Courtrai – 1302


Defeat by the Flemish of the French under Robert of Artois for Philip IV. It followed the revolt of the Matins of Bruges. The Flemings besieged Courtrai whose castle was held by the French. The French attempted relief. A Flemish force, called `weavers, fullers and the common folk’, assembled under Guy of Namur, William of Jülich and Jean de Renesse. The Flemish army consisted mainly of citizen militias, infantry armed with crossbows and goedendags. The Flemings protected their position with ditches. The French charged but, faced by ditches and pikes, failed to break through. The garrison sortied against the Flemish rear but was beaten back. Robert led the rearguard into the fray. His horse was hit and he was dragged off and killed. Courtrai demonstrated the value of infantry against cavalry. The battle was known as that of the Golden Spurs, because 700 pairs were taken from French corpses as trophies. The defeat shocked France, but Philip IV gained his revenge at Mons-en-Pévele.

Staff weapons, used both by foot and equestrian soldiers, are of great antiquity, but the period from 1300 was when they especially came into their own as an infantry weapon. In 1302, at the Battle of Courtrai, the Flemish townsmen from Bruges, Ypres, and Courtrai, armed, in the main, with staff weapons routed a superior and supposedly better-armed French army. The reaction to this victory, essentially by the lower and middle classes, and the large numbers of French cavalry dead, were noted throughout Europe and caused up roar among the nobles, knights, and the upper classes of society. The weapon, called a goedendag (literally “good morning” or “good day”), which caused such a devastating and unexpected victory, far from being sophisticated or innovative, was basically a heavy-headed club to which iron spikes were attached. Their use at Courtrai and, equally important, the discipline of the Flemish forces, mark the rise of the infantry armed with staff weapons as a potent force on the battlefields of Europe. This victory was followed by that of the Swiss using staff weapons at the battle of Morgarten against the Austrians in 1315. From this time on staff weapons played an increasingly important part on the battlefield-blocks of disciplined, well-trained, and well-drilled infantry, all armed with similar weapons, were com mon down to the seventeenth century

Throughout the high Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had completely dominated warfare. It had become completely entrenched in both the military and socioeconomic systems of the day- the noble knight was a key component of the feudal system. In this way, infantry was overlooked as strategically important, even when certain groups of foot soldiers again began to claim victories against the knightly cavalry.

By the 14th century, infantry (without the large support of cavalry) was reasserting its effectiveness in combat. In certain areas of Europe, infantry was becoming a well organized and capable fighting force, which was even able to stand against heavy cavalry. Flemish infantry of the early 1300s, for example, were organized by guild into regular militias, and well equipped with mail habergeons, steel helmets, gauntlets, shields, and even plate armor; and they bore an assortment of weapons, including bows, crossbows, pikes, and goedendags. (This was a heavy wooden staff, four to five feet long, and tipped with a steel spike.) Because of their structure, in particular their ability to hold the line when facing a cavalry charge, the Flemish were able to achieve a decisive and influential victory against the French chivalry at Courtrai in July of 1302.

The cities of Flanders were rebelling against the King of France, and laying siege to Courtrai castle. The king sent 2,500 men-at-arms and 8,000 infantry to relieve the Courtrai garrison and dispatch the rebellion. He took it for granted that the Flemish would flee when they found themselves outnumbered in heavy cavalry, which was widely acknowledged as the master of the battlefield. Instead, the Flemish withdrew to a predetermined position away from the city, in marshland where their flanks were protected by streams, and prepared for the French advance.

The infantry was broken up (by guild and region, so that men who knew each other would be fighting together, which boosted morale) into four divisions, three in line and one as reserve. The soldiers were densely packed, about eight deep, with their pikes and goedendags extended. The Flemish knew that success depended on their holding formation during the French charge, and they did so.

At Courtrai in 1302, javelin-armed bidauts began the battle by advancing with the French crossbowmen. Withdrawing as the knights charged home, the bidauts then re-appeared in support of their cavalry, now engaged with the Flemish infantry line, by throwing their javelins, stabbing at the enemy pikemen and no doubt rescuing individual knights in trouble.

The charge was foiled, and degenerated into a vicious mêlée, in which Flemish infantry outnumbered the French men-at-arms. The surviving French, disarrayed and demoralized, and finding little ground to retreat, began to flee. Over a thousand French noblemen were killed in the battle. The dominance of cavalry in warfare now became subject to question.

It took two more bloody battles-Arques, a loss for the French, and Mons-en-Pévele, a loss for the Flemings-and more than three years before the county of Flanders was forced to submit to the king of France. Before peace was made in 1305, many had died on both sides, including the leading Flemish general, William of Jülich.

Yet the Flemish desire for economic and political self-rule was not quenched by the violence of the French reaction to the 1302-1305 rebellion, and they rebelled once again in 1323-1328. The result this time was the Battle of Cassel, a French victory. Yet again the Flemings revolted in 1338, led by the Ghentenaar weaver, Jacob van Artevelde. On this occasion, the French could not effectively use military force to put down the Flemish rebellion, as the English, al lies of the Flemings, posed a greater threat during these early years of the Hundred Years War. It was not until 1346, when an uprising by another faction in Ghent led to Jacob van Artevelde’s assassination, that peace would return to the county. However, thirty-three years later, the Flemings revolted again, this time under Philip van Artevelde, the son of the earlier rebel leader. In 1382, a lull in the Hundred Years War fighting allowed the young French king, Charles VI, to send a large army north, which resulted in a French victory at the Battle of Rosebeke, though the citizens of Ghent, leaders among the rebels, held out until 1385.

Courtrai: 1302 The Flemish victory over the French at Courtrai in 1302 provides a good check list of the actions necessary for traditional medieval infantry to combat a knightly army.

  1. Protect the rear. The Flemings were besieging Courtrai castle which contained a French garrison. When the French knights charged the Flemish battle line the garrison sortied-out, but were repulsed by the crossbows and spears of the men of Ypres. At other battles, such as Mons-en-Pevele (1304), a garrisoned screen of wagons was placed to the rear to prevent the more mobile knights outflanking the Flemish line. When the Flemings advanced they formed ‘crown’ formations capable of halting and presenting an all-round defence like the Scottish schiltrons of spearmen.
  2. Protect the flanks. At Courtrai, the marshy River Lys provided an anchor to the Flemish flanks so that they could not be turned.
  3. Make the front difficult of access. The Groenig Brook and the Grote Beek, both swampy declivities, provided obstacles that slowed and disordered the knightly charge, so that they arrived at the Flemish line without the impetus necessary to break through.
  4. Be uphill. From the brooks the land rises to the town, bestowing an advantage on foot soldiers combating knights.
  5. Form a reserve. Jan van Renesse had a reserve body of men, possibly the dismounted knights of Zeeland, whom he was able to bring to the relief of the men of Bruges when they were being bodily pushed back, which was the crisis of the battle. The reserve would ideally include mounted troops who could follow up the defeated enemy, but the Flemings lacked sufficient knights to do this.
  6. Provide a skirmish screen. This was to prevent the enemy thinning the ranks of the close-order infantry by missile assault. Robert of Artois sent his French crossbowmen forwards to weaken the Flemings. However, the Flemish crossbowmen were deployed in front of their spears and were able to keep the French at a distance until they had run out of ammunition.
  7. Ensure good order. The Flemings fought in contingents by town and guild. Their clothing was uniform and each guild had its banner so each man knew his station, and they learnt a battle cry to distinguish friend from foe. The pikemen and goedendag men (the goedendag was a heavy two handed club with a single spike at the point) knew how to work together. The pikemen rested the butts of their weapons on the ground to form a hedge the knights could not break; the goedendag man struck the knights and their mounts once they were halted.
  8. Keep the line intact. Jan van Renesse advised: ‘Do not let the enemy break through your ranks. Do not be frightened. Kill both horse and man. “Flanders, the Lion” is our battle cry…. Every man who penetrates into your ranks or breaks through them shall remain there dead’.
  9. Dismount the leaders. The Flemish princes, Guy de Namur and Wilhelm van Jiilich, both dismounted with their bodyguards and banners and took position in the front rank. Showing that the leaders could not run away (nor do a deal with the French to abandon the common soldiers) provided a crucial boost to morale and an addition to fighting power.
  10. Stiffen morale. Before the battle the commanders made speeches to their troops with fighting instructions and a reminder of their cause. Soldiers were enjoined to kill any of their own side who broke ranks to loot the rich corpses of French knights, for that imperilled the good order and safety of all. Guy de Namur knighted more than 30 of the leaders of the common people, thus elevating the representatives of the artisan army. Before the battle all were confessed of their sins and ensured of a path to heaven, for if they died it was in a righteous cause.
  11. Pursue rigorously. Despite being on foot, the Flemish commanders (who were mainly knights) sensed when the last French, reserve had failed in its attack and ordered an immediate pursuit. The infantry hurled themselves at the downed knights, slaughtering them and preventing the French cavalry from reforming. They pushed on, routing any remaining opposition, seizing the French camp and plundering it. The Flemings named Courtrai the ‘Battle of the Golden Spurs’ because of the thousand symbols of knighthood they won.


British Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon.

Unknown oil on canvas of Blas de Lezo.

