Ernst von Mansfeld

Count Ernst von Mansfeld (1580-1626), a German military commander, was the most famous mercenary leader of the early period of the Thirty Years’ War. In Mansfeld’s case the lack of an inheritance likewise led him into a career as a soldier of fortune, and although he was brought up a Catholic and first enlisted with the emperor he then went over to the Protestant Union, before going on to serve in turn the Catholic duke of Savoy, the Protestant Bohemians, the Calvinist Friedrich of the Palatinate, and the Lutheran Christian IV of Denmark.

Mansfeld has become notorious as the archetypal Thirty Years War mercenary general with an army for hire to the highest bidder, but while he switched employers several times he nevertheless fought consistently on the anti-Habsburg side, despite being born and brought up as a Catholic. His father was governor of the Habsburg province of Luxembourg for almost fifty years, and in his sixties and long a widower he formed a relationship with a woman of lower rank, but although they did not marry their three children were later legitimised on royal authority. Ernst, the eldest, became the heir after the death of his much older half-brother, but his father’s estate was heavily indebted and when he died in 1604 it fell to the Spanish crown, which because of one of its periodic bankruptcies also failed to make the expected provision for Ernst and his siblings. By then Mansfeld had already served eight years in the Imperial army in Hungary during the Long Turkish War, having started at barely fifteen, but the loss of his inheritance and his subsequent inability to find preferment in the Netherlands embittered him and began the process of turning him from an adherent of the Habsburgs into an enemy.

Peace with the Turks and the truce in the Netherlands left him without military employment, so that he was glad to enlist with Archduke Leopold at the beginning of the Cleves-Jülich conflict in 1609, but he was soon captured and held prisoner. Unable to raise the ransom demanded, and with the Habsburg side unwilling to pay it, he eventually changed sides and took service as a colonel with the Protestant Union’s general, Margrave Joachim Ernst of Ansbach. In 1616 the Union allowed Mansfeld to recruit a force of some 4000 men for the duke of Savoy, who with French and Venetian support was engaged in a war with Spain over the succession to the neighbouring Italian duchy of Montferrat, and he continued to serve the duke until the final Spanish withdrawal in June 1618. He and his men were then despatched to Bohemia, where he was engaged by the Estates with a rank equivalent to major-general. Mansfeld’s army arrived at a vital moment, but it was not large, and moreover Mansfeld was notoriously inclined to pursue his own strategy, usually one of limiting his risk, rather than following the orders of his employers.

At that time, governments did not have the money or the administrative skills necessary to pursue their military ambitions. As a result, they often hired, on a contract basis, successful men who were able to undertake such difficult tasks for them as levying taxes; transferring money from one city or country to another; leading overseas expeditions; conducting maritime warfare; or – as military entrepreneurs, (i. e., as mercenary captains)- recruiting, organizing, training, commanding armies, and putting down local rebellions,. These men were very good at what they did but they were also very expensive. More than 300 of them were active in Germany alone during the Thirty Years’ War.

Mansfeld arrived in Bohemia in 1618 just in time to prevent the Imperialists from making a determined advance on Prague, following which both sides preferred to spend the autumn manoeuvring, skirmishing and ravaging the countryside rather than risk a major battle. In this Thurn fared rather better than the Imperialists, while Mansfeld besieged Pilsen, which he captured in late November after a seven-week siege, a feat for which he was promptly placed under the Imperial ban by Emperor Matthias. This marked the end of the campaigning season, leaving the troops to find their winter quarters and the governments to pursue the conflict through diplomacy and propaganda until military action could be resumed in the spring.

In the spring of 1619 Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was almost equally isolated militarily, while the forces he had put into the field with Spanish assistance the previous autumn had fared badly. Thurn, following on from his bloodless triumph in Moravia, took advantage of the situation to march into Austria, and by May he had the capital itself under siege. In early June there was a change of fortune. Some 7000 Spanish troops were making their way from Flanders to join the Imperialists in Bohemia, but when Mansfeld tried to intercept them he was himself caught by Bucquoy, who defeated him heavily near the town of Zablati. This was the first significant Imperialist victory and one which immediately caused the Bohemian directorate to recall Thurn, so that the siege of Vienna was lifted.

Mansfeld retreated to Pilsen which he had first taken it in November 1618 and had retreated there again after his defeat at Zablati in June 1619. As an outsider with a Catholic background Mansfeld had been at odds with the Bohemian generals almost from the outset, while he and they alike resented the overall command being given to Anhalt, so that he had increasingly behaved as a independent condottiere in the south west of Bohemia. Nevertheless he took an active part in Anhalt’s campaign during the summer of 1620 before being sent back to Bohemia in September, where he had re-established himself in Pilsen. The Bohemians had not paid him, so that his men too were unpaid, and when the League army arrived outside the city in October he was ready to negotiate, particularly as his Bohemian service contract was due to expire shortly, and he in fact received his discharge from Friedrich at the end of that month. For Maximilian of Bavaria time was shorter than money by this stage, and as the city was well fortified a siege would probably have taken weeks, so he met Mansfeld’s price for a truce which enabled him to march on.

Meanwhile with the truce coming to an end it was in the Dutch interest for Spanish forces to remain embroiled in Germany, so in February 1621 Friedrich was able to beg and borrow enough money to re-engage Mansfeld, then still securely fortified with his men in Pilsen. Although he had long been unpaid and had been inactive during the last stage of the revolt, the general had earlier managed to acquire many of the Palatine and privately recruited troop units which had made their way to Bohemia from the west, so that by this time he had a considerable army, which he had also protected from attack after the defeat of the revolt by agreeing a six-week truce with Tilly in January. He was able to supplement his numbers further by recruiting men from the remnants of the Bohemian army, and after he was forced out of Pilsen at the end of March he broke through into the Upper Palatinate in May, where he was followed and confronted by Imperialist units and part of the League army under Tilly’s command. Both sides were cautious, digging themselves into fortified positions and skirmishing for the next four months while Maximilian delayed, seeking to increase the pressure on Ferdinand as they haggled over Friedrich’s property. When the duke finally sent reinforcements in mid-September the resourceful Mansfeld, better at tactics than pitched battles, slipped away with his army under cover of darkness to begin a forced march across Germany, reaching the Rhine and the Lower Palatinate two weeks later, although he lost many men on the way. This was a military failure for Tilly, but it was a political success for Maximilian, who thus occupied the Upper Palatinate and secured control of one part of Friedrich’s territories.

On the other hand the episode also delayed Maximilian’s intended seizure of the part of the Lower Palatinate east of the Rhine, where he planned to forestall any possible Spanish move to extend their area of control. Tilly’s army too now hurried westwards, ostensibly pursuing Mansfeld, who moved on into Alsace, but actually aiming at the Palatinate. By then it was late in the year, and the armies were severely depleted by campaigning, epidemics and desertion, so that although Tilly occupied much of the territory he was unable to take the principal fortified cities of Heidelberg and Mannheim, while across the Rhine the fortress of Frankenthal continued to hold out as the last point of resistance to the Spanish occupiers. Thus the conquest of the Palatinate could not be completed in 1621, and there was scope for new contenders to take the field when campaigning resumed in the spring of 1622.

Ernst von Mansfeld helped Frederick V, who was King of Bohemia from 1619 to 1620, by defending the Upper and Rhine Palatinate, a historic state of the Holy Roman Empire. Because of his close ties with Frederick, who provided the cash and troops, Mansfield had 15,000 to 20,000 men under his command. He was an excellent organizer, thanks in large part to his network of experienced recruiting officers. Although he was a good strategist and a fine tactician, he was also quite ruthless and was willing to risk his men’s lives. If defeated, he would sometimes retreat so quickly that his own forces would disintegrate. This made him rather expensive to employ because new forces would then have to be recruited in the wake of his retreat.

Had Mansfeld, Christian of Brunswick and Georg of Baden-Durlach been able to bring their armies together, had the quality and equipment of their forces matched their numbers, and had they been well commanded, they might have been more than a match for Tilly’s League army, but none of these requirements was met. Mansfeld was a better recruiter and organiser than a field commander, Christian, although well provided with native wit and raw courage, was a young romantic rather than a trained officer, and Georg had studied military theory but had no practical experience. Tilly, on the other hand, was the ultimate professional and one of the most successful generals of the age, his army was well equipped, and it had a battle-hardened core from the Bohemian campaign. Christian’s army was in northern Germany while Georg of Baden-Durlach and Mansfeld were in the south, although separately, and it was evident to Tilly that he had to find, fight and defeat them individually before they could join up against him.

Encouraged by the emergence of his new supporters, Friedrich himself accompanied Mansfeld, who moved his army west into the Palatinate early in 1622, crossing the Rhine and encountering Tilly with a smaller force but in a strong defensive position at Wiesloch, ten miles south of Heidelberg. Mansfeld withdrew, hoping that Georg of Baden-Durlach would soon join him, but Tilly followed, attacking from the rear on 27 April as Mansfeld’s troops crossed a small river. The subsequent fighting was indecisive, although the League army suffered considerable losses, while Tilly himself was wounded and narrowly escaped capture. Both sides then retired to a safe distance, where Tilly was reinforced by Cordoba but his opponents’ strength was increased much more by the arrival of Georg and his Baden army. The Palatine side then unwisely sacrificed their numerical superiority as Mansfeld split off to besiege a small Spanish-held town, giving Tilly the chance to attack Georg at Wimpfen, near Heilbronn, on 6 May. The resulting battle was fiercely fought and long drawn out, but the outcome was a decisive victory for Tilly, while the Baden army was virtually destroyed, and little more than a quarter of the men eventually rejoined Mansfeld.

Meanwhile Christian of Brunswick had been making his way south slowly, experiencing some difficulty in crossing hostile territory. Tilly took the opportunity to concentrate all his available forces into one of the largest armies which had so far been involved, so that even though Mansfeld despatched a sizeable part of his own force to join Christian the latter was outnumbered by around two to one. Tilly caught up with him at Höchst, just west of Frankfurt am Main, attacking him at another river crossing on 20 June and putting his army to flight with heavy losses. Christian managed to join up with Mansfeld’s main force, and together they escaped Tilly’s pursuit, although with further losses, and after re-grouping they headed north east, aiming to reach Dutch territory. Cordoba intercepted them near Namur in late August, leading to another battle at Fleurus, but eventually Mansfeld and Christian succeeded in breaking away, claiming victory despite yet further losses of men and equipment, so that it was with a very much reduced and battle-scarred force that they eventually reached their destination.

Both generals had in fact already been dismissed by Friedrich, ‘Winter King’ of Bohemia a move intended as a conciliatory gesture towards his opponents and a response to the urgings of his father-in-law James I, as the defeats of the summer had undermined his resolution and he was for the first time prepared to consider negotiation. Georg of Baden-Durlach, even more disillusioned, had discharged the remains of his army in late June and petitioned the emperor for a pardon. The conquest of the Palatinate was completed in the following months, when Tilly finally captured Heidelberg in September and Mannheim surrendered at the beginning of November. The fortress of Frankenthal held out over the winter, but it too was surrendered by its mainly English defenders in March 1623, on the orders of James I, who hoped that this would assist peace negotiations.

In the event little progress was made in agreeing peace terms, and in the meantime Friedrich recovered his determination to continue the struggle. Mansfeld and Christian of Brunswick entered Dutch service briefly in the autumn of 1622, and they were able to rebuild and reequip their forces over the winter. Hence they intended to take part in the joint campaign with Bethlen Gabor in 1623 mentioned above, but once again the two generals failed to unite their armies, and Tilly intercepted Christian in north Germany before the march eastwards began. Christian attempted to retreat back towards Holland, but eventually Tilly forced him to battle at Stadtlohn, on the border west of Münster, effectively destroying his army on 6 August although Christian himself escaped. Maximilian refused to allow a pursuit into Dutch territory, as the League was as anxious to avoid entanglement in the war in the Netherlands as the Spanish and the Dutch were to limit their involvement in Germany.

After defeating Christian of Brunswick at the battle of Stadtlohn in August 1623 Tilly had moved his army back into Westphalia and encamped it on the borders of the Lower Saxon Circle, where he rebuilt its strength while he kept watch on Mansfeld in Ostfriesland, and although Mansfeld dispersed his force and slipped away early in 1624 Tilly stayed put. There were of course good reasons for this. Mansfeld had fled into Holland once before, only to re-emerge six months later with a substantial reconstituted army, and he might have done so again.

During this campaign Mansfeld had remained on the defensive in a strong position in Ostfriesland, on the Dutch border in north-west Germany. Tilly did not have sufficient resources to mount an attack after his own losses over the summer, so instead the two armies settled into winter quarters in the region, but in January 1624 the local Estates, anxious to be rid of the troops, offered Mansfeld enough money to pay off his men, most of whom promptly re-enlisted with the Dutch.

Mansfeld himself slipped away too, but before the year was out he had recruited a new army with James I of England’s money, for service in the next phase of the war.

Like other mercenary captains, Mansfeld had his share of military successes and of military failures, but unlike the vast majority of other captains he also understood the propaganda value of the written word. At his direction, for example, in 1622 his administrative staff produced a wide-ranging “apologia”-that is, a formal defense of his opinions, positions, or actions-which was designed to uphold his reputation and to impress prospective employers with his military expertise and knowledge. In the words of the modern Dutch scholar Aart Brouwer (with light editing), the essence of Mansfeld’s apologia is as follows:

The tone of the apologia is that of a soldier, a cool professional who speaks in a succinct manner and with a degree of sarcasm, even of a superficial rationality, about battles past and his own and often bloody part in them. What is most remarkable about the apologia is Mansfeld’s cynical but pragmatic view of mercenary soldiers, whose loyalty, he says, depends solely on regular payments. As soon as these are withheld, they will “take their income where they find it, and once the doors have been opened they will run on and on at the same level of lawlessness. The Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and Hungarians each add their own national vices and mis chief to the mix, so that there is no form or shape of fraud or ruse which they will not practice.”

The Dutch hired Mansfeld in 1622 because Spain was preparing to attack the strategically-important Dutch town of Bergen-op-Zoom and they needed his expertise. To get to Bergen-op-Zoom, however, Mansfeld and his men had to march through Lorraine and Habsburg territory-while being pursued by the army of the Spanish general Cordoba. When Mansfeld reached the town of Fleurus in the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium), he found to his great surprise that Corboda had got there first by marching through Luxembourg and the Ardennes.

The resulting battle of Fleurus seems to have been something of a draw. On the one hand, Cordoba claimed victory and sent a set of captured Mansfeld colors, e. g., battle flags, to the Infanta Isabella in Brussels. (Infanta Isabella of Spain was, together with her husband Albert of Austria, the joint sovereign of the Spanish holdings in the Low Countries and in the north of France.) On the other hand, much of Mansfeld’s ragtag mercenary army, with only two field guns, had managed to push the veteran Spanish troops aside and to force its way into the Netherlands, where it regrouped and fought on. The Dutch appreciated what Mansfeld had accomplished but, on balance, they considered his troops to be goet volck maer buyten discipline (“good people but without discipline”) and ordered him to seek quarters outside their own country.

BATTLE OF DESSAU, 1626. Albrecht von Wallenstein’s victory of the Protestant forces under Count Peter Ernst von Mansfeld at Dessau, Germany, in 1626. Contemporary broadside.

About 1624 he paid three visits to London, where he was hailed as a hero by the populace, and at least one to Paris. James I, being the father-in-law of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, was anxious to furnish him with men and money for the recovery of the Palatinate, but it was not until January 1625 that Mansfeld and his army of “raw and poor rascals” sailed from Dover to the Netherlands before failing to relieve the siege of Breda. Later in the year, the Thirty Years’ War having been renewed under the leadership of Christian IV of Denmark, he re-entered Germany to take part therein. But on 25 April 1626 Wallenstein inflicted a severe defeat upon him at the bridge of Dessau. Mansfeld, however, quickly raised another army, with which he intended to attack the hereditary lands of the house of Austria, and pursued by Wallenstein he pressed forward towards Hungary, where he hoped to accomplish his purpose by the aid of Bethlen Gabor, prince of Transylvania. But when Bethlen changed his policy and made peace with the emperor, Mansfeld was compelled to disband his troops. He set out for Venice, but when he reached Rakowitza near Sarajevo, in Bosnia, he was taken ill, and here he died on 29 November 1626, probably from a hemorrhage. He was buried at Split.

