Spanish War of Succession: Iberia

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Batalla de Almansa. Landscape by Filippo Pallotta, figures by Buonaventura Ligli

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Although the war revolved around the question of who would become the next king of Spain, the Iberian Peninsula was not an obvious theater of operations. Philippe had established himself in Spain in 1701, while Louis’ diplomats signed a treaty of friendship with Portugal’s King Pedro II. With no base from which to operate, William had found it expedient to recognize Philippe’s claim to the throne. Even the Grand Alliance treaty made no reference to Charles ascending the Spanish throne; in fact, Article Five only identified Imperial pretensions to Spain’s Italian and Netherlands possessions. The Habsburg court focused on the Italian holdings, and although the Dutch were interested in Mediterranean trade, they were more concerned about other theaters diverting attention from the defense of their southern border.

The allied decision to commit to a ‘No Peace without Spain’ policy was, therefore, made by the English, a decision encouraged by naval strength. England’s goals in the Mediterranean and Iberia were numerous: to protect its Levant trade, threaten Spain’s incoming trade from the Americas, neutralize France’s fleet based at Toulon, buttress Austria in Italy, encourage the defection of France’s allies (Portugal and Savoy), and support uprisings in Bourbon-held territories (Naples, Catalonia, the Balearics and the Cevennes in particular). The Whig Lords had already concluded in 1701 that the only acceptable peace was one that saw Charles sitting on the throne in Madrid.

This maximalist goal would be implicitly accepted for much of the war by both parties. The first attempt to open the theater was a repeat of previous English strategy: an Anglo-Dutch fleet landed forces to capture the Andalusian port of Cadiz in September 1702, hoping to establish a naval base and threaten the colonial trade off-loaded at Seville. Repulsed, they attacked a Spanish bullion fleet that had anchored at Vigo on the Galician coast. The capture of several French men-of-war excited the public back home and illustrated the Royal Navy’s strategic flexibility. The victory, nonetheless, had less effect on the Bourbon war effort, at least in direct attritional terms. More important was the encouragement it gave Pedro to join the Grand Alliance. The resulting Methuen Treaty of 1703 inaugurated an Iberian war, committing the English and Dutch, as well as their Austrian ally, to a land campaign to capture Spain. The English diplomatic team negotiated with Portugal in secret and intentionally excluded the Dutch envoy until the details had already been decided, terms which obligated the English and Dutch to a far larger Iberian commitment than the Dutch had envisioned. A few months after the treaty of alliance was completed, an Anglo-Portuguese commercial treaty was signed which promised the English preferential trade with Portugal.

The Portuguese were, however, an unreliable ally. Most towns along the Hispano-Portuguese border were difficult to besiege, while foreign witnesses expressed their amazement at the heat and barrenness of the region. The Spanish nevertheless captured several Portuguese fortresses in 1704, while command disputes and undermanned regiments hindered the allied response. The allies would take several fortresses back in 1705 and even march to Madrid in 1706, but for the rest of the war, the Portuguese front degenerated into inconclusive operations. These early setbacks encouraged the English to look for other fronts from which to attack Philippe, a strategy perfectly suited against a Spanish enemy who in 1703 boasted a negligible navy and a mere 20,000 troops to defend a territory 16 times the size of the Spanish Netherlands with 3,000 miles of coastline. As a result, an August 1704 attack on the poorly prepared town of Gibraltar captured the port within three days. The newly installed garrison, with the support of the Anglo-Dutch fleet, then resisted a subsequent eight-month siege and blockade. The English pillaging of both Port St. Mary (near Cadiz) and Gibraltar, however, poisoned relations with the Andalusians and made it impossible for the allies to support an offensive from Gibraltar.

The year 1704 thus saw a further allied naval attempt to open yet another front by landing 1,600 marines at Barcelona, an area once governed by the allied commander (Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt) and conveniently situated close to both hard-pressed Savoy and rebellious Camisards in south- eastern France. That first effort miscarried, but the next year 10,000 troops captured the Catalonian capital after a siege. Now Charles controlled an independent Spanish base supported by Catalans, and this reinvigorated English hopes for an alternative to operations in the Low Countries. By the end of 1705, the uprising against Philippe had spread to Aragon and Valencia, allowing the allies to garrison fortresses along Spain’s eastern coast. In April 1706 the Bourbons returned to the offensive, besieging Barcelona and drawing supplies from their fleet. After Admiral Leake’s flotilla chased off the French, Philippe withdrew with Charles slowly pursuing him to Madrid. The lack of fortresses and logistical difficulties in Aragon and Castile meant that possession of Madrid was left to those who could gain the support of the Castilian people. Madrid was briefly held by an allied army, but the popular resistance to the presence of heretical northerners, Portuguese foes, Catalan separatists, and plundering troops soon forced the allied army from Castile. In the aftermath, the Duke of Berwick’s army began the slow reconquest of Valencia and Murcia. In early 1707 the battlefield victory at Almansa magnified the Bourbon advantage. This forced the allied field army back to Catalonia, and inaugurated the reconquest of Valencia and Aragon, successes facilitated by the absence of allied fleets which were transporting troops or making new conquests.

By the beginning of 1710, Charles and his polyglot forces found themselves holed up in Catalonia. But two allied victories, precipitated by Louis’ withdrawal of French troops from the peninsula, allowed the allies to march again on Madrid and occupy it. Once again, however, the Castilian populace resisted the foreign claimant, and on the retreat back to Catalonia, the entire English contingent was captured at Brihuega. Suffering from whiplash, the new Tory ministry would gradually abandon its commitment to the theater, seeking to secure its bases at Gibraltar and Port Mahon. The Iberian theater, expected to deliver a quick victory in contrast with the Low Countries, turned into almost as deep a quagmire as Flanders, with worse results.

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This page is dedicated to an overview of a book written by one of club members about the Spanish Campaign of 1710. The book contains details of all the battles and actions in the campaign. It also contain many OOB’s, maps and other material on the armies involved in the campaign.

Gamers, historians and all with an interest in this campaign should find something of interest.

Readers of the book should find the companion work on the whole 1st Peninsula War (1702-1712) also of interest.

BATTLE ON THE CHATEAUGUAY, (26 October 1813)

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Early in September 1813, at the request of Major General James Wilkinson, Secretary of War John Armstrong ordered Major General Wade Hampton to march his division of the U.S. Army at Burlington, Vermont (on the right wing of the Ninth Military District), into Canada via the Richelieu River and attack the British post at Isle-aux-Noix. Although he doubted his ability to achieve this goal, Hampton moved his 4,000-man division to Plattsburgh, New York, beginning early on 19 September and, with the support of Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s squadron, landed at Champlain, New York, late that evening and marched to the border. The next day, he advanced into LC, but the skirmish at Odelltown (20 September) and reports of his scouts convinced him that it was impractical to force his way down the Richelieu route. Instead, he marched back into New York and then about 70 miles westward to the village of Four Corners, New York, on the upper Chateauguay River. The division was harassed by native parties, and Hampton deployed part of his force to deflect this problem and to create a distraction near the Richelieu that resulted in raids conducted by Colonel Isaac Clark.

Weeks passed during which Hampton waited at Four Corners for instructions regarding his coordination with Wilkinson’s campaign on the St. Lawrence (October–November 1813). He learned that a British force was forming on the lower Chateauguay and, on Armstrong’s advice, headed downriver to investigate on 16 October.

On 21 October, Hampton broke camp. His division now consisted of Colonel Robert Purdy’s First Brigade (Fourth and Thirty-third U.S. Regiments of Infantry and units of 12-month volunteers from Maine and New Hampshire), Brigadier General George Izard’s Second Brigade (Tenth, Eleventh merged with the Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth merged with the Thirty-first U.S. Regiments of Infantry, and a handful of New York Militia), 150 Second U.S. Regiment of Light Dragoons, and 200 of the Third Regiment of Artillery and the Regiment of Light Artillery. It rained hard during the next days as the column proceeded slowly, its path barred by trees felled by the British.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Salaberry had been charged with defending the lower Chateauguay. After a failed preemptive raid on Hampton’s camp at Four Corners on 1 October, de Salaberry fortified a location about 25 miles from the mouth of the river. This consisted of four sets of breastworks in a wooded area on the western bank of the river—the first at a ford, the others further upstream. At the edge of the woods beyond the fourth breastwork, de Salaberry erected an abatis overlooking a wide cultivated field and about seven miles of unforested terrain.

De Salaberry commanded about 400 men, most of them French Canadian (70 Canadian Fencibles, 110 Canadian Voltigeurs, 130 Select Embodied Militia, 75 sedentary LC Militia, and 20 Abenaki and Nipissing warriors). In his rear, Lieutenant Colonel George Macdonell had about 1,370 men, most of them militia.

Hampton decided to attack de Salaberry before his position could be further strengthened; he did this despite having just been advised by Armstrong to build winter quarters and without having any further instructions about Wilkinson’s movement. Late on 25 October, Hampton sent Purdy with 2,300 men (his brigade and light infantry from the other units) to the east side of the Chateauguay to capture the ford. The next morning, he sent Izard to attack de Salaberry with the remaining force but not the artillery.

Some of de Salaberry’s men were at the abatis and ready to skirmish in front of it and fired the first shots around 10:00 A.M. De Salaberry hurried there with elements of his force, bringing the total to about 300 defenders. Izard advanced across the field with the Tenth Infantry and engaged the British for 20 minutes, then fell back to restore his ammunition.

Meanwhile, Purdy, who had lost his way during the night, was only just approaching the ford. A company of LC Militia and one of Embodied Militia, sent to guard the eastern approach with some native warriors, fired on his leading companies, which fell back.

Only desultory fire occurred until about 2:00 P.M., when Izard moved forward again with his entire force and warmly engaged de Salaberry, pushing into the woods. Hampton had orders shouted across the river to Purdy to retreat, at which point the two French Canadian companies and warriors engaged Purdy’s men. His brigade dissolved into chaos (some of the officers even abandoned their companies) and scattered as it withdrew, although some returned the British fire well enough to force their retreat, too.

Macdonell arrived to occupy the breastworks behind de Salaberry’s position but was not needed, as Hampton decided around 3:00 P.M. that the attack had failed and ordered Izard and Purdy to retreat back to their camp; most of Purdy’s brigade spent another horrendous night in the woods before being able to recross the Chateauguay.

Hampton did not complete a list of casualties, though it was believed he lost 40 dead and at least as many wounded. The British had two killed, 16 wounded, and four taken captive. De Salaberry’s immediate superior, Major General Louis de Watteville, and Sir George Prevost arrived on the ground during the final stages of the action; the latter’s representation of his own part in the affair greatly offended de Salaberry.

There was no denying the importance of the victory, especially in light of how outnumbered the British were. Hampton demonstrated his limited battlefield acumen and then his lack of commitment to a coordinated effort with Wilkinson by marching back to Four Corners, where he informed Armstrong that his campaign was at an end on 1 November. A week later, his division headed for Plattsburgh.

