BRITISH HEROIC FAILURE # 3 – Major General Robert Rollo Gillespie

The death of General Gillespie at the siege of Kalunga

In 1814, Major General Robert Rollo Gillespie died in the Battle of Kalunga in the Anglo-Nepalese War. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, the Kingdom of Nepal had become increasingly expansionist, as its powerful military forces pressed westwards into the Punjab and eastwards into Tibet. The Gurkha army, though not large, combined European-style discipline with a toughness bred from living in some of the world’s most rugged terrain. By the early nineteenth century, a collision between Nepal and an equally expansionist East India Company was inevitable. The flashpoint came at Oudh (or Awadh, today in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh), one of India’s wealthiest and most fertile provinces, which shared its northern border with Nepal and which the Nepalese had long coveted. The British had controlled half of Oudh since 1801, while the other half remained under the nominal control of the nawab, in reality a British puppet. Tension mounted over the control of disputed villages along the border, and in 1814 war broke out.

The British had 21,000 men available to send north, twice the number that military experts estimated were necessary to defeat the Gurkhas. The campaign, however, presented unique challenges due to the terrain and weather. The British advanced in four columns, a strategy that was intended to achieve a swift victory by cutting off the Gurkha army from Kathmandu. Led by Gillespie, the easternmost column had as its first objective the hill fort at Kalunga (called Nalapani by the Gurkhas), which protected the route west across the Dehra Dun from Srinigar. Garrisoned by six hundred Gurkhas, Kalunga was a formidable obstacle, but Gillespie was confident in the ability of his artillery to blast a breach in the walls and of his numerically superior force to take the fort quickly. He divided his force of 4,500 into four columns, which were to attack simultaneously two hours after hearing a prearranged signal. Gillespie’s final order stressed the importance of `cool and deliberate valour’ over `wild and precipitate courage’, though he was to ignore his own advice, with fatal consequences. On the morning of 31 October, the artillery opened up at daybreak, but the guns were too far away to inflict significant damage. The main attack was not supposed to occur until noon, but just before nine, a party of Gurkhas attempted to take some of the British guns. They were quickly repulsed, but when Gillespie saw them heading back towards the fort, he sent messages to the commanders of the other columns, ordering them to attack immediately. The columns were impossible to locate quickly in the rugged terrain, however, and none of the messages reached its destination in time. Gillespie’s own column charged forward nonetheless, and were met by Gurkhas who swarmed over the walls of the fort to meet them. The attack rapidly lost momentum as the Gurkhas wielded their kukris, or curved knives, with devastating effectiveness in hand-to-hand combat. Fifty-eight dragoons were slaughtered within minutes.

Frustrated and unable to countenance even a temporary defeat, Gillespie declared his intention to take the fort there and then or to be killed trying. One of his officers had spotted a small gateway in the side, and he now focused his attention upon it, despite the fact that it was heavily defended. After a six-pound gun was brought up but failed to clear the gate, Gillespie tried to convince his men to attack it from the flanks. Recognizing that this was suicidal, they refused to follow him. Gillespie charged forward anyway and was shot in the chest. He died almost immediately. The attack collapsed, and it would take another month for the British to capture the fort. It was not until the garrison was almost completely out of food, water and ammunition that it slipped away under cover of darkness. When the British entered the fort, they discovered that 520 of the six hundred Gurkha defenders had been killed, or were so badly wounded or weak from starvation that they could not escape with the survivors.

Gillespie’s actions had been foolhardy, as the governor general of India, Lord Hastings, recognized. On 10 November, he wrote to Lord Bathurst, secretary of state for war and the colonies, that

the good fortune which had attended him in former desperate enterprises induced him to believe, I fear, that the storm of the fortress of Kalanga might be achieved by the same daring valour and readiness of resource whereby he had on other occasions triumphed over obstacles apparently insuperable. The assault in which he was killed at the foot of the rampart, involved, as I conceive, no possibility of success; otherwise the courage of the soldiers would have carried the plan notwithstanding the determined resistance of the garrison.

As more details became known, however, it emerged that the soldiers from the 53rd Regiment had refused to follow Gillespie in his attack on the gateway. Feeling guilty about maligning the conduct of a brave officer who had died in battle, Hastings now began to sing Gillespie’s praises. The prevailing view of his actions shifted accordingly: Charles Metcalfe, British resident in Delhi, wrote in 1815 that `the gallant Gillespie would, I am sure, have carried everything, had he not been deserted by a set of cowardly wretches’.

Back in Britain, where Gillespie was regarded as a colourful and popular soldier, the news of his death occasioned an outpouring of grief. He was the subject of a fulsome memoir which held him up as an example to future generations: `So long . . . as military virtue shall be held in esteem, and so long as our national history shall be read with pride and emulation, so long will the name of this heroic character be mentioned with enthusiasm, and his exploits pointed out as examples of imitation.’ Instead of leading an ill-advised attack, he was pictured as having made a gallant attempt to pull victory from the jaws of defeat:

The general considered it to be his duty to expose himself in the most conspicuous manner, that, if possible, his example might inspire and rouse the emulation of his troops into another vigorous and effectual attack upon the place. The heroic sentiment which occasioned this sacrifice has carried the renown of the British arms to a height of splendour, that, in point of radical virtue, and permanent utility, has far exceeded the Grecian and Roman glory. That daring spirit of bold enterprize, which in Europe has stamped with immortality so many illustrious names, will be found particularly needful in the vast and complicated regions of the East, where, from the character of the people, and the tenure of our possessions, we shall be continually obliged to maintain a high military attitude.

The author also included a hagiographic poem about Gillespie by `an amiable and accomplished lady in this country’ that sought to inspire Britons to follow his example:

These tender tears, to cherish’d virtue due,

This unavailing flood of genuine grief,

Gillespie! Shall thy sacred name bedew,

And give fresh verdure to each laurel leaf.

But ye who mourn the honor’d hero’s death,

Arouse from woe, and lead the life he led;

Practise his virtues till your latest breath,

To be like him illustrious when ye’re dead.

An impressive column was erected over Gillespie’s grave in Meerut, and in 1820 a statue was installed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Though it took three decades, a group of local grandees in his native town of Comber in County Down collected funds for a memorial in the form of a 55-foot-high (17 m) column topped by a statue of the dead hero. It was unveiled in 1845 before a crowd of 25,000 people.

Gillespie’s actions at Kalunga were undeniably foolhardy. Even so, he became a hero. Why? There were a number of reasons. First, he was already a famous soldier who had fought in the West Indies, India and Java, playing key roles in the suppression of the mutiny at Vellore in southern India in 1806 and the conquest of the Dutch city of Batavia in 1811. A diminutive man with an outsize personality, he was known among his acquaintances for his drinking, gambling and debauchery, but at a distance he seemed a merely colourful and courageous figure. The most important reason for Gillespie’s posthumous fame, however, was provided by the context in which his death took place.

The war against the Gurkhas in which Gillespie died was another bloody and hard-fought struggle. On the one hand, his death reassured the British that, led by such brave commanders, their military forces would ultimately prevail, even if it took longer and cost more soldiers’ lives than they initially expected. And, on the other, it reassured them that their efforts to bring more of India under the authority of the East India Company – an entity that could be seen as profitable far more readily than it could be seen as benevolent – represented a fair fight rather than a one-sided affair in which a despotic power was crushing anything and anyone that dared stand in its way



By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s Brown Bess musket had delivered nearly a century of service. The tactics of the time were for musket troops to fire as many volleys as possible into an advancing enemy formation. The 10.5-pound Brown Bess could propel a one-ounce lead shot to a maximum effective range of 175 yards. Since the weapon was virtually impossible to aim with any degree of accuracy at such distances, most engagements took place at the range of 50 yards or less. Still, an experienced shooter could unload three shots a minute.

The Long Land Pattern “Brown Bess” musket was the British infantryman’s basic arm from about 1740 until the 1830s.

Brown Bess is a 1742 Long Land pattern. The 1742 pattern added a pan bridle to the First Model Bess lock. Fitted with a correct wooden ramrod, issued with an armory bright finish, this gun should have a polished bright barrel and lock.

During the age of the Brown Bess musket the British army took part in five major wars: the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the American War of Independence (1775-83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Crimean War (1853-56). It fought the Seven Years’ War as an ally of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Operations against the French and their Indian allies in North America began in 1754, absorbed much of Britain’s military effort and helped initiate far-reaching tactical change. French possessions in Canada were snapped up, with Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759 as the brightest star in a year of victories still remembered in the naval march ‘Heart of Oak,’ first heard in David Garrick’s play Harlequin’s Invasion

Come cheer up my boys ‘tis to glory we steer

to add something more to this wonderful year…

In India, too, there were successes, with Robert Clive’s defeat of the pro-French ruler of Bengal at Plassey in 1757 and Lieutenant General Sir Eyre Coote’s victory at Wandeswash in 1759 bringing much of India under the control of the British East India Company. On the continent of Europe, where the British always fought as part of a coalition force, their fortunes were more mixed. The Duke of Cumberland, George II’s son, was badly beaten at Hastenbeck in 1757, but a British force played a notable part in the victory at Minden in the annus mirabilis of 1759.

It is worth pausing to consider just what these battles were like for the men who fought in them. At Minden, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick with 41,000 Anglo-German soldiers faced Marshal Contades with 51,000 Frenchmen. What made the battle unusual was that it was decided by an attack on a vastly superior force of French cavalry by six British regiments, launched as the result of a linguistic misunderstanding. Hospital Assistant William Fellowes of the 37th Foot wrote that:

The soldiers and others, this morning, who were not employed at the moment, began to strip off and wash their shirts, and I as eagerly as the rest. But while we were in this state, suddenly the drums began to beat to arms: and so insistent was the summons that without more ado we slip’t on the wet linen and buttoned the jackets over the soaking shirts, hurrying to form line lest our comrades should depart without us. There was a keen wind blowing at the time, and with my wet shirt and soaking coat, it was an hour or more before I could find any warmth in me. But the French warmed us up in good time; tho’ not, you may be sure, as much as we warmed them!

