no airdrops; an appalling number of the ‘troops’ left defending the city were red-eyed youngsters in ill-fitting Volkssturm uniforms, or feeble and frightened older men or those who had been earlier deemed unfit for military service. It was inevitable, Weidling told Hitler, that the fighting in Berlin would end soon, probably within a day, with a Soviet victory. Those present reported later that Hitler gave no reaction, appearing resigned to his fate and the fate he had inflicted on the country. Still, when Weidling requested permission for small groups to attempt break-outs, Hitler categorically refused. Instead he glared dully at the situation maps, on which the locations of the various units had been determined by listening in to enemy radio broadcasts. Finally, around 0100 hours, Keitel reported to the Fuhrer that Wenck was pinned down, unable to come to the Chancellery’s aid, and that the Ninth was completely bottled up outside the city. It was over. Hitler made his decision to kill himself within the next few hours.

Around noon on the 30th, the regiments of the l50th and l7lst Rifle Divisions were in their start positions for the attack on the Reichstag. In a solemn though brief ceremony, several specially prepared Red Victory Banners were distributed to the units of Third Shock Army which, it was thought, stood the best chance of being the first to hoist it over the Reichstag. In l50th Division, one banner was presented to 756th Rifle Regiment’s. First Battalion, commanded by Captain Neustroyev; another went to Captain Davydov’s First Battalion of the 674th Regiment; a third to the 380th’s First Battalion, led by Senior Lieutenant Samsonov. Banners were also given to two special assault squads from 79th Rifle Corps, both of them manned by elite volunteer Communist Party and Komsomol (Young Communist League) members.

At 1300 hours, a thundering barrage from 152mm and 203mm howitzers, tank guns, SPGs, and Katyusha rocket launchers – in all, 89 guns – was loosed against the Reichstag. A number of infantrymen joined in with captured Panzerfausts. Smoke and debris almost completely obscured the bright, sunny day. Captain Neustroyev’s battalion was the first to move. Crouching next to the captain, Sergeant Ishchanov requested and was granted permission to be the first to break into the building with his section. Slipping out of a window on the first floor of the Interior Ministry building, Ishchanov’s men began crawling across the open, broken ground towards the Reichstag, and rapidly secured entrances at several doorways and holes in the outer wall. Captain Neustroyev took the rest of the forward company, with their Red Banner, and raced across the space, bounding up the central staircase and through the doors and breaches in the wall. The company cleared the first floor easily, but quickly discovered that the massive building’s upper floors and extensive underground labyrinth were occupied by a substantial garrison of German soldiers. One floor at a time, they began attempting to reduce the German force. The task uppermost in everyone’s mind was to make their way to the top and raise the banner; the soldiers who succeeded in this symbolic act, it had been promised, would be made Heroes of the Soviet Union. Fighting their way up the staircase to the second floor with grenades, Sergeants Yegorov and Kantariya managed to hang their battalion’s banner from a second-floor window, but their efforts to take the third floor were repeatedly thrown back. It was 1425 hours.

Immediately after the beginning of the attack on the Reichstag, German tanks counter-attacked against the Soviet troops dug in around the Interior Ministry building. The 380th Regiment, which had been attempting to storm the north-western side of the Reichstag, came under withering fire and was forced to back off and call for help from an anti-tank battalion. Meanwhile, on the second floor, Captain Neustroyev radioed a request for a combat group to support his men and ordered them to clean out the German machine-guns still on the second floor. Sergeants Yegorov and Kantariya were entrusted with the banner once again, and the battalion readied for the battle to take the third floor.

Towards 1800 hours, another strong assault was launched up into the third floor of the Reichstag. This time the Red Army infantrymen succeeded in blasting their way through the German machine-gun positions. Three hundred Soviet soldiers now occupied the German parliament building but a much larger number of heavily armed German soldiers remained in the basement levels. However, the Soviets enjoyed the better position and after a number of tense hours, in the early morning hours of 1 May – the Soviet workers’ holiday, and the target date for their conquest of Berlin – they finally cleared the remaining Germans from the building. Even before all German opposition had been wiped out, at 2250 hours, two Red Army infantrymen climbed out onto the Reichstag’s decimated roof and hoisted the Red Victory Banner. Berlin was under the control of the armies of the Soviet Union.

