The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley I

Major General Moore had summoned his two brigade commanders to Division Headquarters aboard LPD Fearless early on 8 June to discuss options for the final attack on Stanley. Unlike his staff, Moore had not been so upset about Brigadier Wilson’s surprise move to Fitzroy nearly a week earlier. Risky though it had been, 5 Brigade’s leap forward fixed the enemy’s attention all the more closely on the southern approach to Stanley. The Argentines had been thinking for some time that the British would launch their main assault from a route through Fitzroy, despite reports of British advances to the west of Stanley near Teal Inlet. And to be sure, they did not know that activity to the south had become a frantic struggle to reduce the vulnerability of 2 Para without supplies and supporting arms. Increased activity around Fitzroy further promoted the perception that it would become the springboard for the final attack. Fitzroy was not, however, part of a deception plan to mask a commando attack from the west. Quite the contrary, it was intended to play a significant role in the final attack. Just how prominent that role would be was one of the main issues at Moore’s meeting with his commanders.

The contentious issue at his meeting that day was whether British ground forces would conduct their final assault through the mountains near Stanley on a broad or a narrow front. The broad front in question started with Mount Longdon to the north-west of Stanley and included high ground starting a few miles south of Longdon and extending eastwards to Stanley: Two Sisters, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown Mountain, Mount William and Sapper Hill. Should Mount Longdon be an objective, then another prominent feature known as Wireless Ridge stood between Mount Longdon and Stanley. In that case, the British would need to take Wireless as well. The narrow option excluded Mount Longdon and Wireless Ridge.

Brigadier Thompson objected to the narrow front option for reasons both tactical and logistical. Since the Argentines were expecting a thrust from the south now more than ever, concentrating the attack into a narrower front from the west and south of Stanley would play into their suspicions. From a logistics standpoint, very importantly, the narrow front option with British forces bypassing Argentine forces on Mount Longdon posed significant risks. For days the Division had been concentrating on getting supplies into the FBMA at Teal Inlet. That area now served as the forward sustainment base for 3 Commando Brigade. Thompson’s 3 Para and 45 Commando had moved east from there several days before and taken the high ground of Mount Estancia and Mount Vernet to the north-west of Longdon. The track from Teal Inlet through a small settlement called Estancia House near Mount Estancia now became the critical ground supply route for his units, regardless of where they were attacking.

Opposition astride this supply route, most notably from Argentine units at Mount Longdon, had to be neutralized in order to ensure continuity of support to 3 Commando Brigade units during the final battle. From a logistics perspective, Thompson’s battle plan enabled interior rather than exterior lines of communication, thereby enabling 3 Commando Brigade to maintain the security of its only ground and helicopter resupply route from the FBMA at Teal Inlet through a distribution point at Estancia House and from there to combat units. The Brigade could not rely on the few available helicopters to move supplies forward from Teal Inlet. Combat units would carry considerable supplies with them, but approach marches would be long, and once fighting started the units would require reliable resupply. During the final battle, helicopters would focus on resupply if possible, but mainly on movement of artillery ammunition and medical evacuation. Mount Longdon, therefore, became a critical objective from Thompson’s perspective, and 3 Commando Brigade had to control it to protect logistics sustainment for the battle for Stanley.

Some at division level clearly did not share all of Thompson’s concerns. While Moore was chairing his meeting aboard Fearless that day, other members of the Division staff and Commando Logistic Regiment were forward at Fitzroy assessing the potential of that area as a sustainment base. Shifting supplies forward from Ajax Bay could shorten distances significantly between the bulk of stocks and combat units, even though there were risks in moving large quantities of supplies that near to Stanley; but getting supplies there was challenging. Distances by sea from the Ajax area were twice as long to Fitzroy as they were to Teal Inlet.

As Moore, Thompson, Wilson and others were discussing tactical and logistical options for the final battle, Argentine observers were, unfortunately, peering down from their observation posts to discover and eventually report the arrival of the LSLs Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad at Fitzroy. Word arrived about the Argentine air attacks as the meeting on Fearless was still in session. The session ended abruptly, and the leaders returned to their units as LFFI shifted its focus to saving lives and restoring order at Fitzroy. Moore had reached no decisions about the plan for a final attack before the hasty adjournment.

By 9 June, as the extent of losses at Fitzroy became fully known, the location’s appeal as a large support area vanished. Planning shifted toward establishing only another FBMA at Fitzroy, this one for 5 Brigade. While staff and units were adjusting to the magnitude of losses, Moore shifted his attention to 3 Commando Brigade as the main effort for the upcoming final battle. When arriving on East Falkland ten days earlier, he had anticipated that his brigades would be beginning the final battle by this time. Now, however, Moore still faced requirements to get artillery and ammunition forward for both brigades to support the attack. Additionally, something had to be done to reconstitute the combat strength of 5 Brigade, given the large number of casualties sustained by 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards and the stocks that had been lost. He would focus deliberately on building up logistics capabilities in forward areas before launching the final assault and on ensuring that logistics remained integrated fully with tactical plans through all phases of the battle plan until his forces captured Stanley.

That day, Moore flew forward to 3 Commando Brigade’s headquarters at Teal Inlet to meet with Thompson and tell him that 3 Commando Brigade would be the Division main effort in an attack that would include Mount Longdon. The plan would contain three phases: during the first phase, 3 Commando Brigade would attack Mount Longdon, Two Sisters, and Mount Harriet; during the second, 3 Commando Brigade would continue its attack to take Wireless Ridge while 5 Brigade attacked Tumbledown Mountain and Mount William; Thompson’s Brigade would then continue the attack in phase three to seize remaining high ground south of Stanley, beginning with Sapper Hill. The hope was that the Argentines would surrender before phase three became necessary.

Thompson’s units had been planning towards this end for some time and hoping for such a decision. To add more punch to his main effort, Moore attached 2 Para back to 3 Commando Brigade. He also attached 5 Brigade’s 1 Welsh Guards, which was augmented now by two companies from 40 Commando, because the approach route for the commando attack on Mount Harriet would cross into its sector. Helicopters would lift the paratroopers from their current location near Fitzroy to an assembly area aside Mount Kent, where they would be in reserve initially. Moore, however, did not let Thompson retain control of the remainder of 40 Commando, which had been providing security around the beachhead since D-Day because of continuing concerns about a possible attack on rear areas. Thompson’s units were prepared and eager to get on with it. They had been forward now for well over a week, and although there had been some skirmishes with Argentines, most of their time had been spent patrolling to determine enemy dispositions and vulnerabilities.

Conditions in forward areas had taken a distinct turn for the worse since commandos had moved away from the San Carlos beachhead, particularly for those units in hills approaching Stanley. Lieutenant Colonel Nick Vaux’s 42 Commando probably had been withstanding the worst of it. His men had been patrolling in and around Mount Kent since the end of May and at Mount Challenger since the first days of June. Some of his units had waited several days for their packs to get forward and still longer for resupply of food. Although there remained tons of food and supplies at both Ajax and Teal Inlet, bad weather had complicated efforts to get supplies forward by helicopter. When supplies did arrive, commandos then had to man-pack them further forward at night to unit positions. The dried Arctic rations being provided contained over 5,000 calories but required water and cooking fuel to reconstitute them. Units generally ran short of both; and as a result, men were starting to suffer from diarrhoea and dehydration. Consequently, many relished finding captured enemy rations, because they came with fuel tablets called hexamine for cooking and sometimes with a small bottle of whisky and cigarettes.

As Vaux recalls, ‘Each day brought blizzard, squall and downpour in relentless sequence.’ His commandos would attempt to erect poncho shelters, only to have the fierce winds buffeting the mountains change direction and rip them apart. Only occasionally would the sun break through to provide them with temporary warmth and a chance to dry out clothes. They had come to despise the standard issue military boot that soaked up moisture like a sponge; these boots were now making cases of trench foot a real problem. When packs containing their extra clothing and personal items finally arrived on 7 June, Vaux’s men could hardly contain their enthusiasm: ‘For a brief, carefree spell the atmosphere was reminiscent of opening presents at Christmas, with weather-beaten marines gleefully extracting “dry sox and clean nix”, caches of nutty (chocolate), even the odd battery-powered razor.’

Making matters worse, though, 42 Commando had suffered several casualties when marines stumbled on to Argentine mines as they patrolled areas around Challenger. The difficulty of evacuating these casualties from points of injury to aid stations foreshadowed the difficulties all British units would face during the final battle. At the same time, however, it proved again the wisdom behind the detailed medical training marines and soldiers had received while sailing south from the United Kingdom. One illustrative case in point is that of Marine Mark Curtis of 42 Commando, who was on patrol when he stepped on a mine. Curtis described what happened:

It was at the bottom of a little slope that I stepped on a mine; “Cuth” and the other marine had walked over it. I seemed to be thrown up in the air and fell on my right side. I took the gun off my shoulder and pointed it forward, waiting for someone to fire at us; I still thought it was the ambush. My foot started to feel numb. I tried to feel down but my trousers were all torn round the bottom. The middle of my foot had been blown off; the toes were still there, connected to my shin by a fleshy bit of skin. It looked weird. Half an inch of my heel had been ripped back. That was all there was left – the toes and the back of the heel. “Cuth” shouted, asked what was going on – a bit of heavy language. I told him I’d had my foot blown off, but I didn’t put it quite like that. Everything was quiet then. He crawled over on his hands and knees, looking for mines. He tried to bandage my leg and I gave myself some morphine. You keep it on your dog tag – like a little toothpaste tube with a needle. I couldn’t get the plastic cover off and had to bite it off. I injected myself in the muscle of the thigh. It didn’t seem to have any effect for half an hour; the pain had started after five minutes. “Cuth” picked me up and carried me out.

Medical training and toughness helped Curtis stay alive until his comrades could get him to medical specialists. It took them seven hours to carry him back to the first aid station; from there, it took another eighteen hours to get him to the field hospital. He lost his foot but lived.

Caring for wounded weighed heavily on the minds of many throughout the Land Force. No one doubted there would be casualties. What concerned everyone was the difficulty of getting casualties off the battlefield. Whereas the men were well trained in keeping themselves and their comrades alive until help arrived, the rocky and hilly terrain would make it very difficult for units to extract casualties down the sides of mountains to level locations, from where they could be evacuated further to the rear by helicopter. Making matters worse, hilltop vantage points would enable Argentines to observe helicopters landing and possibly call for fire. Thompson had successfully resisted efforts by the senior doctor at Division to close down 3 Commando Brigade’s small field dressing station at Teal Inlet and to consolidate it with the one being established at Fitzroy to support 5 Brigade, thereby forming one larger divisional field hospital. Although such a proposal seemed advantageous from a resource standpoint, it disregarded the conditions which made evacuation so difficult around the mountains, something which some commanders had come to experience at first hand in recent days. Foggy weather near the mountains surrounding Stanley frequently resulted in conditions that prevented helicopters from flying. Medical evacuation across or around the several mountains separating 3 Commando Brigade units from a Fitzroy field hospital, therefore, became totally contingent upon weather. Of even more immediate concern to combat units was the lack of lightweight but sturdy collapsible stretchers to assist men in carrying casualties from points of injury to locations for treatment or further evacuation. Rocky slopes would make it difficult enough for men to fight their way through Argentine positions, let alone carry stretchers up and men down the slopes under fire. To facilitate casualty evacuation, as well as for forward resupply of ammunition and other critical supplies, units organized ad hoc litter-bearer teams from personnel not directly involved in the fight. The teams would shuttle supplies forward on whatever stretchers they had and carry casualties back.

By this time, another potential problem needed to be solved. Commando Logistic Regiment and its Medical Squadron had been rushing from emergency to emergency since D-Day, as they worked to care for casualties. Lieutenant Colonel Hellberg had found himself under pressure on almost a daily basis from Northwood to release details of those who had been killed or wounded. To control the flow of such sensitive information, he established a Field Records and Reinforcement Holding Unit next to the Red and Green Life Machine, to stay abreast of developments, maintain accurate information about casualties and ensure that notifications to next of kin were completed before divulging any information to others. The Brigade had first implemented this centralized operation during an exercise the previous year. Before the amphibious landings at San Carlos, it had earmarked staffing for this unit for contingency purposes. Some clerks came from parachute battalions and commandos. After the war, 3 Commando Brigade recommended that organizations continue fulfilling these very important but easily overlooked requirements.

Thompson called his commanders together for their ‘O Group’ briefing on 10 June, the day after his meeting with Moore at Teal Inlet. The Commando Brigade plan pivoted on three sequential attacks on the evening of 11 June, beginning in the north with Mount Longdon: 3 Para received the mission to seize that key piece of terrain and prepare to exploit forward on to Wireless Ridge to the east; 45 Commando would attack to defeat enemy forces on Two Sisters directly to the south of Mount Longdon and prepare to exploit forward on to Tumbledown Mountain; and 42 Commando, further south still, would seize Mount Harriet and prepare to follow 45 Commando through Tumbledown to take Mount William. Once the battle started, all units would have to share the single bridge across the Murrell River to shuttle supplies forward. That bridge would remain critical as long as fighting continued, since it enabled the only ground line of communication between 3 Commando Brigade’s distribution point at Estancia House on the west side of the Murrell River and combat units, whose objectives were on the east side. Brigade objectives were to be taken by first light the next day. Two of the attacks were to be silent in order to achieve surprise, meaning that there would be no artillery preparation. The attack on Mount Harriet would be ‘noisy’ to cover the move of 42 Commando around the flank to hit Argentines from the rear. When artillery fire began, Argentines occupying British objectives would feel the full weight of more than 11,000 rounds of 105mm artillery ammunition now positioned forward for this first phase of the battle. Additionally, some Task Force warships were dedicated to support the units: Avenger would provide naval gunfire for 3 Para; Glamorgan for 45 Commando; Yarmouth for 42 Commando; and Arrow for special forces that would be conducting some small operations closer to Stanley. Together, these four ships had 1400 rounds for their 4.5-inch guns to supplement the artillery on land.

Thompson’s commanders had had plenty of time to think about the missions before them and to develop plans during the final days of the supply build-up. Their units nevertheless faced daunting tasks as they attacked up hill, over generally unfamiliar and rocky terrain, and at night. Although some had experienced skirmishes with Argentines over the past week, this would be the first real fighting for most units since arriving on East Falkland. Meanwhile, 2 Para would remain the Brigade reserve.

As commanders finalized details of their respective portions of the plan, Commando Logistic Regiment at Ajax, in its new role supporting both brigades, and brigade support echelons at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy maintained a constant flow of supplies to forward positions, using the Division’s helicopters in preparation for the final attack. There were about forty helicopters of all types available at the time, including four more Wessexes that arrived at San Carlos on 9 June aboard the RFA support ship Engadine. Hopes of providing scheduled maintenance services to them, as would have been strictly enforced in peacetime, had long since vanished. Now, pilots pushed their helicopters to the limits. The single CH47 Chinook, which had been pressed so hard following the loss of the other heavy-lift helicopters aboard Atlantic Conveyor, flew 109 hours without servicing. Since pilots flew virtually nonstop during the limited daylight hours, checks for leaks and structural cracks became limited to those times when pilots brought their helicopters in for a hot refuel, or at night. Checks at night, made with the aid of low-intensity red-lensed flashlights, were not always capable of detecting serious faults. Nonetheless, the British succeeded in maintaining a near 100 per cent operational rate of their helicopters through to the end of the war. ‘Band-Aid fixes’ became more than a figurative expression for many helicopters, as masking tape was used to cover bullet holes. If something was not damaged severely enough to prevent take-off, pilots took the risk.

The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley II

The British had taken to heart the sobering lessons of Goose Green. Moore was resolved not to start the attack before the required support was in place for his brigades. Expectations for combat units were no different than they had been on D-Day. Each man was to carry two days of supplies and ammunition. All vehicles were to be topped off with fuel. The major difference was the deliberate build-up of artillery ammunition to provide overlapping coverage of fire for battalions. Previously, 2 Para had gone into battle man-packing ammunition and only a portion of its organic mortars. Units would bring all their organic weapons to bear on objectives this time. Additionally, the British would press all of their 105mm artillery batteries into action. The intent was for each battalion to receive support from at least one battery of six guns and possibly from another battery (for a total of twelve guns) at any one time, depending on commitments. Moore directed that there be 500 rounds of ammunition at every gun position, backed up by 500 more rounds per gun in forward support areas at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy. Supplementing the artillery would be naval gunfire and Harrier groundattack aircraft. The Royal Engineers had completed landing platforms and jet refuelling capability at San Carlos on 5 June. Harrier pilots could now stay on station longer to provide support because they did not have to return to ships to refuel as before. The plan was for combat units in brigades to have two days of supply. Each FBMA would have an additional two days’ on hand. Backing them up would be the support area at Ajax Bay, now the sustainment base ashore for all land forces. Commodore Clapp remained prepared to provide additional resupply from ships in Falkland Sound or at sea to the Force Maintenance Area as needed. His LSLs would be pushing supplies from Ajax to the FBMAs at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy on alternating days to keep forward areas well stocked.

A considerable amount of ammunition had already been shifted forward to Teal Inlet and Fitzroy by the time the exact plan of attack became clear. Before the build-up was complete, Commando Logistic Regiment would move over 1,000 tons of ammunition to each location, almost exclusively by sea. A Sea King helicopter, after all, could carry only about sixty rounds of 105mm ammunition per lift. Helicopters became indispensable, however, in moving ammunition from the forward support areas to gun positions. It was a slow process. And it became slower still at times, when units on the ground tried to retain slings and nets for their own use after receiving ammunition and other supplies. The British had not deployed with as much sling-load equipment as they would have liked. The frustrations among logisticians of not getting sling-load items back would continue as attacks started and it became necessary to relocate both guns and ammunition.

