Destroying the Enemy’s Forces by a Decisive Action at Sea II

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.

One of the most important decisive naval battles in history was the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The strategic objective of the Spanish King Phillip II (1527–1598) was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and the Tudor dynasty and rule England by force. The main reason for Phillip II’s decision to invade was to stop England’s interference and subsidies to rebels in the Spanish possessions in the Low Countries, principally the Dutch provinces and thereby stop English interference in the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish King Phillip II directed the commander of the expedition, Duke Medina Sidonia (1550–1615), to sail up to the Thames Estuary and then to cover a landing on English soil of about 17,000 men [led by General Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma (1635–1689)], deployed in Flanders. Medina Sidonia would be involved in combat only if Farnese’s troops could not be landed without enemy opposition.

The Spaniards assembled a large fleet to cover the projected invasion of England. When it sailed out from La Coruña on 23 July 1588, Medina Sidonia had under his command 137 warships and 27,500 men (including 7,000 seamen and 17,000 soldiers), plus some 60 cargo vessels with 6,000 men. The Armada included 20 galleons, four galleasses and galleys each, 44 armed merchantmen, 23 transports, and 35 smaller vessels. The British fleet consisted of 197 ships (including 23 ships that voluntarily joined during the fight) with about 16,000 men.

After many delays, the powerful armada approached the western entrance to the English Channel. The British main fleet was then deployed at Plymouth while one squadron was at the Thames Estuary. The first clashes between the British ships and the Armada took place off Plymouth and Portland on 21 and 22–23 July, respectively. Yet Medina Sidonia continued to sail up the Channel and anchored off Calais. On 29 July, the largest battle took place near the small port of Gravelines in the Flanders. The Spanish losses were very heavy. By the nightfall of 29 July, they lost 11 ships and 3 ships sunk from English gunfire that evening plus 8 ships lost from other causes. A large number of the Spanish ships were heavily damaged. The Spaniards had much larger personnel losses than the British: 600 dead and 800 wounded. The British losses were only 50–100 dead. The Armada never recovered from the losses it suffered from the English guns in the Battle of Gravelines.

In the aftermath, Medina Sidonia was unable to make a junction with the army in Flanders and effectively gave control of the Channel to the British fleet. The British ships went home to replenish stores, fearing another Spanish attempt to land. Because the return route to Spain via the Channel was blocked, Medina Sidonia decided to take advantage of the southerly wind and return home by sailing through the Channel, across the North Sea, and then around Scotland and Ireland. However, he lost some 50 ships in a heavy weather while rounding Scotland and Ireland. The remaining 65 ships, with some 10,000 starved and fever-stricken men, reached home waters by the end of September. The total Spanish losses in personnel were very heavy – some 20,000 dead. The British victory led eventually to the collapse of the Spanish power. It restored the strategic initiative to England. It led England to create a large maritime empire and ultimately acquire the status of world power. Also, the defeat of the Spanish Armada led to the rise of Dutch sea power.

In the Battle of Solebay (also called the Battle of Southwold Bay) on 7 June 1672 (during the Third Anglo-Dutch War), the Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter (1607–1676) defeated a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet and thereby prevented the landing of an invasion army and broke up England’s attempt to blockade the Dutch coast. The Anglo-French fleet under the Duke of York, consisting of 71 ships (45 English and 26 French), faced the Dutch fleet of 61 ships led by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. The allies also had 16 small ships, 35 transports, and two dozen fireships, while the Dutch fleet had 14 small ships, 22 transports, and three dozen fireships. The Anglo-French ships carried 5,100 guns and 33,000 men while the Dutch ships had 4,500 guns and 21,000 men. In addition, the allies had some 2,000 soldiers ready for embarkation at Dunkirk. In the ensuing battle, the British lost four and the Dutch only two ships. Yet both sides suffered heavy losses in personnel: 2,500 killed and wounded on board the English ships, while Dutch losses were about 2,000 killed and wounded. Both sides claimed victory. However, de Ruyter was a clear victor. He remained another night in the vicinity of the enemy fleet and left the area on the second night without being pursued.

In two battles off Schooneveldt (near the Scheldt River Estuary) on 7 June and 14 June 1673, the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter engaged a much stronger combined Anglo-French fleet commanded by Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619–1682). The Dutch fleet had some 64 ships and about 14,700 men. The Anglo-French fleet consisted of 86 ships and some 24,300 men. The first battle ended inconclusively; the Dutch lost a single ship while the allies lost two. Both sides suffered almost equal damage. The second battle was also inconclusive; neither side lost ships. However, a dozen of the British ships suffered heavy damage, while the Dutch had only a few ships damaged. The British lost nearly 2,000 men while Dutch losses were half that many. As a result, the allies had to abandon their plan for landing in the United Provinces. Also, the route for the arrival of a large Dutch convoy became open. This dual naval battle is considered a Dutch victory. De Ruyter obtained control of the sea for the next six to seven weeks. He was able to keep scouting ships close to the British coast, while his main fleet was at anchor at Schooneveldt. He also sent a squadron of 28 ships to reconnoiter the Thames Estuary. On 3 July 1673, he left his anchorage with the entire fleet to demonstrate to the British that the Dutch held command of the sea and was not destroyed, as the rumors were then circulated in England and Europe.

During the War of the Grand Alliance, the French fleet was preparing to transport a Franco-Irish army to Ireland to restore James II to the English throne. The plan was that Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Costentin, Count de Tourville (1642–1701) would command some 50–60 ships of the line (13 of these would come from Toulon). However, the Toulon squadron under Admiral Victor-Marie D’Estrees (1660–1737) never arrived. Tourville had available only 44 ships of the line. Yet he received a direct order from Louis XIV that he had to engage the enemy regardless of the size the enemy force. To prevent invasion, the Anglo-Dutch fleet of 82 ships engaged Tourville’s squadron near Cape Barfleur on 29 May 1692. The battle was tactically inconclusive. The French did not lose any ships, although they suffered heavy damages. In the battle off La Hague on 2 June, some 99 Anglo-Dutch ships of the line engaged 44 French ships. In the initial clash, neither side lost a single ship. It was only during the four-day-long retreat that Tourville lost some 15 ships of the line. The British pursued the withdrawing French fleet all the way to Cherbourg. In the aftermath, the Anglo-Dutch fleet controlled the Channel. However, except for some minor actions, the Anglo-Dutch fleet was generally passive.

The main reasons for the French defeat were the rigid orders issued by King Louis XIV and the execution of those orders by Tourville.96 Although the French replaced the lost ships of the line, far more important was the psychological effect of the defeat on the French king, the Navy, and population at large. The public was accustomed to the glories and successes of Louis XIV. In the aftermath of the Cape Barfleur/La Hague battles, the French radically changed their strategy. They gave up on the employment of their navy against the enemy fleet and focused on the war against the enemy maritime commerce. For the next five years, the French Navy mostly conducted commerce raiding (guerre de course, “war of the chase”) against the allies. As result, it decayed as a combat force. Mahan wrote that the main reason was not defeat at Cape Barfleur/La Hague but the exhaustion of France and the great cost of the continental wars. Admiral Richmond wrote that the French losses were not greater than what the allies suffered in the battle of Beachy Head. However, the allies with their greater resources could recover from their defeat, while the French, lacking such resources, could not. The French fleet continued to operate at sea, but attempts to regain control of the Channel were abandoned.

Painter Nicholas Pocock’s conception of the situation at 1300 hours.

One of the most decisive naval battles in the era of sail was the Battle of Trafalgar on 20 October 1805, fought to indirectly prevent an enemy landing. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 27 ships of the line met and decisively defeated 33 Franco-Spanish ships of the line (15 were Spanish), led by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (1763–1806). The British objective was to prevent the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching Brest and then cover the then widely believed Napoleon I’s intent to invade England. Although the British lost no ships, many of their ships were badly damaged. Their casualties were about 1,700. The British captured 14 enemy ships while 11 ships withdrew to Cádiz, where they were promptly blockaded by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood (1748–1810). Four surviving French ships of the line were captured on 4 November. The Franco-Spanish casualties were 2,600 dead and 7,000 prisoners (including Admiral Villeneuve).

Victory at Trafalgar freed England from further threats of invasion, secured its naval predominance, and offered the prospect of more energetic efforts in the war on land. However, that was not immediately known because of Napoleon I’s decisive victories at Ulm in October and at Austerlitz in December 1805. It was only later that the British forces took a conspicuous part in the Peninsular Campaign and elsewhere.

Many influential historians believed that the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar ruined Napoleon I’s plan to invade England. However, Napoleon I had decided even before Villeneuve arrived in Cádiz in August 1805 to move his army against the Austrians (which eventually led to the siege of Ulm and the surrender of some 27,000 Austrian troops on 19 October 1805). Mahan wrote, “Trafalgar was not only the greatest and most momentous victory won either by land or by seas during the whole Revolutionary War…No victory and no series of victories of Napoleon produced the same effect on Europe…. A generation passed after Trafalgar before France again seriously threatened England at sea.” For Napoleon I, the prospect of defeating the British Navy vanished. In Mahan’s view, the defeat at Trafalgar forced Napoleon I either to impose his rule on all Europe or to abandon the hope of conquering Great Britain. Hence, he tried to compel every state on the continent to exclude British commerce and thereby exhaust the British resources if it continued the war. Napoleon I issued the Berlin Decrees on 21 November 1806, which imposed a Continental Blockade against all trade with Britain. They were followed by the Milan Decrees in December 1807. The blockade stretched from Spain to Russia. The ultimate objective was to weaken Great Britain and force it to accept peace.

A well-known and highly influential British general and theoretician, J.F.C. Fuller (1878–1966), asserted that Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar on 20 October 1805 had a profound effect. Among other things, it shattered forever Napoleon I’s dream of an invasion of England. It allowed England to become an undisputed master of the oceans that eventually led to Pax Britannica. Without Trafalgar, there would be no victory in the Peninsular War (1807–1814), and it is “hard to believe that there would ever have been a Waterloo.

In the Battle of Lissa on 20 July 1866, a weaker but much better led and trained Austrian fleet defeated the Italian fleet and thereby obtained command of the Adriatic. The original intent of the Austrians was to prevent the Italians from landing and capturing the critically important island of Lissa (Vis today) in the central Adriatic. Italian Admiral Carlo Pellion di Persano (1806–1883) commanded a force consisting of 12 modern ironclads (totaling 46,000 tons), and 23 wooden ships (frigates, gunboats, dispatch vessels, and transports totaling 28,000 tons). However, instead of focusing on the destruction of the incoming enemy fleet and thereby obtaining sea control, he unwisely engaged shore batteries as a preliminary to the landing ashore. Persano was surprised by the sudden appearance of the Austrian squadron under Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (1827–1871). The Austrian squadron was greatly inferior to the Italians in the number of modern ships and guns. Its total tonnage was some 47,000 tons. It consisted of seven screw frigates (totaling 27,000 tons), seven screw wooden frigates, one steam-powered two-decker, and nine gunboats (totaling 20,000 tons). Tegetthoff realized before departing the Fasana roadstead in Pola (Pula today) on 19 July that the only way to achieve victory was to use some unorthodox method of engaging the enemy fleet. In the ensuing clash that quickly became a mêlée, the Austrians rammed and sunk two Italian ironclads while two other ships were heavily damaged. The Italians also had 38 officers and 574 men killed and 40 wounded, plus 19 captured. The Austrian losses were only one steam-powered two-decker damaged, 38 dead, and 138 wounded. However, Tegetthoff was unable to pursue the enemy fleet because his ships were slower. The Italians had forgotten that the true strength of a fleet resided not in excellence of weapons alone but also in the training and quality of personnel. The Italian fleet lacked organization, discipline, and sea training. Its crews were raw and unskilled in gunnery, and its officers were inexperienced.

The Austrian victory not only determined the question of command in the Adriatic but also had a highly positive effect for Austria on the peace settlement. On the same day that the Battle of Lissa was fought, the armistice ended the hostilities between Austria and Prussia on the land front. The Austrians withdraw to the Isonzo River and thereby left Venice in Italian hands. France and Prussia pressured Italy to conclude an armistice on its own with Austria. Yet the Italian Prime Minister Bettino Ricasoli refused the call and insisted on obtaining “natural” frontiers for Italy. These included the direct cession of Venice and the South Tyrol and a guarantee that Italian interests in Istria would be respected. However, the Italian government ignored the fact that Tegetthoff had won command of the sea and that the Austro-Prussian armistice had strengthened Vienna’s hand. On 12 August 1866, Austria and Italy signed an armistice at Cormons. The peace treaty was signed on 3 October 1866. Although Austria was forced to cede Venice to Italy, it was able to retain control of the rest of the Adriatic coast.