Battle of Nördlingen

Meulener_Schlacht_bei_Nördlingen

This contemporary painting by Pieter Meulener conveys a good impression of the often confused fighting of most 17thcentury battles.

Cornelius_Schut_Sieg_bei_Nördlingen

The Victory of Nördlingen by Cornelius Schut, 1635.This typical early Baroque painting shows the youthful Ferdinand triumphing with divine assistance.

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Date

September 6, 1634

Location

Nördlingen in Bavaria, southern Germany

Opponents

  • Imperialists and Spain
  • Sweden and allied German states

Commander

  • King Ferdinand of Hungary; Cardinal Infante (Prince) Ferdinand of Spain
  • Count Gustav Horn (Swedes); Duke Bernard von Weimar (allied Germans)

Approx. # Troops

  • 33,000
  • 25,000

Importance

The battle almost wipes out the Swedish Army, reverses the Swedish victory at Breitenfeld, and leads to the recapture of southern Germany for Catholicism. In this situation France openly enters the war on the side of the Protestants.

The Battle of Nördlingen on September 6, 1634, between Swedish and German forces and Imperial and Spanish forces was one of the major battles of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in Germany. Following the death of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the Battle of Lützen on November 16, 1832, his chancellor Axel Oxenstierna ably continued the Swedish war effort. The divisions in Germany were more pronounced than ever, and the devastation of a decade and a half of civil war encouraged outside states to intervene and take what lands they could.

With the death of Gustavus, Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein became the dominant figure on the German scene. As Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II’s preeminent field commander, it is unclear exactly what Wallenstein intended, but indications point to him favoring a peace plan that involved toleration of the Protestants. Believing that Ferdinand II and his Jesuit advisers would never accept such a scheme, Wallenstein opened secret negotiations with the Protestant military commanders Hans Georg von Arnim and Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, in effect committing treason. His effort came to naught. Wallenstein, an unscrupulous man, made the mistake of not doubting the integrity of his own lieutenants. This proved his undoing. Secretly encouraged by the emperor, they murdered Wallenstein in Eger in Bohemia on February 24, 1634.

Meanwhile, the Swedes soldiered on. On September 6 at Nördlingen in western Bavaria some 25,000 Swedish and German forces under Gustav Horn and Duke Bernard met 35,000 Imperial and Spanish forces commanded by King Ferdinand of Hungary and his cousin Cardinal Infante (Prince) Ferdinand of Spain. The Protestant plan called for Horn to attack the Imperial right, while Bernard pinned the Imperial left and prevented it from reinforcing the right. Occupying an excellent defensive position, the Imperial and Spanish forces easily turned back the poorly coordinated Protestant attack. Imperial attacks on Bernard’s forces then routed the Protestant right and wheeled into the Swedes. More than 6,000 Swedes died, and only 11,000 men of the combined Protestant force escaped. The Catholic side sustained only 1,200 casualties.

Nördlingen almost wiped out the army created by Gustavus and, in effect, reversed the Swedish victory at Breitenfeld. Following the battle, King Ferdinand of Hungary, the son of Emperor Ferdinand II and himself the future Ferdinand III (r. 1637–1657), recaptured southern Germany for Catholicism. Although Swedish forces did take the offensive in northern Germany in 1637, the situation after Nördlingen appeared sufficiently dire that the chief minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu, brought his nation openly into the war. Following Nördlingen the war saw France and Sweden fighting Bavaria, Spain, and the emperor.

The French or Franco-Swedish period of the war began in 1635 when French forces invaded Germany. At first the fighting did not go well for France. Finally, on May 19, 1643, at Rocroi in the Ardennes region of north-eastern France the 22-yearold French general Louis, Duc de Enghien, with 22,000 troops, won a brilliant victory over Spanish general Francisco de Melo’s army of 27,000 men. Cavalry and massed artillery shattered the formerly invincible Spanish infantry. Spain lost 7,000 men killed and 8,000 captured in the battle. French casualties were only 4,000.

