Chuck Yeager – encounter with an Me-262

“Yeager’s First Jet” by Roy Grinnell (P-51D Mustang)

Chuck Yeager had grown up poor on a hardscrabble farm alongside the Mud River in Myra, West Virginia. As a kid he butchered hogs, picked beans, and shot squirrels to help put food on the family table. In high school he was a fine athlete, playing on both the football and baseball teams. He was also a good student, particularly in mathematics. His hobby was tinkering with old cars.

In 1941, Yeager joined the US Army Air Corps as a private, serving at the Victorville, California airfield where he showed special aptitude as a mechanic. After two years he was promoted to sergeant and chosen for pilot training at Luke Field, Arizona, where Yeager’s instructors said he was a natural. They taught him to fly in a Stearman biplane, and soon he was wringing it out in aerobatics. He won his wings and a promotion to Flight Officer on 10 March 1943.

Assigned to the 363rd Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group, Yeager moved up to flying P-39s at the Air Corps base at Tonopah, Nevada. Training there was rigorous. Some of his squadron mates washed out, and others were killed in accidents. Yeager’s reactions to these misfortunes was a shrug. Anybody who bought the farm was “a dumb bastard,” which was a fighter pilot’s way of handling the possibility of his own death. One of Yeager’s fellow pilots was Bud Anderson, who flew with him throughout the war and became a life-long friend. Together they and the other young studs often visited the bars and whorehouses in Tonopah, and sometimes raised enough hell to be chased by the sheriff.

The group was then sent to California for training to fly as escorts for bombers. While there Yeager met his future wife, Glennis Faye Dickhouse. “She was pretty as a movie star,” he said, “and making more money than I was.”

Next, the group moved to Casper, Wyoming for still more training. On 23 October 1943, Yeager very nearly lost his life when his P-39’s engine caught fire and he had to bail out. He made a rough landing, fracturing several vertebrae. For a while it was questionable whether he would ever fly again, but he refused to give up, and after a long hospital stay convinced doctors that he’d fully recuperated. He rejoined his squadron just in time, for at the end of December, the 357th Fighter Group was shipped overseas to England.

Early in 1944 the unit became the first in the 8th Air Force to be equipped with Mustangs. The pilots received the rugged new fighters with great enthusiasm. Yeager thought the P-51 was the best aircraft he’d ever flown, and named his “Glamorous Glennis,” after his girlfriend.

On his seventh mission, escorting bombers to Berlin on 4 March, he posted his first victory, shooting down a Bf-109. The following day he flew escort duty again, and over France he was bounced by three Fw-190s. The German pilots were old hands; while two of them attacked him from behind, the third dove on him and shot up his Mustang. The engine seized, and he bailed out. He landed in a forest, bleeding from numerous injuries, and hid there for two days.

During that time he had nothing to eat but a chocolate bar, and at night would sleep huddled under his parachute. On the third day he was discovered by a farmer, who put him in touch with members of the French Resistance.

On 30 March, with the help of the Maquis, Yeager escaped to Spain. It was a miserable trip, climbing over the Pyrenees in the freezing cold and sleeping in caves, while the Germans searched the mountains from the air in a Fieseler Storch. But he eventually made it to Madrid, where he stayed until the U.S. consulate arranged for his return to England on 15 May.

His troubles were not over, however. He was told a regulation prevented anyone who had evaded capture from going back into combat. The theory was that if he were shot down again he might reveal information concerning the Resistance to the Germans. Yeager appealed directly to General Eisenhower, who cleared him to rejoin his group.

With his extraordinary flying skills, his 20/10 eyesight and his aggressiveness, Yeager established an excellent record. He once downed five German fighters in a single battle. And on 6 November 1944, he saw an Me-262 for the first time.

That day Yeager’s group, led by Major Robert Foy, was returning from a mission to Germany. The fighters were escorting B-24s that had bombed factories near Minden, 70 kilometers east of Osnabrük. With the 357th was another fighter group, the 361st, also flying Mustangs.

Once the bombers reached a safe area, the two fighter groups left them and split up. The pilots of the 357th swung west, heading back to base, and a few minutes later were attacked by five Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny. Yeager turned to meet them. He’d heard about the new type of aircraft, but actually witnessing their speed was a surprise. One of them fired at him and missed, and as it hurtled by, he opened his throttle and put his Mustang into a vertical bank. When he came about he fired his .50-caliber machine guns and got a few strikes on the jet. Moments later the enemy aircraft vanished into cloud.

In chasing the Me-262, Yeager had become separated from his wingman and the other Mustangs in his group. Now he was alone. He eased back on his power settings, and again turned for home.

As he flew over Achmer, he noticed what he thought was a well-disguised airfield with an extremely long runway. He decided to have a closer look, and descended toward it. His combat report described what happened next.

“I spotted a lone 262 approaching the field from the south at 500 feet. He was going very slow, about 200 mph. I split-essed on him, and was going around 500 mph. Flak started coming up very thick and accurate. I fired a single short burst from around 400 yards, and got hits on his wings. I had to break straight up, and looking back saw the enemy aircraft crash-land about 400 yards short of the field. A wing flew off outside the right jet unit. The plane did not burn.”

This was Yeager’s only encounter with an Me-262. By war’s end he’d posted eleven and one-half victories, most of them over Bf-109s.


The World at the Death of Stalin

When the dictator’s death was announced, his subjects reacted first as if stunned, and then with mass hysteria. A great silence is reported to have fallen almost everywhere in the huge empire that he had dominated, from Rostock on the Baltic to Vladivostok, ten time zones away. Stalin had been in the tradition of despots who had ruled Eurasia, the most recent of whom had been Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane, threatening the Balkans, Persia, China, one sign of their capital a pyramid of skulls. Stalin had their type of absolute power since 1929, but with modern methods of communication, and the USSR had been convulsed. The old peasantry had been destroyed, 40 million of them crammed into towns and cities in a few years, many other millions starved to death or deported, and the rest living a scratch existence. A vast industrial machinery had been set in place, then there had been more millions of deaths in the course of political troubles, the ‘Purges’. Then had come the Second World War, another near 9 million deaths in the armed forces alone, and no-one knows how many further civilian millions. In 1945 had come the great victory over Nazi Germany, with Soviet troops conquering Berlin. Russians, for generations looked down on by Germans as backward and lazy, now saw tens of thousands of these same Germans marching through the streets of Moscow as prisoners, some of them losing control of their bowels in fear. Later on, seven elaborate skyscrapers went up in the capital, built by the captive German labourers, who were regarded as better bricklayers than ever the Russian natives would be. (In 1953, 3 million of these prisoners of war were still working, as forced labour; of the 90,000 men who had surrendered at Stalingrad, only 9,000 ever managed to return.) Then, in 1949, Communism made another enormous demonstration of its strength. The Soviet Union exploded its first bomb. In China, after a long civil war, Mao Tse-tung defeated the anti-Communist Nationalists, and came to Moscow to celebrate, to get his orders. So too at intervals did some Mátyás Rákosi or Klement Gottwald from Budapest or Prague, fresh from some intra-Party knifing, their capitals grimly Stalinized. In the whole empire, factory chimneys fumed, proclaiming forced industrialization; in southern Russia there had been cannibalism; in places there were still shadowy guerrilla wars. But Stalin had not just survived Hitler; he had turned Russia into a superpower, her capital the centre of a hemispheric empire.

It was Stalin’s seventieth birthday, 21 December. In the preceding months, there had been endless tributes in the newspapers. Stalin was certainly a well-read man, but he claimed to dominate whole ranges of scholarship – even, at the time of the battle of Stalingrad, contributing an article to a zoological journal about a particular rock-fish that his rival, Trotsky, had apparently discovered (in Turkish exile). Now, scholars, artists, intellectuals, writers praised and imitated him: you had to open any article, more or less regardless of subject, with quotations from Stalin and Lenin. On 21 December Stalin’s face was shown on an enormous balloon above the Kremlin, and there were parades throughout the country, with floats to glorify ‘the greatest genius of all times and nations’. That evening, in the Bolshoy Theatre, there was a grand gala. On stage was a huge portrait of Stalin, and in front sat the leaders of Communism: Mao Tse-tung, fresh from his triumph; leaders of the various countries that the USSR had taken in 1944-5 in central Europe, including a bearded and weaselly little German, Walter Ulbricht; a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, ‘passionate’ Dolores Ibárruri, who had been the chief mouthpiece of the defeated left-wing side (her granddaughter in time became Russian interpreter for the king of Spain); and a small troop of hard faces from western Europe. The British, with a tiny Communist Party, were hardly represented (though, in 1953, for the funeral, a rich Communist-sympathizing London barrister, John Platts-Mills, did manage to attend, in his private aircraft), but the French were slavish and the Italians flattered. In the auditorium sat thousands of delegates, carefully ranked, with the senior families in the front rows, and, as first to enter, the family of Lavrenti Beria, who ran the security empire, with the millions of slaving prisoners. It was he who had stamped the Soviet atom bomb out of the ground, partly with internment camps, sharashki, where nuclear physicists worked as convicts. Speeches were then made, for hours on end, and a rising star was Nikita Khrushchev, whom Stalin had promoted (he was seated on the left, Mao Tse-tung on the right). Khrushchev’s speech ended with: ‘Glory to our dear father, our wise teacher, to the brilliant leader of the Party of the Soviet people and of the workers of the entire world, Comrade Stalin!’

Stalin had sunk monstrously into the consciousness and subconsciousness of the world, or at any rate the part of the world that he dominated. For eight years, since the end of the Second World War, his picture had been everywhere, huge statues had gone up to him, and secret-police chiefs all through the empire were kept vigilant at the idea that he might make a telephone call to them in the middle of the night – for his own working hours were strange. In the end, they killed him.

In 1953 Stalin was seventy-three and age was showing. The suspiciousness grew, and when his physical health seemed to be weakening, suspicion caused him to have his own doctors arrested, imprisoned, tortured to make them confess that there was a medical plot afoot. Then came signs that he was planning another culling of chief subordinates – Beria especially. In the 1930s, he had killed off three quarters of the Central Committee, along with much of the senior military establishment and then, for good measure, the chief of security who had organized it all. Now, the senior men could read the telltale signs that the old man was meditating another great purge. On the face of things, he could still be affable and welcoming, and on the night of 28 February/1 March he did stage one of his dinner parties, at which he liked people to get drunk (on one occasion a British ambassador had to be carried out). He told the servants not to wake him: he was usually around by midday in any event. But on 1 March, no. The bewildered staff did not know what to do, and, again because of the suspiciousness, there was no chief domestic secretary to take any responsibility; he had been carted off months before. The servants, with the 1,500 security guards posted all around, waited. A light finally did go on, at about six o’clock, in the quarters he had chosen for the night (out of suspicion, he changed his bedroom regularly, to foil would-be assassins). Then nothing more. Finally, since a document had arrived for him to read, a maid was sent into Stalin’s room. She found him on the floor, obviously victim of a stroke. He could hardly move or speak: only the terrible, malignant eyes had life in them.

Still no-one was prepared to take responsibility: the servants, the ministers they telephoned; only Beria could react. He told them to remain silent about the stroke, and arrived that night. The system being so strange, Stalin had remained for ten hours or so without medical attention, and now they had to go and ask his chief doctor in the special prison what he would advise. Beria himself at first told the guards to go, that Stalin was ‘sleeping’, and by the time doctors arrived, Stalin had been unattended for twelve hours. Did Beria do this deliberately? Stalin’s drunken son burst in, on 3 March, shrieked that they had killed him, and according to Molotov, Beria said as much: ‘I did away with him, I saved you all.’ As the old man slid into and out of coma, Beria did not bother to hide his hatred; by 3 March the doctors pronounced that there was no hope, and death came two days later, with a final scene that his daughter remembered:

He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of the fear of death . . . He suddenly lifted his hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all

• the old housekeeper in hysterics, on her knees the while, as members of the Party executive came and went, and Beria, at the end, hardly able to control his glee.

Between themselves, before Stalin died, they managed to cobble together an agreement to take over the government, without any immediate fuss, and Beria emerged as the main man, with the Ministry of the Interior, to which would be attached the Ministry of State Security. Division of these two had been one of the signs that Stalin intended to strip Beria of his full powers, whittle him down and then eliminate him. In the same way, the new men reversed an arrangement that Stalin had made, to expand the size of the Party’s leading body, the ‘Praesidium’ (the old Politburo), to twenty-five as against an original ten. The ten older members would have been swamped by the new ones – an obvious way in which the old man could prepare to get rid of them. With at least some agreement, the new leaders were prepared to let the people know, at last, of Stalin’s death. The body was embalmed and laid out, and crowds upon crowds came to see it. Pandemonium followed, and hundreds of people were crushed to death in the middle of Moscow.

What were the new leaders to do? They were themselves Stalinists, involved in all of his doings, with hardly a scruple to be detected. The one with the worst record was obviously enough Beria, and the others had every reason to fear the power that he could use against them: one of the first things that he had done, when Stalin began to die, was to go and remove top-secret documents from the dictator’s desk. What did they contain? Already, said Khrushchev in his memoirs, his colleagues were wary, with little signs to each other of apprehension as to what Beria might do. They apportioned the various offices among themselves, and Khrushchev got what seemed to be the least of them – he was one among eight other secretaries of the Central Committee – while Georgy Malenkov took Stalin’s seat as head of the Council of Ministers. In the system, and the problem grew more complicated without a dictator, offices sometimes lacked the power that their names should have meant. Did the Party govern, and what was the role of the State in that event? And which part of the Party really had the power – the police or security element, later known as the KGB? These questions came up as soon as Stalin had died, and a struggle for power duly commenced.

However, to start with, there was a somewhat strange business. The Stalin tyranny began to be whittled down, and elements of liberalization came in. People started to come back from the huge prison camp network. Some, when arrested, had had the kind of acute intelligence that Communism fostered – a matter of survival, to guess what to do – and had confessed to crimes that were manifestly ridiculous. Thus, the director of the Leningrad Zoo had confessed that he had staged ballet rehearsals outside the cages so as to drive the monkeys mad. Any commission looking into ‘crimes’ would of course at once spot a preposterous one, and release the man. But there were other pieces of relaxation that touched on the two central themes of Soviet history from then onwards. These had to do with the non-Russian peoples on the one side, and relations with Germany on the other. Both themes now came up, and it was a measure of the strangeness of the system that the liberalizer, in both, was Beria, the man of Terror whom his colleages feared. However, given that this was a system in which information was very carefully doled out or distorted, the secret police were the agency best able to know what was going on, through a huge network of spies, and experts on various foreign countries. Beria knew well enough that the country was poor, sometimes famished, living in often disgusting conditions. Oppression at home and abroad cost an enormous amount, distorting production. Liberalization would solve some of this. Half of the USSR’s population consisted of non-Russians, and these had generally been run, tyrannically, through Russian Communists. In the Ukraine, where there had still been nationalist partisans fighting in the forests until very recently, Russians, not Ukrainians, had been trusted and in the Caucasus, the Baltic, Central Asia, it had been much the same. Whole peoples had been transported, in any event – the Chechens, for instance, to far-off Kazakhstan, along with the Tatars of the Crimea, who lost half of their population in the process (the Chechens, once they arrived, decided to reintroduce polygamy, so that their population could be restored). Now, Beria allowed some non-Russian Communists to take over, locally. Even in 1953 it caused head-shaking in Moscow. Stalin had survived Hitler’s attack largely because he put himself at the head of a Russian national movement, as distinct from a Communist one. What would happen if loyal Russians were now displaced by slippery Georgians and, worse still, Central Asians, who would use their power to instal their brothers and their cousins and their uncles through some hidden tribal or even sectarian network? Playing off the nationalities against Moscow was dangerous; in the end it brought down the USSR. There were pre-echoes of that in Beria’s post-Stalin months.