Date March 14-May 20,1741

Forces British: 29 ships of the line, c. 150 other vessels; Spanish: 6 ships of the line

Losses British: 50 ships of all kinds; Spanish: 6 ships of the line

Location Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

When war broke out in October 1739, it was conceived by Britain as a formal naval war. The British navy was to use its numbers and capability to achieve decisive results at critical points within Spain’s vulnerable and vital maritime empire. British squadrons were well placed to begin the campaign. The small squadron at Jamaica had already been ordered to undertake reprisals. The Mediterranean squadron was reinforced and ordered to prevent the Cartagena and Cadiz squadrons from uniting with the squadron at Ferrol. Vice Admiral Edward Vernon had been sent to the West Indies to do what damage he could to the Spaniards. Rear Admiral Chaloner Ogle had a small force off St Vincent to intercept Spanish shipping. An expedition to disrupt Spanish commerce in the Pacific was prepared under Commodore George Anson, and in December 1739 it was agreed to send a large expedition of 12,000 soldiers to the Caribbean to achieve the decisive conquests that would force Spain to make peace.

The results were profoundly disappointing. The Cadiz and Ferrol squadrons evaded the British squadrons and sailed for the West Indies. The French Brest squadron of 18 line under the Marquis d’Antin and the Toulon squadron of 12 line under the Comte de La Roche-Alard also got out and sailed to the West Indies. The uncertainty about the intentions of these neutral French forces and their eventual escape increased the demands on the expeditionary force intended for the West Indies and imposed delay upon it. An escort of 25 line was required to take the expeditionary army to join Vernon’s six warships, but by the time the expedition arrived at Jamaica, d’Antin had decided to return to Brest. Despite what appeared to be overwhelming superiority, the attempts upon Cartagena de las Indias, Guantanamo Bay on Cuba and Panama were all failures. Only the little island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras was seized and held before the remnants of the expeditionary force sailed for home in October 1742.

The success at Porto Bello in 1739 inspired the British to prey further upon Spain’s colonial possessions. A massive force, requiring a quarter of the entire strength of the Royal Navy, was sent to the Caribbean the following year. The death of the expedition’s overall commander, Lord Cathcart, en route left the naval force under Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, victor of Porto Bello, and the troops under Major-General Thomas Wentworth, with no one to arbitrate if they disagreed.

Britain’s target was Cartagena de Indias, the major port in Spanish-ruled New Grenada. Leading its defense was Admiral Bas de Lezo, one of Spain’s most gallant naval commanders, who had lost a leg, an arm, and an eye in a distinguished fighting career. He had only six ships of the line to face the British armada, but had no intention of giving in. The British arrived off the city in mid-March and settled down to a bombardment of its walls. The entrance to the harbor was defended by shore batteries and the guns of de Lezo’s six ships anchored inside. On April 15, the British attempted a sea and land assault on these defenses.

After a sharp fight de Lezo scuttled his ships to keep them out of British hands and fell back on the port’s inner fort. As time passed and tempers frayed, cooperation between Vernon and Wentworth broke down. Land assaults proved to be costly failures, while Vernon’s ships bombarding the walls came under damaging fire from shore guns.

Caribbean epidemic diseases raged, decimating naval crews and troops. After 67 fruitless days the British sailed away on May 20, burning some of their ships because they had no crews left to man them. De Lezo did not enjoy his triumph for long, dying of a wound sustained in the siege. The British government was embarrassed by this ignominious defeat because the operation had been prematurely hailed as a triumph and victory medals struck.

Second Battle of Khe Sanh Part I

The 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, wasted no time in starting its new mission at Khe Sanh: saturation patrols in the TAOR within range of the supporting artillery. Battalion commander Lt. Col. Donald D. Newton began Operation Crockett on 14 May 1967. He stationed one rifle company each on Hills 861 and 881S, put a small detachment on Hill 950 to guard the radio relay station, and kept the rest of the battalion at the combat base for security and reserve. The infantry from the hilltop outposts patrolled continuously, ranging out as far as four thousand meters.

For the balance of May and into June, 1/26’s patrols found plenty of evidence that the NVA 325C Division still roamed the area, but they rarely saw an enemy soldier. Then, at 0100 on 6 June, the security detachment on Hill 950 frantically radioed the base that it was under a ground attack. A reaction force saddled up at the airstrip, but the radio calls grew more desperate: The enemy was in the lines; the enemy was overrunning the position; please send help. Then silence.

By the time the reaction force arrived, the fight had ended. Of the seventeen Marines on Hill 950, six were dead and nine were wounded. If 1/26 needed a reminder that the NVA still held the upper hand in the Khe Sanh hills, they had it.

The next day the enemy repeated that lesson. About two kilometers west of Hill 881S, a patrol from Bravo 1/26 was hit by NVA mortars and small-arms fire. Before the Marines recovered from that attack, a strong force of NVA soldiers poured out of a nearby tree line. A desperate close-quarters fight raged across the hillside for several hours before a reinforcing platoon from Alpha Company reached the scene and forced the NVA to break contact. Eighteen Bravo Marines died; another twenty-eight were wounded. Sixty-six dead NVA lay among the Marine casualties.

As a result of these vicious contacts, Maj. Gen. Bruno A. Hochmuth, the 3d Marine Division commander, ordered Lt. Col. Kurt L. Hoch’s 3/26 to Khe Sanh. It arrived on 13 June and headed into the hills.

There was little contact until the early morning hours of 27 June, when the NVA sent more than fifty 82mm mortar rounds flying into the combat base. The rounds killed 9 Marines and wounded 125. The combat base had barely secured from that attack when the NVA struck again. Just before dawn they launched fifty 102mm rockets at the base. Another Marine died and fourteen more were wounded in this attack.

At noon that same day, India 3/26, on a search west of the base for the enemy mortar positions, bumped into two NVA companies. The fight lasted all afternoon. Not until 1900, when Lima 3/26 arrived by helicopter, did the enemy flee. India lost eight killed, including a platoon commander, and thirty-five wounded; Lima lost its commander and thirteen others, plus fifteen wounded. An estimated twenty-five NVA died in the firefight.

After this action the enemy seemingly vanished. The two battalions continued their extensive patrols but found few NVA. As a result, 3/26 received orders on 16 July that sent it east, where enemy activity had heated up around Con Thien.

That left one battalion, 1/26, now under Lt. Col. James B. Wilkinson, the sole defenders of the northwest quadrant of Quang Tri Province. As had Lieutenant Colonel Wickwire of 1/3 before him, Wilkinson sent his men out on patrols every day. And just like Wickwire’s Marines, Wilkinson’s men rarely spotted the enemy. Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, the Marine patrols searched far and wide, but the NVA remained out of sight. Yet no one doubted they were out there.

In November, intelligence sources reported that two NVA divisions, the 325C and 304, had entered the Khe Sanh area. This convinced General Westmoreland that his long-hoped-for major battle with the North Vietnamese Army loomed just over the horizon. Determined to engage his foe in a decisive battle, the MACV ordered III MAF, now commanded by Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman, Jr., to reinforce Khe Sanh. Cushman passed the orders to the 3d Marine Division. That headquarters tapped 3/26 for a return trip to Khe Sanh. Three of its rifle companies landed at the improved airstrip on 13 December; the fourth arrived the next day. Operation Scotland began on 14 December, and the Khe Sanh hills once again felt the pounding of Marine jungle boots.

All remained quiet until just after dusk on 2 January 1968. In response to an alert Marine sentry’s warning, a quick-reaction team shot and killed five enemy soldiers dressed in Marine utilities who had been reconnoitering the western end of the combat base. A search of the enemy bodies revealed that the team had slain an NVA regimental commander and members of his staff. The corpses yielded a rich supply of documents indicating that the enemy had planned a major attack on the base. Colonel David E. Lownds, CO of the 26th Marines since August, passed the data up the line.

When the intelligence reached General Westmoreland, it convinced him he had been right all along. In his mind, the NVA hoped to duplicate their stunning 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Westmoreland ordered a major buildup for the base. Two more Marine battalions (2/26 and 1/9) arrived at Khe Sanh in mid-January; the ARVN sent its 37th Ranger Battalion. By the end of January, five full infantry battalions, three batteries of 105mm howitzers, a battery each of 4.2-inch mortars and 155mm howitzers, and a variety of track-mounted weapons defended the base and the nearby hills.

Fearful that the NVA would have an unobstructed invasion route into South Vietnam’s two northernmost provinces if Khe Sanh did fall, Westmoreland shifted more infantry battalions north. By the end of January 1968, half of all U.S. combat troops—nearly fifty maneuver battalions—were in I Corps.

The Second Battle of Khe Sanh began on 17 January 1968 under circumstances deadly similar to those that triggered the first battle. A recon team on the southern slope of Hill 881N walked into an ambush. The patrol commander and his radioman died in the initial blast of fire; several more Marines were wounded. They and the others fell back and frantically called for help.

A platoon from India 3/26, which garrisoned Hill 881S, happened to be nearby. In response to the desperate radio calls, the platoon rushed to aid the recon team. When it arrived, the NVA fire stopped. Medevacs flew in and carried the wounded recon team members back to Khe Sanh. The India Company Marines returned to Hill 881S.

Two days later, another India Company patrol, sent to recover some radio codes left behind by the recon Marines, came under fire in the same area. After a brief firefight, the Marines withdrew.