The Battle of the Yalu River on 17 September 1894 was the largest naval engagement of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. It ended in a decisive Japanese victory. The battle was the result of the Chinese landing of some 5,000 troops at the estuary of the Yalu River on 16 September. The transports were escorted by Chinese warships. The Chinese squadron consisted of 14 ships (two armorclads, four cruisers, six protected cruisers, two corvettes and torpedo boats each), while the Japanese squadron was composed of 12 ships (three armorclads, seven protected cruisers and one corvette, plus one gunboat and transport each). The Chinese losses were heavy: five ships sunk and three damaged. The Japanese had only four ships damaged. The Chinese crews fought bravely but lacked skills. Perhaps the most important effect of the battle was that the Chinese fighting spirit had been broken. In the aftermath of the battle, the Chinese fleet withdrew to Lueshunkou for repairs and then to Weihaiwei. The Japanese did not attempt to pursue the Chinese ships. The Chinese fleet was later destroyed in the Battle of Weihaiwei on 20 January–12 February 1895.

Some decisive naval battles were fought to recapture an important position and/or to prevent further enemy conquest, as was the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Corinth, the Ionian Sea. The Christian fleet of the Holy League, composed of Venice, Spain, Sardinia, Genoa, and the Papal States, plus several other Italian states under the command of the Hapsburg Prince Don John of Austria (1547–1578), inflicted a heavy defeat on the Ottoman fleet. Venice’s objective was to destroy the Turkish fleet and thereby regain Cyprus (lost in 1570). Spain was not particularly interested in the Mediterranean commerce because its interests were primarily in Peru and Mexico. However, the Spaniards wanted the Turks to be crushed so that they would not threaten its possessions in Italy (Kingdom of Sardinia) and the Spanish commerce in the Mediterranean. On 7 October, the Christian fleet consisted of 108 Venetian and 81 Spanish galleys, along with 32 galleys provided by the pope and other smaller states, plus six Venetian galleasses. The Christian ships carried 84,000 men, including 20,000 soldiers. The Turkish fleet under Sufi Ali Pasha (d. 1571) consisted of 210 galleys with about 75,000 men (50,000 sailors and 25,000 soldiers). The Turks had the numerical superiority, but their perhaps greatest advantage was psychological. The Ottoman armies and fleets were the terror of Europe. Nevertheless, the Christian ships were better armed and their soldiers better armed and protected.

In the ensuing Battle at Lepanto (Naupaktos or Nafpaktos today) on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, the Christian fleet inflicted huge losses on the Ottoman fleet. The Turkish losses were heavy: 107 galleys were captured, and 80 burned and sunk. They had 25,000 men killed and 3,500 captured. About 15,000 slaves (12,000 were Christians) were liberated. Only about 60 Turkish ships, with 10,000–12,000 men, escaped. The Christians lost only 13 ships, but about 7,700 men (4,800 Venetians, 2,000 Spaniards, and 800 Papalini) were killed in combat, and about 8,000 were wounded. Defeat in the Battle of Lepanto was a major blow to the Turkish sultan Selim II’s prestige. The Christian victory saved the Venetian-controlled islands of Corfu and Zante in the Ionian Sea and most of Dalmatia from Turkish conquest.

A relatively large number of major naval battles were fought to provide support to the army operating in the coastal area. For example, one of the most decisive naval battles in history, the Battle of Salamis in August (or September) 480 bc, was aimed to cut off the Persian army’s retreat from mainland Greece. In the Second Persian Invasion of Greece (480–479 bc), King Xerxes I (519–465 bc) led an army of only about 20,000. The Persians had about 1,000 ships and the Greeks 367 ships. Athens and its allies (Sparta and Corinth) The battle was conducted over three days and coincided with the land battle at Thermopylae. The Persians lost about 200 and the Greeks about 40 ships.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, the morale of the Persians was broken. The Phoenician contingent, terrified of harsh treatment and the reproaches of Xerxes I, slipped their cables secretly at night and sailed for home. In 479 bc, the Greeks won a great victory at Mycale (east of the island of Samos) on or about 27 August 479 bc by destroying the remnants of the Persian fleet. The Battle of Salamis ended all Persian attempts to conquer Greece. It essentially saved the Greek and Western Civilization and thereby changed the history of the world.

In the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc), Sparta’s commander Lysander (d. 395 bc), with an inferior force, captured all but nine (some sources say 20) out of 180 ships of the Athenian fleet off the mouth of the Aegospotami River (across from the Hellespont) in 405 bc. The battle lasted about one hour. This victory allowed the Spartans to advance to Athens and force the Athenians to surrender in April 404 bc.

During the First Punic War (264–241 bc), in the battle of the Aegetes Islands (near Lilybaeum) in 242 bc, the Romans inflicted a heavy defeat on the hitherto much more successful Carthaginians. The Romans did not decide until 243 bc to build a fleet. Afterward, they constructed some 200 quinqueremes. The Carthaginians assembled a fleet of some 250 ships and sent it to Sicily. The Romans proved to be much superior in seamanship than were the Carthaginians. They sunk some 50 enemy ships and captured another 70. They also taking some 10,000 prisoners. Their own losses were 30 ships sunk and 50 crippled. Many Carthaginian ships escaped, and the Romans were unable to pursue them. This naval battle decided the outcome of the struggle on Sicily. The Carthaginian army under Hamilcar Barca and the few strongholds left in Sicily were utterly isolated. The Romans starved the Punic garrisons on Sicily. Both Rome and Carthage were exhausted. However, it was Carthage that sued for peace. Carthage was forced to evacuate Sicily. Afterward, the Romans were masters of both the sea and land. Carthage lacked either the will or resources to restore its previous naval dominance.

The Battle of Naoluchus (at the northwestern tip of Sicily, some ten miles from Messina), on 29 or 30 August 36 bc, had a decisive effect in the civil war between Octavian [later emperor Augustus (63 bc–AD 14)] and Sextus Pompey (67 –35 bc), which was also called the “Sicilian Revolt” (44–36 bc). Octavian’s fleet, led by Agrippa (64/63–12 bc), defeated the fleet led by Sextus Pompey. Octavian landed three legions on Sicily, and these forces were supplied by the sea. Pompey’s position became desperate, and he assembled some 280 ships at Messana. Agrippa’s fleet consisted of some 130 vs. Pompey’s 150–160 ships. Pompey’s fleet was predominantly composed of smaller and faster ships that were better suited for fighting pirates. Agrippa won a decisive victory. He lost only three ships, while Pompey lost 28 ships, 17 ships escaped, and the remainder were captured. Pompey escaped to Messana and then fled to the east, ending Pompey’s resistance to the Second Triumvirate.

The outcome of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was essentially decided by the British defeat and subsequent surrender of some 8,000 British troops under General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) in the Siege of Yorktown on 19 September 1781. This defeat was not militarily catastrophic but had an enormous political and psychological impact. Among other things, it fatally undermined Parliament’s confidence in the British government. The French fleet under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse (1722–1788) made a major contribution to that victory in the Battle of the Chesapeake (or Virginia Capes) on 5 September 1781. This battle was a result of an agreement between General George Washington and the French General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau (1725–1807) on 21 May 1781. Both then agreed that the effort of the French West Indies Fleet should be directed against either New York or the Chesapeake. De Rochambeau notified de Grasse that he personally would prefer Chesapeake because the French government refused to provide force for the siege of New York. By 15 August, the allied generals knew that de Grasse’s fleet would reach Chesapeake. The French governor of Cap Francoise (Cap-Haïtien today) spared a force of 3,500 men upon the condition that the Spanish squadron would anchor at the place that de Grasse had procured. The governor also raised money for the Americans from the governor of Havana. De Grasse arrived at Lynnhaven within the Chesapeake (near Cape Henry) on 30 August. He had 28 ships of the line. On 25 August, the French squadron of eight ships of the line led by Commodore Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Count de Barras (1719–1793) sailed out of Newport, Rhode Island, to join de Grasse.

Some 2,500 American troops under Washington and 4,000 French troops under de Rochambeau crossed the Hudson River on 24 August and then continued their advance toward the head of the Chesapeake Bay. Their objective was to defeat the British troops under Cornwallis. After he heard about de Grasse’s departure, British Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718–1792), then in the West Indies, sent 14 ships of the line under Admiral Samuel Hood (1724–1816) to the North American waters. Because of his illness, Rodney left the West Indies for England. Hood reached Chesapeake Bay three days before de Grasse did. After reconnoitering the Chesapeake Bay and finding it empty, he sailed to New York, where he met five ships of the line under Admiral Thomas Graves (1725–1802), who as a senior officer took command of the entire force. Graves left for Chesapeake Bay on 31 August. He hoped to intercept de Barras before he joined de Grasse. De Grasse, expecting de Barras to arrive, remained outside Chesapeake Bay for five days without taking any action against the British fleet.

On 5 September, Graves appeared with 19 ships of the line in the vicinity of Cape Henry. Graves was surprised not to find the enemy fleet in Chesapeake Bay. He believed that de Grasse had 14 ships of the line. However, de Grasse had under his command 24 ships of the line. That same day, de Grasse received a request from George Washington to support his troops on the move from Philadelphia to Virginia. De Grasse assigned seven ships of the line to that task but wanted to wait on the return of his boats before deploying them. In the meantime, de Grasse received information about appearance of the British fleet.

In the ensuing clash, only Graves’ van and center became heavily engaged; yet de Grasse extricated his ships and returned to the Chesapeake Bay. Graves left the scene of action for New York with 18 ships of the line in order to repair damaged ships. The British lost some 90 men killed and 246 men wounded. The French losses were about 200 men. Graves failed to bring badly needed reinforcements to Cornwallis. The lack of naval support made Cornwallis’s end inevitable. On 14 September, de Grasse transported American and French troops to the proximity of Yorktown, where they joined with troops of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834). By 28 September, Yorktown was completely encircled by the American and French troops. De Grasse remained in the area until 5 November, when he left for West Indies.

De Grasse suffered eventual defeat in the Battle of Saints (between Dominica and Guadalupe) on 12 April 1782. His fleet of 29 ships of the line met 34 British ships of the line under Rodney and Hood. Seven French ships were captured, including the flagship. Within a week two, more ships were captured. However, this great British victory came too late to affect the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.

Some major battles have taken place when a weaker side tried to either prevent the establishment of, or lift the existing naval blockade by a stronger side. For example, in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June 1665 was fought because the Dutch tried to prevent a second blockade of their coast by the British. The British fleet of some 110 ships under the Duke of York inflicted a heavy defeat on the Dutch fleet under Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam. The Dutch lost some 17 ships and 4,000 men while the British lost only two ships and 800 men. Yet the Duke of York, for some reason, failed to pursue the withdrawing Dutch ships.

The British victory in the Battle of Cape of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797 allowed the subsequent blockade of the Spanish fleet. The British fleet of 15 ships of the line plus five frigates and two smaller ships under Admiral John Jervis encountered the Spanish fleet of 24 ships of the line, seven frigates plus one brig and four armed merchantmen led by Admiral José de Córdoba y Ramos (1732–1815) on the way to Cádiz. The Spanish fleet had passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 5 February 1797. Its task was first to cover a convoy carrying quicksilver and then to join the French squadron at Brest for the planned invasion of England. However, because of unfavorable winds, Córdoba’s squadron was pushed much farther into the Atlantic than intended. As result, it was unable to reach Cádiz before it was intercepted by the British fleet. In the ensuing clash, the British captured four ships of the line, including two three-deckers. Some ten Spanish and five British ships of the line were heavily damaged. The Spanish had 260 dead and 350 wounded. The British losses were only 73 dead and about 400 wounded. Jervis did not pursue the beaten enemy. He was not a commander who would take a substantial risk for a doubtful further gain. In the aftermath of the battle, Jervis imposed a blockade on Cádiz. The Spanish fleet at Cádiz remained blockaded until the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802.

Only relatively few decisive naval battles were planned from the outset to obtain control of the sea. For example, at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), the British obtained command of the “narrow sea” (the English Channel) after decisively defeating the French fleet in the Battle of Sluys (on the inlet between west Flanders and Zeeland) (also called the Battle of l’Ecluse). In 1338, the French King Phillip VI started hostilities at sea. Two years later, the British King Edward III declared himself king of France. He wanted to start new conquests, although he did not have a navy. Hence, he demanded from various parts of England that all ships 100 tons and larger to be in his service. Edward III also planned to have a strong army to be transported to the port Sluys, near Damme in Flanders. He put some 200 ships to sea on 22 June 1340. The next day, this force was joined by some 50 ships. The French fleet of some 400 ships (only 190 were large ships) appeared at Blankenberge, about 10 nm west of Sluys. In the battle on 24 June, the French fleet suffered a major defeat, and the British suffered no losses. This battle was decisive because the British for the first time obtained one of four narrow seas washing their shores.