Lieutenant Montgomery of the 12th Foot described the advance, with the redcoats stepping out to the rub-a-dub-dub-dub of the drums, and through:

a most furious fire from a most infernal Battery of 18 18-pounders…It might be imagined that this cannonade would render the Regt incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount any difficulty. When we got within about 100 yards of the enemy, a large body of French cavalry galloped boldly down upon us; these our Men by reserving their fire immediately ruined…These visitants being thus dismissed…down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the Persons of the Gens d’Armes. These were almost immediately dispersed…we now discovered a large body of Infantry…moving directly on our flank in Column…We engaged this Corps for about 10 minutes, kill’d them a good many, and as the Song says, the rest then ran away.

The next who made their appearance were some Regt’s of the Grenadiers of France, and as fine and terrible looking fellows as I ever saw. They stood us a tug notwithstanding we beat them to a distance…we advanced, they took the hint and run away.

Montgomery added a postscript. The noise of battle frightened the regimental sutler’s pregnant wife into premature labour: ‘She was brought to bed of A Son, and we have christened him by the name of Ferdinand.’

The Seven Years’ War was ended by the Treaty of Paris, a triumph for Britain, who gained territory at French expense. But France was soon to have her revenge. A constitutional dispute, focusing on the right to tax, led to war between Britain and her North American colonies in 1775. Although the British won a costly victory that year at Bunker Hill, just outside Boston, and, indeed, won the majority of the war’s pitched battles, they were unable to inflict a decisive defeat on George Washington’s Continental army, and their strength was eroded by repeated small actions in a landscape that was often decidedly hostile. France, heartened by the surrender of an army under Lieutenant General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, joined the war. In 1781 Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis, commanding British forces in the southern states, was besieged at Yorktown by Washington and his French allies. Admiral de Grasse’s fleet prevented the Royal Navy from intervening, and in October Cornwallis surrendered in what was the greatest British military humiliation until the fall of Singapore in 1942. The Peace of Versailles ended the conflict, depriving Britain of many of the gains achieved in the Seven Years’ War.

France’s victory was dearly bought, for her finances collapsed under the strain of the war. Her government’s attempt at reform led to the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 and began the slide into revolution. War broke out between revolutionary France and old monarchical Europe in 1792, and Britain was drawn in the following year. The French Revolutionary Wars saw Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, assemble two successive anti-French coalitions, but with little success. Overall the war’s pattern was clear enough. There was little to check the French on land, and they overran the Low Countries, scarcely inconvenienced by the intervention in 1793-95 of a British force under the Duke of York, although a French expedition to Egypt ended in failure. At sea, however, the Royal Navy was supreme, and by 1801 the war had run its course, with neither side able to do serious damage to the other, and peace was ratified at Amiens in 1802.

It did not endure for long, and war broke out again the following year. Napoleon Bonaparte, an artillery officer who had risen to eminence by a mixture of stunning military success and deft political opportunism, had become ruler of France, and in May 1804 he assumed the imperial title, gaining popular approval for a new constitution by a plebiscite. By 1812 he had defeated all the major continental powers save Britain, imposing the ‘Continental System’ designed to prevent British commerce with Europe. But that year he over-reached himself by invading Russia. His former enemies, sensing that the tide had turned, took the field against him, and in 1814 was beaten and forced to abdicate. The following year he staged the dramatic revival of the Hundred Days, but was decisively defeated by the British and Prussians at Waterloo, and abdicated once more, this time for good.

During the Napoleonic Wars Britain’s principal theatre of operations was the Iberian Peninsula where a British force, from 1809 under the command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later created Duke of Wellington, operated from its base in Portugal against French armies which always outnumbered the British but were constrained by a broader conflict against a hostile population. The British army fought a dozen major battles and endured several painful sieges. The battle of Albuera, on 16 May 1811, came about when a British, Spanish and Portuguese army under Lieutenant General Sir William Beresford blocked Marshal Nicolas Soult’s attempt to disrupt his siege of the French-held fortress of Badajoz.

It was one of the hardest infantry contests of the entire period. Soult fixed Beresford’s attention by feinting at the village of Albuera, in the Allied centre. He then unleashed a massive attack against Beresford’s right flank, where a Spanish division swung round to face the threat and fought gallantly, buying valuable time. A British infantry brigade under Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne – one of the stars of the age, who was to become a field marshal and a peer – moved up to support the Spaniards. It was locked in a firefight with enemy infantry when French hussars and Polish lancers fell on its open flank, at the very moment that a sudden cloudburst drenched the mens’ muskets so that they would not fire. Lieutenant George Crompton of the 66th Regiment told his mother of the catastrophe that ensued. It was:

the first time (and God knows I hope the last) I saw the backs of English soldiers turned upon the French…Oh, what a day was that. The worst of the story I have not related. Our Colours were taken. I told you before that the 2 Ensigns were shot under them; 2 Sergeants shared the same fate. A Lieutenant seized a musket to defend them, and he was shot to the heart: what could be done against Cavalry?

Two fresh British brigades then came into line, and Captain Moyle Sherer of the 34th Regiment relates how the powder smoke, so utterly characteristic of these battles, was snatched away for a moment to reveal:

the French grenadier caps, their arms, and the whole aspect of their frowning masses. It was a momentary, but a grand sight: a heavy atmosphere of smoke again enveloped us, and few objects could be discerned at all, none distinctly…This murderous contest of musketry lasted long. We were the whole time progressively advancing and shaking the enemy. At a distance of about twenty yards from them, we received orders to charge; we had ceased firing, cheered, and had our bayonets in the charging position, when a body of the enemy’s horse was discovered under the rising ground, ready to take advantage of our impetuosity. Already, however, the French infantry, alarmed by our preparatory cheers, which always indicate the charge, had broke and fled.

Perhaps five hundred yards to Sherer’s right was Ensign Benjamin Hobhouse of the 57th Regiment, which was engaged in a prodigious close-range firefight.

At this time our poor fellows dropped around us in every direction. In the activity of the officers to keep the men firm, and to supply them with the ammunition of the fallen, you could scarcely avoid treading on the dying and the dead. But all was firm…Tho’ alone, our fire never slackened, nor were the men in the least disheartened…Our Colonel, major, every captain and eleven subalterns fell; our King’s Colours were cut in two, our regimental ones had 17 balls through them, many companies were without officers…

Lieutenant Colonel William Inglis, hit in the chest by grapeshot, lay in front of the colours and encouraged his men by shouting ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard’. The 57th Regiment and its post-1881 successor the Middlesex Regiment, were to be proudly known as Diehards.

Finally, the Fusilier brigade – two battalions of 7th Royal Fusiliers and one of 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers – arrived to clinch the victory. In the ranks of 1/7th was Private John Spencer Cooper, an avid student of military history who had enlisted in the Volunteers in 1803 at the age of fifteen and transferred to the regulars in 1806. His book Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, written up when Cooper was 81, gives a soldier’s view of the battle.

Under the tremendous fire of the enemy our line staggers, men are knocked about like skittles, but not a step backward is taken. Here our Colonel and all the field-officers of the brigade fell killed or wounded, but no confusion ensued. The orders were ‘close up’; ‘close in’; ‘fire away’; ‘forward’. This is done. We are close to the enemy’s columns; they break and rush down the other side of the hill in the greatest moblike confusion.

The word ‘moblike’ goes to the very heart of the matter. As the French columns disintegrated, so Soult’s army reverted to the shoal of individuals in which all armies have their origin, and to which, but for the efforts of drillmasters, leaders, and steadfast comrades, they return all too easily. Soult told Napoleon that he had been robbed of victory. ‘The British were completely beaten and the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’ Well might Sir William Napier, himself a Peninsular veteran, celebrate ‘that astonishing infantry’.

Britain’s command of the sea, re-emphasised at Trafalgar in 1805, enabled her to mount smaller expeditions. Sometimes these were successes, like the descent on Copenhagen in 1807, and sometimes failures, like the disastrous Buenos Aires expedition of 1806–7. The epoch had a tragic adjunct. An Anglo-American conflict – ‘the War of 1812’ – had begun promisingly for Britain with the repulse of an American attack on Canada and the temporary seizure of Washington, but ended in British defeat at New Orleans in January 1815, a battle fought before news of a negotiated peace reached North America.

It was not until 1854 that the British army faced its first major post-Napoleonic trial, and the final major war of our period, when an Anglo-French force, with its British contingent under General Lord Raglan, invaded the Crimea in an effort to take the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The Allies won an early victory on the River Alma in September and beat off two Russian attacks on their siege lines at Balaclava and Inkerman. After a dreadful winter on freezing uplands, they took the outworks that dominated Sevastopol and forced the Russians to withdraw the following summer.

There was sporadic fighting in India throughout the period. In 1764 the British strengthened their grip on Bengal at the battle of Buxar, and in 1799 Tipoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore, was killed when the British stormed his capital Seringapatam. There were three wars against the fierce Mahrattas, whose confederacy sprawled across central India, and in the second (1803–5) they were beaten, with the future Duke of Wellington striking the decisive blow at Assaye (1803). The Pindaris, piratical freebooters who lived on the fringe of the Mahratta armies, were beaten in 1812–17, and a third Mahratta war in 1817–19 saw the British extend their power to the borders of the Punjab and Sind.

In 1838 the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, decided to install a pro-British ruler, Shah Shujah, on the throne of Afghanistan to provide a bulwark against the threat of Russian expansion. The advance to Kabul went well, but in the winter of 1841–42 there was rising against Shah Shujah. The British and Indian force, weakly commanded, retired from Kabul towards Jellalabad, but was cut to pieces as it did so: only one man, Dr Bryden, managed to reach safety.

