Dubbed by the Romans “the Killer Queen,” Boudicca became the ultimate symbol of the fighting Amazon, despite having only the briefest of military careers to her name. She leaps into history for one short campaign, blazing like a comet across the sky with her enduring cry of “Death before slavery!” before falling into oblivion. But in the space of a few months, she succeeded in giving the Romans one of the greatest shocks their vast empire ever faced, driven to make war by a series of insults and cruelties so savage that all the tribes of East Anglia rose in rebellion and flocked to her side.
Boudicca was queen of the Iceni, one of the most powerful tribes in Europe, based in the modern English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Women fighters were a continuous element of Celtic culture, and the Celts had many war goddesses, two of which—Boudiga and Andraste—Boudicca invoked for victory.
Boudicca’s tragedy was to face the invading Romans as a female ruler in a society whose women enjoyed exceptionally high status and whose queens often ruled in their own right. Celtic queens were seen as embodying the spirit and sovereignty of the land, and as women, their royalty was only a step away from the divinity of the Great Goddess, who was worshipped everywhere.
Boudicca’s link with the Great Goddess is evident in her name, which derives from bouda, or victory, investing her with all the force of the goddess in her warlike incarnation as Boudiga, “the Lady of Victory”. The Romans by contrast denied their women almost all legal or civil rights. Faced with Celtic queens, they insisted on imposing their own rules. When Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, died in 61 CE, leaving her with two young daughters, Roman law did not permit royal inheritance to be passed down in the female line. In addition, the Celtic royal households were stocked with cattle, grain, jewelry, and gold; the chance was too good to miss. Looting and pillaging, the Romans attacked the palace and hauled Boudicca out to be stripped and flogged. Next she was forced to watch while her two young daughters were raped by the soldiery.
This was more than simple physical abuse. As females, Boudicca’s daughters shared the divinity that attached to women of royal birth. Rape destroyed their virginity and thereby robbed them of their special powers, making it impossible that they could ever claim priestess status or inherit their mother’s semidivine role.
To the Celts, the insult was intolerable. All the tribes exploded in revolt. “The whole island [of Britain] now rose up under the leadership of Boudicca, a queen, for Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders,” recorded the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, as a senior officer, encountered Boudicca on the battlefield.
Boudicca’s perceived divinity may explain the passion and courage of her followers. Her appearance in battle seems to have struck fear in friend and foe alike, as the Roman historian Dio Cassius described her, writing a century later:
[She was] tall, terrifying to look at, with a fierce gaze and a harsh, powerful voice. A flood of bright red hair fell down to her knees; she wore a golden necklet made up of ornate pieces, a multi-coloured robe and over it a thick cloak held together by a brooch. She grasped a long spear to strike dread in all those who set eyes on her.
Dio Cassius also recorded with true Roman superiority that she was “possessed of greater intelligence than is usually found in the female sex.”
Boudicca rapidly moved her army south, where she sacked the city of Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and routed the Roman relief force. Londinium (London) and Verulanium (St. Albans) were next. Racing south from crushing another outbreak, the Roman governor in Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, reached London before the rebels but then decided that the city was indefensible. Ignoring what Tacitus calls “the lamentations and appeals” of the Roman merchants, he withdrew his forces and left the settlers to their fate.
The sacking of London was particularly savage, with most of the Celts’ fury falling on the Roman women. The male inhabitants were given no quarter as the Celts swept through the city, looting and killing the settlers indiscriminately, and Tacitus estimates that seventy thousand died. But for the women, the victors reserved a special fate. They were rounded up, taken out of the city to a wooded grove sacred to the Celtic war goddess Andraste, and sacrificed to her there in an elaborate ritual of startling cruelty. Boudicca and her warriors impaled them on outsize skewers, suspended them from trees, then cut off their breasts and stuffed them into their mouths or stitched them to their lips in a ghastly parody of mothers giving suck.
To the patriarchal Romans, the worst of this disaster was that it was led by a woman, “which caused them the greatest shame.” With a force of about ten thousand, Suetonius brought Boudicca’s considerably more numerous army to battle somewhere in the English Midlands, cheering his soldiers by telling them that they had little to fear from Boudicca, as her army consisted of more women than men.
Tacitus describes Boudicca on the opposing side, driving around all the tribes in her chariot, with her daughters in front, to deliver a fiery speech:
We British are used to women commanders in war…but I am not fighting for my kingdom or my wealth. I am fighting for my lost freedom, my battered body and my violated daughters…. Consider what you are fighting for, and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, as a woman, plan to do. Let the men live in shame and slavery if they will!
In a symbolic gesture, she released a live hare, an animal sacred to the Great Goddess, between the two armies and dedicated it to Andraste, for victory.
On a more practical level, her army labored under the signal disadvantage of having no battle plan. Though a charismatic commander, Boudicca displayed scant generalship, meeting Suetonius and his force on open ground where Celtic fervor proved no match for Roman organization and discipline. Suetonius, a veteran of mountain warfare, fought with a forest at his back, forcing the Britons to charge headlong up a slope onto Roman javelins. The Britons’ women, confident of victory, watched from a laager of wagons on the edge of the battlefield.
When the Britons had exhausted themselves, the Romans counterattacked in wedge formation, driving them back onto their wagons, where they were routed. In the bloody mêlée of defeated warriors, women, children, pack animals, and baggage, the Romans slaughtered everything that moved. Tacitus estimated the Roman dead at four hundred, compared with eighty thousand Britons. In Tacitus’ account, Boudicca took poison, although others assert that she was taken prisoner after the battle and died in captivity. What became of her daughters is unknown.
Reference: Anne Ross, Druids, 1999; and Graham Webster, Boudicca: The British Revolt Against Rome, 1978.
In 1229 Finland Christianity, Traditional Religions Pope Gregory IX authorizes Bishop Thomas, the first Christian bishop of Finland, to assume control over all non-Christian places of worship throughout Finland. Shortly thereafter, the Tavastians, a subgroup of the Finnish people, rebel against Christianity, which prompts the pope to call for a crusade specifically against them.
The victory of the Christian faith and the ecclesiastical order marked the end of prehistory in Finland and the beginning of the Middle Ages.
In the 1150s, Erik, king of Sweden, and Henrik, bishop of Uppsala, tried to introduce ecclesiastical and political order in Finland (the so-called “first crusade”). Sweden was not able to subjugate Finland, but missionary work and establishment of the first parishes were initiated in Lower Satakunta and the northern part of Varsinais-Suomi. The missions under the leadership of bishops, and perhaps also the crusades waged by the Swedish aristocracy, continued in Finland all through the latter half of the 12th century. Ecclesiastical order was also established in spite of the harassment of Novgorod and paganism.
Because of the conquests by the Germans and the Danes in the Baltic countries, Sweden also launched her operations in the coastal countries of the Gulf of Finland at the beginning of the 13th century. They had been initiated mainly in the dioceses of Gotland and Linkoping. From about 1220-1245, the bishop of Finland was the energetic Thomas; and as a result of his efforts, the diocese of Finland came to comprise the provinces of Varsinais, Suomi and Hame. Thomas sought support particularly from the German rulers in the Baltic countries, and probably also received armed assistance for his operations from the order of the Brethren of the Sword against paganism in Hame and against Novgorod during the 1230s. The diocese of Finland does not seem to have been under the authority of the bishop of Uppsala in his time, although the connection was established soon after Thomas at the end of the 1240s.
The participation of Catholic bishops in military campaigns was the norm rather than the exception in the 13th century. Their participation in these instances does not offer any proof whatsoever of the direct interest of the curia or the pope or that they were directing events.
The young missionary church in Finland seems to have played a more active role in the 1220s than earlier. The first phase of missionary work was over, and now an independent bishopric under the guidance of the archbishop of Uppsala was erected. In 1221, Pope Honorius III gave the Finnish bishop extensive powers of attorney in the territory north of the Finnish gulf (including a trade boycott against the pagan people), in order to make the missionary work among the non-Christians more effective. The papal letters mention an unspecific bishop of Finland. The bishop mentioned was perhaps Bishop Thomas (c. 1230-1245), who appears in sources for the first time in 1232. The boycott of trade was a consequence of Novgorodian attacks to Tavastia; as a result, the Tavastians made raids and caused devastation in Karelia. From the year 1229, seven of Pope Gregory IX’s letters defending the Finnish church have been preserved. One of the letters allows the transfer of the centre of the bishopric from Nousiainen to Koroinen in Turku. The transfer of the episcopal see to a more suitable place meant advantages to the bishopric concerning trade and communication.
Bishop Thomas seems to have been especially active in fighting the non-Christian Finns. When Finland proper in the southwest and the Åland islands had been Christianized for a long time, missionary endeavours were directed towards Tavastia. It seems that Bishop Thomas possibly established contact with the German Sword Brethren in Livonia and managed to convince at least some of the Brethren to help defend Christianity in Tavastia. Whether the Sword Brethren were ever active in Finland is unclear, however. The often brutal methods used to convert the inhabitants of Tavastia, which could indicate the presence of the Sword Brethren, inspired in 1237 a huge riot among the Tavastians against the Swedes and the Swedish ecclesiastical hierarchy. In 1240, Bishop Thomas, other Swedish bishops, and Birger Magnusson participated in the battle of Neva, where Prince Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod soundly defeated his enemies.
The Swedish military expedition against Tavastia is normally thought of as the second Finnish crusade. The events of this military campaign are referred to in the Erik Chronicle (written c. 1331-1332). According to the chronicle, the second crusade was conducted by Earl Birger (Birger Jarl). Although it does not mention any year, it is clear from the context that it must have taken place in 1249, even though Finnish historian Jarl Gallén has argued convincingly for an earlier dating of the crusade to 1238-1239. It is, however, general consensus that the second crusade must have taken place in 1249. This takes into account the fact that Birger Jarl might have ravaged Finland twice – in 1238-1239 and again in 1249-1250 – to install a new bishop on the vacant episcopal see of Turku. The chronicle describes how the Swedish troops led by Birger Jarl successfully traced the Tavastians and defeated them. The Earl then founded and erected the castle of Hämeenlinna in order to strengthen Swedish control over the territory. The place of the first stronghold was perhaps the Haga (Fin. Hakoinen) castle in Janakkala, because an early construction on the later location of the Hämeenlinna castle seems problematic and cannot be documented.
The earlier military undertakings by the Danes with the conquest of Estonia in 1219 might have served as one of the catalysts for the Swedish endeavours to strengthen their military power towards Novgorod. The Novgorodian victory by Neva in 1240, however, did not definitively stop the Swedish expansion policy. The Swedes thus took part in a German attack on Novgorod in 1256 in the area east of the River Neva; Prince Alexander Nevsky attacked Tavastia the following winter.
The Swedish military activities against Tavastia in the 1230s and 1240s strengthened not only the position of the Swedish crown in the territory, but also the position and the prestige of Bishop Thomas. The landscape was Christianized by the Swedes and, according to the Erik Chronicle, the `Russian prince’ lost control of Tavastia. Bishop Thomas was, however, forced to resign in 1245. The actual circumstances around his withdrawal are complicated. Some claim that the military defeat against Alexander Nevsky in 1240 was the reason for his demission; on the other hand, a papal letter reveals that he was found guilty of use of torture and killing, as well as of falsifying papal letters. Bishop Thomas spent the last years of his life in the Dominican convent in Visby in Gotland. The Dominicans were active in helping to convert the pagans, and perhaps an earlier collaboration with members of the newly founded order explains the Bishop’s decision. Bishop Thomas’s personality has always been hotly debated. The bishop’s seat in Turku remained vacant after his dismissal and was filled only in 1248-1249, when Bero, the chancellor of the Swedish king, was appointed.
In England his name described a male waterfowl that might be seen bobbing placidly on the village pond — but in Spanish the drake became a dragon. El Draque was a name with which to frighten naughty children, a fire-breathing monster whose steely, glittering scales ‘remained impregnable’, wrote the sixteenth-century dramatist Lope de Vega, ‘to all the spears and all the darts of Spain’.
By the 1580s, Francis Drake’s reputation provoked panic in the seaports of Spain and in its New World colonies. In a series of daring raids, the rotund Devon-born pirate had pillaged Spanish harbours, looted Catholic churches and hijacked King Philip’s silver bullion as it travelled from the mines of the Andes to the Spanish treasury in Seville. In his most famous exploit, during 1577-80, Drake had sailed round the world claiming California for Queen Elizabeth and arriving home laden with treasure. No wonder she knighted him — and that his ship the Golden Hind, moored at Deptford near London, became the tourist attraction of the day.
Now, on 20 July 1588, Sir Francis was taking his ease at Plymouth with the other commanders of the English navy, preparing to confront the great war fleet — armada in Spanish — that Philip II had marshalled to punish the English for their piracy and Protestantism. According to the chronicler John Stow, writing a dozen years after the event, the English officers were dancing and revelling on the shore as the Spanish Armada hove into sight.
It was not until 1736, 148 years later, that the famous tale was published of how Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before he went to join his ship. But the story could well be true. The tide conditions were such on that day in 1588 that it was not possible to sail out of Plymouth Sound until the evening, and the Spanish ships were scarcely moving fast. Indeed, their speed has been calculated at a stately walking pace —just two miles an hour — as they moved eastwards in a vast crescent, heading for the Straits of Dover, then for the Low Countries, where they were planning to link up with the Duke of Parma and his army of invasion.