By the time the build-up was complete, Teal Inlet and Fitzroy had both become hubs of activity. Forward arming and refuelling points had been established at each location to eliminate the need for helicopters to return to San Carlos. Local settlements pressed their equipment into service to help soldiers. Before long, tractors and Volvo tracked vehicles, which had become the most desirable means to move supplies, had churned the peat into seas of mud. By 11 June, the now famous Red and Green Life Machine, which had taken considerable pride in its inter-service medical teams, had largely disbanded to relocate medical troops and surgical teams to Teal Inlet and Fitzroy so that increased lifesaving care and surgical capabilities would be far forward to care for casualties. Only a single surgical team remained at Ajax. The hospital ship Uganda would come close to shore in the final days, as a precaution, to receive casualties if required.

Support plans for the two brigades were based on comparable principles. The bulk of 3 Commando Brigade stocks would remain at Teal Inlet under control of the Commander, Transport Squadron from Commando Logistic Regiment. From there, supplies would move, either by Rigid Raider boat or four-wheel drive/tracked vehicles further east to a distribution point at Estancia House, where approximately sixty tons of supplies were stashed and camouflaged before the attack commenced. Combat unit support echelons, split between the Teal Inlet support base and the Estancia distribution point, would provide supplies to their respective units from the distribution point. Together, they would transport supplies by whatever means they could overland from the distribution point, using the single-width muddy track. Helicopters would supplement unit efforts whenever possible, bringing casualties back from aid posts to field surgical teams on return flights. The bulk of stocks for 5 Brigade remained at Fitzroy under control of the Commander, 81 Ordnance, who had further assistance from a small command post from Commando Logistic Regiment. He and battalion quartermasters from 5 Brigade units would then coordinate movement of supplies to a distribution point at Bluff Cove, the initial location of the Scots Guards. From there, they would take supplies forward to unit locations. The intent was to move supplies between Fitzroy and Bluff Cove both by land and sea. The bridge crossing the inlet and connecting the settlement and distribution point, however, still was under repair from damage caused by Argentine explosives. Rough seas in coming days also would limit the use of landing craft to transport supplies to the distribution point. These situations necessitated greater reliance on helicopters to shift supplies forward from Fitzroy. Both 5 Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade units obtained supplies from the distribution point. Logisticians would attempt to orchestrate the throughput of supplies by helicopter, direct from the forward support base to units or gun positions, based on helicopter availability and weather.

Rapier air defences were in place and operational at both forward support base locations by this time, but the Argentines did not take action to disrupt the final build-up, either by air or on the ground. Argentine pilots attempted to attack 3 Commando Brigade’s distribution point at Estancia House on a couple of occasions, but they failed to find targets because of the camouflage commandos had erected. Although Argentine pilots had inflicted heavy losses on the British Task Force during the past month, serious threats to British ground forces, except that during 2 Para’s fight at Goose Green, failed to materialize. Argentine leaders never employed forces on the ground to disrupt the initial British build-up in the San Carlos anchorage after the June 8 air attacks at Fitzroy, or now, as logisticians laboured to get supplies to forward areas.

Argentina’s hopes of defeating the British, in fact, had vanished. Some simply had not realized it. They had started with more than a two-to-one numerical advantage in ground forces. Now both sides had about 9,000 soldiers getting ready to confront each other. Argentina’s Junta had foregone many opportunities. Its ability to inflict further damage now was significantly less than it had been. Naval vessels remained berthed in mainland ports after the intimidating and costly loss of General Belgrano a month before. Since then, Argentina had lost nearly a hundred planes in attempts to break through British air defences. It was becoming clear that the prize they had snatched so effortlessly from a reinforced platoon of marines on 2 April was now in jeopardy. Menendez had sent his chief of staff to the mainland on 8 June, the same day that Argentine pilots set back the British at Fitzroy, to ask Galtieri to make some move at the British rear area still at San Carlos. When Galtieri refused, Menendez urged him to accept the terms of UN Resolution 502 demanding an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falklands, but Galtieri again refused. Now Menendez’s troops, still largely facing south in and around Stanley, were about to feel the full strength of Moore’s two combat brigades and the supporting arms of the entire British Task Force. The assault would start with ferocity when 3 Commando Brigade units attacked in rapid succession not from the south but from the west.

It had taken the British a little over two months to get to this point, at a cost of a half dozen ships lost and many more damaged, a dozen planes and helicopters downed, and a couple hundred lives. The efforts of every person in the Task Force had focused on setting the stage for the battle for Stanley, which the British had regarded from early on as the centre of gravity in winning the war. Those involved in logistics operations at Ascension Island or in the United Kingdom were probably unaware of that, or of what was about to transpire. Shipbuilders, stock handlers and lorry drivers back in England; frustrated cargo handlers sweltering in the heat of Ascension Island; pilots and ground crews who had kept tankers and resupply planes in the air; crews on a hundred ships both commercial and military; and countless logisticians working in and out of their specialties throughout the theatre – all had contributed to a line of communication that now stretched from distribution points at Estancia House and Bluff Cove 8,000 miles back to the United Kingdom to make the battle possible. It had not been easy getting this far, and their jobs were not yet done, but there was no doubt that they had contributed immeasurably to the British victory that was about to arrive.

From vantage points away from the Falklands, and decades after the war, the short-lived ground war provides the impression that the British victory was not only swift but also easy. This could not be further from the truth. The British would reach their planned objectives, but not without heroic fighting. Thus 3 Commando Brigade would not be ready to exploit their first successes uniformly across the front; nor would 5 Brigade be ready to begin its attack in the second phase of the Division’s plan to take Tumbledown Mountain and Mount William. The attack by 3 Para on Mount Longdon provides an illustration of the difficulties that 3 Commando Brigade units faced the night of 11/12 June both in terms of tactics and logistics. The fight for control of Mount Longdon would become the costliest ground engagement of the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Hew Pike’s plan for taking Mount Longdon was simple yet challenging, and it took into full account the terrain and anticipated enemy positions. Because there was a large minefield to the south of Mount Longdon, it would not be possible for his units to outflank the Argentines from that direction without taking considerable risks. The mountain’s summit, on the west side, provided a commanding view of the surrounding open ground for several thousand metres, both to the west, from where the British would attack under cover of darkness, and to the east, where the British would have to clear Argentines from fighting positions extending eastward to Wireless Ridge. Because the terrain surrounding Longdon was open, paratroopers could become exposed once fighting started, particularly if the Argentines were able to illuminate the area. The British believed that the Argentines were holding the summit and the north ridge of Mount Longdon. Pike planned to dedicate a company to take each of these areas, to hold his third company in reserve to assist as needed and to be prepared to exploit successes. The support company would establish a base of fire from the west/north-west to support attacking infantry companies with mortars, machineguns and MILAN missiles. Pike’s paratroopers would be going up against men from the enemy’s 7th Regiment, which was known to be holding Wireless Ridge as well. The fight for Mount Longdon was anticipated to be a tough one. After action reports indicated that the paratroopers confronted strong defences manned by a company and reinforced by engineers, snipers and machine-gun crews. The fight for the summit proved to be the fiercest.

Logistics support for 3 Para’s attack was organized with both a forward and rear element. The unit’s regimental aid post was likewise split into forward and rear aid stations to provide for continuous care to casualties. The forward logistics element was to travel with the support company on foot as it moved to establish its fire support base. It consisted of stretcher-bearers, who carried ammunition forward atop stretchers, and the forward aid station under control of the Regimental Medical Officer. The rear logistics element, under control of the battalion’s executive Officer, had the benefit of five tracked Volvo vehicles, three civilian tractors with trailers and four civilian Land Rovers. They would carry the bulk of additional ammunition and supplies as well as the rear aid station, which included an extra doctor as well as medical specialists and supplies. The vehicles would not go forward until the fight was underway, so that 3 Para’s approach march and attack could remain silent. Complicating matters for 3 Para’s rear element as well as for others in 3 Commando Brigade, however, was the lone bridge over the Murrell River. The vehicles of 3 Para could not cross the bridge until 45 Commando, the unit to its immediate south that would attack Two Sisters just 2km from Mount Longdon, had crossed its start line as well. Thompson had prescribed precise times for his units to cross their start lines to sequence the Brigade attack properly: 3 Para, to be exact, was scheduled to cross its start line at 2001 hrs that evening, followed by 45 Commando at 2100 hrs.12 Getting the rear element forward did not seem to be a problem. Men had to carry their heavy loads 5km or more over the rough East Falkland terrain in the dark just to get from assembly areas to start lines. From start lines, they had several more kilometres to go to find the enemy. Needless to say, a lot could happen to cause plans to unravel and to delay support from getting across the bridge.

The bulk of Pike’s support was not only contingent upon 45 Commando crossing its start line. If 45 Commando’s attack on Two Sisters did not go favourably, then that also could affect 3 Para’s ability to get its rear logistics element forward, since Argentine defenders on Two Sisters would be close enough to observe it and call for fire. Likewise, if 3 Para’s attack on Mount Longdon did not go as planned, Argentine defenders there would remain in overwatch positions to do the same to 45 Commando’s rear element. The two units were clearly dependent upon each other for both timeliness and success. As so often happens on battlefields, friction disrupted plans and timetables, but it did not stop British success that evening.

Pike’s paratroopers forded the Murrell River and crossed their start line only a few minutes behind schedule. As companies started toward their objectives in the dark, their paths inadvertently crossed, creating some confusion; and then, less than an hour after units crossed the start line, a platoon leader stepped on an anti-personnel mine. The explosion ended 3 Para’s hopes of a silent approach and attack. Within minutes, as the support company and the forward logistics element were still en route to their positions, the fight was underway and 3 Para started taking casualties. Fighting would continue throughout the night as paratroopers fought up the craggy slopes of Mount Longdon, often exposed by illumination rounds fired by Argentine artillery. Meanwhile, 3 Para’s rear logistics element was experiencing significant delays getting across the Murrell Bridge. One of the companies from Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Whitehead’s 45 Commando did not reach its start line for the attack on Two Sisters until 2300 hrs, two hours later than scheduled, which eventually altered that commando’s plan for attacking in the south. The delay now meant that 3 Para’s rear logistics element could not get across the Murrell River until well after midnight. By then, 3 Para had been fighting for over three hours. When the rear portion of the regimental aid post managed to join its forward counterpart at the base of Mount Longdon after midnight, the battalion was in dire need of medical support and supplies. Two company medical assistants had already been killed on the mountain as they tried to help the wounded.

The battalion had designated a landing site just to the west of the Murrell Bridge for helicopters to pick up casualties in need of evacuation to 3 Commando Brigade’s field dressing station at Teal Inlet. The forward aid post had been treating casualties for some time before the rear aid post arrived with the vehicles needed to get casualties to the helicopter-landing site. Before first light, approximately twenty casualties had been evacuated by vehicles from the regimental aid post at the base of Mount Longdon to the landing site, from where they were transported to Teal Inlet, initially in reconnaissance helicopters fitted with night vision devices for flying in the dark. Each brigade had been allocated Wessex helicopters specifically to assist in evacuation of casualties. They could call these helicopters forward now, using their own radio nets and without coordinating with a higher headquarters, a different procedure from that which had plagued 3 Commando Brigade during the Goose Green fight. Regrettably, the Wessex helicopters were not equipped for flying at night. By first light, when these and other helicopters without night-flight capabilities could be used, a backlog of casualties awaited evacuation at the landing site.

None of the helicopters providing evacuation from the battlefield to field dressing stations were configured with equipment or personnel to provide continuous medical treatment for casualties. The British had no pure medical evacuation helicopters with them. The light helicopters like Gazelles and Scouts flew patients in rear compartments from which seats had been removed. Space was so restricted that stretchers would not fit. As was the case when they hurriedly came to the aid of 5 Brigade following air attacks at Fitzroy, British helicopter pilots landed, took on casualties wherever they could and flew them as directly as possible to the nearest dressing station. Air crewmen did whatever possible to look after casualties en route. Not being trained medics, though, they could render little assistance. Fortunately, distances to field dressing stations at both Teal Inlet and Fitzroy were less than 20km, even from the most distant of objectives. (The bodies of those less fortunate who had been killed outright or who had died from wounds were isolated from the injured and, as time permitted, normally evacuated on vehicles heading overland to rear areas.) Evading artillery fire became a challenge in itself for helicopter pilots, as Argentine field artillery observers atop surrounding hills spotted them in the daylight and called for fire. Consequently, the sighting of British helicopters landing to evacuate casualties often prompted shelling from Argentine artillery able to range the Mount Longdon area from Stanley.

By late morning, having fought all night over the crags and through the rocky crevasses of Mount Longdon in, around and through positions that Argentines had been preparing for over a month, the paratroopers had won. But 3 Para now found itself the target of well-planned and discouragingly accurate artillery and mortar fire, making it difficult to exploit their hard-fought success toward Wireless Ridge. The battalion did not receive the order to continue the attack that day. Had they received it, it is likely that they would have advanced further only with difficulty and after some reconstitution. The fight to take Mount Longdon had cost 3 Para seventeen lives and over forty wounded. Holding on to it for the next forty-eight hours would cost them another six lives, as paratroopers fell victim to continuing Argentine artillery attacks. Some of them, as commonly cited in reports following the war, were stretcher-bearers and other medical personnel trying to evacuate or treat the wounded. The after action report of 3 Para following the war reveals the difficulty units faced getting the wounded further to the rear: of the twenty-three paratroopers who died taking or consolidating their position on Mount Longdon, eighteen lost their lives before arriving at the regimental aid post. Given the remarkable medical training the unit received aboard ship when en route to the Falklands, which gave individuals the confidence and ability to take care of themselves and others on the battlefield, the experience of 3 Para on Mount Longdon accentuates the difficulty of extracting casualties from points of injury to locations for further treatment or evacuation, even when the distance to those locations is only a matter of several hundred metres. The battalion’s forward medical station was located against the rocky base of Longdon, just a short walk from the summit on a normal day, perhaps. That evening, it probably seemed like miles away.

The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley III

Fights on adjacent mountains had progressed to quicker conclusions than on Mount Longdon that evening, and losses were considerably less. Men in 45 Commando preparing to attack the adjacent Two Sisters witnessed the fierce Fighting underway to their north, as did the Argentines they were about to assault. Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead, the commander of 45 Commando, had planned the attack on Two Sisters so that one of his companies would attack first to seize the high ground on the western slope, thereby fixing the enemy’s attention on that direction. Once on the high ground there, that company would provide a base of fire for the commando’s main effort, consisting of two companies attacking from the north-west. The company that was to initiate the attack, however, was the same one that failed to reach its start line until three hours after the appointed time, thereby delaying logistical elements of 3 Para from crossing the Murrell River Bridge. The men in that company had been struggling under the weight of MILAN missile launchers and dozens of missiles to reach their start line at the appointed time. The unit had planned for a three-hour approach march. Instead it took them twice as long to traverse the rough Falklands terrain in the dark with their loads. When the company arrived around 2300 hrs, Whitehead opted to have his companies attack simultaneously. They did so to very good effect. Within a little over four hours, his men had fought their way up the western slope of Two Sisters and cleared Argentines from positions extending eastwards on Two Sisters toward Tumbledown. Artillery fire from both sides was heavy during the attack. The commandos confronted preplanned Argentine artillery fire, just like that which paratroopers on Mount Longdon were experiencing, once they overran enemy positions. Argentine indirect fire had a particularly devastating effect on the commandos, though. Four men died during the taking of Two Sisters, all felled by Argentine artillery or mortar bombardments. Ten others were wounded throughout the Fighting that night.

The success of Lieutenant Colonel Nick Vaux’s 42 Commando on Mount Harriet, 2km to the south of Two Sisters, was no less impressive. After spending nearly two weeks patrolling and battling the elements, men from 42 Commando implemented a bold plan to outflank the Argentine defenders. His units planned to cross their start line at 2030 hrs. Vaux had received permission from Thompson to forego a silent attack by using preparatory artillery fire on enemy positions on the mountain to distract the Argentines from his real intentions. As that was being implemented, one of his companies was to create a diversion to the west of Mount Harriet as his other two, having skirted the mountain to the south on a long approach march, attacked from the east into the enemy rear. The distance from its assembly area near Mount Challenger to the start line east of Mount Harriet in the Welsh Guards sector was 7km. It would seem like twice that distance, though, because the route crossed several long stone runs, slowing movement considerably and making it difficult to keep quiet. To ensure men would have back-up supplies during the attack, the commando formed a 34-man ‘portage troop’ from its headquarters company to carry ammunition and critical equipment and to be prepared to backhaul any casualties. The ad hoc transport troop consisted of administrative specialists, cooks and whoever else was available and not otherwise directly involved in the Fighting. During 42 Commando’s Fight for Mount Harriet, this human supply train trailed the two companies in the south by about an hour to get in position to support Vaux’s main effort. During that approach march, commando companies would cross 5 Brigade’s boundary before turning north to attack objectives on Mount Harriet. Accordingly, it was agreed beforehand that a reconnaissance platoon from the Welsh Guards would secure the start line for the marines and guide them initially on their final approach. The guardsmen were not at the appointed place for the link-up, though, which delayed the attack for over an hour. Nonetheless, Vaux’s plan worked to perfection. The diversionary attack from the west fixed Argentine attention, while the other two companies surprised defences from the rear. By daylight, after eight hours of Fighting, 42 Commando had seized its objective at the loss of only a single commando and the wounding of twenty others. In attacking from the east, Vaux’s men had cut off the escape route of the surprised defenders. As a direct result, they captured 300 prisoners from the defending Argentine 4th Infantry Regiment, including its commanding Officer.