CHARLES MICHEL D’ IRUMBERRY DE SALABERRY, (1778–1829)

Born in LC, Salaberry entered the British army as a volunteer in 1792 and two years later was commissioned an ensign in the 60th Regiment of Foot through the patronage of Prince Edward, fourth son of King George III (later the Duke of Kent and father of Queen Victoria). Salaberry showed courage and talent during a campaign in the West Indies, and the prince continued to guide his career. In 1806, as a captain, he joined the 5/60th Foot under then-Colonel Francis de Rottenburg, the expert in light infantry tactics who later referred to Salaberry as “my dear Gunpowder.” While on recruitment in England, he became involved in a brief but difficult controversy with then–Major General Sir George Prevost.

In 1810, Salaberry returned to Canada as de Rottenburg’s aide-de-camp. Breveted to major the next year, he proposed the formation of a light infantry corps of LC militia that became in the spring of 1812 the Canadian Voltigeurs. Another controversy involving Prevost developed, concerning the granting of a regular army commission as lieutenant colonel to Salaberry, and was not resolved until mid-1814, much to his annoyance.

In 1812, Salaberry and some of the Voltigeurs were posted along the LC border with New York and Vermont, where they saw action at the skirmish at Lacolle (20 November); Prevost did not mention him in a dispatch to the home government.

When the Right Division of the U.S. Army in the Ninth Military District under Major General Wade Hampton threatened to invade LC via the Richelieu River route, Salaberry reinforced his forward post at Odelltown (20 September 1813) and put up such a fight that Hampton withdrew and headed for the Chateauguay River in New York. In the subsequent battle on the Chateauguay (26 October), Salaberry demonstrated his expertise in defensive preparations, deployment, and battlefield steadiness, outnumbered though he was by Hampton’s army. Major General Louis de Watteville, Salaberry’s immediate superior, and Prevost arrived on the scene late in the action. Sir George later reported the affair in such a way as to downplay Salaberry’s role. Salaberry protested and threatened to resign, but Prevost offered him the lucrative assignment of inspecting field officer of the militia; privately, Prevost denigrated Salaberry’s role at Chateauguay and overall competence. Late in 1814, Salaberry sent his resignation to the Horse Guards, but Prince Edward intercepted it, and Salaberry remained in commission as a lieutenant colonel; he sat on the board at the court-martial of Major General Henry Procter at Montreal in December 1814.

Salaberry received a medal in 1816 in commemoration of his victory at Chateauguay and at the recommendation of Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond was made a CB in 1817. He ended his years as a successful landowner, involved in various civil affairs.

Defence of the Realm: The Wars at Sea I

Model (scale approximately 1:48) based on the Seal of Dover in use in 1284. The Seals of the Cinque Ports are almost the only contemporary information available. The ships of the 11th and 12th centuries differed little from Viking longships. As more reliance came to be placed on sail power the vessels were built with increased beam and depth to carry the larger sail. During the 13th century, fore and aftercastles were added to these ships for fighting purposes. This ship was about 75 ft in length and 25 ft wide. The Cinque Ports are first mentioned in an English Royal Charter of 1155. They were five ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings) which, in return for certain privileges, guaranteed to provide the Crown with ships in times of national strife or crisis.

It has long been an axiom that, as an island, Britain’s best defence was to attack the enemy at sea and for many centuries the warships and sailors from the Cinque Ports of Sussex formed part of England’s coastal defence.

The Cinque Ports were a maritime confederacy whose privileges and duties were legally defined by a Royal Charter of 1278. In return for the defence of the coast against sea-borne incursions and the provision of fifty-seven armed ships and crews for fifteen days each year for the Royal fleet, the confederation was granted certain rights and privileges. These included exemption from many taxes, the rights of wreckage (an important, if irregular, source of income) and Honours at Court. If the ships were required for longer than the fifteen days the king had to pay for their services.

The original five ports were Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich with Winchelsea and Rye as attached members of Hastings. The full title of the confederation was the Cinque Ports and Two Ancient Towns. At various times throughout the Middle Ages other towns and ports, from as far as Brightlingsea in Essex to Seaford in Sussex (and including Pevensey and Bulverhythe), were affiliated with the confederation, forming one of the most important naval forces in England. At the height of its power and influence the confederation numbered no less than forty-two towns and villages.

The ports had been active as a confederation long before their position was legally established. It is known that the Cinque Ports’ fleet sailed up the eastern coast in support of King Harold’s march to York to face Hardrada’s Vikings in 1066. Unfortunately for Harold these vessels were still in the north when William sailed from Normandy and the Conqueror found the coast undefended. Ironically it was the loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 which thrust the south coast and the Cinque Ports into the front line defence of England.

Their first recorded large-scale battle occurred early in 1213 when the Cinque Ports’ fleet attacked Dieppe and destroyed French ships which had been assembling in the Seine estuary in preparation for an attack upon England. In May of the same year the Cinque Ports’ ships formed part of an English naval force which defeated the French at the Battle of Damme where, it was claimed, the Portsmen captured 200 enemy vessels.

In 1216 Rye and Winchelsea opened their gates to the Dauphin of France in his unsuccessful bid to wrest the English throne from the hated King John. The French also occupied Chichester Castle. The following year the Castle was recaptured and the Cinque Ports’ fleet, having been bribed to change sides, defeated the French navy in a battle off Sandwich. So that Chichester Castle could never be used again by the French it was pulled down in 1225.

In 1242 the Cinque Ports were granted permission to ravage the French coast but it was during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) that the men and the ships of the Cinque Ports were most frequently in action. This conflict was a continuation of the confusion that arose after William the Conqueror divided his Anglo-Norman empire between his sons. From that moment on, the leading men in England and France were locked in seemingly endless disputes over the rights to property on both sides of the Channel. Often this took the form of legal debate but sometimes the arguments were decided by the force of arms. So when Phillip VI seized Gascony in 1337 the English king – Edward III – went to war to regain his Gascon possessions and to assert his own claim to the throne of France.

The first battle of the Hundred Years War was at sea. Edward, with a massive fleet of ships, including a large contingent from the Cinque Ports, achieved a great victory off Sluys. French losses were claimed to have reached 25,000 men. The significance of this victory, and of another success by the Cinque Ports’ fleet at the Battle of Les Espagnols-sur-Mer off Winchelsea in 1350, was that Edward’s army was able to cross the Channel and most of the fighting of the Hundred Years War took place in France.

Inevitably the French fleet felt obliged to retaliate and the Sussex coast, particularly the Cinque Ports, came under attack. Winchelsea was first assaulted in 1337 when around a hundred houses were burnt to the ground. Rye suffered a similar raid in 1339 when fifty of its houses were destroyed.

Twenty years later, on Sunday 15 March 1359, some 3,000 Frenchmen landed whilst the townspeople were in Winchelsea’s Church of St Giles celebrating Mass. The French broke into the church killing and raping. Forty of the inhabitants were murdered before help came. In the ensuing conflict some 400 English were drowned in the harbour. When the French sailed away they took with them thirteen well-laden ships.4

Exactly one year later, on 15 March 1360, Rye and Winchelsea suffered another raid, with both ports and the surrounding countryside being ravaged and burnt. A retaliatory raid was made by the Cinque Ports’ fleet a few months later.

The largest French raid came in the summer of 1377. Rye was overrun by a considerable force of possibly 4,000 men in 120 ships led by Admiral Jean de Vienne. At the sight of such a large force the inhabitants fled. All the wooden buildings in the town were burnt. Rye’s small castle, the Badding’s Tower, which had been built in the time of Henry III, proved incapable of defending the town against such attacks and it was clear that Rye would have to be properly fortified. With the help of Royal grants a stone wall was subsequently erected around the town with impressive strong-points in the form of the Land Gate and the Strand Gate. Baddings Tower was sold to a private individual, John de Ypres, in 1430 and has been known as the Ypres Tower ever since.

The French raiders then moved against Winchelsea. But the Abbot of Battle, having learnt of the French incursion, armed his men and sent them to help man the town’s defences. The raiders were driven off. Winchelsea’s defences were formed when the new town was built on its present site at the end of the thirteenth century. The walls were partly wood and earth, with stone only being used at key locations. The whole of the eastern side was surrounded by a wide ditch.

Undeterred by their repulse at Winchelsea, the French continued along the coast, ransacking Hastings and destroying its churches. Hastings was no longer the major port in the region. Hastings heads the list of the Cinque Ports and at its height in the twelfth century it contributed twenty ships to the king’s fleet. By the early thirteenth century Hastings’ contribution to the confederation was no more than half-a-dozen vessels. Hastings Castle had also declined in importance and as early as 1339 the town and the castle had been ransacked by one of the first raids of the Hundred Years War.

The French attackers continued westwards and, sighting a gap in the cliffs, de Vienne decided to make landfall – they had arrived at Rottingdean. The ships anchored or ran aground and the French troops advanced inland, only to be met by a volley of arrows from the locals. Though outnumbered, the archers were able to delay the French long enough to allow their women and children to escape. One man was sent by horse to alert the people of Lewes.

Meanwhile the rest of the French force made its way ashore. They looted the houses and set fire to the church of St Margaret. As de Vienne prepared to extend his raid further inland one of his scouts reported that an English force of some 500 men was approaching. The French admiral planned an ambush.

The English force was led by John de Caroloco, the Prior of the St Pancras Priory at Lewes. The Prior had no idea that the French were ashore in such large numbers and when he saw the small advance force on the edge of the village, he led the English into the attack. De Vienne, however, had stationed the majority of his troops on the wooded slopes of Beacon Hill, from which vantage point they could watch the English rushing into their trap.

The small French body turned and ran back to the beach, luring the English with them. At a pre-arranged signal, de Vienne unleashed his men who charged down upon the rear of the unsuspecting English. A handful of the English managed to cut their way through the French ranks but Prior de Caroloco was captured and around 100 men were killed.

Having beaten the local militia, de Vienne was now free to plunder the local area and it is possible that the French got as far as Lewes only to find the gates closed and the walls manned. After five days the French took to their ships again, eventually returning to France. It is said that John de Caroloco was taken back to France and ransomed. It has been said that he was released after a ransom of 300 marks had been handed over.

Ecclesiastical establishments of the Middle Ages played an important part in local defence, especially as places of refuge. The great gatehouses of places like Battle Abbey and Michelham Priory, as well as the moats dug around churches, such as that at West Tarring, were genuine defensive structures.

In retaliation for the raid of 1377 the men of Rye and Winchelsea attacked the French coast the following year. They captured all the wealthy people that could be held to ransom and they recovered the church bells of the two towns which had been taken by the French the previous year.

The French attacked the Sussex coast again in 1380. Led by Admiral Jean de Vienne, the Cinque Ports of Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings were once more the main targets of the raiders. The final French raid of the Hundred Years War was against Rye in 1448.

The repeated French attacks prompted a number of important landowners living close to the coast to build castles.

Amongst those was Bishop William Rede who sought a license to crenellate his house at Amberley after the raid of 1377. Though Amberley is more than six miles from the sea, it is less than a mile from the Arun which French ships could easily navigate. With curtain walls reaching forty feet in height the castle was protected by a moat along its southern face and the extensive marsh land of the Wild Brooks to the north and west. Its most impressive feature was its twin-towered gatehouse, built with a drawbridge and portcullis. Amberley Castle was attacked only once, in 1643 during the Civil War, when it was captured without a struggle by the Parliamentarians.