But he also had a sense of strategy in foreign affairs. Stalin may have been absolute master at home, but he had the modern countries all against him, and a war was going on, pointlessly, in the middle of Korea. In 1945, when Hitler’s Germany had been smashed, the USSR had been in alliance with the West, and various arrangements for the post-war period had been drawn up. From Beria’s viewpoint, these had gone very badly wrong: the West had been misplayed. NATO now existed and it united western Europe, despite the existence in France and Italy of strong Communist parties; West Berlin was a leech attached to a main artery of the Soviet system; West German industry was recovering fast and would clearly be used for the rearmament of the country. The same was coming to pass in Japan. What had the USSR got in return for this? Peasant countries on her borders, each quite complicated. It had also gained East Germany, now dressed up as the ‘German Democratic Republic’, but everyone knew that it was a fake state. The chief element was that American troops were stationed in western Europe, that nuclear weaponry was in the air, that western Europe was overcoming the post-war crises, and American officials were all around, to encourage freer trade, both within Europe and with the USA. From Moscow’s viewpoint this was all very alarming, maybe presaging a general attack, and in his last years Stalin himself expected a war. Beria knew different: no-one knowing, through the extraordinarily highly placed Soviet spies, what was really being calculated in the West could have any serious idea that it would go to war. If NATO existed, if the Americans maintained a military presence in Europe, this was purely in response to Soviet provocations – a long list of cruelty and unnecessary aggression, including even the continued use of old Nazi concentration camps. There were still some idealists who chose to go and live in the ‘German Democratic Republic’, or ‘the other Germany’ – Bertolt Brecht the main one, though there were other men and women who had detested California. Disillusionment followed.

At this stage, German reunification was still a matter for diplomatic competition. The West argued for free elections, and meanwhile got the United Nations, which the West at the time controlled, to set up a commission to study the subject (it was refused entry to East Germany). At the time, there was also question of a German contribution to defence – the European Defence Community being the chief vehicle for this, and part of the post-Marshall arrangements that were the basis of the later European unification. This of course worried Moscow – she had always feared an alliance against her of the entire West, Germany included. Now, some of those same German generals who had reached Leningrad, Moscow, the lower Volga and the Caucasus were apparently being groomed again for an attack. Stalin himself had responded with a note, of 10 March 1952, which became famous, and over the interpretation of which some foolish historical statements have been made. He proposed the formation of a German government, to include the East; it would be recognized for the purposes of a peace treaty; Germany would be neutral, i.e. would not join any Western organization at all, including the economic ones; and might have her own army; and would be able to return civil and political rights. East German Communists proudly assured the Left-leaning Italian socialist Pietro Nenni that they would soon be in much the same position as the Italian Communist Party, i.e. waiting in the wings for power. Stalin also still had millions of prisoners in his thrall, whose return would be a considerable gift. The aim, overall, was at German national sentiment – there was even mention of giving political rights back to SS men – at the very moment when treaties signed in Bonn and Paris for a European army were supposed to be ratified, and the timing was not coincidental. The three Western powers consulted, and they then put the question as to free elections; they also said that a future German government should be free to choose alliances. The exchanges went on until September, always failing on these two points, since the USSR would never accept a united Germany, allied with the West, and despite some effort with the small print, never accepted that the elections would be really free. Anti-Cold War historians held the Stalin note up as evidence that the man was sincere about German neutrality and unification, ‘Finlandization’ as it came to be called, but subsequent evidence shows that he gave the matter much thought – the note went through fourteen versions, three of them annotated by him – and seems to have been possessed by the notion that he could deliver a Communist Germany, just as Czechoslovakia had produced a strong Party. The Party of Socialist Unity (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland, or SED) in East Germany was groomed for control of the entire country, and was told to accelerate ‘the construction of socialism’ in April 1950. The next Party congress, in July, went ahead with collectivization of agriculture, heavy-industrial plans and the extinction of small-scale trade and workshops. If Stalin did not get the Germany he wanted, he would in other words at least get his bit of Germany to fall into line.

In any event, the West Germans quite clearly preferred their freedom to their national unification. Adenauer, the Christian Democratic leader, was certain that there could be no honest arrangement with the USSR and was determined to go ahead with the Western programme, even if that meant accepting a divided Germany. He worried that the West might let him down, with some Allied conference that would leave Germany at Moscow’s mercy – some European security arrangement of the sort had even been suggested by an American Secretary of State (James F. Byrnes) in 1946. He also had an argument, that a prosperous and democratic West Germany would in the end act as a magnet for the East as a whole: and so indeed it did, though Adenauer (and the Frenchman, Schuman) were reckoning on up to ten years, and not nearly forty. The West Germans went ahead with rearmament plans and even conscription, although many of the Social Democrats detested the idea, as for that matter did some of the Christian Democrats. The French, too, had swallowed their doubts, despite threats of ‘Guns for Huns’. The Soviet side had offered (and Molotov stressed the offer again in 1954) some European security system that would include the USSR but exclude the USA and of course NATO Germany. This idea, to be launched with the sort of large international conference that the USSR could quite easily manipulate (the other countries being divided among themselves, with a number of small ones to cause trouble), was now in the air. It was ‘Europe for the Europeans’, and it later grew nuclear-free extrapolations; in time it became ‘our common European home’ – a famous enough expression, later on, under Gorbachev, but promoted before him by much harder men. The idea was not unpopular in some circles in Germany and elsewhere, and even had attractions on the Right. But there was one unshakably strong argument against it: Stalin and all his works, particularly the repulsive little state in East Germany. Its capital, East Berlin, had been rebuilt in homage to Moscow. The centre, the Alexander-Platz, was a gigantic field of concrete, and off it marched the Stalin-Allee, another hideous boulevard of concrete, with a peculiar smell, partly made-up of local low-quality coal and partly of the Soviet method of oil refinery. Along it went lorries, packed with rubble, and occasional large, curtained, black cars, carrying the unlovely Communist bosses. There was another peculiarity to East Berlin. Bomb damage did not mean that old buildings were torn down, as in the West. Instead, they were patched together, at least in areas such as the Schönhauser Allee or the Vinetastrasse, outside of the international gaze, ripe for ‘gentrification’ two generations down the line, but at the time almost uninhabitable. No German in his senses would want to live there.

The tensions of 1952 were such that Stalin was obviously thinking of a war, and he told Mao to prepare for one. Then came, perhaps in preparation for it, a new ‘purge’, both at home and in the satellite states, to dispose of potential traitors before they had time to act. He did not trust Jews at all, and they were, in the main, eliminated from leading positions in the satellite states, and from influential ones in Moscow, though the Budapest ones had an adhesive quality, and he sacrificed some gentiles instead. Paranoia of an extreme kind reigned, but Stalin was untouchable, had knees knocking, and his nominees, while secretly hating the system, could only wait for his death.

Such was the position on 5 March 1953. Beria, with understanding from Georgy Malenkov, now moved into the vacuum, took charge of things, and had a strategy of his own. In the first place, Stalin’s crude challenges to the West had left no room for the divisions within it. We now know, for instance, that the Americans were not really using West Germany as a tool against the USSR: up to 1950, they regarded Bonn as a provisional solution, and one that had been forced upon them; they still used the machinery set up at Potsdam. But then had come the Korean War, and in 1952 Eisenhower was elected President on a strongly anti-Soviet platform: he seemed even to be saying that the USA should make use of its then enormous superiority in nuclear weapons. The Germans themselves were divided, and the one argument that Adenauer could always use was that East Germany was a tyrannically run place – no advertisement for life under ‘socialism’. The new leaders were clearly anxious to soften the line, and various things followed from this – on 27 March a limited amnesty (10,000 people, including Molotov’s Jewish wife); on 4 April, release of the imprisoned doctors of the ‘plot’; on 10 June, dropping of Soviet claims against Turkey; in June, resumption of relations with Yugoslavia and even Israel; in the same period, the Chinese at last made the vital concession in Korea, with an armistice declared in July. In fact, on 19 March the new leaders, including the true Stalinist Molotov, agreed that the Korean War must be stopped, and the Chinese foreign minister, Chou En-lai, got his orders to that effect on 21 March, in Moscow.

To all of this there was a nuclear background: the USSR was weak in that respect, and needed respite from Stalin’s warring, his turning every neighbour into an enemy. The essential question remained Germany, and here there were divisions, with Molotov following the Party line, to the effect that a Communist East Germany was a necessity. Beria had other ideas, and probably regarded the Party with contempt. Why not try a new tactic altogether: prepare to get rid of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht and all, in exchange for a Germany that would collaborate economically and politically? Such was the model of Rapallo, the Italian town where, in 1922, the USSR and Republican Germany, bizarrely represented by elderly homosexuals in pyjamas, had entered upon semi-alliance. Then, the two countries, isolated, made an agreement that even included considerable German help for Soviet industry and for that matter Soviet help for the German military. A normal and parliamentary Germany, detached from the West? A sort of Finland? And if it meant getting rid of little Ulbricht, why not?

Of course, in the then Soviet system, such things were not written down, and when eventually ‘revelations’ from the archives emerged, they did not really reveal anything more than would have been known to readers of the Reader’s Digest at its purest. Even Walter Pieck, a lieutenant of Ulbricht’s, kept a diary in a code of a code of a summary. Stray lines in memoirs alone ensured that something of the truth emerged. Once Beria started to suggest sacrificing East Germany for a new Rapallo, a strange episode followed. East Germany had been whipped into following the Soviet course, and half a million of her people left, through Berlin. Walter Ulbricht was asking for Soviet economic assistance and was told to move more slowly with ‘the construction of socialism’. The Praesidium discussed this on 27 May and sent a Note to the East Germans. Such documents had a character all their own. There would be a thick framework of ‘wooden language’, unreadable if you were not initiated. Men who sat through six-hour speeches of industrial statistics at enormous Party gatherings, applauding at the right moments, with stewards lining the wall, holding stopwatches, and indicating ‘stop’ when the designated speaker’s designated applause had been completed, were indeed initiated. If they just listened, they would find that at some point there would be a passage meaning something. This was a way of demonstrating the leaders’ power (similarly, if one of them gave an interview, the technique was to answer a question at enormous length, boring the interviewer into the ground).

On 2 June the Soviet Note said the East German leadership should, ‘to make the present political situation more healthy and to consolidate our position in Germany and the international arena, act over the German question such as to create a united, democratic, peaceful and independent Germany’. This was referred to as a ‘new course’ and there was to be some liberalization in East Germany; some of the ‘construction of socialism’ measures were to be cancelled, and the Soviet Control Commission would be replaced by a civilian, Vladimir Semyonov, political adviser to the Control Commission, a member of the NKVD and close to Beria. He was to replace Ulbricht with more pliable figures – Rudolf Herrnstadt, editor of the Party newspaper, and Wilhelm Zaisser, head of East German security, also close to Beria. After all, even East German Communists were sometimes uncomfortable with being hated and lied to. At the same time reparations were ended, and the Soviet firms set up to exploit East Germany were disbanded. Beria was in effect giving some sense to the Stalin Note of March 1952 – not intending full-scale Communization of Germany but, instead, looking for co-operation or ‘Finlandization’. From 2 to 4 June there was a conference at Berlin, ‘the new course’ being explained to Ulbricht. He went ahead with some concessions as far as small trade and farmers were concerned, and he released a few hundred political prisoners, but he did nothing to lessen the load on the industrial workers. His goal was a Communist Germany. That had been the whole purpose of his life, and he probably had some sort of encouragement from within Moscow. Ulbricht knew how the system worked. He resisted the pressure, and instead launched a ‘provocation’ (meaning, in Continental and Communist parlance, an action designed to produce its opposite). He decreed at once, in mid-May, that each worker must produce 10 per cent more, while rations went down – equivalent to a drop in wages and an increase in hours worked. The provocation duly provoked trouble. On 16 June there were demonstrations in the very centre of ‘the construction of socialism’, by builders working on the grotesque Stalin-Allee. Did Beria’s enemies stage a provocation, to discredit ‘the new course’ and Beria, in collusion with Ulbricht and Pieck, who had been trotting in and out of Soviet offices? Or were the demonstrations just what they purported to be, a rising against exploitation? On 17 June the unrest spread, with workers in the big factories in other centres of industry joining in. That day, the Soviet authorities declared martial law and sent in tanks; some 200 people were killed. The whole episode gave the West, and West Germany in particular, excellent propaganda.

It also discredited Beria. A conspiracy now grew against him, and it was inspired by Nikita Khrushchev. He had the very useful talent, in that system, of threatening no-one. He had risen through the Party, some of the time as manager of Moscow (where he tore down many old buildings). He was fat and piggy-eyedly jovial, and had a rustic air: his colleagues wrote him off as second-rate. When they agreed on the post-Stalin arrangements, their idea was to return to the days when the secretary of the Central Committee was just a technician, drowning in files. But Stalin himself had used that administrative post to great effect, because the other men in the Politburo ignored him while they fought among themselves; he controlled appointments to this or that Party function, and knew who was who. Khrushchev also knew how to do this, promoting men who would later be very useful allies. Meanwhile, given the fear of Beria that existed among the others, there was some response to Khrushchev’s prompting when he told them that Beria must be overthrown. The Berlin affair gave him a very good excuse. He had another useful ally. The war hero Marshall Georgy Zhukov had been sidelined by Stalin, and the successors brought him back as deputy defence minister: that meant troops on their side. The plotters were careful never to talk openly, there being informants or ‘bugs’ all around; they behaved towards Beria as if all were normal, even chaffing him about his spies, and in Khrushchev’s case accepting lifts in his car.

On 26 June a meeting of the Praesidium of the Council of Ministers had been called by Malenkov, who had been left in the chair. He was programmed to say at some stage that Party matters On 26 June a meeting of the Praesidium of the Council of Ministers had been called by Malenkov, who had been left in the chair. He was programmed to say at some stage that Party matters should be discussed, and that Beria’s office needed to be rationalized. Beria’s men were sitting outside the room as usual, and they had to be neutralized: that was done by Zhukov’s men, who had had weapons smuggled in. Beria arrived (as usual) self-important and late, with a briefcase. Malenkov opened up, questioning Beria’s role, and when Beria opened the briefcase, intending to take out papers, the conspirators feared that he would produce a gun and called in Zhukov’s men. They arrested him and, when dusk fell, smuggled him out of the Kremlin, wrapped in a carpet. He went off to a military prison, where he was soon joined by his closest collaborators, the torturer Viktor Abakumov especially. Written pleas, hysterical in tone, went out from the cells to Malenkov, but after a secret trial Beria was executed the following December. His crimes were publicly denounced by his ex-colleagues. Indirectly, he was taking the blame for what Stalin had done, and they were distancing themselves as best they could from the tyrant: Communism was to have a human face.

Khrushchev, the least regarded of these colleagues, did indeed have a human face, though pachydermic, and he was now asserting himself. In appearance, Malenkov had the chief role, but he had been Beria’s associate, and the next stage was for him to be eliminated. Yet again, Khrushchev was underestimated: he now became, in September, first secretary of the Central Committee, and thereby controlled agendas and appointments, and so low did the others rate him that his nomination came only after several other apparently more pressing items on the Central Committee’s list of topics for the day. Meanwhile, Malenkov had his own ideas as to liberalization. Prices were cut, and peasant taxes also; he even proposed allowing peasants to have small plots of their own, whereas in Stalin’s time all of the land was supposedly collective in case peasants were tempted to work privately, for themselves. Other ideas came up. For instance, there had long been a tension between Party and State, in the sense that the machinery of the State did not have any independence, operating as the Party wanted, and through Party nominees (the nomenklatura of people ‘cleared’ by the Party). This had economic consequences, in that industry might be shaped by some powerful boss, to build up his own empire, regardless of economic sense, and there was similar trouble with appointments, as square pegs were put into round holes. Late in 1953 Malenkov told the Party that some government agencies must be removed from its control, and made himself very unpopular. Besides, Khrushchev set himself up as the agricultural specialist, and made little effort to conceal the truth – that Russians were eating less well than they had done before the Revolution itself. In 1954 Malenkov was gradually effaced, Party defeating government; early in 1955 he was formally demoted by the others. Khrushchev had won.