By daylight, 3 Commando Brigade had secured all of its objectives. Units had received sustained and exceptionally effective naval gunfire from Woodward’s Battle Group. The destroyer Glamorgan and frigates Yarmouth and Avenger fired hundreds of high explosive rounds in support of the ground attacks. Unfortunately, the support was not given without significant cost. As some commandos were Fighting up the slopes of the mountains, they witnessed a land-based Exocet missile fired from the outskirts of Stanley slam into the side of Glamorgan. Although the ship survived, a dozen sailors did not and another dozen were wounded. She became the final ship casualty suffered by the Royal Navy. Woodward had been concerned for some time about his ships being vulnerable to land-based Exocets. His concerns proved to be valid. An hour later, the Royal Air Force completed its seventh Black Buck bombing run. Although all twenty-one bombs missed their intended targets, there can be no doubt that the impacts rattled the nerves of Argentines in Stanley, particularly amidst the reports that Longdon, Two Sisters and Harriet had fallen to the British.

Thompson decided not to have his commanders exploit their hard fought successes by continuing the attack toward their secondary objectives, feeling that they would become unnecessarily exposed if attacking in daylight. The brigade also needed to re-stock gun lines with ammunition. He had relocated his reserve battalion, 2 Para, from its previous area near Mount Kent to Mount Longdon during the night. After a 15km march with equipment, paratroopers were soon digging in on the western side of Mount Longdon. It became clear soon after daylight, though, that Argentines, particularly those atop Tumbledown Mountain, had not only spotted the 3 Commando Brigade units but were able to bring effective mortar and artillery fire upon them. Accordingly, Thompson ordered his units to consolidate near their objectives and prepare for possible counter-attacks. Although there are some indications that the Argentine Army’s central command post in Stanley ordered several counter-attacks for that day, none materialized. That provided units with the opportunity to evacuate their casualties from the three mountains and get their support echelons forward with needed resupply. Additionally, it permitted helicopter pilots to start the time-consuming process of relocating artillery batteries for the next phase of the battle and re-stocking gun lines with ammunition from back-up stocks at Teal Inlet.

Major General Moore had monitored the 3 Commando Brigade engagements closely from the small forward headquarters he had established at Fitzroy. He had hoped to continue attacks without interruption on to Tumbledown Mountain, Mount William and Wireless Ridge, thereby hastening a situation in which Argentines would be forced to surrender. Meanwhile, 5 Brigade had sought an extension so that they could complete plans for attack and the forward stocking of artillery ammunition, which Moore granted. For the next day, efforts refocused on shifting equipment and supplies for the next phase of the battle, and on taking care of immediate unit requirements. All available helicopters laboured to replenish ammunition for artillery batteries dispersed throughout the battle area. Limitations on cargo loads went by the wayside, as they had done so often over the past several weeks. As one pilot put it, ‘We just kept pulling at the stick to see if the aircraft would come up. If not, we threw off a box and tried again.’ Because brigade support bases at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy had established helicopter arming and refuelling locations by this time, pilots did not have to fly the hundred miles to Ajax and back for fuel, as they had so many times the week before during the initial forward build-up.

Supplies moved forward on the surface as well, particularly from 3 Commando Brigade’s units in the north, since they had consumed considerable amounts of small arms ammunition and other supplies during their Fights. The Brigade’s support base at Teal Inlet continued to move supplies forward to the distribution point at Estancia both by vehicle and Rigid Raider boat. From there, unit support echelons picked up supplies and transported them to forward locations along the single track crossing the Murrell Bridge. While resupply by ground was underway, the bridge over the Murrell River collapsed under the weight of an armoured recovery vehicle laden with ammunition, thereby closing 3 Commando Brigade’s only land supply route. Royal Engineers had been labouring in previous days to repair the bridge across the inlet connecting 5 Brigade’s supply base at Fitzroy with its distribution point at Bluff Cove. Now, they focused on this new problem in the north. The engineers built an air-portable bridge at Fitzroy to replace the one damaged across the Murrell River and flew it there by Chinook to reopen 3 Commando Brigade’s supply route.

With the local populace continuing to provide tractors and manpower to shuttle supplies, units were again poised to resume the offensive. Argentine pilots made two last attempts during the final hours of preparation to disrupt British plans, but they were not successful. In the first attempt, during the day of 13 June, Skyhawks attacked the 3 Commando Brigade headquarters near Mount Kent and 2 Para at its new position near Mount Longdon; they damaged three helicopters but produced no additional British casualties. Then, later that night, Harriers intercepted Argentine planes attempting another raid, downing one of them.

The plan for the next phase would get 5 Brigade into the ground war for the first time. The 2 Scots Guards would start it off by attacking an estimated two companies from the 5th Marine Battalion, reputed to be the best Argentine unit in the Falklands, on Tumbledown Mountain. Assuming success by the Guards, the 1/7 Gurkhas would follow to attack Mount William. In the north, 2 Para, still operating under the command and control of 3 Commando Brigade, would assault Wireless Ridge. With these three objectives taken, the Division would then continue attacking Argentine forces into Stanley. If it became necessary, responsibility for taking the town would shift to Thompson. He intended another multi-phase attack. It would start with 3 Para securing areas around the old racecourse on the west side of Stanley. Then 45 Commando would seize Sapper Hill and pass through 42 Commando to secure areas immediately to the south of Stanley. The Welsh Guards would revert back to his control and secure areas to the south-east of the capital, cutting off access to the airport. The British would now have surrounded Stanley to force a surrender, hopefully without having to Fight in the town itself and put civilians at risk.

Brigadier Wilson issued orders to his three battalions on the afternoon of 12 June. The timing and success of the fight for Tumbledown affected the other attacks. Argentine forces on that mountain would be able to influence action on the adjacent Mount William and on Wireless Ridge, just a few kilometres north. If the Scots Guards did not achieve their objectives by daylight, then 2 Para on Wireless Ridge would be exposed and vulnerable to Argentine marines remaining on Tumbledown. The Argentines had viewed Tumbledown from the start as a key to the defence of Stanley because it so dominated other surrounding hills. Accordingly, they had prepared a stiff defensive network on the mountain and littered approach routes with mines. The British had little hope of avoiding the full force of Argentine defences. The north face of the mountain yielded sharp drop-offs, significantly limiting any approach from that side. Other Argentine defenders on Mount William to the east protected that flank and maintained observation over the more open terrain to the south of Tumbledown. All this enabled the Argentines to concentrate their defences in the west and south. Consequently, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Scott, commander of 2 Scots Guards, planned to attack Tumbledown directly from the west, with three of his companies passing through each other as the fight progressed to maintain momentum in reaching the top of Tumbledown. His reconnaissance platoon reinforced with a troop of two Scorpions and two Scimitars would create a diversionary attack to the south on the most likely approach route. He had not received much intelligence about Argentine battle positions, though. The diversion would start at 1900 hrs on13 June, with the main attack commencing two hours later. British artillery, naval gunfire and Harriers pounded Tumbledown on the day of the attack.

When the diversion started, the platoon of slightly more than thirty guardsmen initially had difficulty locating the enemy. Once they did, they encountered fierce resistance from Argentines in dozens of bunkers designed to block any approach to Stanley from the south. Before the engagement was over, they were fighting for their lives as they struggled to withdraw, eventually finding themselves in a minefield, where Argentines then tried to target them with artillery fire. What was intended as a diversion had proven very costly. Two were killed; a dozen were wounded. One of the Scorpion armoured vehicles from the Blues and Royals hit an anti-tank mine and had to be abandoned. The next day, sappers would discover fifty-seven mines embedded in the ground near the Scorpion as they tried to recover the vehicle.

As this platoon was trying desperately to extricate itself from the minefield, the main attack commenced from the west. The guardsmen reached their first objective without much contact. Then, as the second phase began and companies started passing forward, they encountered heavy defences sheltered by rocks and crags to the top of Tumbledown. The Scots Guards did not reach the summit until 0600 hrs, at which time they faced more Argentines fiercely resisting from other fighting positions. Finally, after ten hours of tough combat, much of it at close quarters, the Scots Guards gained control of Tumbledown. Lieutenant Colonel Scott had ordered his men not to wear their helmets during the attack, although they carried them on their packs for the expected artillery fire that would follow when they reached their objectives – his thought being that wearing the more distinctive berets would help morale and also aid in identification. At least one of his platoon commanders sustained serious head wounds during the fighting. It is perhaps surprising that many others did not. Although aid stations were echeloned, getting the wounded down the mountainside so that they could be treated and evacuated plagued the guardsmen just as it had the commandos two nights previous. They would lose two more to mortar fire as men tried to retrieve their wounded comrades after the Argentines had fled. Nine men lost their lives; another forty-three were wounded. Fully half of all those killed or wounded were Officers, warrant Officers or noncommissioned Officers, a clear testament to these having led from the front. This fight had been a tough one, too.

Meanwhile, the men of 1/7 Gurkha Rifles had been freezing as they waited in an area west of Tumbledown throughout the night for word that the Scots Guards had taken their objectives. The plan had been for them to pass through the guardsmen after Tumbledown was secure. Although they had been without ration resupply for two days, the proud Gurkhas remained poised to start their advance toward Mount William. The duration of the Scots Guards’ attack meant, however, that if they waited much longer they would be attacking Mount William in daylight. Therefore Wilson ordered them to move out on a different route. They were circling Tumbledown under cliffs to the north when they encountered a minefield. An Argentine forward observer detected the formation and called for fire support, which injured eight of the Gurkhas. As fighting waned on Tumbledown and daylight approached, they finally reached the east side of Tumbledown and prepared to assault William, only to discover most Argentines had already fled. After brief skirmishes resulting in no further casualties, they soon were atop Mount William. After the war, their commander showed his good humour by crediting his men with the collapse of the defences:

Our boys were not just ‘disappointed’ at not hitting the enemy, they were livid, but it is some consolation that we heard later from several sources (rarely admitted in the press) that it was our arrival on the battlefield from the north in the way that we did that caused the final collapse. I am not too confident that that is so, but we certainly contributed to the rout. The Argies were scared stupid of the Gurkhas and the former’s rapid disappearance from the battlefield was probably the best, and certainly the most nicely timed decision of their war.

By this time, 2 Para had overwhelmed the Argentines on Wireless Ridge. The paratroopers had learned many lessons from their fight at Goose Green, where, through no fault of their own, they did not have the benefit of much supporting fire. Lieutenant Colonel David Chaundler could now enjoy an extensive artillery preparation to precede his attacking soldiers. Unlike his predecessor H. Jones at Goose Green, he had two batteries of artillery with thousands of rounds to support his battalion for this fight. The attack by 2 Para would be ‘noisy’, with preparatory fire starting before men crossed their start lines. In addition to the artillery, the frigate Ambuscade with her 4.5-inch guns, all of the battalion’s organic mortars, support platoons with bunker-busting MILAN missiles and machine guns, and armoured vehicles would support the attack, which was planned in four phases. Companies would start their attacks from positions north of Wireless and, after reaching first objectives, turn eastwards and continue attacking from the west over the ridge. Preparatory fire pounded Argentine positions as paratroopers started crossing start lines just after 2100 hrs on 13 June. One account indicates that the artillery fired so much ammunition during the paratroopers’ attack that helicopters fitted with night vision devices had to keep ammunition flowing between forward supply points and gun lines; and that, as the fight progressed to the top of the ridge, the tanks of the Blues and Royals had to go back to rear supply points themselves to replenish the large quantities of ammunition they had expended. The barrage of fire demoralized Argentine defenders. Soon they were abandoning positions in an attempt to survive, often leaving their equipment in place. Although companies faced some resistance, the combination of heavy supporting fire and an aggressive ground attack soon overcame Argentine defences. As paratroopers succeeded in closing ranks, the remaining defenders broke and ran. When the fighting ended, 2 Para had suffered three killed and eleven wounded. Estimates of Argentine casualties were 25 killed and 125 wounded, the vast majority by the effective supporting fire.

The last shots of the war would come on Sapper Hill. With Tumbledown and William now secure, Wilson ordered Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Rickett, the commander of 1 Welsh Guards, to attack and secure that piece of ground. Two companies from 40 Commando reinforced Rickett’s battalion. Helicopters moved them to two different landing zones in the vicinity of Sapper Hill. Those landing at the first found themselves on a tract of land surrounded by minefields. Helicopters erroneously landed others too far to the east in full view of the few Argentine defenders still on the hill. Three Argentines were killed in a brief firefight. The rest quickly abandoned their positions and fled toward Stanley. The Welsh Guards and commandos had secured Sapper Hill despite the errant landings. The fighting was over.

By daylight, British units started to see Argentines retreating in disarray throughout the battlefields. Their attacks clearly had succeeded in overthrowing defences and creating near panic in Argentine ranks, despite the heroic resistance of some. Although some British artillery batteries were now down to just a few rounds, they would not need to hurry to re-stock gun lines. Those who could view the ground stretching from surrounding hilltops to Stanley realized that the fighting was over. Before long, hundreds of Argentine soldiers were dropping their weapons, discarding other equipment and fleeing towards the capital.

For the inhabitants of Stanley, it had been a terrifying four days. Most had fled for safety to makeshift bunkers in basements, crawl spaces, under porches or in other protected areas. Although they knew the battle for the mountains was underway, they had no idea how it was going. Argentine 155mm artillery rattled their houses as it fired large shells toward the mountains at the advancing British. The sounds of battle had become deafening. The mountains, quite visible from many places in Stanley on clear days, now were obscured by smoke and dust from the constant shelling by the opposing forces. Argentines had taken up positions in and around houses and buildings as well as on rooftops in Stanley. British Harriers had become a common sight for residents as pilots flew nearly nonstop trying to destroy or soften up Argentine positions. Naval gunfire had been pounding areas around the town to eliminate other key defences. Unfortunately, errant British shells also struck some houses in the town, killing three residents.

It had not been easy for either the military or the people of Stanley. For the British Task Force, the two months since they had departed the United Kingdom had been especially difficult. Hundreds on both sides had lost their lives or been wounded. Still more wounded waited on mountain slopes to be treated and evacuated. Now, as victors, the British were about to transition to one of the most difficult phases in war – when fighting men have to work to implement a disciplined peace in a community ravaged by war. They had the advantage of knowing that the citizens of Stanley would welcome their arrival; but those same citizens also needed their help, as did thousands of defeated and dejected Argentines. The transition and ultimate return to normalcy in Stanley would bring additional challenges and concerns for the war-weary British and, in particular, for the men of logistics and support units.

The Great Game in the Persian Gulf I

In the nineteenth century, the relative decline of the Persian Safavid Empire compared with the ascendancy of the West, the eclipse of Central Asian trade by maritime commerce, and the existence of small neighboring powers presented British strategists with a dilemma: how to protect Britain’s largest and most valuable possession, India, against landward threats when its primary arm for defense was the Royal Navy. It was relatively easy to secure maritime trade at sea and to deter attacks on its colonies with a large fleet, but there were greater challenges to Britain’s efforts to eradicate slavery and piracy in the Persian Gulf, to act in support of amphibious expeditionary warfare against Persia, or to deter the great powers from applying pressure on the British Empire, because there was always the risk that Britain could be drawn into costly occupations or unnecessary conflicts, or forced to fight in the interior of Asia where its naval power could not be brought to bear.

Britain’s preference was to project influence by other means—through diplomacy, consulates, financial services, infrastructural communications (railways, roads, and telegraph), and commercial concessions. However, specific crises sometimes forced Britain to demonstrate its power to Persia and Arab states, and to rival great powers like France, Russia, and Germany. There were amphibious operations against Persia in 1856–57, and there was a show of force in the Persian Gulf in 1903. In short, the methods of maintaining British interests were furthered by four approaches. First was diplomacy, using a system of residencies and consulates with allies amongst the local elites, supported by an intelligence network. This was augmented by agreements or the settlement of differences with other European powers and, in the case of Persia, with a specific Anglo-Russian convention. Second, there were spheres of influence, often through building relationships with local elites, financial services, building infrastructure, and military training teams. The contest for local support and the intrigue of the chief rival, Russia, was subsequently referred to as “The Great Game.” Third, buffer states were also required and Persia became the outwork in the landward defenses of India. The Ottoman Empire also served this function throughout the nineteenth century, acting as a bulwark to Russian annexations. Local rulers, including the shah of Persia and the amir of Afghanistan, were granted direct financial reward or military aid. Fourth, periodic military and naval interventions were used, such as the operations against piracy in the Gulf and against Persia in the mid-nineteenth century, and these became, in the twentieth century, periods of military occupation (as in post-1914 Iraq, and the Gulf states).

All these were cemented by the notion of prestige, which was important in diplomacy but also acted as a means of deterrence. It was an idea that had to be reinforced constantly: Britain had to assert its power and demonstrate that it was both capable and willing to exercise force. In the second half of the nineteenth century, British policy toward Persia had sometimes lacked consistency as strategic considerations in Europe and India came first. However, despite growing pressure from Russian intrigue and commercial rivalry, by the beginning of the twentieth century Britain had reasserted its exclusive control of the Persian Gulf, ringed the region with compliant or allied states, and rationalized its relationship with Persia.

“The Great Game”: Persia and the Russian Threat in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The Russian threat to British India was the driving force behind the competitive intrigues known as the “Great Game” or the “Tournament of Shadows,” but even though an actual invasion of India was favored by only a handful of Russian officers and political figures in the Asiatic section of the Russian foreign ministry, both sides played the game earnestly enough. As far as many British statesmen and soldiers were concerned, each of the states on the periphery of India had to be considered part of the defense scheme—and that included Persia and Afghanistan. Today, it is generally thought that Russia was carrying out maskirovka: applying pressure in one strategic location to effect change elsewhere. The Russian newspaper Golos summed it up at the time: “The Indian Question is a simple one: Russia does not think of conquering India, but reserves to herself the power of restraining outbreaks of Russophobism among British statesmen, by possible diversions on the side of India.” In particular Russian sensitivities about the Black Sea and the Straits of Constantinople, worsened by their experiences in the Crimean War (1854–56), meant they needed to challenge the British somewhere, and the absence of a comparable fleet meant that they had to take advantage of a continental front: Persia, Afghanistan, and the Indian border provided that opportunity.