Around the same time that Amberley Castle was being fortified, Roger de Ashburnham also received permission to strengthen his manor house at Scotney. Until the nineteenth-century boundary changes Scotney was in Sussex, but is now in Kent. A few years later, on 21 October 1385, Sir Edward Dalngrigge received a licence to crenellate his property at Bodiam. Like Amberley, Bodiam Castle is near to one of Sussex’s major rivers. In this instance the Castle overlooks the River Rother, close to an ancient harbour which had been in use since Roman times.

Bodiam, one of the most picturesque castles in England, was built within a huge rectangular moat, some eight feet deep, which measures 542 feet by 340 feet. Rising to forty-one feet above the level of the water, the short curtain walls are flanked by four circular drum towers at each corner of this virtually square building. Midway along each of the southern, eastern and western walls is a rectangular tower and the northern wall boasts an impressive gatehouse. The towers stand twenty feet higher than the walls. Bodiam is classified as a courtyard castle which means that the internal buildings are set around a central courtyard.

The towers of the gatehouse flank the entrance which was built with three portcullises and a drawbridge which led to a barbican gate. A second drawbridge led to a small octagonal island which was reached by a bridge from the western side of the moat. It is also known that the castle was armed with a 15-inch “bombard”, one of the earliest types of artillery piece, as one of these guns was found in the moat. This weapon is now on display in the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich.

With such defences, the castle would have been virtually unassailable, yet the only occasion that it was attacked – during the Civil War – it appears to have been given up without a fight. Bodiam was also besieged in 1483 but nothing is known about the event.

Herstmonceux Castle was built in the penultimate decade of the Hundred Years War by Roger de Fiennes who made his fortune fighting, and plundering, the French. Though the castle is not near a navigable river it does command the exposed Pevensey Levels. Despite its impressive double-parapeted gatehouse and water-filled moat, Herstmonceux is considered to be more a fortified manor house than a true castle.

During this period of unrest Pevensey Castle was garrisoned with around twenty or thirty men, usually consisting of ten men-at-arms, twenty bowmen and a watchman. However, in 1372 the Castle passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and he refused to defend the Castle against the French raids. His failure to provide troops to garrison the Castle during the 1377 raid (claiming that if the Castle was damaged he could afford to re-build it!) made the Duke an unpopular figure. During the Peasant’s Revolt four years later the locals had their revenge and a mob broke into the Castle and burnt the court rolls used for assessing the Poll Tax. A similar attack was made at this time upon Lewes Castle.

In 1394 John of Gaunt went to Ireland and he entrusted the Constableship of Pevensey Castle to Sir John Pelham. When, five years later, John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, clashed with Richard II, Pelham remained loyal to the Gaunt family and Pevensey Castle found itself under siege for the final time in its history. On this occasion the Castle, held by Pelham’s wife Joan, was not taken and after Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV, Pelham received the Castle and Honour of Pevensey as his reward.

With the ending of the Hundred Years War, the military importance of the Cinque Ports faded. Their decline was due in part to the growth of the Royal Navy but also to the silting up of the harbours. Only Dover, with aid from the state, has managed to keep its harbour open. The Cinque Ports were called to defend the realm just one more time when England faced its severest test since 1066. This time, though, it was not from France that the would-be invaders came, but from Spain.

Religion, which has so often whipped up the storm of international conflict, was the wind behind the sails of the magnificent armada of war ships that departed Spain in 1588 intent upon the subjugation of liberal England. Catholic Spain, then the most powerful nation in Europe, numbered the Netherlands (present-day Belgium and Holland) amongst its possessions. The growing Protestant movement in the Low Countries worried the severely orthodox Spanish monarch, Philip II, and he decided to end the advance of the heretics and enforce strict Catholicism upon his wayward Dutch and Flemish subjects.

A strong force of mercenaries from Spain’s Italian provinces, led by the Duke of Alva, was despatched to the Netherlands in the summer of 1567. Alva arrested the province’s leading figures and instigated a reign of inquisitorial terror against the defenceless Protestants. Many fled the Inquisition by crossing the North Sea. The Low Countries had long been England’s commercial inlet into Europe and the Flemish weavers and Dutch merchants received a friendly welcome from their old trading partners in Protestant England.

Tension between England and Spain was heightened the following year with the capture of an English fleet of ships in the Caribbean by the Spaniards, and by the retention of the cargo from a Spanish convoy that had sought shelter in the ports along the south coast. That cargo was gold bullion which had been destined to pay the troops occupying the Netherlands. Firstly Spain and then England responded by placing embargoes on each other’s trade with the Low Countries.

Relationships between the two countries deteriorated even further when Mary Queen of Scots attempted to seize the English throne with the assistance of the Spaniards. Mary’s Catholic supporters captured Hartlepool to allow Alva’s men a secure disembarkation but the Spaniards lacked the naval strength to ensure a safe crossing of the North Sea and the rebellion was quickly quashed.

By contrast, northern Europe continued to experience great civil unrest amidst Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It was, therefore, in England’s settled shires that industry could flourish in peace.

In Sussex the Wealden forests glowed with the fires of the gun foundries. Firstly for the ships of the Royal Navy and then for the forts and castles of the shores, the cannon of Sussex armed the nation – and none too soon. For the dare-devil actions of English privateers on the Spanish Main and open support for the Dutch rebels had enraged Philip and he would tolerate England’s interference no longer.

Defence of the Realm: The Wars at Sea II

The Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 was undoubtedly an important and fascinating battle. However, even today it is frequently surrounded by common myths and confusions that date back to Victorian Era days. The battle itself was followed by 16 years of land and naval war between England and Spain in which the Spanish were mostly successful and renewed their control over the high seas, a basic fact that many texts and popular accounts often fail entirely to mention. Spain retooled its navy and shipped three times as much silver in the 1590s as before. The Spanish invasion force, moreover, was never referred to (by Philip or anyone else in Spain) as the “Invincible Armada”; medical resources on the Spanish coast were mobilized with surprising rapidity and effectiveness to tend to sick and wounded returning sailors in 1588, suggesting that the Spaniards very much were prepared for the potential failure of the Spanish Armada and run-ins with rough weather. These are just a few of the common myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada battle; a list of the “Top 10” myths is compiled and tackled HERE.

Philip planned to crush England with overwhelming force. An armada of transport vessels and warships, led by Medina Sidonia, would sail into the Channel and drive the Royal Navy from its home waters. At the same time the army in the Netherlands, now under the command of the Duke of Parma, would cross the North Sea on flat-bottomed barges taken from the waterways of Flanders.

Elizabeth, and her advisers, were well aware of Philip’s preparations and whilst all effort was to be concentrated upon stopping the Spaniards at sea, consideration was also given to the defence of the coast.

Firstly, a chain of fire beacons was established along the entire southern and eastern coastlines. They were formed in pairs. Lighting one beacon was to indicate a small raid which might be repelled by local men; lighting both beacons meant that a full-scale attack was imminent.

In Sussex these were located at: West Wittering, Bracklesham, Selsey, Sidlesham, The Trundle, Pagham, Felpham, Littlehampton, East Preston, Kingston, Ferring, Goring, Worthing (Heene Mill), East Worthing, Lancing, Aldrington, Brighton, Rottingdean, Seaford (Bishopstone), Wilmington, Willingdon, Beachy Head, Cross-in-Hand, Burwash, Cooden Down and Fairlight.

From the coast the alarm could be passed all the way to London with beacons on Highdown Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Ditchling Beacon, Firle Beacon and Crowborough Beacon transmitting signals to the North Downs and from there to the capital. The maintenance of the beacons, which were pitch-filled iron baskets on top of wooden poles, was the responsibility of the community and five householders were to oversee each pair. These householders had to ensure that at least two of them were home at all times and no one living on or near the coast was allowed to move home without permission. The beacon system was supplemented by a relay of post-horses which were held in readiness along the coast.

Secondly, batteries were to be built or restored and armed with cannon, especially along the flat, open beaches between Brighton and Selsey. Brighton, a frequent target of raids from the sea, already possessed a gun garden and blockhouse. Situated on what was once a low cliff between the present-day Black Lion Street and Ship Street, the gun garden fronted the sea with the circular blockhouse standing to a height of eighteen feet placed behind it. Initially sixteen guns were housed in the garden and blockhouse but by the time of the Armada this had been reduced to just six. Trenches already existed at Whitehawk Hill and others were planned for Saltdean.

Further to the east, Newhaven, East Blatchington and Cuckmere Haven were to be provided with more substantial earthworks and Birling Gap was to be “rammed up”. Alfriston, Eastbourne and Hastings were all to receive defensive works or ordnance. A two-gun battery was formed inside the outer bailey of Pevensey Castle, and Camber Castle was kept in good condition and was well-armed. At Rye, still an important port, the Gun Garden was furnished with artillery as was the Land Gate and the Strand Gate.

At Shoreham a small defensive work for three guns was raised on the east bank estuary of the Adur. Further west, at Littlehampton (then still known as Arundel Haven) it is possible that a fort was erected on the east bank of the Arun to house four medium-calibre cannon. At Kingston (near East Preston), Goring, Worthing and Lancing defensive trenches were dug but they do not appear to have been armed with artillery.

Pagham Harbour was particularly well defended with a battery at, or near, East Beach (East Norton) to accommodate three guns, with another three pieces mounted on the eastern arm of the harbour entrance. The height of the former Norman ringwork at Church Norton overlooking the southern edge of the harbour was raised and used as a lookout post.

Responsibility for the defence of the coast from Kent to Dorset was placed in the hands of “Black” Sir John Norris with the defence of Sussex delegated to Lord Howard of Effingham – the Lord Admiral of England – who held the title of Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and Surrey. He was assisted by the Queen’s cousin Lord Buckhurst.

Lewes, situated in the middle of the county, was selected as the military headquarters and Buckhurst moved into the town. The house where he stayed still stands and is now “Shelley’s Hotel” in the High Street. The county’s reserve artillery and munitions store was also at Lewes.

It was intended that the Spanish landing would be met only by local forces with the main English armies concentrated further inland. It has been estimated that in the south and south-west the shoreline would have been held by some 21,000 local militia, armed with whatever weapons they might possess. The Elizabethan militia was intended to be a formation of all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty. These men had to be prepared to turn out in the defence of their shire at an hour’s warning. In each district a number of men were given military training.

These “trained bands” were well-armed and were the backbone of the local defence force. In Sussex there were supposed to have been 2,000 trained men. Of these, 800 were to have carried firearms and the remainder equipped with halberds or pikes. The bow was still considered a weapon of war though its place on the battlefield was being usurped by the matchlock musket.

To protect the south-east and the Thames estuary two small armies, one of 12,000 men and the other of 6,000 men, were to be stationed at Tilbury and Sandwich respectively. Away from these coasts a force of some 27,000 to 34,000 men from the trained bands of the counties would be assembled and another army, 36,000 strong, would be held in reserve to protect the Queen.

This last body would be composed of men from the court, from the City of London and the Home Counties. Sussex was expected to find 260 horse and 4,000 foot of which 2,500 were sent to join the main army in the interior. Against these numbers Philip sent 130 ships with 30,000 men who would join forces with the Duke of Parma’s 30,000 troops waiting on the Flemish coast.

The Sussex militia were first assembled in the summer of 1586 when fifty ships were sighted off Brighton. Lord Buckhurst responded immediately by bringing together 1,600 men between Brighton and Rottingdean. They camped out on the edge of the Downs that night and they were joined by more men the next day. It proved to be a false alarm as did a similar scare the following summer when horsemen were placed along the coast after reports that an invasion fleet was approaching through the Channel.