Destroying the Enemy’s Forces by a Decisive Action at Sea III

The Battle of the Gabbard, 2 June 1653

The Battle of Outer Gabbard (also known the Battle of North Foreland) on 2-3 June 1653 was fought primarily for control of the English Channel and the North Sea. It was the bloodiest and greatest battle of the entire First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654). On 11 June, the English fleet, led by General-at-Sea George Monck (1608–1670), was anchored at Yarmouth, and the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter was some 12 nm northeast at North Foreland. Monck left the anchorage and moved to a position some 15 nm southwest of Oxfordness and just outside of Gabbard Sand. On 12 June, the Dutch fleet under overall command of Admiral Tromp consisted of 98 ships and eight fireships. The British fleet had 105 warships, including five fireships and some 30 armed merchantmen with 16,550 men and 3,840 guns. For the first time, almost the entire fleet of both sides faced each other. The encounters took place along the entire length of the English Channel and ended at Nieuwpoort, Flanders. In the battle at North Foreland-Nieuwpoort, on 12 and 18 June, the Dutch offered strong resistance. By the end of the day, Monck received reinforcements of 18 ships. A much larger clash took place on 13 June. Tromp was forced to move closer to the Dutch coast because of the shortage of ammunition on board many of his ships. There was panic on board the Dutch ships.

In the three days of clashes, the British inflicted heavy losses on the Dutch fleet: 11 warships (including six sunk and two burned) and 1,350 prisoners. They did not lose a single ship but had some 120 killed and 236 wounded. The British were not able to destroy larger part of the enemy fleet because they had to break off the fight due to the coming darkness and waters that were becoming too shallow for their large ships. This allowed the Dutch fleet to reach its ports the next morning, having withdrawn in great disarray. The British exploited their victory by establishing a close blockade of the Dutch coast from Nieuwpoort to Texel.

The British defeat in the Four Days’ Battle on 1–4 June 1666 (during the Second Anglo-Dutch War) allowed the Dutch to obtain control of the English Channel and close the mouth of the Thames to trade.175 It was the longest and most difficult and bitter naval battle of the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars. The British objective was to destroy the Dutch naval power before it became much stronger. Another objective was to end Dutch commerce raiding against English trade. The British fleet of about 80 ships was commanded by Monck. Prior to the battle, the British king Charles II was mistakenly informed that the French squadron was on its way to join the Dutch fleet. In what proved to be a costly mistake, he divided the fleet by detaching some 20 ships under Prince Rupert of the Rhine westward to meet the French while the remainder under Monck went eastward to meet the Dutch. The Dutch fleet of about 100 ships was led by one of the best commanders in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. He had to start battle without waiting on the arrival of the Duke of Beaufort. The battle commenced off the Northforeland coast with an English attack. In the ensuing engagement, some 20 British ships were lost. The British also had 5,000 killed and wounded and 3,000 prisoners. The Dutch losses were only four ships and 2,000–2,500 men. The arrival of Dutch reinforcements led Monck to withdraw to the Thames Estuary. So did Prince Rupert with his squadron (delayed by bad weather), on 3 June. The next day, de Ruyter blockaded the Thames Estuary. Although the Dutch achieved a great victory, they were unable to exploit it by destroying the remnants of the enemy fleet. The Dutch fought valiantly, but in contrast to the British they lacked discipline. Mahan wrote that the British defeat was largely due to dividing their fleet.

In the War of Grand Alliance, the French achieved their greatest naval victory in the Battle of Beachy Head (the Battle of Bévéziers for the French) on 10 July 1690. The French fleet of 70 ships was lead by Admiral Tourville. The combined Anglo-Dutch fleet of 56 ships was under the command of Admiral Arthur Herbert (Lord Torrington) (1648–1716). The battle took place some 12 nm south of Beachy Head (near Eastburne, East Sussex). The French objective was to destroy British and Dutch power at sea. The battle was a mêlée, in which the French did not lose a single ship. The English gave allied losses as only eight ships. Yet out of 22 ships, only three remained operational; all were heavily damaged. Tourville was able to capture a number of the damaged allied vessels. However, he made a big mistake in ordering a pursuit but not general chase. The reason was that he wanted to keep his line ahead formation, so his pursuit was very sluggish. This allowed the Anglo-Dutch fleet to escape to the Thames Estuary. The Battle of Beachy Head was a great victory but it was not decisive because Tourville failed to consolidate his combat success. In the aftemath, the French had for some ten weeks unopposed control of the English Channel. Tourville’s victory did not have any influence on the land war in Ireland (where King James II wanted to ultimately regain the British throne). Both Tourville and Herbert were dismissed because their respective governments found their performance wanting.

In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the Japanese fleet under Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russian Baltic Squadron under Admiral Zinovy P. Rozhdestvensky (1848–1909) in the Battle of Tsushima on 27–28 May 1905. As a result, the Japanese obtained full control of the Yellow Sea. The Japanese had two main divisions with a total of four battleships and eight armored cruisers backed by 16 light cruisers organized in four divisions. The Russian squadron consisted of twelve 13,600-ton battleships organized in three divisions, one small battleship, three armored cruisers, one squadron of four smaller cruisers, four scouting cruisers, and nine destroyers.The Japanese also had a great speed advantage: 15 vs. 9 knots.195 The Russian losses were heavy; 21 ships sunk, including six battleships, 4,500 men killed, plus, 5,920 captured. Only one cruiser and two destroyers escaped and reached Vladivostok. The Japanese lost only three torpedo boats. Not a single Japanese ship was heavily damaged. The Japanese had about 120 men killed and 583 wounded. The main reason for the Russian defeat was the poor training and morale of their officers and crews. The Russians had not learned that the most important thing in winning victory in naval combat is spirit and decisiveness.

The largest naval action of World War I was the Battle of Jutland (Battle of the Skagerrak for the Germans) on 31 May–01 June 1916. The original German operation plan developed by Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863–1928), the commander of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) and his staff, envisaged bombarding Sunderland and thereby triggering a strong British reaction. Scheer planned to deploy two battle squadrons, a scouting force, and the rest of the torpedo boat flotillas southwest of Dogger Bank and Flamborough. On 13 May, a decision was made to delay execution of the plan from the 17 to 23 May. Both sides intended to engage only one part of the enemy fleet. Despite an unfavorable tactical position, the Germans hoped to inflict greater losses than the enemy could inflict on their fleet.

The final German operation plan envisaged the major part of the High Seas Fleet sailing out from Wilhelmshaven at about midnight on 30 May and then proceeding northward, staying well off the Danish coast, and arriving the next afternoon off the western entrance to the Skagerrak. Afterward, Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper (1863–1932) with his battle cruisers would head north and advertise his presence by steaming very close to the Norwegian coast in broad daylight. Scheer would sail about 50 miles to the rear but out of sight of shore. Scheer was confident that as soon as the British learned the whereabouts of Hipper’s battle cruisers, they would send their battle cruisers on a high-speed dash across the North Sea to cut off Hipper’s retreat to his home base. Scheer’s plan was to attack the enemy battle cruisers jointly with Hipper’s force the next morning.

By coincidence, Admiral John Jellicoe (1859–1935) also planned a sortie with his Grand Fleet to the Skagerrak area on 1 June 1916. His main objective was to lure the High Seas Fleet to the north and fight a general fleet action. Specifically, he intended to send one battle squadron with two light squadrons off Skagen, with two squadrons of light cruisers to advance through Kattegat to the northern exits of the Great Belt and Sund, thereby enticing the Germans to use strong forces to counterattack. The other battle squadrons and battle cruisers, deployed in the vicinity of Horns Reef and Fischer Bank, would join the battle. As it turned out, Scheer sortied one day earlier than Jellicoe planned.

Scheer’s fleet consisted of 16 dreadnoughts, six pre-dreadnoughts, five battle cruisers, 11 light cruisers, and 61 destroyers. Admiral Jellicoe commanded a fleet consisting of 28 dreadnoughts, nine battle cruisers, 26 light and eight armored cruisers, 78 destroyers, and one seaplane carrier and minelayer each.

The Battle of Jutland was the first and last clash of battle fleets in World War I. This battle came closest to what can be considered as a general fleet action. It also had many elements of a modern major fleet-vs.-fleet operation. It consisted of several major and smaller encounters between the opposing fleets. Neither fleet was able to deliver a crippling blow to the other. Several encounters ended inconclusively. The Germans won a tactical victory by destroying 14 British ships (three battle cruisers, three armored cruisers, eight destroyers/torpedo boats) and killing 6,100 men (out of 60,000). The German losses were 11 ships (one pre-dreadnought battleship, one battle cruiser, four light cruisers, and five destroyers/torpedo boats) and about 2,550 men killed (out of 36,000). However, despite larger losses, the British achieved an operational victory. The situation in the North Sea remained the same as it was prior to the battle.

Since World War I, a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation aimed at destroying an enemy fleet at sea or its base replaced a decisive naval battle as the quickest and most effective – but most difficult – method to establish sea control. Major naval operations are invariably planned and conducted when decisive results must be accomplished in the shortest time possible and with the least loss for one’s forces. They are especially critical for one’s success in the initial phase of a war. Yet major fleet-vs.-fleet operations are to some extent less “decisive” than were some decisive naval battles.

In World War II, most fleet-vs.-fleet encounters took place when one fleet provided a distant cover and support to a major convoy or amphibious force or when the stronger fleet used the threat of an amphibious landing to lure a weaker fleet into a decisive battle. For example, the Japanese Port Moresby–Solomons operation was a major offensive naval/joint operation aimed to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea. For the Allies, in contrast, the Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942) was a major defensive naval/joint operation aimed at preventing the Japanese from landing at Port Moresby. Both the U.S. and Australian naval forces and land-based aircraft took part. The Japanese inflicted larger losses on the Allies than they suffered and hence won a clear tactical victory; however, the Japanese failed to achieve the ultimate objective of their operation, and hence the Allies won an operational victory. All losses on both sides were caused by air strikes. The Japanese sank one fleet oiler and destroyer each and so heavily damaged a U.S. fast carrier that it had to be sunk. The Japanese lost only one small carrier and a few small ships at Tulagi, Guadalcanal. They also lost 69 aircraft (12 fighters, 27 dive bombers, and 30 torpedo bombers) and 1,074 men; the Allies lost 66 aircraft and 543 men. One Japanese fleet carrier was heavily damaged and was unable to rejoin the fleet for two months. The losses of planes on another carrier were not replaced until 12 June 1942. So neither of these two fleet carriers took part in the main carrier action off Midway.

Although the way to Port Moresby was open, the Japanese carrier force withdrew from the Coral Sea. The landing on Port Moresby was delayed until July 1942. However, because of the defeat in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the capture of Port Moresby from the sea was abandoned. The Japanese eventually decided to seize Port Moresby by a much more difficult land route over the 11,000- to 13,000-foot Owen Stanley Range. They made two unsuccessful attempts to advance on Port Moresby, the last one starting in January 1943. After suffering high losses of a large convoy bound for Lae in the Bismarck Sea on 1–3 March 1943, they abandoned all offensive operations in eastern New Guinea.

The Japanese Midway-Aleutians operation (popularly known as the Battle for Midway) represented a turning point in the Pacific War 1941–1945. The primary objective of the CINC of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943), was to “lure” the U.S. Pacific Fleet into fighting a decisive battle and thereby to secure Japan’s defensive perimeter in Pacific. Yamamoto hoped that a landing on the island of Midway would lead the U.S. Pacific Fleet to react by deploying its fast carrier forces. In the ensuing encounter, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) suffered the greatest defeat in its proud history. After June 1942, Japan was forced onto the strategic defensive and was never able to regain the initiative until its unconditional surrender in August 1944. The Japanese losses in the Midway operation were extremely high. They lost four front line carriers, 253 aircraft, and one heavy cruiser. In addition, one heavy cruiser was heavily damaged, and one destroyer suffered moderate damages, while one battleship, destroyer, and oiler each suffered slight damages. Other sources claim that the Japanese lost 332 aircraft, including 280 that went down with the carriers. Yet some 150 Japanese pilots were saved. The Japanese lost about 3,500 men. In contrast, the U.S. had only 92 officers and 215 men killed. However, three U.S. carrier air groups were decimated. The U.S. losses in aircraft were heavy, 147 of them being shot down.

Japanese Carrier Division Three under attack by United States Navy aircraft from Task Force 58, late afternoon, June 20, 1944. The heavy cruiser circling at right, nearest to the camera, is either Maya or Chōkai. Beyond that is the small aircraft carrier Chiyoda.

One of the most decisive defeats suffered by the IJN in the Pacific War came during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19–20 June 1944. This clash of the opposing carrier forces came as a result of the Japanese execution of the plan in defense of the central Pacific (codenamed the A-Go Operation). This operation started on 13 June as a reaction to the U.S. invasion of the southern Marianas (Operation FORAGER). The entire operation lasted about ten days. The U.S. Pacific Fleet possessed superiority in the numbers and quality of ships and aircraft. It had a larger number of fast carriers (seven vs. five) and light carriers (eight vs. four). The Japanese were numerically grossly inferior in carrier-based aircraft (473 vs. 956). They had 43 vs. 65 U.S. floatplanes. The U.S. Task Force 58 also had a greater number of battleships (seven vs. five), light cruisers (13 vs. two), and destroyers (63 vs. 28) than the Japanese First Mobile Force had. The Japanese had a larger number only of heavy cruisers (11 vs. 8). In mid-June 1944, about 880 U.S. Marine, Navy, and Army aircraft were based in the Marshalls and Gilberts. The Japanese had available some 630 land-based naval aircraft.