Nikita Khrushchev was of just the generation to think that Communism would triumph, worldwide. He was born of peasant stock in a small town of the Ukraine, Yuzovka (now Donetsk), his family straight from the land, mostly illiterate. Yuzovka took its very name from foreign capital, in that the man who developed its mines was a Welshman called Hughes, and the young Khrushchev went down the mines. But the family did not drink, his parents pushed him, he acquired an education because his mother enlisted the help of a priest (Khrushchev, like so many Bolsheviks, was a good mathematician), and when the Revolution came, he joined in and worked his way up. This was all quite standard for the USSR in the twenties and thirties: the peasant Khrushchevs displaced the Jewish intellectual Trotskys who had originally led the Revolution (a quarter of Party deaths in the early twenties were suicides). Stalin controlled whole waves of men like Khrushchev, and was very cunning in setting them against each other. He also made sure that they had to take their share of responsibility in his rule of murder and mass imprisonment, and Khrushchev’s own career shows that he joined in without demur. But he was himself quite cunning, and learned that, if you wanted to advance in Soviet politics, you needed not to be a threat to anyone, even not to be taken seriously at all. His role at the top level was to play the buffoon who nevertheless somehow got things done. In manner, Khrushchev was that Russian figure, the clown, but, as Arthur Koestler said, a clown can look very sinister, seen close to.

Khrushchev was not the type of man to have doubts about the eventual victory of Communism. It had catapulted him from Yuzovka to the Kremlin, of course, but it had also catapulted Russia. In the days of Yuzovka, she had counted as backward, filled with illiterate peasants, and she had lost a war against Germany. After the Revolution, she had become a great industrial country and defeated Germany. There was much wrong with this very simple picture, but that would not have crossed Khrushchev’s mind: Communism had started off with a meeting, of about forty people, in 1903, and now look where it was – dominating more of the world than the British Empire had done. Khrushchev himself, the former peasant and apprentice miner, now had an educated family, with a grand apartment overlooking the Moskva river, and grand offices in the Kremlin. He could snap his fingers, and the President of the USA would jump. Not bad for a boy from Yuzovka: the Revolution would win.

Charles, Third Earl of Peterborough’s Campaigns in Spain 1705-1706

Battle of Barcelona, (1705; War of the Spanish Succession) An Anglo-Dutch force had taken Gibraltar (1704) and from there a fleet under Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell landed a force of 6,000 British soldiers, under the Earl of Peterborough, north of Barcelona (August 1705). This force took the hill of Montjuich, south of the city, which led to the surrender of the city (9 October). Archduke Charles (later Charles VI of the Holy Roman Empire) was proclaimed King Charles III of Spain.

Peterborough, Earl of (1658-1735) Born Charles Mordaunt, he spent a short time at university and then served in the navy, largely in the Mediterranean under his uncle, Henry, who was a vice-admiral. He inherited the title of Viscount Mordaunt (1675). Mordaunt returned home (1680) and supported William of Orange, from whom he received many preferments when William became king (1689). He was involved in various intrigues, quarrelling with Marlborough and Godolphin. He became Earl of Peterborough (1697) on the death of his uncle. In 1705 he was given command of the army sent to Spain and undertook the siege of Barcelona, for which he claimed all the credit. Mordaunt was then given full powers of civil administration by the recently crowned King Charles of Spain and moved to Valencia where he stayed despite various other upheavals throughout Spain. He was ordered by Queen Anne to leave Spain for Italy. The rest of his command in Spain was glad to see him go. He sailed for Genoa. He returned to Valencia (1706) but was recalled to England (1707) where he was indicted for his dilatory conduct in Spain and Italy. The case became a power struggle between Mordaunt and Marlborough, and as Marlborough was out of favour Mordaunt was acquitted. He was made ambassador- extraordinary to Vienna (1711), where he incurred further displeasure. He returned to England (1712) and was made colonel of the Royal Horse Guards (Blues and Royals) of which post he was deprived (1715) on the accession of George I. He held no further military appointments of importance and spent the rest of his life in intrigue at home and on the Continent.

Most will have some familiarity with the campaigns and great battles of John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. Fewer may have the same knowledge of the campaigns conducted in the Iberian Peninsula during the course of the War of the Spanish Succession by Charles, Third Earl of Peterborough in the years 1705 and 1706.

The Earl and his small force, bolstered by timid allies, were constantly opposed by superior numbers yet managed to record a number of decisive victories in small encounters, larger battles and sieges. And all in under two years! At the end of his brief campaign the Earl left Spain, and within one further year all his successes were rendered pointless at the Battle of Almanza on 25th April, 1707, when Allied forces were defeated heavily by Marshal Berwick.

The Opening Phase

The early actions in this theatre were naval. On October 12th, 1702 Sir George Rooke forced the boom of the harbour of Vigo with his fleet of thirty British and twenty Dutch warships to destroy the French and Spanish fleets at anchor. He burned eleven men-of-war and captured a further ten. He also took as prizes eleven Spanish treasure galleons with their cargoes intact.

On July 24th, 1704 Rooke was again in action leading a combined British and Dutch fleet in the capture of the fortress of Gibraltar from the Spanish garrison under the Marquis de Salinas. The fortress resisted for a mere two days and Britain acquired the ‘rock’ for its naval power for the loss of only twelve officers and two hundred and seventy-six men killed or wounded. Apart from Rooke’s victories there was little other early success for the Allies facing the Duke of Berwick, the natural son of James II and Arabella, the sister of the Earl of Marlborough.

The Earl’s Campaign, 1705

Towards the end of May 1705 the Earl sailed from St Helen’s with a force of some 5,000 men, arriving in Lisbon on 20th June Here, besides taking on stores, he exchanged with the Earl of Galway two newly raised regiments of Foot for Dragoons. On 28th June the Earl sailed from Lisbon instructed “. . . vigorous push in Spain. . .” and began his campaign by laying siege to Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.

On 16th August 1705 the Earl’s small force anchored in the Bay of Barcelona, after having paused on route to seize the to make a fortress of Denia at the mouth of the Guadalquivir. The siege of Barcelona was rendered more difficult by the presence, a mile inland, of the fortress of Monjuick. This fortress dominated the landward approaches to the city and must first be taken by any enemy wishing to invest the city. The Earl’s timid ally, the Archduke Charles of Austria, was unenthusiastic about the prospects of success and so the siege did not open until 14th September.

The Earl, with only one aide, reconnoitred the fortress and, noting the laxity of the garrison, decided upon a surprise assault. Feigning the withdrawal of his artillery, Peterborough personally led a night march by 1,800 of his force upon the defences of the fortress. In three columns they made a dawn attack, carrying the outer works and ramparts under heavy fire. On hearing of a strong relief force from the city the attack began to falter and the early initiative was nearly lost. The Earl himself mounted the ramparts and, seizing a standard, rallied the attackers. Upon this renewed attack, the Governor of the fortress, fearing a larger scale assault, withdrew his force into the city’s defences. Peterborough’s forces then began to construct saps against the city. Soon the walls were breached but, before the city could be stormed, the Governor surrendered on 9th October. In this one action much of the area of Catalonia was secured for Charles.

After the successes at Denia and Barcelona Charles insisted that the army go into winter quarters. This gave time for the opposing forces of Philip V of Spain to regroup and consider how to go on the offensive.


Early in the spring of 1706 Philip’s forces besieged the small garrison of 500 troops holding San Mateo. The siege was commanded by the Marquis de las Torres with a force of some 4,000 Foot and 3,000 Horse. Peterborough was sent to raise the siege with a force of only 1,200 men. Facing such a daunting task the Earl resorted to a deception. He allowed the enemy to capture a message to the Governor of San Mateo stating that a large force was on hand to raise the siege. He then disposed his small force in the coppice and brushwood screened heights above San Mateo with such skill that Torres thought himself facing a far superior force and withdrew, raising the siege. Peterborough was able to enter San Mateo in triumph without the necessity of battle. He immediately decided to take the offensive and set off with a force of 200 Horse to pursue Torres 7,000! By harassing stragglers and intercepting messengers he was able to retain the initiative and keep the thought in his opponent’s mind that a large force was closing on him. So effective was this pursuit that Torres’ withdrawal became a headlong rout.

In the meantime the Duke of Arcos had besieged Valencia. The Earl set off to its relief with his small force. Following the customs of the day he began to entrench his force to threaten the besiegers. Negotiations were opened with Arcos, who was tricked into believing that his supervising engineer, general Mahony, was a traitor. Arcos arrested Mahony and raised the siege while Mahony’s force disbanded. Again the Earl had succeeded in raising a siege with a very inferior force. However, Torres and 4,000 men were marching to reinvest Valencia with a heavy artillery train embarked at Alicante. Peterborough’s superior intelligence gathering allowed both forces to be intercepted, thus preventing the siege from being renewed.

Despite the reverses at Valencia, Philip’s forces began a siege of Barcelona on 2nd April, 1706. With only 2,000 men the Earl set off to raise the siege. However, the superior force of the enemy compelled his force to remain on the heights above the city. The French reduced the fortress of Monjuick and breached the city’s walls. With an assault expected at any time, the Earl drew up a daring plan. By night he embarked his force in fishing boats from Leyette and ordered the British supporting squadron to sea. The French Admiral, fearing being trapped in the bay, ordered the French squadron to sea way for the small boats and their troops to enter the city. Seeing the squadron leave and the reinforcements entering the city the French were disheartened and raised the siege.

Briefly now Madrid was occupied, but Peterborough was unable to continue command whilst having the timid Archduke Charles for an ally. He was succeeded in command by the Earl of Galway.

On 25th April, 1707 Galway’s force of 15,000 Allied British and Portuguese troops, comprising twenty-five battalions of Foot, seventy-seven squadrons of Horse and forty guns, at the Battle of Almansa. Galway lost 7,000 men and thirty guns, were defeated by Berwick’s 30,000 French and Spanish, comprising seventy-two battalions of Foot, seventy-seven squadrons of Horse, and twenty-four guns. All the hard-won advantages of the Earl of Peterborough’s campaigns of the previous two years were lost.

Not until 27th July, 1710 did the Allies enjoy another major victory, when James, Earl of Stanhope, and his force of 24,000 men defeated Villaderia’s force of 22,000 men at the Battle of Almenara. The Spanish force was only saved from total disaster by nightfall. On 10th August, 1710 Charles defeated De Bay’s force of 20,000 French and Spanish at Zaragoza, taking 5,000 prisoners and 36 guns. However, on 10th December, 1710 Stanhope’s force was ambushed at Brihuega by Vendome’s force while retreating from Madrid to Barcelona. His entire force was killed or taken prisoner, Stanhope himself being taken captive along with his remaining 500 men. The following day, Vendome’s force defeated Charles at Tillaviciosa, taking 2,000 prisoners and 22 guns.

One of the king’s commissioners to reform the army

Since many officers had a proprietary interest in their offices, it is hardly surprising that some believed that those offices should produce a financial return. Charles Mordaunt, first earl of Monmouth (and later third earl of Peterborough), one of the king’s commissioners to reform the army, although himself a gentleman officer rather than a professional, strongly disapproved of the purchase system because `it disobliges all good officers that expect to rise by their service and diligence’. Monmouth was surprised and shocked to learn that there were two particular coffee-houses in London where colonels met to broker commissions as if they were taking bids on a public stock exchange. `They sell most scandalously to any man without the least pretence (against all the just ones) that gives them the most money.’ Such officers did not submit easily to military discipline, and Monmouth complained that they could not be counted upon to embark with their regiments for Flanders. But, it must be added, most people thought Monmouth was mad, and his was a minority voice.

Alexander II (1855-1881)

Emperor Alexander II and his wife, Empress Maria, with their son, the future Alexander III by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1870

Alexander II, who would one day be known as Alexander the Liberator, was crowned on August 17, 1856. He ascended the throne on the eve of Russia’s defeat in a hastily prosecuted war in Crimea; his first task as the new emperor was to get them out of it. Turning to France, he offered to negotiate a peace; the French demanded that Russia withdraw its ships from the Black Sea. It was the greatest loss the Romanov dynasty had ever known, but Alexander absorbed the blow to his pride. His attention was soon taken up with a more consuming project.

The glory of Alexander II’s reign was the freeing of the serfs. Since the days of tsar Alexei, serfs had been no better off than slaves. Nobles could not kill their serfs outright, but they could punish them so severely that death was the inevitable consequence. Serfs could not leave the estates where they were born, nor could they marry or own property. Serfs were themselves property. An emperor who wished to reward one of his nobles would dispense that reward in the form of rubles and “souls”—that is, human beings, serfs. Ninety percent of the Russian population were serfs, and serfs composed almost all of the army. Every emperor since Catherine the Great had looked for a way to free the serfs without destroying the Russian economy or sparking mass riots in the process, and all had abandoned the project while it was incomplete. But Nicholas I had made Alexander promise to do it on his deathbed—a strong motivation for success. The dying emperor had also extracted a promise from Elena Pavlovna, wife of Nicholas’s brother Michael, nicknamed “the Family Intellectual”, to help Alexander figure out how to do it. The new emperor would need all of her help.

He began on March 30, 1856, when, after informing the upper classes of Moscow that he intended to end serfdom, he instituted the Secret Committee on Peasant Reform. The chief difficulty was the entrenched resistance of the nobility, who were unwilling to relinquish their right to hold the same sway over other human beings that the tsar held over them. The next greatest difficulty centered around land. It was not enough to declare that serfs were free; they must have somewhere to live and a means of making a living. In 1858, Alexander and his empress made a tour of the countryside, visiting nobles who lived at a distance from Moscow and chastising them for not falling into line quickly enough. By 1861, the work was done. Alexander signed his decree in the presence of his brother, the liberal intellectual and reformer Konstantin (called Kostia), and his son and heir Nicholas (Nixa). No one knew what to expect; revolution was a possibility. Cannon were lined up outside the Winter Palace, just in case. But no uprising came. With the stroke of a pen, Alexander II had given to twenty-two million of his people the right to marry, to buy and own property, to leave the estate they were born on, to seek education. They still cultivated the land, but they could no longer be bought and sold. All the souls of Russia were now free.

Reform was the theme of Alexander II’s reign, along with the hope that reform engenders in a rigidly traditional society. Under Alexander I and Nicholas I, any hint of liberalism had been rigidly repressed, for fear that the anti-monarchial spirit that enflamed France during the revolution would spread to Moscow and St. Petersburg and undermine the war effort. Now that the tsar was establishing an independent judiciary and creating representative assemblies at the local government level (a greater degree of agency than any tsar had ever given to the Russian people) a spirit of rebellion was brewing in the so-called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was composed of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, parts of Ukraine, and western Russia. Alexander responded to this rebellion by sending his younger brother Kostia to be viceroy of Poland. A full-scale revolt, known as the January Uprising, broke out when Kostia began conscripting Polish boys into the Russian army. It was quickly suppressed, but Alexander’s ministers began to blame the tsar’s moderate tendencies for allowing civil unrest to breed. Under Nicholas I, poets, novelists, playwrights, university students and faculty, and other artists and intellectuals had been subject to strict government censorship. Alexander II had lessened these restrictions, and a radical element had arisen as a result. His reforms had given birth to a new element in society, the intelligentsia, made up of people who were poor and lower class but well-educated. Alexander punished them for writing radical articles in the newspapers, but they were not the heavy-handed punishments of his predecessors. Many jailed writers continued to write in prison.

The son and heir of Alexander II was Nicholas, called Nixa by his family. Nixa was regarded as the perfect heir, rather as his father had been. He was handsome, intellectual, independent, daring, and a model student for his tutors. As a very young man, he had taken a shine to Princess Dagmar, daughter of the King of Denmark, whom he had never met—it was her photograph that attracted him. In 1864, when he was almost twenty-one, Nixa traveled to Denmark, which had recently been defeated in a war against Prussia and Austria. His fancy for Dagmar, called Minny, turned to love when he met her in person. But shortly after their meeting, Nixa was diagnosed with cerebrospinal meningitis. He died in Nice, surrounded by Minny and his family, who had rushed to Europe to be with him. His twenty-year-old brother Alexander, called Sasha, was now heir to the Russian throne. Sasha had been devoted to Nixa, but he was unlike him in every way. Nixa had been slight; Sasha was huge. Nixa was intelligent and intellectual; Sasha was narrow-minded, traditional, and bad at foreign languages. Courtiers compared him to a peasant in his coarseness.