These two contacts convinced Colonel Lownds that the NVA had reoccupied Hill 881N. Captain William Dabney, CO of India 3/26, received orders to conduct a company-size reconnaissance-in-force of the hill. India set out at 0500 on 20 January, after Mike 3/26 replaced it on Hill 881S. The Marines moved in two platoon columns along parallel ridge fingers leading to Hill 881N’s crest. To flush out ambushers, Dabney walked artillery up the hill in front of his men. It did not work.

Halfway up the hill, a vicious blast of automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades ripped into the right-hand column. Dabney ordered the left-hand platoon forward to flank the ambushers. That did not work either. The platoon made all of twenty feet when a flurry of hot lead erupted from a nearby tree line, decimating it.

For the rest of the afternoon, supported by artillery and air, Dabney continued his efforts to move up Hill 881N. Not until 1730, with seven dead and thirty-five wounded to care for, did Dabney throw in the towel. He ordered his battered company back to Hill 881S.

That same day an enemy deserter revealed that both the NVA 325C and 304 Divisions were, indeed, in the hills outside Khe Sanh. In fact, he said, his former comrades planned an attack on Hills 861 and 881S that night. Colonel Lownds immediately sent word to the outposts to be prepared.

At thirty minutes past midnight on 21 January, the first of several hundred NVA rockets, mortar shells, and rocket-propelled grenades slammed into Kilo 3/26’s positions on Hill 861. When the barrage ended, bursts of enemy machine gun fire raked the hillside. Deep in their bunkers, Kilo’s Marines gripped their weapons and prayed.

At 0100 more than 250 enemy soldiers started up Hill 861’s southwest side. Despite the Marines’ best efforts, the enemy soldiers breached their perimeter and poured into Kilo’s positions. The CO, Capt. Norman J. Jasper, Jr., went down from a direct hit on his command bunker. Unable to continue, he turned command over to his exec. The close-quarters, ferocious fight drove the Marines from their prepared positions to higher ground along the hill’s crest.

From his CP on Hill 881S, Captain Dabney watched the nearby battle unfold. Because he anticipated an attack on his position, he could only wait. However, after several hours of quiet around Hill 881S, Dabney decided he was not in the bull’s-eye that night. He ordered his mortars to fire in support of Kilo.

Despite the beating they had taken, Kilo’s Marines had a lot of fight left. At 0500 they counterattacked. Down the enemyfilled trenches they went, taking on the NVA in the most vicious hand-to-hand combat imaginable. The Marines won. At 0700 they radioed Colonel Lownds that they still held the hill.

Lownds had but scant minutes to savor the good news. From Hill 881N the enemy launched more than sixty 122mm rockets and one hundred 82mm mortar shells at the base. Dabney’s Marines witnessed a rare spectacle, akin to a world-class fireworks display, as the rockets headed toward the Khe Sanh Combat Base, trailing showers of sparks across the morning sky. Seconds later, explosion after explosion erupted throughout the base. The blasts ripped the runway’s steel matting to shreds, tossed helicopters about like toys, collapsed bunkers, destroyed tents, and zinged shards of red-hot shrapnel into human flesh.

Worst of all, one of the first rockets landed in the middle of the ammo dump. A colossal secondary explosion rocked the entire east end of the base as the bulk of more than fifteen hundred tons of pyrotechnics went up and sent flaming debris down on the base. To add to the destruction, numerous barrels of aviation fuel burst from the heat and poured rivers of fire onto the base.

That same night, NVA infantry attacked the South Vietnamese troops who garrisoned Khe Sanh village. Colonel Lownds had to turn down their plea for help. He told them to abandon the village and come to the combat base.

With the enemy now between the combat base and Lang Vei and in control of Route 9, Khe Sanh was truly cut off. The comparisons to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu increased, but General Westmoreland remained optimistic. Indeed, he welcomed the presence of the NVA around Khe Sanh, for he had one advantage the French had not had: airpower. With the massive destructive power available from the sky, Westmoreland could easily destroy his foe. He also began to plan for the relief of Khe Sanh. He would leapfrog the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) down Route 9 from Ca Lu and reopen the highway. He would then send the cavalry into the hills and annihilate the NVA.

Then the Tet Offensive erupted.

On 30 January 1968, well-coordinated attacks by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units were launched all across South Vietnam. Over the next two days, thirty-six of forty-four provincial capitals were attacked. Every major airfield was bombarded by mortars. And enemy sappers nearly overran the massive U.S. embassy complex in downtown Saigon.

About the only major allied base not attacked was Khe Sanh. None of the five NVA divisions that U.S. intelligence reported to be in western Quang Tri Province joined in the offensive. Westmoreland believed that he knew why. He explained the countrywide attacks by announcing, “This is a diversionary attack to take attention away from the north, from an attack at Khe Sanh.”

It would be some weeks before Westmoreland accepted the truth—that the NVA movement on Khe Sanh had been the diversion. The NVA wanted to pull allied troops away from the cities and the populous coastal areas. Only then could their General Uprising–General Offensive succeed. That it did not is a testament to the valor of the individual American fighting man, backed by a nearly unlimited supply of supporting arms.

The relative quiet at Khe Sanh lasted until 2 February. On that date more rockets fell on the base. One hit an Army Signal Corps communications bunker, killed four, and temporarily cut the base off from the rest of the world.

Two days later, super-secret electronic sensors detected a large body of men near Hill 881S. By carefully calculating their route, the Fire Support Control Center (FSCC) at Khe Sanh identified a target box north of Dabney’s position. On signal, five hundred high-explosive artillery shells pummeled the target box. When no attack developed against Dabney, the men of the FSCC congratulated themselves.

Shortly after 0400 on 5 February, the NVA dropped a tremendous volley of mortar rounds on Echo 2/26, newly ensconced on Hill 861A. As soon as the last of the 82mm shells erupted, an NVA force estimated at battalion size, about four hundred men, threw themselves at the freshly strung barbed wire barrier. Sappers blasted passageways through the wire, and enemy infantry poured through the gaps.

The Echo Marines gave ground as they fell back to the center of the perimeter. Echo’s CO, Capt. Earle G. Breeding, called down massive quantities of artillery around his position. But the enemy kept coming. By 0500 they held a quarter of the hill.

The surviving Marines summoned a reservoir of courage few men knew they possessed, and they counterattacked. At close quarters, too close in most cases to use the M16, the plucky Marines stormed down the trenches and killed NVA with grenades, bayonets, and bare hands until they reclaimed the lost positions. By 0630 it was over. No less than 109 enemy bodies lay on the hill. Given the ferocity of the fight, Echo suffered relatively light casualties: 7 dead and 35 wounded.

At 2000 on 6 February, U.S. Army Special Forces sentries at Lang Vei heard the unmistakable rumble of approaching diesel engines. “Tanks in the wire!” The panicked cry echoed throughout the camp.

Seven enemy tanks supported by several hundred NVA infantry overwhelmed the Green Berets and their indigenous charges. At 0400 on 7 February, the camp commander radioed Colonel Lownds and asked him to execute a long-established relief and rescue plan.

Lownds refused. As far as he was concerned, a night movement to Lang Vei amounted to suicide because there were NVA between the base and Lang Vei. Also, the combat base had been under a mortar and rocket attack since 0100. Even if he had had a spare rifle company to send, dispatching it would have seriously weakened his own defenses. The Green Berets were on their own.

By late afternoon, the fight for Lang Vei ended in victory for the NVA. Of more than 500 defenders, only 175 survived. Only 14 of 24 Americans reached safety, and 11 of those were wounded.

Over the next seven weeks, the defenders of Khe Sanh endured daily artillery and rocket attacks. Each day at least a hundred shells, and on some days more than a thousand, hit the base or its outposts. Every day men died or were wounded. In the first four weeks of the siege, more than 10 percent of the defenders became casualties. Although soldiers in earlier wars had endured heavier shelling, the defenders of Khe Sanh suffered more because of the persistence of the barrages and their inability to stop them. Even B-52 Arc Light missions failed to halt the enemy artillery.

Second Battle of Khe Sanh Part II

In early March, General Westmoreland concluded that the NVA no longer planned to capture the Khe Sanh Combat Base, and he so informed President Johnson. But Westmoreland continued to plan for the relief of Khe Sanh, code-named Operation Pegasus.

The operation infuriated the Marine commanders. They had not wanted to be in Khe Sanh in the first place, then they had been roundly criticized for not defending it well. General Cushman angrily insisted to Westmoreland that he did not want an “implication of a rescue or breaking of the siege by outside forces.” Thus, Operation Pegasus was officially touted as a joint Army-Marine operation to reopen Route 9 between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh.

At 0700 on 1 April 1968, two battalions of the 1st Marines—2/1 and 2/3—headed down Route 9 from Ca Lu toward Khe Sanh while elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) began their leapfrog movements, air-assaulting onto key terrain features alongside Route 9. One week later the cavalrymen linked up with a patrol from the 26th Marines. The siege was over.

The Second Battle of Khe Sanh ended where it began. Three companies of 3/26—Kilo, Lima, and Mike—attacked Hill 881N on Easter Sunday, 14 April. The enemy-occupied hill had been a thorn in the Marines’ side for weeks; when the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines, finished, the hill would be free of enemy soldiers.