The Japanese were strategically on the defensive, but the A-Go Operation was a major offensive fleet-vs.-fleet operation. In contrast, the U.S. was strategically on the offensive with a major amphibious landing. The engagement between the opposing carriers forces on 19–20 June resulted in a decisive victory for the Fifth Fleet. The U.S. claimed that the Japanese lost 476 planes and 445 aviators. However, their fighting strength was emasculated because so many pilots were lost. The Fifth Fleet failed to complete the destruction of the much weakened enemy force, which escaped to fight another day. Out of nine carriers, six Japanese carriers survived.

In the Leyte operation, the main objective of the Allied naval forces was to provide both close and distant cover to the Allied forces that landed on Leyte on 20 October. The invasion of Leyte was the first Allied major amphibious operation in the new Philippines campaign that would end with the liberation of the entire archipelago less than a year later. By October 1944 the Allied forces had cut off Japan from its vital sources of raw materials in the so-called Southern Resources Area. From their bases on Luzon, Allied airpower was able to neutralize the enemy airpower on Formosa (Taiwan). The Philippines were also used as a base for preparing the final Allied assault on the Home Islands. Although the Japanese were strategically on the defensive, the IJN planned a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation aimed to prevent the Allies from obtaining a foothold on Leyte and in the central Philippines. Between 24 and 27 October, four major naval battles were fought: the Battle in the Sibuyan Sea on 24 October, the Battle of Surigao Strait on 24–25 October, the Battle off Samar on 25 October, and the Battle of Cape Engano on 25 October. In addition, numerous tactical actions on the surface, in the subsurface, and in the air took place in Philippine waters. The IJN lost all four battles. In all, the Japanese lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers, totaling 306,000 tons. The Allies lost one light and two escort carriers, two destroyers, and one destroyer escort, for 37,000 tons. In the aftermath, the IJN ceased to pose any serious threat to Allied control of the sea. The IJN’s defeat sealed the fate of the defenders on Leyte and thereby created the preconditions for the eventual Allied invasion of Luzon. It also significantly affected Japan’s ability to prosecute the war because all the links with the Southern Resources Area and the Home Islands were cut.

In a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation off Matapan on 27–29 March 1941, the Italians suffered a major defeat at the hands of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Italian force, composed of one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers, and 13 destroyers, sailed out on 26 March 1941 to attack British convoys bound for Greece in the area south of Crete. The entire operation would be supported by the German X Air Corps. The British obtained accurate and timely information on the impending action by decoding German orders to the Luftwaffe’s X Air Corps. A strong British force sailed out to intercept the Italian fleet, and in the ensuing battle on 28–29 March, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk, while one battleship, heavy cruiser, and destroyer each were damaged. The German X Air Corps’ attacks on the British ships were unsuccessful. This victory led to a temporary Allied control of the surface in the central part of the Mediterranean.

In some cases, a stronger side has conducted a major naval operation aimed to obtain sea control and also to exercise that control at the same time. For example, in the aftermath of their successful attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began planning to deploy their fast carrier force into the Indian Ocean. Instead of capturing Ceylon, Admiral Yamamoto made a decision on 14 February 1942 to carry out a raid in the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese planners expected the British fleet to interfere with their invasion of the Andamans and Burma. The Japanese carrier force would operate east of Ceylon and wait on a favorable opportunity to launch a surprise attack on Ceylon and the British Eastern Fleet. As part of the preparations, the Combined Fleet conducted war games on 20–22 February. The Japanese planners intended to accomplish two main objectives: (1) destroy the British Eastern Fleet (believed to consist of two carriers two battleships, three heavy cruisers, four to seven light cruisers, and a number of destroyers); and (2) destroy the British air strength near the Bay of Bengal, (believed to consist of some 300 aircraft). The Japanese secondary objectives were to attack shipping and port installations on Ceylon and enemy shipping in the Bay of Bengal.

The Japanese striking force assigned to destroy the British Eastern Fleet was led by Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (1887–1944). He commanded a force of six fast carriers accompanied by four battleships, two heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser, plus nine destroyers. This was the same carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carriers had some 300 aircraft onboard, and their pilots were well trained and combat experienced. The Japanese assigned another force consisting of one light carrier, six cruisers and eight destroyers to sweep British shipping in the Bay of Bengal.

The British naval forces in the Indian Ocean looked formidable on paper. However, they were grossly inferior to their Japanese opponents. Vice Admiral James Somerville (1882–1949), who took command of the British Eastern Fleet on 27 March, upon receiving reports on the impending Japanese attack on Ceylon, divided his fleet two days later into two groups: Force A (two carriers, four cruisers, and six destroyers) and Force B (four battleships, one carrier, three cruisers, and seven destroyers (including one Dutch cruiser and destroyer each). In addition, seven British submarines were deployed in the Indian Ocean. On 31 March, Somerville concentrated his fleet south of Ceylon. The single biggest weakness of the Eastern Fleet was its air component. Only 57 strike aircraft and three dozen fighters were available. Also, there was an inadequate number of the land-based long-range reconnaissance aircraft.

The British received a steady stream of reports about the strength and the movements of the Japanese forces in the area. Intelligence reports indicated that the attack on Colombo and Trincomalee was to be expected on or about 1 April. On 31 March, a new intelligence report indicated (as Somerville also suspected) that the enemy attack would be made next day.

The Japanese carrier striking force entered the Indian Ocean on 31 March. As planned, it carried out a series of carrier strikes on the ships and installations in Colombo. From 6 to 8 April, Nagumo directed a search for the British Eastern Fleet’s main body southeast of Ceylon. However, Somerville’s main body was far west of Ceylon. Hence, the Japanese searches were (fortunately for the British) unsuccessful. On 8 April, the Japanese carriers struck Trincomalee. After detecting Nagumo’s force, the British ordered all ships to leave Trincomalee. Nevertheless, many of the ships were attacked at sea.

In the meantime, the British Admiralty concluded that that there was little security against air or surface attacks at their naval base at Ceylon or at Addu Atoll (the southernmost atoll in the Maldives) used by the Eastern Fleet. The British battle fleet was slow, outgunned, and had short endurance. It was a liability if it remained in the area of Ceylon. Hence, a decision was made on 8 April to move Force B to Kilindini (part of port of Mombasa), Kenya; Force A at Addu Atoll was directed on 9 April to Bombay (Mumbai today) to operate in the Arabian Sea. For all practical purposes, the Allies temporarily abandoned the Indian Ocean.

After the raid on Trincomalee, the Japanese carrier striking force left the Indian Ocean for Japan to prepare for the planned attack on Midway. The results of the raid to the Bay of Bengal were very favorable to the attackers. At the loss of only 17 aircraft, the Japanese sank one British carrier, two heavy cruisers, two destroyers, one corvette, and one armed cruiser. They also damaged 31 merchant ships of 153,600 tons, plus seven transports. However, the Japanese failed to accomplish their main objective because the British Eastern Fleet escaped. Their single biggest mistake was trying to accomplish several objectives almost simultaneously and thereby fragmenting their formidable strength. A more promising course of action for the Japanese would have been to focus most of their efforts in destroying or substantially weakening the enemy’s greatest critical strength, the British carrier force—or the enemy’s “operational center of gravity.” Afterward, they would have obtained almost undisputed control of the Indian Ocean.

In a war between coastal navies or between a blue-water navy and a small coastal navy, it might be possible to obtain sea control by planning and executing a series of quick and decisive tactical actions. For example, in the 20-day Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of 1973, from the first day of hostilities, the Israelis seized the initiative and inflicted heavy losses on their enemies. In the Battle of Latakia on the night of 6/7 October, a group of five Israeli missile craft sunk three Syrian missile craft and one torpedo craft and minesweeper each. A naval battle between six Israeli missile craft and Egyptian missile craft took place off Damietta-Baltim (off the Egyptian coast) on the night of 8/9 October. In the ensuing exchange, the Israelis sunk three Egyptian missile craft, while one was heavily damaged and subsequently destroyed by artillery fire. These victories drastically changed the operational situation at sea to the Israeli advantage. The Israelis essentially obtained control of those parts of the eastern Mediterranean declared by Syria and Egypt as war zones.

A blue-water navy can obtain a large degree of control of the surface relatively quickly through a series of tactical actions in case of a war with very weak opponent at sea. For example, in the Gulf War I (1990–1991), the U.S. Navy/Coalition aircraft conducted a number of strikes against the Iraqi navy on 22–24 January, destroying two minelayers, one oiler (serving as a scouting ship), two patrol craft, and one hovercraft. On 29 January, in the engagement off Bubiyan Island, U.S. and British missile-armed helicopters and ground attack aircraft destroyed four and ran aground 14 patrol craft carrying commandos probably to take part in the Iraqi attack on Kafji; in a separate incident, a British helicopter destroyed a large patrol craft. A day later, U.S. and British helicopters and ground attack aircraft attacked a force consisting of one former Kuwaiti patrol craft and three Iraqi amphibious craft and one minesweeper; all ships suffered various degrees of damage. In another encounter, a force of eight combat craft, including some missile craft, were attacked by U.S. ground attack aircraft in the northern part of the gulf; four craft were sunk and three damaged. The end result of these small-scale tactical actions was that the U.S./Coalition forces obtained control of the northern part of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf.

Traditionally, the decisive naval battle, aimed at destroying a major part of the enemy fleet, was the principal method used in the era of oar/sail and until the turn of the twentieth century. However, experience shows that relatively few major naval battles resulted in the annihilation of destruction of a major part of the enemy fleet. Very often, the far more important results were not losses in materiel and personnel but the military, political, economic, and even psychological effects of such battles. After World War I, major fleet-vs.-fleet operations emerged as the main method of combat employment to a destroy major part of the enemy fleet and thereby obtain control of the sea. In contrast to a decisive naval battle, major fleet-vs.-fleet operations are fought in all three physical dimensions: on the surface, in the subsurface, and in the air. In relatively few cases, decisive naval battles and major fleet-vs.-fleet operations were planned from the outset to obtain sea control. That came as a result of one’s fleet providing cover or preventing a major enemy landing or in providing cover for a large convoy. Although major fleet-vs.-fleet operations have not been conducted since World War II, they still remain the optimal method of combat employment of maritime forces to destroy a major part of the enemy’s naval forces at sea. In the absence of two blue-water opponents and in a war between a blue-water and small coastal navy or between two numerically smaller coastal navies, a series of successive tactical actions might be decisive and achieve sea control relatively quickly. Such tactical actions should be optimally planned and carried out at the beginning of the hostilities at sea.


In his statement to us at Viazma in the middle of September, General Sokolovsky had made three important points: first, that despite terrible setbacks the Red Army was gradually “grinding down” the Wehrmacht; secondly that it was very likely that the Germans would make one last desperate attempt, or even “several last desperate attempts” to capture Moscow, but they would fail in this; and, thirdly, that the Red Army was well-clothed for a winter campaign.

The impression that the Russians were rapidly learning all kinds of lessons, were dismissing as useless some of the pre-war theories, which were wholly inapplicable to prevailing conditions, and that professional soldiers of the highest order were taking over the command from the Army “politicians” and the “civil war legends” like Budienny and Voroshilov was to be confirmed in the next few weeks. Some brilliant soldiers had survived the Army Purges of 1937–8, notably Zhukov and Shaposhnikov, and had continued at their posts during the worst time of the German invasion; Zhukov had literally saved Leningrad in the nick of time by taking over from Voroshilov when all seemed lost. Apart from him and Shaposhnikov, Timoshenko—a first-class staff officer who had started his career in the Tsar’s army—was almost the only one of the pre-war top brass to prove a man of ability and imagination.

The first months of the war had been a school of the greatest value to the officers of the Red Army, and it was above all those who had distinguished themselves in the operations of June to October 1941 who were to form that brilliant pléiade of generals and marshals the like of whom had not been seen since Napoleon’s Grande Armée. In the course of the summer and autumn important changes had been made in the organisation of the air force by General Novikov, and in the use of artillery by General Voronov; both Zhukov and Konev had played a leading role in holding up the Germans at Smolensk; Rokossovsky, Vatutin, Cherniakhovsky, Rotmistrov, Boldin, Malinovsky, Fedyuninsky, Govorov, Meretskov, Yeremenko, Belov, Lelushenko, Bagramian and numerous other men, who were to become famous during the Battle of Moscow or in other important battles in 1941, were men who had, as it were, won their spurs in the heavy fighting during the first months of the war. Distinction in the field now became Stalin’s criterion in making top army appointments. It is, indeed, perfectly true that “the summer and autumn battles had brought on a military purge, as opposed to a political purge of the military. There was a growing restlessness with the incompetent and the inept. The great and signal strength of the Soviet High Command was that it was able to produce that minimum of high calibre commanders capable of steering the Red Army out of total disaster”.