Wild rumors immediately spread upon his death, e. g., that he had died standing up in full armor with his sword drawn; that he had expired in the arms of his most loyal servants; or that he had left behind many valuable hidden treasures. In reality, however, his death was much less romantic and less eventful than his life. According to a modern biographer, Mansfeld had repeatedly broken the law, had used violence and subterfuge to steal the possessions of other people or to destroy their livelihood, and had undermined every kind of moral or worldly authority as he saw fit.

Dessau 1626 by Warlord156

This scenario is based on the Battle of Dessau Bridge. In reality it was a very one-sided affair with the Protestant forces heavily outnumbered and very unwise to launch an attack that ultimately lead to defeat and surrender of large parts of their army. For this scenario however, the armies have been evened up a little so that a more balanced game can be had – but the overall theme of the battle is retained. This battle is a challenge; the imperial position seems to be a strong one, well protected and lots of areas of cover to defend. The protestant’s don’t really have enough troops to directly assault the earthworks and so must try and tempt the imperials out of their positions and hope that their superior artillery will sufficiently weaken the opponent before the tercio’s steamroller their way through to the bridge.

Pike & Shot: Campaigns


Theodoric the Great (c. 451 or 453/454–526)

Theodoric entering Rome.

Theoderic’s empire at the height of its power in 523, with territory marked in pink ruled directly by Theoderic and stippled areas under his hegemony.

One of the greatest of the barbarian kings and the greatest of the Gothic kings, Theodoric the Great, or the Amal as he was originally known, reigned over the Ostrogoths from 471 to 526 and ruled an independent Gothic kingdom in Italy from 493 to 526. He assumed power in Italy by defeating a rival barbarian king, Odovacar, and Theodoric’s reign was generally recognized for its effectiveness and tolerance. He skillfully managed the relations between his people and the native Roman population and also maintained good relations with the emperors in Constantinople. Theodoric was able to keep the peace in Italy between Ostrogoths and Romans despite important differences in religion—Theodoric and his people were Arian Christians and the native Italians were Catholic Christians. He preserved the best aspects of the administrations of Odovacar and the Romans and worked well with the Senate and Roman nobles. He was an active builder, promoted culture, and patronized the great scholars Boethius and Cassiodorus. His reign, however, was marred in its later years by increasing tension between Goths and Romans, as Catholic Christianity found important new leaders. The situation was worsened by Theodoric’s execution of Boethius and his father-in-law, Symmachus, leading Roman senators. Despite the difficulties of his later years, complicated further by the lack of a male heir, Theodoric was one of the greatest kings to rule in the years after the fall of the Western Empire.

The early life of Theodoric is important for his later years, though modern knowledge of it is marked with confusion. One particularly vexing problem about his early years is the date of his birth, which is traditionally given as 456. According to the tradition, Theodoric was born on the day that his family learned the news that his uncle Valamir had been attacked by and had defeated a large band of Huns. But this date is unlikely because it would make Theodoric quite young—indeed, perhaps too young—when he was sent to Constantinople as a hostage and still quite young when he later took control of the kingdom. More recent scholarship has suggested dates of birth as early as 451, which would correspond to the victory of the Ostrogoths and their Roman allies over the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, a date that would make Theodoric a more mature, and politically useful, boy when he was sent to Constantinople. Whatever his exact date of birth, he was born to the royal Amal family and was sent as a hostage in 459/460 as surety for a treaty between the Ostrogoths and Eastern Empire. While at the imperial court, Theodoric learned a great deal and had experiences that shaped his later life. He became aware of rivalries among the Gothic people, and most likely came to fear and hate rival Ostrogothic families who gained preferment at the imperial court. He also witnessed the sophisticated governmental practices of the empire, which he used when he became king of the Ostrogoths and then later ruler in Italy. He also gained a solid, if unspectacular, education, most likely learning to do arithmetic and to read and write.

Theodoric was released from his service as a hostage in the late 460s, after which, in about 469, he returned to his homeland, received control of a subkingdom, and began his ascent to power among the Ostrogoths. Already in 470 he launched campaigns, sometimes in the name of the empire, against his political rivals or to expand his territory. His success in 470 revealed his ambition; the campaign probably took place without his father’s permission, and marked, for Theodoric, the start of his independent authority. In the 470s he became an increasingly powerful and important figure in the military and political life of the Eastern Empire. His main Gothic rival, Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter, rose in the imperial ranks in the 470s and took a prominent part in a revolt against Emperor Zeno. Having fled from the capital in 475, Zeno was able to return thanks to the support from Theodoric of the Amal clan and strike against Strabo, who quickly fell from grace, though he remained a powerful rival to both Theodoric and Zeno. Theodoric the Amal received numerous honors from Zeno and was made commander of East Roman troops. Theodoric’s people were made foederati (federated allies) of the empire and were given an annual subsidy from the emperor. Despite these achievements, Theodoric still faced a challenge from Strabo, who sometimes was supported by Zeno for fear of an over mighty Theodoric the Amal. Strabo’s sudden death in 481 freed his rival’s hand. Theodoric was now sole king of the Ostrogoths and a dangerous friend of the empire.

The 470s and early 480s saw important changes in the life of Theodoric and the Roman Empire. Theodoric had become one of the most powerful figures in the Eastern Empire. In 482–483 Theodoric waged a terrible offensive in the empire to force Zeno to come to terms, which the emperor did. Theodoric was rewarded with a consulship for 484, but his term in office was cut short by Zeno’s fears that the Ostrogoth had turned against him. Despite his own strength, Theodoric knew that he was no match for the full power of the empire, and events in the Western Empire offered both Theodoric and Zeno a solution to their problematic relationship. In 476 the last of the Western Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, and his general, Orestes, were defeated by the German general Odovacar. After defeating his rivals, Odovacar executed Orestes and deposed Romulus and sent him into internal exile. Odovacar also declared the end of the imperial line in Italy and, although recognizing the sovereignty of the emperor in Constantinople, ruled as an independent king in Italy. In 488, following another revolt by Theodoric, Zeno requested that the Ostrogoth invade Italy and restore it to imperial control.

Theodoric’s march to Italy was not unimpeded, as other barbarian peoples struggled against him, but he reached Italy by the summer of 489. His rival Odovacar was waiting for him with his army. Theodoric won two victories against Odovacar in August and September of 489. He also welcomed Tufa, one of Odovacar’s leading generals, and it seemed that Theodoric would quickly triumph over his enemy. But Odovacar was able to secure himself behind the walls and swamps of Ravenna, and Tufa rejoined Odovacar shortly after leaving, taking with him the Ostrogothic soldiers he commanded on the way to Ravenna. Odovacar then took the offensive and forced Theodoric to withdraw to the city of Pavia. Theodoric, however, managed to break the siege and defeat Odovacar once again, on August 11, 490, with the aid of a large number of Visigoths. Odovacar returned to Ravenna, where Theodoric besieged him. But Ravenna could not be taken, and Theodoric was forced to negotiate with Odovacar. Agreement was reached on February, 493, and Theodoric entered Ravenna on March 5. Apparently he had agreed to share power with Odovacar. On March 15, he welcomed Odovacar at a great banquet, at which Theodoric himself killed Odovacar. The murder of Odovacar was followed by the massacre of his family and supporters. Theodoric had eliminated his rival and then proceeded to take control of Italy.

Theodoric’s position remained uncertain for some time, in part because of his desire to be recognized as the ruler in Italy by the emperor in Constantinople. He was anxious to be recognized in the capital of the empire because he portrayed his kingdom as the legitimate successor of the Roman Empire in Italy. He did this for a number of reasons. He certainly had some sentimental attachment to all things Roman as a result of his time as a hostage in Constantinople. He also recognized the importance of being “Roman.” That identity meant civilization and defined relations with the nobility in Italy, as well as with the church, a very powerful force. It was also a means to secure support for his kingdom from the population of Italy, the birthplace of the Roman Empire. He could also use it in his relations with Constantinople, as an instrument to remind the emperor that any violation of the peace between them was a violation of the empire and an offense against God.

Theodoric’s status was resolved gradually over the first two decades of his rule in Italy, and in two stages, in 497/498 and in 508, the Ostrogoth gained recognition from the emperor for his independent status as king in Italy. His rule in Italy, from 497 until his death in 526, was a time of peace and prosperity for the peninsula. Moreover, his kingdom became the center of the greatest power in western Europe, as Theodoric established his authority not only over Italy but also over other parts of the old Western Empire. His closest rival, the Merovingian king Clovis, managed some success against Theodoric in southwestern France, but he never really attempted to unseat Theodoric, to whom he was related by marriage. (His sister, Audofleda, married Theodoric and bore the daughter Amalaswintha.) Indeed, marriage alliances constituted one of the tools Theodoric used to enhance his power in the old Western Empire. Another instrument in the extension of his power, of course, was his great ability as a general. His defense of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and subsequent acquisition of the kingdom in 511 revealed his talents as a military leader, as did his campaigns for and against the emperor and against Odovacar.

Although king of Visigothic Spain, Theodoric is best known for his rule of Italy. As the independent ruler of Italy, Theodoric presided over a cultural and economic revival in the peninsula. He worked effectively with the Roman nobility, who enjoyed the peace brought by Theodoric and managed to revive the productivity of their estates. Theodoric’s equitable distribution of land, which did not overly burden the Roman population of Italy, also stimulated an economic revival. He not only worked well with the nobles but respected and honored the Senate, and in many ways preserved Roman imperial governmental practices. Despite his Arianism, Theodoric remained on good terms with the pope and Catholic church in Italy. Indeed, at one point he was invited to resolve a disputed papal election, and his good relations with the church were critical to his acceptance as the ruler in Italy. He also supported the traditions of Roman law and education in his kingdom. He helped maintain the infrastructure in Italy, restoring many roads and public buildings. He was also a great builder in his own right, most notably of the magnificent mausoleum that still stands in Ravenna today. Finally, Theodoric was a patron of arts and letters. His personal secretary was the prominent Christian writer Cassiodorus, and Theodoric also had close relations with the great intellectual and author, Boethius.

Despite his long and prosperous reign, Theodoric’s end was not a happy one, and his great kingdom did not long survive his death. Several events conspired to bring Theodoric’s reign to an unfortunate end. His failure to have a male heir made the establishment of a dynasty difficult and caused tensions among the Ostrogoths, which worsened other internal problems. It also undermined his foreign policy and the extension of his power over Spain. Furthermore, his good relations with the church came to an end for two reasons. The election of a new pope, John I (523–526), ended Theodoric’s good relations with the papacy, in part because of John’s hostility toward Arianism. His relations with the church also worsened because the tensions that existed within the church, between its eastern and western halves, were eased, as the new emperor, Justin (518–527), outlawed Arianism and supported Catholic orthodoxy. Theodoric’s Arianism was made to appear even more at odds with the Catholic population by the conversion of Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty to Catholic Christianity. Finally, his good relations with the Senate and Roman nobility were poisoned by an alleged conspiracy of senators in 522. Boethius’s defense of his fellow senators implicated him in the plot in the eyes of Theodoric, and as a result, Boethius fell from favor and was executed in 524.

Theodoric died in August of 526. According to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Theodoric died of typhoid brought on by remorse for the deaths of Boethius and his father-in-law, Symmachus, who was also implicated in the plot against Theodoric. Procopius notes that Theodoric was served fish for dinner one evening and saw in it the face of Symmachus. Theodoric fled to his room frightened by the vision, and then called for a doctor, to whom he disclosed his great dismay over the execution of Symmachus and Boethius.

Theodoric was succeeded by his grandson, Athalaric, whose mother, Amalaswintha, served as a regent during the first part of her son’s reign. The problems of Theodoric’s last years continued to plague his successor and Amalaswintha. Dissension among the Goths led to her death and the eventual invasion and destruction of the Gothic kingdom by Justinian. A brilliant, tolerant, and effective ruler in many ways, Theodoric could not provide for a lasting settlement in the kingdom he created.


Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Burns, Thomas. A History of the Ostrogoths. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.

Cassiodorus. The Variae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. Trans. S. J. B. Barnish. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Hodgkin, Thomas. Theodoric the Goth: the Barbarian Champion of Civilization. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1983.

Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.

Moorhead, John. Theodoric in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Procopius. Procopius, with an English Translation by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450–751. London: Longman, 1994.

Darius III

There are times when normally competent military commanders are truly outmatched by the opponents they encounter. There is no doubt that this is the case for Darius III, who was soundly defeated at the hands of the military prodigy, Alexander of Macedon. His defeat sounded the end of Persia as a globe spanning and dominant empire. Appearing primarily in Greek written texts, Darius has inevitably been presented through the ages in a negative light, yet there is strong evidence at least for his stalwart courage. As a young man he distinguished himself in single combat against a Champion sent forward by an Iranian mountain tribe in rebellion against the Persian Empire.

His route to the Persian throne was difficult and winding, for he was only a minor noble of the royal family, posted far away from the center of the empire as Governor of Armenia. A series of traitorous poisonings engineered by the palace court wiped out the majority of the ruling elite, paving the road to his Imperial rule in 336 B.C.E.

When Alexander initially invaded the Anatolian Empire in 334 B.C.E., Darius could be excused for treating this as a local difficulty to be handled by the regional governors. When he eventually did respond to the invasion and advanced with his army into Syria in 333 B.C.E., he seemed to have outmaneuvered Alexander into a disadvantageous position. Darius converged behind the Macedonians on the coastal plain. There he gathered his army into a strong defensive position, then tried an outflanking move – tactics that might have succeeded against a lesser opponent. The Persian forces were quickly shattered by Macedonian cavalry, however, and Darius was forced to flee the battlefield to avoid capture and greater losses. Darius’s second great battle against Alexander proved to be just as disastrous. Fleeing back to the city of Ecbatana, Darius intended to raise another army to continue the fight, but a rebellious subordinate governor captured him, held him prisoner for a time, and finally killed him.

Alexander the Great vs Darius III

After his humiliating defeat at the hands of Alexander in 333 B.C.E., the Persian ruler Darius III, was resolute in his decision to fight the Macedonians again and crush them. He assembled a considerable army by calling upon tribute and reserves from his Asian provinces, and then waited in Mesopotamia for Alexander to come to him. In the summer of 331 BC, Alexander – equally eager for yet another clash – marched from Egypt through Syria to the Euphrates River. Darius used the quickness of his cavalry to deny them supplies and shelter in the Euphrates valley, forcing Alexander to continue marching his army northeast to the Tigris River. Darius waited patiently for his rival Alexander’s much smaller army on the far side of the river.

Alexander crossed the Tigris unaware of the disposition or strength of Darius’s gathered army. After four days of marching along the river, Alexander managed to take prisoners in a clash with Persian cavalry. Interrogation revealed that Darius was waiting with his army on a plain some 6 miles away, using intervening hills to block line of sight. Alexander fortified his own camp and then spent four days preparing for the battle to come. Late on the evening of September 29, he advanced his army en masse toward Guagamela with the intent of attacking at dawn after the night march. After finally reaching the crest of the hill above the Persian camp on the plain below, Alexander ordered his army to halt. After beholding the full scale of his enemy Darius’s army, Alexander decided to wait. The following day, he surveyed the battlefield and finalized his battle plan. After deciding against the night attack, he made adjustments to his usual battle dispositions – his infantry phalanx would remain in the center, the companion cavalry would gather on the right, supported by a light cavalry left-wing. He also prepared measures in case of other possible battlefield developments. On the wings of his army, additional cavalry and skirmishers would be in position to counter any outflanking moves. He also stationed a second line of infantry in the rear of the line of battle, leaving them ready to turn around and defend the backs of the front line. Thus satisfactorily prepared, Alexander slept peacefully through the night. The following morning he marched his eager army down onto the plain of battle, riding as usual at the head of the Macedonian cavalry with the support of the best of his combat infantry. He led his entire army to the right, across the front of the waiting Persian lines. Alexander attacked the Persian left with his cavalry, while the unprepared Persian cavalry attempted outflanking moves but were soundly defeated. Obscured among the chaotic sounds of combat, with large plumes of dust rising from the dryness of the plain, Darius could not see Alexander’s next move. Alexander the Great charged his heavy cavalry – with infantry support – to strike at Darius in the Persian army center. Taken completely by surprise, the Persian king fled. Alexander’s initial instinct was to pursue him, but his horsemen were still needed to aid his other forces engaged in heated combat on other parts of the battlefield. The Persian army was soon scattered after suffering massive casualties. Alexander’s victory was swift and indisputable.