The pre-assault bombardment began at 0400. Dozens of howitzers blasted the hill with hundreds of rounds. Marine jets roared in to drop dozens of canisters of napalm. For nearly two hours, a frightening array of high explosives blanketed the hill.

At 0540 the infantry started their attack. A short time later the point elements encountered the first enemy outposts. Quick bursts of rifle fire killed the defenders. For the next six hours, the Marines fought and clawed their way up the side of Hill 881N. By noon they had reached the crest. The mop-ping up of stubborn pockets of resistance continued for several more hours. At 1430 the Marines declared Hill 881N theirs.

Marine casualties were surprisingly light: six dead and thirty-two wounded. One hundred six North Vietnamese had been killed. The next day 3/26 departed Hill 881N and left it free for the NVA to reclaim.

The 26th Marines departed Khe Sanh over the next several days as operational control of the TAOR passed to Col. Stanley S. Hughes’s 1st Marines. On 15 April 1968, Operation Pegasus officially ended and Operation Scotland II began. For the next two months, the four battalions of the 1st Marines—1/1, 2/1, 2/3, and 3/4—patrolled a large TAOR that extended north of Khe Sanh to the DMZ, west to the Laotion border, and south of Route 9. Contact with the enemy was frequent and deadly. The Marines suffered about 300 dead during Operation Scotland II as compared to an official casualty count of 205 dead during the original Operation Scotland.

Almost immediately upon the second capture of Hill 881N, III MAF began to petition MACV to abandon Khe Sanh. Westmoreland rejected the proposal. In his opinion, the base was too large a symbol of American resolve in the divisive war to close it so soon after the siege. General Cushman, however, persisted. Cushman pointed out that with improved mobility due to the increased use of helicopters, there was no need to maintain a combat base so far removed from reinforcement. He argued that the new base at Ca Lu, south of the Rockpile, continued the Marine presence in northwest Quang Tri Province and sat comfortably beyond the range of enemy artillery batteries in Laos. It was also easier to supply and was not susceptible to the crachin.

Westmoreland eventually agreed. He had one condition, though. The base could not be closed while he remained as the MACV.

General Westmoreland departed South Vietnam on 11 June 1968. His successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, allowed a grace period of one week before he issued the order to commence Operation Charlie: the destruction and evacuation of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

The plan called for the Marines to withdraw all salvage-able supplies and equipment and destroy everything else. Along Route 9, battalions of the 4th Marines occupied key terrain positions that would allow them to control the road and protect the many convoys that would move between Khe Sanh and Ca Lu. The 1st Marines guarded the base and garrisoned the surrounding hills. The 3d Battalion, 9th Marines, would provide the labor needed to dismantle the historic base.

The arrival of Kilo 3/9 at Khe Sanh on 19 June began with a near disaster. One of the troop-laden CH-46s whipped a discarded parachute into its rear rotor after it had been waved off from a landing. In an instant, the whirling blades disintegrated. Huge hunks of metal slashed through the aircraft’s thin aluminum skin. One piece sliced through the pilot’s right shoulder and leg as he futilely tried to keep the chopper from crashing. Fuel sprayed everywhere as the trapped Marines rushed to the exits. A few, such as nineteen-year-old LCpl. Jack M. McKenna, squeezed through a porthole. He became stuck in the little opening, but several of his buddies pulled him through. When he looked back at the burning wreckage, McKenna felt grateful to be alive.

The Marines of 3/9 were divided into working parties to tear down the base. It was hard, physically demanding work. The troops toiled eight to ten hours a day in the blazing sun as they destroyed bunkers, emptied sandbags, knocked down standing structures, tore up runway matting, and burned what could not be carried off. Captain Gary E. Todd, the CO of India 3/9, later said the effort required the “working parties to move around exposed and ‘non-tactical’ in what was still very much a tactical situation.”

Lance Corporal McKenna, a fourteen-month veteran of Kilo who had missed the Hill Fights a year earlier because he had been severely bitten by a rat on his first night there, could not have agreed more. “Every day we ripped open sandbags with machetes and poured the dirt into the bunkers or trenches,” he recalled. “We were all very concerned because we became more exposed as the trenches filled up. Sniper rounds and mortar shells came in as our cover disappeared. All we could do then was run to the nearest remaining bunker, which was often a good distance away.”

Some of the structures were too big to be torn down with entrenching tools. McKenna remembered, “We had this huge command bunker to destroy. We packed it with six hundred pounds of TNT. It blew up in a huge explosion. There was nothing left of the bunker. Nothing.”

The NVA rarely missed a chance to pound the base and the work parties with artillery shells. On some days as many as 150 enemy rounds fell on the base; most caused casualties. One round on 29 June wounded twelve Marines, six seriously enough to be evacuated.

Lethal danger also came from all the unexploded ordnance that littered the base and lay hidden in the bunkers. Nineteen-year-old Indiana Marine Pfc. John Bosley remembered what happened to another Mike 3/9 work party on 4 July: “One of the men swung his entrenching tool down to tear open a sandbag and hit a dud round buried in the wall. The explosion blew him up and wounded four others working with him. I was in the next bunker and the blast threw me ten feet.”

Other dangers presented themselves to the Marines, too. Private First Class Bosley remembered the hordes of rats. “We used our e-tools to rip apart the sandbags and our bayonets to kill the rats,” he said. “The rats were everywhere. Every bunker we went into seemed to be filled with them. And they were big, too. About half the size of a house cat. Some of the guys started keeping score of how many they’d kill. I can still see one guy marching around, two rats impaled on his bayonet, laughing hysterically.”

Although the Marine command tried to keep its intentions for Khe Sanh quiet, an overeager reporter broke the news. On 27 June 1968, John S. Carroll’s scoop on the closure ran in the Baltimore Sun. Besides costing Carroll his MACV press credentials, the story also allowed the North Vietnamese to claim a substantial victory. To lend credence to their claim, the local NVA commander struck several of 3/4’s rifle companies.

A particularly strong attack hit India 3/4 at its position three kilometers southeast of the base before dawn on 1 July. After a four-hour barrage of mortars and 130mm artillery, a full company of NVA charged the Marines. India held its position and easily drove them off. Later that morning, the Marines spotted the enemy swarming nearby and attacked them with the help of helicopter gunships and jets. The fight continued into the late afternoon before the enemy again fled, leaving two hundred of their comrades behind. Two Marines died in the fight.

Enemy ground activity persisted over the next several days. Incoming artillery and mortar shells hit the hill positions, and each night small groups of sappers probed Marine perimeters. Although none of these reached the intensity of the 1 July attack, the Marines on the hills outside the combat base suffered casualties. And despite the best efforts of the Marines, enemy artillery continued to pummel the base, even on its last day.

Captain Michael Joseph, the air liaison officer for 2/1, spent most of 5 July on his belly at the bottom of a shallow trench along the remnants of Khe Sanh’s airstrip. During breaks in the enemy artillery barrages, he would direct in helicopters to pick up some of the remaining materiel. This was not only dangerous work but tricky, because Joseph never knew when the enemy would unleash its cannon anew.

“One pilot radioed to ask if it was all clear,” Joseph remembered. “Since no shells had hit for several minutes I thought it would be safe. I responded, ‘Looks clear to me.’ The guy came in and no sooner did he touch down than a shell went off nearby. He pulled pitch and flew off, all the time demanding to know, ‘Who the hell told me it was clear down there?’ I never responded.”

Joseph had been at Khe Sanh for three weeks, his assignment a result of his desire to take a more active role in the war and some ill-chosen words. A highly skilled radar intercept officer, the twenty-six-year-old Stanford graduate had felt useless during his first five months in-country as he rode around in the backseat of an F-4 and called out altimeter and altitude readings to the pilot. He wanted to do more to help win the war. One night in early June, while he imbibed in the air-conditioned comfort of the Da Nang officers’ club, he loudly announced, “I’d rather be a FAC than a backseater in an F-4.” Someone heard him.

“Two days later I was jumping off a helicopter at Khe Sanh, carrying my sea bag in one hand and my rifle in the other as some guy’s yelling, ‘Get out! Get out! Incoming!’ I ran as fast as I could and rolled into a trench as shells started exploding all around me. I kept asking myself what the hell I’d gotten into.”

By the evening of 5 July 1968, Khe Sanh had been reduced to a flat plain. Nothing of value to the enemy remained. Along the once busy runway, the remaining 2/1 headquarters people, including Captain Joseph, waited in trenches, anxious for the order to go. They would walk out because it was too dangerous for helicopters to come in and get them. Not far away, the last trucks at the base maneuvered to form a final convoy. They took too long and gave an NVA forward observer in the hills too good a target to pass up.

Artillery shells dropped out of the evening sky and walked back and forth across the desolate base. Captain Joseph and the other headquarters personnel hunkered down as far as their holes allowed. Shells hit several of the trucks and sent cargo flying everywhere. The situation appeared to be out of hand until someone yelled for the trucks to just roll, the hell with organization. When the last truck disappeared down the road, the shelling stopped.

The remaining 2/1 Marines spent a nervous two hours as they waited for the darkness to deepen. Finally, they started out. They snuck down the runway toward a break in the wire at the eastern end of the base. As the point man reached the barrier, the black night exploded into day.

“A flare ship, off course and thoroughly confused, had dropped his ordnance and illuminated all of Khe Sanh,” Joseph remembered. “We were standing there as exposed as could be.”