Better fortune attended the next expansionist step, and in 1843 the British annexed Sind. This brought them into conflict with the martial Sikhs, rulers of the Punjab. In the first Sikh War (1845–46) the British won hard-fought battles at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Aliwal and Sobraon. When hostilities broke out again in 1848 the British had the better of a scrambling battle at Chilian wallah and a decisive clash at Gujerat, and went on to annex the Punjab.

Brown Bess was now almost a thing of the past, superseded from 1842 by a musket ignited by a percussion cap, which was far more reliable than the flintlock, and from 1853 by a percussion rifle. Ironically it was the introduction of this rifle into the Indian army that helped produce the last conflict of the period. The rifle’s paper cartridge was lubricated with grease, and rumours that this was the fat of pork (unclean to Muslims) or cattle (sacred to Hindus) induced some soldiers of the Bengal army to refuse the cartridges and precipitated the Indian Mutiny in March 1857. The mutineers took Delhi, and overwhelmed a British force at Cawnpore, where the survivors were massacred. Lucknow, capital of the princely state of Oudh, held out, and was eventually relieved after the British had taken Delhi by storm in September 1857.

The Mutiny was the last time that Brown Bess was carried in battle by British soldiers. Lieutenant Richard Barter, adjutant of the 75th Foot, – ‘the Stirlingshire Regiment, good men and true as ever had the honour of serving their Queen and Country’ – describes how a hundred men from his battalion were issued with the new rifle, ‘all the rest of the regiment retaining old Brown Bess’. But the new weapon was not deemed a success, and ‘the men, with few exceptions, contrived to get rid of their rifles and in their place picked up the old weapons of their dead comrades.’ Hobden would surely have approved.

Brown Bess had held sway for more than a century. But within a decade she was as obsolete as the longbow, superseded first by percussion weapons and finally by breech-loading rifles in a process of accelerating technical innovation. There were other major changes too: the purchase of commissions was abolished in 1871, and the regimental system was recast shortly afterwards to produce county regiments, with two regular battalions (the 37th joined the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment to produce the Hampshire Regiment) linked to form a new regiment which would normally have one battalion at home and another abroad. The process was not popular, and traditionalists demanded the return of ‘our numbers wreathed in glory.’ In 1884 Colonel Arthur Poole angrily declared that he could not possibly attend a Hampshire regimental dinner. ‘Damned names,’ he wrote, ‘mean nothing. Since time immemorial regiments have been numbered according to their precedence in the Line…I will not come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned.’

Operation Crossbow Part I

Interdiction and Crossbow

On Sunday morning, June 18, 1944, Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife, visited London’s Hyde Park to see her daughter Mary, who was a young officer serving with the local anti-aircraft battery. It had been a busy week on the home front. Almost two weeks prior, the invasion force had departed British ports and landed on the Norman coast. Early optimism over the landing’s success had receded slightly as the Germans had launched a new aerial assault, this time with unmanned, pilotless bombs. Mrs. Churchill arrived while the guns were firing at one of these strange contraptions, which sounded like a truck struggling, with its engine sputtering, to climb a steep hill. This particular aircraft passed overhead unharmed and destroyed a nearby house. As the mother and daughter were talking, another bomb appeared in the sky, and the battery again fired frantically at this machine as it flew overhead. Not hit, its engine stopped as scheduled, dove to earth, and exploded beyond the view of the women. Mrs. Churchill did not realize until later that morning that the explosion took place at the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace. A service was in progress, and the bomb killed or wounded more than two hundred active and retired members of the brigade. This incident was the most destructive V-1 attack of the war.

The German flying bomb and rocket offensive came as no surprise to Allied leaders. Although the first attack did not take place until the middle of June 1944, British intelligence had known about German research in this area since 1939. Throughout 1942 and 1943, evidence continued to accumulate that this research had progressed beyond the simple experimentation stage. For several years, German scientists had been laboring at several locations, especially Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea, to perfect these systems to strike at the English enemy. By early 1943 it became apparent to British intelligence specialists that these programs were potentially dangerous and that the government needed to take action. It was ironic that this news arrived just as the prospects for Allied success in the war against Nazi Germany were improving. America had been in the conflict for more than a year, and its forces were now fighting the German army in North Africa. Its buildup of troops in the British Isles continued, and the US Eighth Air Force had joined RAF Bomber Command in its campaign against German industry. The Soviet Red Army had thrown back the Nazi offensive at Stalingrad and appeared to have turned the tide in the east. But it was premature to celebrate as new weapons emerged that seemed to threaten the foundation of the Anglo-American war effort. From the week after D-Day in June 1944 until the end of the war, British civilians lived under the constant bombardment of Hitler’s so-called vengeance weapons (Vergeltungswaffe). Most students of the Second World War are aware that the V-1 pilotless bomb and the V-2 rocket wreaked havoc on London, eastern England, and Antwerp until March 1945, when Allied forces overran the last launcher units. When it was over, the V-weapons had killed approximately 9,000 British and 1,400 Belgian civilians and wounded more than twice that many.

This shooting war, however, began almost a year earlier, under Operation Crossbow. From June 1943 until the end of the war, Allied heavy bombers attacked Peenemünde and other construction and testing facilities in Germany. These attacks fit into the already established parameters of the Combined Bomber Offensive, so there was no actual diversion of effort. What was a controversial deviation from the strategic forces’ intended role, however, was their large-scale employment to attack these systems and their facilities in France. Crossbow was a massive effort that from August 1943 until August 1944 consumed more than 15 percent of the total tonnage dropped by the RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force. This operation also drained the resources of the two tactical air forces, the US Ninth Air Force and RAF Second Tactical Air Forces, as medium bombers and fighter-bombers attacked suspected V-weapon facilities. So important was it to the Combined Chiefs of Staff to find these launchers that from May 1943 until April 1945 it dispatched more than four thousand reconnaissance sorties in search of these weapons, more than 40 percent of the total. Across northwestern France, most of these attacks, often with more than fifty bombers at a time, took place near the small villages that dot the departments of Pas-de-Calais, Somme, and Nord. Few remember these events. Unlike the bombing of Rouen, Le Havre, Caen, and Saint-Lô, whose citizens have commemorated the Allied destruction of their cities, there are few memorials to the French citizens of this region. The number of casualties caused by this and related bombing efforts is not insignificant. Although exact losses are always difficult to estimate, Allied air attacks collectively killed approximately 8,460 civilians in the departments of the Pas-de-Calais, the Nord, and the Somme. If just 10 percent of those were as a result of the Noball offensive, which is reasonable considering the dispersion of the various launchers, then it is a figure worth noting in the historical record.

The descriptions of the V-weapon war fall into several incomplete historical narratives. One group of historians focuses on the technical aspects of these advanced weapons systems and the construction of the French launching sites. These works, while essential to understanding the vengeance weapon programs, generally fail to describe the effect of the bombing of these facilities on the French. British historian Norman Longmate typifies the second group of authors, who focus on the German use of these systems against targets in the United Kingdom. His books chronicle the suffering of the British living under these attacks and the determined efforts of fighter pilots to shoot down the flying bombs before they could do any damage. His is the narrative that most Englishmen who lived through that period can identify with. The third group of books is the official histories, which are the traditional sources for understanding the relationship of Allied bombing operations against these weapons, their launchers, and support facilities. In general, these historians see the commitment of bombers against these rocket sites as a diversion of precious air resources from their primary tasks, and they downplay their overall importance. All these traditional accounts fail to grapple with the damage bombing raids caused among the French towns and villages. Some historians have begun correcting this imbalance and are going beyond English-centric narratives and descriptions of construction and technical data. Regional historians, those who have grown up among the concrete ruins and have heard from their elders the stories of the bombing, have done the best work in this field. Finally, absent from almost all discussions are the forced laborers who constructed the massive concrete facilities. The thousands of people the Germans worked to death pouring concrete and digging into hillsides have been all but lost to history and assimilated into general discussions of the Holocaust. This group probably suffered from the Allied bombing in the same manner as other French civilians.

Vengeance Systems

Ultimately, three major systems emerged as Hitler’s vengeance weapons, his attempt to punish the English tormentors who refused to surrender to the logic of Nazi domination and continued to bomb German cities. Collectively, they represented a significant threat to the United Kingdom, the Allied war effort in general, and the invasion of northwest Europe in particular. Building the infrastructure for these systems was a massive effort that strained the German wartime economy. Constructing the dozen or so large launcher facilities, approximately ninety smaller launching sites, and a host of supply and storage installations drained workers and resources away from other construction priorities. Organisation Todt, the Nazi building contractor, had hoped to accomplish this work with volunteer and conscripted workers. There was never enough civilian labor, and ultimately it needed to resort to slave labor to keep the work on schedule. The first weapon placed into use was the Luftwaffe-designed flying bomb, the FZG-76 (Flakzielgerat 76), better known as the V-1 (Vergeltunswaffe 1) or Vengeance Weapon 1, intended to be launched from permanent sites. It was essentially a pilotless aircraft with a one-ton warhead and a unique-sounding pulse-jet engine. A magnetic-gyro compass guided it toward its destination. It flew at approximately 300 miles per hour until it ran out of fuel, a distance of 120 to 140 miles. Once it stopped, its one-ton high-explosive warhead crashed into the ground.