With all sides urging peace and Germany utterly exhausted, peace negotiations opened in 1644. The talks dragged on because the fighting itself continued. Not until 1648 was the Peace of Westphalia ending the long war concluded. France secured the Lorraine bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun as well as most of the province of Alsace. The Swedes received western Pomerania, including the city of Stettin. Bavaria was elevated in stature and secured the upper palatinate. Brandenburg gained eastern Pomerania and Magdeburg, important steps forward in the rise of what would become the Kingdom of Prussia. The United Provinces (Dutch Republic) and Swiss Confederation were both recognized as independent.

In terms of religion, the Peace of Westphalia reaffirmed the terms of the Peace of Augsburg of 1SS5 that allowed each state to determine the religion of its inhabitants but raised the number of faiths from two to three: Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. In terms of church lands, those holding them on January 1, 1624, received possession, an arrangement that generally worked in the Protestants’ favor.

Most important perhaps was the constitutional arrangement. The more than 300 German states were recognized as virtually sovereign, with each having the right to conduct its own diplomacy and make treaties with foreign powers. This arrangement was an open invitation to intervention in Germany by outside powers, particularly France, which with Sweden became a guarantor of the treaty. Thus, while much of the rest of Europe was being welded into strong centrally directed nation-states, Germany descended into chaos.

Germany had been devastated by the war. Cities were taken and sacked multiple times. Agriculture and crafts both fell into ruin. Pestilence and disease spread, and perhaps half the German population died of these and simple starvation. In consequence, it was the Atlantic peoples—the Dutch, the English, and the French— who now took the lead in world affairs. Only over time did new power complexes begin to form around Brandenburg-Prussia in the north and Austria in the south. In 1740 they began a 126-year-long struggle to see who would control Germany.

References Clark, G. N. The Seventeenth Century. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1950. Parker, Geoffrey. The Thirty Years’ War. New York: Military Heritage Press, 1988. Rabb, Theodore K. The Thirty Years’ War. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1981. Wedgwood, C. V. The Thirty Years’ War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1944.

Raid on Medway I

Upnor Castle, which lies opposite the dockyard at Chatham, played an important part in the defence of the yard at the time of the Dutch raid.

Attack on the Medway, June 1667 by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667. The captured ship the Royal Charles is right of centre.

On 13 June 1667 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone, that I do this night resolve to study with my father and wife what to do with the little that I have in money.’

He, like many Londoners, was thrown into a panic by an extraordinary raid on the Royal Dockyards of Chatham, which contained in oak the defensive strength of England. Only a rusty chain and a tiny river-fort provided the last defence against invasion. That panic was shared by the government. A coastal town was captured and three capital ships and 10 lesser vessels were burnt, while around 30 vessels were scuttled and two others – including the pride and flagship of the navy, were towed away. The one-sided attack proved to be, it can be argued, the worst defeat in the Royal Navy’s history. And it vies with Majuba Hill (1881) and the fall of Singapore (1941) as the most humiliating defeat of British arms.

The Stuarts, by making friends of the Spanish and French, ensured that the threat from those two rival powers would be diminished for the best part of a century. That peace was interrupted when it became clear that the Parliamentarians were winning the Civil War against Charles I. A French squadron with transports evaded the navy in the North Sea and reached Bridlington, but was then destroyed in the harbour. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was not threatened from overseas, partly because in a Europe hit by financial crisis, no power was strong enough to mount a serious challenge. That did not change much when the Stuarts were restored.

But the Dutch, sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, were a different matter.

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell had successfully seen off the Dutch in a war sparked by trade disputes and fought entirely at sea. The English were victorious at the Battle of Scheveningen and the Dutch were forced to accept an English monopoly on trade with England and English colonies. Cromwell sought to avoid further conflict with the Dutch Republic.