The Persian High Command

The Persian numbers in the two invasions of Greece were so overwhelmingly superior that one tends to blame the Persian commanders for the startling lack of success. The initiative for both enterprises came from the Great Kings themselves and there seems to have been no question of any significant “power behind the throne”. Yet there is nothing particularly blame-worthy in their conduct of the two operations – apart from the undertaking itself. There comes a time in the history of every empire when expansion has gone far enough and stability and consolidation, if not retrenchment, are needed. The handful of Athenian and Eretrian ships that had abetted the Ionian revolt was a poor pretext for such a massive military and naval effort.

If we turn to Aeschylus’ play, we find some contrast between the characters of Darius and Xerxes. The Persae presents the story of Xerxes’ crest-fallen return to Persia after his defeat at Salamis. Darius’ ghost appears and denounces the folly which has led to the recent débâcle. Darius is stern and dignified; in contrast, Xerxes is petulant and ineffective. At first sight, Herodotus’ narrative might seem to confirm this estimate. One recalls the incident when high winds destroyed the first bridge which Xerxes had constructed over the Hellespont, whereupon Xerxes ordered that the rebellious waters should be whipped as a punishment for the outrage. But perhaps this was not mere childishness on his part. In his multinational host there were many simple tribesmen who knew nothing of the enlightened Zoroastrian religion of the Persians; thus, to restore morale, it was no doubt necessary to demonstrate that even the gods of the winds and the waves were subject to the Great Kings of Persia.

Again, we are inclined to regard Xerxes’ return to Susa, his remote capital, after the disaster of Salamis, as weak and cowardly. Mardonius, his general, seems to have been left callously to his fate in Greece. But the matter may be viewed quite differently. The success of the Persian kings lay very largely in their ability to delegate power. Cyrus, when he conquered Lydia, had delegated the completion of his conquest to his general Harpagus, and probably Mardonius was expected to complete the conquest of Greece in the same way. However, when all has been said, the delineation of character in Aeschylus’ play should not be lightly dismissed. Aeschylus was, after all, writing at a time very close to the events which he described and he cannot altogether have overlooked the reputations which Darius and Xerxes had earned for themselves among their contemporaries.

As for Mardonius, he was Darius’ son-in-law, and had commanded the Persian fleet when it met with disaster on the rocks off Mount Athos. Darius’ dissatisfaction with him is clear, for in the subsequent expedition which that monarch launched against Greece, Mardonius was not in command. Datis and Artaphernes were in charge of the fleet which sailed across the central Aegean to Eretria and Marathon. However, Mardonius was a man of no mean ability and his later reinstatement proves that he enjoyed Xerxes’ confidence. After Xerxes’ return to Persia, Mardonius tried by sensible diplomacy to divide the Greek states against one another before deciding to engage in battle with them. His chances of success in this diplomatic initiative were very good and with a little more perseverance he might have succeeded. But, cut off from supplies by sea, he perhaps had difficulty in feeding his large army and was accordingly under pressure to reach a decision with the utmost possible speed.

In the spring of 336, Philip had sent an advance force of 10,000 Macedonians to AsiaMinor under the command of Parmenion, Attalus, and a certain Amyntas, perhaps the son of Arrhabaeus. Their presence, and the apparent initiation of the war against Persia, induced the Carian satrap Pixodarus to seek an alliance with Philip II, in the expectation of Macedonian success, at least on the coast of Asia Minor. But, by the fall of 336, Philip had been assassinated, Egypt recovered for Persia, and Pixodarus had found a new son-in-law in Orontopates. Indeed, the latter’s position as satrap of Caria suggests that Darius did not trust Pixodarus entirely. For the Macedonians, a window of opportunity had opened and closed. Whether Darius had sent gold to Macedonia to secure Philip’s assassination is unclear: Alexander found it convenient to level the charge against his opponent in 332, knowing that many in his camp and in the Greek world would regard it as plausible, if not dead certain.

Should Darius III have taken measures to preempt Alexander’s invasion? Was he capable of doing so? These are difficult questions to answer. On the one hand, he may have found it difficult to secure a new fleet capable of contesting the crossing of the Hellespont. On the other, he may not have thought it necessary. Perhaps he was encouraged by the poor showing of the advance force, which Memnon had managed to hold in check, and by the reassertion of the pro-Persian element in cities such as Ephesus when the news of Philip’s death became known. News of rebellions in Europe must also have provided grounds for optimism. Certainly, Darius had little reason to assume that the untried Alexander would have much more success than Agesilaus had some sixty years earlier, and he must have believed that the armies of a coalition of satraps from Asia Minor would suffice to repel the invader

It is a common mistake to assume, from hindsight, that Alexander’s conquest of Persia was inevitable or that the satraps and their king must have viewed the Macedonian invasion with deep foreboding. The Persians had learned the value of Greek hoplites, and they had a plentiful supply of them – though as it turned out they were reluctant to use them to maximum effect. Their skilled horsemen by far outnumbered the invader’s cavalry. Only too late would they discover that their own cavalry, armed with javelins and bows, were no match for the “shock tactics” of the dense wedges of Macedonians and Thessalians. But all that was yet to come, with neither side sufficiently experienced in the techniques and weaponry of their opponents.

Communication Networks – The Royal Road

Reliable and efficient communications throughout the Empire were a necessary component for its success. The construction, maintenance, and guarding of an extensive network of roads and bridges required a great deal of engineering expertise, manpower, and expense. The Persians adopted and adapted their predecessors’ systems, and greatly expanded them, to facilitate communication across vast distances. Individuals or groups on state business carried sealed documents that allowed access to supplies or provisions en route to their destination.

The most famous of these roads, though it was only one of many, was what Herodotus called the Royal Road from Susa in Elam to Sardis in Lydia (5.52–53). Any “royal” road would have, in fact, run through Persepolis and points eastward, so Herodotus’ terminology reflects a Greek view, which usually viewed Susa as the main Achaemenid capital. From the west it ran through Cappadocia and Cilicia in Anatolia to Armenia and then south through Arbela – along the Tigris River – and on toward Susa. Herodotus notes that there were 111 royal staging posts interspersed on it and mentions several of them specifically (5.52). By his calculations this route ran roughly 1,500 miles and took a journey of ninety days. That was for a traveler in no great haste. Royal dispatches could move with surprising speed, a relay system with fresh horses and messengers at each staging post. Herodotus also describes these royal messengers: “There is nothing mortal that travels faster than these messengers … for as many days as the whole route there are horses and men stationed, one horse and one man set for each day. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor night hinders them from accomplishing the course laid before them as quickly as possible. After the first one finishes his route, he delivers the instructed message to the second, the second does likewise to the third; from there in rapid succession down the line the message moves.” (8.98)

There were similar routes in all directions from the Empire’s core in Fars.11 Ctesias alludes to other roads running from Mesopotamia and Persia proper to Central Asia. The primary route to Bactria across northern Iran is called in modern works either the (Great) Khorasan Road or, for later periods, by its better known appellation the Silk Road. Administrative documents from Persepolis, Syro-Palestine, and Egypt record disbursements to travelers in all directions. From the Persepolis documentation we gain a sense of the itineraries of a number of the network of roads running between Susa and Persepolis. An Aramaic document tracks travelers journeying from northern Mesopotamia to Damascus and on into Egypt, with several stops along the way listed by name.

Large work crews were involved in the construction and maintenance of these roads. Herodotus’ account of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece describes roadmakers at work, not infrequently the army on campaign. The main roads, constructed wide enough to allow chariots or wagons to travel on them, served to move military forces quickly, but they were also used by travelers or merchants to transport cargo. Roads also at times had to cross obstacles such as rivers. Some permanent bridges, such as one spanning the Halys River in Anatolia, were guarded by a fort. Pontoon bridges allowed crossing of other rivers, for example, at many spots on the northern Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries. Temporary pontoon bridges afforded the means for Persian armies to cross into Europe: Darius I over the Bosporus on his campaign against the Scythians and Xerxes’ bridge over the Hellespont against the Greeks. Of course, rivers and larger waterways were sometimes part of the route. Diodorus Siculus (14.81.4) records a journey on a well-known route at sea along the coast of Cilicia, on land from northwestern Syria to the Euphrates, then down the river to Babylon. Similar sea trading routes connected other parts of the Empire to the core, such as through the Persian Gulf and along the southern coast of Iran to the Indus Valley.

Stirling B-Beer

Short Stirling Heavy Bomber: picture of 7 squadron Stirlings at RAF Oakington

Stirling Mk III LJ514 B – Beer, with nose art (a bear holding a beer bottle painted on the nose ; the mission symbols carried by B – Beer were small foaming beer mugs)

Bomber Command was stood down on 27/28 July but this was the full moon period and on the night following, a return to Hamburg was announced at briefings when crews were told that the raid would be on a far bigger scale than two nights before. At Feltwell Sergeant Neville Hockaday, who was not to be denied his trip to Hamburg, which his crew had failed to reach on 26/27 July, heard that nearly 800 bombers were planned to bomb the devastated town. At Oakington, Pilot Officer Leslie Sidwell, the rear-turret gunner on 23-year-old Flight Lieutenant Douglas Whiteman’s crew of Stirling B-Beer of 7 Squadron, made a note that said it was another ‘Thousand Raid’. He surmised, correctly, that the number was again being made up with OTU crews:

Out at dispersal we got everything finally checked and ready in the sweltering heat inside the aircraft before climbing out into the oh-so-welcome cool night air. It was lovely to relax outside on the grass and smoke casually before reluctantly putting on the flying kit which I knew would be badly needed for the cold later on, after the muck-sweat had gone. I donned flying kit, regretfully and knowing full well it would be freezing at height was soon in another sweat in the aircraft. We took off at 22.29 hours. The weather was good. We passed over Cromer and out over the North Sea. I spent the time taking the usual sightings from my rear turret on flame-floats we’d dropped to check drift for the navigator. We’d been briefed to cross the German coast north of the Elbe estuary, then to turn south 20 miles north of Hamburg to run up to the target.

Sergeant Neville Hockaday continues:

We made the sea crossing at 200 feet and planned to bomb from 8,000 feet, which would be just below the forecast cloudbase. This was a dangerous place to be, as one would be silhouetted against the cloud background but flying above it would expose us similarly to fighters. There was plenty of activity around Heligoland as we passed safely five miles to seaward and taking advantage of the confusion crossed the coast without interference and began the long climb to bombing height, levelling out as we crossed the Kiel Canal near Rendsburg. Twice I had to break away to avoid interception by searchlights and began a time and distance run as a precaution against the target being obscured by cloud. Ten minutes from the target there was much activity ahead: more ferocious than I had expected. There were about six groups of searchlights; each of which held a bomber in a cone, the flak concentrating on each. At one time I saw five aircraft going down in flames. The cloud was barely 8,000 feet and solid, having the effect of trapping the searchlight beams below it and turning the sky over Hamburg into a vast mirror. I could see that it would be no trouble identifying the aiming point if we could get to it! Just as I was preparing for the bombing run an FW 190 came out of the target area, having flown through his own flak and we narrowly missed a head-on collision. He was almost on top of us before he spotted us and he sheered off as Bruce opened fire on him. A few seconds before Drew [Sergeant Alfie Drew RNZAF, front gunner/bomb aimer] released our bomb a blue master searchlight fastened on us and just as ‘bomb gone’ was called we were coned in about half a dozen searchlight beams. Standing on the rudder pedals I threw F-Freddie into a stall turn to port, the most violent turn I had ever made. With the engines screaming the Wimpy went down in a spiral dive, speed rising to 250 mph until, eventually, we broke free from the lights. Heading north westerly away from the target the vibration of the airframe and the over-revving of the engines died down and we regained level flight at 400 feet.

Leslie Sidwell in the rear turret of Whiteman’s B-Beer continues:

There was heavy flak and we were hit just before the run up. Just after we’d bombed, someone on the intercom reported tracer coming up from below and we were hit by night fighter attack from underneath. I reported a decoy headlight out on the starboard quarter and searched around for other fighters. I reported one coming in from above on the port side and told the Skipper to turn to port. I think I hit him with a burst before my power went off. A fighter came in again from the rear and continued firing. My turret was shattered and we seemed to be in a steady dive. The Skipper gave the emergency bail-out order, quickly followed by what sounded like his cries of pain. Then the intercom abruptly cut off and we were on fire.

When my turret power had failed I’d been left partly on the beam. I started to operate the dead man’s handle (emergency winding gear) to centralize my turret so that I could get back into the fuselage to grab my parachute and bail out. (’Chutes could not be stored in the rear turret as one did in earlier two-engined jobs, which were dead easy for rear gunners to quit in a hurry). I wound away like mad at the hand-winding gear behind me, very conscious that we were losing precious height. As if in a dream, I saw a Me 110 closing in from astern with his guns blazing away. I wound away as I watched him through the shattered Perspex. My painfully slow progress was like a nightmare. I was conscious of the EBO order given in what seemed some time ago … Would I be in time? He was extremely close to me when he eventually broke away and I finally managed to move the turret sufficiently to fall back hurriedly into the fuselage. I grabbed my ’chute from the stowage outside the turret doors, forced open the nearby emergency exit door and as quickly as I could, jumped out into space. In those seconds I was conscious of flame and smoke up front in the fuselage. I gave no thought at all to any dangers of bailing out, or that I’d had no practice in jumping. I just concentrated in getting out of a doomed aircraft. In my haste to get out I banged my head on something as I quit poor old B-Beer, partly knocking myself out. I pulled the ripcord without counting as you were normally told to do. I must have done the right thing because I came to swinging in the air. I could see the waters of the Elbe shining below, with the full moon bright towards the south.

After all the turmoil I was now swinging gently in a strangely contrasting silence, floating down and rather higher than I’d expected. This peace was suddenly interrupted by a dazzling searchlight, which probed around as if looking for me. It held me in its blinding beam. I felt naked, vulnerable and powerless hanging there, not knowing what to expect. I raised my arms and wondered, ‘Is this It?’ But it soon switched off, as if satisfied that I’d been located and I was left to watch the Elbe more clearly as I lost height and to worry about landing in the wide waters. I’d never fancied coming down in the water and I pulled the rigging lines as instructed, hoping to spill air from the ’chute to alter my course. Probably more by luck than anything else, the Elbe disappeared and I braced myself for a landing, south of the river. The ground seemed to loom up very quickly in the moonlight and it wasn’t possible to judge my first parachute landing expertly. I landed rather clumsily and hurt my right ankle on the hard ground but tall growing crops helped to cushion me. My watch showed 01.10 hours just after landing. I remembered that my first duty was to hide my chute. As I struggled to gather it all up I thought I’d have a good view of a big ‘Thousand Raid’ but I was surprised. Little was seen or heard and I wondered, ‘Where are they?’

Sergeant Neville Hockaday meanwhile crossed the Kiel Canal at 2,000 feet when he saw tracer fire coming up over the port wing from behind.

I called Mike who replied that it was from a chap on top of a building. Bruce had just fired back and all had gone quiet; he thought he had got him. Later I checked to find that we had wandered over Meldorf and the building was probably the local barracks. We went well out to sea to avoid Heligoland and just as I ordered, ‘Watch out for “flak ships” ’ one opened up at us but we were too fast for him and were soon out of range. Mike said that not all our aircraft had reported to base after bombing and as we approached Cromer we were all diverted to Methwold. We assumed that someone was in trouble and that Feltwell was being kept clear for him. It was six am by the time we walked into debriefing to learn that of the 14 aircraft of our squadron only eight had returned. We then learned that far from there being 800 aircraft on the raid there had been only 165 as a late forecast had predicted bad weather on return and all except 3 Group had cancelled. If only we had been told we could have revised our tactics to meet the new situation.

Huia Russell on 149 Squadron in 3 Group recalled:

It was a bit disconcerting when sitting at the navigator’s table to hear ice breaking off the propellers and thumping the fuselage of the Stirling. Ice could be a hazard at many heights and this was the worst experience of icing that I had. There was thick cloud to about 2,000 feet but though all groups except 3 Group were scrubbed and the OTU aircraft were recalled we tried climbing through the cloud once we were over the North Sea. However, we had not climbed very high when we iced up and began losing height. Eventually we tried jettisoning our load of 4lb incendiaries gradually. It was not until we had released most of our bomb load that we were able to maintain height at under 2,000 feet. We then returned home after this unnerving experience.