Fortunately, the enemy did not take advantage of this golden opportunity. When the flares burned out, the column started to move again. It faced a brutal fifteen-kilometer hump over rocky terrain in pitch darkness to the pickup zone. The fifty-plus-pound packs carried by most of the Marines made the march even more difficult. Whenever the order to “take five” came down the line, most of the men collapsed where they stood, desperate for a few minutes of sleep. “The five-minute breaks stretched into twenty or thirty only because it took so long to wake everyone up. And we had to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind,” Joseph said.

More than four hours after it started, the column reached the pickup zone. Utterly exhausted, the Marines managed several hours’ sleep before the choppers arrived to carry them away.

In a letter home, Captain Joseph paid tribute to all Khe Sanh veterans when he told his wife, “I think a lot of these troops. They are loaded with courage and pride. If anyone asks you where America’s best are, you tell them right here.”

At midnight on 6 July 1968, Operation Charlie ended. The Marine Corps was finally free of Khe Sanh.


A late production medium Mark ‘A’ Whippet, No. A259 ‘Caesar II’, now in The Tank Museum in Bovington.


Captured Beutepanzer medium Mark A Whippet. Large German Army Bundeswehr Schwarzes Kreuz black crosses were painted on the captured tanks to identify the fact that they were under new management.

The German Sturmpanzerwagen A7V’s quick-firing 57mm Maxim-Nordfeldt QF cannon could fire high-explosive and canister shot shells at soft-skinned vehicles, artillery field guns and troops. For armoured targets such as the Mark IV and Whippet tanks it could fire armour-piercing Panzerkampf shells. It was also armed with six machine guns.

Slightly later on the same morning, 24 April 1918, an RAF plane on a reconnaissance patrol spotted German troops moving towards the village of Cachy. He dropped a warning message to the British troops held in reserve behind the Cachy Switch trenches by the Bois l’Abbé woods north of the village of Cachy.

Two Sturmpanzerwagen A7V tanks of the 2nd Sturm-Panzerkraftwagen Abteilung (tank battalion) – ‘Siegfried’ II No. 525 commanded by Lt Friedrich-Wilhelm Bitter and ‘Schnuck’ No. 504 commanded by Lt Albert Müller – were driving towards the British trenches in front of the village of Cachy in support of the advancing infantry.

At around 12.20 p.m., seven British medium Mark A Whippets of ‘X’ Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Tank Brigade, armed only with 0.303 calibre Hotchkiss machine guns, moved towards the advancing German infantry, which they managed to halt and in some areas turn back.

The German infantry commander contacted Lt Bitter and directed him towards the Whippets; Lt Müller’s tank was too far south at that stage.

Caught out in the open flat farmland with a German heavily armed tank aiming its 57mm gun at them, the Whippet tank commanders soon realised the perilous situation they were in. They had no weapon that could knock out the enemy tank, so tried to escape. The German A7V tank’s quick-firing 57mm cannon could fire high-explosive and canister shot shells at soft-skinned vehicles, artillery field guns and troops. For armoured targets such as the Whippet tank it could fire armour-piercing Panzerkampf shells.

Lt Bitter’s gunner’s first shot missed 2Lt Harry Dale’s Whippet No. A256 but his second shot at a range of 200m set it on fire. The German gunner then fired at 2Lt D.M. Robert’s Whippet No. A255 at a longer range of around 700m. Again his first shot missed but he hit with his second shell, knocking it out of action.

However, the A7V’s gun firing pin’s striker springs then broke under stress and it no longer had a 57mm gun with which to fire at the enemy tanks. Unlike British Mark IV Male tanks that were armed with two cannon, one on each side in a sponson, German tanks only had one main gun.

Lt Bitter engaged a third British Medium A Whippet with machine guns. No. A244 was commanded by 2Lt George Richie. It was damaged and could not move, then further machine-gun fire hit either the fuel tanks or ammunition and set it on fire.

The four remaining Whippets started to withdraw from the battlefield towards the protection of the woods. As they went, they continually fired their machine guns at the German infantry. Lt Albert Müller’s tank No. 504 ‘Schnuck’ emerged through the mist near the village of Cachy and fired at the enemy tanks. 2Lt Thomas Oldham’s Whippet No. A236 ‘Crawick’ was knocked out and caught fire. The other three tanks, ‘Crustacean’ No. A286, ‘Centaur III’ No. A277 and ‘Crossmichael’ No. A233, made it back safely to British lines at 3.30 p.m.

The Whippets had done the job to which they were assigned; they had stopped the German infantry capturing the village of Cachy. The Germans were forced to dig trenches 500m–1km to the east of the British trenches and the village.

While the town of Villers-Bretonneux did fall to the Germans for an evening, the following morning was ANZAC Day and the Australian Infantry not only took the town but 1,000 prisoners with it. The German advance had been broken; the city of Amiens would never fall to the Germans.


Drake’s map of his attack on Cádiz.


Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain formally went to war in 1585, ensuring that Spain had an enemy that could only be decisively defeated at sea. Spain could deploy significant naval strength before, as in the conquest of Portugal in 1580 and then in 1582–83 off the Azores, in which an opposing French fleet was defeated at Ponta Delgada in 1582. The Spanish fleets used a combination of galleons and galleys, but the planned invasion of England was of a totally new order of magnitude for Spain and for Atlantic expeditions, and its scale and ambition helped mark a major extension in naval operations. It was postponed because of the English spoiling attack under Sir Francis Drake on the key Spanish naval base at Cadiz. The lack of reconnaissance capabilities made surprise attacks possible. Borough, the more cautious Vice-Admiral, complained that Drake had conducted his command in an autocratic fashion, which led to Drake placing him under arrest.

In February and March 1587, fresh intelligence reached Walsingham about the extent of the Armada preparations. The first report came from Hans Frederick, a merchant from Danzig, who counted three hundred ‘sail of shipping stayed in south Spain’. At Lisbon ‘they have taken up all the victuals in every ship that comes out of Holland or the [Baltic nations], both bacon and beef, butter and cheese and whatsoever else. They encourage all strangers, affirming that the Catholics will yield up [England] unto the king without bloodshed.’ The second was submitted by a Portuguese citizen in Nantes in France, who had a kinsman involved in provisioning the Spanish fleet. The report spoke of four hundred ships and fifty galleys docked in and around Lisbon, with seventy-four thousand soldiers being recruited or mustered in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Flanders. The provisions already accumulated included 184,557 quintals of biscuit, 23,000 quintals of bacon, 23,000 butts of wine, 11,000 quintals of beef and 43,000 quintals of hard cheese.

In England, nerves were becoming frayed. In January, there was a false report of Spanish forces landing in Milford Haven in Wales, and the following month there were rumours of ‘foreign preparations’ for an attack on the Isle of Wight. During the summer, a gentleman reported a fleet of one hundred and twenty ships off the Scilly Isles and the Privy Council ordered an alert in the West Country ‘with as little bruit [rumour] and trouble to the people that shall be occupied in harvest’.

The Tudor administrative machine creakily moved up a gear in preparation for war with much scurrying about by hard-pressed officials. In February and March alone, a census was taken of all available civilian ships that could be pressed into the queen’s service. She herself examined a list of almost two hundred captains regarded as ‘fit for service’. Calculations were made on how much powder, lead and match should be sent to the counties bordering the English Channel ‘at the rate of one pound (0.45 kg) each sort per man for six days’ and what artillery was available for these vulnerable areas. The stores of dusty old armour and weapons in the armouries of the Tower of London, Woolwich, Greenwich, Hampton Court and Windsor were carefully inventoried. Possible landing places on the Hampshire coast from Portsmouth to Bournemouth were surveyed and the cost estimated of arming and provisioning twenty-four of the queen’s ships, together with their 6,200 crewmen.

It was obvious that England could not afford to remain dangerously supine, waiting meekly like a sacrificial lamb for an easy slaughter by the invading Armada. John Hawkins, now Treasurer of the Navy, wrote to Walsingham on 1 February calling for a naval reconnaissance expedition of six warships to Spain which could impede progress in Spanish preparations for war by imposing a blockade.

Having of long time seen the malicious practices of the papists . . . to alter the government of this realm and bring it to papistry and consequently to servitude, poverty and slavery, I have good will . . . to do . . . something as I could have credit to impeach their purpose.

If we stand at this point in a mammering [hesitation] and at a stay, we consume [burn in a fire] and our commonwealth utterly decays . . .

Therefore, in my mind, our profit and best assurance is to seek our peace by a determined and resolute war, which in doubt would be both less charge, more assurance of safety and would best discern our friends from our foes . . . abroad and at home and satisfy the people generally throughout the whole realm.

Sir Francis Drake also argued vociferously for urgent action, maintaining that a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish fleet was vital to buy time for the defences of the realm to be strengthened both on land and sea. Walsingham, Leicester and the Lord High Admiral, Howard of Effingham, supported his plans for an immediate, decisive blow. Drake should be sent with a squadron of warships, ostensibly to support Dom Antonio, the claimant to the usurped Portuguese crown, but in reality, to destroy as much enemy shipping as he could or, at worst, disrupt the invasion plans to win England the precious commodity of time. Sir Walter Raleigh, if later reports by a Spanish spy are to be believed, was a covert but strident opponent of the plan.