Undoubtedly some of the commanders had only a purely nominal Party affiliation, and some of the new men, such as Rokossovsky, had actually been victims of the Army Purges of 1937–8, and so could not have had any tender feelings for Stalin.

The Stavka, the General Headquarters of the Soviet High Command was set up on June 23, and a few days later the State Defence Committee (GKO), consisting of Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Malenkov and Beria; on July 10 the “Stavka of the High Command” became the “Stavka of the Supreme Command”, with Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Budienny, Shaposhnikov and General Zhukov, the Chief of Staff, as members. On July 19 Stalin became Defence Commissar and on August 7 Commander-in-Chief.

The Commissar system was greatly reinforced; the commissars, as “representatives of the Party and the government in the Red Army” were to watch over the officers’ and soldiers’ morale, and share with the commander full responsibility for the unit’s conduct in battle. They were also to report to the Supreme Command any cases of “unworthiness” amongst either officers or political personnel. This was a hangover from the civil war, and, indeed, from the much more recent period when the officer corps was suspected of unreliability. In practice, in 1941, the commissars proved, in the great majority of cases, to be either men who almost fully supported the officers, or were, at most, a minor technical nuisance; but inspired by the same lutte à outrance spirit, and, faced daily by pressing military tasks, the old political and personal differences between officer and commissar were now usually less harsh than in the past. Even so, the dual command had its drawbacks, and, at the time of Stalingrad, the commissars’ role was to be drastically modified.

Whether or not there was any serious need for giving the officer a “Party whip”, there was certainly even less need for the NKVD’s “rear security units” to check panic through the use of machine-gunners ready to keep the Red Army from any unauthorised withdrawals. “What initial fears there might have been that the troops would not fight were soon dispelled by the stubborn and bitter defence which the Red Army put up against the Germans, fighting, as Halder observed, ‘to the last man’, and employing ‘treacherous methods’ in which the Russian did not cease firing until he was dead”. These “rear security units” were a revival of a practice inherited from the Civil War, and proved wholly unnecessary in 1941, the Army itself dealing rigorously with any cases of cowardice and panic.

The role of the NKVD in actual military operations remains rather obscure, though it is known that, apart from the Frontier Guards, who were under NKVD jurisdiction, and who were the first to meet the German onslaught, there were to be some very important occasions in which NKVD troops fought as battle units—for example at Voronezh in June–July 1942, where they helped to prevent a particularly dangerous German breakthrough. But there was a much grimmer side to the NKVD’s connection with the Red Army; thus, not only Russian prisoners who had managed to escape from the Germans, but even whole Army units who—as so often happened in 1941—had broken out of German encirclement, were subjected as suspects to the most harsh and petty interrogation by the O.O. (Osoby Otdel—Special Department) run by the NKVD. In Simonov’s novel, The Living and the Dead, there is a particularly sickening episode based on actual fact, in which a large number of officers and soldiers break out of a German encirclement after many weeks’ fighting. They are promptly disarmed by the NKVD; but it so happens that at that very moment the Germans have started their offensive against Moscow, and as the disarmed men are being taken to a NKVD sorting station, they are trapped by the Germans, and simply massacred, unable to offer any resistance.

Apart from that, however, the NKVD interfered less than before with the Red Army; the border-line between the military and the “political” elements in the Army was vanishing, and Stalin himself presided over this development. Whatever he had done in the past to weaken the army by his purges and his constant political interference, he had learned his lesson from the summer and autumn of 1941. Voroshilov and Budienny were pushed into the background and the role of the NKVD bosses greatly reduced. The patriotic, nationalist and “1812” line was wholeheartedly taken up by all ranks of the army. All the military talent—discovered and tested in the first battles of the war and, in some cases, before that in the Far East—was assembled, all available reserves were thrown into battle, including some crack divisions from Central Asia and the Far East, a measure made possible by the Non-Aggression Pact concluded with the Japanese in 1939.

Whatever bad memories and reservations the generals may have had, Stalin had become the indispensable unifying factor in the patrie-en-danger atmosphere of October–November 1941. There was no alternative. The Germans were on the outskirts of Leningrad, were pushing through the Donbas on their way to Rostov, and on September 30 the “final” offensive against Moscow had started.

The Battle of Moscow falls, broadly, into three phases: the first German offensive from September 30 to nearly the end of October; the second German offensive from November 17 right up to December 5; and the Russian counter-offensive of December 6, which lasted till spring 1942.

On September 30 Guderian’s panzer units on the southern flank of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) thrust against Glukhov and Orel, which fell on October 2, but were then held up by a tank group under Colonel Katyukov beyond Mtsensk, on the road to Tula. Other German forces launched full scale attacks from the south-west in the Bryansk area and from the west on the Smolensk-Moscow road. Large Soviet troop concentrations were encircled south of Bryansk and in the Viazma area due west of Moscow. The Germans had planned to contain Soviet troops surrounded in the Viazma area mainly by infantry, thus freeing their panzer and motorised divisions for a lightning advance on Moscow. But for more than a week, fighting a circular battle of extreme ferocity, the remnants of the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies and the troops under General Boldin tied up most of the German 4th Army and of the 4th Tank Corps. This resistance enabled the Soviet Supreme Command to extricate and withdraw more of their front line troops from the encirclement to the Mozhaisk line and to bring up reserves from the rear.

By October 6 German tank units had broken through the Rzhev-Viazma defence line and were advancing towards the Mozhaisk line of fortified positions some fifty miles west of Moscow, which had been improvised and prepared during the summer of 1941, and ran from Kalinin (north-west of Moscow on the Moscow-Leningrad Railway line), to Kaluga (south-west of Moscow and half-way between Tula and Viazma), Maloyaroslavets and Tula. The few troops manning these defences could halt the advance units of the Heeresgruppe Mitte, but not the bulk of the German forces.

While reinforcements from the Far East and Central Asia were on their way to the Moscow Front, the GKO Headquarters threw in what reserves they could muster. The infantry of Generals Artemiev and Lelushenko and the tanks of General Kurkin which fought here were, by October 9, placed under the direct orders of the Soviet Supreme Command. On the following day Zhukov was appointed C. in C. of the whole front.

But the Germans bypassed the Mozhaisk line from the south and captured Kaluga on October 12. Two days later, outflanking the Mozhaisk line in the north, they broke into Kalinin. After heavy fighting Mozhaisk itself was abandoned on October 18. Already on the 14th fierce battles were raging in the Volokolamsk sector, midway between Mozhaisk and Kalinin, some fifty miles north-west of Moscow.

The situation was extremely serious. There was no continuous front any more. The German air force was master of the sky. German tank units, penetrating deep into the rear, were forcing the Red Army units to retreat to new positions to avoid encirclement. Together with the army, thousands of Soviet civilians were moving east. People on foot, or in horse carts, cattle, cars, were moving east in a continuous stream along all the roads, making troop movements even more difficult.

Despite stiff resistance everywhere, the Germans were closing in on Moscow from all directions. It was two days after the fall of Kalinin, and when the threat of a breakthrough from Volokolamsk to Istra and Moscow looked a near-certainty, that the “Moscow panic” reached its height. This was on October 16. To this day the story is current that, on that morning, two German tanks broke into Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, where they were promptly destroyed; that two such tanks ever existed, except in some frightened Muscovite’s imagination, is not confirmed by any serious source.

What happened in Moscow on October 16? Many have spoken of the big skedaddle (bolshoi drap) that took place that day. Although, as we shall see, this is an over-generalisation, October 16 in Moscow was certainly not a tale of the “unanimous heroism of the people of Moscow” as recorded in the official History.

It took the Moscow population several days to realise how serious the new German offensive was. During the last days of September and, indeed, for the first few days of October, all attention was centred on the big German offensive in the Ukraine, the news of the breakthrough into the Crimea, and the Beaverbrook visit, which had begun on September 29. At his press conference on September 28 Lozovsky had tried to sound very reassuring, saying that the Germans were losing “many tens of thousands dead” outside Leningrad, but that no matter how many more they lost, they still wouldn’t get into Leningrad; he also said that “communications continued to be maintained”, and that, although there was rationing in the city, there was no food shortage. He also said that there was heavy fighting “for the Crimea”, but denied that the Germans had as yet crossed the Perekop Isthmus. As for the German claim of having captured 500,000 or 600,000 prisoners in the Ukraine, after the loss of Kiev, he was much more cagey, saying that the battle was continuing, and that it was not in the Russian’s interest to give out information prematurely. However, he added the somewhat sinister phrase: “The farther east the Germans push, the nearer will they get to the grave of Nazi Germany.” He seemed to be prepared for the loss of Kharkov and the Donbas, though he did not say so.

It did not become clear until October 4 or 5 that an offensive against Moscow had started, and, even so, it was not clear how big it was. There was, needless to say, nothing in the Russian papers about Hitler’s speech of October 2 announcing his “final” drive against Moscow.

However, Lozovsky referred to it in his press conference of October 7. He looked slightly flustered, but said that Hitler’s speech only showed that the fellow was getting desperate.

“He knows he isn’t going to win the war, but he has to keep the Germans more or less contented during the winter, and he must therefore achieve some major success, which would suggest that a certain stage of the war has closed. The second reason why it is essential for Hitler to do something big is the Anglo-American-Soviet agreement, which has caused a feeling of despondency in Germany. The Germans could, at a pinch, swallow a ‘Bolshevik’ agreement with Britain, but a ‘Bolshevik’ agreement with America was more than the Germans had ever expected.” Lozovsky added that, anyway, the capture of this or that city would not affect the final outcome of the war. It was as if he was already preparing the press for the possible loss of Moscow. Yet he managed to end on a note of bravado: “If the Germans want to see a few hundred thousand more of their people killed, they’ll succeed in that—if in nothing else.”

The news on the night of the 7th was even worse, with the first official reference to “heavy fighting in the direction of Viazma”.

On the 8th, while Pravda and Izvestia were careful not to sound too alarmed (Pravda actually started with a routine article on “The Work of Women in War-Time”), the army paper, Red Star, looked extremely disquieting. It said that “the very existence of the Soviet State was in danger”, and that every man of the Red Army “must stand firm and fight to the last drop of blood”. It described the new German offensive as a last desperate fling:

Hitler has thrown into it everything he has got—even every old and obsolete tank, every midget tank the Germans have collected in Holland, France or Belgium has been thrown into this battle… The Soviet soldiers must at any price destroy these tanks, old and new, large or small. All the riff-raff armour of ruined Europe is being thrown against the Soviet Union.

Pravda sounded the alarm on the 9th, warning the people of Moscow against “careless complacency” and calling on them to “mobilise all their forces to repel the enemy’s offensive”. On the following day it called for “vigilance” saying that, in addition to advancing on Moscow, “the enemy is also trying, through the wide network of its agents, spies and agents-provocateurs, to disorganise the rear and to create panic”. On October 12, Pravda spoke of the “terrible danger” threatening the country.

Even without the help of enemy agents, there was enough in Pravda to spread the greatest alarm among the population of Moscow. Talk of evacuation had begun on the 8th, and foreign embassies as well as numerous Russian government offices and institutions were told to expect a decision on it very shortly. The atmosphere was becoming extremely tense. There was talk of Moscow as a “super-Madrid” among the braver, and feverish attempts to get away among the less brave.

By October 13, the situation in Moscow had become highly critical. Numerous German troops which had, for over a week, been held up by the “Viazma encirclement”, had become available for the final attack on Moscow. The “Western” Front, under the general command of General Zhukov, assisted by General Konev, and with General Sokolovsky as Chief of Staff, consisted of four sectors: Volokolamsk under Rokossovsky; Mozhaisk under Govorov, Maloyaroslavets under Golubev and Kaluga under Zakharkin. There was absolutely no certainty that a German breakthrough could be prevented, and on October 12, the State Defence Committee had decided to call upon the people of Moscow to build a defence line some distance outside Moscow, another one right along the city border, and two supplementary city lines along the outer and inner rings of boulevards within Moscow itself.

On the morning of October 13, Shcherbakov, Secretary of the Central Committee and of the Moscow Party Committee of the Communist Party, spoke at a meeting called by the Moscow Party Organisation: “Let us not shut our eyes. Moscow is in danger.” He appealed to the workers of the city to send all possible reserves to the front and to the defence lines both inside and outside the city; and to increase greatly the output of arms and munitions.

The resolution passed by the Moscow Organisation called for “iron discipline, a merciless struggle against even the slightest manifestations of panic, against cowards, deserters and rumour-mongers”. The resolution further decided that, within two or three days, each Moscow district should assemble a battalion of volunteers; these came to be known as Moscow’s “Communist Battalions” and were, like some of the opolcheniye regiments, to play an important role in the defence of Moscow by filling in “gaps”—at a very heavy cost in lives. Within three days, 12,000 such volunteers were formed into platoons and battalions, most of them with little military training and no fighting experience.