If Nixa was among the best-prepared of the Romanov heirs, Sasha was among the least prepared, even by the standards of younger brothers who unexpectedly move up in the line of succession. To give him credit, he was aware of his shortcomings. He worried that he did not have the judgment to tell an honest man from one that was merely ambitious and flattering. A further difficulty soon presented itself. The emperor and empress had become extremely fond of Minny, and it was their wish, as well as the wish of Minny’s parents in Copenhagen, that she now marry Sasha. As for Sasha, he had been impressed by Minny and admired her for her outstanding qualities, but he was in love with one of his mother’s maids of honor. Alexander II was angered by his stubbornness, and Sasha, who felt unfit for the throne, contemplated renouncing his claim on the succession. Nonetheless, he married Minny on October 28, 1866. After their marriage, he fell in love with her in earnest. Their first child was born on May 6, 1868. Named for his grandfather, he would grow up to become emperor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.

Earlier in 1866, a young radical named Dmitri Karakozov had lain in wait for the emperor near the Summer Garden, where Alexander walked daily in the company of his eighteen-year-old mistress Katya Dolgoruky. There, every afternoon, they paraded in full view of the admiring residents of St. Petersburg. Karakozov had fired his pistol at the emperor as he boarded his carriage, but the shot went astray and Karakozov was arrested. Alexander’s reaction to the assassination attempt was to tighten restrictions on the liberals in his ministries, and to strengthen the Third Section, the tsar’s secret police. But radical factions only grew in strength and numbers. Then, in 1867, while Alexander was visiting the World Fair in Paris at the invitation of Napoleon III, a young Polish man fired two shots at the emperor while he rode in an open carriage with his sons. Alexander escaped unscathed, and this man too was arrested.

In 1877, Alexander II declared war on the Ottoman empire in support of an Orthodox uprising in Bosnia-Herzegovina, backed by Serbia and Montenegro. The Russian people rallied to the cause of supporting their “brother Serbs” with a nationalistic enthusiasm not seen since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. The Ottomans were slaughtering Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria, but Alexander was forced to respond slowly, because the British were adamantly opposed to Russia regaining any of the Crimean lands it had conceded after the disastrous ending of Nicholas I’s war. Russia, however, was backed by the new German empire, which, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, had taken advantage of Russia’s cooling relations with Austria to unify the German states under Kaiser Wilhelm I and march on Paris.

Despite inept leadership, it seemed possibly by December of 1877 that Russia would take possession of the cherished prize of Constantinople at last. But the British, fearing this outcome above anything, deployed their navy in the Black Sea and threatened to enter the war on the Ottoman side. A stand-off ensued, only ended by a conference between the European powers in Berlin, which, among other things, awarded Russia control of part of Bulgaria. By the time matters had been settled in late 1878, Alexander was exhausted and beginning to feel his advanced middle age.

The revolutionary element in Russia was gaining momentum. In 1878, the governor of St. Petersburg was shot by a woman named Vera Zasulich, in full view of multiple witnesses. A jury trial exonerated her, however, because Zasulich’s attack had been motivated by the cruel treatment of political prisoners. Alexander was infuriated, and ordered that she be arrested again, but she escaped Russia before she could be re-apprehended. Her acquittal was a sign of the times. Assassinations and assassination attempts were carried out against other high ranking officials. In April of 1879, the emperor was nearly shot while out walking—the third assassination attempt he had survived. In 1879, Sofia Perovskaya, one of the leaders of a terrorist group that called itself Land and Freedom, made a fourth attempt on Alexander’s life by bombing the train he was traveling in. Then, in February of 1880, a servant at the Winter Palace, Stephen Khalturin, smuggled three hundred pounds of nitroglycerine into the palace, with the goal of bombing the tsar and his whole family as they sat down to dinner. When Khalturin detonated the charge, Alexander and his family were unharmed, but a large number of guards and sentries were killed.

Alexander’s response to the bombing of the Winter Palace was extraordinary. The reactionary heir, Sasha, insisted that he form a Supreme Commission, the head of which would be endowed with the powers of a dictator, to root out the terrorist cells. Alexander did so, but the man he placed at the head of the commission, Mikhail Loris-Melikov, was an unusually broadminded thinker. His goal was to root out, not only terrorism, but the causes of terrorism—such as censorship, judicial corruption, and high taxes. He fired the repressive minister of education and limited the powers of the secret police. These measures were partly successful, but the unrest continued.

In May of 1880, the Empress Marie, who had suffered from tuberculosis for many years, died in her sleep. Alexander had long ago promised his mistress, Katya Dolgoruky, that he would marry her if he were ever widowed. They were accordingly married in a private ceremony in July. Katya became Her Most Serene Highness, Princess Yurievskaya, but she was treated coldly by Alexander’s family.

In January of 1881, Alexander began working with Loris-Melikov on a series of reforms that would pave the way towards a Russian constitution. He intended to announce it before the public on the same day that Yurievskaya was to be crowned empress, March 4, 1881. But on March 1, on his way home to the palace after reviewing a parade of Guards, Alexander II at last fell victim to an assassination attempt organized by Sofia Perovskaya. A bomb was detonated under the carriage Alexander was riding in. The emperor was unhurt, but several people, including one of his bodyguards, a policeman, and two bystanders, had been wounded. The young man who threw the bomb was arrested immediately. Rather than fleeing the scene, Alexander went to inspect the remains of his carriage, when a second bomber rushed towards him. The explosion mortally wounded the emperor, the bomber, and injured others. Alexander’s legs were shattered; he was rushed home to the Winter Palace, where his family, having heard the explosions in the distance, were waiting anxiously.

The deathbed of Alexander II—the most moderate, compassionate ruler of the Romanov dynasty—was unrivaled in the family’s history for its tragic quality. The ruined body of the emperor clung to life long enough for last rites to be administered and for his family to witness his departure. His wife, Princess Yurievskaya, clung to his body until her nightgown was soaked with blood. When he drew his final breath, those present in the room saw a change settle over his thirty-six-year-old son, now emperor Alexander III. As heir to the throne, he had been compared to a peasant for his coarse humor and manners. Now, suddenly, he seemed to grow grave, as the burden of the throne came to rest on his shoulders. His entire reign would be a reaction to the brutal assassination of his father

Lee Rises to Top Command in the Confederacy

The Memorial Military Murals: Lee and His Generals (Summer), 1920 (oil on canvas glued to plaster walls), Hoffbauer, Charles C.J. (1875-1957) / Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, USA / acquired through merger with the Confederate Memorial Association / Photo credit: David Stover / Bridgeman Images

June 1, 1862

In the title to his 1974 biography of George Washington, historian James Thomas Flexner bestowed on his subject the epithet that most adequately describes his significance to the birth of the United States: The Indispensable Man. When it comes to the military history of the Confederacy, this very tag best suits Robert E. Lee. By installing Lee as the principal commander of Confederate forces, Jefferson Davis gave the Southern cause a general who remains among the most universally admired of history’s “great captains.” During the war, the people of the South came to idolize him, while those of the North—especially in the Union army—paid him ungrudging respect. A master of battlefield topography and a bold tactical innovator, he created the only strategy that had any chance of producing victory: break the Northern people’s support for the war with a relentless series of quick offensive blows that would force Union leaders to negotiate a peace favorable to the Confederacy. In this purpose, Lee ultimately failed, but when he judged that the time for surrender had finally come, Lee revealed another dimension of the qualities that made him the indispensable man. The force of his character helped ensure that the Confederates, having laid down their arms, did not take them up again for the kind of endless guerrilla struggle into which so many of history’s civil wars inexorably degenerate.

Henry Lee III left the practice of law at the outbreak of the American Revolution, was elected captain of a unit of Virginia dragoons, promoted to major in Washington’s Continental Army, and earned renown as commander of Lee’s Legion, a mixed cavalry-infantry unit, made up of highly mobile light troops, capable of guerrilla warfare as well as the most disciplined mobile warfare. “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—as he came to be called—emerged from the American Revolution as one of its most universally admired military figures, a hero given a gold medal by the Continental Congress, who went on to serve as governor of Virginia and US representative from the state’s 19th district. This was the glorious and gloried father of Robert Edward Lee.

By the time Robert came into the world in 1807, the Lees’ corner of that world was in steep decline. Light-Horse Harry’s plantation house, Stratford Hall, in Westmoreland, was no longer a magnificent showplace, and the house, the surrounding plantation, and the Lee slaves were in hock to myriad creditors. Nothing, it seemed, could stem the outflow of cash. In 1810, the hero of the Revolution was bundled off to debtors’ prison for a full year, and the rest of the family left Stratford for humbler quarters in Alexandria. When it looked as if circumstances could not possibly get worse, they did. On July 27, 1812, Baltimore newspaper editor Alexander Contee Hanson, a vigorous opponent of the War of 1812, was set upon by an angry mob. His friend Light-Horse Harry sprang to the rescue, waded into the melee, and was gravely injured. He tried to recover in the bosom of his family, but could not, and so, in 1813, set sail for the West Indies, where he lived apart from his wife and children until 1818. In that year, he embarked for home, but died, aged sixty-two, on Cumberland Island, Georgia, before he could reach Virginia.

The absence of husband and father had left the family even worse off financially than it had been, and Light-Horse Harry’s death meant that they were quite frankly poor. It fell to Robert to look after his ailing, aging mother. But if he was at all resentful, he never let on. With his bankrupt father gone, first to the West Indies and then to the grave, young Robert filled the void with the legend. Light-Horse Harry became in his imagination the ideal Virginian, and Virginia became Robert’s nation.

Robert E. Lee grew determined both to live up to his father’s legend and to redeem the man’s living memory. He secured nomination to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1825 and, over the next four years, made himself an academy legend. By the end of his plebe year, he was a cadet sergeant, an achievement literally unheard of at the time. By graduation, he stood second in his class but—and of this he was proudest—he had managed to earn not a single demerit in four years. He was an officer without blemish.

The best cadets were always routed into the Corps of Engineers, not only the most demanding army branch but, in an era when the mission of the United States Army was mainly to defend against invasion by sea, arguably the most important. The engineers designed and built seacoast forts, and Lee was assigned to oversee the laying of the foundation of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, Georgia, and to work on Fort Calhoun and Fort Monroe—the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” While assigned to Fort Monroe, he began his courtship of Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Custis Washington’s son, whom George Washington had adopted. They wed in 1831, a marriage of Virginia royalty.

Lee was a truly promising young officer. But there were any number of promising young officers in the American military, who generally struggled financially when there were no wars to fight. West Point graduates of Lee’s vintage typically served for a time before resigning their commissions in order to pursue some more profitable civilian enterprise. For the army at peace could offer very little. Lee was an exception. As an engineer in a time of national expansion, he had much to do. He directed the survey of the Ohio-Michigan state line, and he drew up a successful plan to arrest the Mississippi River’s movement away from the St. Louis levees. By this, he saved the river economy on which the city depended. He went on to other major civil engineering projects, which earned him acclaim and revealed a genius for strategic thinking. It was in 1842, while serving as post engineer at Fort Hamilton, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, that Captain Lee met Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson, who, as Stonewall Jackson, was destined to become Lee’s “right arm” in the victory that has been called his military masterpiece, the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863).

Lee could justifiably take great satisfaction in his achievements as an engineer, but, with a heart and mind always dedicated to his father, he longed for glorious combat. Opportunity approached in the spring of 1846 when Major General Winfield Scott named him to his staff during the US-Mexican War (1846–1848). As part of the most ambitious military campaign the US Army had ever attempted up to this point in its history, Lee’s staff service was no cushy rear-echelon job. As an engineer officer, he led topographical reconnaissance in advance of Scott’s army as it invaded Mexico, bound for Mexico City following an amphibious assault (the first in US Army history) on Veracruz. Lee’s mission was to determine the most advantageous routes of inland march and attack, as well as the best schemes for positioning artillery and field fortifications. There were no accurate maps to work from; therefore, there was no substitute for endless riding far in advance of the main columns. The hazard was extreme. Lee embraced it, and throughout the long march from Veracruz to the Mexican capital, it was Robert E. Lee who essentially commanded—and often personally carried out—the most important reconnaissance missions. At Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1847) and Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847), his battle intelligence enabled Scott to plot overwhelmingly effective flanking attacks executed through terrain so rugged that the Mexican commanders had left them undefended on the assumption that no army could negotiate such ground.

For gallantry, Lee was breveted to the rank of major after Cerro Gordo. He fought at Contreras (August 19–20, 1847) and Churubusco (August 20, 1847) after this and received a brevet to lieutenant colonel. Wounded—though not seriously—at Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847) in the assault on Mexico City, Lee was brevetted to colonel. It brought as well high praise from fellow Virginian Winfield Scott, who called Lee the “very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” When the Civil War erupted, Scott, as general-in-chief-of the US Army, tapped Lee to assume field command of Union forces. Lee not only turned him down, but resigned his commission, writing to General Scott on April 20, 1861, of his indebtedness to him for “uniform kindness & consideration” and promising to “carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame,” but expressing his own desire “never … again to draw my sword … [s]ave in the defence of my native State.”

The US-Mexican War gave Lee and a generation of American military officers their first experience of battle against a large opposing army. Lee took more away from the experience than most. He honed an already acute sense of how “the ground”—landscape, topography—shapes battle. This was essential to his tactical genius. He also repeatedly saw that frontal attacks, when victoriously executed, could be overwhelmingly effective. Perhaps he called upon the memory of such attacks when he proposed a frontal infantry assault over nearly a mile of open fields against well-defended Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 3, 1863). “Pickett’s Charge” would prove catastrophic for the Army of Northern Virginia and, ultimately, the Confederacy.

It is also likely that an extended experience of war during 1846–1848 made the peacetime army unappealing to Lee. He accepted appointment as superintendent of West Point in 1852 and performed brilliantly in the job, but jumped at the opportunity that President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, gave him in 1855 to serve as second in command of the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment in Apache and Comanche territory in Texas. His commanding officer was regimental Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, who would become one of the early generals of the Provisional Confederate army.

At between 8,000 and 16,000 officers and men, the pre-Civil War US Army was an intimate band of brothers, and when Lee experienced a family emergency—the death in 1857 of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis—he was readily granted leave to sort out a complex will and an estate encumbered by massive debts. At this time, Lee contemplated resigning his commission to try to save the estate, Arlington, and care for his wife, who was suffering from severe arthritis. But he could never quite bring himself to leave the army. Then, on October 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown raided the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), taking about sixty townspeople hostage, among them the great-grandnephew of George Washington. Lee was assigned to lead an ad hoc assemblage of Maryland and Virginia militiamen and a Washington-based detachment of US Marines to recover the armory and arsenal and to rescue the hostages. Lee carried out his mission successfully and thus played a role in an incident often seen as a prelude to the Civil War. He himself saw it only as the “attempt of a fanatic or madman” to set off a slave rebellion. But the nation rolled on toward dissolution. On February 1, 1861, shortly after Texas seceded from the Union, Brevet Major General David E. Twiggs, commanding officer of the Department of Texas, summarily surrendered his entire US Army command to Confederate authorities, resigned his commission, and accepted a commission as a general officer in the Confederate army. Now Lee paid attention. He immediately left Arlington for Washington. There he was promoted to full colonel in the regular army and assigned to command the 1st Cavalry on March 28, 1861.

That promotion had come at the urging of Winfield Scott, who also advised President Lincoln of his intention to give Lee the top field command of US Army forces. When Lee turned him down, Scott was both appalled and astonished. He had heard from others that Lee scorned the very idea of secession and thought the notion of a “Confederacy” ludicrous. It is unclear whether Scott knew that Lee had declared that he would “never bear arms against the Union” while simultaneously speculating that it might become “necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” Yet Scott subsequently learned that Lee, after turning down his offer of command of Union forces in the field, had also deliberately ignored the offer of a commission in the Confederate army. Accordingly, Scott made a final, desperate attempt to give Lee command in the North. That offer prompted Lee’s resignation, to which Scott responded that it was the “greatest mistake of [Lee’s] life.”