For the British, two locations stood out as particularly important—Persia’s northern Khorasan province and Herat, the westernmost city of Afghanistan. Herat had once been part of the Persian Empire, and in 1836 the shah tried to reassert his control of the city by force. To British alarm, Russian troops accompanied his army. When a Persian attempt was made to storm the city in June 1837, the British broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran. George Eden, the Earl of Auckland and the British governor general in India (1836–42), then ordered two steamers with troops to land at Karrack (Kharg) Island in the headwaters of the Gulf, which the Persians interpreted as a full-scale invasion. Consequently, an ultimatum delivered by Britain was accepted and the siege of Herat was abandoned. Nevertheless, the British were so concerned by this Russian-inspired intrigue, they moved to invade Afghanistan, precipitating the First Afghan War (1838–42).

The historian Garry Alder believed that the British obsession with Herat as the “Key to India” was wholly misguided. British officers at Tehran had argued that if Herat fell to a hostile Persia, Russia, its “ally,” would have secured for itself a base within Afghanistan from which to harass the Indian border. Dost Mohammed, the Afghan ruler in Kabul, remarked: “If the Persians once take Herat, all is open to them as far as Balkh, and neither Kandahar nor Kabul is secure.” The city was variously styled the “Gate of India” and the “Garden and Granary of Central Asia,” and even those who did not think it was likely to open up Afghanistan to occupation believed it would provide a means for Russia to dominate Persia. The debate about the city’s value continued throughout the nineteenth century, but one viceroy of India, Lord Charles Canning, reflecting on the fact that any Russian attack would have to cross five hundred miles of barren terrain inhabited by hostile Afghans, mused: “If Herat be the key to India, that is, if a power once in possession of it can command an entrance into India, our tenure of this great empire is indeed a feeble one.” He summed up the solution to the problem succinctly: “The country of Afghanistan rather than the fort of Herat is our first defense.”

Nevertheless, those who saw Herat as the vulnerable bastion on India’s glacis regarded every Russian advance across Central Asia and every annexation that followed as evidence of the growing magnitude of the czarist threat. The contemporary British liberal press took a more charitable view, and suggested that the destruction of the uncivilized khanates and the steady advance of Christian Russia would, eventually, ensure greater stability. However, the historian Edward Ingram has argued that Edward Law, the first Earl of Ellenborough and the governor general of India (1842–44) who advocated a proactive policy in Persia and Afghanistan, showed “the truer perception of the needs of a continental state,” which Britain now was through its possession of India. Ellenborough was especially worried about the complacency of the government in London as it was far removed from the concerns of Central Asia and the Indian frontier. The British government believed that naval power was sufficient to protect its imperial possessions, since, apart from India and Canada, the British Empire was still no more than an assemblage of littorals and had at its disposal a vast fleet. However, there was growing concern in many quarters about Russia’s grasping policy and her broader ambitions with regard to Asia. Ellenborough felt that, although Russia was still too distant to be an immediate threat, it was vital to seize advantages while there was still time.

The problem of the instability in buffer states was highlighted by a new period of unrest in Persia that flared up after the death of the shah in 1848. The new shah, Nasr-ud-din, took two years to crush the revolt in Mashhad and had to contend with three revolts by the movement known as the Babis. In 1852, the Babis came close to success in their attempt to assassinate the shah, and the regime reacted with savage reprisals. As predicted, the instability offered an opportunity for Russia to extend its influence in Tehran still further. It was against this background that the Herati ruler, Sa’id Mohammad, permitted Persian troops to enter Herat to crush discontent there. Fearing Russia was behind the move, the British protested to the shah. As a result a convention was negotiated in January 1853 where Persia agreed not to send troops into Herat unless it was invaded by a foreign enemy, clearly intending this to mean Russia. No permanent occupation was to be tolerated, and Persia was not to intrigue within the city. For its part, Britain pledged to keep foreign interests out. The convention was never ratified by the British government, largely because the British had clearly set out their wishes by the diplomatic exercise and the Persians were under no illusion about these intentions.

Yet within two years, Britain and Russia were at war in the Baltic and Crimea, and Herat would once again take on a new significance. At the outbreak of the conflict, Britain had insisted the shah remain neutral. However, soon after, the British Foreign Office representative took offence at an alleged slight at the Persian court and withdrew his negotiating party. This actually deprived Britain of a presence at a crucial moment in the diplomatic contest. In the absence of firsthand information, rumors grew that the shah would conclude a treaty with the Russians in order to regain lost possessions in the Caucasus, or perhaps elsewhere. As a precaution, Britain dispatched a warship to the Persian Gulf to send a clear warning. However, it was not the Caucasus that was the target of the shah’s ambitions, it was Herat, and plans to take the city were already well advanced. In Herat itself in September 1855 events played into the shah’s hands. Mohammad Yousaf, a member of the former Afghan royal family, led a revolt, killed the governor, and seized power. Meanwhile, Dost Mohammad of Kabul had launched an attack of his own on Kandahar as a first step in consolidating his rule in Afghanistan, and was thus in no position to resist any Persian attack.

The shah intended to exploit this unrest in Afghanistan, and immediately advanced on Herat. The city fell to the Persians on 25 October 1856. In London there was considerable anxiety that the Russians would open a consulate in Herat prior to the development of espionage aimed at the subversion of Afghanistan, Persia, and perhaps India. The idea of sending a British-Indian column across Afghanistan was rejected because of the recent memory of the difficulties of the First Afghan War and the possibility that this would simply offer an opportunity for the Russians to fight on Persia’s behalf. Instead, the British would make use of their naval strength and make an amphibious expedition to Bushire in the Persian Gulf. When their ultimatum to Tehran was rejected, the British declared war on 1 November 1856.

The Anglo-Persian War of 1856–1857

This short war was an amphibious operation with limited objectives. The Royal Navy first took Karrack Island as a forward operating base and a landing was made in Hallila Bay, twelve miles south of Bushire, on 7 December 1856. It took two days to assemble all the troops, horses, guns, and stores, but from then on rapid progress was made and the land force, led by Major General Foster Stalker, reached the old Dutch fort at Reshire soon after. There, the Persians were entrenched but this provided scant protection from British naval guns. Stalker’s force stormed the fort and local Dashti and Tungastani tribal irregulars were quickly overwhelmed.

At Bushire two hours of naval bombardment compelled the Persians to capitulate. The captured town was placed under martial law. The British declared that the traffic in slaves was to cease immediately, and all black captive men, women, and children were released. Coal stocks were brought in, while grain and cattle were procured from the region. However, while possession of the port was relatively easy, penetration of the interior would be more difficult. Moreover, the shah felt that the loss of Bushire, on the very periphery of his empire, was a manageable problem. Diverting forces from the south and central regions, he began to concentrate an army that could eject the British expeditionary force.

British reinforcements arrived at Bushire on 27 January 1857 under General Sir James Outram. He quickly organized his force into two divisions, one led by General Stalker, the other by Sir Henry Havelock, a veteran of the Afghan and Sikh Wars. He also sent a reconnaissance to Mohammerah where reports had been received that the Persians were fortifying themselves. However, his scouts discovered a large Persian army assembling at Burazjoon, forty-six miles inland from Bushire. To seize the initiative, Outram decided to take the war to the enemy, and make a bold offensive thrust against the Burazjoon force. Taking the Persians by surprise, the British destroyed stores and ammunition that had been concentrated there, and when the Persian general, Shujah ul-Mulk, tried to harass the British withdrawal at the village of Khoos-ab, the Persians were overmatched by the firepower and determination of the British force. The Persian formation collapsed leaving seven hundred dead, while the British had lost sixteen men. Outram’s army slogged back through deteriorating weather to Bushire, completing the battle and a march of forty-four miles in just fifty hours.

The Persians were not yet ready to seek terms. At Mohammerah, they had constructed strong field fortifications. Earth had been packed into walls some twenty feet high and eighteen feet deep, upon which were mounted artillery. The arcs of these guns were designed to cover not just the landward approaches but also the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab. The garrison, 13,000 strong with thirty guns, was commanded by Prince Khauler Mirza, and he was confident of being able to check the British. Outram decided on an amphibious attack. He packed 4,886 men into steamers and transports with fighting sloops in a fire-support role, and after a three-hour bombardment, the Persian bastions had been silenced. Landings were made and the infantry began systematically working through date groves, but the Persians retreated in disorder, leaving seventeen guns and most of their camp equipment behind. Outram kept up the pressure, sending a flotilla of three steamers, each with one hundred infantrymen on board, upriver in pursuit. Near Ahwaz, they encountered about seven thousand Persian troops, but Captain James Rennie, the British naval commander, decided to put his three hundred men ashore, deploying them to give the impression they were far more numerous. His ships’ guns were ranged against the Persian position and, as his small land force advanced toward Ahwaz, the Persian formation broke up, bringing all resistance to an end.

Peace was restored by the Treaty of Paris on 4 March 1857 and Persia agreed to withdraw all its forces and its territorial claims from Afghanistan. Britain got effective control of Persian foreign policy and agreed to withdraw its occupying troops. From the British perspective, the short campaign had been a great success. For a small cost, the British had used their naval guns to project their power against a littoral state, made amphibious landings, and destroyed the resistance of far greater numbers of entrenched forces. Perhaps more importantly, it persuaded the Persians that Britain’s wishes had to be taken seriously. Russia, it seemed, had been defeated by Britain in the Crimea, and Persia too had suffered reverses. With its prestige enhanced, Britain had no difficulty in persuading the Persians to accept a telegraph line across the country in 1862, linking India and London. In 1873, the British invited the shah to visit England, and there can be little doubt that this too was an attempt to remind him of British power. However, the shah maintained links with Russia to counterbalance British influence, while being careful not to make an alignment obvious either way. For their part, the British established a listening post at their consulate in Mashhad in 1874 to collect intelligence on Russian movements in Central Asia.

Persia in British Policy, 1877–1907

In the 1870s, Russia appeared to be advancing everywhere. It had taken territory from China in East Asia, seized khanates in Central Asia, captured the great Uzbek city of Khiva in 1873, and on 19 May 1877 a Russian force seized the village of Kizil Arvat on the Persian border, in modern day Turkmenistan. British concerns were highlighted when Ronald Thomson, the British chargé d’affaires in Tehran, obtained a report that detailed Russian plans for Persia and Afghanistan. The document was drawn up by Dmitri Miliutin, the Russian war minister, and it began with a condemnation of Britain, the “Despot of the Seas,” and called for an “advance towards the enemy” that would show “the patience of Russia is exhausted,” and “that she is ready to retaliate and to stretch her hand towards India.”

In July 1877, as the Russians fought the Ottomans in the Balkans, the British cabinet decided that any Russian attack on Constantinople would constitute a casus belli. When the Russians broke through and reached the outskirts of the city, the Royal Navy moved to within striking distance. As anticipated, the Russians prepared for war in the Southwest Asian theater. Miliutin aimed to keep Persia neutral, in case the British retaliated and contemplated an attack through Persia into the Caucasus, but he ordered that the Russian army should prepare a force of 20,000 men to move to the Afghan border. British intelligence sources suggested that the Russians were about to seize the Akhal Oasis on the Persian border, perhaps prior to a move on Herat. Eager to augment their salaries, Persian officials were actually preparing to support with supplies a Russian advance through Trans-Caspia, the region to the east of the Caspian Sea that approximately coincides with present-day Turkmenistan. Thomson urged the Persian government to stop the Russians, and, despite some protests, they agreed to lodge a complaint. Britain’s willingness to fight and Russia’s diplomatic isolation in Europe persuaded St. Petersburg not to make further advances in either the Balkans or Central Asia. However, the viceroy of India, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl of Lytton, was anxious about the vulnerability of Afghanistan and launched the Second Afghan War (1878–81) to control the buffer zone more firmly.

This British military action was noted in Tehran. In early 1879, the shah requested an alliance in return for British military support against Russia, but, eager to avoid long-term commitments, Britain refused, instead demanding that as a “friendly power” Persia should not offer any assistance to the czar’s forces or help them to annex territory en route to the Afghan border. The Persians, disappointed that the British would not commit themselves to defend Tehran as they had Constantinople, took the view that cooperation with Russia was still the only guarantee of survival. The British cabinet considered that, in the interests of India’s security, Herat might, in fact, be given to Persia. When this proposal was made to the shah, he was also informed that Britain would insist on closer military and commercial ties after all, but they would also demand that the Persians assert their historic claims to the Central Asian city of Merv against the Russians, who seemed poised to annex it. However, just at the moment when the shah approved, a Liberal government came to power in Britain and withdrew the alliance proposal.

This hasty change of British policy had been the result of a lack of useful intelligence on Russia and its true intentions toward India, Afghanistan, and Persia. The need for a screen of agents or consuls across Persia and Afghanistan to assess actual Russian capabilities was obvious. General Sir Archibald Alison, the quartermaster general of the Intelligence Division in London, noted: “Early and reliable information with regard to Russian or other military movements near the Northern Border of Persia therefore appears to be the most important, and this information can only be satisfactorily obtained on the spot.” He argued that the monitoring of Russian troop movements was the surest way to gauge Russian plans in Central Asia. The Intelligence Division recommended a permanent consulate at Astarabad, near the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, as well as the one at Mashhad: “If we were kept accurately informed about the state of affairs in those regions the government would be at once able to dispel the discreditable state of alarm into which this country is periodically thrown. . . . If knowledge is power, ignorance is weakness, and this weakness we constantly show by the undignified fear displayed at every report or threat of Russian movements.” The Liberal government at home was unmoved and informed the government of India that, in their view, the movements of Russia in Central Asia simply did not merit anxiety about an invasion of India.

The Great Game in the Persian Gulf II

The fear of czarist advances toward India and Persia was soon revived. In January 1881 the last stronghold of the Central Asian Turcomen was annexed by Russia. By 1885 agents working for the British, operating out of Mashhad, were able to report that the Russians had augmented their strength in Turkestan (today’s Central Asia) to a total of 50,000 men and 145 guns. An intelligence assessment showed that a Russian attack on Herat with this strength would successfully tie up the entire Indian army, leaving only the Royal Navy and about 36,000 troops in the United Kingdom as a counteroffensive force. As a solution to the dilemma, Captain James Wolfe Murray, an intelligence officer, examined the possibilities of a British attack through the Caucasus via Persia or Turkey to save India. An offensive here, providing Turkish or Persian cooperation could be secured, would sever the Russian lines of communication to Trans-Caspia and force the czar’s troops to make the far more difficult journey from Orenburg to Turkestan. However, he concluded that secrecy was almost impossible to maintain in the region. This would mean “it would be almost useless to undertake the operations without having a force most fully equipped for an immediate advance upon landing [in the Persian Gulf].” To achieve surprise, he considered the transmission of false telegraph messages that might tie up Russian forces for some time. Others felt there ought to be a permanent British presence in Persia with a more extensive espionage screen of local agents.

The British consulate at Mashhad was clearly designed to resist Russian covert operations and diplomatic intrigue in the Persian province of Khorasan. Although the first efforts exposed the inexperience of the personnel, the aim was to deny the growth of Russian influence, to counter Russian propaganda, and, if necessary, to spread disinformation in northern Persia. The consulate had a responsibility for a long frontier some five hundred miles in length, but Mashhad was selected because it lay close to the Russian lines of communication between Krasnovodsk and the rest of Trans-Caspia.

Throughout the 1880s there were frequent border incidents that kept the intelligence agents on the frontiers busy and the politicians in the capitals anxious for news. The British Foreign Office believed that building railways might offer the chance for Persia to develop and be less susceptible to the commercial temptations or political pressure offered by Russia. A railway link down to the Persian Gulf would, it was reasoned, tie Persia more closely to the maritime trade of Britain and India. The head of the Intelligence Branch at Simla, the summer capital of British India, Colonel Mark Sever Bell, concurred enthusiastically with this assessment. He went to visit Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the minister at Tehran, and suggested that a line might link Quetta, the forward base of the Indian army, with Seistan in Persia. Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, was nevertheless lukewarm, and after further inquiries the Foreign Office realized that the volume of Russian trade and the development of Russian roads and railways in Persia had been exaggerated, and that the costs for the British would not merit the project. The Intelligence Division in London believed that any British-backed railway in Persia would provoke the Russians into actually building a rival line toward northern Afghanistan. But Drummond Wolff continued to take the view that the Russian railway project was inevitable. Moreover, when built, he argued, it would raise the prestige of Russia in the eyes of the Persians. Only the construction of a British railway, partly funded by Baron Reuters, offered the opportunity of a strategic balance of power.

The December 1888 edition of the Indian Intelligence Branch report noted that Russian agents were “active in Persia.” Major General Sir Henry Brackenbury, the director of Military Intelligence in London, thought this alarmist, but the Russians were indeed pressing the shah for an answer on their railway schemes and Wolff was anxious that Britain was losing its influence over northern Persia, perhaps even the whole country. The Intelligence Division, in fact, believed Persia was already a lost cause. Brackenbury didn’t think “the advance of a single line of railway to a remote corner of Persia would make our influence in that country equal to that of Russia,” which virtually “controlled” Persia anyway. Britain fell back on the idea of developing Baluchistan as a base of operations while winning over the local tribesmen there. Salisbury urged Wolff to block the Russian railway schemes and ensure that any concessions to the Russians in the north were balanced by concessions to the British south of Tehran. In the end, Evgenii Karlovich Butzow, a new Russian minister to Persia, concluded an agreement with the Persians and the British to ban all railway development for ten years, much to everyone’s relief. Sir Edward Morier, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, revealed that the Russians had been just as fearful of a British railway into the heart of Persia, and concluded, with some feeling: “We are quit of the question.”