According to folklore, the Spanish galleons were massive and lumbering castles of the sea that towered over the vessels of the English fleet. In fact, the records show the chief fighting ships on both sides to have been of roughly similar size — about a thousand tons. The difference lay in the ships’ designs, for while the English galleons were sleek and nippy, custom-made for piracy and for manoeuvring in coastal waters, the Spanish ships were full-bellied, built for steadiness as they transported their cargo on the long transatlantic run.
More significantly, the English ships carried twice the cannon power of their enemies’, thanks, in no small part, to the zeal of Henry VIII. Elizabeth’s polymath father had taken an interest in artillery, encouraging a new gun-building technology developed from bell-founding techniques: in 1588 some of the older English cannon that blasted out at the Spanish galleons had been recast from the copper and tin alloy melted down from the bells of the dissolved monasteries.
Popular history has assigned Francis Drake the credit for defeating the Spanish Armada. In fact, Drake almost scuppered the enterprise on the very first night: he broke formation to go off and seize a disabled Spanish vessel for himself. The overall commander of the fleet was Lord Howard of Effingham, and it was his steady strategy to keep pushing the Spanish up the Channel, harrying them as they went. ‘Their force is wonderful great and strong,’ wrote Howard to Elizabeth on the evening of 29 July, and yet we pluck their feathers by little and little.’
Ashore in England, meanwhile, the beacons had been lit. A chain of hilltop bonfires had spread the news of the Armada’s sighting, and the militia rallied for the defence of the shires. Lit today to celebrate coronations and royal jubilees, this network of ‘fires over England’ dated back to medieval times. Seventeen thousand men rapidly mustered in the south-east, and early in August Queen Elizabeth travelled to inspect them at Tilbury as they drilled in preparation for confronting Parma’s invasion force. According to one account, the fifty-four-year-old Queen strapped on a breastplate herself to deliver the most famous of the well-worded speeches that have gilded her reputation:
I am come amongst you, as you see… in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all… I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and the stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think it foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm… We shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, my kingdom and my people.
By the time Elizabeth delivered this speech, on 9 August 1588, the famous victory had already been won. Several nights previously, Howard had dispatched fire ships into the Spanish fleet as it lay at anchor off the Flanders coast, and in the resulting confusion the Spanish had headed north, abandoning their rendezvous with Parma. Fleeing in front of their English pursuers, they took the long way home, heading round the top of Scotland and Ireland. Almost half the Armada, including many of the best warships, managed to make it back to Spain. But over eleven thousand Spaniards perished, and the great crusade to which the Pope and several Catholic nations had contributed ended in humiliation.
Drake himself died eight years later on a raiding expedition in the Caribbean that went disastrously wrong. He was buried at sea, and great was the celebration when the news of his death reached Spain. In England, however, he became an instant hero, inspiring implausible tales of wizardry. According to one, he increased the size of his fleet by cutting a piece of wood into chips, each of which became — hey-presto! — a man-o’-war.
His legend has been revived particularly at times of national danger. In the early 1800s, when Napoleon’s troops were poised to cross the Channel, an ancient drum was discovered which was said to have travelled everywhere with Drake, and the Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt imagined the old sea dog dying in the tropics on his final voyage, promising to heed the summons whenever England had need of him:
Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder’s runnin low-,
If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
An, drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.
Gustav II Adolf was born in Stockholm on 9 December 1594. He was the oldest son of King Karl IX and Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp, though Karl was not yet king when Gustav was born. The king was Sigismund (crowned in 1593), King Karl’s nephew. Being the son of a royal duke and duchess, Gustav II Adolf had an opulent and sheltered upbringing. There were no indications that he would be a future king, as the Swedish crown was in a different branch of the family when he was born—his father, Karl IX, was not crowned king until 1604. Gustav Adolf had private tutors for every aspect of his education, and he was no idle child, being gifted with a considerable intellect combined with a great eagerness to learn.
It is reported that by the time Gustav was twelve he spoke perfect German—not surprising since his mother was a German princess—and was fluent in Latin, Italian, and Dutch. He also showed early signs of becoming an inspiring orator.
But it was in the study of diplomacy and military affairs that he really excelled. Young Gustav apparently read everything he could lay his hands on dealing with military art and science, and Maurice of Nassau became his hero. He was a strong athlete and became adept at horse riding and the use of various weapons. He displayed an early contempt for physical danger, a trait we find repeated in his later life and which eventually led to his death.
There was a truce in the Dutch War of Independence in 1609 and, according to Colonel Dupuy, many veterans from that war came to Sweden seeking employment in the Baltic wars. Gustav paid great attention to their description of the new method of warfare introduced by Maurice. These conversations and his own readings profoundly affected his life.
Sigismund was deposed by the Riksdag in 1599 and his uncle Karl became de facto king. Sigismund, the rightful heir, refused to accept the parliamentary decision engineered by his uncle, declared war in early 1600, and hostilities soon commenced in Livonia. This war, interrupted occasionally by truces, was to last until 1629.
Karl IX’s formal period as king was relatively short (1604-1611), but he began to have Gustav Adolf participate in the affairs of state at an early date. Gustav often attended meetings of the Council of State and met many foreign diplomats. In 1609, at the age of fifteen, Gustav took over the administration of the duchy of Vestmanland. The following year, he pleaded with his father to be allowed to participate in an expedition to Russia. His father refused.
The Polish-Swedish conflict was suspended after 1605 due to the implosion of the Russian government beginning with the death of Tsar Boris Godunov and ending with the reign of Michael Romanov in 1613—referred to as the Times of Trouble. A succession of pretenders claimed to be Dimitrii, the last Riúrik prince, who had actually died in 1591. Both Poland and Sweden took advantage of the Russian turmoil to grab Russian territory. Sigismund intervened in the Russian power struggle in 1609 by supporting a group of rebellious nobles who had besieged Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii in Moscow. Sigismund’s intent was to make his son Wladyslaw the new tsar.
The besieged tzar requested help from Sweden. In return for the help he promised to cede control of the disputed region on the Gulf of Finland to Sweden. Karl IX agreed and dispatched a corps under Field Marshal Jacob de la Gardie.
De la Gardie’s troops, in cooperation with troops loyal to Tsar Shuiskii, relieved the Russian capital and forced the rebels to retreat. After the success at Moscow, de la Gardie marched with his Russian allies to the rescue of the fortress of Smolensk, which was besieged by a Polish army. However, halfway between Moscow and Smolensk, the Russo-Swedish army was badly defeated at the battle of Klushino on 4 July 1610 by a much smaller Polish force under one of Poland’s greatest commanders, Field Marshal (hetman) Stanis-law Zolkiewski.
Zolkiewski thereupon marched on Moscow, captured the city and deposed Tsar Vasilii (Basil). Having sustained a serious defeat at Klushino and with Russia now under virtual Polish control, King Karl IX decided that the wisest course of action was to withdraw northward. He also decided that with the turmoil going on in Russia, this was the right time to seize some of the properties promised by Vasilii for Swedish help. De la Gardie captured the region around Kexholm as well as the city of Novgorod.
There may also have been a dynastic motive by Karl IX, similar to that of his nephew Sigismund. The Swedish historian Nils Ahnlund (1889–1957) writes that in the early summer of 1611, the Russian national militia assembled in Moscow, despairing of the chances of its native rulers, had chosen Gustav Adolf of Sweden as their tsar and grand duke. When Jacob de la Gardie concluded a treaty with the authorities in the captured city of Novgorod, Karl IX is referred to as the protector of the city and it was indicated that one of his sons would become tsar. It appears that Karl IX, who was trying to cope with the progress of the Poles, was surprised by the Russian offers.
Anhlund maintains there is evidence to show that in the summer of 1612 Gustav Adolf was still considering the Russian offers, possibly for tactical reasons in dealing with his Polish enemy. In the end he decided that it was not a good idea because of Sweden’s and Russia’s conflicting interests.
However, Karl IX had a younger son Karl Filip who might rise to the challenge. Gustav Adolf was not too enamored of this idea either. He realized that the conflicting future interests of Russia and Sweden had the potential to create animosity between himself and his younger brother. He undoubtedly had the Polish situation in mind where he was fighting his cousin.
Nevertheless, the project was apparently favored by Queen Kristina. Considerable time passed, however, before Karl Filip headed to Russia. An event which took place before he reached the Russian frontier, however, destroyed any hope of establishing a junior Vasa line in Moscow. This event was the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613—and he was to rule Russia until 1645. Sweden continued her struggle against Russia until the Peace of Stolbova in 1617.
THE KALMAR WAR (1611–1613)
Kristian IV of Denmark decided to take advantage of Sweden’s deep involvement in Russia and Livonia to settle old scores. It was a crafty move on the part of Kristian since all of Karl IX’s best troops were in the Baltic region and these could not be brought back to Sweden if the powerful Danish fleet could blockade the ports in the eastern Baltic from where it was logical they would embark. Kristian also appears to have known that Karl IX had come down with apoplexy. What we do know is that Gustav Adolf considered the attack treacherous and that he and Kristian IV remained bitter rivals until Gustav died in 1632.
Let us take a quick look at the reasons for this war, which began just forty-one years after the bloody Northern Seven Years War had been settled by the Treaty of Stettin. This treaty was a defeat for Sweden’s King Erik in virtually every area. The Treaty of Stettin only led to bitterness for the losing side and increased ambition on the part of the winning side.
As a result, the leading power in the Baltic at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. Even if the distant territories of Iceland and Greenland are left out, the kingdom covered an immense area from northern Germany to the extremity of the European continent. The total length of the coastline was huge, providing easy access to both the Atlantic and the Baltic. To the south, the duchies in Jutland added a considerable German-speaking population. The nearby secularized bishop -rics of northern Germany were attainable objectives for the ambitious Oldenburg dynasty. The entrance to the Baltic was completely in Danish hands, and this not only brought great wealth into the royal coffers but gave the Danes great leverage with the western maritime powers. The islands of Gotland and Ösel, off the southeast coast of Sweden, were controlled by Denmark and posed a threat to Sweden, since they were stepping stones to the eastern Baltic, and locations facilitating naval control of the Baltic.
Norway’s contribution to the union was first and foremost the Norwegian genius for seamanship—their seamen provided the backbone for the navy as well as the merchant marine. The deep-sea fishery and the large export of timber benefited from high demands in an extensive market. Norway’s northern coast made it possible to control trade coming from the White Sea. Meantime, there was only one power that Denmark-Norway needed to reckon with and that was Sweden, including Finland.
Sweden, on the other hand felt surrounded. The area to the west and north was controlled by Norway as well as two provinces east of the Scandinavian watershed. Conflict from there could reach the Baltic and separate the northern part of Sweden from the southern. Norway’s geography also posed problems for Sweden’s hoped-for outlet to the Arctic Ocean. To the east Sweden faced two great powers: Orthodox Russia and Catholic Poland. To the south she had to contend with Denmark, which occupied a large portion of the Swedish mainland, and the German Hansa League across the southern Baltic.
The mining industry had for centuries been one of Sweden’s most important resources, but its full potential was far from being realized. Agriculture was undependable; in some years surpluses were produced while in others the country had to rely on imports. Sweden and Finland were extensively forested but their exploitation was mainly for domestic use and little was left for export. Swedish shipping was in no way comparable with that of Denmark-Norway. Sweden had no outlet to the west except for a sliver of land around the fortress and harbor of Älvsborg.
King Karl IX’s policy of extending Swedish and Finnish territories to the Arctic Ocean as a way to interrupt Russian trade from the White Sea and provide the Swedes with an outlet to the Atlantic raised alarm bells in Den mark. This was at least one reason for Kristian IV’s surprise attack on Sweden in 1611 that led to the two-year conflict known as the Kalmar War. There were many other animosities between the Scandinavian countries that the leaders could use to stir up the masses. The rivalries between the two kingdoms were the single greatest force determining their relations in the seventeenth century.
The surprise Danish invasion from Skåne and Norway found Karl IX in sickbed. He had to gather whatever forces he could locally since most of the Swedish army was fighting in Russia and Livonia. While the king prepared to move to relieve the besieged Kalmar Castle he put his son Gustav Adolf—not yet 17 years old—in command of the forces in East Gotland.
Kristian IV had made good preparations before the attack, even concluding an alliance with Poland and Russia. The heavily fortified city of Kalmar was key to the defense of southeastern Sweden, and in August Kristian sailed into Kalmar. The Danes stormed and captured the town but were not able to take Kalmar Castle.
Gustav Adolf was not content to sit in East Gotland, and on his own initiative he assembled a small militia force and crossed to the island of Öland where the Danes had left only a small force. As a consequence, the Danish garrison, unprepared when the Swedes under Gustav Adolf appeared, withdrew to Borgholm Castle but was soon compelled to surrender.
The Swedish commander of Kalmar Castle surrendered despite the approach of a relieving force under Karl IX. Kristian I V, seeing that the Swedes had been able to assemble a militia army, realized that his earlier hopes of an unopposed march through southeastern Sweden had been frustrated. With winter approaching, Kristian left a garrison to hold Kalmar and withdrew the rest of his army to prepare for the 1612 campaign.