After much characteristic havering, Elizabeth grudgingly agreed to Drake’s mission on 25 March, but would only allow four of her own warships – Elizabeth Bonaventure, Golden Lion, Dreadnought and Rainbow – and two fifty-ton pinnaces, Spy and Makeshift, to take part. This decision was not driven by her natural frugality alone; the queen was understandably wary of risking too many of her precious ships, her first line of defence, on such a dangerous venture.

The remainder of Drake’s fleet of twenty-five vessels would be fitted out and paid for by nineteen London merchants as a speculative venture in the fond hope of rich pickings in plunder. The eager sponsors scenting profit from this venture included grocers, drapers, fishmongers, haberdashers and skinners. Drake’s agreement with these ‘Merchant Adventurers’, signed three days later, laid down that ‘whatsoever commodity in goods, money, treasure, merchandise or other benefit . . . shall happen to be taken by all or any of the aforesaid ships or their company either by land or sea, shall be equally proportioned, man for man and ton for ton, [and will] be divided at sea . . . as soon as wind and weather will permit’. Some may define such an enterprise as an act of war. But there was no hiding behind the lawyer’s formal turn of phrase; it was legalised pillage in the queen’s name.

The striking force included three ships owned by the Levant Company of London, displacing almost 500 tons each, and seven lesser vessels of up to 200 tons. The rest were smaller ships of lighter draught, to be deployed for reconnaissance, conveying messages or undertaking shallow water operations close to shore.

Elizabeth’s government took immense pains to conceal the preparations for the naval expedition. Its purpose was kept secret from all but its most senior officers and the southern English ports were temporarily closed to prevent word of Drake’s mission leaking out. Afterwards, the Spanish claimed that:

so much cunning was employed that even Secretary Walsingham refrained from sending hither [Paris] a dispatch from his mistress [Elizabeth] so that the courier might not say anything about it.

Inevitably (and belatedly) the Spanish heard rumours of the fleet’s departure. One of their agents talked to a French merchant in Rouen, who had arrived the previous day from England. He provided somewhat inflated estimates of its order of battle to the ambassador in Paris:

Captain Drake left the Thames with forty well-armed ships, five belonging to the queen, of 800 or 900 tons each and carrying five thousand men.

The merchant saw the fleet pass before Rye [in Sussex] on the way to Falmouth where they are to join forty or fifty more . . .

The rumour was that this fleet was going to encounter the [West] Indian flotilla.

We are astonished at the great diligence and secrecy with which this fleet has been equipped, for up to the moment, not a word of it has reached us here.

Drake put into Plymouth for a week to collect the ships assembled there and to provision his fleet. Speed was of the essence, as he had justifiable fears that his assault on Spain could be halted by fresh orders from London before it had even sailed. His flag captain, Thomas Fenner in Dreadnought, told Walsingham that Drake ‘does all he can to hasten the service and sticks at no charge to further the same and lays out a great store of money to soldiers and mariners to stir up their minds’.

The admiral was signally unperturbed by the embarrassingly large-scale desertion by his sailors on the very eve of his departure, blaming subversion by those at Elizabeth’s court who opposed his operation. ‘We all think [this was caused] by some practice of some adversaries to the action by letters written. They are mostly mariners. We have soldiers in their place,’ he assured Walsingham. Stocked up with food, water and munitions, Drake departed Plymouth on 12 April, his 600-ton flagship, Elizabeth Bonaventure, leading out the fleet. He penned a typically flamboyant, swashbuckling letter to Walsingham at the very last minute:

Let me beseech your honour to hold a good opinion not only of myself but of all these servitors in this action…

The wind commands me away.

Our ships are under sail.

God grant we may so live in His fear as the enemy may have cause to say that God fights for Her Majesty as well abroad as at home. Haste!

Out in the south-west approaches to the English Channel, Drake encountered two vessels from Lyme Regis in Dorset, who readily agreed to join the expedition, making his fleet twenty-seven strong. They sighted the Spanish coast of Galicia on 15 April, but forty-eight hours later were struck by five days of violent storms off Finisterre which dispersed the fleet and sank the pinnace Martigo.

Elizabeth meanwhile was having second thoughts about the wisdom of Drake’s adventure. Reports reached her that preparations for the Spanish invasion were slowing down and Andreas de Loo, an envoy from the Duke of Parma, arrived with tempting promises of peace. Nine days after Drake had left Plymouth, she sent new and urgent instructions, dispatched by a fast pinnace. These ordered him to:

forbear to enter forcibly into any of [King Philip’s] ports or havens, or to offer violence to any of his towns or shipping within harbours or to do any act of hostility upon the land.

And yet . . . her pleasure is that . . . you should do your best endeavour to get into your possession (avoiding as much . . . effusion of Christian blood) such shipping of the said king’s . . . as you shall find at sea, either going from thence to the East or West Indies or returning from the said Indies to Spain and such as shall fall into your hands, to bring them into this realm.

No warlike activity allowed then, but privateering, or more accurately, piracy, was still perfectly acceptable to a queen always worried about the paucity of cash in her coffers.

The pinnace, delayed by the same storms that scattered Drake’s ships, never caught up with him. Perhaps the crew did not try too hard: sometime during the voyage they captured a ship which yielded£5,000 in prize money when they arrived back in Plymouth.

Walsingham wrote to Sir Edward Stafford, Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris, informing him of the sudden change in orders issued to Drake. Stafford (whose stepmother was Mary Boleyn, the queen’s late aunt) enjoyed a spendthrift lifestyle, including accumulating substantial gambling debts through unwisely playing cards with the French king’s brother, François, Duke of Alençon. His consequent financial problems had forced him in January 1587 to traitorously approach Bernardino de Mendoza, his Spanish opposite number, offering his services to Spain for hard cash. He was willing to supply any intelligence, short of that which might jeopardise the life of his queen. Mendoza, delighted with this espionage coup, may have assigned him the codename ‘Julio’. Walsingham thoroughly mistrusted Stafford, even sending one of his agents, Thomas Rogers (alias Nicholas Berden), the previous year, to monitor the ambassador’s untoward relationship with the exiled English Catholics in France. Elizabeth’s spymaster may therefore have used him as an unwitting conduit to feed information, false or otherwise, to the Spanish. After his mistress’s mercurial change of heart, it was imperative to emphasise that England was not bent on attacking the Spanish mainland. He informed Stafford: ‘There is a new order sent unto Sir Francis Drake to take a milder course, for that he was before particularly directed to distress the ships within the havens themselves.’

From bitter experience, Drake understood very well that no fleet could operate effectively without adequate stores of food, water and ammunition. Therefore, instead of striking at heavily defended Lisbon, where the Armada ships were mobilising, he planned to attack the main supply base at Cadiz in Andalusia. Two Dutch merchantmen, which he had intercepted, had reported a large concentration of Armada provision ships there and this information confirmed his choice of target. Cadiz, reputedly the oldest inhabited city in Europe, stands on a narrow humpbacked peninsula at the mouth of the River Guadalquivir, which provides shipping with safe shelter from the Atlantic weather and tides. Because of reefs and shifting sandbanks, there was only one entrance channel for large ships and this had to pass under the guns on the city walls.

At around four in the afternoon of Wednesday 29 April, a council of war was held in Elizabeth Bonaventure as a brisk south-westerly breeze filled the fleet’s canvas sails. William Borough, Drake’s veteran vice-admiral and the commander of the queen’s ship Golden Lion, privately and forcibly argued against an immediate attack on the Spanish. Drake would have none of it – ‘Action this day’ was ever his motto. ‘That is my opinion,’ he declared to his captains, ‘though there are some would have us stay until morning. We shall not stay at all.’

Drake’s fleet arrived outside Cadiz about one hour before sunset. His ships were under strict orders to fly no flags until the very last moment to confuse the lookouts positioned on the walls and atop the masts of the ships inside the harbour. It was a typical warm spring evening and its inhabitants were taking their leisure. The central square was packed with spectators watching an athletic tumbler turn his acrobatic tricks. Nearby, others roared with laughter at a bawdy comedy performed by some itinerant actors in the open air. Then word spread slowly through the crowds that a line of ships was approaching the harbour entrance. What was the nationality of these mystery vessels? Were they friend or foe?

The first English cannon shots booming across the bay provided the definitive answer.

In Drake’s words, written soon afterwards, he sighted ‘thirty-two great ships of exceeding great burden [displacement] loaded . . . with provisions and prepared to furnish the king’s navy, intended with all speed against England’. Another account reported sixty ships, of which twenty were French, who immediately hoisted sail and fled, as did six Dutch hulks. The English ships fell upon the helpless anchored vessels like the wolf on the fold.

The first defensive shots were fired from eight oar-propelled galleys, commanded by Don Pedro de Acuña, which had providently arrived from a patrol near Gibraltar a few days before. Inside the panic-stricken city, the mayor ordered women and children to take refuge within Matagorda Castle, but its captain slammed shut the fortress gates in their faces and twenty-seven were suffocated or pressed to death in the crush.65 The galleys, although highly manoeuvrable in the calm waters in the lee of the peninsula, were no match for Drake’s heavily armed warships. Two were badly damaged66 in a failed attempt to lure the English ships on to sandbanks off the eastern shore and their commander was forced to retreat to St Mary’s Port, four miles (6.44 km) to the north, which was protected by a network of treacherous shoals that required the local knowledge of a pilot for safe entry.