The continued decay of Persian central authority fuelled the rivalry between British and Russian officials. When, in 1898, Tehran decided to sell off customs revenue to raise capital for the near-bankrupt Persian government, it provided an opening for foreign interference. Joseph Rabino, the manager of the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia, pointed out that a proposed road from the Persian Gulf to Tehran had been abandoned as the £80,000 allocated from British sources had been insufficient. By contrast, Russia had spent £250,000 on a road from the Caspian Sea town of Resht to Tehran. General Vladimir Kosogovsky, commander of the Russian-officered Persian Cossack Brigade, claimed that the British were “predatory” when it came to obtaining concessions from the shah, while his own side was “inactive.” However, the Commercial Bank of St. Petersburg was eager to loan money to Persia in return for control of all Persia’s customs revenues to manage debt repayments. This would mean, in effect, the whole country, including southern Persia, would fall under Russian influence. Henry Mortimer Durand, the British foreign minister of the government of India, tried to block it, and suggested a joint Anglo-Russian loan. The Russians rejected the idea and continued to penetrate Persia commercially: mine concessions were obtained, and port taxes at Enzeli on the Caspian were payable to the Russian government.

There was considerable resentment in Persia of British commercial power and the Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf In 1888, the Karun River, a tributary to the Shatt al-Arab, was opened to international navigation, largely to Britain’s advantage, and in 1891 a tobacco concession was granted to a British company. However, the latter events proved to be the trigger for nationalistic anti-British rioting. In this environment, and promoting their loan offers aggressively, the Russians put forward monopolistic terms that included the total exclusion of the British in any national fiscal arrangements. The Iranian historian Firuz Kazemzadeh noted that the British saw loans in a commercial sense (asking themselves whether the Persians could repay any amount), but the Russians subordinated economic interests to political ones: they simply intended to gain a monopoly of influence over Persia. As far as commerce was concerned, that could be developed after they had secured control.

In January 1900, when a large part of the British army was committed to the war in South Africa, Count Mikhail Nicholayevich Muraviev, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, urged the czar to authorize a more determined effort to penetrate Persia economically and to block British influence there. Above all, he wanted to push Russian influence farther south in the future. Consequently, he did everything he could to encourage Russian commerce in the region, including the development of trans-Caspian shipping, and postal and telegraphic links. Others at the Russian court advised caution and stressed the far greater importance of reaching the Bosphorus rather than the Persian Gulf. The final decision rested with the czar, who, according to General Aleksei Nicholayevich Kuropatkin, “had grandiose plans in his head: to take Manchuria for Russia, to move toward the annexation of Korea to Russia. He dreams of taking under his orb Tibet too. He wants to take Persia, to seize not only the Bosphorus but the Dardanelles as well.” Yet pragmatism prevailed in St. Petersburg and there was, in the end, no dash for the Persian Gulf.

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, the viceroy of India (1899–1905), was deeply alarmed by Russian intrigues and demands to open diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, which suggested a desire to interfere in India. He believed that Persia was in such a state of decay that it could not be revived, and that it was particularly vulnerable to Russian imperialism. As a solution, he proposed the country should be considered as a set of zones with consulates in every quarter, high-profile visits to the Gulf by the Royal Navy, and urgent improvements to the telegraph system so as to provide early warning of a Russian coup de main. Ever critical of the snail’s pace of British officialdom, he was soon frustrated by the British government’s focus on the South African War. His memorandum on Persia and the Gulf got little reaction from London and his reminders in 1901 were ignored. Curzon privately warned: “One day the crash will come, and then my despatches will be published and in my grave I shall be justified. Not that I care for that. But I long to see prescience, some width of view, some ability to forecast the evil of tomorrow, instead of bungling over the evil of today.”

Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, wrote to Curzon that any schemes for Persia could not be put into effect because of their cost. He stated: “We must cut our coat according to our cloth. It is obvious that our fighting power in the Persian Gulf must be confined to the sea coast. In the rest of Persia we could only fight at the cost of efforts which would swallow up twice or thrice as much income tax as the Transvaal.” Reminders were sent to the Persians that customs in southern ports must not be handed over to any foreign power, but Curzon grew more belligerent. He advocated reciprocal moves to any aggression, including the landing of troops along the southern coast if the Russians seized the northern provinces. By the early 1900s, the Russians also began to believe that the disintegration of Persia into satellite zones was the best policy, avoiding any firm boundary that might give the British reason to block future development or expansion in the region. It appeared to Curzon that Persia could no longer serve as an effective buffer state, and it seemed to be on the brink of a colonial partition.

Curzon had therefore looked to increase British connections with the rulers of the Gulf principalities and authorized the British Resident in Bushire to conclude a secret alliance with the sheikh of Kuwait in 1899. This move seemed all the more important when the Russian cruiser Askold made a high-profile visit to the Persian Gulf in 1902, a move that had greatly impressed the local populations. With a deliberate exaggeration designed to shame the British government into action, Curzon asked:

Are we prepared to surrender control of the Persian Gulf and divide that of the Indian Ocean? Are we prepared to make the construction of the Euphrates Valley Railroad or some kindred scheme an impossibility for England and an ultimate certainty for Russia? Is Baghdad to become a new Russian capital in the south? Lastly, are we content to see a naval squadron battering Bombay?

Curzon had argued that Russia intended to take all of Persia and therefore any agreement with the czarist regime to limit their expansion would, ultimately, fail. Curzon was confident, however, that if a consistent line was taken by the British government, any Russian schemes could be thwarted. If the Russians ever managed to reach the Gulf they could not actually threaten India and the trade routes unless they established a naval base in the Persian Gulf, and this could only happen, he posited, if the British government showed inadequate resolve. He urged that the British should grant a loan to the Persian shah similar to that of Russia, but felt that Persia might have to be coerced into greater compliance. The conclusion of the South African War in 1902 and Curzon’s promptings eventually paid off. The Askold visit finally persuaded the Foreign Office that Russia may indeed have intended to establish a naval base in the Gulf. In a House of Lords speech in the summer of 1903, Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary, warned Russia that any attempt to establish such a base would be “resisted with all means at [Britain’s] disposal.” The same year, the British loan to Persia was made available, and the British government acquiesced to Curzon’s demand for a high-profile tour of the Persian Gulf, but, anxious about Curzon’s intentions, they warned that no commitments were to be made.

Curzon’s Persian Gulf tour was a success. His party on board the SS Hardinge was accompanied by four British warships and was clearly designed to demonstrate Britain’s naval supremacy in the region. Curzon also hoped to get a clearer picture of the strategic possibilities the Persian Gulf might offer. At Muscat the British Resident had prepared the ground, and Curzon got an enthusiastic reception, complete with an artillery salute. Although an 1891 treaty had established Muscat as an independent partner with Britain, the sultan of Muscat made references to Britain’s new paramountcy in the region, and his own intention to uphold it. The second stop was to convene a durbar, a ceremonial gathering under the British Raj, at Sharjah for the Trucial Coast sheikhs. After awarding them swords, rifles, and gold watches, Curzon reminded his guests that Britain had brought the local violence to an end, ensured their independence, and expected that British supremacy would be maintained. The tour then continued to Bushire, Bahrain, and finally to Kuwait. The Kuwaitis had no port facilities or wheeled transport, so Curzon’s party had to land on a beach and bring its own carriage, but the reception was probably the most exuberant of all the states, with a guard of honor firing joyously into the air. The sheikh himself presented Curzon with a sword of honor, professed his admiration for Britain, and stated that he considered himself part of the military system of the British Empire. The British government was somewhat embarrassed by the exuberance of the Arabs at Curzon’s receptions, but the visit had been an undeniable success: local rulers felt that British power was manifest, not least in the form of welcome prosperity and the protection of the ships of the British fleet. Moreover, Russia believed that Lansdowne’s declaration in the House of Lords was not empty rhetoric, and the Royal Navy had gained valuable information about the hydrography of the Persian Gulf waters in preparation for future operations there.

The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907

The defeat of the czar’s armies and fleets in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and the subsequent revolution in Russia in 1905 marked a turning point in Anglo-Russian relations. The external defeat of its land and naval forces combined with widespread internal unrest graphically demonstrated Russia’s weaknesses. Financially too, it was evident that Russia lagged far behind the Western powers, and, despite its size, it lacked the industrial capacity of Britain and Germany. The logic of Britain’s Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 was now, as Lansdowne had predicted, to settle their differences with France’s ally Russia. Just two years later, on 31 August 1907, the British government concluded the Anglo-Russian Convention.

The terms of the convention provided for two spheres of influence in Persia, the north to Russia and the south to Britain with a neutral strip between. The Persian regime, now seen as decrepit and on the verge of collapse, was not consulted about the arrangement. Farther east, both countries guaranteed the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and Tibet, and Russia also obtained Britain’s approval for the eventual Russian occupation of the Bosphorus, provided other leading powers agreed.

Russia’s sincerity in the convention of 1907 may not have been questioned in London, but in India the old suspicions remained, and with good reason. Russian intrigues in Persia did not abate. The Russians seemed just as active in trying to extend their influence throughout the country, with the effect that the Persian state was destabilized further as rival factions sought foreign backing. However, it was the arrival of German consuls in the region and their blatant attempts to win over the Muslim world to further their own territorial ambitions that tended to draw the British and Russians into some semblance of cooperation.

What alarmed the British the most was Germany’s rapid naval building program, which seemed deliberately designed to threaten the British Empire. In Persia and the Ottoman Empire, German agents were sent on thinly disguised “archaeological expeditions” to gather intelligence and visit the oil fields, and a number of German banks and businesses appeared offering low rates of interest to undercut the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia. The much-vaunted idea of a railway from Berlin to Baghdad also raised the possibility that commerce would be drawn away from the coasts, on which Britain depended, to the interior, where the continental powers like Germany and Russia would be favored. Such a railway might also provide a strategic route for the deployment of German troops deep within the Middle East, or even the establishment of a Gulf port.

The government in London now seemed reluctant to do anything similar lest it jeopardize the Anglo-Russian Convention. The government of India therefore sent Major Percy Cox, an officer in the Indian army and in the political service and former Resident of Muscat, to southern Persia to monitor German intrigue and to befriend the local Persian elites by extending the informal networks that already existed. It was to prove a prescient decision, as Cox, schooled in the art of the Great Game, would go on to thwart German espionage in the Gulf during World War I and assist in the establishment of the modern state of Iraq.

For the British, prestige and informal controls or influences could reduce the need for physical and costly occupations, although the policy came with risks. Given the impossibility of occupying every littoral of the British Empire, or extending security zones for its possessions deep into the interior of Asia, the British “soft power” policy was the pragmatic and cost-effective solution. British interests in the region were essentially the promotion and protection of trade, the security of India, and the exclusion of rivals from the Persian Gulf. Britain had the advantage of “force multipliers,” namely local agents, the personnel of the Indian army (who provided all the local security for Britain’s residencies, consulates, and commerce), and the ships of the Indian navy. Britain also had the strategic advantage in the nineteenth century that its enemies had no comparable fleets, which gave it considerable power and reach.

However, Britain nonetheless faced a number of challenges. There were asymmetrical problems that were difficult to resolve, particularly intrigue by Russia, unstable buffer states, and unreliable allies. There were also broader strategic weaknesses to confront. The British government had to take a global strategic view, and regarded the Persian Gulf as relatively unimportant compared with the Mediterranean or the Channel, but the government of India saw things differently, and regarded the Persian Gulf and Persia itself as important elements in the security of the subcontinent, and this conflict meant that policies with regard to Persia appeared to be inconsistent. The fact was that the British Empire was not as strong in land forces and simply could not afford to occupy Persia or the Arab littoral sheikhdoms. The consistent aspect of British policy was that it needed Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan as bulwarks for its security, but the challenge was that they were weak and Britain found itself trying to shore up failing states. A settlement of differences with Russia alleviated the pressure in 1907, but this fundamental dilemma was never quite resolved.

The British in the Gulf

This 1704 picture show Dutch and English ships at anchor outside of the port of Bandar Abbas. You can also clearly see the Dutch and English factories (which are trading forts and warehouses to all intents and purposes) side by side ashore. The English East India Company had been granted trading rights since 1619. The English actually referred to the port as Gombroon.

The Portuguese experience in the sixteenth century demonstrates the importance of maritime power in securing paramountcy in the Gulf. Apart from Portugal the only other modern state that succeeded in imposing “hegemony upon the waters” was another maritime nation, Great Britain. Whereas Portuguese domination in the Gulf was part of a grand plan to capture the trade of the Indies by seizing its traditional outlets, British control of the Gulf was achieved “in a more haphazard fashion.” As J. B. Kelly pointed out over forty years ago now, in his study Britain and the Persian Gulf:

Whereas the Portuguese came to the Gulf as soldiers and conquerors, to impose their will upon the Gulf states, the English came initially as merchant adventurers, seeking trade and fortune. Two centuries were to elapse before the attainment of territorial dominion in India compelled them to obtain and hold command of the Gulf. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century their position there was unassailable, and from that time forward the guardianship of the Gulf rested in British hands.

First, how did the British establish their guardianship of the Gulf, what did it comprise, and how did it work? Second, what were the challenges to it? And third, how did it end? But there is a fourth question that must be addressed as well: Why is the British experience, like the Portuguese before it, still relevant to our task of understanding the dynamics of security in the Gulf? It is the main contention of this article that by studying the example of Britain in the Gulf, we begin to understand how a hegemonic power has operated there in the past, and how the demise of its power, like the Portuguese, creates an anarchy that the major littoral states avail themselves of in their contest for primacy over the Gulf. It is no accident of history, that Britain’s departure from the Gulf in 1971, in particular the manner of her going, resulted in a power vacuum that the larger littoral states tried and failed to fill. Since 1971 we have seen three major wars and the downfall of two regimes, the tottering of others, and the reassertion of authority by outside powers, and especially by the United States. The genie of insecurity is out of the bottle in the Gulf. Can it be put back or is that an impossible task? What does the British experience tell us?

There is a symmetry between the British exit from and entrance to the Gulf, and this lies in the mercenary spirit. The English East India Company (EIC) established trading factories at Shiraz, Isfahan, and Jask in the second decade of the seventeenth century in order to foster trade with Persia. It was ships of the EIC that took Shah Abbas I’s army from the mainland to the Portuguese citadel on Hormuz Island in 1622. It was those same ships that engaged and defeated the Portuguese fleet and then blockaded the island. The eventual fall of Hormuz gave the English what they sought: a factory at Bandar Abbas and lucrative commercial links with Persia. It was the same mercenary spirit that presided over Britain’s retreat from the Gulf in 1971, as we shall see.

For the British, as for the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French, Hormuz, along with Muscat and later Aden, represented the keys to command of the Arabian Sea and control of the maritime trade of Arabia, Persia, and India. It was the British authorities in India that secured all these keys by the nineteenth century. The paramountcy, or Pax Britannica, that Britain eventually established in the Gulf and around the shores of Arabia had its start in the agreement concluded with the Al Bu Said Sultan of Oman in 1798 in response to Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt. It continued in the nineteenth century with the trucial system and the special treaty relationship with Bahrain and the seven sheikhdoms of the Trucial Coast. The trucial system rested on a duty by Britain not only to maintain the maritime peace of the Gulf against outbreaks of piracy and maritime warfare, but also to protect the independence and territorial integrity of the sheikhdoms that had signed the truce. It fitted in with the eastern Arabian tradition of protection-seeking. It was only upon this reciprocal basis that the British managed to conclude the restrictive agreements with the sheikhdoms over the slave trade, the arms trade, foreign relations, and oil concessions. Britain’s duty was made explicit in the case of Bahrain (1861) because the latter’s frontiers were defined by the sea and could be defended by naval power. A similar commitment was made to Qatar over its maritime frontiers in 1916, but not its land frontiers, which were then undetermined. For a similar reason no such commitment was made to the Trucial sheikhdoms. There was the added consideration that it would have transgressed the abiding principle of British Gulf policy not to become involved in the internal affairs of the Arabian Peninsula. There was no doubt, however, that Britain was obliged, by the trucial system and the subsequent agreements, to defend the sheikhdoms against external aggression.

Kuwait was the only sheikhdom whose internationally agreed land frontiers Britain was obliged, under the November 1914 agreement, to defend. Although, as a result of the oil boom, Kuwait achieved independence in 1961, there remained a stipulation in the instrument abrogating the 1899 and 1914 protectorate agreements for Britain to extend a friendly helping hand if necessary. This soon came to pass when the Iraqi dictator, Brigadier Abdul Karim Qassim, made aggressive noises toward Kuwait in 1961 and was only silenced after Britain deployed a joint force to the territory in Operation Vantage, the success of which should have been borne in mind by policy makers in Arabia and the West in 1990.

Challenges to British Guardianship of the Gulf

The ending of the British protectorate over Kuwait in 1961 marked the start of the unravelling of the treaty relationship binding Britain to the minor Gulf states, which culminated in Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971. Moreover the states “system,” which regulated relations between states and had guaranteed law and order in the Gulf for over one hundred years, was swept away and not really replaced by the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. The precarious peace of the Gulf, and the security of shipping transiting its waters, relied on the self-interest of the larger littoral powers, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and their various great-power backers, the Soviet Union and the United States, to keep a tight rein on their rivalry. That they patently failed to do so soon became apparent after 1971.