No. 3 Group lost nine out of 71 Stirlings and 16 out of 94 Wellingtons and a Stirling crashed at RAF Coltishall. Four OTU Wellingtons, including a 101 Squadron Wimpy at Bourn, which was involved in a collision with a 101 CF Stirling at Oakington were lost. The Stirling crashed near Cottenham in Cambridgeshire. There were no injuries to the crew but all five on the Wellington died. A 10 OTU Whitley ditched in the sea ten miles south-east of Tynemouth.

Henry I and Louis VI

Henry I of England – Reading Between The Lines Theatre Company’s modern history play.

A 1916 painting depicting the burial of King Henry I. Stephen of Blois wears the crown.

By the time of his death, William the Bastard had claimed his father’s duchy and conquered a kingdom. He had subdued with the sword and ruled with an iron hand. He had also fathered four sons.

Three of these—Robert (known as Robert Curthose), William (known as William Rufus), and Henry—survived to adulthood. Having thus produced an heir and two spares, William could reasonably expect his line to continue. What he seems not to have expected was the rebellion of Robert, his eldest son. Although William had placed Normandy under Robert’s care while busy subduing England, he was quick to remove his adult son’s authority and independence once the Conquest was completed. Angered by this, Robert argued violently with his father, who was infuriated by such insubordination and, in any event, unwilling to lose control over Normandy. Showing Robert the door, William banished him from his lands. Not surprisingly, Robert now found his way to Paris and to the more welcoming court of the French king.

Philip I, who was no fool, received the young man warmly and proceeded to install him in the muscular castle of Gerberoy, along the simmering Vexin frontier. Reacting with typical bluntness, William fortified his neighboring Norman castles and besieged Gerberoy, with Robert in it. But Robert refused to back down, sallying forth with his own men to engage the besiegers in battle.

William was still a formidable fighter, but Robert was far younger and—as his father may not have recognized—an outstanding warrior in his own right. Engaging his father at sword point, Robert managed to unhorse and wound him, forcing proud William to withdraw to Rouen—a defeat of the most humiliating kind.

Frantic efforts by Robert’s mother at last brought reconciliation. But after her death, trouble between the two broke out again. Despite William’s reluctant recognition of Robert as his heir in Normandy, Robert still had no real authority there—nor was it William’s intention to give him any. Exacerbating the situation, William regularly insulted Robert in public. Even Robert’s nickname (Curthose, or “Short Boots,” a joking reference to his height) became a verbal brickbat from the far taller father.

At length, William once again sent the discontented young man into exile, where he still was knocking about upon the Conqueror’s death. It may well have been Robert, in fact, who fomented that surge of trouble between Philip and William in the Vexin that led to the Conqueror’s demise.

Persuaded on his deathbed to do right by Robert, William gave him Normandy, as promised. But he refrained from giving him anything else: England went to the second son, William Rufus, who had played his cards right, while the youngest, Henry, received a large sum of money. In time, as in the fairy tales, the youngest would end up with the entire kingdom. But in the meantime, strife broke out between the two older brothers, with William Rufus supporting Robert’s rebellious barons, and Robert in turn receiving aid from the French king.

Several years later, when Robert gave Normandy to his brother as security for a loan to take him on crusade, William Rufus immediately fortified his Vexin borders with a vengeance—most notably at Gisors, where he piled up a steep artificial hill with a large tower on top (see illustration in chapter 10). He carried out the same plan at other locations along the Epte, including Château-sur-Epte. Unlike his brother, William Rufus was taking no chances with the French king.


Philip I was leery of William Rufus as well, for it was no secret that this boldly acquisitive English monarch (crowned as William II) wanted the French Vexin, and even entertained dreams of the French crown—a “detestable ambition,” as Abbot Suger caustically put it. Paris, which straddles the Seine upriver from Normandy, lay little more than forty miles from Norman frontiers, and at one point in his Vexin wars, William Rufus advanced as far as Pontoise—virtually at Paris’s door.

But William Rufus’s opportunities stemmed from more than geographic proximity. As he well knew, Philip I had only one son and heir. The chance that this heir—young Louis—would survive to adulthood was in those uncertain times far from likely. The Capetian monarchy was in fact a breath away from extinction, and William Rufus (who was related to the French royal family through his mother) sat ready and waiting to administer last rites.

Philip, in the meanwhile, nurtured and prepared this single heir. Under his watchful eye, young Louis grew into a capable warrior, well able to deal with the various baronial insurgencies that repeatedly cropped up throughout Capetian lands. In addition, Philip formally associated his son with him on the throne.

Philip’s detractors have suggested that the old king merely passed along to his offspring what he had come to be too lazy to do for himself, and it is possible that his motives may have been mixed. Still, Philip’s willingness to allow his son and heir an active role in the royal government went a long way to ensure that the monarch who would someday take his place would be an effective one. Indeed, Louis turned out to be a good and successful ruler, credited by historians with consolidating lands and power in a meaningful fashion and starting the Capetian monarchy on its spectacular rise.

Of course, no one knew that things would work out that way. William Rufus was betting that Louis would not live long enough to receive the royal crown, and Philip, too, worried about this. Indeed, it probably was this concern that prompted Philip to remarry, putting aside his first wife, who had proven incapable of bearing him further heirs. But instead of securing the succession, the children from this second union created a new threat to Philip’s legitimate heir. Indeed, Philip’s death in 1108 precipitated a crisis in which a “conspiracy of wicked and evil men” tried to crown Louis’ young half-brother in his place. Louis (Louis VI) received his crown on the run, in Orléans—the first time that a Capetian monarch had not been anointed and crowned at Reims.

As if these perils were not enough, Louis’ most dangerous foreign enemy, the king of England, soon appeared on Normandy’s shores. But the king Louis now faced was not William Rufus, who had been shot by a longbow while hunting in the New Forest. Instead, it was the Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry, who had seized the crown.

Unlike his father and his brothers, Henry did not thrill to personal combat. A balding man of average height, with fleshy body and brawny chest, he was fond of saying, “My mother bore me [to be] a commander, not a soldier.” Beauclerk, he was later called, in tribute to his reputation for learnedness. Still, he was as ruthless and aggressive in his own way as either his father or next-older brother, and he was perfectly capable of mounting a successful campaign, even as he was quite capable of winning what he wanted through means other than war. Within six years after William Rufus’s death and Henry’s assumption of the crown, Robert Curthose was Henry’s prisoner for life. Robert never was Henry’s match.

Thus it was that as young Louis VI of France fought to save his crown, the Norman duke he faced was neither William Rufus nor Robert Curthose, but the far more dangerous Henry I of England. Refusing to pay homage for Normandy to the new king, Henry now arrived on Norman shores.


As a military objective, Paris at the opening of the twelfth century lacked distinction. Half a millennium before, Clovis had made it his capital, and his successors favored it as well. But the last of Charlemagne’s heirs had preferred Laon, and for most of the eleventh century the Capetian monarchs resided in Orléans. Paris in the eleventh century was in fact one of the smaller towns in Capetian domains. Yet by the century’s close, Philip I was spending an increasing amount of time there, and eventually his son, Louis VI, established Paris as his capital.

The site—a hill-ringed basin lying at the Seine’s confluence with the Oise and the Marne—certainly was propitious. Centuries before, the Romans had taken due notice, driving out the Parisii Celts and establishing what they called Lutetia at this junction of a major overland route between southern France and the North Sea. Erecting a temple and administrative buildings on the largest of Lutetia’s islands (now the Île de la Cité) and settling to the south on the hill later named for Paris’s patron saint, Geneviève, they created a small metropolis—with a forum near what now are the Luxembourg Gardens, extensive baths abutting the present-day Musée du Moyen Age, and an arena alongside the present Rue Monge. They also built an aqueduct leading in from the south.

Lutetia’s role as a strategic crossroads grew, with bridges (now the Petit-Pont and Pont Notre-Dame) linking what now is Rue Saint-Martin on the Right Bank with Rue Saint-Jacques on the Left. By the second century a.d., this metropolis contained a population of more than ten thousand—considerably less than the eighty thousand of Lyons or the one million of Rome itself, but still of respectable size.

With Rome’s decay and the onslaught of Germanic invaders, Lutetia’s role as a Roman outpost withered. Yet the town (by now called Paris, after its first inhabitants) continued to function as a trading center, even while the third-century arrival of Denis, the first bishop of Paris, added a new element to the mix. Although St. Denis’ mission ended in martyrdom, he succeeded in creating a foothold for Christianity. When Clovis, first king of the Franks, converted to Christianity in the early years of the sixth century, he established his capital here.

By this time, a cathedral dedicated to St. Étienne dominated the eastern end of the Île de la Cité. Clovis made a significant addition to this ecclesiastical presence by building the church on the Left Bank later known as Sainte-Geneviève. Not many years later, Clovis’ son, Childebert, founded the monastery that became known (after St. Germain, bishop of Paris) as Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Members of the royal family had their final resting place here from Childebert on, until Dagobert changed the royal burial site to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.

During the years immediately following Clovis, Paris managed in a modest way to prosper. But after the Viking onslaught and the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire, little survived. Shrunken to scarcely more than the walled Cité, the town became a tangle of marsh and weeds.

Still, several of the great churches and their huddles of dependent villages remained. Recovery began during the eleventh century, and in the following years the city gradually grew to encompass these ecclesiastical bastions, slowly spreading to the marshy marais of the Right Bank as well as to the Left Bank of the Seine.

By this time the great fairs of nearby Champagne had begun to draw merchants from as far as Italy, spawning new traffic on roads and rivers leading everywhere. Wool from England and cloth from Flanders exchanged hands for spices, silks, and precious ornaments wrought of gold. These goods then made their slow return along the dusty Gallo-Roman roads, bringing quickened activity and prosperity as they came. Although Reims benefited most from the increasingly lucrative Champagne fairs, Paris, too, profited from its superb situation on the Seine. Port facilities had already sprung up along the river’s northern and wider arm by the time Louis VI transferred the markets to the Right Bank from the increasingly crowded Île de la Cité. Later in the century, Philip II would build covered warehouses on the site, soon to become known as Les Halles. He also expelled the Jews from the Cité; they eventually reestablished themselves on the Right Bank, which was becoming the commercial heart of town.

But in Louis VI’s day, most Parisians still lived on the Seine’s largest island, the Île de la Cité. Here at the western end lived the king, in a small palace that the second Capetian monarch, Robert the Pious, had erected on the site of an ancient Roman citadel. To the east, near the cathedral, resided the bishop of Paris and a growing throng of students, who flocked from great distances to listen to and debate with the likes of William of Champeaux and, the star of them all, Peter Abelard. In between these secular and ecclesiastical domains, perhaps three thousand craftsmen and tradespeople lived cheek by jowl, jostling each other along the cramped and muddy lanes as they cried their wares and scurried from place to place.

Here, amid the cacophony, mud, and stench, Louis began to fortify his palace, strengthening it not only against possible Norman attack, but also—and more imminently—against the welter of powerful lords that surrounded him. With this in mind, Louis linked the Cité to the growing port along the Seine’s right bank via a great stone bridge directly connecting the island with what now is Rue Saint-Denis, securing access with a stout fortification, the Châtelet.

Rue Saint-Denis, one of two major routes leading northward, led directly to the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, founded centuries before at the burial site of the martyred saint. Here, even as Louis VI was building Paris into the seat of a reviving Capetian monarchy, Abbot Suger was planning a new abbey church that would reach to the very heavens. His church, with its arched and pointed vaults and astonishing deep-blue windows (of such brilliance that many believed the glassmaker had infused his molten glass with sapphires), led the twelfth century into those soaring Gothic realms where Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, and countless others would soon follow. But more than this, Suger created in Saint-Denis a fitting tribute to the saint who by this time was evolving into a political as well as a spiritual powerhouse.

Centuries of close ties between the Abbey of Saint-Denis and the royal crown had quite naturally lent a certain aura to the martyred saint’s reputation. Since the late sixth century, members of the royal family had been buried there, and from about the same time the court had deposited copies of royal documents there for safekeeping. The royal regalia used at coronations came to be kept at Saint-Denis as well, although the coronation itself continued to take place at Reims, the site of Clovis’ conversion and coronation. Dagobert’s recognition of St. Denis as royal patron further enhanced the abbey’s reputation as the royal abbey, as did royalty’s extension of numerous special privileges, which freed the monks from the usual fees and obligations.

Yet these were evidences of royal favor, with power residing in the benefactor. Indeed, for more than a century, when the monarchy sank to its nadir, the abbey stood in danger of losing its independence to the real source of local power, the counts of Paris.

Still, as Abbot Suger was quick to recognize, the king held the French Vexin as a fief from the Abbey of Saint-Denis—in theory, from the saint himself, although in practice from the abbey and its abbot (who during Louis VI’s reign was, of course, Suger). A minister to the king during the reigns of both Louis VI and Louis VII, and regent during Louis VII’s long absence on crusade, Suger held a formidable position in the Capetian court. Clearly the fortunes of the Capetians and those of Suger were intertwined, for while this energetic abbot sent the arches of his abbey cathedral soaring toward the heavens, he was also hard at work erecting a political construct that would set the Capetian king at the pinnacle of feudal power—worldly power for, as Suger argued, the monarch was in turn vassal to the long-dead St. Denis. That the Abbot of Saint-Denis was the martyred saint’s agent here on earth did not at all intimidate Suger, who did not shy away from the obvious conclusion.

Suger’s political construct was at heart a simple one, positing a neat and tidy theory of landholding. According to Suger, the French territorial princes held their lands in fiefdom to the Capetian monarch in much the same way that lesser lords had traditionally held their lands within the hereditary Capetian realms. In Suger’s view, the count of Auvergne held his lands from the duke of Aquitaine, who in turn held his vast realms from the king of France. To Suger, Normandy and Aquitaine and all the rest were simply part and parcel of the kingdom of France—a neat and tidy theory, filled with possibilities for the Capetian monarchs. The only problem was that the territorial princes did not view things that way. As far as they were concerned, the king of the French could do what he liked in his own hereditary lands, but he had no business whatsoever in theirs.

Suger’s political construct thus did not yet represent reality, for feudalism, with its fundamental elements of loyalty and protection, landholding, and military service, was still evolving out of the disorder that had accompanied the widespread collapse of central authority in the ninth and tenth centuries. Certain of its elements had ancient roots, but tradition faltered in the face of raw aggression. Local conditions varied enormously, and men of power—whether great or small—simply demanded and took what the traffic would bear.

By Suger’s day, many of these arrangements had acquired a certain stability and even sophistication. But the messy and overlapping structure of French political society in the early twelfth century did not even remotely resemble a pyramid, and certainly not one with the king at its apex. Feudal relationships still were widely diffused, focusing on dukes and counts and even local lords rather than the monarch. Although Suger’s theory presented a kind of blueprint for power, the Capetian monarchs could not expect power to come their way by some sort of divine right but would have to impose it upon their recalcitrant subjects.

St. Denis pointed the way. With Suger’s encouragement, the king acknowledged that St. Denis was not only his spiritual patron but his feudal overlord as well. Facing invasion from the German emperor, Louis VI hastened to the Abbey of Saint-Denis. There he begged the martyred saint to defend his kingdom. Then he took from the altar the military standard of the Vexin—a forked scarlet banner embroidered with golden flames that legend ascribed to Charlemagne.

In all humility, Louis received this silken banner in a manner that acknowledged his vassalage to his saintly overlord, St. Denis. He then called for all of France to rally around him against the common foe. The response was impressive, with many of France’s most powerful barons flocking to his side. Reconsidering, the emperor decided to head for other parts (German historians insist that he had more pressing business elsewhere). Rejoicing in this turn of events, Louis returned the banner to the abbey in triumph.

“It is neither right nor natural that the French be subject to the English, but rather the English to the French,” Suger gloated, anticipating days of glory that still lay well ahead. But for the first time a king of France had caught a whiff of the possibilities. For nearly three centuries thereafter, the French would go into battle bellowing their famous war cry, “Monjoie Saint-Denis!” and carrying before them the flame-colored silken banner of Saint-Denis known as the Oriflamme.

Already, this banner was emerging as the royal standard of France.


“Louis, king of the French,” wrote Suger, “conducted himself toward Henry, king of the English and duke of the Normans, as toward a vassal, for he always kept in mind the lofty rank by which he towered over him.” As duke of Normandy, in other words, England’s Henry I was Louis VI’s feudal dependent, no matter what other titles he bore. For years, Henry resisted this logic, and this recalcitrance lay at the heart of Henry’s struggles with the French king.