Three days after resigning his US Army commission, Lee accepted, on April 23, command of Virginia state militia forces. A short time later, he was transferred to the Provisional Army of the Confederate States as one of its first five full generals. But his maiden battle, in western Virginia (West Virginia today) was hardly impressive. His subordinates, who were state militia officers, were resistant to his authority, and the people of Virginia’s western counties, who never wanted secession in the first place, were openly hostile. Nevertheless, on September 11, 1861, Lee decided to attack the Union position at Cheat Mountain, which looked down on an important turnpike as well as several mountain passes. Intelligence gathered from Union prisoners revealed that four thousand Union soldiers held the mountain, substantially outnumbering Lee’s own force. The Confederate commander hesitated to attack, quite unaware that the mountain top was actually occupied by no more than 300 Union troops. His delay having lost him the advantage of surprise, Lee skirmished indecisively and then withdrew. He was denounced by the Southern press as “Evacuating Lee” and, even worse, “Granny Lee.” Bumped from field command, he was assigned to organize the coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia before President Jefferson Davis named him his personal military advisor. Davis acknowledged that Lee was unpopular with the press, but he shared the opinion of Lee’s fellow officers that Lee had the makings of a great commander. Accordingly, when Joseph E. Johnston was badly wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862, Davis replaced Johnston with Lee as commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Johnston, who enthusiastically supported Davis’s choice, was widely admired, but he was committed to the defensive tactic of the strategic retreat. He met Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign—the Union’s first major offensive in southeastern Virginia—by yielding ground while claiming Union casualties. Lee believed this approach was fatal to Confederate morale, and as soon as he took command, he shocked McClellan by offering the fiercest of attacks in each of the so-called Seven Days Battles, which spanned June 25 to July 1, 1862. Lee transformed what McClellan had intended as a war-winning offensive targeting Richmond into a succession of Confederate attacks on the Army of the Potomac.

Contrary to both contemporary popular opinion and enduring myth, Lee was hardly at his tactical best in the Seven Days, but he did reveal himself as an inspiring commander with an ability to extract the utmost aggression from his men. The Battle of Oak Grove (June 25) ended inconclusively and with relatively light casualties on both sides, but it put Lee in position to seize the initiative on the following day at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Battle of Mechanicsville, June 26). While Lee suffered a tactical defeat—1,484 casualties versus 361 for the Union—he set up a major strategic triumph by forcing McClellan to withdraw from the Richmond area.

The Battle of Gaines Mill (June 27) on the next day again resulted in heavier losses for Lee (7,993 killed, wounded, missing, or captured) than McClellan (6,837 killed, wounded, missing, or captured), but so unnerved the Union general that he began the retreat of the entire Army of the Potomac all the way back to his supply base on the James River. For his part, Lee was not about to let him go. He engaged portions of the withdrawing Union forces at Garnett’s & Golding’s Farms (June 27–28) before mounting a major attack at the Battle of Savage’s Station (June 29), exacting more than a thousand casualties. By noon on June 30, most of the battered Army of the Potomac had retreated across White Oak Swamp Creek. Lee hit the main body of the army at Glendale (June 30) while his subordinate Stonewall Jackson attacked McClellan’s rearguard (under Major General William B. Franklin) at White Oak Swamp (June 30). By the numbers, both engagements were inconclusive, but the humiliating “optics” were incredibly damaging to the Union and just as incredibly inspiring to the Confederacy. Lee was driving McClellan away, whipping him as a man might whip a dog.

The final battle of the Seven Days, at Malvern Hill (July 1), was evenly matched, pitting 54,000 men of the Army of the Potomac against 55,000 of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee suffered 5,355 casualties to McClellan’s 3,214, but persisted in pursuing McClellan. Concluding that McClellan was unwilling to use his army effectively against Lee, Lincoln ordered him to link up with John Pope’s Army of Virginia to reinforce him at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).

It was at this battle that Lee revealed the tactical daring absent from his action at the Seven Days. He attacked the Army of Virginia before the slow-moving McClellan arrived in to consolidate with it his Army of the Potomac. In this attack, Lee purposefully broke one of the supposedly inviolable military commandments by dividing his forces in the presence of the enemy. He sent one wing under Stonewall Jackson to attack on August 28. This deceived Pope into believing that he had Jackson exactly where he (Pope) wanted him. The Union general could taste victory. But, in fact, it was Jackson who was holding Pope, so that Longstreet, leading Lee’s other wing, could launch a surprise counterattack on August 30. This attack, 25,000 men brought to bear all at once, was the single greatest mass attack of the Civil War, and it brought about a second Union defeat at Bull Run that was far costlier than the first. Pope lost 14,642 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Lee lost half that number.

The Second Battle of Bull Run made Robert E. Lee the general to beat. Pope had been fired, and McClellan was recalled to lead the Army of the Potomac against the ever-aggressive Lee, who had decided to take the war to the North by invading Maryland. McClellan fought him at Antietam in that state on September 17, 1862.

At the beginning of the Seven Days, the battle line had been some six miles outside of Richmond. Three months later and thanks to Lee, it was at Antietam, just twenty miles outside of Washington. At the end of the day, McClellan had suffered heavier losses than Lee (12,410 to 10,316 killed, wounded, missing, or captured) but he had forced Lee to withdraw back into Virginia. President Lincoln used this narrow Union victory to launch his Emancipation Proclamation, but, privately, he was bitterly disappointed—heartbroken, really—that McClellan had failed to pursue the retreating Lee in the way that Lee had earlier pursued the retreating McClellan.

Abraham Lincoln removed George McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside—despite Burnside’s own protests that he was not up to commanding a full army. At Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), Burnside proved his self-appraisal to be correct. Although substantially outnumbered (78,513 to 122,009), Lee dealt Burnside and the Army of the Potomac a catastrophic defeat, inflicting 12,653 casualties for his own losses of 4,201 killed, wounded, or missing.

Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who proclaimed, “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.” Hooker commanded an Army of the Potomac that now mustered nearly 134,000 men, whereas Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia amounted to no more than 60,298. Lopsided though the numbers were, the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863) was Lee’s tactical masterpiece—arguably the tactical masterpiece of the Civil War itself. Once again, Lee divided his forces in the presence of the enemy, dispatching his cavalry to control the roads and bottle up Union reinforcements at Fredericksburg while 26,000 men under Stonewall Jackson surprised Hooker’s flank even as he, Lee, personally commanded a force of 17,000 against Hooker’s front. The result stunned the Union general into utter confusion. Jackson’s surprise attack routed an entire corps and drove the principal portion of Hooker’s army out of its well-prepared defensive positions. By May 2, the Army of the Potomac, though it outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia two to one, had been sent into headlong retreat.

Yet Lee understood that he was in no position to bask in his triumph, great as it was. Hooker had suffered 17,287 casualties, but he himself had lost 13,303 killed, wounded, captured, or missing—all out of a much smaller force. Hooker’s casualty rate was roughly 13 percent, whereas his own was a staggering 22 percent. Despite the victories he delivered, Lee was convinced that the Confederacy could not endure such attrition much longer. He therefore resolved to once again invade the North. This time, his objective was Pennsylvania. Not only did he want to raid the countryside for much-needed provisions, Lee believed a successful invasion would utterly demoralize the North and erode its will to continue the war while also opening up an avenue for an assault on Washington itself. This, he believed, would cost Lincoln reelection and bring into office a Democrat willing to conclude a negotiated end to the Civil War.

The grim fate of Lee’s aspirations for the Battle of Gettysburg. Defeated badly here, Lee was nevertheless able to withdraw back into Virginia, his army diminished but still very much intact. He would lead it next against his most formidable adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, in the Civil War’s culminating Virginia battles. In many of these engagements, Lee would, in fact, beat Grant. But, unlike the other Union opponents Lee had confronted, Grant responded to defeat not with retreat, but with continued advance toward Richmond. Each advance forced Lee to pit his dwindling Army of Northern Virginia against Grant’s continually reinforced army. The Union general understood and embraced the ultimate calculus of the Civil War, which was that the North could afford to spend more lives than the South and could replenish most of its losses.

Lee’s objective in the final months of the war was to make his own increasingly inevitable defeat so costly to the Union that the people of the North might demand a negotiated settlement after all. Costly he did make it, but, in the end, Robert E. Lee felt compelled to admit defeat. In this admission was perhaps the most profound and enduring significance of his elevation to top command of Confederate forces. For as he had been uncompromising in his quest for victory, so he proved equally uncompromising in his manner of surrender. He secured from Grant the best terms possible, namely the right of his men to return to their homes unmolested and without loss of honor. In return for this, he exercised his character and influence to ensure that the war would in fact end rather than devolve into a long and lawless guerrilla struggle, which is the fate of so many civil conflicts throughout history.

William Simpson

The Marshall system and the new model American general

If MacArthur (and, among the Allies, Montgomery) presented to Marshall and Eisenhower the antithesis of the sort of generalship they desired, the Battle of the Bulge, during the snowy final two weeks of 1944, gave them the very model of what they wanted. Ironically, the general who personified that model is forgotten today, even inside the Army. But the values he embodied would be those of the U.S. Army for decades.

The Bulge, the major German counteroffensive in response to the Allied invasion of northwestern Europe in mid-1944, was one of the most important battles of Western Europe in World War II. Eisenhower wrote in very Marshallian tones that in battles of this kind it is more than ever necessary that responsible commanders exhibit the firmness, the calmness, the optimism that can pierce through the web of conflicting reports, doubts and uncertainty and by taking advantage of every enemy weakness win through to victory.

Eisenhower did not say so, but the senior commander who best fit that description was not the blustery Patton or the panicky Hodges but William Hood Simpson, a lanky six-foot-four, egg-bald Texan. The son of a Confederate cavalryman, Simpson was a man of quiet, competent, determined optimism, the very model of the modern Army general. Early in the Battle of the Bulge, he was shown a captured plan for the German offensive. He studied it for a bit, then drily commented, “Well, I think from what we have here I don’t feel too much alarmed. We’re going to have to do some hard fighting, but I think eventually we’ll stop this thing.” During this battle, on his own initiative and with little fanfare, he offered and sent five full divisions to the assistance of Hodges in just six days. During the Bulge, notes historian J. D. Morelock, “Simpson actually got more Ninth Army units into combat than did the Third Army [of Patton]—and faster as well.”

Like Patton, Simpson was smart, adaptive, and aggressive. But unlike his better-known peer, Simpson was a team player, plainspoken and self-effacing. He knew how to lay low, having spent fourteen years as a major between the wars. He also knew how to fight, having battled the Moros in the Philippines, Pancho Villa’s band in Mexico, and the Germans in World Wars I and II.

He handled his staff well. His corps commanders enjoyed working for him. Simpson was “pleasant, very personal, understanding, and cooperative,” recalled Alvan Gillem, one of his generals and the grandson of a Civil War general of the same name—who, though born in Tennessee, had fought for the Union. Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon recalled being pleased to have his 2nd Armored Division assigned to Simpson’s Ninth Army: “Simpson, though little known outside military circles, was one of the truly great leaders of the European theater, a real general’s general. . . . He was a pleasure to fight under.” Simpson liked to have his subordinate commanders publicly accept the surrenders of German generals, giving them the credit and the appearances in newspaper photographs. “Even-tempered and composed, he refrained from interrupting and allowed the briefer to complete his presentation before questions were asked,” wrote Army Lt. Col. Thomas Stone. The smoothness of Simpson’s operation was felt many echelons below that level. Bernard Leu, who had served as a sergeant in the 75th Infantry Division, recalled that once his division joined Simpson’s army, it received orders early enough to allow it to plan, which had not happened when the division was part of two other armies.

But what is most striking about Simpson may be that, in a doctoral dissertation and a book largely about him and the Ninth Army, there was almost nothing to relate about him—no stormy meetings, few revealing anecdotes, almost no memorable phrases. There is just an efficient, low-key headquarters operating under an undemonstrative, steady leader. “Simpson could think ahead of time, and he didn’t talk too much, either; that’s what I liked about him,” recalled Gen. Jacob Devers.

Midway through the Battle of the Bulge, Simpson dispatched a note to Eisenhower reporting that his Ninth Army was working smoothly and cheerfully with Montgomery. “Our chins are up,” he stated. Privately, Simpson found Montgomery “a very pompous guy” who was overly cautious and could have done great damage to the Germans had he committed three available British divisions to pinching off the northeastern corner of the Bulge. But during the war he kept that to himself. Simpson was exactly what Marshall and Eisenhower had been looking for: an optimistic team player with a small ego and a great ability to work with others. In that sense, the forgotten Simpson personified the ideal of generalship that Army leaders would pursue in the postwar years, and indeed for decades to follow. It was not a bad model, but it contained some hidden dangers.

Eisenhower recognized Simpson’s strength and was warmer in summing up this general than perhaps any other individual officer he discussed in his memoirs:

If Simpson ever made a mistake as an army commander, it never came to my attention. After the war I learned that he had for some years suffered from a serious stomach disorder, but this I never would have suspected during hostilities. Alert, intelligent and professionally capable, he was the type of leader that American soldiers deserve. In view of his brilliant service, it was unfortunate that shortly after the war ill-health forced his retirement before he was promoted to four-star grade, which he had so clearly earned.

Bradley also liked Simpson’s style, praising his command as “uncommonly normal”—a Bradley-esque phrase if there ever was one. Yet for all that praise, notes historian John English, Simpson has since become “the most forgotten American field army commander of the Western Front” in World War II. Marshall might take that as a compliment, and Simpson probably would, too.

In hands less skilled than Marshall’s, the system that produced generals such as Simpson also could result in bland, uninspired, risk-averse leaders. This would be especially true when such leaders were no longer spurred by the prospect of being fired for failure or inaction.

The effectiveness of the Marshall system

After the war, Gen. James Gavin, among others, was critical of the wave of reliefs carried out in the Army in 1944–45, arguing that so many division commanders had been fired that the U.S. Army began to lack plausible candidates for those jobs. Eisenhower, he said, “had to get results. He had to be tough. And he ran out of good commanders, finally, in my opinion.” Gavin was not entirely against firing commanders. For example, on June 7, 1944, when he ordered a battalion to attack along a causeway across the Merderet River, the commander told him “that he did not feel well.” So, continues Gavin without skipping a beat, “he was relieved of command and another officer put in charge of the battalion.” Yet Gavin was especially critical of firing commanders who were leading green units into combat. “Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock of battle is not only a luxury we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole.”

Gavin made a good point, especially about the removal of new commanders leading untested units. Nor was he alone: Martin Blumenson, one of the Army’s best official historians, concluded in 1971 that most World War II reliefs were “unwarranted if not altogether unjustified.” He believed that commanders were handled more professionally in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Blumenson does not pause to address a key difference: The Army was victorious in World War II, but the first of the wars he cites with such approval was a stalemate and the second was a loss—though, of course, those two outcomes hardly can be laid at the feet of the military alone, or even primarily.

What Gavin and Blumenson especially did not seem to weigh in their criticisms was the opportunity cost of not ousting failing officers. In the short run, as Eisenhower noted, a relief sometimes will improve morale. And in the longer run, the removals permitted a new generation of officers—Gavin among the most prominent of them—to emerge in World War II. There clearly was unfairness in some of the removals, notably that of Terry Allen, but it did not seem to damage the effectiveness of the concerned division, the 1st Infantry. In other cases, such as the replacement of the 3rd Armored Division’s Leroy Watson by Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose or of the VI Corps’s Lucas by Truscott, there clearly was an improvement in the quality of command. It was only in later wars, when generals were not removed, that the many costs of not relieving would become more evident.

A better question was whether Marshall, Bradley, and Eisenhower, consciously or not, were intolerant of nonconformists, especially among those from branches other than the infantry. Cavalrymen and their descendants in armored units certainly seemed to think so. Ernest Harmon, who commanded the 1st, 2nd, and (briefly) 3rd Armored Divisions during the war, criticized Hodges’s First Army as “a typical infantryman’s operation: slow, cautious and without much zip.” American command was dominated by the infantry branch, home of Marshall, Eisenhower, and Bradley. Some 59 percent of the Army’s four-star generals during World War II came out of the infantry and not the other combat arms—artillery, cavalry, armor, and engineering.

The enemy noticed the sluggish tendencies of its British and American opponents, with one German general commenting that “in contrast to the Eastern theater of operations, in the West it was possible to still straighten out seemingly impossible situations because the opposing armies there . . . despite their enormous material superiority, were limited by slow and methodical modes of combat.” At some invisible point, an insistence on teamwork can combine with cautiousness to produce a plodding force—especially if it lacks among its leaders some people with the passion of a Patton or the drive of a Terry Allen.