Iraq. Iraq’s very narrow coastline (a few dozen kilometers) and lack of maritime power has, historically, deprived her of the ability to establish a political supremacy in the Gulf. Even when the Turks, following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, projected naval power into the Gulf and established control over Hasa and a loose suzerainty over Kuwait and Qatar, they did not pose any real threat to the British position in the Gulf. With the British seizure of Iraq from the Turks during World War I, the establishment of the mandate, and the drawing of the new country’s frontiers by the British, the Iraqis had little opportunity to intervene in the Gulf. It was Britain again who thwarted the attempts in the late 1930s and in 1961 by a now independent Iraq to press its claim to Kuwait. That successive Iraqi regimes should do so was due to the dictates of geography. Kuwait had the best harbor in the upper Gulf and Iraq’s only real outlet was the Shatt al-Arab. Even here Iraq’s control, under the 1937 treaty with Iran, was increasingly challenged by Iran until it was renounced in 1969. Alarmed by this, and by the Iranian seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971, Iraq’s response was to revive her claim on Kuwait and to seek Soviet support. The Soviet Union showed a growing interest in the Gulf after Britain’s announcement in 1968 of her intention to withdraw.

Iran. In contrast to Iraq, Iran has a long coastline stretching from Khuzestan in the west to Mekran and Baluchistan in the east. But from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century successive shahs had no sustained control over it. This was due in part to the administrative weaknesses of Persian government, but also to the fact that Persia’s rulers did not have the sea power to patrol Gulf waters. This did not prevent them from advancing dubious territorial claims to the delta of the Shatt al-Arab, Kuwait, Bahrain and other islands, the Trucial sheikhdoms, Oman, Mekran, Baluchistan, and Seistan—wherever, in fact, a Persian foot had trod. Frustrated by the gap between their insistence on their inalienable rights to these territories and their inability to secure them, successive Iranian governments did their best to thwart Britain in her suppression of piracy, the slave and arms trades, the survey of Gulf waters, the laying of telegraph cables, the installation of aids to navigation, and the setting up of a quarantine system. The pinprick policy followed by the Qajar and then the Pahlevi dynasties was, after the aggressive expansion of the Saudi emirate of Nejd, the largest source of disruption and disorder in the Gulf. And it is to the Saudis that we must now turn.

Saudi Arabia. Even that great Western propagandist for the Saudis, Harry St. John Philby, father of the more infamous Kim, admitted that Wahhabism, as harnessed by the Al-Saud clan of Nejd, was driven by “constant aggression at the expense of those who did not share the great idea.” After conquering most of central and eastern Arabia by 1800, the Wahhabis took the al-Buraimi oasis, the key to inner Oman and the adjacent Gulf sheikhdoms. Winning over the Qawasim, the strongest pirate tribe on the Arabian shore, they launched a seaborne jihad against Indian and European shipping that took two British punitive expeditions (in 1809–10 and 1819–20) to put down before the Qawasim and other seafaring tribes were forced to sign a treaty agreeing to end piracy. It became a governing principle of British policy to watch and prevent the growth of Wahhabi influence over the Gulf sheikhdoms in case it undermined the maritime truce. By guaranteeing the sheikhdoms’ independence, Britain set herself in opposition to the expansion of Wahhabi dominion in eastern Arabia beyond Nejd and Hasa. For some eighty-three years after the expulsion of the Wahhabis from al-Buraimi in 1869, they made no attempt to venture there again, nor were they in a position to do so. It was not until after the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud felt able to direct Saudi eyes again toward the Gulf sheikhdoms. His award of an oil concession to Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) in 1933 raised the question of the eastern boundaries of the new Saudi kingdom and he was quick to lay claim to large tracts of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. The British Foreign Office, in line with the prevailing spirit of appeasement in British foreign policy at the time, was prepared to give away part of the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi in the hope of winning over Ibn Saud as an ally in the Middle East, and especially in Palestine. The Foreign Office was only prevented from doing so by the British Government of India, and its representative department in Whitehall, the India Office, on the grounds of principle and policy.

However, the spirit of appeasement lingered on in the Foreign Office and, after inheriting responsibility for the Gulf from the India Office after the demise of British power in India in 1947, it manifested itself in the mistaken British response to a renewed frontier claim made by the Saudis in 1949. The latter now demanded four-fifths of the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi, where Petroleum Concessions Limited (a subsidiary of British-run Iraq Petroleum Company, IPC) had the concession to prospect for oil. In order to placate the Saudis, and particularly the foreign minister, Emir Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz, the Foreign Office in August 1951 accepted the Saudi proposal for a ban on all oil-prospecting activities while a commission determined the frontiers. This was tantamount to admitting that California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC) and Saudi Arabia had concessionary and territorial rights in the area, which in the minds of British officials they did not, and that IPC’s rights were invalid. The Foreign Office compounded this error by also agreeing to Faisal’s demand that the British-officered Trucial Oman Levies (later Scouts) should not operate in the disputed areas. In turn the Saudis agreed not to engage in activities that might prejudice the work of the frontier commission. Whereas the British honored their side of the standstill agreements, the Saudis engaged in wholesale bribery of tribal leaders in and around the al-Buraimi oasis in order to have them declare their allegiance to Saudi Arabia. It culminated in the illegal, in the minds of the British, Saudi occupation of the al-Buraimi oasis in August 1952. The Foreign Office then acceded to a Saudi and American request that the sultan of Oman, who governed three villages in the oasis, should not eject the interlopers by force and disband his tribal levies. This allowed the Saudi force to remain in al-Buraimi for nearly two years and to continue its subversive activities. By staying in the oasis the Saudis hoped to bolster their claim to the western areas of Abu Dhabi and to penetrate inner Oman. The final mistake by the Foreign Office, in July 1954, was to agree to the continuance of the limitations on British activities under the 1951 agreement, while the dispute went to arbitration by an international tribunal, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Saudi occupying force from al-Buraimi. This simply allowed another smaller Saudi force, intended along with a comparable British unit to police the oasis, to continue Saudi subversive activities at al-Buraimi. It was only when the Saudis tried to ensure a sympathetic finding by the international tribunal sitting in Geneva through bribery that even the Foreign Office decided it had had enough. It not only ended the arbitration but led to the ejection of the Saudi force from al-Buraimi by the Trucial Oman Scouts in October 1955, much to the disquiet of the Saudis, ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company), and the U.S. government. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, and the severing of diplomatic relations by the Saudis, the Foreign Office returned to its former defensive and apologetic approach to such an extent that by 1970 it was prepared, as will be seen, to facilitate Saudi claims on Abu Dhabi territory in order to ease Britain’s passage out of the Gulf.

End of British Guardianship in the Gulf

The Pax Britannica in the Gulf had been maintained for one hundred and fifty years, and it was swept away in ten, from Kuwaiti independence in 1961 to the final British withdrawal in 1971. The latter had been announced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968 and carried out by Edward Heath’s Conservative government three years later. An end to the formal British presence in the Gulf had to come in the postcolonial age, and the treaty system needed revision. But it was in the manner of Britain’s going from the Gulf that it managed to betray all that it had stood for and achieved during its long guardianship of the Gulf. Britain simply abandoned the small Gulf sheikhdoms to their fate. There was no attempt to reformulate the treaty system in order to retain its implicit defense obligations, thus providing for a continued British military presence that would have maintained stability in an area that had become increasingly vital to not just British but Western interests. It was argued at the time by politicians, diplomats, and their apologists in the media, and has been repeated since by some historians, that the British government could no longer afford the £12–14 million cost of continuing a military presence in the Gulf because of the parlous state of Britain’s finances and her military commitments elsewhere, especially in Northern Ireland. Twelve to 14 million pounds sterling seems cheap given that it was the cost of protecting hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of Gulf oil for Britain and the West. Moreover, the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai offered to pay it in full, since they, like the sheikh of Bahrain and the sultan of Oman, did not want to see Britain leave the Gulf. The boorish reply of the British defense secretary, Denis Healey, spoke volumes about his lack of strategic vision, his engrained political prejudices, and the rank hypocrisy of the British government. He proclaimed that he was not “a sort of white slaver for Arab sheikhs,” and that “it would be a very great mistake if we allowed ourselves to become mercenaries for people who like to have British troops around.”18 Strangely enough he did not object to the West German government contributing to the cost of maintaining the British army on the Rhine, nor did it prevent him, and his successors, from selling large quantities of sophisticated military equipment to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two local powers, whose conduct and ambitions had for one hundred and fifty years posed the main threat to Gulf security. It was no excuse that other powers, principally the United States, were engaged in such a lucrative trade, for no other power had carried the responsibility for maintaining the peace of the Gulf, nor had they, like Britain, suppressed maritime warfare, piracy, and the slave and arms trades. Any chance that the mistakes of the Labour government would be rectified by their Conservative successors was dashed when the Heath government tried to pressurize the sheikh of Abu Dhabi into surrendering a large chunk of his oil-rich territory to Saudi Arabia, and then connived at the Iranian seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs. In its unseemly scramble to get out of the Gulf by 1971, Britain had reverted to the same mercenary spirit that had marked its entry three hundred and fifty years before.

What lessons can be drawn from the British experience in the Gulf?

First, if a great maritime power is drawn into the Gulf, for mercenary or other motives, and it is to stay there to guarantee its interests, it eventually has to deal with the threats to the stability of the area posed by warfare or piracy. The use of force to coerce reluctant actors will be necessary, and diplomatic tools will have to be employed to build alliances that will work in keeping the peace in the Gulf. Such a system, and its infrastructure, must be guaranteed in the last resort by the paramount maritime power.

Second, the British position in the Gulf had always been based on the lower Gulf, on the trucial system and the long relationship with Oman, and not on Britain’s relations with Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, or even Kuwait. The major Gulf states had always resented Britain’s role in the Gulf, had attempted to negate it, and had welcomed Britain’s exit.

Third, withdrawal from the Gulf was yet another step in Europe’s withdrawal from Asia and Africa after World War II. It has been represented, usually by way of excuse, as the inevitable response to the rise of Afro-Asian nationalism, though increasingly historical research reveals it to have been due to the collapse of the Europeans’ will to defend their interests in the wider world. This failure of will led Britain and Europe increasingly to consign the defense of these interests in the Middle East and elsewhere to the United States, which had always been as much a rival as an ally in these areas. Eschewing Britain’s former gamekeeper role, the U.S. government pursued a pointless “twin-pillars” policy in the 1970s of handing over the security of the Gulf to two of the main poachers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the Iranian pillar, with the fall of the shah in 1979, raised serious questions about the stability of the remaining Saudi one and, indeed, the continued viability of U.S. policy. It took the third poacher, or the thief of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, to reveal, in three large-scale and bloody wars, the consequences of the collapse of the states system in the Gulf following Britain’s withdrawal, and the dangers of appeasing local aggressors.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 there has been a renewal of the religious division in the Gulf, between Sunni Arabia and Shia Iran, and this has reached fever pitch since 2003 and the events in Iraq. It is symbolized by the February 2006 Sunni Arab bombing of the Askariya shrine at Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites (where lie the tombs of the Tenth and the Eleventh Imams and where lies a shrine to the Twelfth or Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi). In the long history of Sunni-Shia antagonism it bears comparison with the Wahhabi devastation of Karbala in 1801 and desecration of the shrine of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet. It is a factor that outside powers in the Gulf will increasingly have to bear in mind, especially as it intersects with, and is complicated by, a general rise in tension between the Islamic world and the rest of the world.

And finally, since 1987 the United States has played the reluctant policeman in the Gulf. With the bitter experience of Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, there may well be a waning appetite for continuing such a role. But in reappraising the role of the United States, U.S. opinion formers and policy makers need to keep in mind what happened when, in a similar mood in the early 1970s, at the end of the Vietnam War and in consequence of Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf, they handed over the security of this most vital waterway to the two main poachers in the area. To continue this metaphor, the Gulf needs gamekeepers, headed by the United States, as much today as in the past, assisted by those powers who have a vital economic and financial stake in the area, whether European, South Asian, or East Asian. We cannot afford, in this globalized world, to allow the destabilization of one of the key areas on the planet. Let the gamekeeper rather than the mercenary spirit inform our attitudes and policies toward the challenges in this area.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part I

Piracy had been endemic in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay for centuries, but the Earl of Crawford’s destructive cruise of 1402 was different. It was more organised, larger in scale and plainly enjoyed the support of influential men in the French government if not of the King’s council itself. The raids left a trail of unsatisfied claims by merchants and shipowners who had lost their property and a legacy of ill-feeling between the two governments. Each responded in the time-honoured fashion by authorising reprisals against the property of the other in an escalating cycle of violence. These operations were mainly the work of English, French and Flemish privateers. They inaugurated the first great age of Atlantic privateering, and the birth of a tradition that would continue until the eighteenth century. In a later age the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius would classify such operations as legitimate private war, but some of those involved could fairly be called pirates. The boundary between war and crime, between public and private violence, was as uncertain and permeable at sea as it was on land.

Privateering, a practice which was sanctioned by international law until the middle of the nineteenth century, was a method of making war which had been developed largely by the English since the thirteenth century and had already achieved a high degree of organisation. Governments issued letters of marque to merchants claiming to have suffered losses at the hands of nationals of a foreign prince, which authorised them to recoup their losses by ‘reprisal’, in other words by seizing ships and cargoes of the foreign prince’s subjects at sea. In time of war, letters of marque were commonly issued in more general terms, which were not limited to seizures by way of reprisal. They authorised the persons named to capture the merchant ships and cargoes of declared enemies for their own profit provided that they left neutral property alone. The Anglo-French treaty of 1396 had banned the issue of letters of marque and with a few exceptions the ban had been observed. But from 1402 onward they began to be issued again, and most privateers had at least the tacit authority of their sovereigns even if they did not have formal commissions. ‘Know ye,’ declared a typical English document,

that we have given leave to our well-beloved Henry Pay to sail and pass across the seas with as many ships, barges and balingers of war, men-at-arms and bowmen, all fully equipped, as he may be able to recruit in order to do all the damage he can to our declared enemies as well as for their destruction and for the safeguarding and defence of our faithful lieges.

The King directed his admirals and all his officers in coastal areas to give whatever advice or assistance Pay might require. This was manifestly an officially sanctioned venture.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the English had begun to enlarge the scope of their privateering operations by targeting not just enemy ships but neutral ships carrying enemy cargoes. The rewards were high and the privateers no doubt needed little encouragement. But it seems clear that the initiative came from the government. Blockading an enemy’s seaborne trade was a highly effective weapon of war. But it was also extremely abrasive and provoked bitter complaints in the fifteenth century, just as it would in the time of Blake or Nelson, for it required neutral ships to submit to being stopped and searched at sea and taken into English ports if they were found to be carrying suspicious goods. This could be a terrifying experience. Early in 1403 the Christopher from the Hanse port of Danzig was captured in the Channel by four ships of London and Dartmouth operating from Calais. Henry IV personally interviewed their masters to discover the facts before defending his subjects in a letter to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. This reveals very clearly what the King expected of privateers holding his commission. The German ship, he said, had been sailing without national markings. When the English challenged the crew to state their nationality they gave no answer, filled the top-castles with armed men, let out all their sail and tried to make off. The English opened fire with bombards mounted on their forecastles. They caught up with the fleeing ship and boarded her, overcoming and capturing the crew after a long and bloody hand-to-hand fight. She was found to be carrying wine from La Rochelle and was taken into Southampton where she was eventually forfeited to her captors. The Hanseatic towns had lost eight ships in this way during 1402 in addition to another four which were plundered and then allowed to go. Castile, another important neutral, lost seventeen.

The distinction between enemy and neutral property was not always easy to apply. Ownership was often uncertain. Enemy ships could sail under neutral colours. Enemy cargoes could be carried in neutral hulls and vice versa. Ships’ manifests were not always honest. It was not always clear whether a truce was in force at the time of the capture. Of course privateers were not particularly fastidious about the limits of their authority. But their trade was not the free-for-all that it is sometimes assumed to have been. An elaborate body of practice and law had grown up for adjudicating on the right to prize, which was administered partly by the chancellor and the king’s council, partly by the admirals and their local deputies, marshals, sergeants and clerks. Their work has generated a mass of documents in the remarkably full surviving records of the English government. They show that complaints of breaches of the truce, unauthorised acts of war or attacks on neutral property were taken seriously and routinely investigated. Privateers, however favoured, were liable to be summoned before the council or the admirals’ officers to prove their right to prize ‘as the law of the sea requires’. There was a regular flow of orders to restore neutral goods or hulls or to pay compensation to ruined German or Castilian shipowners and merchants. In one notable case a squadron of ships was specially fitted out by the Admiral of England to capture the notorious Rye pirate William Long, who was taken off his ship at sea and consigned to the Tower of London. If some men disobeyed the king and got away with it, that was to be expected of the uncertain processes and limited police powers of the medieval state. But there were others who paid for their transgressions with their property and a few with their liberty or their necks.

The growth of officially sponsored privateering at the beginning of the fifteenth century reflected the progressive withdrawal of governments from the costly business of building and operating warships themselves. In France the great state arsenal at Rouen, which had turned out oared warships since the thirteenth century, had stopped building and refitting ships by the end of the 1380s and, apart from brief spurts of activity in 1405 and 1416, never restarted. In England the last of Edward III’s great ships, the 300-ton carrack Dieulagarde, had been given away to a courtier in 1380. In the early years of his reign Henry IV owned just one sailing ship in addition to four barges which appear to have been used mainly to move the baggage of the royal household along the Thames. Requisitioning ships was not much less expensive than owning them, for hire had to be paid by the ton and crew’s wages by the day. Chiefly for reasons of cost, the English government had since 1379 entrusted much of the routine work of keeping the sea to contract fleets raised by commercial syndicates in London and the West Country. Privateers and contract fleets had their limitations. They were undisciplined. They brought the King into collision with neutral countries. They had little interest in his larger strategic objectives. They were particularly bad at defensive work, such as convoy duty and patrolling the Channel against coastal raiders, which offered limited prospects of spoil. An ambitious attempt to hand over the whole work of ‘keeping the seas’ to commercial operators in 1406 in return for the proceeds of the tunnage and poundage dues proved to be disastrous for all of these reasons, and the arrangements had to be terminated early. But for offensive operations against enemy commerce and coastal settlements, privateers largely displaced royal fleets throughout the reign of Henry IV. They operated at their own risk and expense and cost nothing in wages, hire or maintenance. They were therefore the natural resort of penurious governments.