Louis in turn countered by rallying to the cause of the imprisoned brother, proclaiming Robert Curthose’s son—an attractive young man by the name of William Clito—as the rightful Norman duke and English king. Until his untimely death, Clito served as a rallying point for all of Henry’s enemies, which was exactly what Louis had in mind.

William Clito was not the only son upon the political chessboard, for Louis and Henry each had sons. In a reversal of previous generations, Henry had but one legitimate son, while Louis was blessed with eight. In much the same spirit as his father, Louis designated the eldest of these as his successor and associate in the crown, while the next in line, a mild lad by the name of Louis, departed for a monastic career.

The White Ship. The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef, Latin documents Latin: Candida navis) was a vessel that sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120.

Henry I’s son, known as William Aetheling, was but seventeen years old when Louis VI appealed the cause of William Clito to the pope, with such success that Henry had to scamper to protect both his duchy and his crown. To ensure his son’s succession in Normandy against William Clito’s claims, Henry now agreed that young Aetheling would do homage to Louis for Normandy—a significant concession, although not quite the same as the king himself bending the knee. William Aetheling did as he was directed and then prepared to return to England on the White Ship, the newest and finest vessel in his father’s fleet. It was a lovely evening in late November, and he and his young friends were prepared to party all the way.

The king set sail first in a light breeze, just before twilight. Delayed by their festivities, young Aetheling and his friends did not push off until well after dark, with a crew that by this time was almost as drunk as the passengers. Catching sight of the king’s ship well ahead, the passengers called out that “those who were now ahead must soon be left astern.” The ship fairly flew, “swifter than the winged arrow.”

Too late, the crew saw the rock that rose above the waves. As the boat impacted with a grinding crash, the young nobles cried out in alarm, suddenly realizing their peril. Out came the oars and boat hooks, as the crew tried in vain to force the vessel off. But the rock had split the prow, and water now came pouring in.

Amid the terror, as frantic bodies fought the sea, someone thought to launch the single skiff and push the prince inside. Well on his way toward shore and safety, he heard one voice above the others—his illegitimate half-sister, the young countess of Perche, who shrieked out for him not to abandon her. Overcome with pity, William Aetheling ordered the little boat to return, thus sealing his fate: “for the skiff, overcharged by the multitudes who leaped into her, sank, and buried all indiscriminately in the deep.”

There was but one survivor, a butcher who managed to seize the mast and keep afloat until morning. He alone remained to tell the terrible tale. Lost were countless sons and daughters, the cream of England and Normandy’s young aristocracy. Scarcely a noble family went untouched.

Worst of all was the king’s loss. For now Henry, duke of Normandy and king of England, had no legitimate son and heir.

The White Ship had changed history.

Tamerlane and the Golden Horde

TAMERLANE (1336–1405). Turkic chieftain and conqueror. He was not Mongol, but sought to trace Mongol connections through his wife’s ancestors. His English name is a corruption of the Persian Timür-i Leng, “lame Timür.” Tamerlane is important not only for his conquests, but for his role in definitively ending the Mongol era in Turkistanian history, and for his attack on the Golden Horde in 1395–1396, which began with the Battle of the Terek River, in which the army of Toqtamysh was decisively defeated, and ended with the destruction of much of the sedentary base of the Golden Horde along the lower Volga, including Sarai.

In 1401 the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was in the city of Damascus, then under siege by the mighty Tamerlane. Eager to meet the famous conqueror of the day, he was lowered from the walls in a basket and received in Tamerlane’s camp. There he had a series of conversations with a ruler he described (in his autobiography) as ‘one of the greatest and mightiest of kings . . . addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and does not know’. Ibn Khaldun may have seen in Tamerlane the saviour of the Arab–Muslim civilization for whose survival he feared. But four years later Tamerlane died on the road to China, whose conquest he had planned.

Tamerlane (sometimes Timur, or Timurlenk, ‘Timur the Lame’ – hence his European name) was a phenomenon who became a legend. He was born, probably in the 1330s, into a lesser clan of the Turkic-Mongol tribal confederation the Chagatai, one of the four great divisions into which the Mongol empire of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan had been split up at his death, in 1227. By 1370 he had made himself master of the Chagatai. Between 1380 and 1390 he embarked upon the conquest of Iran, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Armenia and Georgia. In 1390 he invaded the Russian lands, returning a few years later to wreck the capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol regime in modern South Russia. In 1398 he led a vast plundering raid into North India, crushing its Muslim rulers and demolishing Delhi. Then in 1400 he returned to the Middle East to capture Aleppo and Damascus (Ibn Khaldun escaped its massacre), before defeating and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayazet at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. It was only after that that he turned east on his final and abortive campaign.

The Army

Tamerlane’s original army was a hodgepodge of leftover Chaghatayid units: clans (Barulas, Jalayir, etc.), local soldiery created a century earlier under the Mongol census (called qa’uchin, old units), independent KESHIG (guards) tümens (nominally 10,000) that had outlived their khan, and the Qara’unas, an old TAMMACHI garrison. Tamerlane did not disperse these traditional units but controlled them by changing their leadership, removing major cities such as Bukhara from their control, and eventually recruiting new armies outside the Chaghatay Khanate, especially local units from the defunct Mongol IL-KHANATE. Foreign troops and craftsmen-Indians, Persians, Arabs both settled and bedouin, and Turks- were deported and settled around Samarqand and Bukhara. By 1400 his own companions commanded about 13 tümens, while his sons commanded at least nine. Tamerlane ‘s sons’ tümens were assembled from troops of all origins. The core of Tamerlane ‘s army was its Inner Asian cavalry, but he also valued Tajik (Iranian) infantry units. In an inscription he claims to have attacked Toqtamish in 1391 with 20 tümens, a statement that at the usual 40 percent nominal strength is plausible.

Attack on the Golden Horde

The subjugation of Khorasan and Mazandaran, completed by 1384, led to the first of his expeditionary campaigns against western Iran and the Caucasus in 1386-87.

Toqtamish’s father was a descendants of Toqa-Temür, one of the “princes of the left hand,” or the BLUE HORDE, in modern Kazakhstan, and his mother was of the QONGGIRAD clan from near KHORAZM. At the time the Blue Horde was ruled by Urus Khan (d. 1377) and his sons, whose seat was at Sighnaq (near modern Chiili). By allying with the Chaghatayid conqueror Tamerlane, Toqtamish succeeded after many reverses in taking control of the Blue Horde (spring 1377). Later, local chronicles speak of Toqtamish as defending four tribes (el)-Shirin, Baarin, Arghun, and Qipchaq-from the tyranny of Urus Khan. Once enthroned in Sighnaq, Toqtamish led his four tribes west to defeat Emir Mamaq (Mamay) of the Qiyat clan (1380) and reestablish GOLDEN HORDE rule over Russia by sacking Moscow (1382).

Eventually, Toqtamish turned against his old patron, Tamerlane, to pursue the Golden Horde’s old territorial claims in Azerbaijan (1385 and 1387), Khorazm, and the Syr Dar’ya region down to Bukhara (1388). Tamerlane responded with a massive punitive expedition into Kazakhstan, which finally cornered and defeated Toqtamish’s army near Orenburg (June 1391). Tamerlane also wooed away Emir Edigü, leader of the Manghit (MANGGHUD) clan, from Toqtamish’s camp. After rebuilding his power in the west, Toqtamish again invaded Azerbaijan (1394); Tamerlane crushed his army again on the Terek (March 15, 1395) and sacked Saray and Astrakhan.

By now Tamerlane’s chief rival was a one-time protegé, TOQTAMISH, ruler first of the BLUE HORDE and then of the reunified GOLDEN HORDE in the northern steppe. First sacking Urganch (1287), the capital of Toqtamish’s allied country, Khorazm, Timur launched a “five-year campaign” (1392-96) against Baghdad’s Jalayir dynasty as well as against western Iranian, Turkmen, and Georgian powers, culminating in the sack of Toqtamish’s capital, New Saray, on the Volga and crippling Toqtamish’s power.

Timur marched through the Darband Gates, a narrow pass between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. On 15th April 1395 the armies of Timur and Toqtamish met near the river Terek, a strategic point where so many battles had been fought. Timur himself took part until, as the Zafarnama put it, ‘his arrows were all spent, his spear broken, but his sword he still brandished’. This time Timur’s victory was complete.

Terek River, 22 April 1395

Abandoning his fortified camp on the banks of the Terek on bearing of Tamerlane’s approach during a second campaign against him, Tokhtamysh Khan shadowed the Timurid army until, on 14 April, they finally encamped facing one another. On the 22nd Tamerlane arranged his forces for battle in 7 divisions, himself commanding the reserve of 27 binliks, and commenced his attack under the cover of showers of arrows. Then, bearing of an advance against his left wing, he led the reserve to its support and repelled the attack but pursued the enemy too far so that, thus disorganised, be in turn was repulsed and driven back. Disaster was averted by a mere 50 of his men who dismounted, knelt on one knee and laid down a withering barrage of arrows to bold back their pursuers while 3 Timurid officers and their men seized 3 of Tokhtamysh’s wagons and drew them up as a barricade behind which Tamerlane managed to rally his reserve. The advance guard of his left wing bad meanwhile broken through between the attacking enemy divisions, while his son Mohammed Sultan brought up strong reinforcements, positioning them on Tamerlane’s left so that Tokhtamysb’s advancing right wing was finally forced to take flight.

The Timurid right wing having meanwhile been surrounded, its commander ordered Ibis men to dismount and crouch behind their shields, under the cover of which they were repeatedly attacked with lance and sword by Tokhtamysb’s troops. They were finally rescued from these dire straits by the division under Jibansha Behadur which, attacking from both flanks, obliged the enemy left flank to fall back and then drove it from the field. Finally the centres of both armies joined battle, Tokhtamysb’s giving way after a hard fight, upon which the khan and his noyons quit the field. The Timurid pursuit was close and bloody, most of those they captured being hanged.


The shattered remnants of Toqtamish’s army and of his Russian vassals were pursued as far as Yelets, not far from the Principality of Moscow. There Timur turned back not, as the terrified Muscovites believed, because of the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary and still less through fear of Moscow’s military might, but because he had no interest in conquering the poor and backward Russian principalities.

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the undoubted savagery of his predatory conquests, Tamerlane was a transitional figure in Eurasian history. His conquests were an echo of the great Mongol empire forged by Genghis Khan and his sons. That empire had extended from modern Iran to China, and as far north as Moscow. It had encouraged a remarkable movement of people, trade and ideas around the waist of Eurasia, along the great grassy corridor of steppe, and Mongol rule may have served as the catalyst for commercial and intellectual change in an age of general economic expansion. The Mongols even permitted the visits of West European emissaries hoping to build an anti-Muslim alliance and win Christian converts. But by the early fourteenth century the effort to preserve a grand imperial confederation had all but collapsed. The internecine wars between the ‘Ilkhanate’ rulers in Iran, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai, and the fall of the Yuan in China (by 1368), marked the end of the Mongol experiment in Eurasian empire.

Tamerlane’s conquests were partly an effort to retrieve this lost empire. But his methods were different. Much of his warfare seemed mainly designed to wreck any rivals for control of the great trunk road of Eurasian commerce, on whose profits his empire was built. Also, his power was pivoted more on command of the ‘sown’ than on mastery of the steppe: his armies were made up not just of mounted bowmen (the classic Mongol formula), but of infantry, artillery, heavy cavalry and even an elephant corps. His system of rule was a form of absolutism, in which the loyalty of his tribal followers was balanced against the devotion of his urban and agrarian subjects. Tamerlane claimed also to be the ‘Shadow of God’ (among his many titles), wreaking vengeance upon the betrayers and backsliders of the Islamic faith. Into his chosen imperial capital at Samarkand, close to his birthplace, he poured the booty of his conquests, and there he fashioned the architectural monuments that proclaimed the splendour of his reign. The ‘Timurid’ model was to have a lasting influence upon the idea of empire across the whole breadth of Middle Eurasia.

But, despite his ferocity, his military genius and his shrewd adaptation of tribal politics to his imperial purpose, Tamerlane’s system fell apart at his death. As he himself may have grasped intuitively, it was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe and build a Eurasian empire on the old foundations of Mongol military power. The Ottomans, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in northern India, and above all China were too resilient to be swept away by his lightning campaigns. Indeed Tamerlane’s death marked in several ways the end of a long phase in global history. His empire was the last real attempt to challenge the partition of Eurasia between the states of the Far West, Islamic Middle Eurasia and Confucian East Asia. Secondly, his political experiments and ultimate failure revealed that power had begun to shift back decisively from the nomad empires to the settled states. Thirdly, the collateral damage that Tamerlane inflicted on Middle Eurasia, and the disproportionate influence that tribal societies continued to wield there, helped (if only gradually) to tilt the Old World’s balance in favour of the Far East and Far West, at the expense of the centre. Lastly, his passing coincided with the first signs of a change in the existing pattern of long-distance trade, the East–West route that he had fought to control. Within a few decades of his death, the idea of a world empire ruled from Samarkand had become fantastic. The discovery of the sea as a global commons offering maritime access to every part of the world transformed the economics and geopolitics of empire. It was to take three centuries before that new world order became plainly visible. But after Tamerlane no world-conqueror arose to dominate Eurasia, and Tamerlane’s Eurasia no longer encompassed almost all the known world.

David Dixon Porter-Fighting Sailor

“Bombardment and capture of Island Number Ten on the Mississippi River, April 7, 1862 by the gunboat and mortar fleet under command of Commander A.H. Foote.” The Battle of Island Number Ten was an engagement at the New Madrid or Kentucky Bend on the Mississippi River during the American Civil War, lasting from February 28 to April 8, 1862. The position, an island at the base of a tight double turn in the course of the river, was held by the Confederates from the early days of the war. It was an excellent site to impede Union efforts to invade the South along the river. Union gunboats and mortar rafts came down to attack Island No. 10 from the river. For the next three weeks, the defenders on the island and in nearby supporting batteries were subjected to bombardment by the vessels, mostly carried out by the mortars. The Union victory marked the first time the Confederate army lost a position on the Mississippi River in battle. The river was then open to the Union Navy as far as Fort Pillow, a short distance above Memphis. Only three weeks later, New Orleans fell to the Union fleet led by David G. Farragut, and the Confederacy was in danger of being cut in two along the line of the river. Andrew Hull Foote (September 12, 1806 – June 26, 1863) was an American naval officer noted for his service in the American Civil War and for his contributions to several naval reforms in the years prior to the war. When the war came, he was appointed to command of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, predecessor of the Mississippi River Squadron. He was among the first naval officers to be promoted to the then-new rank of rear admiral.

David Dixon Porter lived in the shadow of his famous father, Commodore David Porter, an adventurous, independent officer whose annihilation of the British whaling fleet in the War of 1812 made him both a popular national hero and the most successful member of an old naval family. Commodore Porter, who had gone to sea with his own father at an early age, wanted sons to carry on the family tradition. His foster son, David G. Farragut, won the Navy’s first admiralcy. Of the commodore’s six natural sons, David Dixon—neither the eldest nor his father’s favorite—became the second admiral of the Navy, both because of his father and despite him. From the first, he had to struggle to be noticed.

David Dixon, born while his father sailed the Pacific in the Essex, retained an idealized memory of his childhood. Commodore Porter was his greatest hero. Stimulated by his father’s war stories and constantly aware of his heritage, Porter lived secure in the childlike belief that his father, a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners, literally ran the Navy. The commodore returned to sea duty in the West Indies in 1823. On one cruise, in 1824, he took along the entire family. David Dixon’s first voyage lasted only a few months. He was away at school when, at Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Commodore Porter overstepped his authority by demanding an apology for disrespect to an American warship, was court-martialed, and received a six-month suspension. Incensed, David Porter resigned his commission and entered the service of the Mexican navy. He took with him David Dixon, age twelve; his favorite son, Thomas, age ten; and a nephew.

David Dixon watched his father sternly mold the Mexican seamen into a fighting unit and saw more action in a few months with the Mexican navy than he would during the next thirty-five years. On board his cousin David H. Porter’s ship the Guerrero, in close combat with the Spanish frigate Lealtad, David Dixon received his first war wound, and he was captured and imprisoned in Havana Harbor. When paroled, he returned to the United States, where his maternal grandfather, Congressman William Anderson, wrangled him a midshipman’s appointment in the U.S. Navy. His brother Thomas died in Mexico, and his other brothers distanced themselves from their father. Only David Dixon pleased his father, who, by the time of his death in 1843, found life and family disappointing. David Dixon Porter fought for naval distinction to earn his father’s love and to restore his father’s tarnished image.