Gustav Adolf had returned from Öland and planned additional offensive action. He led his small force into the Danish province of Skåne—apparently only intending a quick raid. However, the Danish commander of the border fortress of Christianopol became nervous and sent an urgent message to Kristian requesting reinforcement by about 500 cavalry. The message never reached its destination because it was intercepted by the Swedes. Gustav Adolf saw an opportunity and grabbed it. He dressed a force of his militia to look like Danish cavalry and approached the fort after dark. The Danes, believing it was the force they had requested, opened the gates and after a short fight the fortress was captured, ending the war’s first season with a success for the Swedes.
King Karl IX died a few weeks after the 1611 campaign came to a close. Swedish law required that a king had to be 24 years old before taking full control of the government. Gustav Adolf was not yet 17 so that a Regency Council, composed of his mother, Gustav’s first cousin Duke John of East Gotland, and six nobles from the Council of Ministers, was therefore appointed. However, within two months the Riksdag amended the succession law, allowing Gustav to become king at the age of 17. Eight days after his birthday he became king of Sweden.
Gustav’s first act in January 1612 was to appoint Axel Oxenstierna, age 28, as chancellor. It was a wise choice and Oxenstierna remained at Gustav’s side until the king’s death in battle. Thereafter, Axel took over the direction of affairs in Germany while also serving as guardian for Gustav’s underage daughter Kristina. Oxenstierna’s calm demeanor was a perfect match for a king who could be both impetuous and high strung.
Along with the crown, Gustav Adolf inherited three ongoing wars: against Denmark; against Poland; and against Russia. The opponents all enjoyed a considerable superiority over Sweden in power and it was obvious that he had to prioritize his efforts. He decided correctly that the war against Denmark was the most dangerous to Swedish interests and he gave that conflict the highest priority. He was eager to bring that conflict to an acceptable solution as quickly as possible.
THE 1612 CAMPAIGN AGAINST DENMARK AND NORWAY
Denmark began the 1612 campaign with the distinct advantages of having captured the cities of Kalmar and Älvsborg, the latter being Sweden’s only outlet to the west. King Kristian IV may also have thought that he had another advantage: a young and inexperienced king on the Swedish throne. These real or perceived advantages may explain why he declined an offer of mediation by King James I of England.
Gustav, rather than trying to recover the two lost cities in protracted siege operations, decided to take the war into Danish territory. He made his bold decision to invade Skåne against the advice of most of his advisers. His immediate objective was the town of Helsingborg, and here he displayed two weaknesses that were to repeat themselves several times in his campaigns in Poland and Germany: failure to acquire adequate intelligence about enemy movements and to take adequate security measures. Before reaching their objective, the Swedes were surprised by a sudden Danish attack. The result was an obvious Swedish defeat forcing Gustav to make a quick withdrawal. After this sharp setback, Gustav decided to try his luck against Norway.
No significant gains were made there either, but in a pattern that was to repeat itself often, the king’s recklessness in leading from the front almost cost him his life. In a cavalry skirmish on a frozen lake, his horse fell through the ice. Since he was wearing body armor, he was rescued only with great difficulty. Gallantly leading from the front is a great troop motivator and something that Gustav Adolf repeatedly practiced. In so doing, however, he put his whole command in danger of becoming leaderless and thus losing battles—as happened during both the Polish and German campaigns. A leader’s place in battle is where he can best control the action directed at winning and saving lives. Only when all resources have been committed in a set course of action and where the outcome hangs in the balance should a leader become personally involved so as to tip the scale in his favor.
While Gustav was campaigning in Norway, King Kristian IV prepared a bold stroke against Stockholm, the Swedish capital. To deceive Gustav as to his intention he made it appear that he was preparing for action against the fortress of Jönköping near the Norwegian frontier. This was a very believable feint as it would have placed the Danish army on Gustav’s line of communication to Sweden. Kristian was hoping that by moving against Gustav’s rear he could prevent him from interfering with the main operation against Stockholm.
It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of Kristian but its execution was not that spectacular. Gustav, as Kristian had hoped, moved to protect Jön köping while the main Danish force of 8,000 men, loaded on 30 ships, sailed against Stockholm without interference from the badly outnumbered Swedish navy. Kristian disembarked his troops successfully at a location only 19 kilometers from the capital.
When the news of the Danish threat to the capital reached him, Gustav quickly assembled a small force of 1,200 mercenaries and undertook a grueling forced march of circa 400 kilometers to the capital, accomplishing this task in less than a week. When he arrived in Stockholm, Kristian had advanced only 10 kilometers from his landing site and no significant encounters occurred. After Gustav’s arrival, Kristian simply returned to Denmark.
This inconclusive two-year war was coming to an end without either side scoring any spectacular gains. The Swedes had overrun the two Norwegian provinces of Jämtland and Härjedalen but had not crossed the watershed, and most importantly, Gustav’s hopes of driving the Danes out of southern Sweden had not come to fruition; in fact the capture of the two cities of Kalmar and Älvsborg had increased Danish holdings and robbed Sweden of her only outlet to the west. Both sides were therefore ready to call it quits and they accepted an offer by England and Holland, eager to maintain a balance of power in the north, to mediate a peace treaty. This mediation led to the signing of the Treaty of Knärad on 19 January 1613.
The terms of this treaty were more advantageous to Denmark than Sweden. Gustav Adolf had to renounce his father’s policy of seeking an outlet to the sea in northern Norway and even to return the two conquered provinces to Norway. All of Sweden’s attention was devoted to reclaiming the lands around the mouth of the Göta River which provided the only outlet to the west. The treaty returned Kalmar and Älvsborg to Sweden but at a very heavy cost—1,000,000 riks-dollars to be paid in three installments, and the first installment had to take place before a Danish withdrawal. This was a steep price to pay for a relatively poor nation also involved in two other wars, but assurance of financial assistance from Holland cemented the deal. In fact, Holland was so eager to preserve a balance of power in the north that she concluded an alliance with Sweden in 1614. This also demonstrates that both Holland and England considered Denmark-Norway the preeminent power.
In 1371 the birth of Niccolo Machiavelli was 102 years in the future. In that year, a Prince mounted the throne of the Tepanec city of Azcapotzalco on the shores of the sapphire-blue Lake Texcoco in Central Mexico. Tezozomoc (Angry Stone Face) would rule for 56 years and create in that lifetime an empire not seen in Mexico for 300 years, since the glory of great Tollan. He would demonstrate every skill and guile of war and statecraft, for the mere writing of which Machiavelli would later be branded infamous—and taken seriously. If the famous Florentine had already known, his model for the ultimate warrior-statesman, whom he had unwitting described in The Prince, had already grown old and died. He was remembered as:
‘. . . a shrewd military strategist who also made effective use of flattery, bribery, assassination and treachery in a career worthy of a Machiavelli. Here, no less than in Renaissance Italy, the pragmatic aims of politics were never confused with idealism, much less with morality. But also like the tyrants of the Italian states, this ruler’s accomplishments and fortunes were interwoven with the changing life a civilization.’
For the empire Tezozomoc built would be inherited not by his own seed but by his favoured vassals, the Mexica, who learned the lessons of empire at the knee of this great Tepanec lord. It would be the Mexica, in their magnificent capital of Tenochtitlan in the centre of Lake Texcoco, close by Tezozomoc’s capital of Azcapotzalco, who would inspire the final flourish of native Mexican civilisation before the coming of Cortés.
In a process that predated the Toltecs, the barbaric Náhuatl-speaking Chichimec tribes kept drifting into the civilised lands of Central Mexico from the north. Like the Germans drawn to the rich lands to the south, the Chichimeca were drawn to the attractions of older, more cultured peoples, whom they conquered and by whom they were in turn civilised. The Tepaneca and Acolhua were two such Chichimec groups. The Tepaneca occupied much of the western shores of the lakes in the Valley of Mexico and the Acolhua the eastern. The Mexica were a later group. After the fall of great Tollan in 1168, the history of Central Mexico was the history of the absorption of the Chichimeca and their coalescence into civilised states. The first great Chichimec leader was Xolotl, who entered the Valley as a conqueror and whose exploits were aided by the bow and arrow, introduced for the first time into the warfare of Central Mexico. He overwhelmed the men of Culhuacán in 1246. Culhuacán was a great prize—the prestigious centre of surviving Toltec culture that the Chichimeca were eager to adopt. Xolotl forced the Chichimec Huetzin upon the Toltec-Culhua as their king and married his son to a Culhua princess. The fusion of Toltec-Culhua and Chichimec blood was the foundation of all the coming great dynasties of Central Mexico, each equally proud of the Toltec lustre and the Chichimec vigour they had inherited.
The first of the Chichimeca to pick up the imperial idea and compel the unity of the region were the Acolhua under the leadership of Huetzin, who ruled from approximately 1253 to 1274, in alliance with the Tepanec lord of Tenanyocan (Tenayuca), Tochintecuhtli (Rabbit Lord). The Acolhua empire dominated the Valley of Mexico and reached north-eastward as far as Tulancinco but collapsed with the deaths of its founders, just as the Mexica, the last of the Chichimec peoples, were entering the Valley of Mexico. By 1300 the Tepaneca, who had arrived in the Valley about the same time as the Acolhua, began their march to empire when the city of Azcapotzalco slowly began to replace Tenanyocan as the chief city of that nation. Shortly thereafter, in 1320, Tezozomoc was born in Azcapotzalco, son of Acolhnahuacatzin, leader of the Tepaneca, and Cuitlaxaochitzin (Leathery Flower) daughter of the great Chichimec founder, Xolotl. By the middle of the century, power in the Valley was shared by three peoples in a reoccurring pattern dating back to great Tollan. The new triumvirate included the Tepaneca of Azcapotzalco, the Acolhua of Coatlichan, and the Toltec-Culhua of ancient Culhuacán, surviving member of the Toltec triple alliance.
This delicate balance of power had already collapsed when Tezozomoc came to the throne of Azcapotzalco in 1370, a situation perfectly suited to a man of his talents. Culhuacán had simply disintegrated, probably pushed along by a Mexica attack in the last decade. There were also other powerful independent states in the region such as Chalco and Xochimilco in the southern region of the Valley, each with their own vassal cities and towns. The system of vassalage was loose enough for a cunning man like Tezozomoc to use it as an endless series of levers and wedges to create shifting alliances that relentlessly increased his power.
‘His very longevity gave him ample opportunity to expand his realm and to display his talents both in war and diplomacy. A firm believer in the principle of divide and rule, he showed a rare skill in isolating his rivals and in crushing them one by one. For this Machiavellian monarch, tomorrow’s victim was his ally against today’s adversary.’
First Conquests and Special Vassals
Tezozomoc’s eye did not allow even the smallest pawn to go unnoticed. The Mexica had been driven from their attempted settlements in the southern parts of the Valley onto the small, barren islands in Lake Texcoco near his capital of Azcapotzalco. Their twin settlements of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco elected new kings the year after Tezozomoc came to the throne and were his nominees. Up to this time, the Mexica had tried to avoid vassalage to any power, but their precarious position now drove them to swear fealty to Azcapotzalco and pay tribute in exchange for protection. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan were determined to do more to advance themselves. For the next two generations, the Mexica used the protection of the Tezozomoc to gather power by serving as loyal vassals who supplied increasingly important military service in his wars. Tezozomoc was glad to use such a particularly warlike and ferocious people.
Tezozomoc’s first victim was the broken-down polity of Culhuacán. Its value lay in its very weakness and in its genteel heritage, priceless in establishing legitimacy from the Toltec golden touch. The later Mexica histories were to describe the takeover as an act of mercy, so badly had the city deteriorated. Tezozomoc’s reward to his Mexica vassals was to put a Mexica prince on Culhuacán’s tarnished throne.
The absorption of Culhuacán had been the first in a series of rapid conquests of other cities in the southern part of the Valley of Mexico. Xochimilco, Cuitláhuac, and Mizquic, all valuable agricultural cities in the chinampa (floating lake gardens) region, followed quickly. Those conquests brought Tezozomoc’s power into contact with the powerful Chalca confederacy of thirteen states directly south of the three newly conquered cities with whom they had had close and friendly relations. Chalco had enormous prestige as a civilising force and lay astride the southern part of the Valley of Mexico in the modern state of Morelos, which put it in close contact with surrounding peoples and all the riches they had to offer. In 1376 Tezozomoc attempted to detach the Chalca dependency of Techichco and ignited a bloody war that would flare and sputter until 1410. Initially, the war was a Tepanec affair, but Tezozomoc eventually turned most of the fighting over to the Mexica, which sparked one of the great enmities of Mesoamerican history. For almost a hundred years thereafter, Chalco was a bitter enemy of the Mexica. By the first decade of the new century, Tezozomoc’s proxy war between the Mexica and Chalca was reaching a crescendo of violence. Then, about 1407, the Chalca suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Mexica due to internal dissension among their leaders. The Mexica victory was so thorough that they installed their own rulers on many Chalca cities. But the Mexica victory so upset the regional balance of power and alarmed the courts of central Mexico that a coalition was formed to free the Chalca. Even armies from outside the Valley poured in to force the Mexica to disgorge their enormous conquest. Even Tezozomoc took a hand. His vassals had become too powerful and, it has been suggested, had the effrontery to act more as partners than as vassals. Faced with such a coalition, the Mexica king, Huitzilíhuitl, dropped his prey in 1410. The Chalca rulers resumed their thrones. Tezozomoc apparently was satisfied with this chastisement of the Mexica. However, he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. The Mexica had proven how powerful they could be and how easily they could slip the leash. On the other hand, they were just too valuable, as the obsidian teeth in his sword, to suppress. Since they were a major means to the empire he coveted above all things, the latter argument seems to have prevailed.