With the prospect of invasion becoming increasingly likely Buckhurst was ordered by the Privy Council to round up all “recusants”. A recusant is someone who refuses to attend their parish church which effectively meant, and was intended to mean, all Roman Catholics. They were to be placed in the care of the clergy or other people of rank, but if this was not possible the Catholics were to be jailed.

From the outset the Armada ran into difficulties. Storms delayed its departure and further bad weather struck the great fleet before it had even left Spanish waters. Eventually, on the morning of 19 July 1588, the Armada passed the Lizard to head up the Channel. The warning beacons were lit: “Swift to East and swift to West the ghastly war-flame spread,” a contemporary poem ran. “High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone: it shone on Beachy Head.”

The English fleet put to sea and the following night slipped round the Armada to place itself windward of the Spanish vessels. Though outnumbered, the English could now control the coming battle. Amongst Lord Howard’s ships was a vessel from Rye. The 60-ton vessel William was hired from a French privateer and was manned by fifty-eight sailors captained by William Coxson. Four cannon from Rye were added to whatever armament the ship already carried.

Another ship, the Ann Bonaventure of 70 tons and a crew of forty-nine, was supplied jointly by Hastings and Winchelsea. A third ship from Sussex was provided by Lord Howard with the cost being shared by all six rapes of the county. Hundreds of other sailors were recruited from the Sussex ports to fight with the navy, leaving some parts of the coast dangerously short of defenders.

For the next five days the two fleets fought periodically. The Armada moved in a crescent, or concave, formation, covering a distance of seven miles, with the largest ships at the tips of the crescent. It is often assumed that the battle in the Channel was conducted by an overwhelmingly large number of big Spanish galleons against a weaker force of small, but more manoeuvrable, English warships. The reality was far more complicated.

The disparity in numbers was not very great, with the combined fleets of Howard and Sir Francis Drake producing a total of only twenty to thirty less vessels than the Spaniards. In general the tonnage of the ships of the two nations was also roughly the same but the English vessels were of a far more modern design and carried a heavier weight of cannon.

The success of the Spanish land armies meant that the military predominated over the navy to such an extent that their ships were manned by three soldiers to every sailor. In the English ships there were three sailors to every soldier. The English ships did not dare approach too close to the Spanish vessels packed with soldiers for fear of being boarded but their guns, which far out-distanced the Spanish cannon, could inflict little damage upon the stout hulls of the Armada from long range.

On the 25th the Armada passed Selsey Bill and Buckhurst was ordered to see that the militia was mustered and posted at the chosen places along the coast and at important points of communication throughout the county. But by the 26th, the Spaniards had reached Beachy Head and it seemed unlikely that the great fleet would attempt a landfall in Sussex.

With day after day of running battles the English fleet soon became desperately short of powder and shot. Buckhurst was ordered to furnish Lord Howard with as much ammunition and food as the ships required. Gunpowder from the Lewes arsenal was sent down the Ouse to Newhaven and then shipped out to Howard’s supply vessels. Hastings, assisted by Pevensey, Winchelsea and Seaford, also helped to keep the fleet supplied.

On the 27th, the Armada sailed past Rye and, four days later, Buckhurst allowed the militia to stand down.

In the fighting the Spaniards lost just three ships, but these were amongst their most important galleons and their loss seriously affected the morale of the fleet. By the 28th, the Armada, damaged but still largely intact, was approaching Dover where the rest of the Royal Navy, under Seymour, was guarding the Strait, waiting for this very moment.

The Armada, its numerical advantage now lost, anchored in the Calais Roads to await news from the Duke of Parma. Despite ample notice of the Armada’s approach, the Duke’s troops were not ready to embark and Parma declared that it would be two more weeks before his men could join the invasion fleet. Medina Sidonia knew that he could not remain at anchor for such a period of time with the English fleet able to attack the stationary Spanish vessels at will. With the Spanish ships packed close together under the Calais defences they presented an ideal target for fireships.

This was a common naval tactic and a highly effective one. At midnight on 7 August, eight fireships sailed into Calais. Although the Spaniards had been expecting just such an attack, they cut their anchors and put out to sea in utter confusion.

The following day the English fleet attacked the broken and disorganised Armada at the Battle of Gravelines. It was the final battle of the campaign. With little possibility of reaching Parma’s men at Dunkirk, and with his ships damaged and his men discouraged, Medina Sidonia turned for the north to round Scotland and return through the North Atlantic to Spain. Of the 130 or so ships that set sail from Corunna in July almost half were lost.

Almost 100 years after the defeat of the great Armada, the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, which put a Dutch Protestant monarch (William of Orange) on the English throne, led to further trouble with Catholic Europe. On 30 June 1690, a powerful French fleet of seventy-eight men-of-war plus twenty-two fireships, met a combined Anglo-Dutch force off Beachy Head.

Despite the fact that the allied fleet numbered just fifty-six vessels, it was the Dutch and British ships which attacked first. The battle raged all day until the wind dropped late in the afternoon. During the night the allied fleet – commanded by Lord Torrington – decided to retire.

The French gave pursuit the next day and one English ship, Anne, was driven onto the shore at Winchelsea where it was attacked by French fire-ships. The fleet escaped eastwards but allied losses amounted to eight ships and hundreds of men. The Battle of Beachy Head was, without question, a defeat for the Royal Navy and Lord Torrington was duly sent to the Tower and court-martialled.

The First and Only High-Altitude Fight in History

A painting by British artist Jim Mitchell depicting Emmanuel Galitzine’s Spitfire BF273 attacking Götz’s Ju 86R.

12 September 1942

In the summer of 1942, after already having lost the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe adopted a more technological stealth-like approach; they would use groups of bombers flying at very low altitudes, making them difficult to detect, or instead at a more medium altitude using cloud cover. As losses became increasingly heavier, the German strategists chose to use another form of attack, without any fighter escorts; high altitude reconnaissance bombers flying with pressurised cabins and ultra- powerful turbocharged engines. With a wingspan superior to that of a Lancaster, these aeroplanes were capable of flying at very high altitude of up to 45,000ft. Although these attacks were not widespread, they did have very targeted objectives. The British called them ‘hit and run raiders’, ‘sneak raiders’ or just simply ‘raiders’.

Surprised by these attacks, the RAF decided to thwart the Luftwaffe by modifying its planes and entrust the Special Flight Squadron with specifically intercepting these missions at high altitude. One particular pilot called upon was Emmanuel Galitzine, a veteran flying ace of the Battle of Britain, a direct descendant of Catherine the Great and who would later provide vital support to the Resistance Movement .

For these new kind of missions, Galitzine would undergo special high altitude training in an airtight de-pressurized box simulator at Farnborough, where he learnt that any movements he made he had to do slowly due to the pressure, and he was even provided with a heated flying suit for the operation.

In August 1942, having already taken part in the Norwegian and French campaigns, the Luftwaffe moved Horst Götz and Erich Sommer to Beauvais and they were then soon posted to Casablanca. With their reconnaissance Ju 86R ‘T5+PM’ of Höhenkampfkommando der Versuchsstelle für Höhenflüge (Staffel 14/KG 6), armed with a single 250kg bomb, the two airmen carried out a series of precision bombardments. Their targets were Aldershot on 24 August, Luton on the 25th and Bristol on the 28th, with this last mission causing the deaths of a number of civilians following an error in navigation.

On 12 September 1942, Götz and Sommer prepared for a bombing raid on Cardiff. They took off from Beauvais at 08:25hr and as they gained altitude, turned towards Normandy, flying directly over Rouen. At 08:53hr they were picked up by British radar at 26,000ft above Rouen, then at 42,000ft over Fecamp before crossing the Channel. At 09:47hr the Ju 86R sent a message to Caen, signalling the presence of two British ships ten miles south of Portland Bill. The message – and consequently the aeroplane – were immediately detected by RAF listening post Y, who immediately sent two Spitfire Vs from 421 Squadron. They spotted the Junkers, but could not intercept as the altitude it was flying at was too high.

At the same time, after the German plane had crossed the French coast at 09:27hr, a specially modified Spitfire IX BF273 of the Special Flight Squadron, piloted by Emanuel Galitzine took off from RAF Northolt. When the Junkers arrived on the outskirts of Salisbury, an astonished Erich Sommer saw the Spitfire and quickly informed Horst Götz that they had been intercepted by an aircraft flying at a greater altitude to them and continuing to climb.

Gatlitzine’s gun is jammed

Immediately, Götz and Sommer put on their oxygen masks and partially depressurised the cabin. They dropped their singular bomb in the Salisbury area and tried to escape towards the sea. It was now 10:00hr. Götz injected the fuel with nitrogen peroxide in order to give more power to the engines and give his pursuer the smallest target to aim at. Galitzine, who was less than 200m behind, opened fire. After the first salvo, his port side gun jammed, but the starboard gun continued to fire. It’s failure caused the Spitfire to spin, and in righting itself it crossed through the vapour trails of the German plane, which still contained the residue of the combustion fuel, causing Galitzine’s windscreen to steam up and the pilot to lose sight of his target.

Götz escaped. Galitzine climbed again and, his windscreen having cleared, plunged towards the bomber firing with his starboard gun. He manoeuvred his aircraft with great care, remembering the instructions given to him in training. However the same problem remained; as he passed through the vapour trails of the German aircraft, the windscreen fogged up a second time, forcing Galitzine to disengage once more. This would happen twice more.

Götz dived, thinking that he had been hit and Galitzine, unable to return to his base due to being short on fuel, had to land at Tangmere. It was 10:45hr. In the middle of the dive, one of the Junker’s engines had stopped working, but it started again at 12,000ft.

At 12:06hr, the Junkers landed at Caen-Carpiquet and the crew discovered one of the wings had been split from one side to the other by a shell, but luckily no vital parts had been damaged. On their return to Beauvais, the Luftwaffe experts would immediately take on board the lessons learned from this interception and the sorties by these raiders would cease from that day onwards.

This was the first and last interception at such high altitude by any air force in the Second World War and the two German pilots were rewarded with prestigious medals.

Exceptional machines for exceptional pilots

Originally designed as a commercial aeroplane, then transformed into a bomber, the Junkers 86 flew for the first time in 1934. The Luftwaffe received the planes in February 1936 and the first commercial planes equipped with ten seats were delivered to Swissair in April of the same year. Afterwards they were sold to Sweden, South Africa, Chile and Portugal.

With its twin 600 horsepower Jumo 205 diesel engines , its cruising speed was around 300km/h. Five Ju 86Ds flew with the Condor Legion in Spain, but proved to be disappointing. In 1939 an improved version was made, with an increased wingspan of 32m, 1000 horsepower Jumo 207 engines and a pressurized cabin, it was capable of flying at 45,000ft with a speed approaching 400km/h.

If the power of the engines had been practically doubled in these five years, their design remained the same: six face-to-face vertical cylinders with two pistons, coupled by two crankshafts, one above, the other below, coupled by gear sets. The upper pistons revealed the inlet, the lower the exhaust valve and were powered by a two stage turbocharger. The initial 105mm bore had been increased to 110mm, then 160mm, increasing the volume from 16.6 to 18.3 litres. These Jumo 207B engines weighed 650kg and had the lowest consumption of equal-powered piston engines at the time.