Porter’s midshipman career was fairly routine. His father had taught him tradition, discipline, and seamanship; the Navy, technical skills and leadership. Porter became an expert channel surveyor and pilot in the Coast Survey and the Hydrography Department. He learned quickly and became known as a man who thought on his feet and who could be trusted with special operations. Detached to State Department service, he secretly surveyed Santo Domingo to determine its suitability as a naval base.

Porter participated in several major naval engagements of the Mexican War. His operational experiences, although totaling only a few hours of battle, demonstrated his inventiveness and courage. He planned and helped to execute the naval bombardment on the defenses of Vera Cruz and, leading a sailors’ charge on the fort at Tabasco, captured the works and earned command of his first steamship, the Spitfire.

After the war, Porter sought to captain a modern steamer, but the peacetime Navy could afford only sail craft, and he was reassigned to the Coast Survey. Like many other young officers, Porter, anticipating a lifetime as lieutenant with little chance of advancement in rank or duty, chose a safe, attractive alternative: he obtained leave and captained mail vessels between New York and San Francisco, thus gaining valuable experience in commanding large ocean steamships. On board the Panama, Georgia, and Crescent City, Porter tried to instill naval discipline into civilian crews. Although he was a formalist like his father, Porter’s disciplinary methods were less punitive than paternal. He also gained popular notice by nearly re-creating his father’s Fajardo incident when, at Havana in 1852, he refused to accept the closure of the port to his mail vessel and almost provoked war between the United States and Spain.

Porter soon gained a reputation for speed, even at the expense of his mail route. Setting new world records in the remarkable Golden Age, he cut the voyage from England to Australia by a third; the Melbourne-Sydney run in half. Porter’s Australian adventures netted him something more valuable than money and experience: fame made him a national figure and raised him from the ranks of “one of the Porters.” He became known in his own right for his energy, perseverance, and clever direction of “unusual enterprises.”

Porter returned to naval duty in the spring of 1855 to command the store-ship Supply, ferrying camels from the Mediterranean to Texas for the War Department, and later served as executive officer of the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Navy Yard. After three years’ administration of inert peacetime shipbuilding, he negotiated for a return to civilian duty. At the age of forty-seven, having spent twenty years as a lieutenant, Porter was fully aware that his childhood heroes had made their careers at nearly half his age. As he debated between captaining another mail vessel or a Coast Survey schooner, Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, and the Southern states began to secede. Members of the Navy Department eyed each other with distrust as more Southern ports fell into Confederate hands and officers resigned to go south.

Porter seized the moment. Along with his neighbor, Army Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, Porter formulated plans to reinforce Fort Pickens and recapture Pensacola, Florida. Secretary of State William H. Seward took their plans to the President. Lincoln agreed that Pickens, like Fort Sumter, should be saved if at all possible, and he allowed Porter and Meigs to write their own orders and attempt the mission without the knowledge of their superiors. In addition, Porter wrote a cryptic order, over Lincoln’s signature, attempting to restructure civilian control of naval policy by effectively reorganizing personnel detailing within the Navy Department.

Porter charged off to New York and quickly fitted out his ship, the Powhatan. The President had second thoughts and had Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles order Porter to give up the Powhatan to her assigned duty with Gustavus V. Fox’s expedition to relieve Sumter, but neither Porter nor Meigs was willing to let his chance for action and advancement go by. Proclaiming Welles’s telegram “bogus,” they stalled by wiring Seward to confirm the order while they went to sea. By the time Seward’s terse reply reached Porter, he had left the harbor and would not put back. Rationalizing that presidential orders outweighed cabinet ones, he politely refused to comply. With his experience of short wars and stalled promotions, this chance, he feared, might be his only one.

Porter steamed toward Pensacola in an unsound ship with an untrained crew. Organizing en route, he drilled the men at the guns and disguised the ship as a mail steamer. Arriving near Pickens on 17 April 1861, Porter prepared to steam straight in and retake Pensacola by surprise, but Meigs stopped him. The Army was unwilling to provoke a battle before ensuring its own invulnerability, and the commanders wavered at disobeying presidential orders calling for strictly defensive operations. Frustrated, Porter raged up and down the harbor, surveyed the bay for shelling positions, and planned a night attack at the Army’s convenience. It never happened. The Union Army retained Fort Pickens and gave up any attempt to retake Pensacola, a decision that Porter later called “the great disappointment of my life.

The Powhatan incident had several repercussions. Lincoln learned to confide in his cabinet officers, Seward to keep his hands off naval affairs, and Welles to watch Porter. Although Lincoln assumed all responsibility for the diversion of the Powhatan from Sumter, Welles never forgave Porter. He did recognize, however, that in Porter he had an asset, a brash, ambitious officer who would prove aggressive in battle. As for Porter, his inability to control events in Pensacola harbor taught him that he must command more than a ship to effect a victory; the single-ship actions of his father’s day would not suffice. Subsequent ineffectual blockading duty at the mouth of the Mississippi convinced him of the need to capture New Orleans, Louisiana.

The campaign for New Orleans was both a victory and a defeat for Porter, who overconfidently projected that a fleet of boats firing properly aimed army mortars could reduce the strong forts below within forty-eight hours, which allowed ships to run up and capture the city. The Union desperately needed a victory in the spring of 1862, particularly at New Orleans. Porter recommended that his foster brother Farragut lead the expedition. Porter, who received independent command of the mortar flotilla over the heads of senior officers, did not impress the rest of Farragut’s command, who looked down on his ragtag fleet and his use of merchant marine captains. Farragut himself had almost no faith in the mortar fleet but accepted it along with the assignment.

Despite scientific placement of the mortars and highly accurate fire, the forts withstood six days of heavy bombardment. Farragut changed strategy and ran past the forts at night. Porter covered the attempt with mortar fire and received the forts’ surrender three days after Farragut took New Orleans. The mortar boats failed to destroy the forts, but Porter’s plan to capture New Orleans succeeded by adaption. The mortars kept Confederate gunners under cover, helped the fleet to pass the forts, and disabled several of the enemy’s best guns. More important, the psychological effect of Porter’s relentless attack caused the men in Fort Jackson to mutiny. After the surrender, the forts were found to be as strong as ever; Porter had won by perseverance. Lincoln recommended Porter for the thanks of Congress, both as a member of Farragut’s command and separately for “distinguished services in the conception and preparation of the means used for the capture of the Forts below New Orleans, and for highly meritorious conduct in the management of the Mortar Flotilla.”

Following up the victory proved more difficult. Porter pushed for an attack on Mobile Bay, but the Navy Department ordered the fleet to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The city’s defending river guns were placed high on terraces, and Porter, minus his survey ship, had to aim his mortars by trial and error. It proved another futile effort. Farragut’s fleet successfully ran the Vicksburg batteries, but several vessels were badly damaged and Porter’s flotilla suffered heavy casualties while covering him. Low water and low morale led to dissension, as Farragut’s captains and Army Major General Benjamin F. Butler warred with Porter over credit for the New Orleans expedition. Soon, Porter wanted release from the Gulf Squadron so badly that he swore he would even prefer “to serve any where else in a yawl boat.”

As politics played an increasing role in the war effort, Porter’s distaste for civilian meddling grew. He loathed political generals, such as Butler, yet used politics to advance his own career. He cultivated congressmen and developed close ties in the Navy Department with Assistant Secretary Fox, a trusted member of the Lincoln administration. When Porter angered Welles with outspoken criticism of the Union high command, the Secretary reassigned him to obscurity inspecting gunboats under construction at Cincinnati, Ohio. Faced with exile, Porter, the politician went over his superior’s head to Lincoln.

Lincoln twice before had given Porter major commands beyond his rank, the Powhatan and the mortar flotilla, with only partial success. Still, Porter had qualities that Lincoln could use. His persuasiveness and determination, along with Fox’s influence, convinced Lincoln that Porter was exactly the fighter he needed, for he gave him command of the Mississippi Squadron, the fleet above Vicksburg. Welles made the assignment grudgingly, noting that recklessness and energy were Porter’s primary qualifications.

Porter’s new assignment had its good and bad points. Given the temporary and local rank of acting rear admiral, he controlled nearly all naval forces on the upper Mississippi, truly a partner with Farragut this time. Porter saw his elevation to rank and command over the heads of some eighty senior officers as retribution for his father’s suspension. To uphold his father’s image and to attain permanent rank, Porter had to succeed on the Mississippi, but Porter’s orders required him to cooperate in the capture of Vicksburg with Major General John A. McClernand, a distinctly political general with whom few people got along. The upper Mississippi was, moreover, the dumping ground for unpredictable commanders: Porter’s disreputable elder brother William David was there with a ship that he had named the Essex in memory of their father.

With funds, authority, and amenable subordinates, Porter reorganized his command and worked quickly to bring the fleet up to the Navy’s standards. Hearing nothing from McClernand, recruiting in Illinois, Porter offered his services to Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Almost immediate affinity marked their relations. All three, professionals in a war of volunteers, disliked civilian interference, and their personalities, although distinctly different, meshed. Grant, the taciturn commander, worked well with Sherman, whose fiery, outspoken leadership complemented Grant’s more methodical style. Porter and Sherman were of the same mold: emotional, temperamental fighters, considered brilliant yet difficult; both unrelentingly energetic, they were impatient with slower men.

Nevertheless, their combination did not thrive from the start. Porter and Sherman assaulted the bluffs north of Vicksburg near Chickasaw Bayou. The loss of Grant’s supply line kept him from supporting Sherman, whose defeat in December 1862 proved that route to Vicksburg impossible. Porter, energetically supporting Sherman’s advance and worrying Confederate troops in the northern rivers, could do little more to effect a victory. McClernand’s arrival to command after the battle did not help.

McClernand brought to the field raw troops, a political appointment, a drive for personal fame, and a new bride. Porter disliked McClernand but agreed to support him in capturing Arkansas Post, where Sherman had planned to secure their supply line and achieve a victory. So determined was Porter to win that, when McClernand’s green troops left the post’s Fort Hindman in retreat, Porter boarded troops and prepared to take the fort himself. The surrender of the fort to Porter earned him Lincoln’s gratitude and another vote of thanks from Congress. Grant soon supplanted McClernand on the river and sought other routes through the swollen wintry swamps to Vicksburg.

In an effort to circumvent the batteries at Vicksburg, Grant’s army dug canals as Porter and Sherman unsuccessfully attempted to turn the northern flank of Vicksburg at Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou. While Porter was upriver, two important vessels were captured by Confederates. Having nothing to send down to save them, Porter and his men rigged up a dummy monitor from an old barge and pork barrels. As it floated by in the dark, the monster frightened Vicksburg and stampeded the Confederates into destroying the Indianola to prevent her recapture. The effect of this ruse delighted Porter and he later used another dummy monitor to draw fire at Wilmington, North Carolina. The Navy Department fully appreciated Porter’s often unusual attempts to recover something from every loss.

On 16 April 1863, under cover of darkness, Porter ran part of his fleet safely past the Vicksburg batteries. While Sherman feinted north to Haynes’ Bluff, Porter bombarded Grand Gulf and covered Grant’s crossing at Bruinsburg. With three days’ rations and no supply line, Grant set out overland to take Vicksburg. Porter, eager for action, destroyed the abandoned Grand Gulf, then assisted Farragut in a run up the Confederate supply line of Red River, capturing Fort De Russy and Alexandria, Louisiana. Grant and Porter opened a concentrated attack on Vicksburg on 22 May before settling into a siege.

Porter maintained Grant’s supply line, fired steadily on the city, fought guerrillas, and kept communications open to Washington. His passage of the Vicksburg batteries signaled the beginning of the end for the South. Confederate agents in London credited Porter with depressing their loan rate overseas. Porter’s achievement and the anticipated fall of Vicksburg dominated all conversation in Washington, with most observers believing that success at Vicksburg would decide the war. All Porter had to do for his coveted promotion was to support Grant, but he was too much of a fighter to wait patiently.

Within six weeks, Porter’s forces captured fourteen Confederate forts above Vicksburg, destroyed more than $2 million worth of Confederate naval stores and ships building on the Yazoo, and assisted in demoralizing Vicksburg with desertion propaganda and constant shelling. The city surrendered on 4 July 1863, and Porter immediately followed up the victory with a series of raids on inland waterways to Yazoo City and up the Red and White Rivers. Lincoln shared the spoils of victory with those most responsible; he promoted Porter to permanent rear admiral to date from the fall of Vicksburg.

Porter’s last major campaign in the west, up the Red River in the spring of 1864, was the fiasco he expected it to be. Ordered to command the naval arm of the attack toward Shreveport, Louisiana, in cooperation with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, Porter doubted that the river would provide sufficient draft for his vessels and that he would want to attempt operations with another political general. He was right on both counts. There was little coordination between the two commands. When Banks finally arrived at the rendezvous point over a week late, he found Porter and the Navy chasing prize cotton on the river. Once operations began, Porter sent his largest vessel upriver first, and she grounded, further delaying cooperation. The water fell rapidly, and Banks abandoned the Navy after his repulse at Sabine Crossroads, Louisiana.

Porter’s fleet had to fight its way downriver, but it was not the sort of fight he liked. Confederates with artillery ambushed the unprotected naval vessels. Porter got his fleet safely down to Alexandria, only to be stranded above the city in less than four feet of water. Without the support of Regular Army officers and an ingenious Army dam to float the boats over the bar, Porter would have been unable to extricate his command. The Army, the Navy, and his own men, by condemning Banks for his incompetency, preserved Porter’s reputation despite his costly errors of judgment.

Porter, ordered from one disaster to another, had no time to make up for this defeat. Welles brought him east to command the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off North Carolina, where the only remaining port supplying General Robert E. Lee’s army remained open at Wilmington. Porter used every stratagem he had learned in the war to tighten the blockade. He built up a powerful naval force, tightened cordon lines, and decoyed in $2 million worth of prizes, but only the capture of strategic Fort Fisher would close the port. Porter asked Grant for troops, and he agreed; when the Army finally appeared, Butler was leading. Porter, livid, treated Butler cordially, while privately damning Grant unfairly for sending the politician.

Porter’s and Butler’s attack on Fort Fisher in December 1864 failed primarily because of distrust between the two commanders. Butler planned to destroy the fort by exploding an old ship loaded with gunpowder. Neither naval nor army engineers believed it would work, but Butler pressed, and Porter acquiesced. Butler kept most of his plans secret, which led to a long string of misunderstandings. The explosion failed, as expected.

Porter bombarded the fort to cover Butler’s landing, but Butler chose not to assault, as Porter hoped he would, or to entrench, as Grant ordered him to. Instead, he retreated, leaving behind several hundred men. Lincoln relieved Butler of command, and Brevet Major General Alfred H. Terry replaced him in a second attempt at the fort.

The stakes were high. Lee believed that Union capture of Forts Fisher and Caswell would force the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia. A second failure would sustain Butler. As insurance, in case the Army should fail him again, Porter drilled a landing party of sixteen hundred sailors and four hundred marines to storm the fort. Porter and Terry cooperated fully. Between the two men there were no secrets, and their determination effected a true combination.

The attack of the naval landing party failed, but it diverted the fort’s defenders from the Army landing. Seven difficult hours later, the fort surrendered to Terry. The Confederates, forced to evacuate Caswell, fell back on Wilmington; pursued by Porter and Terry, they abandoned the last port in the Confederacy in January 1865. There was little left for the Navy to do. Porter went up the James River to Grant’s headquarters at City Point, southeast of Richmond, where his final war duties included attending strategy conferences on board the River Queen with Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman, and escorting the President around captured Petersburg, Virginia, and Richmond.

Most of Porter’s fame stems from his actions in combined operations. Although he was strategically clearsighted, his tactical plans, as first conceived, rarely worked. Luckily, he directed most maneuvers with enough personal autonomy to change course halfway and push the object through to success, at times by sheer force of will. Porter’s strength was in special operations, and his fighting personality accentuated his ability to follow up nearly every setback with a victory.

Porter’s campaigns depended on Army operations for success. At Chickasaw Bayou and then during the Yazoo Pass expedition, complete military cooperation would not overcome the barriers of geography, weather, and Confederate strength. Lack of coordination of forces up the Red River and in the first attack on Fort Fisher doomed the efforts from the start. Porter’s successes, notably at Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, and the second attempt at Fort Fisher, were due in no small part to the personalities of the commanders involved. Porter worked well with those who fought but poorly with those who hesitated.