The restoration of Charles II saw widespread demands at home to reverse the Dutch dominance in world trade. Charles, however, was personally greatly in debt to the House of Orange, which had lent enormous sums to his father during the Civil War. But a conflict soon developed over the education and future prospects of his nephew, William III of Orange. That dispute, which had wide implications for the royal houses of Europe, was temporarily solved, thanks largely to the diplomacy of Lord Clarendon, a favourite of the king. In 1664, the situation quickly changed when Clarendon’s enemy, Lord Arlington, superseded him as the king’s favourite. Arlington and the king’s brother James, Duke of York, the Lord High Admiral, saw the opportunity for great personal gain in a war with the Dutch. James headed the Royal African Company and hoped to seize the possessions of the Dutch West India Company. The two were supported by the English ambassador in The Hague, George Downing, who despised the Dutch. He, either falsely or over-optimistically, reported that the Republic was politically divided between Orangists, who would gladly collaborate with an English enemy in case of war, and a faction of wealthy merchants that would give in to any English demand in order to protect their trade interests. Arlington planned to subdue the Dutch completely by permanent occupation of key Dutch cities. Charles was easily influenced and became convinced that a popular and lucrative foreign war at sea would bolster his authority as king. Naval officers were hungry for promotion and fortune in a conflict which they thought would be a walk-over.

Enthusiasm for war became infectious. English privateers attacked Dutch ships, capturing about 200. Dutch ships were obligated by treaty to salute the English flag first. In 1664 English commanders provoked the Dutch by not saluting in return. Many Dutch commanders could not bear the insult. English propagandists got to work, invoking the Amboyna Massacre of 1623 when ten English residents in the Dutch fortress of Victoria were executed by beheading for alleged treason, after first being tortured by a seventeenth-century version of water-boarding. Scurrilous broadsheets demonised the Dutch as drunken and profane. Pamphlets documented, without any real evidence, Dutch atrocities in the colonies. Under such a mountain of print, most Englishmen believed, in the poet Andrew Marvell’s words, that the Dutch were the ‘undigested vomit of the Sea’. Such vilification was at least partially an expression of unease with the presence of notable Cromwellians in exile in Holland. Charles had some reason to be nervous about at least the possibility of a Dutch invasion coordinated with an uprising within England.

Behind such fear-fuelled bigotry was of course the time-honoured motive for war – mercantile competition. The English sought to take over the Dutch trade routes and colonies while excluding the Dutch from their own colonial possessions. Contraband shipping had gone on from English colonies in America and Surinam for a decade, and the English were in no mood to give up such revenues. The Dutch, for their part, considered it their right to trade with anyone, anywhere. They too suffered from myopic double standards as they themselves enforced a monopoly in the Dutch Indies and threatened to extend it to India, after having expelled the Portuguese from that region.

Relations were decidedly tense on all fronts. James sent the Royal African Company’s Robert Holmes to capture Dutch trading posts and colonies in West Africa. With royal authority, the English invaded the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in North America on 24 June 1664, and controlled it by October. The Dutch responded by sending a fleet under Michiel de Ruyter, which recaptured their African trade posts, seized most English trade stations there and then crossed the Atlantic for a punitive expedition against the English in America. In December 1664, the English suddenly attacked the Dutch Smyrna fleet. Although the attack failed, the Dutch in January 1665 decreed that their ships could open fire on English warships in the colonies whenever threatened. Charles used this as a pretext to declare war on the Netherlands on 4 March 1665.

Since their defeat in the First Anglo–Dutch War, the Dutch had become much better prepared. Beginning in 1653, a ‘New Navy’ was constructed, a core of 60 new, heavier ships with professional captains. However, these ships were still much lighter than the 10 biggest ships in the English navy. With the threat of war growing, in 1664 the Dutch decided to replace their fleet core completely with still heavier ships. Upon the outbreak of war the following year, the new ships were quickly completed, with another 20 ordered. In the run-up to hostilities, cash-strapped England could only build a dozen ships. During the course of the war the Dutch shipyards built seven vessels to England’s one.