The second system was the Aggregat 4 or A-4, better known as the V-2 (Vergeltunswaffe 2) or Vengeance Weapon 2. Werner von Braun, who would later contribute to the American space program, developed it for the German army based on ideas developed by American scientist Robert Goddard. It was a long-range ballistic missile originally designed to be fired from fixed facilities in France and Belgium. In the last years of the war, this was the Nazi regime’s most expensive armament project and, in Hitler’s view, the best way to defeat the Anglo-American invaders. Each of these forty-five-foot systems traveled at more than three thousand miles per hour and carried a one-ton, high-explosive warhead. In open terrain, it could create a crater thirty-forty yards in diameter and ten to fifteen yards deep. Obviously, it was capable of doing widespread damage if it hit a city.

Crossbow Overview

As early as 1939, the British government was aware of several military rocket programs under development in Germany, and by the end of 1942 the intelligence services were receiving regular reports of rocket tests along the Baltic coast. Between January and June 1943, long-range reconnaissance flights had confirmed the existence of a testing area at Peenemünde, ninety miles east of Rostock, and had clearly identified the presence of rockets. At the same time, reports continued to accumulate about large-scale excavations and construction in the Pas-de-Calais and Manche departments of northern France. In April 1943 Churchill received his first detailed briefing on the possibility of long-range rockets aimed at London. The British Chiefs of Staff formed a special committee to monitor the developing threat and appointed a member of Parliament and Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, to head it. The primary task of this group was to figure out what the Germans were up to, what was the actual threat, and how the Allies could defeat it. A few members of the government doubted the existence of a rocket program, arguing it was a German hoax, but the evidence continued to accumulate as Sandys continued his investigation. Soon he had silenced their protests.

By early November 1943, the nature of the threat had become relatively clear as intelligence analysts realized that Organisation Todt was constructing three different types of installations in the Pas-de-Calais and the Cotentin Peninsula. Some of these were enormous, with deep excavations surrounded or covered by large amounts of concrete. These experts were still unable to determine their precise purpose but strongly suspected some innovative weapon. As a result, the Air Ministry, which had the best means of responding to enemy actions across the channel, took control of the investigation from Sandys’ committee and began to focus on the military aspects of the problem. Information continued to flow into London from a variety of sources, and by the beginning of 1944 it was evident that there were at least two different long-range weapon threats. Analysts reported that they had identified Flak Regiment 155W, with a headquarters in Amiens, which commanded 108 flying-bomb catapults designed to launch these unique aircraft. The prospect of rockets raining down on the United Kingdom could affect the nation’s will to fight and the Allies’ ability to invade the continent. Experts presented Churchill with estimates indicating that these rockets could inflict severe casualties upon the capital’s population, upwards of 30,000 killed and wounded. The British Chiefs of Staff were also concerned about the potential damage these weapons could do to the preparations for the landings in France. In the middle of December, they asked Frederick Morgan, still serving as the chief Overlord planner before Eisenhower’s arrival, about the potential effects of the rockets on the staging and execution of the invasion. They also inquired if he should consider mounting Operation Overlord from bases out of range of the vengeance weapons, such as harbors in Ireland, Northern Britain, or even the United States. The staff needed to know the chief planner’s thoughts and when they would have to make this decision. Morgan argued that the invasion had to be launched from the south, and he needed to know “at once” if he needed to make any significant changes in his plan. The chiefs directed no changes to the current preparations.

As the plan to deal with these weapons, known as Crossbow, emerged, it contained several distinct sets of action. Most immediately, the government developed a civil defense and security plan that integrated observers, detection devices, balloons, and interceptor aircraft. These improved on the measures developed earlier during the German air force’s bombing of London, but the staff was not overly optimistic about their effectiveness. The second aspect of the plan was the destruction of test sites and factories in Germany. The third and final portion of the operation was to destroy launching sites on the continent. They called this process Noball, which is the code name used for all missions and target lists against vengeance weapons in France.

The British public first became aware of this threat with the first V-1 attack, code-named Diver, a week after the Normandy invasion, during the night of June 12 and 13, when four bombs hit targets around London. A few days later, the barrage began in earnest with Flak Regiment 155W sending as many as one hundred flying bombs toward London each day. The most intense phase of this bombardment took place from June through the end of August 1944. During this period, the Germans controlled the French Pas-de-Calais region and used the plethora of modified launching sites scattered across the countryside. By June 18 the political panic within the British government was such that Eisenhower felt the need to pointedly tell Tedder that destroying Noball targets “are to take first priority over everything except the urgent requirements of the battle.” By July the British cabinet was debating using poison gas to contaminate launchers in France and as retaliation against the German homeland. Allied success on the battlefield muted such discussions, and as the Allies broke out of the Normandy bridgehead in July and began heading north, they overran these sites, sending the launch crews scurrying toward the Netherlands and Germany.

The first V-2 rocket attack, code-named Big Ben, hit London on September 8. There were few defensive measures the British could implement to stop the attacks. The rockets simply traveled too fast to be stopped by any system in the Allied inventory. The only effective defense was to continue to attack supply sites and factories in Germany. Rocket attacks continued against London and other cities in Europe until March 1945, when Allied ground forces overran most of Germany’s industrial area.

Executing Noball

British intelligence eventually identified four kinds of Noball targets in France: heavy sites, ski sites, modified sites, and supply and support facilities. It was the discovery of the nine large construction sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and the Cotentin Peninsula near Cherbourg that first captured the attention of British intelligence analysts. Throughout 1943 Organisation Todt’s building units, supported by thousands of slave workers and conscripted civilian labor, began excavating and building what British documents refer to as the “heavy” Crossbow sites. After the war, the Allies discovered that the German air force had responsibility for four of these, which were intended to store, assemble, and launch a large number of V-1 flying bombs. Code-named “Wasserwerk,” or water works, by the Germans to hide their purpose, these were primarily long tunnels with gaps in the ceiling to fire rockets toward London. In the Cotentin, they built one in Tamerville, northeast of Valognes, and the other at Couville, southwest of Cherbourg. The US Army’s VII Corps overran both of these installations in late June 1944. The other two were Lottinghen, east of Boulogne, and Siracourt, west of Arras in the Pas-de-Calais. Siracourt was typical of these kinds of launching sites. The dozen or so houses at the beginning of the war contained fewer than 140 citizens, mostly farmers and their families. The German army evacuated the French civilians as Organisation Todt arrived in the spring of 1943. On a little hill, just west of the village, contractors began construction in September. This facility was to be the first of four to process, store, and possibly fire the V-1. The main construction was 625 feet long and 132 feet wide and oriented at a right angle to London. The 1,200 workers, primarily Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, and French forced labor, lived in a camp at Croix-en-Ternois a little more than a mile away. Under the supervision of Organisation Todt’s guard force (Schützkommando), the workers ultimately built the structure and poured more than 50,000 cubic meters of concrete to make it invulnerable to Allied bombers. Because of the bombing, however, it was impossible to finish its construction. As a result, the Germans never fired a flying bomb from it, and it fell to Canadian troops in September 1944.

The German army controlled the V-2 rockets, and it designed large concrete installations, capable of launching seven to ten rockets per day, with sophisticated storage and assembly capability. For example, the launchers at Wizernes, next to Saint-Omer, lay beneath a massive concrete cupola twenty feet thick and were capable of launching their rockets from two platforms. Other sites at Watten (Éperlecques), near Calais, and Sottevast, near Cherbourg, were just as massive and required millions of tons of concrete. Forty-four miles north of Siracourt and eleven miles northwest of the Luftwaffe airfields at Saint-Omer is the three-square-mile complex at Watten. On its southwest corner, Organisation Todt built a massive structure that came to be called the Blockhaus. It was an incredibly large structure that absorbed thousands of tons of concrete and the forced labor of thousands of unfortunate workers. Based on experience at the submarine pens along the coast, the German engineers expected it to withstand the bombardment of whatever the enemy could drop on top. The Allies never understood its exact purpose but knew they had to destroy anything that was consuming so much German effort. It was the first site detected by British reconnaissance. Duncan Sandys never believed it had an offensive capability and, even after his visit in October, considered it to be a plant for the production of hydrogen peroxide, which the Germans were using as a fuel. Postwar records and analysis indicate, though, that it may have served as a general storage, assembly, and launching facility in, according to one researcher, “a bomb-proof environment.” Most experts believe it was capable of launching rockets on its own.

Twelve miles south of the Blockhaus near Saint-Omer is the village of Wizernes. In an old quarry, Organisation Todt constructed one of the largest installations of the war, the V-2 launcher site known as La Coupole, or the dome, for the most impressive aspect of the facility. Todt designed it to assemble, fuel, and fire rockets from within the protected site. Upwards of 1,300 forced laborers worked on this project twenty-four hours a day. Like the Blockhaus, it had two launcher ramps that could fire rockets simultaneously and was probably the most sophisticated of the vengeance weapon launching sites. By March 1944 British intelligence was convinced that it needed to be added to the list of Noball targets. The most sinister of V-2 launcher sites was the silo complex west of Cherbourg near La Hague. These, generally overlooked by Allied intelligence, resemble the later American nuclear missile silos of the Cold War. It never became operational, and the US VII Corps occupied this region in July 1944. The problem for the Germans was that the construction crews could not hide the extensive work sites from the hundreds of Allied reconnaissance aircraft searching for signs of activity. The continuous bombing of the extensive excavations in France meant the Germans could not complete the launching facilities, which ended any possibility of the German air force using them. Ultimately, the Germans would fire no V-2 rockets from fixed sites but would employ mobile launchers that were essentially impossible for the Allies to detect in advance.