It was on October 12 and 13 that it was decided to evacuate immediately to Kuibyshev and other cities in the east a large number of government offices, including many People’s Commissariats, part of the Party organisations, and the entire diplomatic corps of Moscow. Moscow’s most important armaments works were to be evacuated as well. Practically all “scientific and cultural institutions” such as the Academy of Sciences, the University and the theatres were to be moved.

But the State Defence Committee, the Stavka of the Supreme Command, and a skeleton administration were to stay on in Moscow until further notice. The principal newspapers such as Pravda, Red Star, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Trud, continued to be published in the capital.

The news of these evacuations was followed by the official communiqué published on the morning of October 16. It said: “During the night of October 14–15 the position on the Western Front became worse. The German-Fascist troops hurled against our troops large quantities of tanks and motorised infantry, and in one sector broke through our defences.”

In describing the great October crisis in Moscow it is important to distinguish between three factors. First, the Army, which fought on desperately against superior enemy forces, and yielded ground only very slowly, although owing to relatively poor maneuverability, it was unable to prevent some spectacular German local successes, such as the capture of Kaluga in the south on the 12th, of Kalinin in the north on the 14th, or that breakthrough in what was rather vaguely described as “the Volokolamsk sector” to which the “panic communiqué”, published on October 16, referred. Even long afterwards it was believed in Moscow that on the 15th the Germans had crashed through much further towards Moscow than is apparent today from any published record of the fighting. Only then, it was said, did Rokossovsky stop the rot by throwing in the last reserves, including scarcely-trained opolchentsy, and troops from Siberia as soon as they disembarked from the trains. There are countless stories of regular soldiers and even opolchentsy attacking German tanks with hand grenades and with “petrol bottles”, and of other “last ditch” exploits. The morale of the fighting forces certainly did not crack. The fact that fresh troops from the Far East and Central Asia were being thrown in all the time, though only in limited numbers, had a salutary effect in keeping up the spirit of the troops who had already fought without respite for over a fortnight.

Secondly, there was the Moscow working-class; most of them were ready to put in long hours of overtime in factories producing armaments and ammunition; to build defences; to fight the Germans inside Moscow should they break through, or, if all failed, to “follow the Red Army to the east”. However, there were different shades in the determination of the workers to “defend Moscow” at all costs. The very fact that not more than 12,000 should have volunteered for the “Communist brigades” at the height of the near-panic of October 13–16 seems indicative; was it because, to many, these improvised battalions seemed futile in this kind of war, or was it because, at the back of many workers’ minds, there was the idea that Russia was still vast, and that it might be more advantageous to fight the decisive battle somewhere east.

Thirdly, there was a large mass of Muscovites, difficult to classify, who were more responsible than the others for “the great skedaddle” of October 16. These included anybody from plain obyvateli, ready to run away from danger, to small, medium and even high Party or non-Party officials who felt that Moscow had become a job for the Army, and that there was not much that civilians could do. Among these people there was a genuine fear of finding themselves under German occupation, and, with regular passes, or with passes of sorts they had somehow wangled—or sometimes with no passes at all—people fled to the east, just as in Paris people had fled to the south in 1940 as the Germans approached the capital.

Later, many of these people were to be bitterly ashamed of having fled, of having overrated the might of the Germans, of having not had enough confidence in the Red Army. And yet, had not the Government shown the way, as it were, by frantically speeding up on all those evacuations from the 10th of October onwards?

Especially in 1942 the “big skedaddle” of October 16 continued to be a nasty memory with many. There were some grim jokes on the subject—especially in connection with the medal “For the Defence of Moscow” that had been distributed lavishly among the soldiers and civilians; there was the joke about the two kinds of ribbons—some Moscow medals should be suspended on the regular moiré ribbon, others on a drap ribbon—drap meaning both a thick kind of cloth and skedaddle. There was also the joke of a famous and very plump and well-equipped actress who had received a Moscow Medal “for defending Moscow from Kuibyshev with her breast”.

I remember Surkov telling me that when he arrived in Moscow from the front on the 16th, he phoned some fifteen or twenty of his friends, and all had vanished.

In “fiction”, more than in formal history, there are some valuable descriptions of Moscow at the height of the crisis—for instance in Simonov’s The Living and the Dead already quoted. Here is a picture of Moscow during that grim 16th of October and the following days—with the railway station stampedes; with officials fleeing in their cars without a permit; the opolchentsy and Communist battalion men sullenly walking, rather than marching, down the streets, dressed in a motley collection of clothes, smoking, but not singing; with the “Hammer and Sickle” factory working day and night turning out thousands of anti-tank hedge-hogs, which are then driven to the outer ring of boulevards; with its smell of burning papers; with the rapid succession of air-raids and air-battles over Moscow, in which Russian airmen often suicidally ram enemy planes; with the demoralisation of the majority and the grim determination among the minority to hang on to Moscow, and to fight, if necessary, inside the city.

By the 16th, many factories had already been evacuated.

All the same, below all the froth of panic and despair there was “another Moscow”:

Later, when all this belonged to the past, and somebody recalled that 16th of October with sorrow or bitterness, he [Simonov’s hero] would say nothing. The memory of Moscow that day was unbearable to him—like the face of a person you love distorted by fear. And yet, not only outside Moscow, where the troops were fighting and dying that day, but inside Moscow itself, there were enough people who were doing all within their power not to surrender it. And that was why Moscow was not lost. And yet, at the Front that day the war seemed to have taken a fatal turn, and there were people in Moscow that same day who, in their despair, were ready to believe that the Germans would enter Moscow tomorrow. As always happens in tragic moments, the deep faith and inconspicuous work of those who carried on, was not yet known to all, and had not yet come to bear fruit, while the bewilderment, terror and despair of the others hit you between the eyes. This was inevitable. That day tens of thousands, getting away from the Germans, rolled like avalanches towards the railway stations and towards the eastern exits of Moscow; and yet, out of these tens of thousands, there were perhaps only a few thousand whom history could rightly condemn.

Simonov wrote this account of Moscow on October 16, 1941 after a lapse of nearly twenty years; but his story—which could not have been published in Stalin’s day—rings true in the light of what I had heard of those grim days only a few months later, in 1942.



This idealized bird’s-eye view of the battle of Moncontour, between French Catholics and Huguenots in 1569, shows a typical Renaissance battlefield: an opening artillery barrage, followed by advancing squares of pikemen, flanked by musketeers, with cavalry in support. The battle was a victory for the Catholics (in the foreground) who were supported by troops from Spain, the Papal States, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany

The Third War of Religion broke out on August 18, 1568, when Catholics attempted to capture Louis de Bourbon, prince de Condé (1530–69), and Comte Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72), the primary Protestant leaders. The Royalist Catholics continued to suppress Protestantism. Sporadic fighting occurred throughout the Loire Valley for the remainder of 1568. In March 1569, the Royalists under Marshal Gaspard de Tavannes (1509–73) engaged in battle with Condé’s forces in the region between Angoulême and Cognac. Later in March, Tavanne crossed the Charente River near Châteauneuf and soundly defeated the Huguenots at the Battle of Jarmac. Although Condé was captured and murdered, Coligny managed to withdraw a portion of the Protestant army in good order. About three months later, help for the Huguenots arrived in the form of 13,000 German Protestant reinforcements. This enlarged force laid siege to Poitiers. Then on August 24, 1569, Coligny sent Comte Gabriel de Montgomery (c. 1530–74) to Orthez, where he repulsed a Royalist invasion of French held Navarre and defeated Catholic forces arranged against him. Royalist marshal Tavanne then relieved Poitiers and forced Coligny to raise the siege.

The major battle of the Third War of Religion occurred on October 3, 1569, at Moncontour. The Royalists, aided by a force of Swiss sympathizers, forced the Huguenot cavalry off the field and then crushed the Huguenot infantry. The Huguenots lost about 8,000, whereas Royalist losses numbered about 1,000. The following year, however, Coligny marched his Huguenot forces through central France from April through June and began threatening Paris. These actions forced the Peace of St. Germain, which granted many religious freedoms to the Protestants.

The Battle in Detail

The battle of Moncontour (3 October 1569) was a major Catholic victory during the Third War of Religion that followed the unsuccessful Huguenot siege of Poitiers, and seemed to bring the Protestant cause to its knees. After recovering from an earlier defeat at Jarnac, the Huguenots received reinforcements from Germany, and against the advice of Admiral Coligny, the senior Huguenot commander, decided to besiege Poitiers (27 July-7 September 1569). The siege dragged on for so long partly because the Royal army had been disbanded after the spring campaign, but by early September Henry, duke of Anjou, the future Henry III, was ready to move (Anjou was officially in charge, but the real command was probably held by Gaspard de Tavannes).

Anjou did not believe that he was strong enough to risk a direct attack on Coligny’s army around Poitiers, so instead he moved to attack Châtellerault, a Huguenot-held city 18 miles to the north. A breach had soon been battered in the walls, forcing Coligny to lift the siege of Poitiers. On 7 September he marched north. Anjou moved north-west to Chinon, further down the river Vienne. Coligny followed him for a short distance, then crossed to the left bank of the Vienne and took up a position at Faye-la-Vineuse, fifteen miles to the south of Chinon. Coligny’s plan was to move into southern Poitou, where he could link up with the Army of the Viscounts, a successful Huguenot army that had recently re-conquered Bearn.

Anjou moved before Coligny. On 29 September the Royal army crossed the Vienne, and reached Loudun, due west of Faye. On 30 September Coligny began by moving south, then swung to the west to head towards Moncontour, on the River Dive. This meant that he was advancing across the route being taken by the Royal army, and the Huguenot rearguard ran into trouble at Saint-Clair, four miles to the east of the river. Coligny was able to extract his army from a dangerous situation, and by the end of the day had reached comparative safety at Moncontour, where he was protected by the line of the fast-flowing Dive.

Coligny was now faced by a crisis within his army. Although the Huguenots were probably outnumbered, and had not yet recovered from the siege of Poitiers, most men in the army wanted to fight. Coligny was less eager, and would have preferred to unite with the Army of the Viscounts first, and so he had to disguise his plans.

On the night of 2-3 October the Huguenot army was ordered to prepare to march south-west to Airvault, where it could cross the River Thouet. At the same time the Royal army was on the move, heading south to get around the upper reaches of the Dive. On the morning of 3 October Anjou was moving north, towards Moncontour.

If Coligny had been able to move when he had wanted, Anjou’s bold move would have failed, but on the crucial morning the Huguenot’s German troops mutinied and demanded to be paid. It took two hours for order to be restored, by which time Anjou had appeared from the south and it was clear that a battle would have to be fought.

Anjou’s first move was to try and deploy to the west to block the Huguenot line of retreat towards Airvault, but Coligny prevented this by ordering Louis of Nassau to block him with the ‘battle’, in this case the right wing of the army. Nassau’s line stretched out to Douron, about half way between the two rivers. Coligny commanded the Huguenot ‘van’, which was deployed on the left, to the north-east of Nassau.

The Catholic line was deployed with its van (under the Duke of Montpensier) on the right, facing Coligny, and the ‘battle’, under Anjou, was on the left. The Catholics also had a reserve, under Biron.

The exact size of the two armies is uncertain, although most sources agree that the Huguenots were outnumbered. Coligny had 6,000 cavalry and 12,000-14000 infantry, while Anjou had 7,000-8,000 cavalry and 16,000-18,000 infantry. The Huguenots had a strong German contingent, the Catholics a Swiss contingent.

The battle began with a clash between the two vans (the Protestant left and Catholic right). The Huguenot left was put under severe pressure, and Coligny was forced to call for aid from the right. He then led a charge against the German reiters, who were advancing with John Philip I, Rhinegrave of Salm-Dhaun Rhinegrave at their head. Coligny almost certainly killed the Rhinegrave himself, before being wounded and forced to retire to the rear for treatment.

On the Royal side Anjou led his own cavalry in an attack that left him dangerously exposed. The reserve was ordered into the fray to restore the line, and their extra pressure began to force the Huguenots back. The Huguenot’s reiters made a disastrous attack on the Swiss, and then fled from the field. This left the landsknechts exposed to attack by the Swiss, who massacred them, killing around 3,800 out of a total of 4,000. This represented nearly half of the Huguenot casualties of 8,000.

After a battle that lasted for four hours the Huguenots were forced to retreat. Louis of Nassau and Wolrad of Mansfeld were largely responsible for the escape of the surviving part of the army (10,000-12,000 men depending on the actual size of the army). The retreating Huguenots were able to cross the Thouet at Airvault, and then moved to Partenay and finally to safety at Noirt.

The Catholics failed to take advantage of the crushing nature of their victory. Instead of pursuing the defeated Huguenots, Anjou decided to concentrate on capturing their cities. On 10 October he began a siege of Saint-Jean d’Angély that would last until 3 December and prove to be just as fatal to the Royal cause as the siege of Poitiers had been for the Huguenots. This gave Coligny the time he needed to raise a new army in the south of France, which he then led back into the north in 1570, eventually forcing the court to come to terms at St.-Germain on 8 August 1570.


Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin in an T34/85 and 501st Heavy Tank Battalion

The heaviest tank produced during World War II, the Tiger II was also known as the King Tiger in literal translation of the German Königstiger, or Bengal tiger. At 63.5 tonnes (62.5 tons), it outweighed any other heavy tank deployed in appreciable numbers. Its 88mm (3.5in) KwK 43 L/71 high-velocity gun was the finest implement of warfare of its kind in the German arsenal when production began in earnest in mid-1944. Although the Tiger II was a formidable foe in combat, fuel shortages and mechanical failures resulted in a number of the massive tanks being abandoned in the field or destroyed by their crews to prevent capture.

Although many features of the Tiger II were actually ahead of their time, the tank was plagued by mechanical issues. Many of the problems stemmed from an unreliable drivetrain. Its tremendous weight strained the Maybach powerplant and resulted in frequent breakdowns, while the suspension was also suspect in varied weather conditions. The weight of the Tiger II contributed to difficulties with cross-country movement, particularly over marshy terrain and across rivers. Long-distance travel was accomplished on railway flatcars.

The cost of Tiger II production was prohibitive as well, several times greater per unit than that of other German tanks. Each Tiger II further required the investment of 300,000 man-hours to complete. Fuel consumption was extreme and limited the range of the Tiger II, particularly during the crucial hours of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.

Guards Lieutenant A. P. Oskin

Following their destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, the Red Army launched a massive offensive across the Ukraine and into Eastern Poland against Army Group North Ukraine.

It culminated in the seizure of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Vistula River, notably in the region of Sandomierz. Despite their losses, the German forces were still full of fight and threw whatever units they could muster against the Soviet enclaves.

One of these units was 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, newly equipped with Tiger IIs and under the command of Major von Legat. In common with most of the German heavy tank units in the latter part of the war, the 501st was fated to become a ‘fire brigade’ force, transferred from place to place as the situation demanded and denied the time to build up an operational relationship with the units it supported.

However, its baptism of fire as a Tiger II unit was yet to come, as, on 6th August 1944, all serviceable vehicles were loaded onto flat cars and shipped to Poland, leaving behind 14 of these brand new, but temperamental monsters in the battalion workshops.

In the vicinity of Staszow, at the southwestern extremity of the Sandomierz bridgehead, the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Corps was in the van of the Russian advance; the village of Ogledow its latest conquest. However, resistance had hardened and reconnaissance led Corps HQ to order its tank units to pull back and establish defensive positions west of Staszow.

The German heavy tank battalion had just arrived in Poland with their new Tiger IIs (first unit with the Tiger II in the East). After unloading at Kielce, 45 Tigers set out for Ogledow 30 miles or so away, only 8 Tigers made it with the rest failing on route.

On 12 August 1944, a lone T-34/85 under Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade employed its 85mm gun against the latest German heavy tank, the Tiger II. Lt.Oskin was outside of Ogledow hiding in a corn field.

Oskin observed three Tigers along a dirt road and realized that from his concealed position he could fire at their flanks. At a range of 200m (656ft), Oskin ordered his gunner, Abubakir Merkhaidorov, to fire at the second tank in line. The shell penetrated the turret. Two more hits were scored. The fourth shell set the Tiger alight. As the first Tiger in line rotated its turret, Oskin got off four rounds. Three did little damage, but the fourth set the Tiger ablaze.

Blinded by smoke and fire from the other two German tanks, the third Tiger began to withdraw, but Oskin manoeuvred behind it. A single round destroyed the tank. Oskin had demonstrated what the T-34/85 could do in combat and was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Prisoners captured prior to the action had revealed the arrival of a new heavy tank battalion, but the Russians appear to have had no idea that it was equipped with the Tiger Is replacement. In fact 501st Heavy Tank Battalion had only been able to muster 11 serviceable vehicles for this attack, due to the mechanical problems that dogged most of the late war German ‘super weapons’, which tended to be rushed into service without sufficient field trials.

With this assault beaten back the Soviet forces launched a counter attack, surprising the German forces and recapturing Ogledow. Amongst the spoils were three Tiger IIs, allegedly still in running order and abandoned by their crews. It is likely that these had suffered minor malfunctions and, as no other vehicle was capable of towing them, couldn’t be moved in time.

Other clashes followed, which, according to Soviet sources, resulted in the loss of more Tigers to the guns of Soviet tanks, including the IS-IIs of the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Battalion. Seven King Tigers attacked Soviet positions from the height 272.1. Waiting in an ambush near Mokre Guards Lieutenant Udalov in his IS-2 tank (with number 98 painted on the turret, fitted with the D-25 cannon) let the German tanks to come to the distance of 700-800 metres and started firing. After few hits the first tank was set on fire and the second was knocked out. German tanks reversed and moved back. Udalov drove towards enemy and from the edge of the forest fired again. With one more tank burning Germans retreated. Soon King Tigers attacked again, this time towards Poniki, where Guards Lieutenant Beliakov’s IS-II set up the ambush. He commenced fire at the distance 1000 metres and after third round had set enemy tank on fire. The Germans realized the grave situation and retreated again.

Guards Senior Lieutenant V. A. Udalov

During three days of continuous fighting between August 11th and 13th, 1944, in area of Staszów and Szyldów the 6th GTC destroyed and captured 24 enemy tanks, 13 of them were newly introduced King Tigers.

“From 9th to 19th of August 1944, the 52nd GTBr took 7 POWs and eliminated 225 soldiers and officers, destroyed one machine gun, captured three cannons, destroyed 6 tanks, 10 trucks and 2 other vehicles.”

Whatever the full truth, the German heavies had been poorly deployed in ill-judged frontal attacks and after the action Major von Legat was replaced as the unit commander.

Plans for the T-34/85 tank gained impetus following the pivotal Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. By March 1944, the upgunned variant of the original T-34 medium tank was being deployed with elite Guards units of the Soviet Red Army.

The long barrel of the high-velocity 85mm (3.35in) ZIS-S-53 gun enhanced the sleek, streamlined profile of the T-34/85 medium tank with its turret forward atop the hull. The design was characteristic of Soviet tanks for decades to come.

T-34/85 medium tank

The improved firepower of the T-34/85 medium tank came about following analysis of the T-34 performance during the Battle of Kursk. Three 85mm (3.35in) weapons were considered before a decision was made to mount the ZIS-S-53.

Following the victory at Kursk in July 1943, thwarting the German offensive Operation Citadel, the Soviets began to assess the performance of their T-34 medium tank in combat with the German PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw VI Tiger tanks. The T-34 was equipped with a 76.2mm (3in) main weapon, while the German tanks mounted high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) and 88mm (3.5in) guns respectively.

Both sides lost tanks in great numbers, but it was determined that the T-34’s main weapon did not provide sufficient muzzle velocity to penetrate German armour at a reasonable distance, compelling the Soviets to execute mass charges to close rapidly with the Germans in something resembling a Wild West shootout.

The initial conclusion was that the T-34 required more armour and additional plating was affixed to a small number of the tanks. During testing it was determined that the additional armour so eroded speed and manoeuvrability that the experimental model, the T-43, was discarded.

The Power of Suggestion

The designers came to the realization that the answer to enhancing the T-34’s combat capability laid in a new main weapon. Soviet records indicate that during a meeting on 25 August 1943, V.G. Grabin, the chief designer at Artillery Factory No 92, suggested arming the T-34 with a more powerful 85mm (3.35in) gun. Three separate designs were tested before the ZIS-S-53 gun, sponsored by General F.F. Petrov, was accepted. The gun was also used in the KV-85 and IS-2 heavy tanks, as well as the SU-85 tank destroyer.

The one-piece cast turret was enlarged to accommodate a third crewman, bringing the total to five, with the commander no longer required to serve the main gun in combat. The new configuration substantially improved the combat efficiency of the T-34/85. The commander was positioned in the rear of the turret to the left with the gunner in front of him and the loader on the right. The driver and a second machine gunner were positioned forward in the hull. The basic turret redesign was completed within weeks at Production Works No 112 in Gorky.

Other changes to the T-34/85 from the original T-34 included a commander’s cupola atop the turret with five vision slits. A hatch was installed in the turret roof for the loader and included ventilation slits to evacuate fumes from the main weapon and a turret-mounted 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine gun. A second machine gun remained in the hull. Pistol ports were placed on the turret sides.

Due to space restrictions, the size of the fuel tanks was reduced, slightly curbing the T-34/85’s range compared to the earlier T-34. The heavier turret also required that stronger springs be introduced to the Christie suspension to adjust for the additional weight.

Prescribed Production

The exigencies of war greatly influenced the hurried production of the T-34/85. By 15 December 1943, on the strength of proven hull designs – three of which were in production with only slight differences between them – the Soviet State Defence Committee ordered production of the T-34/85 to commence. The turret itself, however, had not been finalized and its designers were required to catch up with the pace of hull production.

Production Works No 112 actually began manufacturing the new tank in January 1944 and the first T-34/85s were delivered to elite Guards armoured units in March 1944. During the spring, two more manufacturing facilities, in Omsk and Nizhnij Tagil, were assigned to produce the T-34/85. Most of the new tanks actually were produced in Nizhnij Tagil. Throughout wartime production, the turret and other components of the tank were refined and improved. At one time, the three factories were producing three slightly different turrets.

Battlefield Improvement

The T-34/85 indeed brought better combat survivability to Soviet armoured forces. The greater range of the new main weapon and its muzzle velocity of 780 metres per second (2559 feet per second) improved penetration of German armour plating with armour-piercing ammunition. Combat experience revealed the need for additional protection against German anti-tank weapons such as the shoulder-fired Panzerfaust. Additional thin plating or wire mesh was welded into areas around the hull and turret that were susceptible to ‘trapping’ shells or hollow charges. These were often successful at deflecting otherwise damaging strikes.

Approximately 22,500 T-34/85 tanks were produced during the war and production continued into the late 1950s. Variants included the OT-34/85, mounting an AT-42 flamethrower instead of the hull machine gun. The flamethrower was capable of emitting a stream of fire up to 100m (327ft).


(Levin August Theophile) (b. 10 February 1745, Brunswick – d. 3 October 1826, Hannover) was born to a Hanoverian noble family in the Brunswick, where his father was a colonel in the guards. His family also owned estates at Banteln in Hanover. Due to his father’s connections at the Hanoverian court, Bennigsen began his service at the age of ten as a page. Four years later he was commissioned as ensign in the guard and, in 1763, as a captain, he participated in the final campaign of the Seven Years War. A year later, after the death of his father and his own marriage to the Baroness Steimberg, he retired to his estates at Banteln, disillusioned with military service and widely regarded as an unpromising officer. Bennigsen apparently squandered his inheritance and, after his wife’s untimely death, he briefly reentered Hanoverian service before deciding to seek a career in Russia. He was accepted into the Russian service with a rank of premier major and assigned to the Vyatka Musketeer Regiment in 1773.

During the Russo-Turkish War, Bennigsen served in the Narva Musketeer Regiment and was noticed by Rumyantsev and Saltykov. In January 1779, he became a lieutenant colonel in the Kiev Light Cavalry Regiment. In 1787, he was appointed commander of the Izumsk Light Cavalry Regiment and fought at Ochakov and Bender, receiving promotion to brigadier in 1788. In 1792-1794, Bennigsen took part in the operations against the Polish insurgents, was promoted to major general on 9 July 1794 and awarded the Order of St. George (3rd class) on 26 September 1794. In 1795, he commanded a brigade at Vasilkov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he formed a close association with Valerian Zubov, the brother of the Empress’ last favorite. In 1796, he took part in the Persian Campaign along the Caspian Sea and fought at Derbent. After Paul’s accession to the throne, Bennigsen was named chef of the Rostov Dragoons Regiment (14 December 1796) and was promoted to lieutenant general (25 February 1798). However, he was dismissed from service on 11 October 1798 during Paul’s military purge of high-ranking officers. He participated in the conspiracy to overthrow Paul and according to the memoirs of the participants, was chosen to lead the coup d’état because of his reputation for audacity and courage. Despite his role in the conspiracy, Bennigsen’s career did not suffer under Alexander. He was appointed the Military Governor of Vilna and inspector of the Lithuanian Inspection on 23 July 1801. Bennigsen was then promoted to general of cavalry on 23 June 1802 with seniority dating from 4 December 1799.

During the 1805 Campaign, Bennigsen commanded a reserve corps of some 48,000 men arranged between Taurrogen and Grodno. In 1806, he was directed to take up quarters in Silesia and assist the Prussians against the French. After the Prussian defeat, Bennigsen withdrew to Poland, where he fought the French army at Golymin and Pultusk. He claimed these battles as decisive Russian victories, received the Order of St. George (2nd class) on 8 January 1807 and was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army on 13 January 1807. He launched an offensive in January 1807 and fought the French army at Eylau (received the Order of St. Andrew the First Called), Guttstadt, Heilsberg and Friedland, where his poor tactics resulted in the Russian defeats with heavy losses. Displeased with his actions, Emperor Alexander discharged Bennigsen on 9 July 1807. Bennigsen remained in exile until 1812, when he was ordered to join the Imperial Retinue (8 May 1812). He was considered for the post of commander-in-chief in August 1812, but was rejected in favor of Mikhail Kutuzov. Instead, he was appointed the chief of staff of the united Russian armies and bickered with Kutuzov for command throughout the campaign. After Borodino, he advised against abandoning Moscow to the French. He distinguished himself at Tarutino, where he was wounded in the leg. However, in late 1812, Bennigsen was finally dismissed because of his ongoing disagreements with Kutuzov.