The war made Porter both famous and controversial. His ambition, hunger for publicity and prize money, and swift advancement offended many whom he had surpassed. Peace brought a new set of problems for Gideon Welles, among them the question of what to do with Porter. He could not be sent to sea: his oft-stated belief that those countries that had supported the Confederacy should pay, particularly Great Britain, might lead him to provoke a foreign war. Porter never made any secret of his wish to command the U.S. Naval Academy and “get the right set of officers into the Navy.” His wide fame and belief in strong discipline could only help the troubled institution, which, although removed north, had barely survived the war intact.

The wartime Naval Academy had taken scant notice of changing technology and encouraged no physical activities. Drinking sprees were the prime extracurricular recreation, and an antiquated demerit system proved ineffectual in controlling student abuses. The academy was, in fact, only slightly more than a secondary school and taught midshipmen little that they could use to command ships. Porter believed that the academy’s purpose was to train officers for naval war. Installed as superintendent in 1865, he imprinted the academy with his own philosophy of practicality and professionalism; he was determined to make it the rival of West Point, whose graduates had impressed him with just those qualities.

Porter began his tenure by strictly enforcing discipline. Common infractions included hazing, drinking, and taking “French leave,” none of which Porter took lightly. “The first duty of an officer,” he taught, “is to obey.” He proved to the midshipmen that he was serious. On a single day in October 1865, Porter issued orders requiring regular small-arms drills, dress parades, an oath of allegiance, and an eight-year service obligation. Further, he repealed all upper-class privileges for those forced to repeat a year and organized recreation times, cleverly keyed to begin as soon as drill obligations were properly completed. Porter supplemented the demerit system with practical punishments; as at West Point, guard duty and drill, assigned by severity of the offense, were used to enforce discipline.

Before Porter’s arrival, few extracurricular activities had been organized to keep midshipmen out of trouble. Porter realistically decided that sports would give the young men an outlet for their frustrations. He built a gymnasium and especially encouraged fencing, boxing, bowling, shooting, and baseball. One never knew when Superintendent Porter might enter the ring to box the first classmen, and he especially hated losing a game of baseball. He encouraged competition within the academy and took his midshipmen to West Point for intercollegiate athletic trials.

Porter also insisted on an honor system “to send honorable men from this institution into the Navy.” He designed uniforms, fostered music and drama clubs, invited midshipmen to test their gentlemanly behavior at tea, and led regular dancing parties. Lying and drinking earned his severest reproof, and he worked to close Annapolis brothels. He exhorted the midshipmen to act like officers and not “common sailors.” Unashamedly elitist, Porter even recommended denying admission to candidates who were cross-eyed, “common looking,” or too old. If he interfered with every aspect of the midshipmen’s private lives, at least he stood by them, and occasionally directed a redress in grades or accepted an apology in lieu of punishment.

Porter redesigned the academy curriculum. He emphasized lectures over textbooks and required courses in seamanship, gunnery, naval construction, practical navigation, and steam engineering. Midshipmen learned to operate fully rigged ship models, drill with mortars, run and repair steam engines, strip sails on ships in record time, and give exhibitions of steam tactics and seamanship. Porter enlarged the department of steam engineering with a new building housing a working engine and several boilers and required three years of courses and a practical knowledge of steam engines of each graduate.

He successfully dabbled in politics to keep the academy afloat. Seeking support for a growing school during intense fiscal retrenchment, Porter invited politicians to review dress parades and exhibitions of naval tactics. He never failed to publicize the academy or to impress visitors. As a result of his political influence and the growing prestige of the academy under his direction, appropriations increased despite national budget cuts. With ideological renewal, congressional appropriations, and stringent economy, Porter physically rebuilt the academy: he spent $225,000 for buildings and alterations and purchased more than 130 acres of adjacent land.

Despite Porter’s fame as an operational commander, his most enduring legacy was his whole philosophy of naval discipline and leadership, embedded in the academy and learned, he said, from his father. By strictly charging the midshipmen themselves with responsibility for their actions and the future of their institution, he made them aware of their elite status as naval leaders. Although Porter may have indeed “set the tone” for the modern-day Naval Academy, he did so by pinning that obligation on the midshipmen themselves, particularly on the first class.

Porter restored pride to the academy. Grant and Sherman convinced him by their own examples that, despite West Point’s reputation as the premier engineering school in America, it did not necessarily turn out only engineers and theoreticians but men trained in the basics of the military profession: discipline, duty, honor, obedience, command—principles transcending service divisions. Such basic officer training also suited Porter’s daily expectations of foreign war.

Americans in peacetime have rarely supported a standing army or navy; the aftermath of the Civil War was no exception. Four years of expensive warfare put the United States ahead of its contemporaries in technology. Much of the rest of the world took America’s advances and improved upon them. Naval vessels of the war period were soon outdated, and few Americans supported their replacement. The naval stagnation following the Civil War probably could not have been avoided short of the war that Porter anticipated. Americans, if anything, were sick of war, and believed peace to be permanent.

The Army fared better than the Navy in the postwar world. Battlefield brevet and volunteer rankings faded away with war’s end and left in the service only those who had earned Regular Army promotions. The Army also had posts to maintain in the South and in the West, where Indians opposed the settlement by whites. Sherman, as lieutenant general and general, retained some active control over operations. Porter had no such power in his corresponding roles as vice admiral and admiral. With no offensive mission, the Navy had no role for ranking officers.

Congressmen, unwilling to fund advanced naval technology in peace, got only what they paid for—the U.S. Navy of their fathers, not that of their sons. Demobilization forced the Navy into a limited world mission until the 1890s, a rational approach to economic reality. Congress wanted a floating police force and saw no need to compete with European technology. Naval officers disagreed over the process of inevitable retrenchment and sought to protect their own definitions of a peacetime navy.

Welles was proud of his success in directing the naval war and did not take kindly to any suggestions to share power in peace. Welles’s burgeoning naval bureaucracy greatly expanded the powers of the Navy’s bureau system. His raises in relative rankings and prerogatives for staff officers in support positions, and his recall of retired officers at high rank, bloated the officer class. Postwar retrenchment hit ranking line officers hardest, or so they perceived. With their ships laid up and promotion stagnant, staff officers and the bureau system, not Welles, bore the brunt of line officers’ blame. The line/staff controversy, renewed and confused by technological issues and exacerbated by Welles’s intransigence, erupted into war within the Navy. Behind the battles lay the real issue: who should control the Navy?

Porter’s role in the naval controversies created his image as an operational progressive and a technological reactionary, while his fighting personality defined his perception of the naval establishment. Porter believed that the Navy’s mission was war and that preparation for future wars was its peacetime occupation. Offensive purpose defined his view of naval administration, which he believed should remain strictly in the hands of experienced operational officers. “The Navy,” he declared, “will be dead for many years to come unless we have another war.”

Technology, particularly steam engineering, was an important side issue in the controversy over control of the Navy. Neither Congress nor the American public would pay for advanced military technology. Between 1865 and 1869, the Navy’s budget declined 84 percent. A great portion of that budget went to the Bureau of Steam Engineering, where Benjamin Franklin Isherwood still spent money at wartime levels. Isherwood further offended line officers by seemingly placing the interests of machines over those of men. The attacks of Porter and the line officers on the status quo reflected the real anxieties of men who feared replacement by technology or by men of different abilities.

Porter did not hate engineers; he hated theoreticians—impractical, inflexible, wasteful men who built vessels but never sailed them—who understood machines but could not make them run. Isherwood’s prize ship, the Wampanoag, was Porter’s pet peeve, the symbol of technological inefficiency—the fastest ship in the world, built at an exorbitant cost, with insufficient room to house the men needed to run her, let alone those needed for naval maneuvers. That Isherwood, entrenched in the bureau, had sufficient power to control the direction of naval shipbuilding policy reaffirmed Porter’s belief that the bureau system was faulty. Despite Porter’s lengthy campaign to remove Isherwood and restore line supremacy, however, the two men remained friends and supported each other professionally in later years.

Porter never hated Isherwood; his attacks were a means to an end. Porter wanted to revive and lead his father’s old Board of Navy Commissioners and made several unsuccessful attempts to have Congress restore it. His insistence on the importance of line officers controlling the Navy had led him to replace staff officers with line officers in teaching positions at the academy.

In 1869, when Grant assumed the presidency, he appointed Adolph E. Borie as Secretary of the Navy and assigned Porter to special duty as his assistant, a rudimentary chief of naval operations. Porter took personal control of the Navy Department at the most visible levels and immediately issued a blizzard of sweeping general orders, twelve in one day, over Borie’s signature. He reduced staff prerogatives and defined those of the line; he redesigned uniforms to reflect the staff’s lower status and ranking. Further orders limited the power of the bureaus to internal matters, consolidated squadrons, renamed vessels, and organized a line board of ship examiners. Porter’s most controversial orders were among his last. He delayed reducing the relative rankings of the staff officers to pre-Welles levels until a legal basis for it could be found. His orders requiring full sail power in all naval ships and strictly limiting the use of coal, along with the condemnation of Isherwood’s ships by a board of line officers, were the parting shots of Porter’s short administration.

Behind Porter’s attempted reforms of 1869 lay the threat of war with Great Britain. American diplomats were then negotiating reparations due the United States for Britain’s assistance to the Confederacy. Porter wanted war, especially with Great Britain, and he wanted a navy prepared for war. At the Naval Academy he prepared men for command and for war; in the department, he attempted to do the same. He endeavored to restore unity to a fragmented command structure by returning control to the Secretary and removing it from the bureaus. The Secretary, or his assistant, Porter, would command the naval forces in any coming war. Unfortunately for Porter, his war did not materialize. His reputation was the major casualty of his own administration.

Porter knew that the U.S. Navy could not match the Royal Navy, but he insisted on strengthening all natural advantages. General Orders 128 and 131 did no more than adopt international naval policies. British regulations requiring sails and restricting coal use were far harsher than Porter’s—coal was expensive and engines were inefficient in 1869. In declaring steam auxiliary to full sail power, Porter capitalized on the natural resources of men and wind while directly overturning Welles’s emphasis on steam over sails. Porter’s orders prescribed readiness and constant exercise. He wanted the Navy to be ready for immediate action with maximum efficiency. A master at improvising, Porter convinced Congress to fund Naval Academy expansion through a combination of politics, prestige, and stringent recycling. He hoped, by using similar tactics, to convince Congress to fund a real naval fighting force.

Borie never wanted to run the Navy and was happy to sign over full authority to Porter, who issued orders in Borie’s name until the furor over Porter’s arbitrariness, impatience, and high-handedness made Borie’s life miserable. After three months, Borie resigned, and Grant replaced him with George Robeson, who eased Porter from his position of power. Within one year, Porter’s influence had so declined that he claimed he did not enter the Navy Department’s headquarters more than four times between 1870 and 1876.

Despite strong political opposition, Porter—promoted to admiral in 1870—remained on active duty until his death in 1891. During those last twenty-one years he wrote regular advisory reports, sat on inspection boards, and worked to develop naval higher education. His few duties were unimportant, and his opinions were generally ignored. Unhappy with semiretirement, he still sought to influence naval policy and continued to send in an unwanted yearly report. Despite Porter’s advocacy of a stronger coastal defense, he retained his vision of offensive naval purpose. His reports, in the form of incomplete, repetitive letters addressed to successive secretaries, sought immediate, effective answers to contemporary problems. Read as statements of policy, they seem foolish today; in the context of their intent, they are extremely revealing.

Porter, the product of a maritime nation, lived in an emerging industrial age. The Civil War destroyed America’s commercial shipping industry whereas it strengthened the British carrying trade. The United States failed to recover its oceanic trade or its maritime reserve during Porter’s lifetime. From 1870 until 1889, Porter fought a losing battle to restore U.S. maritime eminence, which enhanced his image as a reactionary against industrialization. He appreciated new technology but thought the training of men as important as the building of ships. Nothing in Porter’s experience prepared him for an age when the needs of ships would outweigh those of men.

Machine dominance was by no means certain until after his death. Science and technology advanced slowly; not until 1880 were the first and second laws of thermodynamics usable in creating efficient steam engines. By 1884, steam predominated, which led the Navy to reduce sail power and, by 1889, to begin establishing the international fuel depots that Porter believed were necessary for a steam navy. Only as technology and foreign policy changed did Porter’s advocacy of coastal defense and commerce raiding appear outdated; even Alfred Thayer Mahan supported such a program in 1885. Until instant obsolescence of naval vessels was controlled, the Navy remained transitional.

What Porter advocated was naval diversification. He wanted improved forts; rams and monitors for defense; fast commerce raiders to cripple future enemy shipping; advanced submarine torpedo-firing boats for both offense and defense; and, ultimately, steel ships. He opposed rebuilding the Navy around only one type of ship. Rather than returning the Navy to the age of sail, he sought to keep it flexible. He advocated constant exercise of existing ships and squadrons, development of new vessels, education of all naval personnel, modernization of armament, and subsidization of a new merchant marine. The 1874 sea trials in the West Indies following the Virginius crisis forced Porter into a more defensive position and convinced him that what little navy Congress allowed would be destroyed in the inevitable war; however, by 1881, he spoke of planning “a navy for home defense, but, of course, in time of war we should not be willing to rest quietly guarding our coast.”

On the eve of the New Navy, Porter reargued diversity, defense, and dedication and reasserted the necessity of rebuilding America’s lost prestige as a maritime nation. He urged officers at the struggling Naval War College to exchange ideas about the new types of strategy and tactics needed for the battles of the future. Porter decried Congress’s attempts to rebuild the Navy overnight, quoting from Mirabeau to express his own naval philosophy: “You cannot have a navy without sailors, and sailors are made through the dangers of the deep, from father to son, until their home is on the wave. You cannot build up a navy at once by a simple act of legislation.”

Despite his high rank, Porter had no voice in the Navy. Embittered, he turned to writing to gain an audience. His first and best work, Memoir of Commodore David Porter (1875), attempted to justify his father’s career as well as his own. His later works, particularly his Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (1885) and Naval History of the Civil War (1886), rank with some of his personal correspondence in the magnitude of their inaccuracy. Porter fired words like grapeshot, indiscriminately, in haste, and in often regretted rash comments.

The deaths of Porter and Sherman, one day apart, ended an era. Of the Union heroes of the Civil War, they were the last of the high command. Porter was excoriated by navalists of an expansionist, steam-powered world for advocating sails and a defensive strategy; by surviving political generals for his hatred of them; and by the many men with whom he argued in print in the pages of the various naval and maritime journals. They either damned him in print for his personality or mentioned him only for his operational victories.

Commodore Porter’s sons never escaped their father. William David Porter, disinherited by his family, named his ship the Essex and, at his death, was buried next to his father, who had actively loathed him. David Dixon Porter never saw the restoration of the maritime splendor of his father’s age, but he surrounded himself with mementos of the commodore and retained many of his sociable habits. He easily eclipsed his father in the happiness of his relationships with his friends, his wife, and his children, but the Porter name advanced his career when his own actions failed to. Despite his rank and achievements, he never quite believed that his career was more successful than his father’s.

One of Porter’s subordinates said that it was a naval tradition that “the Porters were all brave and all braggarts,” and David Dixon Porter was no exception. He organized chaos into order, executed seemingly impossible tasks, cooperated well with anyone who respected him and gave him sufficient credit, and implacably hated those who did not. His boundless energy and pursuit of knowledge invigorated the Naval Academy. He helped found the U.S. Naval Institute and an experimental torpedo school (the progenitor of the Naval Underwater Systems Center), and influenced Stephen B. Luce’s determination to make the Naval War College the home for the study of the art of war at sea. Porter lived in the ages of both sail and steam, wooden ships and steel, and appreciated the qualities of each. His fighting spirit, the legacy of David Porter, for better or worse, affected all that he did.