For the missions in August and September 1942, the ‘T5+PM’ carried a single 250kg bomb and dropped it using a precision bombsight gyro, ‘Lotfe 7E’, which replaced the ‘X-Geräte’.

The legendary aeroplanes of the Spitfire family are more well known. To thwart the attacks from the ‘raiders’, Supermarine first developed a Mk VI with elongated wings: 40ft 2in. Then a Mk VII with a bi-turbocharged Merlin 61 engine and pressurised cabin and finally, in 1942, a Mk IX, which represented a synthesis of the proceeding developments, but curiously, without pressurisation or elongated wings. It was, however, equipped with a tracking radar. In order to be lighter, and therefore faster, this Spitfire was only armed with two 20mm Hispano guns, the machine guns and armour having been removed and the metal helix being replaced by a lighter wooden one. These modifications led to a weight loss of 450lbs.

Emmanuel Galitzine received his BF273 Mk IX on 10 September 1942 at Northolt, where the RAF had created the Special Fight Squadron. On the same day, he carried out a second flight in order to test the guns. He reported that the plane was particularly agreeable to fly and just after these test flights, he took it into action.

ABWEHR

Dressed as Nuns I

Britain was gripped by a feverish spy mania during the first few months of theWWI, in which anyone – or anything – German or faintly alien was viewed with hostility and scorn. Dachshunds were stoned in the streets, delicatessens and pork butchers attacked and looted, and enamelled advertising signs examined for coded instructions to spies. Tennis courts were identified as gun platforms, and matches struck in London streets reported as signals to German U-boats and Gothas. Spies and saboteurs were identified on every street corner, usually masquerading as waiters and barbers, with others in service as maids or governesses, their steamer trunks packed full of bombs. Some enemy agents, it was said, had been arrested in female attire, or dressed as nurses. Everywhere, it seemed, there was signalling to airships, some of them invisible, to which the latter replied by dropping poisoned sweets over cities to kill children. No rumour was too ridiculous, no exaggeration too great.

Little of this alarmism had any foundation in fact, and following the Armistice a marked degree of disenchantment flowed from the exposed falsehoods of the Crucified Canadian, the corpse rendering factory, and the often pornographic stories of bestial outrage committed by the Kaiser’s army on its march through Belgium in 1914. It is all the more fascinating, therefore, that so many of these First World War myths and legends were dusted off, re-labelled, and sold as new in 1939 and 1940, as Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and finally France were overrun. Poisoned sweets, murderous spies, treacherous maidservants, secret signals, even the enamel sign story – all, like Lazarus, rose up from the dead as soon as hostilities commenced. Just as the Kaiser was said to have been insane, so too was Adolf Hitler. One rumour current in Britain during the first few days of the war was that which held that the Führer had ‘gone off with a gun and shot himself’. A lie, it is said, never lives to be old, and so it was that this particular falsehood soon perished, to be replaced with a more pleasing (and less easily disproved) legend that the German leader was equipped with a solitary testicle.

Although 1939 and 1940 spy mania never escalated into the panic of 1914, the First World War rumour of the familiar figure or ‘friendly enemy’ was revised and updated. The original version involved a young woman suddenly and unexpectedly confronted in Piccadilly by her fiancé, an officer in the Prussian Guards, who cut her dead before making his escape by means of a passing omnibus or taxi. In the updated version, in one town or another (Dover and Crewe were among the locations cited) a tradesman was said to have called at a newly let house to solicit orders. When the door was opened, the horrified vendor found himself facing the same brutal Prussian who had commanded the prisoner-of-war camp in which he had rotted two decades earlier. In his memoir Friend or Foe, self-styled ‘spycatcher’ Oreste Pinto records a supposed chance meeting with a senior Dutch Nazi on a London street, although Pinto is a highly unreliable witness and the incident probably an invention.

Another feature common to the first few days of both conflicts were the widespread and almost gleeful rumours of mass destruction. Just as the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was said to have suffered extinction-level casualties immediately upon arriving in France, and the British fleet mauled in the North Sea, early in September 1939 word spread of various towns being heavily bombarded from sea and air. At the same time, each air raid warning was followed by wild speculation as to the awful fate which had befallen some faraway part of the country. While it is doubtful that anyone actually wished to see the devastation of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Lowestoft repeated, the morbid appetite of some seems to have extended far beyond weary resignation.

From early September 1939 onwards false spy reports were returned from the fighting in Poland, many of them sponsored by official sources. German paratroops were reported fighting in Polish uniforms, assisted by ethnic Volksdeutsche dressed in distinctive or eccentric clothing, while the general brutality of German troops was said to include the use of civilians as human shields, and a reluctance to take prisoners. It was claimed German aircraft had dropped poisoned chocolates and cigarettes, while other reports told of tobacco leaves strewn across meadows so that cattle, alarmed by the odour of nicotine, would starve. When the Luftwaffe ran short of bombs, chunks of rail and other scrap metal were thrown from aircraft. Although there was no repeat of the sustained atrocity propaganda manufactured by the Allies in 1914–15, it is clear that the Polish authorities took a conscious decision to manufacture certain fictions, the most flagrant of which involved the use of poison gas. At a press call in London on 3 September, the Polish Ambassador announced that the German air force had begun dropping gas bombs, while on the 5th it was reported from Warsaw that

German bombers have dropped asphyxiating bombs, and many people have been injured and burned. There were particularly many casualties among children… Enemy warplanes dropped little balloons filled with poison gas, which were collected by children in the streets. Analysis established they were filled with Yperite gas.

On the basis of this report, questions were raised in the Commons. On the ground German agents and saboteurs were said to have poisoned water supplies with mustard gas, while a rumour spread in Germany that Britain was supplying gas shells to the Poles. With all sides keen to prevent the outbreak of chemical warfare, these charges were rapidly quashed, Lord Halifax reminding the House of Lords on 14 September that Germany had ratified the Geneva Protocol which proscribed gas as a weapon of war. A German counter-claim that Polish ‘poison gas mines’ had caused casualties near Jaslo made little headway, and despite claims of atrocities on both sides it is clear that in Britain at least a general mood of scepticism prevailed. A prescient letter published in several papers on 9 September, above the pseudonym Everyman, deplored some of the wilder reports printed during the first week of the war:

Already the truth appears to be the first casualty in some papers. The first news of the war in Poland suggesting that women and children were especially aimed at … One paper carried a story of poisoned chocolates dropped on Polish towns, and children dying as a result… Can we not determine to fight this war without lies of the corpse factory description? A just cause should be fought on truth, and truth alone.

However, the voice of reason (or disenchantment) was little heard. Just as tales of poisoned chocolates and sweets were hoary relics of the First World War, so too were widespread rumours of signalling to enemy aircraft. This paranoia was no doubt fuelled by the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, which had also produced a new name for the alien and spy peril: the fifth column. The phrase is attributed to General Emilio Mola, who in October 1936 claimed to have four columns of troops waiting to march on Madrid, and a fifth inside ready to rise and fight for Franco. In fact there was no Nationalist organisation in the city, and no solid proof that the general himself phrased the threat in these terms. Nevertheless the phrase was taken up by British newspapers, and borrowed by Ernest Hemingway as the title of his 1939 play about life and love in besieged Madrid.

As in the First World War, phantom signalling by fifth columnists in Poland took a number of forms. Miniature wireless transmitters were hidden in tombs, chimneys and trees, while others daubed markers on roofs, or painted chimneys white, or heaped straw from hayricks in suspicious patterns. Crops and pasture were said to have been planted or cut according to pre-arranged plans, while at night signals were flashed by means of lamps, fires and matches. One spy was even identified ‘by his German shoes’. If these activities were largely illusory, the result was all too real. In Poland untold numbers of suspects were arrested or killed on the basis of little or no evidence. In the town of Thorn alone, 34 were shot for signalling with mirrors and flags, while supposed sniping in Bydgoszcz on 3 September led to a reprisal dubbed Bloody Sunday. Hans Roos, in his History of Modern Poland, observes that some 7,000 German and ethnic German civilians were deported, murdered or simply shot out of hand in the wave of national hatred which swept the country, this despite the fact that a considerable number of ethnic Germans were fighting in the Polish army. The same fictions, and the same summary justice, would be repeated across Holland, Belgium and France eight months later.

In reality, the assistance offered by German Volksdeutsche in Poland seems to have been largely uncoordinated. Many helped clear roads, repaired vehicles, fed troops and acted as guides, but this falls some way short of the mythic bands of killers and saboteurs. Abwehr units (including Brandenburg troops) did operate in civilian clothes to secure key objectives at the outset of the campaign, but not in the garb of priests or monks, or any of the more outlandish disguises commonly ascribed to the Polish fifth column. Since no airborne troops were deployed in Poland, none fought in Polish uniforms, as early reports suggested.

After six months of Bore or Phoney War, on 9 April 1940 German forces invaded Denmark. The country was taken wholly by surprise and overrun in a single day. Against this background, it is easy to understand why rumours quickly spread that German troops had hidden in the holds of ships which docked in Copenhagen some days before, and in freight cars on the Warnemunde–Gjedser ferry, to issue forth ‘like the Greeks out of the Trojan horse’ at the critical moment. In Northern Schleswig rumours of underhand tactics also extended to poisoned water supplies, although the foreign press were less interested in this particular story than in the nefarious activities of the dread fifth column. According to The Times:

Members of the large German colony undoubtedly played pre-arranged roles, as did a number of German reserve officers in civilian clothes who had obtained Danish visas in the guise of commercial travellers.

On the same day Norway too was attacked. Here it was also rumoured that German forces were smuggled into target ports by ship, while an armed fifth column already in place in Oslo passed on false orders, cut telephone wires, and sabotaged a mine barrage. Many, it was said, had entered the country in the guise of salesmen, tourists and even foster-children. These reports reached the British government on the same day and were accepted as factual. A widely syndicated report by Leland Stowe, of the Chicago Daily News, left a sinister and lasting impression:

Norway’s capital and great seaports were not captured by armed force. They were seized with unparalleled speed by means of a gigantic conspiracy which must undoubtedly rank among the most audacious and most perfectly oiled political plots of the past century. By bribery and extraordinary infiltration on the part of Nazi agents, and by treason on the part of a few highly placed Norwegian civilians and defence officials, the German dictatorship built its original Trojan Horse inside Norway.

Everywhere the portrait painted was of powerless Allies fighting an invisible enemy capable of diabolical cunning. One British sapper, evacuated after the abortive attack on Trondheim in May, lamented: ‘The place was full of spies. Every move we made was known to the Germans almost as soon as we made it.’ The truth is that the hastily assembled expeditionary force sent to Norway largely comprised ill-equipped Territorials, and failed to mount an effective counter-attack despite outnumbering the German defenders at Trondheim by six to one. On land the Norwegian campaign was an ignominious shambles, although the Royal Navy did manage to inflict decisive damage on its German counterpart.