Bennigsen returned to the army in early 1813 and received command of the Army of Poland. He later fought at Lutzen, Bautzen and Leipzig and besieged Torgau and Magdeburg; for his actions, he was conferred the title of count of the Russian Empire on 10 January 1814. He then commanded the Russian troops besieging Hamburg and was decorated with the Order of St. George (1st class) on 3 August 1814 for his conduct. He commanded the 2nd Army in 1815-1817 but was criticized for poor administration and forced to retire on 15 May 1818. He spent next eight years at Hanover. He was awarded almost all the highest Russian awards, including the Orders of St. Andrew with diamonds, of St. Vladimir (1st class), of St. Alexander of Neva, of St. Anna (1st class), of St. George (1st class) and a golden sword with diamonds for courage. In addition, he had six foreign decorations, the Prussian Order of Black Eagle, the Hanoverian Order of Guelf, the Dutch Order of the Elephant, the French Legion of Honor, the Swedish Order of the Sword and the Austrian Order of Maria Theresa.

Bennigsen is an over rated general. Brave officer, he showed no tactical or strategic abilities in 1806-1807 and 1813 Campaigns. Despite his claims to victories, the battles of Pultusk and Eylau were draws at best. At Heilsberg, he lost consciousness and other senior Russian commanders conducted the battle. At Friedland, he chose disadvantageous positions that led to heavy Russian casualties. Bennigsen was very ambitious officer and able courtier, who easily navigated in the court politics. His three-volume Mémoires du général Bennigsen, published in Paris in 1907-1908, contain fascinating details on the Russian operations in 1806-1813 but often embellish facts.

Battle of Tarutino on 6 (18) October 1812

Germany, 1847 by Peter von Hess, 1792-1871

The painting is a part of the series devoted to the great battles of the Patriotic War of 1812. On 6 (18) October 1812 in Tarutino the Russian Army made the first attack since the beginning of the war which resulted in the defeat of Murat’s unit. The next day Napoleon ordered his soldiers to leave Moscow. Here the critical stage of the battle after the attack of ten Cossack Regiments under the command of Vasily Orlov-Denisov is depicted. Cossacks rapidly attacked elements of the 2nd Cavalry Corps of the French. “…At 9 a.m., when we were going to look for provisions, lots of Cossacks attacked us. The 4th Division of Cuirassiers and the whole unit of Seguin were defeated – all fled in disorder.” That was how a French cuirassier captain recalled these events in his letter. The Cossacks returned with rich booty and captives after the defeat of the enemy bivouacs. Several soldiers caught by surprise were still in their coats which they used as wrapping for the night and in caps that they usually wore out of ranks. General Levin (Leonty) Bennigsen on a bay horse is depicted on the left. His command staff includes Quartermaster-General Karl Toll and a company officer of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment wearing the Order of St. Vladimir of the Fourth Class with a bow and the Prussian Pour le Merite. General Vasily Orlov-Denisov, the commander of a Cossack unit, approaches them riding a grey horse. He is wearing a red jacket of the Cossack Life-Guards Regiment, which he commanded. Several Cossacks escort French cavalry captives; among them there are carabineers in white collars, gilt cuirasses and helmets with red horse hair plumes, cuirassiers in blue jackets, silver cuirasses and horsetail helmets. One of the Cossacks raises the Standard of the 1st Cuirassier Regiment high in the air – the first French colour that was captured by the Russians as trophy during the Patriotic War. Imperial Cossacks (who differed from other Cossack Regiments which wore blue uniform by wearing a red one) are passing by and greeting their commander and the trophies. In the right corner of the picture the artist portrays a Don Cossack Artillery team entering their position. On the left there are elements of the unit commanded by General Egor Meller-Zakomelsky. Imperial Hussars in red hussar pelisses are riding with their sabers naked, ready for battle. A French cuirassier, who helps a wounded officer, is asking for aid. In the middle, behind the Hussars the Imperial Uhlans, Dragoons and horse artillery are placed. Egor Meller-Zakomelsky wearing a Hussar uniform and a hat with a white plume is shown next to Bennigsen. He gives orders to an officer of the Chuguevsk Uhlan Regiment. In the background of the picture one can see Cossacks and French Cavalry still fighting as well as other French elements approaching. Murat “… was throwing himself on all bivouacs, gathering all horsemen on his way and when he managed to gather a squadron of those, immediately started an attack… During his entire military career Murat, who was nicknamed “the child of victory” (L’enfant gate de la Victoire), had never been wounded before that day, when he shed his blood for the first time. He got hit by a [Don Cossack] pike in his thigh”. At a distance a church of the Teterinki village can be seen, where the French artillery is bombarding the attacking Russian infantry.

Hell’s Battlefield: Heilsberg.


Dynastic Egypt’s Naval Warfare

Battle of the Delta was a sea battle between Egypt and the Sea Peoples, circa 1175 BCE when the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repulsed a major sea invasion. Illustration by Igor Dzis

A contingent of the Sea Peoples Invasion came by water. The Ramesses III reliefs text at Medinet Habu, Western Thebes, states that there was a naval encounter at the mouths of the Nile in the Delta. The king’s defensive measures included a stockade of lances that was set up on the shore to impede the enemy ships. At the minimum, this was done to prevent the Sea Peoples from landing their troops. In the accompanying reliefs, perhaps reflecting artistic sensibility, only four Egyptian ships attack five Sea Peoples war vessels. The king remained on land while his archers provided the necessary attack force. No chariots were employed because the battle was fought from shore to ship and from ship to ship. The naval victory was celebrated at a coast fortress. Ramesses III indicates the types of ships employed in this defense, and that they were also divided into three groups: ordinary transporters, galleys, and coasters. The first term was the most common one, and we can assume that the king requisitioned all types of Nile-bound vessels in order to provide his defense. The second refers to cargo ships whereas the third was employed for naval vessels undertaking lengthy voyages in the Mediterranean along the eastern coastline of Palestine and Syria.

The naval battle, quite rightfully, has been the subject of much study. The ships of the enemy reflect an Aegean tradition, one that was based on relatively long sea voyages across a large extent of water. In other words, they were not mere coasters or trading vessels. The hulls of the enemy fleet were angular and the prows and sternposts vertical. In addition, it seems that the Egyptian fleet blockaded the river outlets in order to prevent the enemy from escaping. This novel interpretation implies that Ramesses purposely waited until the enemy was close to disembarking and then, after having trapped them between shore and sea, attacked. In the scenes of battle, the enemy ships are stationary and within range of the land-based archers. Their vessels appear slender and lower in the water than the Egyptian ones, but a problem remains concerning the artistic impression. The Egyptian ships, on the other hand, reveal quite astounding details. Their high angular sternpost has no native parallel. The aftercastles were built with two stories, thereby providing a higher base for the naval archers and giving the helmsman a better position. But the high bulwark that protects the rowers is not known in the Nile Valley even though it was commonplace among the Aegean Bronze Age galleys. The low prow may imply the practice of ramming and therefore reflect a technological defense against the maritime activities of the Sea Peoples. This interpretation, however, seems questionable. Under Ramesses II and III the Egyptians began to employ a type of merchant ship hitherto unknown within the Nile Valley. These ships, called menesh, were probably built in the royal dockyards. But they were not developed from local sailing vessels known to the Egyptian for many centuries earlier. Lucien Basch has proposed that these menesh were derived from the north, and he pinpoints Syria, although Phoenicia is meant, as the origin. Known from the early years of Ramesses II, these ships were also present in the naval battle of Ramesses III against the Sea Peoples but operated as well in the Red Sea for voyages to the fabulous land of Punt, inland from the Somali coast or, as has been recently argued, along the southern coastline of Arabia. By and large, it seems reasonable that in Dynasty XIX, if not somewhat earlier, the flotilla of Egypt was reorganized according to the naval traditions of the Phoenicians. Their ports had close connections with various peoples traversing the eastern Mediterranean, and possibly their shipwrights had developed the high prows and sterns of other foreign sea cruisers. Moreover, these high prows were also common in scenes of the Syrian ships that unloaded their produce at Thebes in Dynasty XVIII. It appears reasonable to conclude that the Egyptian state improved its own merchant and combat navy during the second half of Dynasty XVIII and the first part of the succeeding dynasty in order to transport soldiers and to deliver “tribute” from Asia. Later, however, they would be used in sea combat.

The reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus. At any rate, the juxtaposition of both fleets is so close that we must conclude that only the final hour of the battle is pictorially recorded. The melee appears similar to a land battle, with the tactics of the Egyptian navy dependent upon the use of archers, thereby reflecting the New Kingdom tradition of the composite bow. In other words, just as with chariots, bows and arrows provided the main element of fighting.

Although the navy (such as it was) was certainly not as extensive as the navies of contemporary nations/states. For much of the Dynastic Period, shipping in the Mediterranean was mostly commercial, not military, but this seemed to change towards the latter part of the New Kingdom, when the Delta coastline was under threat from several seaborne foreign armies. For example, there was a raid by Sherden pirates in the second year of Ramesses II’s reign; these pirates were not only defeated, but were also incorporated into the Egyptian military as mercenaries. However, Ramesses II’s reaction to this seemed to be the building of multiple fortresses along the coastline, rather than increasing the number of military ships.

Most of the time, the ancient Egyptian fleet seems to have been used more for the transport of troops to battlefields as quickly as possible for the active engagement in naval battles. For example, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, Kamose (making a point to emphasise the amount of timber to be used in the construction of the flotilla) arranged for his fleet to lay siege to the Hyksos capital of Avaris, the soldiers and war supplies being transported to the site more quickly than they could be by marching overland. This would change to some extent later in the New Kingdom, but not hugely.

Much of the evidence for actual naval battles and warships seem to come from the reign of Ramesses III, when (in the eighth year of his reign) the Sea Peoples attacked at the Delta border. They came first over land (but were defeated in a single battle at the northern edge of the Sinai desert) and then by sea, where they were defeated in what seems to have been a fairly epic naval battle. This naval battle is portrayed at the mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, where the relief depicts handto-hand combat between the Sea Peoples (on five boats) and the Egyptians (on four boats which were, naturally, larger than their Sea Peoples counterparts). Ancient Egyptian artistic sensibilities and aesthetics must be taken into account here and it is safe to say that perhaps the numbers of vessels depicted on the reliefs do not accurately reflect the actual numbers that took part in the battle. It is possible, as with the smiting scenes discussed elsewhere, the artists were instructed to portray the superiority of the Egyptian fleet, or maybe there simply was not enough room on the relief to fit in the correct numbers of vessels.

The Egyptian vessels have rows of up to twenty-two oarsmen along with archers and foot-soldiers (although the exact numbers are difficult to discern with any precision), outnumbering the people on board the Sea Peoples vessels, where it is argued that the figures on-board must have doubled-up as warriors and rowers. The Egyptian vessels are described as having low prows, high, angular sterns, with ‘aftercastles’ of two storeys, and a high bulwark. The Sea Peoples boats were angular, with vertical prows and sterns (very much in the tradition of Aegean ships), designed to do well on long sea voyages. One of the Sea Peoples vessels has seemingly capsized or been brought down by the Egyptian flotilla and the Sea Peoples dead are seen floating in the surrounding water. As with the Sherden pirates discussed above, the Sea Peoples were apparently also assimilated into ancient Egyptian empire after Ramesses III’s victory, although in the long-term this solitary victory was only putting-off the unavoidable as the region of Canaan was lost to the Sea Peoples by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

It would seem that most of the time, particularly during the latter part of the Dynastic Period, any Egyptian fleet was mostly used to protect and enforce Egypt’s trade interests. For example in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the Saite pharaohs created a large fleet of war-galleys, in the style of Graeco-Phoenician ships, in order to regain (albeit temporarily) control of trade in the Levantine.

Despite this evidence for some aspect of naval warfare later on in Dynastic Egypt, throughout most of the Dynastic Period Egypt’s military forces were chiefly land-based, resorting to naval battles rarely, with the flotilla mostly being used to transport equipment and soldiers to battles. Certainly, there is a dearth of evidence for Egypt’s flotilla in the New Kingdom, but there is a wealth of evidence for the land-based forces; this either suggests that the sea-based military was not as important or developed as the land-based army, or that there is simply an annoying lack of primary resources providing relevant information. The former is the most likely explanation, with the land-based military indeed being far more advanced and essential to Dynastic warfare than the ancient Egyptian navy (such as it was).