Still, on paper England appeared, fallaciously as it turned out, to be a giant facing the little Dutch boy. Her population was four times as big and its confidence was still on a par with its post-Armada period. But money was tight, with few cities able to dig deep into their coffers. The Dutch burghers were able to spend the equivalent of £11 million on the war, the English barely half that. And God seemed to have deserted England. The outbreak of war was swiftly followed by both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, bringing England virtually to her knees. Furthermore, the English fleet had already suffered severe cash shortages, despite having been voted a record budget of £2,500,000 by Parliament. The navy could only pay its sailors with ‘tickets’, or debt certificates, as Charles lacked an effective means of enforcing taxation. The only way to finance the war was to capture Dutch trade fleets.

The first encounters were, unsurprisingly, at sea and British naval power at first seemed supreme. At the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June the English gained a great victory. It was the worst defeat of the Dutch Republic’s navy in history. However, the English proved unable to capitalise on the victory. The leading Dutch politician, Johan de Witt, quickly restored confidence by joining the fleet personally. He sacked ineffective captains and introduced modern tactics.

In August, de Ruyter returned from America to a hero’s welcome and was given supreme command of the confederate fleet. The 60-year-old de Ruyter was highly respected, even loved, by his sailors and soldiers, who used the term of endearment Bestevaêr (‘Grandad’) for him. A pious, lowly born man, cautious in his personal nature, he always led from the front and refused to back away from danger. He also, unusually for one of his standing, had an utter disregard for rank. Meanwhile, the Spice Fleet from the Dutch East Indies managed to return home safely after the Battle of Vagen. That hit English pockets hard.

Charles and his ministers sought foreign help. In the summer of 1665 the bishop of Münster, an old enemy of the Dutch, had been induced by promises of English subsidies to invade the Republic. At the same time, the English made overtures to Spain. Both strategies backfired. Louis XV was greatly alarmed by the attack by Münster and the prospect of an English–Spanish coalition. He feared that a collapse of the Republic could create a powerful Habsburg entity on his northern border, as the Habsburgs were the traditional allies of the German bishops. He immediately promised to send a French army corps and French envoys. There was consternation at the English court. It now seemed that the Republic would end up as either a Habsburg possession or a French protectorate. Either outcome would be a disaster for England. Clarendon, always having warned about ‘this foolish war’, was ordered to quickly make peace with the Dutch without French mediation. Instead, he encouraged the Orangists to seize power, but that was foiled by the return of de Witt from his fleet.

The Dutch created a strong anti-English alliance. On 26 January 1666, Louis declared war and days later Frederick III of Denmark was bribed into doing the same. Charles made a new peace offer, which vaguely promised to moderate his demands if the Dutch would only appoint William to some responsible function and pay £200,000 in ‘indemnities’. De Witt considered it a mere feint to divide the Dutch and their French allies. He was having none of it and decided to strike hard with a fleet of 85 ships.

Eighty English ships, under General-at-Sea George Monck, the Duke of Albemarle, set sail at the end of May to confront the threat. But 20 of them under Prince Rupert peeled off to intercept a phantom French squadron believed to be joining up with the Dutch – in fact, most French vessels were in the Mediterranean. Albemarle came upon de Ruyter’s fleet at anchor on 1 June and immediately attacked the nearest Dutch ship before the rest of the fleet could come to her aid. The Dutch rearguard under Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelius Tromp set upon a starboard tack, taking the battle toward the Flemish shoals and compelling Albemarle to turn about. A ferocious battle raged until nightfall. Albemarle’s strength was reduced to 44 ships, but with these he renewed the battle, tacking past the enemy four times in close action. With his fleet in too poor a condition to continue to challenge, he retired towards the coast with the Dutch in pursuit.