Again, the reality of the supposed ‘Trojan Horse’ was very different. In Denmark, Volksdeutsche did little beyond offering the invading force an enthusiastic welcome, while covert actions along the frontier were undertaken by Abwehr operatives, rather than a Danish fifth column. No German troops hid in ships; instead they simply crossed the Baltic on board ferries and naval vessels on the day and took the Danes by surprise. As early as 6 May the Norwegian foreign minister announced publicly that he had still to discover a single authenticated case of treachery, but this statement was little reported. Although in Norway the name of the former foreign minister, Vidkun Quisling, would become synonymous with treachery, he was not taken seriously by Germany and his Nasjonal Samling followers took no real part in the battle. Although Quisling did succeed in seizing a radio station in order to proclaim himself Prime Minister, it was not until 1942 that his German masters permitted him to use this title. In his definitive 1953 study, The German Fifth Column in the Second World War, Dutch historian Louis de Jong concluded that in both Denmark and Norway no special forces were deployed other than regular airborne troops. An official Norwegian enquiry into whether any prominent member of the Nasjonal Samling played an active part in the German invasion reached a similarly negative conclusion. Hitler and his generals wished to keep their plans completely secret, and instead German planners relied principally on tourist guides such as Baedeker.

Although most core fifth column myths were already in place by May 1940, it was the invasion of Holland on 10 May which saw the greatest flowering of falsehoods. German paratroops now came to replace the dreaded Uhlans of 1914 in the iconography of myth, due in part to the sheer number deployed against Holland: some 4,500 paratroopers and a fleet of 430 transport aircraft. However the heightened Dutch hysteria probably owes something to the fact that Holland had remained neutral during the First World War, and thus had had no recent reminder that in war truth is always the first casualty.

The facts run as follows. In Holland the German airborne arm undertook three main operations. Paratroops of the 7th Flieger Division captured three key bridges over the River Maas, while at Rotterdam a dozen seaplanes landed 120 men, who then seized several key bridges. Less successfully, a force landed from transport planes at The Hague was almost destroyed, and failed in its object of capturing Queen Wilhelmina and her government. Allied to the spectacular conquest of the Belgian fortress at Eban Emael by just 55 combat engineers landed by glider, the overall achievement of German airborne forces in the Low Countries was considerable. However, their victory came at a high cost, with 3,900 of almost 11,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 220 Ju 52 transports destroyed, and almost every parachute lost.

From the outset fantastical reports emerged in Holland, and quickly fed back to Britain. On the night of 10 May the Home Office issued a statement warning of enemy paratroops ‘wearing uniforms calculated to deceive observers’, who should immediately report suspicious jumpers to the nearest police station. On the same day an Air Ministry circular warned that German paratroopers might descend with their arms raised above their heads, as if to surrender, but in fact holding primed grenades. The following day it was reported that 200 parachutists dressed in British uniforms had landed in The Hague. On 13 May the Daily Express ran the following, almost comically alarmist report:

On the first day of the invasion parachutists dropped out of the sky like a vast flock of vultures. Most of them were disguised in Allied or Dutch uniforms, others came down in the uniform of Dutch policemen and began to direct the population in the streets and mislead the army. One ‘policeman’ told a group of isolated Dutch troops that their friends were round the corner. When the Dutch troops turned the corner, German troops, barricaded across the road, slaughtered them …

But, most fantastic of all, the steward of an English ship said that he and the crew had watched parachutists descend in women’s clothing. They wore blouses and skirts and each carried a sub-machine-gun. The steward could not tell if they were women or men disguised as women. Several eye-witnesses in the boat confirmed it, and said that others had come down disguised as priests, peasants and civilians …

As machine-guns came out of the sky like unnatural lighting peppering the streets below, the Fifth Column crept out of their homes in German uniforms, heavily armed. Holland had combed out the Fifth Column for weeks before, but as the doors opened at 3 am the men who had been proclaimed anti-Nazis and refugees from Germany, held rifles.

In a similar vein, the Daily Telegraph told of lethal delivery boys with hand grenades in their baskets, in league with female spies who signalled their allegiance by clapping at their windows. In a litany of ‘every kind of trick to sap confidence and cause confusion’, the Daily Express listed ‘poisoned chocolates and wine’ as well as ‘spies disguised as priests and postmen and housemaids’. Another typical report appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on the same date:

Holland’s internal defence organisation is matching in alertness the valour of her fighting troops at the front as parachute invaders and the Fifth Column enemy strike at the heart of the country. German parachutists disguised as clergymen and peasants, as well as others in the uniforms of the Dutch forces, have been rounded up in several towns, while hundreds of Fifth Column suspects have been arrested… The Press Association correspondent saw one large building surrounded by police with fixed bayonets, while others climbed onto the roof and finally chased and shot a man who had been giving signals to enemy aircraft.

A detachment of Dutch soldiers was attacked yesterday near the Hague by a group of ‘Dutchmen’ who proved to be German soldiers. It is recalled that as long ago as last August a store of about 2,000 uniforms of Dutch postmen, railway officials, gendarmes and soldiers had been seen by a resident stacked up in the local offices of a small German village in Westphalia. The reasons for these collections is now revealed.

The sheer volume and similarity of these reports suggests they were the deliberate creation of official propagandists, possibly from Department EH, a small subsection of MI6 charged with the creation of propaganda. The charge of underhand tactics, and disregard for the laws and usages of war, largely replaced the overt atrocity propaganda of 1914–18, with books such as The Rape of the Netherlands (1940) and Belgium in Bondage (1943) offering far less than their lurid titles promised. However, the alleged use of human shields was revived, as is clear from The War cover reproduced in the plate section, and an official Dutch communiqué circulated by British United Press:

Some of the parachutists had forced motor coach drivers at pistol point to take them to certain places, shielded by Dutch civilians, but they were afterwards annihilated by our tanks. It seems that German soldiers are not able to fight without using civilians as shields.

From Brussels it was reported that German parachutists jumped equipped with dummies, used to simulate death on landing, allowing the parachutist to make good his escape. At Ostend they were said to have dropped in sky-blue uniforms beneath transparent canopies, so as to remain semi-invisible during their descent. In fact no German paratroops were dropped anywhere in Belgium, although another fiction was born when the Air Ministry announced on 14 May that German paratroops were released like bombs through a hole in the floor of their transports – ‘the pilot pulls a lever and out they go’.

Outlandish as these fictions seem now, in May 1940 many of them were taken seriously by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and perhaps by Churchill, who wrote to Roosevelt on the 18th warning that Britain ‘must expect to be attacked on the Dutch model before very long’. Many senior officers fell prey to the scare, including Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the naval commander at Dover, who reported:

Indications of numerous acts of sabotage and Fifth Column activity in Dover, eg communications leakages, fixed defences sabotaged, second-hand cars purchased at fantastic prices and left at various parking places.

On 31 May General Ironside, then Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, recorded in his diary that:

Fifth Column reports coming in from everywhere. A man with an arm-band and a swastika pulled up near an important aerodrome in the Southern Command. Important telegraph poles marked, suspicious men moving at night all over the country …

Indeed on 2 July Ironside recorded confidently that ‘there is signalling going on all over the place’ and ‘people quite definitely preparing aerodromes’ while at the same time (and apparently without irony) noting with regret that no one seemed able to obtain any evidence.

Even as late as September 1940, Home Guard units in London were formally instructed to watch for signalling to aircraft. In 1941 the Ministry of Information resorted to faking refugee memoirs, for example The Diary of a Dutch Boy Refugee by the wholly fictive Dirk van der Heide, while in 1942 films such as The Foreman Went to France and Went The Day Well? continued to peddle well-worn fifth column stereotypes. Returning to 1940, MI5 undertook what the Official History describes as an ‘elaborate analysis’ of suspicious markings on telegraph poles around the country, while the RAF flew patrols to scour the countryside for larger markings in fields. Most of the coded signs on telegraph poles turned out to be the handiwork of Scouts and Girl Guides, while another report ‘sponsored from a very high quarter’ that trees had been felled in a wood so as to form an arrow pointing to a neighbouring airfield proved no less illusory. A revealing first-hand account of the abortive investigation of a scout master thought to be involved in jamming a Chain Home radar station at West Beckham in Norfolk is given by R.V. Jones in his book Most Secret War. At nearby Stiffkey in June the naturalist, author and Great War veteran Henry Williamson, best known for his novel Tarka the Otter, was arrested following local gossip that concrete roads on his farm had been laid to assist a German invasion, and that a fanlight inserted to give light on a stairway was a means of signalling to hostile aircraft. None of the countless reports received and investiagted by MI5 was found to have any substance, or indicated a genuine Fifth Column activity, to lead to the detection of a single enemy agent.

Nor were the Dutch military immune. In his account The Ordeal of the Frontier Battalion, published in 1945, E.P. Weber recalled:

One cannot name a single commander in the Dutch army who, according to rumour, has not been killed at least once. Over the roads along which our troops are to march poison gas has been observed. Whenever chocolates are found they should be destroyed, because they are sure to be poisoned. In our grenades there was supposed to be sand instead of gunpowder, and the rumour went that casemates had crumbled at the first shot because the concrete was no good.

Paratroops and parachute saboteurs were frequently run together to form a single menace from the air, as in the following report from 14 May. On this date a large British contingent from Holland returned by sea, including sundry consular officials, newsmen and the entire Sadlers Wells Ballet Company.

All the passengers had a great deal to say concerning Germany’s Fifth Column in Holland. Many Nazi supporters, even domestic servants, went to the aid of the parachutists who appeared in all manner of disguises as dustmen, clergymen, policemen and postmen. They frequently knocked at a private house and at the point of their revolver demanded civilian clothing.

Many paratroops who had been taken prisoner were boys of 16 and 17. They did not know what fighting meant and they told a Dutch officer that they had been pushed out of the plane when over their objective. One carried with him his last letter from his mother and her picture. He said he had made up his mind when he set out that he would never live to see her again.

Little if any of this was true, and as we shall see, the technique of spreading useful disinformation via travellers and passengers would be repeated later in 1940 when the myth of a failed German invasion attempt was actively promoted in America. Among the evacuees returning from Holland was Sir Neville Bland, the British Minister to the Dutch government in The Hague, who quickly prepared a report on the ‘Fifth Column Menace’. This thousand-word fantasy included the following disinformation:

All boys of 16 to 18, completely sodden with Hitler’s ideas, and with nothing else in their minds but to cause as much death and destruction as they could before being killed themselves. They dropped on the roofs of houses, in open spaces – even in private gardens …

Bland also told how a detachment of German troops were led to a vital bridge by a German maidservant, and warned that when the moment came, the fifth column in Britain would

At once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and military indiscriminately. The paltriest kitchen maid not only can be, but generally is, a menace to the safety of the country … and we cannot conclude from the experiences of the last war that ‘the enemy in our midst’ is no less dangerous than it was then. I have not the least doubt that, when the signal is given, as it will scarcely fail to be when Hitler so decides, there will be satellites of the monster all over the country who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and the military indiscriminately. We cannot afford to take this risk. ALL Germans and Austrians, at least, ought to be interned at once.

Some credit Bland with importing the worst of the paratroop and fifth column myths into Britain, yet most had already appeared in the press. At the same time Department EH prepared a report titled ‘Operations in Holland’, containing the now-familiar litany of bizarre disguises, poisoned cigarettes, and peasant girls armed with machine-guns. In truth the main purpose of the Bland report was to help justify the mass internment of male aliens, which the Home Secretary had ordered on 13 May.