David Dixon Porter has always provoked much comment in print. His associations with many of the nineteenth-century military and political figures have caused much speculation, and opinions concerning each facet of his life are often conflicting. The best and standard biography of Porter is Richard Sedgewick West, Jr.’s The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter, 1813–1891 (New York, 1937), which, although favorable, is realistic about many of his shortcomings throughout the Civil War period. James Russell Soley’s Admiral Porter (New York, 1903) and Noel Bertram Gerson’s Yankee Admiral: A Biography of David Dixon Porter (New York, 1968) provide interesting insights but lack documentation. Porter’s childhood is best illustrated in David F. Long’s Nothing Too Daring: A Biography of Commodore David Porter, 1780–1843 (Annapolis, Md., 1970). The “Camel Corps” of the 1850s has been the subject of several short books and articles, and, as it pertains to Porter, is outlined in Malcolm W. Cagle’s “Lieutenant David Dixon Porter and His Camels,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 83 (December 1957): 1327–33.

Studies of the war period abound with references to Porter’s activities, but West’s Second Admiral remains the best source for the war as it relates to Porter. Porter’s war career is ably related in several articles, particularly William N. Still, “‘Porter . . . Is the Best Man’: This Was Gideon Welles’s View of the Man He Chose to Command the Mississippi Squadron,” Civil War Times Illustrated 16, no. 2 (1977): 5; a chapter of Caroll Storrs Alden and Ralph Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, rev. ed. (Boston, 1943); and Richard West’s “The Relations between Farragut and Porter,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 61 (July 1935): 985–96. Ludwell H. Johnson’s Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (Baltimore, 1958) goes beyond the normal campaign history to describe the outside influences that affected this operation, particularly as they relate to individuals, and ably describes Porter’s errors of judgment.

Porter’s postwar career is best discussed in Kenneth J. Hagan, American Gunboat Diplomacy and the Old Navy, 1877–1889 (Westport, Conn., 1973) and “Admiral David Dixon Porter: Strategist for a Navy in Transition,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 94 (July 1968): 139–43; Charles O. Paullin, “A Half Century of Naval Administration in America, 1861–1911: Part IV. The Navy Department under Grant and Hayes, 18691881,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 39 (1913): 736–60; Lance C. Buhl, “Mariners and Machines: Resistance to Technological Change in the American Navy, 1865–1869,” Journal of American History 61 (1974): 703–77; Park Benjamin’s The United States Naval Academy (New York, 1900); and Edward William Sloan Ill’s Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Naval Engineer: The Years as Engineer in Chief, 1861–1869 (Annapolis, Md., 1965). Porter’s own writings, written mostly in reaction to his postwar inactivity, should not be relied on for specific facts, although they reveal clearly his personality.


Stauffenberg (right) talking to General Baron von Broich in North Africa, Kasseringe Station, 20 February 1943.

It was the utter disaster that had overtaken the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad at the end of 1942 that finally convinced Claus von Stauffenberg that Hitler must be done away with. Having observed both the vacillating timidity of top commanders in the face of Hitler’s interference in military matters and his sheer bungling incompetence, Stauffenberg was clear where the blame for the defining catastrophe of the war in the east must lie: squarely on the Führer’s own stooping shoulders. He himself had visited the Sixth Army’s headquarters in May 1942, and subsequently wrote a letter of appreciation to its commander, General Friedrich von Paulus, which hinted at his growing disillusion when he remarked:

How refreshing it is to get away from this atmosphere [at Staff Headquarters] to surroundings where men give of their best without a second thought, and give their lives too, without a murmur of complaint, while the leaders and those who should set an example quarrel and quibble about their own prestige, or haven’t the courage to speak their minds on questions which affects the lives of thousands of their fellow men.

Quite how literally true this was, Stauffenberg was about to discover. Halder, after all his hesitations about actually removing Hitler, had himself been dismissed as Chief of Staff at the end of September 1942 for repeatedly warning the Führer that by pressing on into Stalingrad in the face of steadily stiffening Soviet resistance, the Sixth Army was advancing into a dangerous Sackgasse – a cul-de-sac. The city that bore his great rival dictator’s name seemed to mesmerise Hitler, and he refused to countenance any let-up in the advance, although Halder pointed out that Paulus’s men were up against seemingly inexhaustible Soviet numbers – a superiority in men (1.5 million against about 300,000) and in matériel (Soviet tank production now totalled 1,200 a month). In addition, Kleist’s tanks, which had carried all before them on the rolling steppes of the Ukraine, were next to useless in the savage street fighting that the struggle for Stalingrad had become. For voicing such inconvenient truths, Halder had been summarily sacked.

Courageously, Stauffenberg visited the fallen general at his Berlin home in October, despite the fact that Halder was virtually under house arrest, with all his movements monitored by the Gestapo. Stauffenberg told the deposed Chief of Staff that the atmosphere at Staff Headquarters was now deeply depressing. In the wake of Halder’s fall, no one was prepared to raise his head above the parapet and speak out of turn. Any ideas that went against Hitler’s policy of stubbornly sticking to every inch of conquered ground was frowned upon. Even the former free exchange of ideas in informal discussions had vanished, Stauffenberg reported; it had been replaced by a depressing mood of silence and fear in which nemesis approached without anyone lifting a finger to stop it.

Halder’s successor as Chief of Staff, Kurt Zeitzler, was a relatively unknown officer who had been selected by Hitler as he had been impressed by Zeitzler’s optimistic reports in his previous posts. The Führer also imagined that this pastor’s son would prove more pliable than the stiff-necked Prussian aristocrats who still composed the bulk of the officer corps. He was disappointed. Zeitzler concurred with the disgraced Halder’s view that the Stalingrad pocket that the Sixth Army had been pushed into was a dangerous trap: a sack waiting for its open end to be nipped off and tied. He recommended an immediate withdrawal from the Volga to the Don River. Hitler flew into one of his increasingly frequent temper tantrums, screaming that he would not be moved from the Volga – the Sixth Army would stand or fall at Stalingrad.

On 9 November 1942, while Hitler was in Munich for the annual commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, so rudely interrupted by Elser’s bomb three years before, the Red Army sprang the jaws of the trap it had prepared. Attacking simultaneously north and south of Stalingrad, within days the Soviets had pinched off the Stalingrad pocket and the Sixth Army was encircled and cut off. By 23 November Paulus’s men were trapped like cornered rats in the shattered ruins of the city they had strived so hard to capture. Stalingrad had become a Kessel – a cauldron – in which the flower of the army would shrivel. On 2 February 1943, despite having been promoted to field marshal by Hitler because no German field marshal had ever capitulated before, Paulus emerged from his bunker and surrendered the freezing, starving, battered and bewildered remnants of his Sixth Army to the Russians. 90,000 men limped into Soviet prisoner-of-war camps from which only around 5,000 eventually emerged. 250,000 remained in and around Stalingrad as frozen corpses. Stauffenberg’s worst fears had been realised and the fortunes of war had swung irrevocably against his beloved Germany.

At last, this loyal and patriotic German soldier, with his courageous refusal to indulge in wishful thinking, was ready to take the first step down the radical path of conspiracy that others – Oster, Tresckow, Gisevius, Beck, Goerdeler and Witzleben – had trodden before him. In 1933 he had hoped, like most other Germans, that the Nazis would give a desperate and demoralised nation a new sense of discipline and purpose. In 1934 he had, like many others in the army, seen the Night of the Long Knives purge as a long overdue, if excessive, settling of accounts with the brawling thugs of the SA. In 1938, he had applauded Hitler’s tough diplomacy that had annexed Austria and the Sudetenland to the Reich without a war. In 1939 and 1940 he had taken professional pride in the rapid Blitzkrieg conquests of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and finally France. Even at the beginning of 1942, when Hitler assumed direct personal command of the army, Stauffenberg had been optimistic that this would simplify the chain of command and sweep away the confusion and muddle that his clear mind abhorred.

Now, though, his dismay and disillusionment were complete. The straw that broke the camel’s back, he told a military colleague, Werner Reerink, on 14 January, on the eve of the final surrender at Stalingrad, had been a conference in November at which the army chiefs believed that they were on the verge of persuading Hitler to order Stalingrad’s evacuation while there was still time. Even Goebbels, said Stauffenberg, had been persuaded of the wisdom of this course. Then, at the decisive moment, Goering had lumbered in and, in his habitual boastful style, assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe alone could keep the Sixth Army supplied by air indefinitely even if it were cut off. Stauffenberg saw this as more than vainglorious boasting; it was a betrayal of the army, he said bitterly, and had effectively condemned 300,000 men to a lingering death. Such criminal irresponsibility could no longer be borne. Word of Stauffenberg’s conversion to the conspirators’ cause and of his involvement in their ranks soon spread among the select few. In late January 1943, General Olbricht told his aide Hans Bernd Gisevius: ‘Stauffenberg has now seen the light and [is] participating.’

But before he could take further action, Stauffenberg was plucked from the war in the east and the sterility of an atmosphere where Hitler’s word was the only law, to another theatre where Germany was also facing a devastating defeat: North Africa. Long gone were the days when Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had carried the tide of German conquest almost to the banks of the Suez Canal and the gates of Cairo. British Commonwealth forces advancing from Egypt through Libya in the east, and newly arrived Anglo-Americans who had landed in Algeria at the end of 1942, had moved towards the Germans in Tunisia. The situation was critical and Zeitzler had personally chosen Stauffenberg, who had been made up to lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1943, to be senior staff officer (operations) to the 10th Panzer Army as one of the most able staff officers available. After the war, Zeitzler explained that he wanted to give Stauffenberg more experience of command on an active front, so as to prepare him for the future command of a corps or army. Delighted as he was by the move to a ‘clean’ war between soldiers rather than the moral quagmire that the war in the east was becoming, Stauffenberg was about to get more action than even he had bargained for.

On 2 February, the day that Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad, Stauffenberg and his wife had lunch with another army couple, Colonel and Frau Burker, at the fashionable Berlin restaurant, Kempinskis. Dining with them was Frau Beate Bremme, a friend of the Stauffenbergs from their pre-war days in Wuppertal. Frau Burker was the daughter of Field Marshal Blomberg, the war minister disgraced and dismissed in the Blomberg–Fritsch scandal of 1938: her two brothers, Henning and Axel, had both been killed in North Africa and the Middle East, and Stauffenberg could have been under no illusions as to the toughness of the assignment ahead of him. Burker had himself been summoned home from North Africa by Hitler after the deaths of his Blomberg brothers-in-law, and during the lunch briefed Stauffenberg about the job. The conversation then turned to the situation at Stalingrad, and Stauffenberg left no one within earshot in ignorance of his own views. After the war, Frau Bremme recalled: ‘They talked loudly and very critically, Stauffenberg more than Burker . . . the waiter came along and insisted that they talk more softly, but they took not the slightest notice and in fact talked even louder.’

A few days before, Stauffenberg had been equally indiscreet in urging Field Marshal Manstein to take action against Hitler while there was still an army and nation left to save. The war, he insisted, could no longer be won by military means and a diplomatic solution must be sought. So insistent did Stauffenberg become in his urgings that a nervous Manstein threatened to have him arrested. Stauffenberg was contemptuous about the field marshal’s quivering pusillanimity. He told his friend Dietz von Thungen, ‘These guys have their pants full of shit and their skulls full of straw. They don’t want to do anything.’

After a week’s embarkation leave with his family, Stauffenberg arrived in Tunis, flying via Naples, on 11 February 1943. His first duty was to visit his badly wounded predecessor, Major Wilhelm Burklin, in hospital. Recalling the visit later, Burklin remarked that he had particularly warned his successor to beware of strafing by low-flying enemy aircraft. Stauffenberg arrived at his divisional forward post on 14 February, in the very midst of battle. The previous day Rommel, who had received reinforcements and was confident of success with his battle-hardened African veterans against the green and ill-trained Americans, had launched ‘Operation Spring Breeze’ – a series of offensives in different directions designed to disrupt the Allied vice that was tightening around Tunisia, turned by the British moving up from the south, and the Americans advancing out of the west.

Despite his inexperience of desert warfare, Stauffenberg was in his element, working fourteen-hour days and demonstrating his customary ability to multi-task: doing several jobs simultaneously and chafing, charming and persuading others to do his bidding. His divisional commander, Brigadier Baron Friedrich von Broich, was new to the job too, having been appointed at the same time as Stauffenberg. Broich was a simple soldier, described later in a report by his British captors as ‘a jolly ex-cavalry man [with] a twinkle in his eye . . . not particularly intelligent but always most amusing and charming’. Broich, like Stauffenberg had ‘a horror of Nazism’ and his letters home to his wife were so anti-Hitler that she warned him to be more discreet for fear of the Gestapo. When told of Stauffenberg’s 20 July bomb by his British captors, Broich described his former deputy as ‘an excellent man . . . one of the cleverest, exceedingly well-educated, [and] a brilliantly clever fellow’. Broich’s only regret was that the bomb Stauffenberg had used had apparently been too small to kill Hitler.

Even while they had been together fighting the battle of Sidi Bou Zid – in which the old sweats of the Afrika Korps savaged the greenhorn Americans, killing 1,200 and destroying over 100 tanks – Stauffenberg, with his customary frankness-to-the-point-of-madness made no secret of his detestation of Hitler and the Nazi regime, remarking in the hearing of lower ranks that ‘That guy [Hitler] ought to be shot.’ He and Broich would sit late into the night in their mobile command post – a captured British battle bus – over a bottle of heavy Tunisian red wine setting the world to rights and deploring Hitler’s wrongs. The Nazis, they agreed, would have to be removed by force.

Operation Spring Breeze developed into a series of fiercely fought actions for control of the strategic Kasserine and Faid Passes over the Atlas Mountains in central Tunisia. At first the experienced Germans carried all before them, picking off the inferior American M3 tanks with their giant new Tiger tanks, which packed an 88-mm cannon, and putting the GIs to rout. Stauffenberg, easy, relaxed, yet efficient and always willing to speak his mind, proved both capable and popular with all ranks. For his part, he enjoyed a return of the carefree spirit of 1940, appreciating the uncomplicated joys of soldiering amid like-minded comrades.

As March turned to April, however, the effects of the Allied command of the Mediterranean became increasingly felt as supplies began to dwindle and dry up and the German offensive stalled. Rommel fell sick and was evacuated from the Africa where he had made his name, and the USAAF and RAF roared across the clear desert skies, virtually unimpeded by any intervention from the Luftwaffe. As the Americans licked their wounds and regrouped, learning the lessons of their defeat as they did so, the experienced British Commonwealth Eighth Army moved up to attack the Germans entrenched behind the Mareth Line. As in the east, the dice of war began to roll against Germany.

Early on the morning of 7 April 1943, Claus von Stauffenberg’s career as a fighting soldier came to a sudden and brutal end, and his brief life as an active conspirator – destined to end equally violently – began. He was on duty in a narrow defile near a range of hills known as Sebkhet en Noual, supervising a tactical withdrawal eastwards towards the Tunisian coast. He was uneasy and uncharacteristically tense. Before taking leave of him that morning, Broich had issued the customary warning to beware of low-flying enemy aircraft. Stauffenberg told a Lieutenant Reile, who saw him standing in his Horch jeep – a distinctive figure as he strove to direct the traffic through the dangerous defile – ‘We shall be lucky if we get out of this. As usual we disengaged twenty-four hours too late.’ Reile left him, keeping one eye on the ground, and the other on the threatening sky.

Suddenly, out of the clear morning skies, the enemy struck. Flight after flight of American fighter-bombers roared in, strafing and shooting up the vehicles in Stauffenberg’s column. Ammunition trucks exploded, lorries overturned or ran off the road; vehicles juddered to a halt as the enemy aircraft thundered in. Desperately, directing his jeep up and down the line of stricken traffic, Stauffenberg strove to save what he could from the carnage. Then a plane picked him out and screamed in to attack with all guns blazing. Instinctively, Stauffenberg hurled himself from the jeep, his hands hiding his handsome face as he hit the desert dust and stones. But the bullets killed a lieutenant sitting at the back of the jeep and found Stauffenberg too.

As the raid ended, Stauffenberg lay in helpless agony. His left eye was a mass of blood and jelly. Both his hands were in a similar state, and his head, back, arms and legs were riddled with shrapnel splinters. A passing medical officer, Second Lieutenant Dr Hans Keysser, dressed Stauffenberg’s wounds. Apparently from nowhere, an ambulance appeared, and Stauffenberg was gently lifted in. It took him to No. 200 Field Hospital at Sfax on Tunisia’s eastern coast, where his desperate condition was stabilised. From there he was taken north to a hospital outside Tunis near ancient Carthage: a pain-wracked journey. Here the remains of his left eye were removed, his right hand was amputated and all but three fingers cut from his left as well. After a fortnight he was well enough to be evacuated by sea to the Italian port city of Livorno, where he was put on a hospital train for Munich.