The following day Prince Rupert returned with his 20 ships, joined Albemarle. During this stage of the battle, Vice-Admiral George Ayscue, on the grounded Prince Royal, surrendered, the last time an English admiral did so in battle. On the fourth day the Dutch broke the English lines several times. The English again retreated, but de Ruyter was reluctant to follow because gunpowder was running low. The battle ended with both sides claiming victory, even though the English had lost 10 ships against the Dutch four.

One more major action was fought – the St James’s Day Battle on 4 and 5 August ended in English victory because they lost one ship to the Dutch two. It failed to decide the war as the Dutch fleet escaped annihilation and at this stage simply surviving was enough for the Dutch. Five days later, Charles made another peace offer to de Witt using the notorious Henri Buat, a Dutch cavalry officer with a track record of conspiracy, as an intermediary. Among the letters he took to The Hague, presumably by mistake, was one containing the secret English instructions to their contacts in the Orange party, outlining plans for an overthrow of the state’s regime. Buat was arrested, condemned for treason and beheaded. His accomplices in the conspiracy fled the country to England. De Witt now had proof of treachery within the Orange movement.

The mood in the Republic now turned grimly belligerent. To raise temperatures even higher, in August English Vice-Admiral Robert Holmes, during his raid on the Vlie estuary in August 1666, destroyed merchantmen and sacked the island of Terschelling, setting the main town aflame. In this he was assisted by a Dutch captain, Laurens Heemskerck, who had fled to England after having been condemned to death for cowardice shown during the Battle of Lowestoft.

After the Great Fire of London in September, Charles again reduced his demands in an attempt to withdraw from the war without losing face. He was rebuffed.

By the beginning of 1667 Charles’s active fleet was in a poor state owing to spending cuts and the remaining big ships were laid up. Johan de Witt saw his chance. Negotiations had been in progress at Breda since March, but Charles had been procrastinating over the signing of peace, hoping to improve his position through secret French assistance. De Witt vowed to end the war quickly with a clear victory, thereby ensuring a more advantageous settlement for the Dutch Republic. He sent his brother Cornelis to supervise the fleet’s preparations. The Dutch commanders, fearing the treacherous shoals in the Thames estuary, hired two English pilots, one a dissenter named Robert Holland, the other a smuggler who had fled English justice.

Admiral de Ruyter gathered together his various squadrons and set sail for the Thames on 4 June with 62 frigates or ships-of-the-line, about 15 lighter ships and 12 fireships. The fleet was in three squadrons: the first was commanded by de Ruyter himself, the second by Lieutenant-Admiral Aert Jansse van Nes, and the third by Lieutenant-Admiral Baron Willem Joseph van Ghent. The latter, on the frigate Agatha, was the real commander of the expedition; he had done all the operational planning as he had been the former commander of the Dutch Marine Corps, the first in history created for specialised amphibious operations. That was now headed by the English Cromwellian Colonel Thomas Dolman.

On 6 June a break in the fog bank revealed the Dutch task force sailing into the mouth of the Thames. The attack caught the English unawares. Despite ample warning from spies, no serious preparations had been made. Most frigates were at Harwich and in Scotland. Sir William Coventry had earlier dismissed the likelihood of the Dutch landing anywhere near London, believing that purely as a morale-booster they would launch a token attack on Harwich. That port was strongly fortified, leaving London protected by only a small number of active ships, most of them prizes taken earlier in the war from the Dutch. In March the Duke of York had ordered the discharge of most of the crews of the prize vessels, leaving only three guard ships at the Medway. The number of fireships was hastily increased from one to three, and 30 large sloops were prepared to row ships to safety in an emergency. But such measures merely underlined the lack of a clear line of command, with most responsible authorities giving hasty orders without bothering to coordinate them first. The result was utter confusion. King Charles stood aloof and English morale plummeted. English soldiers, not having been paid for months or even years, were not over-eager to risk their lives. England dithered while the main Dutch fleet took five days to manoeuvre around the shoals and reach the approaches to Chatham.