Myth and reality were blurred further still on 16 May when the Dutch foreign minister, E.N. van Kleffens, stated for the first time that enemy parachutists had landed dressed as nuns. This picturesque image would in time become an integral thread in the mythology of the fifth column. Van Kleffens fed the falsehood first to the French press, which meant that it did not immediately catch fire in Britain. By the end of May paratroop myths had expanded beyond sky-blue uniforms, dummies and female attire to include Hunnish brutality. It was said that some dead jumpers found in Holland ‘had obviously been shot in the back – presumably by their officers in the plane when they displayed an undue reluctance to take the drop into space’. A late report at the end of May from Norway held that some Germans were being kicked out of their transports without parachutes: ‘These soldiers are ordered or thrown out of low-flying aeroplanes onto patches of snow on the hill slopes, in the hope that some of them will escape without broken limbs.’ This absurd tale was perhaps inspired by the fact that a significant number of German paratroops were killed by canopies which failed to open.

While conceding that some of these ‘well-armed desperadoes’ had landed ‘dressed as women and girls’, The War Illustrated was prepared to accord the Fallschirmjäger a measure of respect:

The parachute soldier is a formidable invader. He may bring with him a collapsible bicycle and may even carry a portable tent; with his iron rations he can keep going until he obtains food from the country; should he be able to make contact with a Fifth Columnist he is sure to help.

Dressed as Nuns II

As in Poland and Scandinavia, fifth column activity in Holland was negligible. Stories of poisoned meat, water and cigarettes were unfounded, as were signalling scares involving lights and ‘large swastikas’ burnt in fields, and the fiction that an armed band tried to storm the central police station in The Hague. Instead German Brandenburg units dressed in makeshift Dutch uniforms did attempt to capture several key border crossings, but succeeded only at Gennep, where such a unit held the bridge until relieved by an armoured train. As elsewhere, the Dutch ‘Trojan Horse’ myth gained currency from a natural reluctance to attribute failure to the poor performance of their own troops in open combat, or face up to the fact that two days before the invasion, the German military attaché in The Hague had inspected Holland’s defences by the simple expedient of conducting a tour of local tulip fields.

The same phantom menace ran riot through Belgium and France. In Belgium the security service, which should have known better, warned that German parachutists had landed in several parts of the country, dressed as civilians and equipped with miniature wireless transmitters. In fact no parachute troops were dropped anywhere in Belgium or France. Nevertheless on the 14 May it was officially announced that enemy agents ‘dressed in light brown uniforms with buttons stamped with the swastika’ had repeatedly attacked the police. Another story ran that among Dutch refugees were SS men in ringletted wigs and false beards, posing as orthodox Jews from Amsterdam. An official order was even issued that all advertising for Pacha chicory was to be removed:

Complicity on someone’s part had permitted the Germans to put on the back of them indications useful to parachutists landing in the locality… He needed only to find the nearest Pacha chicory sign, which might be in a grocery shop or along a public highway, and on its back he would find cryptic indications giving him the location of the nearest German agent and how to find him … This was later confirmed by repeated radio warnings.

The story was no less false than in 1914, when precisely the same myth had attached to advertising for selected brands of food, usually Maggi soup. Indeed the humble chicory root was held in great odium in Belgium in May 1940. While the rapid fall of the fortress at Eban Emael was attributed to death rays and poison gas, the following year an American magazine claimed the fort had been blown up by German saboteurs, who in peacetime had grown chicory in nearby caves, and surreptitiously packed the caverns with explosives.

Several books published in 1940 and 1941 faithfully promulgated any number of tall stories, the most popular being Through the Dark Night by the prolific James Lansdale Hodson, who had been in Belgium and France as a war correspondent for the Sketch. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Hodson (and others) considered the spread of true lies as a legitimate activity in wartime, and some of his copy was undoubtedly provided by the War Office and the Ministry of Information. On 13 May he recorded:

A Belgian lady of title I met today in Brussels told me, ‘The Germans have been dropping booby traps shaped as watches and writing-pencils and trinkets. When picked up they have exploded; and the Maire has now issued a warning proclamation’ … Near Brussels six Germans were captured dressed as nuns – a familiar story, but in this case well-authenticated.

As well as dropping men dressed as women, and adolescents with automatic pistols, it appeared that the shiftless Luftwaffe was not beneath employing women as aircrew:

I heard of a machine brought down in Flanders which had three girls in it as pilot, navigator and gunner, with a male sergeant. But my officer informant had the story second hand only, though he said the man who told him was reliable and saw them.

In Louvain, so Hodson learned

One man much suspected burnt the Belgian flag in the market place with loud protestations that he couldn’t have it falling into German hands. Was the smoke a signal? Nobody knew.

From the Royal Ulster Rifles, near the town of Bossuyt, he heard

Hereabouts news and rumours of Fifth Columnists at work were plentiful, including spies dressed as British officers visiting headquarters – tales mostly unverified. But at all events an arrow of the type used by the enemy to locate HQ was found in a ploughed field – a large arrow fashioned in the soil, with three gramophone records at the tail.

The First World War myth of sinister officer spies, resurrected in the popular film The Foreman Went to France, was also repeated by Hodson in relation to the withdrawal from the Dyle by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment:

Men in British uniform acted suspiciously and may well have been spies. First a Guards colonel who asked them to break orders and take up a new position, second a brigade major who said the road was impassable when it was not, and third a brigadier who ordered a bridge in Tournai to be blown despite protests that it was still much needed.

And from the Black Watch:

A regiment the Black Watch relieved told them that a hundred Germans had crossed the bridge in threes, dressed in battle-dress, and singing ‘Tipperary’… Some of the Germans killed were wearing clothes of khaki material – possibly parachutists.

And from the Royal Scots:

A Scots soldier told how they captured some parachutists dressed as Belgians, but lost a comrade doing it – ‘for,’ he said, ‘the Germans held up their hands, but one raised in surrender held a grenade which, as we got near, he threw.’

Similarly propagandist accounts by Douglas Williams (The New Contemptibles, 1940) and Bernard Gray (War Reporter, 1941) also peddled stock myths of signals, snipers, sleepers and crop signs. However, few were truly contemporary and fail to stand up as reliable historical sources.

The canard that enemy personnel were abroad dressed as nuns is one of the most enduring and colourful legends of the Second World War, but was almost certainly a deliberate fiction. The story was perhaps intended to portray the enemy as both godless and perverse, without resorting to the crucifixion stories circulated during the First World War. The myth was born in Paris on 16 May, when the Dutch foreign minister, van Kleffens, staged a distraught press call at which he claimed that German parachutists had descended on Holland ‘by the thousand’ dressed ‘in the cassocks of priests and in the garb of nuns or nurses’. Later in 1940 his book The Rape of the Netherlands would slavishly repeat each and every fifth column myth ad nauseam.

The nun story took time to catch on, and appears in very few contemporary diaries, although an RAMC captain, J.H. Patterson, describes an amusing incident near Tournai on 19 May. After ordering his CSM to inspect a suspicious column of nuns, Patterson noted that particular attention was paid to hands, feet and chins, resulting in a verdict that the sisters were definitely female. The accounts later given by several BEF veterans of encounters with hairy-handed nuns in hobnailed boots are no less dubious than supposed first-hand sightings of the Angel of Mons, reported in 1915 several months after the fact. For instance, this story offered by Williams in The New Contemptibles:

At one place, a British officer stumbled upon several Germans undressing in a wood and putting on nuns’ clothing. A horse cart awaited them nearby in which, no doubt, they intended to penetrate the British lines. Needless to say, they did not continue their journey.

Even as late as 1961, historian Richard Collier was prepared to accept an almost identical report at face value:

Gunner William Brewer and four mates, retreating to Dunkirk, were drinking tea near a farmhouse when Bombardier ‘Geordie’ Allen came doubling white-faced. ‘Did you ever see a bloody nun shaving?’ Stealing across the pasture, all five men saw what they’d always taken to be the tallest of tales: two German paratroopers, white coifs discarded, crucifixes dangling, shaving behind a haystack. Seconds later, the ‘nuns’ fell dying, riddled with .303 fire, the blood a dark spreading stain on the black habits.

The nun myth was particularly popular in France, including the tale of a nun unmasked as a Nazi thug and killed on the spot by an angry mob. Indeed the poet Jean Cocteau is said to have observed that ‘along all the roads in France, only nuns fastening their puttees were to be seen’.

In Britain the nun myth seems not to have caught on until the end of May. On the 24th a Ministry of Information Home Intelligence summary noted ‘the usual crop of rumours about “hairy-handed nuns” and parachutists’, together with ‘a house full of blind refugees which were alleged to be in possession of machine-guns’. On the same date, beneath the headline ‘Sister of Mercy Caught Shaving’, the Eastern Daily Press reported:

Miss Elsie Seddon, one of six Salvation Army social workers who reached England yesterday … told how on one of the many occasions she had to leave her car for shelter in roadside woods from enemy bombers French soldiers pounced upon her. They apparently believed that she was either a parachutist or a spy. When she proved her identity they apologised and explained that only a day or so ago they had found a ‘sister of mercy’ hastily shaving in the same woods. ‘She’ was a German parachutist.

Suspicious nuns quickly became a popular talking point, a fact reflected in Mass Observation reporting. A diary entry on 30 May by Naomi Mitchison illustrates the point:

We discussed German agents in disguise. Archie said he had often noticed what big feet nuns had, and probably the half of them were men. The conversation, as Scottish Presbyterian conversations do, then became extremely ribald.

That in Britain the story was never more than a joke is clear from John Lehmann’s biography of Leonard and Virginia Woolf:

A rather absurd spy mania broke out, and a few days after the fall of Paris, Leonard, his poise recovered, produced a wonderful story of how, on a train journey to London, Virginia had insisted in a stage whisper that a perfectly innocent nun who got into their carriage was a Nazi paratrooper in disguise.

An odd variation on the masculine nun theme was noted by diarist Margery Allingham in The Oaken Heart:

The weekly comic papers had nothing on the new Jerry in the matter of invention. Startled soldiers told you extraordinary tales of trickery, among them stories of fierce long-haired women in Belgian farms who turned out to be stalwart Nazis carrying disguise to the point of farce.

The tale of the bogus nun captured the popular imagination like no other, and was singled out for special attention in a broadcast by Harold Nicolson, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information. On the subject of the chatterbug, he warned:

He will say that his brother in law – chatterbugs always have innumerable brothers in law – was in the train from Derby when a nun entered and started to read a religious book. The book dropped from her lap, and as she stooped to retrieve it she disclosed a manly wrist complete with a tattooed inset of Adolf Hitler.

Despite the fact that De Jong’s carefully researched account of the fifth column myth appeared in translation as early as 1956, the picturesque falsehood of nuns in hobnailed boots remained alive and well for decades to come, one American history offering as late as 1976:

In Heugot’s, a bistro just behind the Place du Palais Bourbon, a startling transformation took place when a nun who for months had made regular collections among the political clients patronising the bistro appeared as a man – and a German. As Cocteau pointed out, there were ‘nuns’ everywhere, since penetrating the disguise was a delicate matter.