Eleven miles from Cap Gris-Nez, across the channel from Dover and ninety-five miles from the center of London, is a facility unique among the heavy sites. The British knew the Nazis were developing a long-range gun, but they did not know any details. The German army had done this before, and Allied commanders had visions of a weapon similar to the artillery used to bombard Paris in the previous conflict or the large guns deployed along the French coast. Therefore, most analysts believed the construction at Mimoyecques, France, was a variation on a V-2 launch site, since it bore no resemblance to anything with which they were familiar. Also, since most of the workers were German, few details emerged as to its actual intent. In reality, the site housed something revolutionary, a large battery of long-range guns, called Hochdruckpumpe (high-pressure pump) guns, later referred to by the Allies as Vengeance Weapon-3. Each 330-foot smooth-bore gun was to be capable of firing a six-foot-long dart about a hundred miles. Its range was the product of added velocity created by solid rocket boosters arrayed along the edge of the tube. Each projectile could carry about forty pounds of high explosives. The plan was to construct banks of five guns each with the potential of firing six hundred rounds per hour toward London. British intelligence knew little about what was going on inside the facility. After the war, Duncan Sandys’ investigation of the large sites discovered the true nature of the threat they had faced. Fortunately, Allied air attacks prevented Organisation Todt from ever finishing its work and German gunners were never able to fire these weapons.

The second kind of targets identified by Allied analysts were the so-called ski sites, named from the configuration of several buildings that looked like snow skis on their side. By late 1943 British intelligence officers had identified between seventy and eighty of these, hidden in the hundreds of wooden patches that dot the northwestern French countryside, with their launchers pointed directly at their intended target. If left alone, each one of these small installations could hurl fifteen FZG-76 flying bombs across the channel each day. The cumulative effect of hundreds of these striking London daily would not help civilian morale. They also posed a direct threat to the harbors from which the Allies would launch and sustain the invasion. One of the first sites identified by intelligence analysts was in the Bois Carré (Square Woods) about three-quarters of a mile east of Yvrench and ten miles northeast of Abbeville on the Somme. A French Resistance agent was able to infiltrate the construction site in October 1943 and smuggle out some of earliest detailed descriptions of a ski site layout. The long catapult, generally visible from the sky and quickly identified by reconnaissance aircraft, became the signature target indicator. As a result, even with extensive camouflage, they were identified, targeted, and destroyed by Anglo-American aircraft. As a result, none of these installations ever became operational.

Soon after the first air attacks, German leaders began considering an alternative method of launching the V-1. Security and concealment now became a priority, and these modified launcher sites were better camouflaged and of simpler construction. These new launchers no longer had many of the standard buildings, especially those that resembled skis, which had contributed to their rapid discovery by intelligence specialists. With minimal permanent construction, the only identifiable features were an easily hidden concrete foundation for the launch ramp and a small building to set the bomb’s compass. Other buildings were designed to blend into the environment or to look like the local farmhouses. All this took less than a week to fabricate, and forced labor no longer did the construction work, as German soldiers prepared each site in secret. Supply crews delivered the flying bombs directly to the launcher from a hidden location, assembled and ready to launch. All the teams needed to do was set the compass and mount it on the catapult. Difficult to locate from the air, these launchers would remain operational until overrun by Allied ground troops in early September 1944. After that, the Germans launched their V-1 rockets from sites in the Netherlands or from German bombers specially configured to fire these weapons.

One week after the last V-1 flew from French soil, the V-2 rocket made its first appearance when it slammed into a French village southeast of Paris, killing six civilians. The German army had abandoned any hope of using large fixed sites for anything other than storage, and they now organized the delivery of their rockets as mobile systems, structured around less than a dozen vehicles and trailers. While the rocket was still hidden, crews prepared it for launch, a process that took between four and six hours. Within two hours of mission time, the firing unit deployed to a previously surveyed site and erected the rocket on a mobile pad. As soon as it was on the way, the soldiers disappeared into the woods, leaving little trace of the launch. Unless an Allied fighter happened to catch the Germans during the short preparation process, there was little the air forces could do to prevent launches. The Germans fired none of the mobile V-2s from French soil, but fired them instead from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. While not part of the discussion of bombing France, these rockets are an important reminder that the Germans continued to use mobile sites until the end of the war.

The final kinds of Noball targets were the supply sites that provided rockets for the individual firing units and the transportation network that supported them. By February 1944 the Allies had determined that seven facilities existed, one on the Cotentin Peninsula and the remainder arrayed just east of the belt of launchers. These, however, were relatively difficult to attack and were often located within underground bunkers or railroad tunnels, under fortresses, or deep within thick woods. They also were often protected by extensive anti-aircraft artillery. More vulnerable were the various rail yards that served as offload and staging points for these systems. Rail stations in Saint-Omer, Bethune, Lille, Lens, and Arras were the crucial nodes in this network. Attacking these transportation nodes also supported the goals of the Transportation Plan, the Allied attack of bridges along the Seine and Loire, and Operation Fortitude, the effort to deceive the Germans as to the actual location of the invasion.


Operation Crossbow Part II

V-1 Rocket attacked by Spitfire F Mk XVI

Effect on France

The standard British narrative omits or minimizes the effect of this campaign on the environment and people who lived near the concrete launcher facilities. War is not merely a sport played on a designated field between military teams, but is a multidimensional tornado of violence that scars the land and people through which it passes. The skies of this small corner of Europe—three departments, the Nord, the Pas-de-Calais, and the Somme, together smaller in size than the state of New Jersey—were never empty of combat aircraft as the Allies searched for these vengeance weapons. As pointed out earlier, these aircraft were not extremely accurate. American and British air commanders, especially those in charge of the heavy bombers, seldom made claims about bombing precision. In almost every case, no matter how small the target, a minimum of a dozen B-17s or Lancasters, the general flight configuration of operations over Germany, executed the attack. Unlike during raids against the Ruhr or industrial complexes across the Rhine, few Luftwaffe fighters defended these sites. Flying high above the objective, in the same formations they used in the heart of Germany, crews dropped their munitions with the intent to pulverize the installation by the cumulative effect of the explosive tonnage. As the authors of WPD-1 anticipated, most bombs missed the target. Some got close and affected the facility’s supply routes, while others only tore up farmers’ fields and killed their livestock. Many others physically destroyed the farms and villages near the objective, killing or wounding those who lived there. Therefore, in evaluating Operation Crossbow’s effect on France, we can examine it from three different aspects: the intensity of the air attacks, the inaccuracy of the attacks on these targets, and the killing and wounding of those near the bombing attacks.

The intensity of the bombing effort against Noball targets is difficult to understand in the contemporary era of precision munitions. According to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, published soon after the war, this operation consumed 13.7 percent of all sorties, almost 37,000, launched by the Allied strategic air forces from August 1943 until August 1944. From December 1943 through June 11, 1944, more than 15.5 percent of all bombs dropped by heavy bombers were aimed at fixed sites in France. The tactical air forces conducted more than 4,000 reconnaissance sorties, 40 percent of the total between May 1943 to April 1945, to find the launchers and their supporting facilities. The northern French departments of Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and the Somme was one of the most heavily bombed parts of France if measured by individual missions. During the first three months of 1944, more than 50 percent of all bombs dropped in the country fell on these three small departments. The bombing’s scale is reflected in three ways: the number of attacks in the region, the number on a given target, and the intensity of a bombing mission. For example, in the space of just one month, February 1944, the towns of the Pas-de-Calais, an area smaller than the state of Delaware, absorbed 124 separate attacks, ranging in size from one or two aircraft to several dozen. Some areas, such as the installations at Siracourt and Éperlecques, were each hit several times. By spring, the weather had improved and the Allies had more aircraft available. On just one day, April 20, the region endured thirty-six separate attacks. The following month, during the week of May 7–13, this same small area absorbed more than seventy-one separate raids. The Allies increased the pace of these attacks as the June landings approached, and, shortly after that, the German air force began to launch flying bombs from the improvised sites toward London.

A second way to understand scale is to consider the number of missions flown against the individual sites. The large installations in the Pas-de-Calais absorbed an incredible number of bombs. The facility at Mimoyecques, what British investigators later discovered as the home of the Hochdrukpumpe (V-3), is typical of the offensive against the most prominent targets. Beginning with the first raid on November 5, 1943, the entire complex remained in a state of increasing pulverization. Determining the exact number of sorties that attacked this or any target is difficult. Records usually include reports of the intended target and what pilots thought they were attacking. Some hit the wrong objective without even knowing it. Other crews, especially those in the tactical air forces, hit targets of opportunity. Observers on the ground reported Allied air attacks on days not mentioned in the documents now stored in London or American archives. In the case of Mimoyecques, Allied bombers attacked seventeen times between November 1943 and July 6, 1944. Most missions ranged in size from 10 to 40 aircraft. Several raids were enormous in relationship to the targets, with more than 280 heavy bombers pulverizing the area on November 5, 1943, another 300 on March 19, and 350 on March 26. Two raids on July 6 essentially ended all work on the site. The morning strike of more than 85 Lancasters was with conventional munitions, mainly 500-pound bombs. An afternoon attack of the RAF’s crack 617 Squadron, equipped with 17 Lancaster bombers carrying 12,000-pound Tallboy bombs, finished the destruction of the facility.

In the case of the Wasserwerk at Siracourt, for example, 74 US B-24 Liberator bombers arrived overhead on January 31, 1944. Each bombardier aimed to place his payload on top of a building the size of a modern football field. As the Air Force knew, the probability of actually hitting the target was quite small. The 189 tons of ordnance had little effect on the construction, as most bombs fell in fields far from the actual target. The attack destroyed one building and damaged nine in the village. Bombs also hit two buildings in the local village of Croix-en-Ternois, where the workers who built the facility lived. This attack was the first of thirty-three, conducted by more than 1,200 bombers, which would take place over the next year. The Eighth Air Force struck six times in February, twice in March, four times in April, and six times in May. The Ninth Air Force attacked Siracourt on March 18 and April 22. These were, from the airmen’s perspective, relatively easy missions. During a May 21 mission, for example, each aircraft carried eight 1,000-pound bombs. The 99 B-17 bombers had P-47 Thunderbolt fighters as escorts all the way and encountered no enemy fighters or anti-aircraft artillery. Dropping their bombs at 21,000 feet at ground obscured by clouds, crews had no idea of what kind of damage their explosives caused. As one crewman remarked in his journal, “This raid was short and sweet. . . . Hope I have 27 more just like this one.” The Allies continued to attack this target, just in case, until the end of June.