In the early fifteenth century there were active privateering syndicates in London, Hull, the Cinque Ports and Guernsey. But the West Country was already the major centre for this kind of buccaneering, as it would remain for centuries. Dartmouth, Plymouth and Fowey were important privateering bases. According to a charter of Richard II Dartmouth had ‘above all places in the realm long been and still is strong in shipping and therewith has wrought great havoc on the King’s enemies in time of war’. The most celebrated English privateers, the Hawley family of Dartmouth, father and son, were living testimony to the wealth that could be made from prizes. Hawley the elder may have been a pirate in French eyes and occasionally in English ones, but he was a man of some social standing at home, the owner of Hawley’s Hall, the grandest house in Dartmouth, fourteen times mayor of the town and twice returned to Parliament. He founded St Saviour’s Church in Dartmouth, where his grand memorial brass, showing an idealised knight in full armour, can still be seen. His son, who carried on the family business, acquired extensive estates in the West Country, married the daughter of a chief justice of King’s Bench and sat twelve times in Parliament for Dartmouth. The Hawleys were close to the governments of Richard II and Henry IV and commonly acted under royal commissions.

More typical perhaps was the much rougher Harry Pay, the recipient of the commission quoted above. He was a professional pirate based at Poole in Dorset who had been attacking the ships and harbours of neutral Castile for years before he received a commission. His operations in the Channel against the French were to make him a popular hero in the first decade of the fifteenth century. Mark Mixtow of Fowey and the Spicer brothers of Plymouth and Portsmouth were men of the same stamp although on a lesser scale and for shorter periods. The Spicers had been actively engaged in piracy in the Atlantic for at least two years before the breach with France brought legitimacy to their operations and respectability to their lives. Richard Spicer represented Portsmouth in Parliament, served on commissions of array and ended up as a Hampshire gentleman. The Channel pirates contributed a good deal to the economy of the depressed coastal towns of southern England and, as the careers of men like Hawley and Spicer show, they enjoyed strong popular support. When William Long was eventually released from the Tower the town of Hythe held a banquet in his honour and Rye elected him to Parliament.

The French made use of very similar adventurers. The Bretons were regarded in England as ‘the greatest rovers and the greatest thieves that have been in the sea many a year’. Saint-Malo, an enclave of French royal territory within the duchy of Brittany, was the major centre of piracy and privateering on the French Atlantic coast. Its seamen were responsible for a large number of the captures of 1402. Privateers operating from Harfleur, another important base, were said in March 1404 to have taken £100,000 worth of cargoes in addition to exacting exorbitant ransoms from their prisoners. A contemporary described the port as the capital of Atlantic piracy, rich in the spoil of English shipping. Gravelines, although technically part of Flanders, was in fact under the control of the French captains-general commanding on the march of Calais, who built it up as another major privateering centre.

In France as in England most privateering ventures were commercial enterprises, financed by shrewd businessmen for profit. Guillebert de Fretin, a native of the Calais pale who had fled after refusing to swear allegiance to the English King, made his base at Le Crotoy in Ponthieu and achieved a short-lived fame as the leading French corsair of his time. His career of destruction would culminate in the sack of Alderney in June 1403 in which a large number of the inhabitants lost their lives. Guillebert’s cruises were funded by a syndicate of merchants of Abbeville and almost certainly authorised by French officials. When the French temporarily withdrew their support from French privateers and banished him, he and one of his lieutenants continued their depredations under the flag of Scotland. Equally commercial in their inspiration were the campaigns of Wouter Jansz, probably the most successful Flemish privateer of the time, who operated several ships out of Bervliet and Sluys in north-west Flanders. His most famous exploit was to sail up the Thames and capture an English freighter filled with the booty of a recent raid on the coast of Flanders, including the painted altar-piece of Sint Anna ter Muiden. Jansz appears to have been financed at least in part by an Italian corsair called Giovanni Portofino who had terrorised the western Mediterranean during the 1390s before moving his operations to northern Europe. The English regarded Jansz as a ‘notorious pirate’ and he is unlikely to have held any formal commission. But he made himself useful to the towns of the Zwin estuary by guarding the entrances against enemy incursions and he certainly had well-placed protectors.

In July and August 1402 the English and French ambassadors met at Leulinghem to deal with the escalating violence at sea. Faithful to the increasingly hollow pretence that the truce of 1396 remained in force, they reached agreement on 14 August on a procedure for verifying and meeting claims and on measures to prevent a recurrence. The seamen involved on both sides were formally disowned and declared to be criminals actuated entirely by malice and greed. All prisoners and cargoes in their hands were ordered to be released without payment and outstanding letters of marque and reprisal were cancelled. Pirates who persisted in attacking merchant ships were not to be received in either country.

These arrangements were a dead letter from the start. In the last quarter of 1402 another twenty English merchantmen were captured. Crawford had by now returned to Scotland with the rump of the French expeditionary force. But many of the ships and crews responsible for the new seizures had previously served under him. In the following January twelve English vessels were captured in a single incident and taken into Harfleur where their cargoes and crews were taken off under the noses of royal officials and their hulls set on fire. Another twenty or thirty English merchantmen were reported to be held in Norman ports. The English retaliated with vigour. They seized French and Flemish property in English ports. They commissioned new privateering fleets of their own. Over the winter of 1402–3 most of the more notorious English privateers were once more at sea with the King’s commissions. There are no reliable figures for French losses in these months, but they were almost certainly higher than English ones. With a much larger seafaring community and many more ships, the English were always likely to have the better of these exchanges. During the following months English privateers sacked the Île de Ré off the coast of Poitou, burning down its famous abbey. They seized French fishing boats in the Channel, carrying off large numbers of fishermen for ransom. They landed at several points along the French coast to seize booty and prisoners. According to French estimates some 3,000 English and Gascon seamen were engaged in these operations, which continued until the following summer.


The sudden upsurge of fighting at sea awakened ancient ghosts in Flanders. Flanders was a province of France, but as one of the principal trading and shipowning regions of Europe it had enjoyed close commercial and political relations with England for centuries. Flanders needed English wool, the indispensable raw material for the great cloth industries on which much of its population depended. England was also a significant market for the finished product. There was a large Flemish community in England, based mainly in London, and an even larger English mercantile community in Bruges and in the Dutch port of Middelburg on the other side of the estuary of the Scheldt. England and Flanders had a common interest in the security of the trade routes of the North Sea. It was not simply a question of preserving trade between them. As the Flemings had learned to their cost in the 1380s, the maintenance of peace across the North Sea was the key to the international banking and entrepôt business of Bruges and the county’s trade with the Italian maritime cities of Venice and Genoa and the Baltic towns of the Hanseatic League.7 There was an important political dimension to Flanders’s links with England. The English kings had always had allies in the towns of Flanders and unparalleled opportunities to make trouble there. They had been the patrons of all the great urban revolutions which had divided the Flemings and undermined the power of their counts since the end of the thirteenth century. Jacob van Artevelde, the leader of the Flemish revolution of 1339, had been a client of England and his son Philip, who had led the revolution of Ghent during the civil wars of the 1380s, was a pensioner of Richard II. English fleets and armies fought in Flanders in support of their cause. An English garrison had been stationed in Ghent as recently as 1385.

The informal alliance between England and Flanders was a perennial problem for the counts. They were under constant pressure from their subjects to avoid war with England or, if it could not be avoided, then at least to remove Flanders from the front line. Philip of Burgundy had inherited these problems with the territory. The Four Members of Flanders, a sort of grand committee representing the interests of Bruges and its district and the industrial towns of Ghent and Ypres, wielded considerable political influence. They openly pressed for a commercial treaty which would allow Flanders to remain neutral even at times when England and France were at war. Their demands posed an awkward dilemma for the Duke of Burgundy. As the King’s uncle and a considerable figure on his council, Philip could not easily remove a French principality from the international orbit of France. But neither could he ignore the interest of the powerful commercial and industrial oligarchies of Flanders on whom he depended for his political authority and a growing proportion of his revenues.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, as France moved closer to war with England and the war at sea acquired a momentum of its own, these ancient dilemmas re-emerged. The English government had generally treated Flanders as an autonomous state and a neutral, in spite of its legal status as part of the French kingdom. But the expansion of English privateering to target French cargoes carried in neutral bottoms spelled disaster for the important Flemish carrying trade. In the course of 1402 no fewer than twenty-seven Flemish ships had been captured at sea on account of England’s quarrel with France. When the winter gales subsided in March 1403 and the English privateers resumed their cruises they took another twenty-six Flemish ships in the space of two months. The Duke of Burgundy’s first instinct had been to take reprisals against English merchants and goods in Flanders. But his subjects, terrified of falling out with their main trading partner, refused to cooperate. Meeting at Ypres in July 1402 the Four Members resolved to look for an accommodation with England instead. As one of its representatives told the English agents in Calais, whatever the Duke might say ‘the land of Flanders is no enemy of the King of England’.

That autumn they sent ambassadors to England and Scotland to open negotiations for what amounted to a treaty of neutrality. These initiatives culminated in an agreement with Henry IV’s council at Westminster on 7 March 1403. The terms provided for a temporary truce pending a conference at Calais in July, when it was hoped to make a more permanent arrangement. Meanwhile Flemish goods were to be immune from seizure in England or at sea, on the Flemings’ undertaking that they would not pass French goods off as their own. A corresponding immunity was conferred on English cargoes in Flanders. The practical effect was to allow Flemish traders to exclude French goods from the Flemish carrying trade as if France was a foreign country. The Flemish emissaries understood this perfectly. When Philip received them in Paris after their return they pressed him to allow Flanders to ‘remain neutral in the war of the two realms’. They were followed a few days later by a delegation of the Four Members. There were ‘rumours and fears throughout Flanders’, they said, that war would shortly break out with England. The life of the territory depended on the trade in cloth and wool. They would all be ruined if the war was allowed to interrupt it.

Since one of the Flemish negotiators at Westminster was his councillor and the other a canon of St Donatien in Bruges, the Duke of Burgundy must have given at least his tacit assent to their dealings with the English. But he regarded them as a disagreeable necessity. As the date fixed for the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais approached, Philip reluctantly submitted to the Flemish demands. At the beginning of May 1403, during an interval of lucidity, Charles VI was induced to let Philip negotiate a separate treaty with England in his capacity as Count of Flanders. The terms of his negotiating authority were hammered out between his officials and Charles’s councillors in Paris in the course of June. It was a remarkable document, which envisaged an immunity not just for the Anglo-Flemish trade but for the county itself. The Duke was authorised to agree that if war broke out the Flemings would not be required to take up arms in the cause of France. French royal troops would not be allowed to operate from Flanders unless the English actually invaded it, and French ships of war would not be allowed to use Flemish ports except for short visits to take on water and victuals. It is obvious that some features of this arrangement were completely unacceptable to the French royal council and had been included simply to satisfy the Four Members. In a secret protocol drawn up shortly afterwards Philip promised the King that in spite of the breadth of the authority conferred on him he would agree nothing that might prevent a French army from launching an expedition to Scotland or an invasion of England from Flemish ports.

For some years Flanders was destined to pursue two inconsistent policies towards England, the Duke’s policy and that of the Four Members. The Four Members did their best to enforce the agreement that they had made with Henry IV. They sent their agents to every port of western Flanders from Sluys to Gravelines with orders to stop the fitting out of ships of war against England. At least one corsair who defied their wishes was imprisoned. Meanwhile Philip of Burgundy declined to be bound by the agreement and in April 1403 authorised the seizure of £10,000 worth of English merchandise by the water bailiff of Sluys in retaliation for the latest piratical raids in the North Sea. Philip nominated his own representatives to participate in the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais alongside those of the Four Members, but they were consistently obstructive, raising one procedural objection after another. As a result the conference was repeatedly adjourned without a permanent agreement. Nevertheless the provisional arrangements agreed at Westminster were extended from session to session and progressively expanded as the English pressed their demands and the Flemings yielded. In August 1403 the Four Members agreed to formalise the prohibition on the carriage of French cargoes in Flemish ships and extended it to cover Scottish merchandise as well. They also promised to release English prisoners and cargoes seized by the Duke’s officers. All of this was done on their own authority without any formal endorsement by either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France. The French royal council expressed the strongest misgivings about the whole business and in the event the August agreement was never ratified. But it was generally observed in practice and negotiations were never entirely broken off. The English government maintained what amounted to a permanent diplomatic mission in Calais charged with the conduct of relations with Flanders under the supervision of Henry IV’s long-serving lieutenant-governor of the town, Richard Aston, and a meticulous Oxford lawyer called Nicholas Ryshton. It would take them four years of continuous and accident-prone negotiation before an Anglo-Flemish treaty was finally concluded in very different political conditions in 1407.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part II

Brittany was not an economic or maritime power on a level with Flanders, but shipowning was just as important to its people. Much of the population of the duchy was concentrated in the innumerable small harbours of its coastal fringe and drew their subsistence from the sea. Breton ships were actively engaged in the entrepôt trades in grain, wine and salt, trades which were heavily dependent on the great producing areas of Poitou and Gascony and the markets of England and Flanders. The Bretons were therefore just as vulnerable as the Flemings to the disruption of the sea lanes of the Channel and the North Sea. The surviving customs records suggest that Brittany’s trade with England fell by more than half during the maritime wars of 1402. No comparable assessment can be made of the impact on Brittany’s trade with Flanders but it must have been considerable. Flanders, as the author of the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye observed in the 1430s, was ‘the staple of their marchaundy, which marchaundy may not pass [that] way but by the coast of England’.

The political situation in Brittany was at this stage extremely uncertain. The duchy had been ruled since the 1340s by the house of Montfort, a baronial family from the Île de France which had succeeded in establishing itself in power only after a succession of civil wars and with English military support. Their rivals the counts of Penthièvre, who had been backed by the French Crown, had been defeated in the field and finally submitted in the treaty of Guérande, which brought an end to a quarter of a century of civil war in 1365. The outcome had eventually been acknowledged by the French Crown in 1381, when John IV de Montfort had submitted to Charles VI and renounced his former English connections. But the treaty did not put an end to the divisions of Brittany, any more than John IV’s submission put an end to the residual suspicion of his house among the politicians in Paris. The counts of Penthièvre, although they paid lip-service to the treaties and did homage to the Montfort dukes, had never recognised defeat. In the 1380s and 1390s, they had maintained a sullen resistance, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of violence. They were supported by a network of clients and allies dominated by Olivier de Clisson, former Constable of France and the most powerful territorial magnate in Brittany. Clisson, whose daughter Marguerite had married the head of the house of Penthièvre, had for many years been the animating spirit behind their opposition to the reigning dynasty.

John IV had died at Nantes in November 1399, leaving a ten-year-old son to succeed him as John V. The government was exercised on the child’s behalf by his mother Joan of Navarre, a beautiful and politically astute woman of thirty-one. In the short period of her rule Joan’s main concern was to protect her son from the venomous legacy of Brittany’s fourteenth-century civil wars. To this end she negotiated a historic reconciliation with Olivier de Clisson. He was now a venerable figure in his mid-sixties and age had dulled his former ambitions. On 23 March 1402 Joan had her son John, although still a minor, crowned as duke in Nantes cathedral, the first recorded occasion on which any duke of Brittany had received a formal coronation. Clisson himself appeared at the ceremony and marked the end of the ancient and destructive feud by knighting the young Duke in front of the high altar of the cathedral. According to a later, perhaps apocryphal story, his daughter had urged him to seize the chance to secure the duchy for her family. ‘Cruel, perverse woman,’ he is supposed to have replied, dismissing her from his presence with such fury that she broke her leg as she escaped down the stairs.

The timing of John V’s coronation had been carefully planned. As soon as the festivities were over Joan announced her intention of marrying Henry IV of England. After what must have been several months of secret negotiations she was married to him by proxy in a ceremony at the palace of Eltham on 3 April 1402. The couple were not complete strangers. They had met at least once in 1398, when she had accompanied her first husband on a brief visit to England. Joan probably married Henry for status and it may be for companionship. He was thirty-four years old, a widower for the past decade, a famous figure in the world of European chivalry and a king. Henry’s own motives are more difficult to divine. Brittany was important to England. It had long-standing commercial relations with the country. It also stood across the main sea and land routes to Gascony. It is natural to suppose that Henry IV hoped to renew England’s old alliance with the Breton duchy and perhaps even take control of the regency. But in the conditions of 1402 these ideas were hardly realistic. Joan’s declared intention was to resign the regency and join her new husband in England. The great ceremonies at Nantes suggest that the plan was to leave John V in Brittany as the nominal head of his government with Olivier de Clisson as regent for the brief period of eighteen months before he reached his majority. Clisson had already been put in possession of the newly enlarged and refortified citadel at Nantes which served as the centre of the ducal administration.

To the Duke of Burgundy, however, a Clisson regency in Brittany was hardly more welcome than an English one. Olivier de Clisson was a declared ally of Louis of Orléans. Indeed all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Louis had actively promoted a Clisson regency in the hope of adding the duchy of Brittany to his extensive network of alliances. Philip was determined to prevent it. Charles VI had relapsed into his old incapacity in July 1402 and, apart from a fortnight in early October, remained ‘absent’ for the next seven months. For the first time a major decision had to be made in Paris without reference to him. In the last week of August 1402 the Duke of Orléans returned to the capital from Coucy and procured the despatch in the King’s name of a testy letter to the baronage of Brittany urging them to get on with the business of appointing Clisson as regent. But Louis had underestimated the strength of the opposition to Clisson in Brittany itself, especially among the officials of the late duke and the noblemen who had served him against the house of Blois during the civil wars. They distrusted the ex-Constable and feared that once in power he would pursue the grudges accumulated over thirty years of dynastic conflict. They responded to the royal letters by pressing the Duke of Burgundy to intervene. For three weeks in September 1402 Philip called in all his favours among the princes and politicians about the King. There were prolonged discussions between Philip and the leading councillors and officers of the King in the castles of Melun and Corbeil and at Jean II de Montaigu’s mansion at Marcoussis until he finally got his way.