In 1404, the Mexica sought to strengthen their position by the tie of blood with Tezozomoc and requested one of his daughters for Huitzilíhuitl. It was not an impertinent request. Tezozomoc had skilfully married his children and grandchildren among the kingdoms of the Valley to cement alliances and create a strong web of common interest. The Mexica had become valuable vassals, and he was not averse to binding them closer to himself. So when the Mexica emissaries came to him begging a wife for Huitzilíhuitl, they spoke in terms of strengthening Tezozomoc’s power:
‘Great lord, accede to our plea. Have pity upon your servant, the king of Mexico; upon the city which is among the reeds and rushes, where Huitzilíhuitl rules and protects your vassals. He is single, still to be wed. What we ask of you is that you surrender one of your jewels and precious plumes—that is, one of your noblewomen. She will not go to an alien place but will stay within her own land and country, where she will be in command. Therefore, O lord, we beg you not to refuse that which we ask of you.’
Tezozomoc saw another web spinning out to bind his power, and responded:
‘O Aztecs, your words, your humility have overcome me, and I find it difficult to answer. I have daughters, and the Lord of All Created Things has destined them for this end. Behold my beloved daughter called Ayauhcihuatl. You are welcome to take her.’
A son was born in 1407 to the Tepanec princess to the delight of Tezozomoc, who selected the child’s name, Chimalpopoca (Smokes Like A Shield), from the signs under which he had been born. The tie of blood was now working well to the advantage of the Mexica as Ayauhcihuatl quickly became a partisan of her husband’s people. Child in arms, she approached her father and begged him to reduce the heavy tribute of the Mexica. He easily relented and essentially excused them of all but a symbolic tribute of a few ducks, frogs, and fish. From this indulgence, envy and distrust grew among the princes of Azcapotzalco.
In 1395 a dynastic succession in the city of Xaltocan in the northern part of the basin of the Valley provided Tezozomoc with the opportunity to expand in that direction. Tzompantli, the new ruler of Xaltocan, a city of the non-Náhuatl speaking Otomis, allowed his subjects to go on a rampage and plunder nearby towns. Tezozomoc was encouraged by the ruler of Texcoco, Techolatlallatzin, to destroy the Otomi city. In the name of order, Tezozomoc organised an expedition to suppress the Otomis. To his own Tepanec forces he summoned those of his Mexica vassal. Joined by the forces of Texcoco, they crushed the Otomis from east and west, forcing Tzompantli to flee. Hailed as a liberator from Otomi depredations, Tezozomoc annexed not only Xaltocan but most of the cities in the north, going as far as Tollan itself. But the tribute he levied on the conquered Otomis was so harsh that many fled to the protection of Texcoco, the centre of Acolhua power on the eastern shore of the lake. The kaleidoscope of alliances was taking another turn. Techolatlallatzin foolishly allowed his central authority over his own Acolhua cities to devolve upon a number of jealous vassals.
The Wars against Texcoco
By the turn of the century, Tezozomoc had firmly established his rule in the western, northern, and much of the southern regions of the Valley basin. The Mexica had begun campaigning heavily in the west as far as Morelos for him, although they would later claim these were their own conquests. His armies also fought their way through the old Toltec zone of Tollan itself and the Tolluca Valley and southward to Izucar. Now only the eastern shore of the lake stood against him. Patiently, Tezozomoc worked over the next years to weaken the Acolhua. His spies and emissaries quietly encouraged pro-Tepanec factions among Texcoco’s vassals and in Texcoco itself. Like Cromwell, he believed that it is not enough to strike when the iron was hot—it was necessary to strike to make the iron hot. Techolatlallatzin’s fracturing of Acolhua power among his vassals gave the wily Tepanec opportunities in plenty. Eventually Tezozomoc was ready to challenge the power of the Acolhua more openly. His opportunity came when their new king, Ixtlilxochitl (Black-Faced Flower), rashly claimed the title of Lord of the Chichimeca (Chichimecatl or high king of all the Chichimec-descended peoples of the Valley) as his legacy from his ancestor Xolotl. This was the very title Tezozomoc coveted for, as he growled, was he not also Xolotl’s grandson? Tezozomoc then sent Ixtlilxochitl a load of cotton requesting him to weave it into mantles for the Tepaneca. In the diplomatic language of the day, his request was blatant demand that Texcoco swear fealty to Azcapotzalco; the mantles would be tribute. Ixtlilxochitl defiantly gave the cotton to his own vassals and proceeded with his coronation.
Tezozomoc had raised the art of destroying an enemy’s power base to a high order. So much treason was afoot in Ixtlilxochitl’s kingdom that he dared not leave his capital while Tezozomoc’s forces ate away at its borders bit by bit. Eventually Ixtlilxochitl suppressed the disloyal towns and consolidated his power in his loyal ones, but the damage had been done. Tezozomoc had preoccupied Ixtlilxochitl’s attention thoroughly on internal security. So much so that Tezozomoc was able to raise an army from his western and southern vassals and march secretly into Texcocan territory before Ixtlilxochitl could raise and concentrate an army. The Tepanec army attacked the loyal Texcocan vassal city of Itztallopan in the southern part of the kingdom. The attack began in the morning, and after a day-long battle, overwhelmed it. Tezozomoc’s campaign continued as he subdued more of Texcoco’s vassals to the north: Otompan, Acol-man, Tepechpan, and Tollantzinco. Although the war ended without the conquest of Texcoco, Ixtlilxochitl had been clearly defeated. The altars of the gods in Azcapotzalco and Tenochti-tlan ran red with the blood of Acolhua captives. It was not Tezozomoc’s policy to finish off Ixtlilxochitl in one campaign. He had humbled his only rival and would peel off his remaining loyal towns one by one. Texcoco remained far too strong to attack directly. Ten years after the victory at Itztallopan, Tezozomoc struck again at one of Texcoco’s most loyal allies, the nearby city of Huexotla to the south along the lake. For the first time, the Tepanec armies and their vassals came by water, in a great fleet of canoes. The scene is vividly described by Frances Gillmor:
‘Then the sun rose one morning on the lake covered with canoes of the enemy. They had come by Huexotla. And the water of the lake was red that day as the eagle and tiger warriors fought. The water was foul with the bodies of the dead. Still the canoes came over the water, and the armies clashed day after day. The warriors died, and went to suck the honey of the skies with the hummingbirds of Huitzilo-pochtli.’
The attack across the lake may have been a Mexica idea, for they had been specialising in the military use of the canoe. The advantage of this technique was logistical. An army travelling around the lakeshore would have to subsist on what its own men or bearers could carry, and in enemy territory, supply quickly became a problem. By coming across the lake, that problem was solved; supplies could easily move across the lake to support an army. The battle was fought both on land and on the lake as the Acolhua met the Tepanec fleet with their own. The fighting lasted many days, with the Tepaneca attacking in the day and returning to their bases at night. Tezozomoc was again working on two fronts. While his armies pinned down those of Ixtlilxochitl, his agents were sowing more discord among the Acolhua and their vassals, fanning the strength of the peace party. And again, Ixtlilxochitl was caught between two fires.
As before, the war was not decisive, but Tezozomoc was drawing the noose tighter and tighter around Texcoco. Three years passed, and the lord of the Tepaneca resumed the war. His army marched north around the lake against Texcoco. At Chiucnauhtlan, north of Texcoco, Ixtlilxochitl defeated him in a great battle. Tezozomoc fell back to find allies to the north and south of Texcoco, in Chalca and Otompan. But Ixtlilxochitl was emboldened by his victory and gathered many allies to him. With this new host, he went onto the offensive and took the war to Tezozomoc, retracing Tezozomoc’s route around the lake, conquering city after city. He drove the Tepanec armies before him until he had shut up Tezozomoc in Azcapotzalco, but the city continued to be supplied by canoe from the lake, probably by his Mexica vassals. Other Tepanec armies ravaged the undefended towns of Texcoco. Nevertheless, Tezozomoc saw that the odds were against him in the present war, and he sued for peace, promising to swear fealty to the Texcocan king. Accepting the promise, Ixtlilxochitl marched home and disbanded his allies.
Over the next year, Tezozomoc’s royal kin began travelling throughout the Acolhua lands, visiting their many relatives, themselves the descendants of the ancient Tezozomoc. He was gathering the strands of his vast web. His wisdom in spreading his seed among the greatest houses in all the Valley of Mexico would now bring him back from the edge of defeat. In 1418 he raised a new alliance and struck now in deadly earnest at Texcoco, but first he baited his trap. The royalty of the Valley were converging on Chicunauhtla for a great hunting festival, and Tezozomoc pleaded a special favour from Ixtlilxochitl. Would the Texcocan allow him to swear fealty there rather than make another long and wearying trip to Texcoco itself? The regularly gullible Ixtlilxochitl agreed. As he was about to set out, he was warned that Tezozomoc planned to assassinate him. His brother, who resembled him, went in his stead and was duly murdered and flayed, his skin stretched over a rock. The warning had done Ixtlilxochitl little good, for though Tezozomoc’s plot to murder him had failed, his work of the last year had not. Ixtlilxochitl’s kingdom collapsed immediately, attacked from without and betrayed from within; Tezozomoc had even suborned factions within Texcoco itself to attack the king’s supporters. Ixtlilxochitl attempted to flee to Tlaxcallan over the mountains but was hunted down and killed while his young son Nezahualcoyotl watched in hiding. Had Ixtlilxochitl been a less resilient and defiant enemy, Tezozomoc would likely have returned his throne to him as a vassal. The old Tepanec had anticipated Machiavelli’s advice on what to do with defeated enemies: kill them or befriend them. The latter had been a good policy in most cases, but the Texcocan king would not bend and had to die. Texcoco needed another lesson to cure it of its resistance as well. All through the land, Tezozomoc’s warriors travelled and asked each child under the age of seven, ‘Who is your king?’ If they answered as they had heard their parents talk, Ixtlilxochitl or Nezahualcoyotl, they were butchered on the spot by swift blows from the obsidian-edged sword.
Now, at the moment of his complete victory, remorseless age was closing at last about the conqueror. Wrapped in his blankets as braziers glowed around him to supply the warmth his body could no longer provide, he waited in contentment for the end.
‘In Azcapotzalco the old king shivered with age and death coming. . . . His wars were ended. His sons and his grandsons were placed strategically in all the great towns of the kingdom. In Acolman, in Coatlichan, in Tenochtitlan itself . . . Maxtla in Coyohuacan—a city rich and powerful . . . he need not take offense that he was not to rule in Azcapotzalco . . . Tayauh would be better there. . . . Everything was settled now . . . and the tribute was pouring in . . . the men of the conquered towns were planting corn for Azcapotzalco . . . the land was settled.’
The old man was mistaken. The land was not settled. With the final lesson ground into the Acolhua, Tezozomoc distributed the cities and towns to his allies and even to his two prized Mexica vassals, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. Yet the heir to the Acolhua kingdom had not fallen into his net. Nezahualcoyotl seemed to be everywhere, seen first in one Acolhua city, then in a village, or in the courts of the powerful neighbours, Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco. But as year followed year, the ephemeral prince receded from his concerns as no danger materialised. Then great ladies from the royal house of Tenochtitlan, his own relations and Nezahualcoyotl’s as well, came with gifts of rich jewels to beg and wheedle his forbearance of the young prince. Tezozomoc relented and allowed Nezahualcoyotl to live in Tenochtitlan, where the Mexica vouched for his behaviour. He accompanied the Mexica to war and took captives, presenting them to Tezozomoc as an act of vassalage. The old man’s fears were successfully allayed, and he allowed Nezahualcoyotl to live in his own city of Texcoco. Then a hideous nightmare reawoke his fears, and he resolved to kill the prince. He would do it by indirection and bribe a close friend of the Texcocan prince to turn assassin.
‘Listen, Coyohua, it is for this that they came to fetch you. I dreamed another thing that was truly evil: that an eagle came upon me; that a tiger came upon me; that a wolf came upon me; that a snake came upon me, huge, brightly coloured and very venomous. Coyohua, may it not be that Nezahualcoyotl destroys me; may it not be that he seeks out his father Ixtlilxochitl . . . may it not be that he himself resumes the war against my sons, lords and princes?’
But Coyohua only pretended to fall in with the plot. Instead, he warned the prince, who fled over the mountains to safety. Tezozomoc’s last trap had been sprung. He suddenly had more important worries at his very threshold.