At the Royal Dockyard, Commissioner Peter Pett, despite having raised the alarm, sat on his hands until 9 June when, late in the afternoon, about 30 Dutch ships, Van Ghent’s squadron of frigates, were sighted off Sheerness. Pett sent a gloomy message to the Navy Board, lamenting the absence of Navy senior officials whose help and advice he believed he needed. When decisive action was required, Pett was more interested in avoiding future blame.

Van Ghent’s frigates carried marines who were landed on Canvey Island in Essex. They had strict orders not to plunder, as the Dutch wanted to shame the English whose troops had sacked Terschelling. Nevertheless, tCaptain Jan van Brakel’s crew couldn’t control themselves and commenced looting rather than soldiering. They were driven off by English militia and upon returning to the Dutch fleet found themselves under threat of severe punishment. Van Brakel offered to lead the attack the next day to avoid the penalty.

King Charles was finally spurred into action and ordered the Earl of Oxford to mobilise the militia of all counties around London. All available barges were gathered to lay a ship bridge across the Lower Thames, so that the English cavalry could quickly switch positions from one bank to the other. Musketeers from the Sheerness garrison were sent to investigate reports of Dutch raiding parties on the Isle of Grain. It was only in the afternoon of 10 June that the king instructed Albemarle to go to Chatham to take charge. Admiral Prince Rupert was sent to organise the defences at Woolwich a full three days later.

Albermarle found to his utter dismay that at Gravesend and Tilbury there were too few guns to halt a Dutch advance upon the Thames. To prevent such a disaster, he ordered all available artillery from the capital to be positioned at Gravesend. On 11 June he went to Chatham, expecting the backbone of England’s naval strength to be well prepared for an attack, but found only 12 of the 800 dockyard men present. Only 10 of the 30 sloops were there because the remainder had been used to ferry to safety the cherished personal possessions of senior officers, in Commissioner Pett’s case, his collection of model ships. No munitions or powder were available and the six-inch thick iron chain that blocked the Medway, installed in the Civil War to repel a possible attack of the Royalist fleet, had not been protected by batteries. Albemarle immediately ordered the transfer of the artillery from Gravesend to Chatham.

The full Dutch fleet arrived at the Isle of Sheppey on 10 June and launched an attack on the incomplete Sheerness Fort. Captain Jan van Brakel in Vrede, desperate to assuage the dishonour of his men, led and, followed by two other men-of-war, sailed as close to the fort as possible to batter it with cannon. Only the frigate Unity, stationed off the fort, was able to engage. It was supported by a number of ketches and fireships at Garrison Point, and by the fort itself where 16 guns had been hastily placed. The Unity fired one broadside, but when a Dutch fireship approached, she withdrew up the Medway, followed by the support vessels. The Dutch fired on the fort. Two men were hit and when the Scots soldiers of the garrison realised that no surgeon was on duty, they deserted. Seven remained, but their position became untenable when some 800 Dutch marines landed about a mile away. The fort and its guns were captured and blown up,

Confusion reigned on the English side, as Spragge, Monck and Admiralty officials issued conflicting orders. As his artillery would not arrive soon, Monck on the 11th ordered a squadron of cavalry and a company of soldiers to reinforce Upnor Castle. River defences were hastily improvised with blockships sunk, and the chain across the river was guarded by light batteries. Pett proposed that several big and smaller ships be sunk to block the Musselbank channel in front of the chain. HMS Golden Phoenix, HMS House of Sweden, HMS Welcome and HMS Leicester were scuttled along with the smaller vessels Constant John, Unicorn, John and Sarah. Spragge took soundings and discovered that this was not enough to block the second channel, several more were sunk, including the Barbados Merchant, Dolphin, Edward and Eve, Hind and Fortune. The job was done by men from the remaining warships, which were temporarily left crewless. They were placed in a too-easterly position on the line and could not be covered by fire. Monck then decided also to sink ships in Upnor Reach, presenting another barrier to the Dutch should they break through the chain at Gillingham. The defensive chain placed across the river had at its lowest point been lying practically 9ft under the waterline between its stages, leaving it possible for light ships to pass over it. The defenders tried to raise it by placing stages under it closer to the shore.