Another good example is the Blockhaus at Watten in the Éperlecques forest. The Eighth Air Force sent more than 180 B-17 bombers to take out the site on August 27, 1943. The first aircraft hit as scheduled at 1845 hours. Allied planners, based on reports from the French Resistance, planned to arrive at 1830, when the work site was unoccupied because of a shift change, to avoid killing the workers. But because they were behind schedule, Todt’s contractors had kept the day shift on the job to catch up. The 374 2,000-pound bombs found the slave laborers at their stations. Hundreds died as American bombers continued to drop their cargo for almost an hour. When it was over, five bombs had hit the target, with the remainder landing in the forest and nearby farmland. Contrary to initial positive reports, the raid inflicted little actual damage, and the Germans continued the construction. Over the next year, British and American bombers would attack this massive structure at least twenty-four more times, and each time the workers repaired the damage and continued working.

The last attack in this series was an Operation Aphrodite mission on August 4. Aphrodite was an American attempt to use worn-out bombers, loaded with explosives and equipped with newly developed radio guidance systems, to destroy important targets. Essentially each bomber was an early version of a cruise missile. Unfortunately these bombers required live pilots to fly the aircraft from the airfield to a point over the English Channel. Then, the two-person crew was supposed to parachute out of the plane, while a crew in another flew the unmanned bomber by radio control. The goal was to crash the explosive-laden aircraft into the target. Unfortunately the technology was still in development, and these missions were almost always unsuccessful. Such was the case of these two old B-17s that never made it to the objective. The US Navy followed the Air Forces’ lead in these experiments, with as little success. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., brother of future president John F. Kennedy, died when the converted B-24 he was flying to the launch position exploded in mid-air.

The massive La Coupole near Wizernes is another example of a heavily bombed target. The Allies were late as the massive dome was already in place and and mostly invulnerable to attack by March 1943. The first strike, consisting of 34 B-24 bombers, hit on March 11. The 248 1,000-pound bombs did little but damage the local countryside. Nine more raids, comprising 348 heavy bombers and more than 2,000 large bombs, did little damage, and work continued inside, although affected slightly by the damage outside. Bomber Command began attacking La Coupole in June and July with raids of between 80 and 100 aircraft and dropping hundreds of tons of bombs, including several dozen Tallboy 12,000-pounders. The July 17 attack caused the dome to shift and block the entrances, but it did little to affect the site itself. Of course, the countryside was a bombed-out mess, and it was almost impossible for workers and material to get to the construction site. The Germans were long gone when Canadian and Polish troops arrived in the Saint-Omer region at the end of August.

A final way to consider the scale of this operation is the intensity of the attacks on individual sites by specific missions. In addition to the intense bombing of the large sites described above, the V-1 sites absorbed an incredible amount of ordnance. Typical was the installation near Wisques, west of Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais. With fewer than three hundred people, it was a typical farm community. Its most prominent feature was a beautiful nineteenth-century Benedictine abbey on the western part of town on the edge of the local forest. Hidden in that forest was a standard “ski” launch site. Thirty-six A-20 Havoc light bombers arrived overhead on the evening of March 19, 1944, and for almost three hours these aircraft took turns dropping their payloads on the small patch of woods, obscured by fire from antiaircraft guns and smoke from the burning forest. When they had departed, they were not quite sure if they had damaged the target. The Eighth Air Force sent six B-17 heavy bombers on April 20, and the Ninth Air Force returned with B-26 medium bombers two days later on April 22. Twenty-one B-17 heavy bombers returned to attack the installation five days later, and thirty-three P-47 Thunderbolt fighters worked the woods over on June 2, the last recorded attack on the Wisques launcher. Cumulatively, it was a massive amount of combat power directed against a relatively small and insignificant target.

The intensity of these attacks was made worse by the bombers’ notorious inaccuracy. By early 1944, after years of practice, the Eighth Air Force had improved its bombing accuracy to the degree that 36 percent of its bombs fell within one thousand feet of an actual aiming point. Against targets in Germany, this was acceptable, but from the French perspective, most raids conducted by heavy bombers still resembled area attacks. Add considerations such as inclement weather, German ground and air defenses, and simple human error, it is not surprising that bomb runs were often wide of the intended target. Photographs of craters in target areas testify to the broad impact spread of a typical attack. Beyond the damage done to the weapons sites, these runs often hit nearby French villages and individual structures. In some cases, such as the bombing of rail yards, the damage was apparent to all. In most cases, however, the Noball offensive was characterized by the destruction of small farms and villages far from most observers. This “collateral damage,” to use a modern term, is seldom mentioned in reports or dispatches by attacking units. To those who owned these structures, their destruction was an emotional event. The fundamental community structure of the region, dating back to the premedieval era, was a small central cluster of farmhouses and barns with a forest nearby that provided a source of game and lumber. Most of the surrounding open area was devoted to growing grains and potatoes and raising cattle. The nature of these clusters was that if they were near a target, the odds were high that the carpet bombing would destroy them. Reports provided to the local prefect confirm the damage, as do photographs of the bombed areas taken by poststrike reconnaissance aircraft. Immediately after the war, French farmers and property owners filed reports with the local authorities documenting their losses and requesting assistance in rebuilding, reports that can be seen in departmental archives today.

Often the Allies attacked these small villages only once or twice. For example, the town of Blendecques, the location of a V-1 ski site, had about 3,500 inhabitants at the beginning of the war. The town was southeast of the highly militarized region of Saint-Omer, and it is hard to know how many of the original residents were still there. On April 22 the Ninth Air Force raided it for the first and apparently the only time. At around 1900 hours fifty B-26 bombers attacked the site. When the attackers were gone, at least fifty bombs had hit the town, killing five civilians and wounding another three badly. The attack destroyed eleven homes and damaged forty-three others. Month after month, correspondence from the local prefectures across the region identified the damage or destruction to individual homes and structures. While not as dramatic as the bombing of Caen or Rouen, this damage had a substantial effect on the local population, which had now lost their homes and source of livelihood.

Those villages in the shadow of the large sites provide more dramatic examples of the effects of Allied bombing. One good example is the small village of Helfaut, on the south side of the woods near the La Coupole at Wizernes. At the beginning of the war, it had fewer than fifty structures of all kinds: homes, barns, and small shops. One attack on March 19 destroyed ten of those and severely damaged twenty more. By the end of the war, the bombing attacks had mostly destroyed this town and driven its inhabitants away. Apparently aiming for La Coupole on June 20, an Eighth Air Force bombing mission could not find its target, and fifteen B-24 bombers dropped their bombs over the town of Guarbecque, sixteen miles to the southeast. The bombs hit the center perfectly. When the fires were out, the citizens discovered that the attack had damaged their church, destroyed the town hall, and burned more than ninety buildings to the ground. Two weeks after the Normandy landings, American aircraft had almost wiped this French village of slightly less than a thousand inhabitants off the map.

Most dramatic was the destruction that took place near the rail yards and transportation centers that supported the construction of installations and the supply of rockets for the firing batteries. These missions were not part of the Transportation Plan, discussed later, but an integral part of defeating the vengeance weapon threat. Béthune, located in the center of a triangle formed by the cities of Lille, Saint-Omer, and Arras, provides one example of the level of destruction wrought by these bombings. Located along the battle lines of the First World War, this was a rebuilt version of the ancient city. It was a relatively large town, with a densely populated city center of approximately 20,000 inhabitants. In addition to its rail yard, it was a center of regional mining, especially coal. Bombers struck the town and its suburbs on April 20, 21, 22, 23, and 27. In the wake of the bombing, hundreds of buildings were gone, including the rail yard and the housing for miners and railway workers. These are just several of the examples of communities in northwestern France damaged or destroyed as part of the Allied Noball operation.

Each of the material examples described above has a human cost. Each month the department’s préfet, the state’s representative, compiled a list describing the effects of the bombing. Organized by date and community, the report identifies every town bombed or machine-gunned. Most often, the numbers are not large, especially in comparison to the carnage on the eastern front. Six wounded and seven killed at Sallaumines outside of Lens on April 20, 1944. Another five wounded and three dead on May 6, and another seventeen killed and fifteen wounded on May 12, and so on, often with other notations such as that the bombs landed in the field. These casualties continued to accumulate well into July 1944, more than a month after the invasion at Normandy. Sometimes the numbers in the right column attract attention, such as the attack on April 27 that left forty-eight dead and thirty-six wounded at Béthune, or on June 20 at Guarbecque that left eighteen wounded and twenty civilians dead.

The more detailed reports, written by the local officials, are often quite gripping. The bombing on May 12 of the village of Saint-Venant, on the road between Hazebrouck and Béthune, is one such example. The attack killed only one victim, forty-eight-year-old André Pierru, who was working in the field. He was a veteran of the Great War and the 1940 Campaign and a knight of the Legion of Honor. He left behind a wife and a fifteen-year-old son. Reading the report it is evident that to the local police official, Monsieur Pierru was not a simple number, but a friend. Another perspective is the one presented by police officials in the larger town and cities. Here we find reports that describe the nature of the attack and list the dead by name, often including the deceased’s address. For example, the police commissioner of Arras reported by name those killed and wounded during the bombing of April 30. The raid wounded twenty-three citizens and six “sujets russes.” Then he continues with a list of the eight dead:

  • Vasseur, Yvette
  • Greuin, Gaston
  • Fleurquin, Oscar (48 years old)
  • Seneca, Miss
  • Lefebvre, Marcel (15 months old)
  • Rifflart, Kléber
  • Haudiquet, Lucien
  • Van Rokeghem, François (61 years old)

As the weeks went by, officials refined these reports and passed the new information to the national government. Often they reported the subsequent deaths of the wounded in the hospitals and more detailed information as to the scale of the damage to the community. From the countryside, these documents are brief, often only a simple letter. Reports from the larger cities, such as Lille, Calais, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer, provide a similar but longer list of casualties. In the end, it is hard to assess the actual human cost of Noball attacks in isolation from the other operations going on. A local historian, Hugues Chevalier, believes that approximately 5,000 civilians perished in just the Pas-de-Calais under Allied bombs from 1943 to 1945. Of the approximately 60,000 to 70,000 civilians killed in France by aerial bombing, perhaps 10 percent died as a result of the Allied search for German vengeance weapons. Probably two or three times that number were wounded. For many reasons, we will probably never have an accurate accounting of the human toll in this region.