With the conquest of Texcoco, the Mexica found themselves with tributaries of their own. Now the relationship of master and vassal began to sour. Ross Hassig pointed out the change, ‘A militarily powerful Tenochtitlan was a desirable ally, but with Texcoco subdued, Tenochtitlan looked less like a necessary ally and more like a potential challenger.’10 The flash point apparently was the request of the Mexica that the Tepaneca supply them with building materials to construct an aqueduct from the springs of Chapultepec to their island cities. The request was seen correctly in Azcapotzalco as tantamount to a demand for tribute, a reversal of roles between master and vassal. Tezozomoc did not betray his anger but merely replied to the Mexica that he would consult his council, whose spokesman replied:
‘Lord, monarch, what is in the mind of your grandson and of his advisors? Do they think that we are to be their slaves? Is it not enough that we sheltered them and admitted them within our territory, that we permitted them to build their city? Have we not given them the water that they asked for? Now they demand, in a shameless manner, without respect for your dignity, that you and all of us build them a pipe for their water? We do not wish it; it is not our will. We would rather lose our lives! Even though King Chimalpopoca of Mexico is your descendant and friend of the Tepanec nation, we refuse to be commanded in this manner. He is only a child, and what he has done has been provoked by his advisors. We would like to know where they found such daring and insolence.’
The tone of the council’s reaction was a clear indication that power was at last slipping from the old man’s fingers. He was swept along by his council, which roused the population of Azcapotzalco against the Mexica and imposed an embargo on all trade with the twin island cities, blocking every road and causeway. The council, and especially the king’s son, Maxtla, was determined to destroy the Mexica. Maxtla had more on his mind than just the Mexica. He coveted the throne of Azcapotzalco that his father had assigned to another brother. Tezozomoc wanted them to spirit away his much beloved grandson from Tenochtitlan, but they refused. Chimalpopoca, they said, may have been a Tepanec on his mother’s side, but he was a Mexica on his father’s, the side that counted and the side to which he would cleave. They demanded his death. Durán records then the last pathetic days of the great Tezozomoc before his death in 1426 at the incredible age of 106:
‘The king was so distressed when he heard this response, so saddened to see that he could not pacify his vassals, that he became sick with sorrow, and soon after died of his grief. He died a very old man.’
Thus passed into history, Tezozomoc, lord of the Tepaneca, one of the most remarkable monarchs of all time. His empire was a monument to his own genius and the work of a single lifetime—and that only, as his successor would prove.
The case of Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen represented another challenge to the Marshall system. In this situation, Marshall disagreed with his top men in Europe, Eisenhower and Bradley, over the nature of generalship in the military of the nascent American superpower. The point of disagreement was what to do about Gen. Allen.
“Terrible Terry” Allen was as Old Army as they came, a tough, rumpled, hard-driving, hard-drinking cavalryman who had ridden the dusty trails of the American West. As a young lieutenant in 1913, he led six soldiers on a ride against thirty border-crossing Mexican cattle rustlers and captured or killed all of them. In World War I he achieved some notoriety in the Army for refusing to be medically evacuated after being shot in the face. In 1920, he represented the Army in a three-hundred-mile “cowboy vs. cavalryman” horse race across central Texas, which he won in 101 hours and 56 minutes of riding. Allen was in the same class as Eisenhower at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff School, but while Eisenhower was ranked first, Allen was a bottom-dweller, placing at 221 out of 241 students. Eisenhower didn’t mind taking a drink—he had made bathtub gin at Fort Meade, Maryland, during Prohibition, and while with the 15th Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington, before the war, he had declared “Beer Barrel Polka” to be the regiment’s official marching song. But Ike did not consume alcohol like Allen, who could become so staggering drunk that an aide remembered that after one party he “couldn’t get into his jeep under his own power.”
Marshall was aware of Allen’s excesses but believed that his ability as a combat leader was more important. In a prewar letter, he described Allen as one of the few officers he knew who were “of that unusual type who enthuse all of their subordinates and carry through almost impossible tasks.” This was a trait that Marshall knew was likely to be especially helpful in the early phases of a war, as an unprepared America sent green troops into battle. In October 1940, Marshall made Allen a brigadier general despite the opposition of several subordinates. “Terry Allen, nobody wanted to give a star to and the General [Marshall] insisted on it,” recalled Merrill Pasco, a Marshall aide during World War II. “Terry Allen is one of those I recall General Marshall pushed along over the objection of G-1,” the chief of personnel. Lt. Col. Allen was being chewed out by the commanding colonel of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, and perhaps facing a court-martial, when a telegram arrived notifying Allen that he had been jumped to brigadier general—and so immediately outranked the officer berating him.
Marshall kept a protective eye on Allen. Two years later, while in the midst of overseeing the American entrance into a global war, he took the time to send a personal note to Allen expressing concern about his consumption of alcohol. “I must explain to you that there had come to me from several different sources an indication that you had been drinking,” Marshall wrote. “I don’t mean you were appearing under the influence of liquor, but I do mean drinking in the daytime.” Yet he left Allen in command of the 1st Infantry Division, which Allen loved leading. “It is the most honorable place in the most honorable Army in the world, the commander of the First Division,” he had once told a group of soldiers new to the division.
Marshall’s instincts were correct on both counts. Allen was a rascal, irritating his superiors, but he also would be one of the best combat leaders the U.S. Army had in its first year of operations in Africa and Europe. Early on the morning of March 17, 1943, not long after taking over from the ousted Fredendall, Lt. Gen. George Patton arrived at a frontline position to watch Allen’s 1st Infantry Division launch an attack on the Germans in Tunisia. Seeing no troop movement or other signs of imminent attack, Patton stormed off to find Allen. “What the hell is this?” Patton snarled at him, believing that the lack of perceivable movement meant the assault was proceeding hesitantly. To the contrary, Allen replied to Patton: He had decided to attack earlier than planned. His troops were not only moving out; they already were standing on their first set of objectives. Allen had out-Pattoned Patton and was in the vanguard of the war’s first clear American-led victory over the Germans.
Yet Allen found it difficult to get along with the new Army way of operating. He tried to toe the Marshall-Eisenhower line about being a team player, but his heart was not in it. “I think the division has done fairly well today,” he began in an impromptu post-battle press conference under a Tunisian almond tree. He started by saying the right things: “I want to stress the idea that whatever it did was due to teamwork. Everybody in the division deserves credit. The artillery deserves credit, and so do the engineers, the tank destroyers, and the Ranger battalion—and don’t forget the medics and the birds who drive the trucks.” But he could keep this up for only so long, and soon he veered into finger-pointing sarcasm. “I don’t want anybody to think I’m sore about air support. I guess the Air Force here has a lot of demands on it. I guess maybe there was some other division on the front that was attacked by two or three Panzer divisions and the Air Force had to help them first”—which everyone present knew was not the case. He even took a pop at another Army unit, Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division, which held an adjacent sector. “I guess they had motor trouble,” he sneered.
Gen. Allen’s finest day of the war came on July 11, 1943, the day after the Americans landed in Sicily. It was the largest amphibious landing in history—and it was in trouble. The Americans had stormed ashore in south-central Sicily, with paratroopers and British forces to the east, but high winds and heavy seas had impeded the landings. German forces were counterattacking fiercely, rolling down the island ridgelines toward the Americans splashing ashore. Panzer tanks pushed to within two thousand yards of the water’s edge. Allen’s infantrymen had burrowed down as the Panzers passed and then attacked the following German foot soldiers. Most of his artillery had not yet come ashore, so Allen called for naval gunfire. Cruisers and destroyers just beyond the breakers, nearly running aground, began to engage the Panzers. That night, when elements of the division were fighting hard just to hold their positions, Allen surprised them with an aggressive order: “THE DIVISION ATTACKS AT MIDNIGHT.” It was a brilliant move. Allen could issue the order with some confidence because, atypically for the Army, he long had emphasized training in night fighting, reasoning that some soldiers would be lost in the confusion, but ultimately far fewer than would be killed in a prolonged daylight assault. His sense of combat timing was impeccable: The division’s attack surprised German reinforcements, who were marshaling in assembly areas for their own attack, planned for dawn.
Even Allen’s nemesis, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, was impressed by this surprising rout of the Germans, writing later with evident mixed feelings,
I question whether any other U.S. division could have repelled that charge in time to save the beach from tank penetration. Only the perverse Big Red One with its no less perverse commander was both hard and experienced enough to take that assault in stride. A greener division might easily have panicked and seriously embarrassed the landing.
Bradley only indirectly praised Allen’s leadership. He respected what Allen’s division had done, but never went out of his way to praise the way Allen had led it.
After the beachhead was secure, Allen led the 1st Infantry Division into Sicily’s hot, mountainous interior, ultimately waging a weeklong battle in the island’s center, near Troina, the highest town in Sicily and the anchor point of the German defensive line. It was a difficult encounter with an adversary that launched no fewer than twenty-four counterattacks against Allen’s division. Westmoreland, whose artillery battalion was attached to Allen’s division, was thrown into the air and nearly killed when his jeep ran over a German Teller mine. Allen and the division won the fight, which in Patton’s estimation was “the hardest battle” of the Sicily campaign and, in the opinion of John Lucas, the toughest of the war to that point. Allen later wrote that German prisoners reported “they had been ordered to hold Troina, at all costs.” The week that Troina fell, Allen appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Then came an astonishing move. As the battle was ending, Bradley removed Allen as commander of the 1st Infantry Division. Allen was replaced by Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner, a Marshall favorite who was available, having been fired the previous month as deputy chief of staff to Gen. Harold Alexander, apparently as a result of Huebner’s unwillingness to mutely accept the British commander’s persistent disparagement of American troops. Bradley emphasized the point by also relieving Allen’s assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Adding to the injury, very little explanation was offered to Allen, who was crushed. The division artillery commander recalled that after the relief “it was painful to see Terry break down. Many wondered if he would ever recover.” He had been “shanghaied,” Allen would later bitterly tell an aide. It is heartbreaking to read the puzzled notes Allen wrote in pencil to his wife in the wake of his relief as he tried to figure out what had happened and why. He went to see Patton, who unhelpfully told him that perhaps he was being moved out in preparation for promoting him to corps command.
Why was Terry Allen fired? This is a question that bears some examination. His relief cannot be attributed to battlefield failure, for he was among the most successful field commanders the Army had in the European theater in 1942–43.
Official accounts of why Bradley relieved Allen are unclear, and the reasoning given in Bradley’s two autobiographies are “inconsistent and confusing,” observed Maj. Richard Johnson in a 2009 review of the historical record. In various accounts, it has been explained that Allen was tired (Eisenhower’s version), that his troops were undisciplined (one of Bradley’s versions), or that he was too aggressive against the Germans (another, less credible Bradley version). But the real reason seems to be simply that Bradley and Eisenhower did not like his type. Bradley thought of Allen as the sort of general who should not be tolerated, writing that “Allen had become too much of an individualist to submerge himself without friction in the group undertakings of war.”
But the new men had not read their own boss well. Marshall, as it happened, had visited the 1st Division just before it headed to Sicily and had come away impressed, noting in a letter that it had “won the respect and admiration of all who have seen it in action.” When a despondent Allen arrived in the United States, Marshall effectively overruled Bradley’s decision. By the end of September, Marshall was looking for a division for Allen to command. Ultimately he gave Allen the 104th Infantry Division, then training in the United States. Unlike many other training generals, Allen would be allowed to deploy overseas with the division and take it into combat. This move was not popular with the generals of the new school. “Terry was nothing but a tramp,” said Gen. Wade Haislip, a longtime friend of Eisenhower’s who served as chief of Army personnel early in the war. “He was a classmate of mine, but he was just a tramp. . . . Old Terry Allen got relieved for cause and he [Marshall] brought him back home and gave him another division.”
A year later, Allen led the 104th Division into Normandy and across France into Germany. Joe Collins, his corps commander, considered Allen a “problem child” but came to judge Allen’s new unit, the 104th, as “just as good” as his old one, the 1st Division. True to form, Allen was especially impressive in launching a series of night attacks, breaking through German defenses and demonstrating the sharp training he had given his soldiers. An aide to Gen. Courtney Hodges noted in a headquarters diary, “The whole artillery section functions beautifully according to the book and what the General [Hodges] particularly likes thus far of what he has seen of the 104th is their ability to button up tight and hold the place tight once they have taken it. There is no record yet of the 104th giving ground.”
In the short term, Marshall would prevail, with Allen being back in a combat leadership role. But in the long run, in shaping the future of the U.S. Army, Eisenhower and, even more, Bradley would win this argument. There would be few if any Terry Allen types rising to the top in the Army after World War II. Eisenhower and Bradley wanted cooperative team players, not go-it-alone mavericks. Ike believed that the sprawling nature of modern warfare made such nonconformism dangerous. “Misfits defeat the purpose of the command organization essential to the supply and control of the vast land, air, sea, and logistical forces that must be brought to bear against the enemy,” he later wrote.