The manner in which Eisenhower chose to announce the end of the war is strikingly consistent with Marshall’s expectations of a general. After the German surrender, Eisenhower’s headquarters staff began to compose a wordy message of victory. Eisenhower rejected their lofty prose and instead issued a message simply stating, “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.” It was so plain as to be eloquent—or, to use an Army term of the time, it was “’nuff said.”

The war’s ending also stripped Patton of his shield of combat effectiveness. The next time Patton shot his mouth off, Eisenhower no longer needed him to pursue Germans, and whatever their friendship had meant, Eisenhower removed him from command of the Third Army in October 1945.

The politics of the Marshall system

During World War II, the relief of commanders was also intentionally a political act, making a statement to both insiders and outsiders about the nature and responsibilities of the U.S. military. It was, as FDR once remarked, “a New Deal war.” To Marshall’s eye, being willing to remove an officer signaled to the American people that the Army’s leaders cared more about the hordes of enlisted soldiers than about the relatively small officer corps. Despite his aristocratic demeanor, this was a democratic point he would make to members of Congress who inquired about the fates of generals they liked but whom Marshall had found wanting. In 1943, when queried by Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia about why Col. Robert E. M. Goolrick, commander of Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, had not been given a shot at generalship, Marshall responded with an explanation of his approach to picking men for top slots. “The only basis upon which we can proceed is that of efficiency without regard to the personalities involved,” he wrote.

We have to be continually on guard against too much emphasis being placed on the honor attached to the rank of general and too little to the choice of leaders who enjoy the confidence of the men in the ranks and who have the skill and physical endurance to bring this war to a successful conclusion without needless sacrifice of American lives. Every contact with the enemy has emphasized anew the importance of dominant and skillful leadership. All other considerations are of minor importance.

Looking out for the common soldier was not an insignificant consideration in a war being fought for democracy, a point Marshall made repeatedly in his biennial reports on the state of the military. In his 1941 report, discussing his prewar housecleaning of aging officers, Marshall explained, “In all these matters the interests of the soldier and the nation, rather than that of the individual officer, have governed.” In the next report, he justified selecting enlisted men to become officers as consistent with “democratic theory.” And indeed, that became practice. Two-thirds of the Army’s combat officers in World War II were promoted from the ranks. Marshall, in his final wartime report, composed between V-E and V-J days, would begin by stating that “never was the strength of American democracy so evident.”

Likewise, when the draft was being designed, Marshall told its planners that it had to be constructed in such a way that it would be supported by the American people. “Those of us who had spent our lives on Wall Street were mainly concerned with solving problems,” recalled Paul Nitze, who had been brought to Washington to work on the Selective Service Act of 1940.

We rarely found it necessary to give much thought to how our actions might impinge on our democratic system. Marshall educated us. Draft selections and deferments were a case in point of how problem-solving had to deal with much more than mere numbers and mechanics. Marshall’s point was that men should be selected or granted deferments on a basis that was not only fair and equitable in fact, but that was seen to be so as well.

Once those men were drafted, Marshall insisted that the need to fight the war be explained to them. Disappointed with the pamphlets that were designed for this purpose, Marshall asked Frank Capra, a leading Hollywood director of the time, to make a series of films to educate Army recruits, titled Why We Fight.

Marshall did all this not just to have an effective fighting force but also to protect the future of the U.S. Army. He believed that the antimilitarism he had seen in American society in the 1920s and ’30s was spurred in part by the harshness with which officers had treated American soldiers during World War I. “They were embittered in a way that they never forgot,” he said. So he was determined that, as much as possible, the Army would give decent, rational treatment to these temporary soldiers, or, as he called them, “future citizens.” As a lieutenant colonel in China after World War I, Marshall had instructed an officer who was berating a soldier that “you must remember that man is an American citizen just the same as you are.” During World War II, this consciousness was reflected in a variety of ways, but it was perhaps captured best in the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, which often mocked the pretensions of officers. (“Beautiful view,” one says to another as they gaze at an Alpine sunset. “Is there one for the enlisted men?”) Mauldin’s work was first carried in the newspaper of the 45th Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, who defended the free-spirited cartoonist because he believed it boosted morale and also attracted readers to the division newspaper, which he used to kill unhelpful rumors. When Middleton’s commander, George Patton, told Middleton to “get rid of Mauldin and his cartoons,” Middleton parried by asking for that order in writing. Patton dropped the subject, Middleton recalled.

It is worth considering whether Marshall’s insistence on grooming a certain type of general might have had a less direct political effect: that of encouraging the decline in American life of the caudillo, the “man on a white horse” tendency of military leaders to move from the armed forces into political life. There was a strong tradition of elevating a general to the presidency in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, beginning with George Washington. All told, thirteen Americans with notable military records have become president: Washington, Eisenhower, Grant, Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and the first President Bush. The first nine in that list actually held a general’s rank. In addition, another four generals were losing candidates for president. But since Benjamin Harrison, who for a few months at the end of the Civil War was a brigadier in the Army of the Cumberland and who won the White House in 1888, only one general has been elected to the presidency, and that last general to become president was the least coup-prone of officers: Eisenhower, Marshall’s protégé.

The Marshall template, with its studied distance from politics, may have put a stake through the heart of the general as politician. Since Eisenhower, generals who have toyed with running for president have been humiliated in the primaries, emerging from the experience somehow diminished in the public eye. This has been true in both major American political parties, as evidenced by the fizzled presidential campaigns of Gen. Alexander Haig Jr. as a Republican in 1988 and of Gen. Wesley Clark as a Democrat in 2004. In 1968, retired Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay also ran for national office but had no chance of winning as the running mate on the independent ticket of Alabama’s former segregationist governor, George Wallace. At the state level, generals also have fared poorly. In 1962, Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, having resigned from the Army after getting in trouble for indoctrinating his troops in the 24th Infantry Division with literature drawn from the John Birch Society, ran for governor of Texas but came in sixth and last in the Republican primary. (Early in 1963, he was slightly wounded in a sniper shooting by Lee Harvey Oswald, who according to the Warren Commission used the same rifle he would use later that year to kill President Kennedy.) In 1974, Gen. William Westmoreland lost in South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial primary. In 2011, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez entered the campaign for the Democratic nomination for senator from Texas but, after raising few funds, dropped out before the primary vote.

The legacy of the Marshall system

George Marshall set the template, and Dwight Eisenhower implemented it, but it may be Omar Bradley’s personality that emerged dominant in the postwar Army. Not long after the war ended, the first two men moved on, with Bradley succeeding Eisenhower as chief of staff of the Army in 1948 and then becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a year later. This was a mixed blessing. Even if he was never quite the beloved “GI’s general” presented by wartime journalist Ernie Pyle, Bradley was an even-tempered man with a reputation for decency in his personal interactions. Yet during the war he had run an unhappy headquarters, one that during 1944–45 had developed a reputation for “irritable suspiciousness,” as the military historian Russell Weigley put it.

Looking back from a perspective of several decades, Weigley judged Bradley to have been “merely competent.” In 1944–45, Bradley presided over a force enjoying extreme advantages. He had more men than his foe, and his force was largely a model of tactical efficiency, with trained and disciplined teamwork between the combat arms. The West Wall, or Siegfried Line, was breached by skilled attacks in which, Weigley noted, “forward observers would bring down artillery on a pillbox to clear the enemy from subsidiary positions; tanks would then blast entrances and apertures with armor-piercing ammunition; infantry would close in, at which point the Germans frequently surrendered.” Bradley enjoyed a twenty-to-one advantage in tanks. He had even more overwhelming air superiority, with some 13,000 Allied fighters and bombers flying against just 573 serviceable Luftwaffe aircraft.

Despite his advantages, Bradley took months to force his surrounded, outnumbered foe to capitulate. Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who has commanded the NATO transition forces in Afghanistan since 2011, wrote that the Army under Bradley had scored many successes, but also recorded

a disturbing number of botched battles and, especially, missed chances. The hellish butchery in the Normandy bocage, the incomplete Falaise encirclement, the costly confusion before the West Wall in the autumn, the bloody fumbling about in the Huertgen Forest, the shocking initial surprise in the Ardennes and the eventual unwillingness to pinch off the forces in that German salient, the backing and filling in the face of the Remagen bridgehead opportunity—together form a distressing litany that spans the entire length of the campaign.

For Eisenhower, the lesson of the war was that cooperation was more important than anything else. He emphasized this in the introduction to The True Glory, a joint British-American documentary about how the European war had been waged, of which he was essentially the producer. “Teamwork wins wars,” stated a visibly tired Ike, the skin under his eyes lined and sagging, with no sign of his customary grin. “I mean teamwork among nations, services, and men, all the way down the line, from the GI, and the Tommies, to us brass hats.” It was not merely a historical observation, because he made that statement after V-E Day but before the end of the Pacific War, which some military planners thought might continue for several more years.

In the afterglow of victory, the potential pitfalls of this capable, somewhat corporate model of generalship were less noticed. The flaws, when they emerged, largely would be of the kind that George Patton saw in Bradley. “I wish he had a little daring,” Patton wrote in October 1944. The nature of American military leadership in 1944 and 1945, Weigley agreed, amounted to “unimaginative caution. American generalship by and large was competent but addicted to playing it safe.” As Martin Blumenson, a World War II veteran who became a specialist in the history of the European theater in that conflict, would put it, the record of American leadership in Europe “is essentially bland and plodding. The commanders were generally workmanlike rather than bold, prudent rather than daring.” James Gavin concluded that the war could have been ended months earlier, “at considerably less cost in blood and resources, if they were willing to take more chances.”

It was a mixed legacy. Under the sort of leadership favored by Bradley, Bolger concluded, “one avoids losing, but one can also avoid winning by playing it safe.” That is an ominous sentence, given the risk-averse approach often taken by American generals in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq in subsequent decades and the record of stalemates and worse that they tended to produce.

Perhaps those who rose highest in World War II were organization men. But for the most part they were members of a successful organization, with the failures among them weeded out instead of coddled and covered up. That would not be the case in our subsequent wars, in which it would be more difficult to know what victory looked like or even whether it was achievable.


Such was the course of the War of Wars. But in the poet’s phrase, ‘What good came of it at last?’ Napoleon, building on the French Revolution, saw himself as the great modernizer of Europe after centuries of absolutism; Britain saw herself as defending Europe from a more monstrous despotism than had ever been experienced before. Who was right? It is time to attempt to assess the significance of Napoleon’s achievements and defeat.

The wheel of history had turned full circle: in fact it may even have gone into reverse. The regime of Louis XVIII was more autocratic and reactionary than that of his more intelligent older brother, Louis XVI. It was less reformist and enlightened and was dominated by a seesaw struggle between the ultras and aristocratic moderates like the Duc de Richelieu and Decazes. Worst of all it was propped up by an army of humiliating occupation under the didactic Wellington.

It can safely be said that France after 1815 was more backward economically, probably politically and, intellectually, and certainly socially – with large numbers of former soldiers and bandits marauding around that devastated country – than it had been before the Revolution of 1789. In a quarter of a century, both the Revolution and Napoleon had succeeded in returning the country back to what it was before the whole process had begun, with a poorer economy than the one expanding sharply under Louis XVI.

Yet many subsequent historians claimed that there were much greater underlying changes, that the revolutionary and Napoleonic period precipitated a great leap forward in European history from the dynastic autocracies that had frozen the region for so long. In particular, the revolutionary period is said to have ushered in a greater thirst of ordinary people for their rights: the Napoleonic period was a middle-class revolution. Marxist historians have long held this view.

There is a truth here; but it may be that the economic changes that preceded the Revolution under Louis XVI were primarily responsible for both the emergence of a ‘proletariat’ – the Paris mob – and a bourgeoisie. As the historian Alfred Cobban has shown, the main instigators and beneficiaries of the Revolution were not the new middle classes, but minor functionaries and civil servants under the ancien régime, a class of intellectuals who felt they had not received their true deserts in life. Certainly by 1815 the Paris mob was utterly cowed and the bourgeoisie was little more politically dominant than before the Revolution, while aristocratic reactionaries were more powerful than before 1789. Equally this return to an aristocratic ice age was accompanied by economic progress and the general evolution of political thought into a continuing struggle between reactionaries and progressives.

Yet it is possible to argue that this exact process was underway in the enlightened and progressive, if politically autocratic, period before the Revolution. Who was the more enlightened – Voltaire, Robespierre or Napoleon? The process might have moved peacefully ahead in an evolutionary way and perhaps faster through gradualist reform, inevitably so if new industrial methods were imported from Britain, than through the violent upheavals of revolution and wars of conquest.

Further, France, a state at least as powerful as Britain before the industrial revolution, was crippled politically and economically for decades after 1815. It remained a largely backward agrarian country: its own industrial revolution was seriously postponed, its bourgeois economic class in its great trading cities had lost money and competitive advantage with Britain, and it had deindustrialized, if it had ever really industrialized. Possibly the same would have occurred if there had been no revolutionary or Napoleonic periods: yet given the pace of economic change in France before the Revolution, and the intellectual ferment of the period, it seems unlikely.

What is undeniable is that France was considerably worse off economically and more backward politically in 1816 than in 1788, and that the industrial revolution had been limited to military-related manufacturing, which was not particularly efficient. While Britain was undergoing a dramatic industrial revolution during this period, France in many respects fell way behind, and ceased to be a major economic and political rival to Britain until the late twentieth century.

In political terms, the stability of French institutions before 1789 was never to recover – arguably to this day, with nearly two centuries of unsatisfactory constitutional experiments succeeding each other, from an absolute monarchy to bourgeois constitutions, to a Second Empire to a bourgeois struggle with the working class represented by the Paris Commune, to the chaotic Third Republic. This was followed by an era of weak governments under the Fourth Republic and then a renewed ‘strong’ government with an unsatisfactory coexistence of president and parliament in the Fifth.

Even France’s population growth became sluggish after the Napoleonic period. The enduring legacy of the revolutionary-Napoleonic period was quite different to that intended: a massive further centralization of the French state with the elimination of traditional local legal freedoms and autonomies and an independent aristocracy and gentry. If the court of Versailles was too centralized, the court of Napoleon was virtually all-powerful, a military dictatorship. France never recovered from this: right up to modern times, it has veered between a parliamentary and an autocratic centralist system with the latter usually winning, most recently with the imposition of the Gaullist constitution after 1959.

Napoleon sought to impose the same upon the countries he conquered, sweeping away local ‘feudal’ privileges, many of them arbitrary and unsatisfactory, ancient structures of princedoms, merchant guilds and complex legal demarcations in favour of a unified Code Napoleon. This has been cited as one of his greatest and most lasting achievements. In fact the Code Napoleon was far from ideal, too inflexible to take account of local circumstances and traditions; it was also state-centred, lacking the guarantees and pluralisms that defined and defended the rights of individuals, insisting that the individual prove his lack of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence, and giving central authority through the magistrature virtually absolute powers over the citizens. Local circumstances over the past two centuries have modified its often harsh and arbitrary, if effective, application. But it is far from certain that the Code Napoleon was an improvement upon existing legal systems, complex, fragmented and sometimes iniquitous as they might be.

The much shorter-lived attempt by revolutionary and Napoleonic France to ‘liberate’ other countries from archaic and oppressive feudal rulers was, if this interpretation is correct, almost entirely bogus. Napoleon looted and extorted colossal taxation and tributes from France’s subject systems on a par with the Aztec empire in Mexico. He imposed his own extended clan as rulers of most of his dominions in a fashion that harked back to the Middle Ages; the clan ruled arbitrarily and without check by either constitutional institutions or local traditions.

He dispensed with revolutionary institutions, substituting an empire and monarchy far more showy, absolute and despotic than those of their traditional rulers and creating a phoney new aristocracy which depended upon his favour. He behaved more like an Emperor of China or oriental despot than any kind of progressive political modernizer rooted in enlightenment thinking or political philosophy.

It has been said that he catalysed a ‘bourgeois’ revolution in those countries, advancing the middle class and destroying the feudal aristocracy. In fact he and his clan of flashy nepotistic neo-monarchs promoted their own friends and sympathizers, whether from the old aristocracy – some of whom were happy to collaborate – or the merchant bourgeoisie. But there was no attempt to transform the economies of these countries and seed a new capitalist bourgeoisie of the kind being created for example in Britain. Countries like Italy and Spain remained steeped in agrarian poverty until well into the twentieth century.