Absent from both the Allied and French narratives of the Noball operation is any commentary on the forced laborers who constructed these sites for Organisation Todt. As Jim Aulich, one of the few scholars to address this aspect of the war, notes, these camps are at the “margins of memory.” Aulich’s father was a forced laborer and helped construct the Blockhaus near Éperlecques, and he passed on some of the details from this camp, of which there were many along the French coast. Officially named Organisation Todt Watten Zwangsarbeiter 62 (Forced Labor Camp 62), it had more than 35,000 workers living there at some point in 1943 and 1944. During peak construction, between 3,000 and 4,000 slaves worked on each twelve-hour shift, seven days a week, with few breaks. The German masters, and perhaps their French contractors, worked most of these unfortunates to death. At Wizernes, 1,300 workmen labored on the site day and night. Badly nourished and abused, they were forced to continue working, even under air attack, until the Germans abandoned the site in July 1944. The last 500 Soviet workers working in the Coupole were sent by train to Germany and “never seen again.” As the bombers approached, German guards ran for cover, often leaving the workers to their own devices. Many, such as Aulich’s father, escaped. The raids were costly nevertheless. As one Dutch prisoner of war, Luc Vandevelde, working at the camp near Watten, noted, after three attacks carried out by more than 320 bombers in 1943, they had more than 1,500 dead. Without question, the nature of this forced labor, and the fate of those workers caught under Allied bombs, is still one of the least discussed and explained aspects of the Second World War in the west.

In the end, the Noball operation was relatively successful. Because of the bombing, neither the Heer nor the Luftwaffe was able to launch a single rocket from the large facilities or ski sites from Normandy or the Cotentin Peninsula toward the overcrowded ports of Plymouth, Bristol, Portsmouth, or Southampton. The three-month delay in V-1 flying bomb launches and as much as a six-month delay in deploying the V-2 rocket were crucial to the ultimate Allied success. But anyone interested in the Second World War in Europe, or those fascinated with the technical aspects of the conflict’s weapons, knows most of this story. The British experience with these attacks, because they were so concentrated in London and southeastern England, is also amply documented and reported in histories of the conflict.

The continental perspective is less well known, even among the French who, as we shall see, are more prone to remember the effects of raids on the larger ports and rail yards. The rural population near each site was small, and the civilian casualty rates relatively insignificant. Even the French who lived near these war ruins understood these were legitimate targets and were taking a risk by remaining. Fortunately, local French historians are doing a marvelous job of researching and explaining the nature, scope, and effects of the attacks on these sites in the three northern departments. Their efforts illuminate the scope and details of a portion of the air war Spaatz and Harris considered a significant diversion from their larger goal of taking the fight to the Germans. Churchill, however, after hearing the British people’s complaints, had a pressing political need to defeat the V-weapon menace, and it was one of his highest priorities, as reflected by Eisenhower’s memorandum to Tedder on June 18. The bombing of these installations in France was thus an important aspect of the Allied air war against France.



On 25 October 1854, at the Brigade of the British cavalry charged a battery of Russian Battle of Balaclava, the Light artillery that was deployed at the end of a mile-long valley. The valley was flanked on both sides by additional guns that fired down from above. The action, which was in defiance of every basic principle of cavalry action in warfare, was the result of an erroneous interpretation of an ambiguous order given by Lord Raglan, the commander of the British forces in the Crimean War, to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Of the approximately 670 men who participated in the charge, almost three hundred were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.  Some observers were nonplussed by this horrific casualty rate. General Sir Richard Airey, second-in-command to Lord Raglan in the Crimea, merely shrugged: `These sorts of things will happen in war. It is nothing compared to Chillianwallah.’ In Airey’s eyes, the Charge of the Light Brigade was just another heroic failure.

Cavalry soldiers in the first half of the nineteenth century were regarded as impetuous, foolhardy and unreliable. Moreover, by midcentury, the replacement of the musket by the rifle had made cavalry charges riskier and less effective. It is conventionally assumed that it was the introduction of the breech-loading repeating rifle and more powerful and accurate artillery that decreased the effectiveness of the cavalry charge by the end of the nineteenth century. Even so, the charge still had numerous proponents in the British military establishment, who developed new tactics that took into account the increased fire- power of the infantry and artillery. In an age before mechanization, the cavalry served the vital purpose of making rapid movement possible. It was not until the First World War that the age of the cavalry charge truly came to an end. One of the last charges in Western military history took place during the retreat from Mons in August 1914, when the 2nd Cavalry Brigade advanced against the German 1st Army in an attempt to protect the British Expeditionary Force’s vulnerable left flank. The result was a swift rebuff and 250 casualties.

Cavalry charges could thus still achieve impressive results on the battlefield in the late nineteenth century. This was particularly true in colonial theatres, where enemy forces were usually less well armed than their British counterparts. Not surprisingly, then, it was at the height of the empire that perceptions of the cavalry began to change. Whereas previously its failures had been blamed on impetuous soldiers who refused to follow orders and exercise restraint, now the cavalry came to be celebrated for its dash.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Captain Soame Gambier Jenyns survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, the most famous heroic failure in British military history. Two years later, in 1856, he returned to his familial home, Bottisham Hall in Cambridgeshire. A large crowd cheered him as he rode into the village on his horse, Ben, another survivor of the charge. The parish priest observed: `it must have been grati- fying to our gallant friend to see the welcome accorded, while there was not a man, woman or child, but what turned out to do him honour’. In 1873, two years after he retired from the army, Jenyns died suddenly while out shooting on his father- in- law’s estate in Shropshire. His funeral cortege in Bottisham featured a military band and a column of Hussars; Ben, now twenty-five years old, was led behind the coffin. Hundreds of people packed the church and the surrounding streets; after the coffin was placed in the family vault, three volleys were fired by a rifle team, followed by a trumpet flourish. A memorial was later installed in the chancel of Bottisham church that referred to Jenyns as a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Jenyns’s example illustrates how the Charge of the Light Brigade was enshrined as an heroic failure. The survivors became celebrities who were feted at annual banquets and, as the decades passed, were given lavish public funerals. This was despite the fact that the charge was a disaster that had resulted from a string of errors and misunderstandings in the British chain of command. It had occurred during the Crimean War, which resulted from conflicts among the European powers as they grappled with the long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire. For their part, the British saw the war as necessary to ensure that Russian expansionism did not threaten the route to India. In the autumn of 1854, 27,000 British, thirty thousand French and seven thousand Turkish troops invaded the Crimean Peninsula, with their primary target the Russian naval base at Sebastopol. British forces included a division of cavalry, split into a Heavy and a Light Brigade. Traditionally, light cavalry (smaller men and horses) had been used to carry out reconnaissance work, while heavy cavalry (bigger men and horses) were used to overwhelm the enemy in battle. But in the decades after Waterloo, the army had shrunk from 250,000 men to 110,000, and such specialization was no longer possible. The two types of cavalry were thus now used almost interchangeably.

In the 1850s, cavalry officers continued to be predominantly men from elite backgrounds who had purchased their commissions and promotions. Lord Lucan, who commanded the cavalry at Balaclava, had joined the army the year after Waterloo and had spent much of his career on half- pay, as many wealthy officers did to avoid being sent to colonial theatres. Through purchase he had risen from being a sixteen- year- old ensign in 1816 to the rank of lieutenant colonel only ten years later. He had been promoted to major general in 1851, even though he had not been on active service for fourteen years. In command of the Light Brigade, meanwhile, was the 7th earl of Cardigan, who, like Lucan, had had no battlefield experience. He, too, had been promoted through purchase, rising from cornet to the lieutenant colonelcy of the 15th Hussars in only eight years between 1824 and 1832. Four years later, he paid £40,000 for the more prestigious lieutenant colonelcy of the 11th Hussars.

Cardigan was Lucan’s brother- in- law – Lucan was married to his sister Ann – but in this case the familial connection bred enmity rather than accord. Lady Lucan had complained to her brother that her husband mistreated her, which chilled relations between the two men. Just prior to their departure for the Crimea, Lady Lucan had left her husband, increasing the animosity between them even further. `They do not speak,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel Edward Hodge of the Heavy Brigade. `How this will answer on service I do not know.’ Such squabbles among the British commanders were deemed unimportant, however, as the army expected to take Sebastopol in a matter of weeks. Confidence was further boosted by the first confrontation with the Russians, at the Battle of Alma, which resulted in an emphatic British and French victory.

Next, the British turned their attention to Balaclava, a fishing village 6 miles (9.6 km) from Sebastopol that possessed a deep, sheltered harbour in which the fleet could land the army’s supplies prior to the attack on the Russian base itself. The British seized the village without opposition, but the Russians soon mounted a counterattack. On 25 October, the Russian commander, Prince Alexander Menshikov, ordered an infantry advance of thirty thou- sand men. The six hundred Turkish militia who manned the poorly constructed redoubts that defended the British position were quickly overwhelmed. All that now stood between the Russians and Balaclava was a `thin red line’ of 93rd Highlanders, who withstood the Russian charge, thereby passing into British military legend, though their victory did not become nearly as famous as the Light Brigade’s defeat shortly afterwards. The Heavy Brigade then charged the Russian cavalry, pushing them back despite the fact that they were outnumbered nearly three to one and were fighting uphill.