HMS Captain capturing the San Nicolas and the San Josef at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797
It was not until March 1795, when Nelson had been a post-captain nearly 17 years, that he had his first opportunity to take part in a fleet action. The occasion was disappointing. By then, Hood had gone home, and had been replaced by Admiral Hotham, a man of less firm stamp: moreover, the relative strength of the maritime forces in the area of the Ligurian Sea had, at least on paper, altered greatly in favour of France. The enemy had had the necessary time to repair the Toulon armament, which had been incompletely destroyed at the time of the withdrawal, while through wear, detachment, sickness and the accidents of war, the British ships were by now seriously under-manned, and every spar and replacement had to reach Hotham by way of the long sea haul from home.
The French Directory, having got together some 17 sail-of-the-line, sent them from Toulon to seek and engage the British. In the event of success, so it was argued, Corsica could be re-taken, and the British would no longer be able to harry traffic along the coast of Italy. Hotham had news of the sortie at Leghorn, where he commanded 15 sail-of-the-line, one of them Neapolitan. He started off at once to face the challenge, and indeed came up with the French, but the result was typical of the many indecisive encounters of the era of sail.
Hotham found that the French, though superior in ships and fully manned, would not stand to meet him. When the conditions of wind at last permitted it, they actually allowed him to give chase, possibly because they were still under the influence of their defeat by Howe in the Atlantic, the result of the battle of the ‘Glorious First of June’ during the preceding summer. A chase was Nelson’s chance for distinction, for the Agamemnon was a fast sailer, and he took it. Those were days when the pace of sea warfare was such that it was possible for a captain to compose a letter home when actually within sight of the enemy, and Nelson wrote to his wife on 10 March as follows:
… Whatever may be my fate, I have no doubt in my own mind but that my conduct will be such as will not bring a blush on the face of my friends. The lives of all are in the hands of Him who knows best whether to preserve it or no, and to His will do I resign myself. My character and good name is in my own keeping. Life with disgrace is dreadful. A glorious death is to be envied, and, if anything happens to me, recollect death is a debt we must all pay, and whether now or in a few years hence can be but of little consequence….
In the stately but inconclusive manœuvring which occupied the next few days, a French ship, Le Ça Ira of 84 guns—‘the largest two decker I ever saw’, so Nelson told his brother—carried away her main and fore topmasts. A frigate took her in tow, and two other vessels, Le Sans Culotte and Le Barras kept within gun-shot for a time, but Nelson in the war-worn Agamemnon stood towards the disordered ships, proposing to withhold his fire until he actually touched her stern. This proved impossible, but he battered away at her for over two hours, and further reduced her fighting efficiency. Night then fell, but next day, after further fighting, the prize was his, and Le Censeur, 74 guns, fell to other ships of Hotham’s fleet.
Nelson was all for pressing the advantage, but he could not move the admiral. ‘We must be contented’, said Hotham. ‘We have done very well.’ ‘Now’, wrote Nelson to Fanny, ‘had we taken ten sail, and allowed the eleventh to escape, when it had been possible to have got at her, I could never have called it well done…. We should have had such a day as I believe the annals of England never produced.
Nelson’s first fleet action, though it had brought him distinction, and the honorary appointment of Colonel of Marines—which considering his military exploits was singularly appropriate—also brought bitterness, for he had a different conception of war from most of his fellows. He aimed at annihilation as the logical conclusion of bringing an enemy to action. It was a principle endorsed by Napoleon.
I wish [so Nelson confessed] to be an admiral, and in command of the English fleet; I should very soon either do much, or be ruined: my disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures. Sure I am, had I commanded on the 14th [the final day] that either the whole French fleet would have graced my triumph, or I should have been in a confounded scrape.
Just three months later, there came another opportunity. Nelson had been ordered on detached service, to co-operate with the Austrians in harassing the French then on the Genoese Riviera. Off Cape del Mele, he fell in with the main fleet of the enemy, who immediately gave chase. He retreated at once upon San Fiorenzo in north Corsica, where Hotham was watering and refitting, and for an hour or two was within possibility of capture while in sight of his friends.
By dint of great exertions, Hotham, though taken by surprise, managed to get under weigh, and for five days gave chase to the enemy. When the main forces came within fighting distance for the second time, the baffling winds and sudden vexatious calms which are a feature of the area of Fréjus made it impossible to shorten the range. Although by the afternoon of 13 July the Agamemnon and the Cumberland were, in Nelson’s words:
… closing with an 80-gun ship with a Flag, the Berwick, and the Heureux … Admiral Hotham thought it right to call us out of Action, the wind being directly into the Gulf of Fréjus, where the Enemy anchored after dark.
Nelson had nearly two years to wait before he once again found himself in a position to affect the fortunes of a fleet engagement. By that time he had left the Agamemnon, and he had discovered, in Sir John Jervis, a kind of admiral very different from Hotham. ‘Entre nous’, wrote Sir William Hamilton from Naples, ‘I can perceive that my old friend, Hotham, is not quite awake enough for such a command as that of the British Fleet in the Mediterranean, although he is the best creature imaginable.’ Jervis was of another kind.
The war development, in the Mediterranean particularly, increasingly called for the exceptional man, for it was going from bad to worse. By land, France was everywhere successful, and the work which fell to Nelson and his fellow captains was of attempting to contain the uncontainable. Blockading in worn-out ships was gruelling, and in June 1796, when Nelson was acting as a Commodore, it became necessary for him to shift his pendant from the Agamemnon, which was almost falling apart, so much was she in need of a home refit, to the Captain. This ship, of 74 guns, was commanded by Ralph Miller, an officer who became one of a long series of men of rank who were Nelsen partisans. Miller had been born in New York, his parents being fervent Loyalists, and the Navy produced few better officers.
In the later part of the year it became urgent for Jervis to face the fact that it would soon be imperative for the British to withdraw altogether from the Mediterranean, so critical was the supply and health situation, so threatening the enemy dispositions, so uncertain the political climate in the Italian states, and so desperate had the need become to keep the strongest possible force based on Gibraltar and the Tagus. Portugal, which afforded facilities at Lisbon, was at that time Britain’s one reliable ally in the west, for active hostility on the part of Spain was a condition which, so it was realised, could not be long delayed. With the resources then at the Admiralty’s disposal, it was no longer possible to keep three powerful fleets on active watch, one at the western approaches of the Channel, one further south, and a third based on Corsica.
Nelson’s final days on the Mediterranean Station were full of incident. In September and October 1796 he was engaged in the withdrawal from Corsica, which had cost so much to secure. In December he was at Gibraltar, where he shifted his pendant to La Minerve, frigate, with orders to help in the withdrawal of troops and stores from Port Ferrajo, in Elba, which had served its turn as a base subsidiary to Corsica. By then, war with Spain was confirmed, and on 19 December, off Cartagena, Nelson had one of the smartest actions of his life. It was against the Spanish frigate La Sabina, commanded by Don Jacobo Stuart, an officer descended from James II of England, and renowned in his own navy.
Nelson described the action to his brother William, saying that it opened with his ‘hailing the Don’ and demanding immediate surrender. ‘This is a Spanish frigate’, came the dignified reply, ‘and you may begin as soon as you please!’ Nelson added: ‘I have no idea of a closer or sharper battle’, for Stuart’s reputation was soundly based.
The force to a gun the same, and clearly the same number of men; we have 250. I asked him several times to surrender during the action, but his answer was: ‘No, sir; not whilst I have the means of fighting left!’ When only he himself of all the officers was left alive, he hailed and said he could fight no more, and begged I would stop firing.
Hardly had the guns ceased, and a boarding party been sent across, than other Spanish ships were seen approaching. Next day, Nelson was forced to abandon the prize, together with his boarders, in order to protect his own ship. La Minerve was able to fight the enemy off, but she could not prevent Spanish colours being rehoisted in La Sabina. Stuart, who was enjoying Nelson’s hospitality, seemed likely to be the only Spanish prisoner of war.
Soon afterwards, in an exchange of courtesies not uncommon between Spanish and British, Stuart returned home, Hardy and another officer being released, Hardy having commanded the boarding party. It was the beginning of a bond between Nelson and Hardy which was to continue for the rest of Nelson’s life, and it was cemented by a startling incident. As La Minerve was leaving the Mediterranean on her return to join Jervis in the Atlantic, she was sighted and chased by two Spanish ships-of-the-line. Colonel Drinkwater, a military friend of Nelson’s who was taking passage with him, asked if there was likely to be an action. ‘Very possibly’, said the Commodore, ‘but before the Dons get hold of that bit of bunting’—looking up at his pendant—‘I will have a struggle with them, and sooner than give up the frigate I’ll run her ashore.’
A little later, Nelson and his staff were at dinner, but the meal had hardly begun when it was interrupted by the cry, ‘Man overboard!’ Hardy went off in the jolly-boat to attempt rescue, but the sailor had been caught in a current which was flowing towards the pursuing Spaniards. He was never seen again. Presently, Hardy and his boat’s crew got into difficulty, making no headway towards the ship.
‘At this crisis’, so Drinkwater related, ‘Nelson, casting an anxious look at the hazardous situation of Hardy and his companions, exclaimed: “By G—, I’ll not lose Hardy. Back the mizzen topsail.”’ The order had the intended effect of checking the frigate’s speed, and an encounter between unequal forces now seemed certain. But the Spaniards were surprised and confused by Nelson’s action. The leading ship suddenly shortened sail, allowing La Minerve to drop down to the jolly-boat and pick up Hardy and his men. Once under way again, she was soon safe—at least for the moment.
That same evening, the frigate ran into fog, and when it began to lift, Nelson saw that he was in the middle of an enemy fleet. Spanish look-outs were, so he had long discovered, fallible creatures, and conditions of visibility were such as to make his escape almost a certainty. It was so, and when La Minerve reached Jervis’s rendezvous off Cape St Vincent on 13 February, Nelson was able to bring him valuable first-hand information. He was ordered to rejoin the Captain, and make ready for the battle which obviously could not be long delayed.
Córdoba, the Spanish admiral, had orders to protect a valuable convoy of mercury, and his fleet was also to form part of a larger Franco-Spanish armament whose purpose was invasion of the British Isles. The threat was real. The French had already made a landing at Bantry Bay the previous December, eluding the watch of Howe’s successor, Lord Bridport, but bungling their opportunity; and there was another attempt on Wales during this very month of February, which also ended ignominiously. Whatever the result of such sorties, the fact had become evident that they could and might succeed, and as Jervis remarked, a victory was very necessary to the welfare of the country.
When the Commander-in-Chief sighted the Spaniards, on 14 February, Valentine’s Day, they were in no regular order. Córdoba himself was to windward of the British, and another group of ships—among which were the mercury-laden urcas—were to leeward, making for Cadiz. Jervis had with him 15 ships-of-the-line and four frigates. Córdoba’s force was 27, of which one vessel, the Santissima Trinidad, was a four-decker, and the largest warship then afloat. Jervis’s plan was to lead his well-disciplined line like a wedge between the two Spanish divisions, and then to turn to windward to attack Córdoba. He succeeded, though he may have left his turn somewhat late.
The Captain, wearing Nelson’s pendant, was the third from the last in Jervis’s line. Before the Commander-in-Chief had made his crucial signal to ‘tack in succession’, that is, to change direction, Nelson realised that the leading ships might well be unable to prevent Córdoba from effecting his junction with the group to leeward. He also realised that if he himself wore out of the line and made at once for the nearest Spaniards, he would disorganise their movements, and allow the head of the British line time to do what Jervis had intended.
Such an act of initiative was unparalleled on the part of a subordinate, and it has never been repeated in a major action. In the Georgian navy, the line of battle was sacred. To leave it, without a direct order, meant court-martial and probably disgrace. Under an extreme disciplinarian like Jervis, disobedience of any kind, however intelligent, demanded supreme courage, and would need to be justified, up to the hilt, by success.
Nelson was not long unsupported. His old friend Troubridge, commanding the Culloden and leading the line, was soon in the thick of it, and so was Collingwood in the Excellent, another lifelong friend who, incidentally, had brought gunnery drill in his ship to the highest pitch of efficiency then obtainable. The Captain was quickly in trouble. Her sails and rigging were shot about, her wheel was smashed, and seeing that she would be able to do no further service in the line that day, or even in a chase, Nelson ordered Miller to close with the nearest Spaniard. Then he called for boarders. It was no duty of a high-ranking officer to engage in hand-to-hand fighting, his life was far too valuable, but Nelson was no ordinary commodore, and what followed in the Spanish San Josef needs to be told in his own words.
The first man who jumped into the enemy’s mizzen-chains was Captain Berry, late my first lieutenant. He was supported from our spritsail yard…. A soldier of the 69th Regiment, having broke the upper quarter-gallery window, jumped in, followed by myself and others, as fast as possible. I found the cabin doors fastened, and the Spanish officers fired their pistols at us through the windows, but having broke open the doors, the soldiers fired, and the Spanish brigadier fell as retreating to the quarter-deck.
A detachment of the 69th—later the Welch Regiment—was serving as marines, and did splendidly throughout, and within a few moments the San Josef was in British hands. Just beyond her was an even larger ship, the San Nicolas, which had been run alongside her compatriot. Nelson ordered Captain Miller to send a party across the San Josef to take the San Nicolas by the same methods. Nelson followed.