At nine that night Francisco de Benito de Maiora, in St Mary Port, wrote to officials in Seville reporting that:

about four of the clock, we heard a great noise of ordnance in the bay and saw many sails of ships . . .

Within two hours, there came hither the Galliota which brought ten men very sore hurt.

The people of this town are in arms. There are in the bay two or three ships set on fire but what they are we know not. This is all that we can yet learn.

Over the next two days, Drake’s sailors set ablaze the supply vessels, while under constant fire from ‘thundering shot’ from the shore batteries and from the galleys when they sallied out in attack. Drake sank a Genoese ‘argosy’ or merchantman loaded with a cargo of logwood, hides, wool and cochineal destined for Italy, and also captured four provision ships. The vessel displaced about 1,000 tons, was armed with thirty-six brass guns, and was ‘very richly laden’.

The following morning, Drake took advantage of the flood tide to lead a flotilla of pinnaces and frigates (supported by the London ship, Merchant Royal, commanded by Robert Flick), to cut out and sink a 1,500-ton galleon owned by Santa Cruz that was moored in the inner harbour of Cadiz. The ship, valued at 18,000 ducats, was burned to the waterline.

The arrival of Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, Seventh Duke of Medina Sidonia, leading six-thousand hurriedly mustered local militia, deterred any English landing on the inner harbour. Artillery batteries were wheeled into position along the shoreline – but their subsequent fire only managed to damage the English vice-flagship Golden Lion. Borough warped the ship out of harm’s way and then fought off an assault from the marauding galleys. Although that manoeuvre saved the ship, he was later to face charges of desertion and cowardice levelled by Drake.

That night, the Spanish used some of the smaller vessels in the harbour as fireships to float out on the tide, but these were towed away by the English sailors and harmlessly beached in shallow waters.

One of the admiral’s volunteer ‘gentleman adventurers’ estimated that twenty-eight barques had been burned, totalling 13,000 tons:

We continually fired their ships as the flood [tide] came in . . . the sight of the terrible fires were to us very pleasant and mitigated the burden of our continual travail [from enemy fire]. We were busy for two nights and one day in discharging, firing and [un]loading of provisions.

Drake’s ships were restocked with Spanish provisions: wine, oil, biscuit and dried fruits, while around 500 tons of bread were set alight, along with 400 tons of wheat. One important coup was the destruction of a year’s supply of iron hoops and wooden staves for making barrels. This alone was later to prove a tactical disaster for the Armada; food and water had to be stored in unseasoned, leaky casks that depleted water supplies and quickly rotted the food stored within.

Official Spanish estimates of their losses totalled twenty-four ships, valued at 172,000 ducats or more than £750,000 (£137,000,000 at current prices). Philip, in Madrid, was horrified when he read the news from Cadiz. With typical understatement, he noted: ‘The loss was not very great but the daring of the attempt was very great indeed.’

All this was achieved with remarkably few casualties: the master gunner of the Golden Lion suffered a broken leg smashed by a cannon shot fired from the town’s fortifications. The volunteer soldier commented:

It may seem strange or rather miraculous that so great an exploit should be performed with so small [a] loss, the place to damage us so convenient and their force so great . . . from whom were shot at us at the least two hundred culverin and cannon shot.

But in all this . . . our actions, though dangerously attempted [were] yet happily performed. Our good God has and daily does make his power manifest to all papists and His name by us His servants continually honoured.

A brief truce offered by Don Pedro de Acuña, commander of the galley squadron, allowed the exchange of prisoners. Drake’s captives were swapped for Englishmen amongst the galley slaves and a five-man prize crew that had been captured in the course of the first night’s fighting. The courtly Spaniard sent his barge with chivalrous gifts of wine and ‘sucket’ – a type of sweetmeat – during this break in hostilities.72 Drake had interrogated one Spanish sailor who boasted that the Armada now numbered more than two hundred warships. Bravado and swagger were second nature to Drake and he easily brushed aside such Spanish bluster. Shrugging his shoulders, he replied: ‘No es mucho’ – ‘That’s not a lot’.

Then the English ships sailed off westwards, leaving behind them confusion (today we would call it ‘shock and awe’) and a welter of panic-stricken messages dispatched post haste around Spain and Portugal warning of the danger that Drake still posed. Medina Sidonia also sent a ship to the West Indies ordering the treasure fleet to stay in Havana, Cuba, until he was known to be safely back in England.


By dawn on the morning of 17 December 1944 the Germans had advanced eight miles west from their river crossings at Dasburg and Gemünd. Small groups of Volksgrenadiers had reached the outskirts of Clervaux and were firing small arms into the town. Fuller sent tanks to relieve his now surrounded outposts, but the tanks were forced back by superior German forces with heavy losses.

At 11.30 Colonel Hurley Fuller [110th Regiment of the US 28th Infantry Division] made a call to Major General Norman Cota [CO of US 28th Infantry Division] demanding more reinforcements,

‘I need more artillery support, more tanks.’

‘I’ll send you a battery of self-propelled guns and that’s all I can spare. I’ve got two other regiments screaming for help.’

Fuller shouted down the phone again

‘And we’ve got twelve Tigers sitting on the high ground east of town, looking down our throats.’

‘Sorry Fuller, one battery is all I can give you, remember your orders hold at all costs. No retreat, nobody comes back.’

Silence fell on the conversation.

‘Do you understand, Fuller?’

‘Yes sir, nobody comes back,’ the Colonel replied.

By mid afternoon German forces had just about encircled the men in Clervaux and Panzers were beginning to enter the town from three directions.

The US 110th’s 2nd Battalion which was due to attack Marnach that morning had, at 0730, run straight into the 2nd Panzer Division coming down the road from that village. Although it battled bravely against the superior fire-power it soon succumbed to the might of the German panzers.

The attack south into Marnach by the light M5 Stuart tanks along Skyline Drive was a complete disaster. The tanks were funnelled into a narrow road and were forced to advance in column. As they exited the village of Heinerscheid German 88mm guns began to pick them off one by one. It was like a shooting gallery, within ten minutes eight tanks had been destroyed by gunfire, three more were hit by Panzerfausts. Clervaux was now in serious danger of being captured. Fuller sent a platoon of tanks from the 707th Tank Battalion up the twisting road to the east. At the top of the hill the Shermans hit head on with the German advanced guard. Three Shermans and four Mk IV Panzers were destroyed.

The Germans were taken aback and their assault was stalled momentarily. The road into Clervaux became blocked with burning tanks belonging to both sides. The village of Hosingen was still being firmly held by Company K, but this village lay astride one of the roads much needed by Kokott’s 26th VGD. There was a bottleneck beginning to build up and the German transport started to tail back. Kokott ordered that Hosingen was to be bypassed and by the afternoon the Germans had secured bridgeheads over the River Clerf in at least four places, one of which was at Drauffelt.

Ludwig Lindemann of the 26th VGD:

‘During the Ardennes Offensive our battle commander was Hauptmann Josef Raab who had been awarded the Iron Cross on the Eastern Front for his bravery in connection with the defence of the Weichselbrückenkopf [bridgehead] near Pulawi. With our sixty-five-man combat group under his command he had prevented Russian troops from breaking through. With him in command of our company we felt confident.

‘The 77th Regiment and the 39th Fusilier Regiment of the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, had taken the Americans by surprise and opened up the route to the west. After heavy resistance by the enemy in the town of Hosingen our division succeeded in surrounding the whole town. We in the 2nd Battalion had to fight for every cellar and every garden wall. At midday, 18 December 1944, the Americans surrendered and we took sixteen Officers and three hundred and sixty-five men prisoner. Seven tanks were destroyed and a lot of war material was captured. This action opened the route to Bastogne.

But what started as a military success would end in streams of blood. Today the cemeteries of that region speak loud and clear of what awaited our troops.’

Leading elements of Panzer Lehr Division, with the Reconnaissance Battalion from the 26th VGD, were already moving west towards the all-important town of Bastogne.

General Heinrich von Lüttwitz:

‘The northern bridgeheads across the Clerf and the Our rivers had been built by 2 Panzer Division. These were the bridgeheads which controlled the movement of infantry on to the Longvilly road. The two lower bridgeheads, built by the 26th Volksgrenadier Division engineers over the same streams, made possible the sweep against the lines of communication south of Bastogne and the attack against the town from that direction. The dividing line between 2 Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr Division for the attack against Bastogne was on an east to west line about halfway between Noville and Bastogne. The objective of 2 Panzer Division was the road junction at Herbaimont northwest of Bastogne near Tenneville. The mission of Panzer Lehr Division was to take Bastogne from the south. This was the initial plan contained in the original order for the Ardennes attack.’

Because of the worrying situation in the US VIII Corps sector the principal strategic reserve force of north-west Europe was to be released. This consisted of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Both divisions were in the Rheims area of France busily refitting after their recent battles in Holland during Operation MARKET GARDEN. The men were there, letting off steam and the rivalry between the two divisions was immense, it did not take much provocation to start the two sides swinging fists at each other. During the evening of 17 December they were given their orders. It was so sudden a move that the 101st AB Division was caught without its commander, Major General Maxwell D Taylor, who was attending a conference in the United States. The Assistant Divisional Commander, Brigadier General Gerald J Higgins, was also away in England attending the ‘wash-up’ of Operation MARKET GARDEN. The ‘Screaming Eagles’ as they were known, were under the command of Brigadier General Anthony C McAuliffe, the Divisional Artillery Commander.