Towards the end of September Philip left for Brittany to take control of the duchy. He entered Nantes on 1 October 1402. He dazzled the duchess and the nobility by the magnificence of his suite and the grandeur of his manner, and showered them with gifts, banquets and flattery. On 19 October the Estates of Brittany gathered in the city. They agreed to appoint the Duke of Burgundy as guardian of the young John V and his three brothers Arthur, Gilles and Richard. Olivier de Clisson resisted these measures as best he could with the support of his kinsmen and allies. But a large majority of those present was against them. Clisson finally submitted with ill grace and surrendered Nantes castle to Philip’s officers. The Duke spent the next six weeks in Brittany dealing with the practical arrangements for the government of the duchy. The administration was placed under his control. The principal ducal castles were delivered up to his officers and garrisoned with French troops. Joan of Navarre was persuaded to surrender her dower lands in return for a money pension. In January 1403 she embarked with her two unmarried daughters on a fleet of English ships escorted by a magnificent cortège of noblemen sent out from England to fetch her. Philip of Burgundy had already left for Paris taking John V and two of his brothers with him.

The change of regime in Brittany had an immediate impact on the duchy’s relations with England. For as long as Joan of Navarre remained in Brittany open hostilities with England were avoided. There were many piratical incidents but both sides declared themselves willing in principle to make reparations for them. However, within weeks of Joan’s departure, Brittany found itself in the front line of the maritime war. Trade to English ports abruptly ceased in February 1403, possibly on the orders of the Duke of Burgundy’s officers. Breton seamen joined forces with those of other French ports and stepped up their attacks on English and Gascon shipping in the Bay of Biscay and the Channel. In the spring active steps were being taken to assemble a Breton fleet for operations against England itself.


The exclusion of Olivier de Clisson from the regency of Brittany was Philip of Burgundy’s last notable triumph over his nephew. Within a few months the Duke of Orléans had finally achieved the dominant position within the French government that he had craved ever since his brother’s first attack of insanity. Behind the closed doors of the Hôtel Saint-Pol and the princely mansions of the capital a great power struggle was in progress throughout the first half of 1403. Charles VI was ill again, as he had been for most of the past year. His recent relapses had been worse and longer than before. There were concerns for his life. Louis of Orléans’ influence in council visibly grew as Charles’s health deteriorated. He was the man of the future to whom the ambitious, the greedy and the simply realistic were inevitably drawn. The consensus was expressed by the clerk to the Parlement. He was no friend of Louis but thought that by right of birth and stature he was the ‘natural’ ruler of France in a way that could never be true of the King’s elderly uncles. There had been a trial of strength at the beginning of the year when Louis de Sancerre, the valiant old Constable and companion of Du Guesclin, resigned his office. The favoured candidate of the court was the Queen’s brother, Louis of Bavaria. But the Duke of Orléans succeeded in imposing his ally Charles d’Albret in spite of the fact that he was, in the words of an indignant contemporary, ‘lame, small, weak, and lacking in age, dignity or military experience’.

The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy could see the direction of events and moved to pre-empt it. On about 25 April 1403 the King enjoyed a partial recovery. On the following day there occurred what was described as a meeting of the royal council, although no notice of it appears to have been given and the only persons present were the King, his two uncles, and the clerk. It approved three new ordinances making radical changes to the arrangements for the government of the realm. They abrogated the ordinances of 1393, which had provided for the Duke of Orléans to become regent in the event of the King’s death, and provided instead that the Dauphin would succeed at once without a formal minority or regency. Until he was old enough to exercise his powers in person the government would be carried on in his name by the Queen with the support of the four royal dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Orléans and Bourbon and the rest of the royal council. Decisions of this body were to be made by the voices of the ‘larger and wiser number’. Similar arrangements were to apply while the King was alive but ‘absent’ or otherwise incapable of conducting affairs of state. Any letters of Charles VI purporting to modify these provisions were declared to be void. At the same time the King agreed to marry two of his children into Philip of Burgundy’s family. The Dauphin’s hand was promised to Margaret, daughter of Philip’s heir, John Count of Nevers, in spite of an earlier undertaking that he would marry a daughter of Louis of Orléans. The King’s daughter Michelle would marry the Count of Nevers’ eldest son Philip, who was destined to inherit the Burgundian empire after John’s death. These ordinances were aimed at diluting the influence of the Duke of Orléans and the Queen. They would have instituted a system of collective decision-making which the Duke of Burgundy could hope to control in his lifetime, while the marriage alliances would ensure that his heirs would succeed to his influence at the centre of affairs in the next two generations.

Louis of Orléans was out of Paris when the new ordinances were made but he returned as soon as he heard about them and set about turning the King round. On 7 May Charles was induced to confirm the rights granted to Louis under all earlier ordinances and to repeat his previous promise that the Dauphin should marry a daughter of the house of Orléans. Any past or future instrument prejudicing Louis’ rights was declared to be null and void. The pliable king can scarcely have been able to follow what was happening. Four days later, on the 11th, the King was made to issue a fresh ordinance at a meeting of the council at which only the Duke of Burgundy is recorded as being present. This declared that the letters procured by Louis on 7 May were inconsistent with those of 26 April, a state of affairs which was described as disruptive and intolerable. The letters of 7 May were accordingly to be treated as void. Who prevailed in this war of ordinance and counter-ordinance? In different ways both of the rivals did. Philip’s most significant gain was the double betrothal of Charles’s children to those of John of Nevers, which Charles refused to repudiate. But it was Louis who prevailed on the form of government in the King’s ‘absences’. None of the competing ordinances appears to have been put into effect or regarded as expressing the King’s will. They were all ignored by subsequent legislation, which treated the political arrangements made in 1393 as still in force.

What is clear is that from the summer of 1403 onwards the Duke of Orléans consistently got his way on critical issues which had hitherto divided the council. As always the most reliable indicator of the balance of power was the state of France’s relations with the Avignon Pope. On the night of 11 March, after five years in which he had been blockaded by his adversaries in the papal palace at Avignon, Benedict XIII had escaped heavily disguised and found his way to the castle of the counts of Provence at Châteaurenard. His escape had been organised by the Aragonese ambassador with the assistance of Robert de Braquemont, Louis of Orléans’ representative in the papal city. Protected by a large garrison, in territory that still recognised him, Benedict could now defy his enemies with impunity. In Paris Louis moved quickly to build upon his victory. On 15 May a council of the French Church gathered under the glazed eye of the King in the Hôtel Saint-Pol. It had been summoned before Benedict’s escape in order to endorse the policy of withholding recognition from both popes which the Dukes of Burgundy and Berry had pursued for the past decade. But by the time it met Louis of Orléans was very obviously in control. He came armed with various declarations which his agents had extracted from Benedict XIII, in which the obstinate old man promised to mend his autocratic ways, to submit the whole question of the papal succession to a council of the whole Latin Church within a year and meanwhile to moderate the burden of papal taxation on the French Church. The Pope had not the least intention of performing these undertakings if he could avoid it. But they made the desired impression on the council in Paris. On 28 May Louis summoned before him at the Hôtel Saint-Pol a carefully selected delegation of bishops who were loyal to him and to Benedict. They gave him a list of those who were in favour of restoring obedience to the Avignon Pope. Whether the names on the list were a majority we shall never know. Louis at once took them to his brother, who was recovering from his siesta in the cool darkness of the palace chapel. He presented him with the list. Charles agreed to recognise Benedict as Pope. Knowing the King’s vacillating temperament Louis seized a crucifix from the altar and called on his brother to back up his decision with an oath. A notary was produced from Louis’ entourage to record it. The proceedings were brought to an end with a sung Te Deum led by the King himself. The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy were not even consulted. When they learned that evening what had happened they were appalled. They did their best to change the King’s mind. But Charles was immovable. The decision was proclaimed from the steps of Notre-Dame on 30 May 1403.


The Duke of Orléans’ assumption of power in Paris quickly affected France’s already tense relations with England. At the end of March 1403 Louis wrote another deliberately offensive letter to Henry IV and sent his herald across the Channel to deliver it. Louis accused the English King of usurping Richard II’s crown and of deliberate cruelty and dishonesty towards Richard’s widow. He publicly challenged the suggestion made in Henry’s last letter that he had himself been one of the usurper’s chief accomplices. He had never, he said, intended to support a coup d’état but had only wanted to help Henry recover the heritage of his father. Henry wrote back a month later with a rebuke for writing in a manner unworthy of a royal prince. There followed a leaden point-by-point rebuttal in which he lost no opportunity to rub in their past alliance, revealing fresh details of their cordial relations since his accession. It was not so much a correspondence as an exchange of manifestos. Henry’s letter was delivered to the Duke of Orléans by Lancaster Herald at Coucy on 30 May 1403. Shortly after this, in June, planning began in Paris for the repudiation of the current truce and the reopening of the war with England. The French government envisaged simultaneous campaigns against English possessions in Calais and Gascony in the following spring. Three thousand men-at-arms and a thousand crossbowmen would be deployed on each front for five months plus a mobile reserve of 300 mounted men in Normandy and Picardy to fight off English coastal raids. In addition a large naval force was to be deployed off Calais to cut off supplies and reinforcements from England. A sailing fleet would be obtained by requisitioning and converting merchantmen in the French Atlantic provinces. In addition it was also proposed to acquire the use of ‘at least’ thirty war galleys of which ten were expected to be contributed by the King of Castile under the current naval treaty with France. Louis of Orléans addressed letters to many German princes and noblemen, calling on them to contribute troops to the campaign.

While this was going on in Paris the English and French ambassadors were meeting at Leulinghem for another round of negotiations on the confirmation and enforcement of the truce. The conference opened with the ill-tempered exchanges which had become normal on such occasions. Henry Bowet Bishop of Bath, who spoke for the English delegation, raised the question of the Duke of Orléans’ challenge of the previous year and his more recent letter of March. What did all this signify? To write such things hardly seemed to be consistent with the truce which they had come to Leulinghem to discuss. Who was in charge in Paris? Was the Duke of Orléans acting on his own account? Or with the authority of the King? Or of the royal council? Until they received an answer to these questions, sealed by the King or the royal princes, the English were not prepared to proceed with the business of the conference. The French delegation was led by the experienced but abrasive Jean de Hangest and the President of the Chambre des Comptes, Jean de Montaigu Bishop of Chartres. They were extremely guarded. The French King’s position, ‘or at least the position of his council’, Jean de Hangest replied, was that the truce of 1396 remained in force and that they would not be the ones to break it. All the royal princes were agreed upon that. The English asked for clarification. The French said they were unable to say more because of the incapacity of the King, who had relapsed into incoherence again at the beginning of the month. They thought that they might have a fuller answer in the following year, or earlier if he recovered earlier. Bowet’s bluff had been called. He did not walk out. The maintenance of the truce was too important to the English King. On 27 June 1403 the two sides agreed to republish the truce of 1396 and made new arrangements to deal with claims arising out of the fighting at sea. Another month was passed in quarrelling over the unpaid ransom of John II, the unreturned dowry of Isabelle of France, compensation for prizes taken at sea, the release of prisoners captured in the fighting, the perennial issue of the application of the truce to Scotland and the diplomatic stomach cramps of Jean de Hangest by which the French, as their English opposite numbers saw it, tried to drag out the proceedings whenever they seemed to be approaching some sort of conclusion. None of these questions was resolved.

The truth was that the French ambassadors at Leulinghem were looking over their shoulders at larger plans being made in Paris. In the margins of the conference the Bishop of Chartres and his colleagues were busy preparing a draft war budget. They costed the proposed military and naval operations against England at no less than 1,212,500 livres. This was an enormous sum. But it was not the limit of the Duke of Orléans’ ambitions. He was also contemplating a major campaign in northern Italy under his own command during the autumn and winter. His father-in-law Gian Galeazzo Visconti had died suddenly at the height of his powers in September 1402, leaving his domains to be governed by his widow as regent for their under-age son. Louis feared for the future of the duchy of Milan and his own county of Asti, which were threatened with internal disintegration and attack from outside by Florence, the papacy and Ruprecht’s Germany, all of them victims of Gian Galeazzo’s twenty-year career of conquest.

In the first half of July 1403 there was intense discussion between the royal dukes in Paris about how Louis’ multiple wars were to be financed. The whole subject was exceptionally sensitive and their deliberations were veiled in secrecy. What is clear is that they agreed in principle that when the time came there would be a heavy new taille. The Duke of Burgundy might have been expected to object. In the event he did not. Instead he seems to have abandoned his long-standing attachment to the truce with England and acquiesced in the imposition of a tax very like the one that he had gone to such lengths to veto in 1402. Why? Part of the answer is that his political position in Paris was weaker than it had been a year earlier. But the main reason appears to be that he was bought off. Having resigned himself to the loss of his political influence he exacted a large increase in his drawings from the French royal treasury as the price of his complaisance. He ultimately got an enlarged pension for the current year of 100,000 livres and another 120,000 livres by way of a one-off grant from the treasury reserve. Almost all of this money was paid over between October 1403 and April 1404. From a strictly financial point of view it was an outstanding bargain. Philip obtained more in these months from the French royal treasury than in any comparable period of his life.

It is obvious from the exchanges at Leulinghem that the English were profoundly suspicious of their French opposite numbers and doubted their good faith. They had good reason to, for the French government, while publicly adhering to the truce, was using the Bretons as surrogates to break it. During the summer of 1403 a fleet of armed merchantmen was assembled at Morlaix in north-western Brittany for service against the English: some thirty ships with 1,200 men-at-arms on board in addition to their crews. The scale of this venture and the identity of those involved leaves little doubt that it had the support of the French King’s council. The principal captains were the Admiral of Brittany, Jean de Penhoet, and the captain of the ducal fortress at Brest, Guillaume du Châtel, a chamberlain of the Duke of Orléans who had been foremost in the lists at Montendre the year before. The Morlaix fleet did a great deal of damage. On 8 July 1403 it surprised an English raiding force which was lying at anchor in the harbour at Saint-Matthieu. The English tried to escape but the Bretons split their force into two divisions and headed them off, uttering terrible cries as they closed with the opposing ships. The ensuing fight lasted for six hours until the English ran out of ammunition. By then 500 of their crews had been killed in the fight and another 500 thrown into the sea and drowned. A thousand more were captured and ransomed. Forty English ships were reported to have been captured. Fresh from landing their prizes and prisoners the Bretons sailed again at about the beginning of August against the west of England. There they lay off the harbours waiting to attack ships entering or leaving. They landed and burned settlements, killing many of the inhabitants and carrying off others for ransom. On 9 August 1403 these operations came to a violent close when they penetrated Plymouth Sound in the early afternoon and landed their men about a mile from the town. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham’s accusations of negligence may well have been justified, for nothing appears to have been done to interfere with the landings. The town was unwalled. The French approached it unobserved at nightfall and fell on it after dark, rapidly overwhelming the inhabitants. The whole night was passed in burning and looting. On the following morning they sailed away with many prisoners and several captured freighters as Sir Thomas Berkeley approached with the levies of the western counties. On their way home the Bretons landed on Guernsey and Jersey, causing more destruction and exacting heavy patis from the inhabitants. It was the worst coastal raid that England had suffered since the 1370s.


These events coincided with the gravest internal crisis of Henry IV’s reign. In the spring of 1403 the Percies, Henry Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Hotspur, who had taken the leading part in the revolution which put Henry on the throne in 1399, resolved to break with him. Their reasons reveal much about the English King’s failings as a political manager. The Percies had been the dominant territorial magnates of the north for nearly a century. For most of the reign of Richard II they had enjoyed almost viceregal powers in the north as wardens of the east march, and in the aftermath of Henry IV’s coup of 1399 in the west march, Cheshire and north Wales as well. They owed their power in the region to personal factors which it was not easy for outsiders to match: their immense landholdings in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumberland, their possession of some of the principal private fortresses of the north, their familiarity with border society on both sides and the intense tribal loyalty which these highly successful warriors inspired among their tenants, allies and followers. In the words of the fifteenth-century chronicler of the region, himself a Percy retainer, they ‘have the hertes of the people by north and ever had’. They had become indispensable. When Richard II had briefly attempted at the end of his reign to exclude them from the wardenship, his nominee the Duke of Aumale had bluntly told him that it was impossible to govern the north without them.

In 1403 the Percies had a number of reasons to feel that their worth was not being recognised. One was Henry IV’s attempt to balance their power by promoting the interests of the Nevilles, the other great noble house of the north. Ralph Neville Earl of Westmorland was the King’s brother-in-law and had been close to him for many years. At the time of Henry’s accession Westmorland was one of the great territorial magnates of the north with important holdings on both sides of the Pennines. In the north-east, where the Percy interests were concentrated, his power was visibly growing. He was already much the largest landowner in the palatine county of Durham. Shortly after the King’s coronation he had been granted the immense honour of Richmond in Yorkshire, traditionally a possession of the Dukes of Brittany, which had previously been farmed or leased to the Percies. He acquired control of the border fortresses of Wark and Bamburgh in Northumberland, where the Percies had once been the sole military power. The removal of Hotspur in 1402 from the command of Roxburgh, the last surviving royal fortress in southern Scotland apart from Berwick, was a symbolic act. Roxburgh stood in territory where the Percies had ancient claims and large ambitions. Hotspur’s replacement was the Earl of Westmorland.