When I got into the main chains [he reported] a Spanish officer came upon the quarter-deck rail, without arms, and said that the ship surrendered. From this welcome information it was not long before I was on the quarter-deck, when the Spanish captain, with bended knee, presented me his sword and told me the admiral was dying with his wounds below … and on the quarter-deck of a Spanish first-rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the swords of the vanquished Spaniards.
Jervis took four Spanish ships on 14 February, without loss to his own fleet. It was thought at one time that the towering Santissima Trinidad had struck her colours, but she got away in the murk and confusion of the winter afternoon, though the admiral had to shift his flag to a less damaged vessel.
Having won his prizes by what he called his ‘patent bridge’, Nelson had now to face his chief. He need not have worried, for Jervis knew a man when he saw one. Nelson was received with the greatest affection. Jervis, he said ‘used every kind expression’, which ‘could not fail to make me happy’.
Nelson had been bruised in the stomach during the fighting, and although he thought nothing of the matter, pain from this injury was to trouble him on occasion for the rest of his life. The Captain’s injuries were still more serious, and Nelson moved to the Irresistible, flying his flag as rear-admiral of the Blue, for promotion by seniority came his way almost immediately after the action. He made one more foray into the Mediterranean, withdrawing the last men and supplies from Corsica and Elba, and then settled down to command of the inshore watch on Cadiz. It was an active post for a very active man, about to become Sir Horatio Nelson, Knight of the Bath, with a star and a ribbon for his coat in recognition of his feats on Valentine’s Day.
Fanny Nelson, when she hear the news of the battle, begged her husband to ‘leave boarding to captains!’, but it was as an admiral that Nelson, in company with Captain Fremantle, who had been with him in the frigate Inconstant during the attack on the Ça Ira, had yet another extraordinary adventure, the details of which would be barely credible did they not appear in Nelson’s ‘Sketch of my Life’.
It was during this period [he wrote in his uninhibited way] that perhaps my personal courage was more conspicuous than at any other period of my life. In an attack of the Spanish gun-boats [which had made a sortie from their port], I was boarded in my barge with its common crew of ten men, Cockswain, Captain Fremantle and myself, by the Commander of the Gunboats. The Spanish barge rowed twenty-six oars, besides Officers, thirty in the whole; this was a service hand to hand with swords, in which my Cockswain, (now no more), saved my life twice. Eighteen of the Spaniards being killed and several wounded, we succeeded in taking their Commander.
Nelson never questioned the Spaniards’ courage, but he had experience of their efficiency, or lack of it, dating back to his service in Nicaragua, and such episodes merely confirmed his view that liberties could be taken with ‘the Dons’ which would not other-wise be justified. Yet the next fighting in which he was involved showed that military contempt was rash, and could cost him dearly.
While Nelson was off Cadiz, Jervis, now Earl of St Vincent, heard that a Spanish treasure-ship had put into Santa Cruz in the Canaries, and he planned to cut her out. Teneriffe, the island concerned, was well defended, and the operation would require a force of some size. Nelson was the obvious man to lead it.
He was given four ships-of-the-line, with his flag in the Theseus, together with three frigates and a cutter. He chose his own officers, who included Troubridge in the Culloden and Fremantle, now in the Seahorse, successor to Nelson’s East Indian vessel. Fremantle actually had his young wife aboard, which was due to the fact that she was a special favourite with Lord St Vincent.
Nothing went right. Owing to unfavourable weather and unsuspected inshore currents, the boats were unable to reach their landing-place during the hours of darkness, and the attack thus lost all element of surprise. The few parties able to get ashore were soon withdrawn, since they found the garrison formidable and ready. Nelson then decided that he would lead a second night attack in person. ‘Tomorrow’, he wrote to St Vincent on 24 July, ‘my head will probably be covered with laurel or cypress.’
Josiah Nisbet pleaded to go with his stepfather. ‘No’, said Nelson, ‘should we both fall, what would become of your poor mother?’ ‘I will go with you tonight’, said the youth, ‘if I never go again!’ Nelson let him have his way, and it was well that he did so, for his boat was heavily fired upon as she neared the shore, and just as the admiral was about to land, a shot shattered his right arm. Josiah, who was near, saw that Nelson could not stand, and heard him exclaim: ‘I am a dead man!’ The youngster placed him in the bottom of the boat, took a silk handkerchief from his neck, and with the help of one of the bargemen made a rough tourniquet. The boat then withdrew into the darkness, picking up survivors from the cutter Fox as she made her way back to the squadron.
It was the Seahorse that Nisbet first sighted, but nothing would induce Nelson to board her, even at risk of his life, for he. needed instant attention. ‘I would rather surfer death’, he said, ‘than alarm Mrs Fremantle in this state, and when I can give her no tidings of her husband.’
When the Theseus was found at last, Nelson refused help in getting aboard. ‘Let me alone’, he said. ‘I have yet my legs left, and one arm. Tell the surgeon to make haste and get his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm, so the sooner it is off the better.’
The amputation was done in the early hours of the morning of 25 July, and it was successful. Next day, so the surgeon noted, Nelson ‘rested pretty well and quite easy. Tea, soup and sago. Lemonade and tamarind drink.’ The ‘rest’ was comparative. The expedition was in ruins, and although the gallant Troubridge got a party ashore he could do little. His ammunition was soaked, his men were outnumbered, and there was nothing for it but retreat. It was Turks Island all over again.
The Spaniards, courteous as ever, were ready to parley. They behaved, said Troubridge, ‘in the handsomest manner, sending a large proportion of wine, bread, etc., to refresh the people, and showed every mark of attention.’ They even lent boats so that the British could withdraw in comfort! Nelson, not to be outdone in politeness, begged the Spanish governor’s acceptance of a cask of English beer and a large cheese.
It was just as well that Nelson had not boarded the Seahorse, for when Fremantle did return to his wife, he was also wounded, and his injury, though slighter, was as troublesome as Nelson’s, and needed constant dressing. By an odd chance, he too had been hit in the right arm when landing.
On 16 August the force rejoined Lord St Vincent at sea. On the way to the rendezvous Nelson had written, slowly and painfully, to say that ‘a left-handed admiral will never again be considered useful…. The sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve….’ Less accurate words were never penned, though Nelson indeed went home in the Seahorse with the Fremantles, joining his wife and father after more than four years’ arduous service abroad. He seemed to them to possess all the eager, affectionate zest they had loved of old. Convalescence would obviously be protracted, and that he returned a hero, even though a battered one, was a fact which all could rejoice in.
Unbelievably, it was within a year that Nelson was again in action. This time, the story would echo throughout Europe, and the news would come from Egypt.
The new year of 1945 saw the racial war of mutual annihilation in the East reach a terrible climax. At Hitler’s personal order, the Leibstandarte and Kampfgruppe Peiper shuttled to the East for a desperate attack to liberate the Hungarian oil fields.
As the Soviets gutted, raped, and pillaged their way across Prussia and pushed for Berlin, Hedwig Potthast pondered the future from Schönau and “Schneewinkellehen”—the moniker of her new abode. There the snows were thick and inviting for skiing with her sister, who had since reconciled with Hedwig and accepted her sister’s children with Himmler. “I haven’t seen much of Sigurd [Peiper] in the last month,” she wrote, “while I’ve been together with Thilde these days. That crazy girl . . . seeing my new skis did this to her . . . and when I come up with a pair, we are going to run down the mountain together.” Why, she asked, had her klutzy paramour never learned to ski? Thilde, in fact, was pleased with Hedwig’s children, “Helgi” and Nanette, and entranced by the postcard existence at Schneewinkellehen. The two Potthast sisters enjoyed lazy winter holidays together. For a few days the war seemed distant.
Heinrich Himmler thought nothing of skiing, struggling instead with the military leadership of Armeegruppe Vistula. In the meantime Jochen Peiper made his way out of the Ardennes. Peiper returned briefly to Tegernsee to visit his family. In the mail was a weihnachtsgabe—a special holiday gift for the exhausted SS officer from Himmler, including precious foodstuffs, now rare within the Reich: two pounds of coffee, special tea, bottles of red and white wine, cognac, and a hundred cigarettes. Meanwhile, in Rottach, the flames atop the earthen Julleuchter burned while German defenses on the eastern border teetered and collapsed.
A massive daylight raid of a thousand US B-17s from the Eighth Air Force aimed to obliterate the Berlin rail system based on intelligence that the 6th Panzer Army was moving through Berlin on its way to the Eastern Front. The catastrophic blow not only wrecked the railways but also much of the unscarred portions of the city. The already damaged fashionable areas of Unter den Linden, Wilhelmstrasse, and Friedrichstrasse finally collapsed into a sea of ruin. Nearly three thousand Berliners died in the unsurpassed calamity. Hitler, who was still characteristically sleeping at midday, hurriedly awakened to seek shelter. Two dozen bombs had rained on the Reich Chancellery and environs; the roof of its dining room crashed onto a hastily abandoned luncheon table. For Peiper the devastation must have been just as personal. Although his family had been gone from Berlin for more than a year, the bombing the previous autumn had destroyed his childhood Wilmersdorf neighborhood and home at Zähringerstrasse 17. Raging fires started and burned out of control for four days, leaving the entire city cloaked in smoke and ash.
In the meantime, surprised by bold Soviet advances, Himmler once more hastily moved his headquarters back to Birkenwald near Prenzlau, a wooded grove fifty miles north of Berlin and safely away from the bombing. It was the second move in five days. The surging Soviets had just crossed the Oder River and were now barely seventy kilometers away from the capital city. They had been close to Schneidemühle HQ when Himmler and his entourage fled with the refugees.
Simultaneously the 6th Panzer Army was in the process of transferring East. But where? Peiper left Rottach after only days and then motored to Berlin. From there, he drove to see Himmler, arriving at his final headquarters compound at the end of January. Peiper had a new commander, Otto Kumm, who took over when the wounded SS General Wilhelm Mohnke was entrusted with the impending final defense of Berlin. All of the leaders of the Leibstandarte had been called back to Berlin with faked radio transmissions to lure the Soviets into thinking they would shortly be committed on the Eastern Front. We do know that Peiper was with Wilhelm Mohnke at that time. Mohnke supposedly had been injured in a Berlin air raid in January 1945 with damage to his hearing.
The day after the devastation on February 3, Peiper arrived at Himmler’s final headquarters. Birkenwald stood in a snowy birch forest between Haβleben and Prenzlau. Grothmann met Peiper, who quickly conducted his old protégé to Himmler’s court. While his regular army staff lived in featureless wooden barracks nearby, Himmler led activities from his special train, the Sonderzug Steiermark surrounded by heavily armed SS sentries.
Peiper found Himmler’s personal quarters at Birkenwald lavishly furnished in the curious manner to which he was accustomed. The decor reeked of SS austerity. The Reichsführer’s barracks had a redwood-paneled bedroom and quilts, furniture covers, and light green rugs “more appropriate to the bedroom of an elegant woman than to a man directing an army.” The accommodations were also ornately furnished—lounges, dining rooms with fine linen, and saunas and baths. The main entrance led into a vestibule arrayed with tacky handwoven SS carpets hung on the walls and expensive wooden furniture, all cluttered with porcelain knickknacks from the Allach SS-workshops.
After the devastation to Berlin, was it possible to celebrate Peiper’s recent birthday and the Machtergreifung of January 30? It was on that day, in fact, that Himmler issued a new draconian edict, Tod und Stafe für Pflichtvergessenheit—“Death and punishment of those who forget their obligations.” The twelfth anniversary of National Socialism was now the second anniversary of Stalingrad, another Hitler-declared Festung. The Third Reichean penchant for irony was hardly lost on that day, for Himmler was celebrating the raising of a new 32nd SS Division, the “30. Januar.”—a hodgepodge formation was formed around a core of convalescing wounded veterans. Meanwhile, Sepp Dietrich also drove to see Himmler at Birkenwald, worried for his own family living on the Oder Front. What was on Himmler’s mind?
It varied. Still playing field general, Himmler soberly told the Armeegruppe Vistula commanders that the Oder line could not be held after all. Just then, “It began to drip outside.” A snow-eating winter wind left the Russian forces on the east side of the Oder, marooned in a sea of mud. “The thaw which has begun at this precise moment is a gift of fate. . . . God has not forgotten the worthy German people . . . we have been saved as through a miracle. Since then I have never doubted that we will win the war!” Such bluster now fell flat, however. SS General Gottlob Berger informed Himmler that the civilian population now almost completely despised his organization, and even the army was “no longer on speaking terms with the SS.”
On February 4, Himmler did not rise until 8:30 a.m., for the attention of his obese Swedish masseur, Felix Kersten. More than usual, Himmler was overtaxed and stressed. After Kersten, Peiper was the first order of business on Himmler’s calendar. At 1:30 p.m. the two met for a discussion. Afterward SS Gen. Karl Wolff, Peiper’s old superior, was also there for a sit-down lunch of simple Bavarian fare. Oberst Hans Eismann and SS Grupf. Heinz Lammerding were at the table. Released from leadership of the “Das Reich Panzer Division” in the Ardennes, Lammerding was now helping Eismann with staff work, unimpressed by Himmler as military leader.