The 82nd was on the road first, closely followed by the long truck convoys of the 101st. It had been such a rush to get the men on the move that most had neither weapons nor helmets and some were still wearing their summer uniforms fresh from being dragged back off leave. These supply problems would be remedied en-route, or at their destination.

By evening of the 17th General Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division had found the northern road leading into Clervaux open. A small combined team of infantry and tanks brushed aside the solitary 57mm anti-tank gun guarding the bridge at the railway station. This now left the main body of armour free to roam through the streets unhindered. At 1825 Fuller telephoned Cota to tell him German tanks were directly outside his Command Post in the hotel. With that he and some of his staff made their escape to the west. He was captured later.

In the Chateau at the southern bridge of the town 102 officers and men still held out in the strongly built fortress. These men, were a mixture of the Regimental Headquarters Company, mainly clerks and such like. These men held the bridge for most of the night until the arrival at dawn of the Panther Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment. Rifle fire bounced off the huge Panther tanks as they clanked by on their way to Bastogne. Behind them infantry, supported by self-propelled 88s, battered the chateau into submission and forced the Americans to surrender.

Major General Troy Middleton at VIII Corps headquarters in Bastogne was beginning to get a picture of what was happening, obviously Bastogne would be next on the Germans’ list of objectives. He called on his only armored reserve, the Combat Command Reserve (CCR)of the 9th Armored Division. This was made up of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion, 2nd Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Engineers and the 73rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion. It’s commander Colonel Joseph H Gilbreth had already positioned his Combat Command in the village of Oberwampach, immediately to the rear of the threatened 28th Division’s centre, when orders came through from VIII Corps. He was told to form two road blocks on the main road leading from the east into Bastogne. This order came to him at 21.40, ten minutes after word was received that the enemy had crossed the Clerf. The two road blocks were to be on the main road (N12) one near the village of Lullange, at a junction named Antoniushof where the Clervaux road meets the north-south road from St Vith to Bastogne. The other block planned as a backup and was positioned three miles southwest near the village of Allerborn, at a junction called Fe’itsch. Hold at all costs was emphasized to them.

The forces Colonel Gilbreth had available, with the units of the Combat Command Reserve, were far from adequate when faced with the task of stopping an entire panzer division.

Gilbreth split his forces into three, to the Antoniushof road junction he sent Task Force Rose, named after it’s commander Captain L K Rose, this consisted of Company A, 2nd Tank Battalion; Company C, 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion and a platoon of 9th Armored Engineers. The roadblock at Fe’itsch, was manned by Task Force Harper (Lieutenant Colonel Ralph S Harper), which was made up of Company C and part of Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion; Company B, 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion and a platoon of Company C, 9th Armored Engineers; five hundred yards behind these last units was Headquarters Company. The third task force was TF Booth (Lieutenant-Colonel Robert M Booth). This group was made up of what was virtually left of CCR to range on the high ground north of the main highway (N12) between the two roadblocks and protect Gilbreth’s HQ and the nearby 73rd AFAB and the independent 58th AFAB. Clervaux was only about five miles due east of these positions and was already aflame.

Gilbreth set up his Headquarters in a large house across the road from the church in Longvilly. He had outposts set up around the village in the form of three light tanks, one platoon from C Company 482nd AAA (AW) (Anti Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion) and a few half tracks, clerks, mechanics and cooks also helping in the defences.

An excerpt from the 482nd AAA (AW) official history reads:

‘Longvilly, at this time, was nothing more than another village to us but little did we know that we would never forget it. Headquarters established a C.P. in town in one of the few houses while the sections went into firing positions around the outskirts. Every round of reserve ammo was distributed to the men for an attack was imminent. Captain Lovoi visited the sections and instructed them to hold their positions at all cost. We were to hold our present positions until we could bolster our lines with elements of the 10th Armored Division which was on the way to us. There was little to do but wait for the attacking Germans and pray that the 10th Armored would arrive soon. The sections were subjected to intense artillery fire all night long and history was being written.’

In addition to CCR, Middleton had to hand some combat engineers who had been involved in such jobs as road repairs and tree felling. These engineers were told to draw weapons, something they had not had to do for some time. The 158th Engineer Combat Battalion was to form a screen in front of Bastogne and by the early morning of the 18th were digging in on a line stretching between Foy and Neffe.

The 35th Combat Engineer Battalion had been assigned as VIII Corps Headquarters guard, and so could not be released immediately for adding to the screen. Shortly after midnight CCR was in position, further to the east the 110th Infantry Regiment was still struggling to hold back the German flood.

At 0830 on 18 December, armored infantrymen on the road facing Clervaux, at the northern roadblock, spotted three German tanks with infantry rolling out of the early morning fog. These were elements of the Reconnaissance Battalion of General Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division. The armored infantry withdrew to their tank positions and thirty minutes later the tankers also saw the panzers nudging their way towards them. The American tankers chose their moment and then let rip, knocking out one Mk IV and crippling the other two. Only a few minutes later an entire German tank column came into view, coming straight for them from the north. The Shermans opened fire and the lead German tank stopped and turned back.

The 73rd AFAB joined in and put a concentration of shells down into the area of the 2nd Panzer Division. The Germans likewise brought up their own artillery and fired smoke to cover their movements. There was a bit of a lull, whilst the Reconnaissance Battalion felt out the strength of the American road block and awaited the arrival of their heavy Panther tanks. These arrived at about 1100 and at the same time the shelling intensified. Another smoke screen was laid by the Germans which took over an hour to lift and clear. After it did, the Panthers had moved to within 800 yards of the American line and started firing at the helpless Shermans. One flared up and started burning, another’s gun was made useless and a third in frantic manoeuvring threw a track.

But they gave as good as they got and managed to knock out three German tanks. More panzers were noticed, this time coming in from the right. Some Shermans rushed over and destroyed one, sending the others scuttling back for cover. The Germans soon realized that the weakest spot was from the north and concentrated their attack from that direction. Task Force Rose was now fighting on three sides against an overwhelming opposition. Task Force Harper was aware of what was happening to their companions up the road but were refused permission to send them aid. Middleton was in total control and would not allow it.

Lieutenant DeRoche, commander of A Company 2nd Tank Battalion, finally received instructions to pull out and attack the Germans now on the road to Bastogne behind them. Task Force Rose managed to limp away, and took up its new positions near the village of Wincrange where it set up another road block. At nightfall the Germans started firing white phosphorus shells into their positions causing the Shermans to ‘button up’. The crews could hear the panzers moving all around them, and during the night more orders were received to pull back to the vicinity of Task Force Harper. This they found impossible as the 2nd Panzer Division had control of the entire area, so what was left of Task Force Rose set off across country.

Task Force Harper consolidated their defensive positions and awaited their turn. Orders were received ‘Hold at all cost and to the last man. Help is on its way.’

Suddenly, out of the blackness of the night, the attack came – it was 2000 hours. Tigers and Panthers blasted into Harper’s positions and with the advantage of their new infra-red night-sights the German tanks ran amok. They machine-gunned the infantry and punched huge holes into the Shermans. All was complete chaos. After four hours of total hell, Harper ordered what small amount of survivors there were to pull out and fight their way back to Longvilly. Some survivors, including Harper himself, worked their way up to the town of Houffalize and tried to set up defensive positions there. It was at Houffalize on the night 18/19 that Colonel Harper, whilst dismounting from his tank, was caught in a hail of machine-gun fire and killed.

Other stragglers from both task forces escaped west to the village of Longvilly where CCR Headquarters was situated.

General Heinrich von Lüttwitz:

‘The 2nd Panzer Division was moving fast, It had met heavy resistance in Clervaux from elements of the 28th Infantry Division, but without further contact with the enemy it moved along rapidly to a point on the Longvilly road. At the road crossing immediately east of Allerborn there was a panzer fight lasting about one hour with heavy losses to American Armor. When this engagement terminated, 2nd Panzer Division again moved rapidly on to Bourcy, just east of Noville.’

The US 73rd Armoured Field Artillery Battalion was now in the vicinity of Longvilly, and was pouring shells down onto the two roadblocks. Gilbreth wondered why the Germans had not followed up with an attack on Longvilly. At that particular time General Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division was more concerned about its primary objective, the Meuse. He had turned his column off the main highway just under a mile outside Longvilly and was bypassing Bastogne to the north. The men in Longvilly breathed a sigh of relief, but the German move trapped Task Force Booth.

Booth had lost radio contact with his headquarters and so during the night he had decided to save his men and move across country to establish a safer position. At the front of the long column there were about eighty men in half-tracks led by Major Eugene A Watts of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion. They rolled through the village of Hardingny and moved left. To their front they spotted a number of German personnel carriers. At once, Watts and his men opened fire, using their personal weapons and the machine guns mounted on the halftracks. They did the enemy some serious damage and were happy with their results. Suddenly all hell broke loose at the rear of the American column, which had just got into Hardingny. It was being shelled and machine-gunned. Vehicles were blowing up everywhere and no matter which way they turned they bumped into Germans, in fact, they had collided into the main force from the 2nd Panzer Division bypassing Bastogne.