He has been credited with stimulating a sense of ‘modern’ ‘nationalist’ sentiment which never existed before, and has even been described as the father of the modern European nation state. Neither revolutionary France nor Napoleon ever intended anything of the kind: invasion, domination, subjugation and the reduction of these countries to tributary status were France’s objectives. Napoleon stamped vigorously on any spark of Prussian nationalism, for example. The emergence of Prussian nationalism had occurred long before 1789, and France was determined to crush it. The emergence of a Prussian-dominated Germany – for good or ill – took place decades later.

In Italy, the widespread admiration for Napoleon which emerged towards the middle of the nineteenth century was merely an expression of hostility to autocratic Austrian domination reimposed, along with Papal domination of the centre and the Bourbon state in the south, after 1815. Its unification was neither advanced nor held up during the Napoleonic period: it was merely frozen for a quarter of a century.

In Austria, the revolutionary and Napoleonic interregnum had virtually no impact on the hold of the Habsburgs upon their far-flung, mostly peasant empire: nor until the 1914–18 war did this change. In Spain, Napoleon’s defeat was followed by the imposition of the most repressive, reactionary monarchy the country had endured for half a century, that of Ferdinand VII. True, his exactions provoked an angry struggle with liberals; but the latter had been emerging before the Napoleonic intervention and might indeed have taken power gradually and constitutionally had the ravages of Napoleonic rule never occurred.

Russia, of course, was not affected at all by revolutionary and Napoleonic ‘progress’ for more than a century, its Romanov dynasty becoming largely entrenched in resistance to change during the Napoleonic wars. In Britain, it is possible to ascribe the coming to power of a deeply conservative clique under Lord Liverpool, Castlereagh and the Wellesleys to a reaction against Napoleon (although there were other reasons too). The wars virtually squeezed out the moderate centre represented by Pitt, Grenville and Canning.

In 1816 Europe in fact was far less ‘progressive’, ‘middle-class’, ‘democratic’, ‘nationalist’, ‘anti-feudal’ and even democratically evolved than in 1788. The revolutionary Napoleonic period had set the clock back, not forward, except in one crucial respect: the expansion of the role of the central state, fuelled by the military imperative – in Napoleon’s case to conquer, in other cases to resist him – a legacy that was to last well into the twentieth century and which in many respects is continuing.

In other important ways, Europe had regressed: its peoples had been decimated by wars which reduced Europe’s population by anything up to a tenth, left few regions untouched, conscripted enormous quantities of cannon fodder, wrecked farmland, trade and commerce and left barely a family unaffected by the first modern, total war, scything through not just particular regions, elites and armies but entire populations.

The second issue that must be addressed is that of the ‘Napoleonic myth’. To what extent is it believable that Napoleon himself was the instigator of the Napoleonic wars, or was the phenomenon altogether more complex? Most historians have of course taken this myth for granted, supported not just by much – certainly not all – of French historiography and Napoleon’s own self-serving account, but by the opprobrium and denigration heaped upon him by his detractors.

Yet if the concept of one-man rule in a small state as far back as the Middle Ages has to be heavily qualified, it seems absurdly far-fetched in the case of a colossal machine such as that over which Napoleon presided. He was certainly one of the greatest autocrats in history, as the undisputed leader of perhaps the most authoritarian military machine presiding over the biggest empire in history, spanning the most prosperous continent in the world.

But he was also a child of his own age and circumstances – in particular French history and the French Revolution – and the nature of his power, and indeed personality, evolved over time. Napoleon emerged from the turmoil of the Revolution to pursue specifically French national objectives, of a kind that had existed for centuries under the Bourbons, with a newly mobilized population and army at his disposal.

It was Dumouriez, the French revolutionary general who ended up becoming a counter-revolutionary, who first won the string of victories that prevented revolutionary France being invaded. It was under Robespierre and the Jacobins that mass mobilization and totalitarian terror were instituted – under penalty of death. This in turn created the first great conscript army of Europe to face the old-style aristocratic volunteer forces or peasant levies and feudal armies of the rest of Europe. It was Carnot who really created the levé en masse and the huge military machine that was to terrorize Europe at a time when Napoleon was just a rising junior officer. Carnot presided over France’s revolution in military tactics, including the division of armies into semi-autonomous corps with great flexibility and freedom of action; the idea of striking in columns at the centre of traditional lines; the importance of flanking attacks or attacks on the ‘derrière’ – always a French obsession. Carnot too was responsible for the promotion of esprit de corps and the army as a privileged, well-paid, self-contained caste separate and above the mass of the people from which they were recruited (as opposed to the downtrodden militia of feudal rulers); and the virtual liberation of those military castes from normal conceptions of law and civilized behaviour to live off the land and plunder and rape as they pleased.

Most of these ideas had been pushed by reformers in the French army in the half-century prior to the Revolution, and some of them had been pinched from the Prussian ruler Frederick the Great’s military innovations. Napoleon was not original in these ideas; but he was picked and promoted by his superiors, including Carnot and the Directory’s Barras, because he was enormously energetic, pragmatic and skilful in their execution. When he finally staged his coup d’état in 1801, it was because a consensus had developed that a strong leader was necessary to end the corruption and near paralysis of the Directory and to prosecute France’s wars.

However, dynamic though he was, Napoleon at that stage was anything but omnipotent: he had been promoted by conservative financial interests to abort further revolutionary agitation and to avoid a Bourbon restoration. He enjoyed support from the peasantry and depended on continuing military success. Above all he was the choice of a group of senior generals, and what the army had proposed, it could also dispose of. After becoming Emperor in 1804, whether as a personal vanity, in resignation to the anxiety of his supporters about a Bourbon restoration or as a simple reminder to its lingering and aspiring followers that the Revolution was over, he still depended on the loyalty of his generals and a coalition of civilian interests to stay in power.

His hand was immensely strengthened by the string of crushing military successes from 1805 to 1807 against Austria and Prussia which also boxed in Russia; and it was at this stage that his hubris really seemed to get the better of him. He no longer felt he had to kowtow to domestic supporters and he believed that he was militarily invincible. But his legitimacy derived not from his ludicrous coronation robes or laurel crowns or Roman emperor-style statues but from the fact that he had restored stability and leadership to France and delivered handsome victories and plentiful spoils – which were now a substitute for nonexistent economic development. Realistically and shrewdly he had to call off his projected invasion of Britain, while less realistically he hoped that he could strangle France’s oldest and most powerful foe economically.

In examining Napoleon’s pronouncements, it is always necessary to disentangle bombastic rhetoric designed to inflame his followers, which fuelled ideas that he was simply a megalomaniac, from the realism underneath, which sometimes evidently became confused in his own mind, particularly in the later years. He then made the colossal and hubristic blunder of invading Spain, which posed no threat to France and which he regarded as a province to be annexed with little resistance. Ostensibly this was part of his anti-British strategy, in fact it was merely to add to the empire. Within a short time he understood the scale of his mistake – as his refusal to command the troops after the first campaigns showed – but he could not admit his errors in public, and the war continued as a vast, futile haemorrhage of French armies and men.

At that point Napoleon seemed to abandon his hubristic phase, and grew into – or in the modern phrase reinvented himself as – a peaceful statesman determined to maintain French domination of Europe, but seeking alliances, as through his marriage with Marie Louise of Austria, and engaging in no further territorial land grabs, other than occasionally bullying small states. The Spanish quagmire had, in a sense, tamed him. If Europe had been prepared to settle down to a period of French domination, Napoleon might perhaps have died peacefully on his throne as the founder of a new, long-lasting French dynasty.

But the resistance in the Iberian Peninsula, abetted by the British expeditionary force, became increasingly lethal and widespread; and Europe had not been prepared to accept peace on French terms. Napoleon’s own penchant for blustering to secure his ends had been more effective when countries were recoiling from his military successes than when he was exposed to be a merely mortal, if outstanding, military commander. At that stage diplomacy was required.

Finally Napoleon’s erstwhile but unreliable ally, the Tsar of Russia, himself effectively declared war on France. This initiated the third phase of Napoleon’s rule: from peaceful despotism he was forced to resort again to war, this time under pressure from a hostile foreign power. The Russian campaign has been presented as aggressive and madcap and initiated by Napoleon; but it was in fact a hugely mishandled defensive campaign. Only in his wilder moments did he declare he would conquer the whole country or use it as a gateway to the east. He blundered forward in the hope of inflicting a single huge defeat on the Russians and preventing them ever threatening his eastern dominions. After the retreat from Moscow he could still have preserved his empire. But his inept diplomacy and his enemies’ sense of his vulnerability ultimately led to the disaster of Leipzig which brought about his downfall.

Thus the revolutionary wars and the career of Napoleon can be divided into four entirely distinct phases – those of revolutionary change and French aggrandisement from 1792 to 1801, those of French imperialism from about 1803 to 1808, those of imperial consolidation from 1808 to 1812, and those of self-defence and eventual collapse from 1812–1814.

Within France he was secure, so long as he continued to deliver military successes, until about 1808. Then he began to lose support among the key elites personified by Talleyrand. He remained in power because thenceforth he modified his image as an aggressor to become a constitutional monarch at peace with his neighbours, although an overwhelmingly preponderant one. When faced by Russian obduracy, he abandoned his new image in favour of a gamble, which cost him much of his domestic constituency and eventually led to his overthrow.

Yet to survive domestically he felt he had to re-establish himself as a military genius. This led to the disastrous Leipzig campaign, which went well at first and collapsed when he over-extended himself: Napoleon as a commander, although gifted, never realized his own limitations. From then on he was doomed, defeated by Wellington in the south-west and the allied armies in the east. His domestic base crumbled until he was left only with the support of his military chiefs, who also finally deserted him. In all this he can be seen not to be a megalomaniac or a genius, but a leader reflecting domestic imperatives who only occasionally allowed his manic self-confidence to overcome his sense of realism. For the most part, it was revolutionary and expansionary France which guided Napoleon’s policies, not he who guided them.

This judgement, obviously, qualifies any judgement about his greatness or wickedness. If this book’s thesis is correct, he emerges as a much more human and limited figure than the superman painted by his supporters, or the globe-conquering megalomaniac portrayed by his detractors. As a national leader, he was a superb protagonist of French national interests who went too far, retrenched, was attacked and blundered to his doom: the responsibility for the horrors inflicted upon Europe during the period belonged to pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary France, of which he was but the helmsman, sometimes inspired in his steering, sometimes disastrously inept.

As for his political skills – on which he prided himself – they were virtually non-existent: he seized power in a brutal military coup, his treatment of allies and enemies alike was that of the martinet throughout the ages – gruff patronage towards his supporters and furious anger towards his enemies. As a diplomat, on which he also prided himself, he was a figure of fun: he was seduced by Alexander at Tilsit, duped by Francis II through an imperial marriage, and completely outwitted by both Talleyrand and Metternich.

As a thinker, his philosophy was that of the highly intelligent man of action that he was, but bereft of true insight. His musings on St Helena were typical.

Man loves the supernatural. He meets deception halfway. The fact is that everything about us is a miracle. Strictly speaking, there are no phenomena, for in nature everything is a phenomenon: my existence is a phenomenon; this log that is being put into the chimney is a phenomenon; this light that illuminates me is a phenomenon; my intelligence, my faculties, are phenomena; for they all exist, yet we cannot define them. I leave you here, and I am in Paris, entering the Opera; I bow to the spectators, I hear the acclamations, I see the actors, I hear the music. Now if I can span the space from St Helena, why not that of the centuries? Why should I not see the future like the past? Would the one be more extraordinary, more marvellous than the other? No, but in fact it is not so.

He was an obsessive egotist. He could even be amusing:

When I was at Tilsit with the Emperor Alexander and the King of Prussia, I was the most ignorant of the three in military affairs! These two sovereigns, especially the King of Prussia, were completely au fait as to the number of buttons there ought to be in front of a jacket, how many behind, and the manner in which the skirts ought to be cut. Not a tailor in the army knew better than King Frederick how many measures of cloth it took to make a jacket. In fact, I was nobody in comparison with them. They continually tormented me with questions about matters belonging to tailors, of which I was entirely ignorant, though, in order not to affront them, I answered just as gravely as if the fate of an army depended upon the cut of a jacket. The King of Prussia changed his fashion every day. He was a tall, dry looking fellow, and would give a good idea of Don Quixote. At Jena, his army performed the finest and most showy manoeuvres possible, but I soon put a stop to their coglionerie, and taught them that to fight and to execute dazzling manoeuvres and wear splendid uniforms were very different affairs. If the French army had been commanded by a tailor, the King of Prussia would certainly have gained the day, from his superior knowledge in that art!

As a human being he was kind, perhaps excessively so, towards his family and friends; he was temperamental but not vindictive towards his subordinates and enemies. Yet he showed a professional soldier’s utter indifference to the suffering of lesser people – whether his own soldiers, the enemy or civilians – as to inflict suffering across Europe on a superhuman scale that appeared not to bother him at all.

As a soldier, the criterion by which he really wanted to be judged, he was a superb professional, perhaps the greatest leader of small armies in history, brilliant at outwitting and outflanking his opponents, inspiring his soldiers, and rewarding them amply, making them capable of almost incredible marches, endurance and feats: his early Italian campaigns and his last-ditch campaign in defence of France in 1814 are rightly military classics. His record in larger battles is more mixed, and to a great extent depended on the abilities of his subordinates as well as his capacity for improvisation, surprise, and the flexible management of army corps – his brilliance during the 1805–7 campaigns was not recaptured during 1807–9 and, 1812–15, apart from the defensive French campaign.

As an inspirer of his men he was perhaps without parallel, remembering the lowliest subordinate’s name, regaling them with the most ringing before-battle bombast in military history, fearlessly risking his life in his youth and always understanding the importance of esprit de corps, morale boosting and regimental pride. He was a superb opportunist and improviser. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest soldiers in history.

He was also a born propagandist and his ability to tell every story so that it resounded to his credit has rarely been exceeded – hence the Napoleonic myth, fashioned ultimately in the forge of St Helena’s steely climate: for Napoleon’s final victory was not achieved in war, but in exile, where several years’ outpouring of self-justification formed the basis for a Napoleonic legend that has survived to this day. Add to this his extraordinary capacity for dreaming, for articulating great visions which has inspired reformers and monsters alike in later years, and he was certainly what he would call a ‘phenomenon’, although a more limited one than he would have liked to believe.

In essence he was a military dictator, a superb general, and a conqueror utterly unprincipled and ruthless in the pursuit of his own self-promotion, subordinating France to his own glory even though his country and the French people sacrificed themselves in the hundreds of thousands in his cause – and then, after much suffering, destroyed it. He was a military genius, a political and diplomatic third-rater, and a monster.


How then, in retrospect, should Britain have responded to the challenge posed by revolutionary France and, later, Napoleon? As this book has tried to recount, the early period, that of revolutionary war, was met with by much wishful thinking, indecision and appeasement by William Pitt’s government, which sincerely did not want to go to war. The military outcome of the early British expeditions were catastrophic, as was too their failure to support the resistance in France. The West Indies’ campaign was militarily successful only at a huge cost in life.

As the war progressed, Pitt, his foreign secretary Grenville and William Windham, his war secretary and chief spymaster, became more resolute and pursued a skilful policy of building continental coalitions against Napoleon, supported by colossal amounts of British money, coupled with a dazzling naval campaign which has never been exceeded in history. All the time, however, both Pitt and Grenville preached peace and reconciliation.

When Napoleon came to power both men decided to continue the war, Pitt eventually dying of nervous exhaustion and Grenville acting only briefly as his successor. Foreign policy devolved, after a brief interlude dominated by the mercurial George Canning, to the unlovely triumvirate of the brilliant but cold Lord Castlereagh, the mediocre figurehead Lord Liverpool and Richard Wellesley and his brothers. Ironically, this was one moment when peace might have been possible, albeit with the continent under French domination and Napoleon content to rest upon his laurels. Instead, probably rightly, the British prosecuted the Peninsular War and sought to bribe and persuade their continental allies into re-entering the fight. They succeeded in both. By this time the British army had been transformed from being brave but inefficient under incompetent commanders to being brave, effective and well-officered. When war broke out on the continent again, Britain’s confrontational policy was implacably pursued and ended in a total victory, first in 1814 and then in 1815, with the charmless Castlereagh pursuing a carefully structured settlement for Europe.