At 3 p.m. Peiper met privately with Himmler once more. Perfunctory congratulations were in order for Peiper’s new award from the Ardennes campaign, and there was certainly discussion of the crushing bombing raid in Berlin the day before. The long conversation with Peiper also surely touched on the certainty of the failed war. Perhaps Himmler told him of his evolving effort to seek a truce with the United States and Great Britain. He was about to send Karl Wolff off to Italy to enter negotiations with the Americans to seek an armistice there—a fact underscored by Wolff’s presence that day. And there was Himmler’s other favorite late-war topic: his unscrupulously efficient SS engineer Hans Kammler had brought the V-2 rocket into widespread use as a feared vengeance weapon and was manufacturing hundreds of jet fighters in deep caves in the Harz mountains. Now, the mercurial Kammler was secretly working on something even more diabolical. At the front new SS recruits talked of a massive counterattack with the new secret weapons on April 20, Hitler’s birthday. “Die Vergeltung kommt!’ they said—“The Revenge is coming!”
Nor had Himmler lost his love for crackpot science. During the last two weeks he had obsessed over an intelligence service report that said processing fir tree roots could produce high-octane gasoline! He had Oswald Pohl and Rudolf Brandt urging assigned SS engineers to produce rapid results. In the meantime he encouraged adopting Chinese rickshaws to ferry ammunition.
There, too, was the Reichsführer mania for a miracle weapon based on a modern-day embodiment of Thor’s Hammer. Himmler always kept Norse legend close; all the myths were simply ancestral keys to be unlocked to realize the full potential of the Aryan man and state. He waxed enthusiastic about a plan by an arcane company in Hildesheim, Elemag, to produce a gargantuan electric device that would use the atmosphere as a giant conductor. With it, it might be possible to use the very air as a method to turn off all electrically operated machines. Imagine—no Allied tanks, planes, radar, or radio! The Day the Earth Stood Still, courtesy of Thor’s Hammer!
Peiper stayed around Birkenwald until the morning of February 7, when he, Grothmann, and Himmler made a grim tour of the scarred and disfigured capital. Hitler’s Berlin nexus was smashed; grounds where Peiper and his youthful cohorts had once proudly paraded now stood wrecked from bombs and abatis. Deep craters pocked the previously stately gardens; tree stumps, rubble and debris covered everything. Nearby buildings burned and the ravaged streets were choked with smoke. What’s more, Himmler’s old SS headquarters at Prinz Albrecht Straße, where Peiper had spent so many days, had been thoroughly wrecked, with great holes punched in the roof and one floor sagging with bomb debris.
One night soon after the bombing, Himmler dined with Hitler, Hermann Fegelein, Martin Bormann, and Eva Braun. Grothmann and Peiper sat at an adjoining table. The destruction of Berlin dominated the table conversation. With the wave of a hand, Hitler ordered that his mistress depart south the following day for Berchtesgaden. She didn’t do so, but Peiper did leave—he had to be back to the Leibstandarte for Operation Frühlingserwachen—Spring Awakening—to take place in Hungary.
Then, in March 1945, Himmler, foundering in military ineptitude, came down with the flu and checked himself into Hohenlychen Clinic. He was despondent, having been relieved from a disastrous military command in the East and now laid low by influenza. Hedwig left her new home and the children in Schonäu with her nanny, Käte Mueller, and took the train to meet him at the SS hospital. Although Himmler and Potthast had seldom talked politics, a difficult discussion arose.
Before the Allied liberation of France, Hedwig remembered Himmler always being confident of winning the war. Now “he mentioned that he thought it was insane to continue fighting the Americans and that a separate peace ought to be made through a neutral country.” He cautioned Häschen about the children now in Berchtesgaden. It would be okay “if the Americans enter it first,” he told her, “but if the Russians were first I was to kill myself and my children,” she recalled. Oswald Pohl could provide Häschen with the requisite cyanide capsules. Courtesy of Pohl’s wife, Eleonore, Hedwig also now had another address in Teisendorf near Salzburg where she and her children could take refuge if they needed to flee from Berchtesgaden.
Meanwhile the war went on for Peiper. The I SS and II SS Panzer Corps were essayed on either side of the Sarviv Canal to attack Hungary, about thirty miles to the west of the Danube River. Although the Leibstandarte was again brought up to nominal strength, the numbers were illusory. Tank, ammunition, and prime movers were in short supply, and the latest conscripts looked nothing like the strapping SS Zarathustrians of the early days. Even as the assault waves assembled in the muddy Hungarian beet fields, very young or very old replacement grenadiers arrived—young, homesick boys of seventeen just off the farm or old, unenthusiastic Schwabians of over thirty-five years. The last offensive failed with even Hitler losing faith in the Leibstandarte.
Peiper’s battlegroup, had meanwhile pointlessly pierced deep behind Russian lines to Simontornya—to no avail. On March 22, the hydralike advance of the Soviet tank offensive split up the Leibstandarte in Hungary, prompting Otto Kumm, to send the tank battalion to open the Veszprém road. It was cloudless and warm at dawn the next day when Werner Poetschke assembled his tank commanders for a strike. Standing by a shed, he pointed out the enemy tank assembly on the horizon. Suddenly, there was a tremendous roar; a mortar bomb had exploded in the middle of the group. Poetschke staggered and fell. In great agony, he summoned his communications officer as they flopped his bleeding body onto a wooden door used as a stretcher. “Call Peiper on the radio,” he urged, “and tell him what happened.” Within three hours, the fierce panzer commander was dead. Under the heavy psychic blow, the entire division pulled back almost as in a rout. The few remaining tanks had to run a gauntlet, wildly shooting their way out of Veszprém. Peiper’s tank was hit twice.
Kumm ordered a shaken Peiper to the rear. But that night, Peiper ignored orders and drove 30 kilometers to Mattersburg to be at the burial of Poetschke and Hans Malkomes. On March 27, a pale and sallow Peiper looked on as the coffins were nested in muddy, open graves draped with the SS runes and heaped with flowers. The band played the “Song of the Good Comrade,” and the assembled honor guard fired a crestfallen salute. They were gone.
The morning after the depressing funeral, Peiper’s orderly abruptly shook him awake. “Colonel,” he said, pulling on his arm. “Get up! The Reichsführer wants to speak to you.” Peiper angrily rolled out of bed and got dressed. After his relief of military command on March 20, Himmler’s star had greatly dimmed. Everyone in the Leibstandarte knew that the SS Reichsführer was there to order everyone to remove their armbands on direct orders of Hitler. To Peiper, that was repulsive.
Himmler insisted he had nothing to do with the armband order and warmly offered dinner, treating Peiper “like a lost son.” This time, though, Himmler was chagrined. “It’s a terrible situation,” he admitted, “but we can improvise. Remember Frederick the Great.” Himmler rambled on as they took a short walk. “It’s very important now to defend Vienna,” he said blithely. “It shouldn’t be difficult because it is a big city.” Himmler was the perfect Monokelfritz! “I want you to come back with me. I need you urgently.” Light rainfall added to the gray, and Himmler mumbled something about “going his own way.” He had grandiose plans to raise a dozen SS divisions and Peiper could help with recruiting. It was farcical. “That’s impossible,” said the SS colonel, “I have no deputies. I can’t leave my troops.” That morning, his old cohort Jupp Diefenthal had been severely wounded by a machine gun burst. After dinner, Himmler smoked a cigar and offered red wine in an attempt to invoke the spirit of the old days. But Peiper’s telling of the recent fighting put a damper on any rosy feeling—Diefenthal would lose his left leg. As Himmler said farewell, he seemed wistful. It was over.
Returning, Peiper and his command were swept up in a losing battle with the Russians in the Vienna Woods, with one veteran after another dying in the hopeless sacrifice. Hedwig Potthast no longer received any letters from Jochen Peiper.
That same Easter, Thilde Potthast was writing to her sister, Hedwig, after having had to evacuate from Kolmar-Berg in Luxembourg with her Napola school girls to the old medieval abbey on Reichenau on Lake Constance. Amid the calamity Thilde never received another letter from Hedwig, who was still at Berchtesgaden after returning from a frenzied visit to see a convalescing Himmler at Hohenlychen. And Himmler himself?
On April 19 the head of the SS main office, SS Gen. Gottlob Berger, arrived on orders to Himmler’s headquarters, now sixty kilometers northwest of Berlin. Peiper knew Berger well from his days with Himmler. Also there was SS Oberstgruppenführer Hans Prützmann, the man charged with the Operation Werwolf. Himmler ventured that his Werwolves would revive National Socialism after a guerrilla war thwarted the Allied occupation. The logic was tortured at best, but Himmler cornered Berger: “Berger, I need you here,” he implored. “I must have a sensible man at my side.” History does not record how Berger responded to that irony.
In the evening Berger had dinner with Himmler and his head of the SS secret service, Walter Schellenberg. Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte listened incredulously as they discussed convincing Great Britain to consider peace negotiations through Sweden. Through Bernadotte, Himmler had just made secret arrangements to also meet Norbert Masur, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, whom he had covertly flown into Tempelhoff Airport that morning. It was clear to Berger that Himmler awkwardly sought surrender terms with the Allies—behind Hitler’s back.
On that same Thursday morning, April 19, 1945, Hedwig Potthast received what would be her last telephone call from Himmler. In the conversation, they spoke only of personal matters, but Himmler warned, “The situation is getting more difficult each day.” No matter, he said, promising to call the following day. And yet, strangely, that same afternoon SS Stubaf. Paul Baumert, who was serving as a courier, arrived with a personal message from Himmler. The message had the usual greetings but repeated there were “great difficulties.” Then ominously, the communique closed with “the hope that God would protect her, the children and Germany.”
Peiper was still fighting on April 19, although increasingly disillusioned. The old trusted commanders and subordinates in his command had been killed off in the terrible fighting in Hungary in mid-March—Werner Poetschke, Werner Wolff, and Heinz von Westernhagen.22 The very next day, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, on April 20, 1945, saw Jochen Peiper’s promotion to full colonel—SS Standartenführer. Indeed, Peiper would proudly claim that Hitler had personally called him in the field to bestow the honor. But as if to underscore the desperate circumstances, on that day Peiper orchestrated the rescue of eight of his wounded out of hellish fighting in Rohrbach, Austria, when the Russians blocked evacuation by Red Cross ambulance with tank fire. Peiper retaliated with a counterattack against the Soviets probing Hainfeld. Hand-to-hand combat broke out amid a thick mortar barrage. Hardly a house was left standing in the Austrian village as the battle for its streets eddied back and forth. Peiper personally directed the assault, with all eight of the wounded brought out after being strapped on top of one of his tanks.
Meanwhile Peiper’s mother and father, Charlotte and Woldemar, fled bombed-out Berlin, not willing to be in the city to greet the Russians—a foregone conclusion. By April 15, 1945, Woldemar had reached Bad Gastein in Austria, some seventy kilometers south of Salzburg. That village and the sanatorium where he had recuperated from heart problems before being released from the army in 1942 was an ideal hiding place from the Russians. Woldemar listed his situation as “refugee without employment.” Yet his registry card there listed his most recent place of work as a businessman in Warsaw!
Now the Russians were at Berlin’s doorstep. On Hitler’s birthday, Friday, April 20, Himmler and Berger journeyed to Berlin, detouring via Nauen to avoid the closing Allied forces. They reached the city in the afternoon to find the streets wrecked and smoking. Whereas the capital often looked decorative for Hitler’s birthday, only the most ardent fascist dipsomaniacs sought to display allegiance. Even so, those calling on Hitler saw red, white, and black Nazi flags limply draped on the walls of ruins while pathetic placards proclaimed, “Die Kriegsstadt Berlin grüsst den Führer!—“The War City of Berlin Greets Our Leader.” Meanwhile long-range Russian shells whistled overhead and exploded dangerously close. Debouching from their cars, the two men ran for their lives.
Passing the guards and reaching the inside of the Reich Chancellery, Himmler and Berger were greeted by a bleak sight. Göring, Ribbentrop, Karl Dönitz, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and Albert Speer stood in the huge reception room of polished marble with thirty-foot high ceilings. It was now woefully ravaged. Once intended as the starting point for the reconstruction of Berlin and as a showcase of the Third Reich, the building was now in a splintered ruin, with fragments of concrete and stone strewn about. Almost all of the windows in the great building were shattered. Hitler’s supremely ostentatious monument to his personal power looked meretricious and somehow deeply diabolic. Then the Führer appeared at the far entrance to the ruin, looking stooped and diminished.
With the others, Hitler made a solemn tour of the Chancellery. As he received the men, “his whole body shook violently.” The German leader blustered in mock confidence that the Russians were about to suffer their greatest defeat in Berlin. There were side glances as he spoke. No one said anything, but several, including OKW Chief Wilhelm Keitel, encouraged Hitler to leave while there was still time. “I know what I want,” he said. “How can I call upon the troops to undertake my decisive battle for Berlin if at the same moment I withdraw myself to safety? I shall leave it to fate whether I die in the capital or fly to Obersalzberg at the last moment!” Their leader seemed bent on dragging all with him down to total destruction. With that exchange concluded, the paladins of high Nazi power offered wishes for his fifty-sixth birthday. Each man stepped forward to clasp a feeble hand. Albert Speer was impressed by the maladroit silence: “No one knew quite what to say.”