Nuns aside, perhaps the most ridiculous fifth column rumour of all was exported from Luxembourg, which told of a false travelling circus which crossed the border from Germany, whose personnel comprised entirely military men. Across France various station masters were said to have been unmasked as spies, along with the usual stock reports of airborne saboteurs, suspicious lights, false orders, poisoned sweets and human shields. Arras was said to have been captured by parachutists, who jumped at night carrying flaming torches, while in Paris there were daily reports of paratroops descending on public parks. The idea that fifth columnists contrived to scare refugees onto the roads, and direct them so as to hamper troop movements, would also seem to be French in origin. Another French myth credited German motorised units with the fantastical ability to fuel their vehicles with water, to which a small but evidently miraculous pellet was added.

The fifth column myth in France was boosted on 21 May when the Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, declared that the bridges over the Meuse had been betrayed, when in fact their loss was due to military incompetence. Suspected fifth column agents were treated in the same brutal way as in Poland, with French units ordered to shoot all strangers unable to account for their presence in any given district. In a single incident at Abbeville no fewer than 22 were shot out of hand, while probably thousands more were killed in woodlands or on roadsides. The summary execution of downed aircrew was also commonplace. The published diary of a French horse transport captain, Daniel Barlone, reveals something of the credulity which underpinned this orgy of violence in France:

The Fifth Column really does exist; every night blue, green and red lights appear everywhere. A regiment cannot remain two hours in a tiny spot without being invariably bombed with enormous bombs … Dispenser Charbonnier, at our hospital, had five persons shot, one a beautiful young girl; by showing lights and curtains of different colours, they had guided German aircraft, signalling to them and thereby causing fires in the neighbouring chemical factory.

Six months after France had fallen, André Morize, who worked at the Ministry of Information before fleeing the country, did much to spread the fifth column myth abroad in America. In a much remarked article published in the Sunday Star, Morize described ‘entire regiments’ of German sleepers in Holland, and reported that spies had bribed French communists to sabotage war production. Some in the US military establishment took these claims seriously, with Major-General Robert Richardson warning the War Department that he had it ‘on good authority’ that ‘the typewriter industry is riddled with Fifth Columnists’. Indeed in February 1942 no fewer than 30 citizens of Japanese extraction were arrested for signalling during the celebrated phantom air raid on Los Angeles.

What motive underpinned these outlandish falsehoods? Clearly, many on the Allied side had a vested interest in ascribing the German victories to an underhand secret weapon, rather than poor leadership and military incompetence. Yet as we have seen, many in the British military and political establishment, including Churchill, Ramsay and Ironside, gave these myths full credit, Churchill even offering that there were 20,000 organised Nazis in Britain. Indeed the sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in October 1939, and a series of mysterious explosions at the gunpowder factory at Waltham Abbey two months later, convinced many of the reality of a dangerous fifth column in Britain. According to R.V. Jones, both MI5 and the RAF continued to chase shadows long into the Battle of Britain:

Great zeal was expended by security officers in chasing reports of fireworks being let off while German aircraft were overhead. Our countryside was scanned by aircraft of the RAF looking for suspicious patterns laid out on the ground which might serve as landmarks to aid the navigation of German bombers. More than one farmer was surprised by a call from security officers to explain why he had mown his hay in such a manner as to leave a striking pattern which could be see from the air. One chapel, whose gardener had unconsciously laid out paths in the pattern of an enormous arrow as seen from the air, and which did indeed point roughly in the direction of an ammunition dump ten miles away, was raided as a suspected Fifth Column Headquarters.

A similar account was given by a 21 Squadron officer stationed at RAF Watton in Norfolk, Wing Commander P. Meston:

My best friend, Flight Lieutenant David Watson, one day asked me if I had noticed anything unusual about the countryside. I authorised a flight and we took off to investigate. After about 20 minutes David asked if I could see anything abnormal. I replied that I couldn’t. I still remember his reply ‘Look at the bloody lime heaps’ and then it came into focus. The heaps were in straight lines across the country, complete with arrows. We followed the lines but couldn’t make sense of them. We reported this to our squadron CO and eventually it reached the station commander, Group Captain Vincent, who chided the CO for listening to two young pilots who had let their imagination run riot. Nevertheless he took a look himself and informed higher authority. Next day the place was swarming with MI5 and we were told to shut up and not mention this to anyone. About a year later we learned, quite by accident, that the lime heaps were markers for the German airborne invasion of the UK, and that in addition there were prepared airfields with filled-in ditches and fold-down hedges.

As might be expected, actual prosecutions for fifth column activity were few and far between. A former Mosleyite named Saxon-Steer received seven years for pasting up a flyer for the New British Broadcasting Service in a telephone kiosk, while in December 1940 a landlady named Dorothy O’Grady was sentenced to death for cutting telephone wires on the Isle of Wight, although later it emerged that her confession was false. The only remotely serious case was that of Marie Ingram, a German-born woman married to an RAF sergeant, who conspired with a number of former BUF members in the Southsea area to wheedle military information from serving soldiers, and infiltrate the local Home Guard to obtain arms and ammunition. On her conviction in July 1940 Ingram was jailed for ten years, and an accomplice named Swift for fourteen.

Even if the Ingram case convinced some of the reality of the fifth column threat, belief in the myth went deeper still. Some historians have concluded that the fifth column menace was deliberately fabricated to support mass internment in Britain, and in this there is a great deal of truth. Between January and April 1940 several British papers, including the Sunday Dispatch and the Daily Mail, attempted to whip up a storm about the ‘enemy alien menace’, which comprised ‘fascists, communists, peace fanatics and alien refugees in league with Berlin and Moscow’, as well as the IRA. In February, the Evening Standard even claimed that the Gestapo was busy ‘employing Jews to spy in England’. However, such reports made little headway, and other papers were more cautious. The Times warned against the ‘hysterics’ of the last war, pointing out that most aliens had come to Britain as bona fide refugees from Nazi persecution, and had already passed through several vetting procedures. The Daily Express took a similar view, concluding that ‘all liberal-minded persons, all who value freedom and liberty in life, should stand against every recrudescence of the witch-hunt, no matter what form it should take’.

Even after the invasion of Norway and Denmark, it seems that the majority of the British public refused to take the fifth column seriously. Naomi Royde-Smith, whose book Outside Information (1941) takes the form of ‘a diary of rumours’ heard around Winchester, recorded the following:

After the withdrawal from Norway, Quisling rumours ran like wildfire. My early tea was brought up one Sunday morning with the announcement that the Town Clerk had been arrested as a spy. Sleepy though I was I refused to believe this news. It was entirely untrue. There is, however, a circumstantial tale of a local clergyman’s daughter who was able to denounce as a spy a British officer quartered on the vicarage. She heard him going late at night to the lavatory – but he never pulled the plug! This un-English behaviour excited her suspicion, she reported it, and her guest was discovered to be signalling with a flashlight from the window of the retreat.

During the last week in April, Mass Observation conducted an extensive enquiry into attitudes towards the fifth column. The result was revealing:

We found that the majority of people hardly realised what the phrase meant. We also found that the level of ordinary people’s feelings was much less intense than that expressed in some papers. Detailed interviewing in several areas in London and Western Scotland produced less than one person in a hundred who spontaneously suggested that the refugees ought to be interned en masse.

There can be little doubt that the fantastical reports concocted by Bland and Department EH were prepared with this end in mind, and passed on to the Ministry of Information as the basis for articles offered to British newspapers. The same disinformation was also circulated in America, notably in a series of four articles written by Colonel William Donovan published by the New York Times in August, clearly based on information supplied during his celebrated intelligence mission to Britain between 14 July and 4 August. By December 1941, and the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor, these same stock signalling and alien myths were being reported in America as fact. Whether this concerted campaign to convince the British public of the reality of the fifth column menace bore fruit is doubtful, for in July a Gallup Poll revealed that a mere 43 per cent of the general public wanted all aliens interned. And on at least one occasion, magistrates dismissed a case against a German-born woman who was prosecuted for allegedly flashing signals to enemy aircraft with a torch.

There was however another pressing reason to keep the population alarmed by fifth column fantasy. On 10 May, the day that Holland, Belgium and France were attacked, Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and the great invasion scare began in earnest. The diary of his private secretary, John Colville, records a revealing conversation with Churchill at Chequers on 12 July:

He emphasised that the great invasion scare (which we only ceased to deride six weeks ago) is serving a most useful purpose: it is well on the way to providing us with the finest offensive army we have ever possessed, and it is keeping every man and woman tuned to a high pitch of readiness. He does not wish the scare to abate therefore, and although personally he doubts whether invasion is a serious menace he intends to give that impression, and to talk about long and dangerous vigils, etc, when he broadcasts on Sunday.

A tried and trusted method which was employed time and again during the Second World War. In May 1941, when German airborne troops captured the island of Crete, word was spread that parachutists had descended disguised as Greeks and New Zealanders. And on 2 March 1942, in announcing that Japanese troops were attacking Java, the BBC reported that the enemy had approached an Allied post disguised as British soldiers. In reality, race alone would have sufficed to betray such a ruse. But reality seldom extinguishes myth.

SPITFIRE PR XIX

DIMENSIONS AND PERFORMANCE DATA FOR SPITFIRE PR XIX

TYPE: Single-engined monoplane reconnaissance aircraft

DIMENSIONS: Length: 32 ft 8 in (9.96 m)

Wingspan: 36 ft 10 in (11.23 m)

Height: 12 ft 8 in (3.86 m)

WEIGHTS: Empty: 6,550 lb (2,971 kg)

Max T/O: 10,450 lb (4,740 kg)

PERFORMANCE: Max Speed: 460 mph (740 km/h)

Range: 1,550 miles (2,494 km)

Powerplant: Rolls-Royce Griffon 66

Output: 2,035 hp (1,517 kW)

ARMAMENT: None

FIRST FLIGHT DATE: April 1944

PRODUCTION: 225

Following the usual practice, as soon as Spitfires were available with powerful Griffon 61 series engines, the PRUs made their demands. Still more altitude and a higher top speed suited their needs admirably, but they wanted the advantage of a pressure-cabin which allowed pilots to safely fly the aircraft at altitudes in excess of 40,000 ft. Units had experienced a taste of this with the limited production run PR X (based on the F VII), and they were keen to get hold of the new PR XIX, which evolved from the Spitfire XIV. Boasting a greater range than the PR XI and the cockpit conditions of the PR X, the aeroplane would be broadly similar to the Mk XIV but with modified PR XI wings (more fuel tanks were added) and other modifications associated with the installation of cockpit pressurisation. In general, the latter system was the same as that installed in the Spitfire VII, except that for this aircraft the air intake and blower were on the port side of the engine rather than to starboard.

The camera installation in the PR XIX was broadly similar to that found in the PR XI, with a ‘U’ fitting provided for either two ‘fanned’ or a single F52 36-inch vertical camera, two ‘fanned’ F52 20-inch vertical or two ‘fanned’ F24 14-inch vertical cameras and one F24 14-inch or 8-inch oblique. In addition, the wing camera installation as used on later PR XIs could be fitted in place on the inter-spar fuel tanks.

The all-up weight of the PR XIX was 7,500 lbs, and with its overall PR blue finish and no guns, the aircraft looked the last word in smooth, purposeful efficiency. Little wonder, then, that the PR XIX was the fastest Spitfire of them all with a top speed of 460 mph – an increase of 100 mph over its elder brother, the Mk I.