Pitt and Grenville can be faulted for rising to the French challenge too slowly, then complimented for pursuing it vigorously. Castlereagh and Liverpool can be faulted for ignoring the possibility of peace with France, and instead seeking war regardless. While many mistakes were made by both administrations, it is hard to fault Britain’s implacable commitment to the war in the belief that the war party under Napoleon would learn nothing except from defeat.

With the bumbling Louis XVIII’s restoration, France was neutralized for decades as a political or military power: Britain could be said to have attained its objective. For Britain the Napoleonic war was a thrice-just war – Britain had to take arms against the disruption caused to British commerce, the slaughter wrought throughout the continent, and the threat to British interests not just in the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Low Countries, but around the world.

Who, in the end, defeated Napoleon? All the coalition members at one time or another now claim to have been the principals. Dogged Austria deserves a large share of the credit for rising from defeat again and again. Prussia, after its lamentable initial performance, renewed some of its national pride at the end. Russia can claim credit for the 1812 campaign, in which although there was no great feat of Russian arms, the French were completely routed.

Yet the lion’s share must surely go to Britain, with Pitt and Grenville’s policies of coalition-building on the continent, the astounding feats of Britain’s navy under Nelson and a host of other outstanding commanders, and Wellington’s relentless performance during the Peninsular War. It was the failure of France to invade or strangle Britain economically that first frustrated revolutionary and Napoleonic France when continental Europe lay prostrate at its feet: and it was the Peninsular War that first exposed France’s weakness and tied down huge French armies, encouraging first Russia and then Austria and Prussia back into the war. Waterloo was, for all its fame, essentially a postscript, the coup de grâce for an indomitable fighter who had failed to accept his own demise the year before. Nor was it a brilliantly fought battle, although Wellington prevailed: Wellington’s true greatness lay in the Peninsular campaign and the resistance of his Spanish and Portuguese allies which brought down a continental giant by the feet. It was through men like him, Moore and Hill in the British army and Howe, St Vincent, Duncan, Nelson, Cochrane and Collingwood in the navy that Britain achieved its deliverance and continental Europe its independence.


Hitler intended to take his own life when the time came, rather than suffer the humiliation of capture by the Russians. Propaganda minister Josef Göbbels intended to do the same with his wife and children. The only other Nazi leader in the bunker was Martin Bormann, who had no intention of dying and was planning to make his escape at the earliest opportunity. The rest of the leadership was scattered far and wide across the country. Like Himmler, most were still desperately hoping that they could somehow find a way out of the disaster they had brought down on their own heads.

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz had spent much of the day on the road, returning from the same Wehrmacht conference as Himmler to his own headquarters at Plön, near Kiel. Setting off soon after dawn, he had driven a hundred and fifty miles westward along roads crowded with refugees and strafed continually by Allied aircraft. Dönitz had watched in despair as the farmers in the fields abandoned their ploughs and ran for cover every time an aircraft appeared. It was obvious to him that the war was lost and could not last more than a few days longer at most.

That being so, his primary concern now was to help as many Germans as possible to escape from the east and flee westward before the Russians arrived. The German navy was doing its best to help, but Dönitz was bitterly aware that its few remaining vessels were desperately short of fuel and very vulnerable to attack. His job, as he saw it, was to keep the fight going and hold a corridor open until all the refugees had escaped to the west, either by land or sea, where they could safely surrender to the Anglo-Americans rather than the Russians. But he knew that it was a formidable task, with the countryside in chaos and the Wehrmacht visibly disintegrating with every hour that passed.

Dönitz had worked himself into a state of despair by the time he got back to Plön. He called immediately for his son-in-law, Günther Hessler, a U-boat ace who had once sunk fourteen Allied ships on a single patrol. Taking Hessler aside, Dönitz told him in strictest confidence that he had come to a momentous decision. With the war lost and no hope of a negotiated peace, he intended to surrender the German navy as soon as further resistance became impossible and then seek his own death in battle. He wanted Hessler to know in advance, because he would have to take care of Dönitz’s wife and daughter after he was gone.

Hessler was shocked. Seeking death in battle was a very German idea, but a very foolish one, too, in his opinion. He tried to talk Dönitz out of it, arguing that the country was going to need him in the difficult times that lay ahead, pointing out that a leader of Dönitz’s stature would be far more use to his country alive than dead.

But Dönitz refused to listen. Mulling it over on the way back from the Wehrmacht conference, he had decided that he much preferred death to dishonor. In his view, it was far better to fall in battle than to live with the shame of surrendering his beloved navy to the enemy. If nothing else, Dönitz knew that he would be following his own sons, both of whom had already fallen for the Fatherland at sea.


Dönitz’s headquarters were at Plön because it was one of the few remaining places in the north of Germany not immediately threatened by British or Russian troops. It was also very close to the Baltic coast, just a short ferry ride to the safety of neutral Sweden. As such, the town was full of high-ranking Nazis who were converging on it in ever-increasing numbers as their enemies advanced, much as men on a sinking ship converge on the highest point because they have nowhere else to go.

Albert Speer, the minister of armaments and war production, had been in Plön since April 25. He was camping in the woods overlooking Lake Eutin, living in a pair of construction trailers that had been set up for him among the trees. He was protected by troops from a tank regiment, who stood guard around the clock while Speer kept a low profile and waited for events to unfold elsewhere.

Speer had been one of the last Nazi leaders to leave Berlin before the Russians completed their encirclement of the city. He had had a long meeting with Hitler on the evening of April 23, an awkward farewell in the bunker with an abstracted Führer who had treated his once-favorite architect with an indifference bordering on contempt. Afterward, Speer had been summoned to Eva Braun’s room to say goodbye to her, too. They had sat up until the small hours, two old friends speaking with the candor of people who knew they would never see each other again:

We were able to talk honestly, for Hitler had withdrawn. She was the only prominent candidate for death in this bunker who displayed an admirable and superior composure. While all the others were abnormal—exaltedly heroic like Göbbels, bent on saving his skin like Bormann, exhausted like Hitler, or in total collapse like Frau Göbbels—Eva Braun radiated an almost gay serenity. “How about a bottle of champagne for our farewell? And some sweets? I’m sure you haven’t eaten in a long time.”

Speer had been touched by Eva Braun’s concern. In his view, she was the only person in the bunker capable of any humanity, complaining to him about all the killing, asking why so many more people had to die unnecessarily. He had been sorry to leave her when the time had come for him to go.

He had spent a few minutes in the Chancellery before he left, admiring the remnants of the building that he himself had designed. The electricity had gone, so it had been impossible to see much in the dark. Speer had stood in the Court of Honor for a while, trying to picture the splendid architecture above his head. He knew that it lay in ruins, like so much else in Germany. He was worried that there would be very little of the country left, if Hitler in his madness ordered the destruction of the remaining infrastructure before the war’s end in order to deny it to the enemy.

Unknown to Hitler, Speer had secretly made a radio recording in Hamburg a few days earlier. The recording urged the German people to ignore any order from Hitler requiring them to destroy everything before surrendering. Speer considered that enough damage had been done to Germany already. Any more would simply increase the German people’s misery without achieving anything useful. He had decided that Hitler would have to be overruled if he ordered further destruction as a last act of defiance before killing himself

I wanted to issue a call for resistance, to bluntly forbid any damage to factories, bridges, waterways, railways and communications, and to instruct the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the home guard to prevent demolitions “with all possible means, using firearms if necessary.” My speech also called for the surrender of political prisoners, including the Jews, unharmed to the occupying troops, and stipulated that prisoners of war and foreign workers should not be prevented from making their way home. It prohibited Werewolf activity and called on villages and cities to surrender without a fight.

The speech had been recorded at Hamburg radio station in conditions of utmost secrecy. Two radio engineers had made a gramophone record of it, worrying Speer with their noncommittal expressions as they listened to the treasonable content. The speech had not yet been broadcast and was not going to be until the last possible moment. The dilemma for Speer was to decide when that moment should be.

Hamburg’s Gauleiter, the local Nazi leader and a personal friend of Speer’s, had offered to have the speech broadcast at once. After seeing Hitler for the last time, however, Speer could not bring himself to give his assent. Still mentally in thrall to the Führer, he had come to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done for Germany and the drama across the country would just have to run its course. Rather than make speeches to the nation, Speer had taken himself off to Plön instead, where he sat now, waiting in his trailer for the announcement of Hitler’s death that must surely come in the next day or two.


Joachim von Ribbentrop’s movements were uncertain, but he, too, was somewhere on the way to Plön, traveling by road from Berlin. Like Speer, he had left the city on April 24, just before the Russians arrived. Unlike Speer, though, Ribbentrop had left reluctantly; he would have much preferred to stay behind and share the Führer’s fate in the bunker. But Hitler had refused to allow it. He had no further use for his foreign minister, a man whose advice over the years had rarely been less than disastrous.

The other Nazis had no use for Ribbentrop, either. All the important party members had forsaken him long ago. Dim and pompous, insufferably overbearing, he had made few friends as German foreign minister and had no one to turn to as he headed for Plön. He was so desperate not to be cast out that he had tried to return to Berlin at one point, urgently seeking an aircraft to fly him back to the capital. But his request had been refused, and he had been abandoned to his own devices, no longer the central figure he had once been in the affairs of state.

He had little idea of what to do next as he traveled north. Hitler had told him to make contact with the British and propose an alliance against the Bolsheviks, but his chances of success were almost nonexistent. Hitler had probably only suggested the idea to get rid of him.

Ribbentrop’s immediate plan was to join Dönitz at Plön and wait there until he could contact the British. If all else failed, he was thinking of going to ground in Hamburg after the fighting had stopped, living anonymously in a rented flat for a few months until the dust had settled and he could show his face again. The British were talking of hanging Nazi leaders after the war, but Ribbentrop couldn’t believe they were serious. Hanging was not for people like him. It was for criminals and murderers, not the leaders of a nation. Ribbentrop had never done anything wrong, by his own reckoning. All he had ever done was carry out his orders, and his orders had been given to him by Adolf Hitler.

Hermann Göring had just arrived in Austria, a prisoner at his family castle in Mauterndorf. He was being watched over by the SS, who had orders to shoot him as soon as Berlin fell to the Russians.

Unlike the other Nazi leaders, Göring had gone south after leaving Berlin, heading initially for Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat in Bavaria. He had expected Hitler to join him there, only to discover later that the Führer intended to die in Berlin instead. Disconcerted, Göring wondered if this meant that he was supposed to succeed Hitler as Führer in accordance with the decree of 1941 that required him to take over if Hitler’s freedom of action were restricted or if he were in any other way incapacitated.

Unsure of his ground, Göring had telegraphed Hitler on April 23 to find out:

My Führer! Following your decision to remain in the Berlin fortress, do you agree that I should take command of the Reich, as stipulated in the decree of 29 June 1941, with full powers, both internal and external?

If I receive no reply before 2200 hours, I shall assume that you no longer enjoy freedom of action and I shall act on my own initiative.

Unfortunately for Göring, his telegram had been intercepted in the bunker by Martin Bormann, perhaps his bitterest enemy among the other Nazis. Bormann had wasted no time in persuading Hitler that Göring was plotting to overthrow him and seize power. He had urged Hitler to have Göring shot at once. But Hitler had demurred, responding instead with a telegram to Göring insisting that he, Hitler, remained in full control:

Decree of 29 June 1941 is rescinded by my special instruction. My freedom of action remains total. I forbid any move by you of the kind you have indicated.

Hitler’s telegram had been followed by another, drafted by Bormann, who had ambitions to become Führer himself if anything happened to Hitler:

Hermann Göring. Your action represents high treason against the Führer and National Socialism. The penalty for treason is death. But in view of your earlier services to the party, the Führer will not inflict this supreme penalty if you resign all your offices. Answer yes or no.

Göring had not had time to reply before the SS arrived to arrest him. More than a hundred soldiers had surrounded his house at Berchtesgaden, confining Göring to his room at gunpoint and refusing to let him see his wife and daughter. The men almost certainly had orders from Bormann to shoot Göring out of hand, but were reluctant to comply. Instead, they had contented themselves with keeping him under close arrest, as his wife bitterly recalled:

Armed SS men invaded the house and I had to go to my room. I sat down, almost paralysed, unable to collect my thoughts. For the second time that day I had the impression of dreaming and of having left reality behind me. Some twenty minutes went by. Unable to bear it any longer, I tried to rejoin my husband but a guard was standing in front of the door of his study and prevented me from entering. After about an hour, Hermann came out to dine with us, under the watchful eyes of the SS. It hardly needs to be said that none of us were able to swallow a mouthful. But at least we were still together. From my seat at the table I could see the photograph of Adolf Hitler hanging on the wall. I had a sudden desire to tear it down and throw it out!

A day later, Berchtesgaden had been bombed by the Allies. Escorted by U.S. Mustangs, Lancasters of the Royal Air Force had appeared shortly after first light, targeting Hitler’s house at the Berghof. They had flown so low that Flight Sergeant Cutting, a rear gunner on one of the Lancasters, had seen the flash of the bombs as they hit the Berghof, and Flying Officer Coster had watched the neighboring SS barracks going up in smoke. Göring’s house had been damaged, too, the roof collapsing and the stairs giving way as he and his family huddled together in the cellar. Emmy Göring had prayed without success for a direct hit to kill them all and put them out of their misery.

The damage had been so extensive that it had proved impossible to remain in Berchtesgaden after the raid. Göring had persuaded the SS to move them to Mauterndorf instead, fifty miles away in Austria. He owned the castle there, which he had inherited from his Jewish stepfather. Formerly the summer palace of the archbishops of Salzburg, it stood on a promontory high above the town, heavily restored in medieval style by his stepfather.

The move had been traumatic. One of the SS had discreetly advised Emmy Göring to insist on traveling in the same car as her husband for the journey, to prevent him from being executed on the way. A chauffeur had taken charge of her jewel case, only to abscond with it en route. Other people had deserted too, quietly abandoning the Görings to their fate. The castle itself had been cold and forbidding when they arrived, a cheerless place that Emmy Göring had never liked. It was said to have a secret passage that led underground to the market square in Mauterndorf, but that was little comfort to the Görings with an SS guard gazing unblinkingly at them from every corner.

The Görings were waiting on events now, in common with everyone else. The SS had orders to shoot Göring in due course, but their orders might easily be overridden by developments in Berlin. The SS were in several different minds about what to do. The Luftwaffe was a factor as well, outraged at the idea of its erstwhile commander being murdered by a gang of thugs. The Luftwaffe had little time for Göring, but even less for the SS.

There was talk, some of it encouraged by sympathizers in the SS, of the Luftwaffe making an attack on the castle to rescue Göring and protect him from his captors if the worse should come to the worst. But that was a bridge they would only cross when they came to it.


For Rudolf Hess, far away in South Wales, there were no bridges to cross anymore. Following his dramatic flight to Scotland in 1941, he had been a prisoner at Maindiff Court, an outpost of Abergavenny’s mental hospital, since June 1942. Hess had spent the day in his room, as usual, hard at work on his memoirs. He had been writing all afternoon, covering sheet after sheet of foolscap with his ramblings, pausing only at half past six to call for a hot water bottle to ease the stomach pains, perhaps imaginary, that were causing him so much distress.

It was a race against time for Hess. He knew the war was almost over. He had known it ever since the American army crossed the Rhine at Remagen, using specially trained Jews to hypnotize the Germans and prevent them from defending the bridge. Hess was determined to get his memoirs down on paper before the end came. It was most important that he did:

I had been imprisoned for four years now with lunatics; I had been at the mercy of their torture without being able to inform anybody of this, and without being able to convince the Swiss Minister that this was so; nor of course was I able to enlighten the lunatics about their own condition …

Outside my garden lunatics walked up and down with loaded rifles! Lunatics surrounded me in the house! When I went for a walk, lunatics walked in front of and behind me—all in the uniform of the British army.

Hess kept scribbling until it was time for dinner. He ate a hearty meal and then began writing again immediately afterward. He continued writing far into the night. It was the only agreeable occupation that remained to him, now that the lunatics had taken over the asylum.