With the initial Russian attack blunted, Lord Raglan endeavoured to retake the redoubts before the Russians could regroup. He wanted to use General Sir George Cathcart’s infantry division for this purpose, but they had not yet arrived on the battlefield. He thus opted to send the Light Brigade forward without infantry support. This was in direct contradiction of standard military practice, but he assumed that the Russians were in such disarray that the redoubts could be occupied quickly. Lucan, however, interpreted Raglan’s order as meaning he should advance only after the infantry arrived, so he kept the Light Brigade waiting at the entrance to the northernmost of the two valleys that formed the battlefield’s terrain. Viewing the scene from the heights above the battlefield, Raglan could not understand why Lucan was not advancing as ordered. When he heard a report that the Russians were dragging away the British guns from the redoubts, his impatience boiled over. (Losing a gun was considered a severe embarrassment for a British general; Wellington was famous for never having done so.) At 10:45 a. m., Raglan issued what became the most infamous order in British military history: `Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the Enemy and try to prevent the Enemy carrying away the guns.’

Fifteen minutes later, the order was pressed into Lucan’s hands by Captain Louis Nolan, aide- de- camp to General Richard Airey, Raglan’s second- in- command. Lucan was unclear what it meant. Most military historians believe that the Russians were not attempting to take away the guns from the redoubts, and in any event Lucan would not have been able to see them from his position even if they had been. Nor could he see any enemy retreating that he could `follow’. He asked Nolan for clarification. Nolan told him that he should `attack immediately’. When Lucan asked what precisely he should attack, several witnesses later claimed that Nolan gestured with his arm towards the end of the valley. Lucan was astonished that Raglan would issue such an order. To launch a cavalry charge of well over a mile without infantry support down a valley that was defended to the front and on both sides by artillery was suicidal. But instead of sending Nolan back to Raglan for further clarification, Lucan rode over to Cardigan and ordered him to attack the battery at the far end of the valley. The astounded Cardigan protested on the grounds that `there is a battery in front, a battery on each flank, and the ground is covered in Russian riflemen’. Lucan acknowledged this, but confirmed that the order had come directly from Raglan.

When the trumpet call for the advance came, even the lowest- ranking private could see that a mistake had been made somewhere in the chain of command. They had proceeded between 100 and 200 yards (90-180 m) when the Russian guns on the sides of the valley opened up and shells began tearing gaps in the line. Some of the men tried to quicken the pace, but Cardigan kept them steady. Because the distance that had to be covered was so great, the Light Brigade had to move forward slowly, at a rate of about 4 miles (6.4 km) an hour, down most of the length of the valley, only increasing the pace to a full gallop for the last 250 yards (228 m). This meant that it took about seven minutes to reach the Russian battery. Fewer than half of the British troops who had started in the front line made it to the battery, while the second line no longer existed in any meaningful form.

The Charge of the Light Brigade had taken barely twenty minutes from start to finish. The participants were unaware that they had just been part of what would become one of the most famous military events in British history. Many of them did feel, however, that something extraordinary had occurred. Captain Jenyns declared: `never was such murder ordered’.

George Goad, a cornet in the 13th Light Dragoons, described the charge as `the most terrible thing you can conceive’. Lieutenant Fiennes Wykeham Martin of the 4th Dragoons wrote to his brother:

My Regiment is cut up and the rest of the Light Brigade are completely annihilated owing to a mistake in the orders. We charged for about a mile and a quarter down a valley flanked on both sides with artillery and infantry and with a tremendous force of cavalry at the bottom. They bowled us over right and left with grape shot, balls and round shot. Of 700 men who went into action only 190 came out and all for no good as we were not backed up. We have twice heard from a Russian officer who was taken prisoner, that our little Brigade charged 20,000 – rather long odds!

Captain Arthur Tremayne of the 13th Light Dragoons, whose horse had been shot from under him as he reached the Russian guns, wrote to his family that the charge had been `the most tremendous cavalry action ever recorded’. Tremayne was well aware that the order had been a blunder: `It was seen by all to be madness, unsupported by guns, or infantry . . . I am sincerely grateful to God for my preservation . . . and though one is always more or less in a dangerous position in war, no danger can be greater than that I have escaped.’ A week later, on 3 November, he added: `All agree in saying that there must have been some mistake in the order, as no such cavalry attack is on record.’ The men recognized the significance of what had occurred as much as did the officers. `Thank God I escaped that dreadful massacre . . .,’ wrote Henry Gregory of the 13th Light Dragoons to his sister. `A more dreadful sight I never saw, for our poor men was [sic] actually mowed down by dozens . . . The ground was actually strewed with dead men and horses, and men and horses running about in all directions, it was a horrible sight for any human being to witness.’

There have been plenty of battles in which generals have sacrificed large numbers of men to achieve victory. In these cases, the heavy losses are accepted as the cost of war. The Light Brigade’s casualty rate of around 40 per cent was certainly high, but it was lower than that of other famous charges, including Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War in 1863, in which over half the participants on the Confederate side were killed or wounded. In fact, given the foolhardiness of the advance of unsupported cavalry against well- placed artillery, the casualties at Balaclava were remarkably low. But it was the utter futility of the charge that made it so famous. If it had succeeded, or had it even been possible for it succeed, it would not occupy the prominent place in British memory that it quickly came to take up. Alone among the examples of charges cited in this chapter, it had no military purpose whatsoever. It was caused by a series of blunders, mistakes and misunderstandings so numerous that historians still fiercely debate which one was the most significant.

The futility of the Charge of the Light Brigade was comprehended immediately, and was highlighted by the two most widely read accounts. The first was provided by William Howard Russell, the war correspondent of The Times, who watched the charge alongside Lord Raglan. Russell’s first report of Balaclava reached Britain on 14 November 1854, less than three weeks after the battle. It emphasized the pointlessness of the charge:

As they passed towards the front, the Russians opened on them from the guns in the redoubt on the right, with volleys of musketry and rifles. They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war. We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men are not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true – their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so- called better part – discretion.

The second account was Alfred Tennyson’s `The Charge of the Light Brigade’, one of the best- known poems in the English language, which was based on Russell’s account. Tennyson later claimed to have been so inspired after reading it that he wrote the poem in a few minutes. It was first published in the Examiner on 9 December. Tennyson attributed the blame for the charge to an anonymous `someone’ who had `blundered’, while the men of the Light Brigade were identified only as `the six hundred’:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

The way of presenting the charge espoused by Russell and Tennyson soon became the prevailing mode, shifting it from a military disaster to an episode whose very pointlessness made it something uniquely noble. In 1855, an anonymous publication satirized Russell’s role through a series of cartoon- like depictions of the activities of `our own correspondent’ in the Crimea. In one scene, the correspondent `becomes frantic with enthusiasm at beholding the splendid charge of cavalry at Balaclava’, thereby simultaneously poking fun at and acknowledging the public’s near- reverential view of the charge.

Visual as well as verbal representations played a key role in enshrining the Charge of the Light Brigade in heroic myth. Though he did not arrive in the Crimea until mid- November, three weeks after the event, the Scottish artist William Simpson included a watercolour of it among the dozens of paintings he sent back to be made into engravings by the London art dealers Colnaghi. The engravings were first exhibited at the Graphic Society in 1855, and eighty of them were published in a volume entitled The Seat of War in the East later that year. Their popularity was such that a selection was issued in a smaller octavo volume, with an introduction by the military historian George Brackenbury. Brackenbury demonstrated that Tennyson’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade had by this point taken firm hold: `The Light Cavalry was ordered to advance, without supports, over a plain of nearly a mile and a half in length, and exposed to a crushing fire of artillery and musketry in front and on both flanks. Without a murmur or a moment’s hesitation these lion- hearts rushed on to the discharge of the fearful duty assigned to them; resolved, since the ordinary alternative of death or glory was denied, to do and die.’ (Italics in original.) He concluded: `The Light Cavalry charge was over; a glorious and ineffaceable page has been added to the records of chivalry, and to the annals of England.’

The ensuing decades would see the appearance of a multitude of visual depictions of the charge. In general, the visual representation of warfare during the Crimean War moved away from the traditional emphasis on the heroism of elite officers and towards scenes featuring the common soldier. A particular focus was camp life during the devastating winter of 1854-55. As the Athenaeum declared in its review of Simpson’s paintings:

All looked with painful interest at views of the spots . . . where the flower of England, unscathed by fire, unsmitten and unhurt, rotted away, with their faces turned towards England. For them, there will be no victory, no rejoicing – for them, no open arms and happy faces, no flags waving or jubilee of bells – but in their stead, cold, narrow graves, in an enemy’s country, on a spot perhaps to be blasted by a great nation’s greatest and most terrible disgrace.

In this context, the Charge of the Light Brigade was useful for confirming this perception of the inept commanders who had needlessly squandered the lives of their men, while at the same time emphasizing the heroism of the common soldiers.

The Crimean War did not, however, lead to the complete eradication of conventional forms for depicting heroism in battle. Instead, the older and newer visions of military heroism existed side by side. To be sure, there was much criticism of the elite commanders whose errors had led to the Charge of the Light Brigade. The war is often given credit for engendering the drive for military reform that culminated in the Cardwell reforms of the early 1870s, which abolished the sale of commissions and made promotion contingent on merit and experience rather than birth and wealth. But those reforms were not enacted for another fifteen years; in the intervening period, a fierce debate raged both within the political and military establishment and among the public at large as to whether the old, aristocratically based system was really so terrible. In a speech to the House of Lords in 1856, for example, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, interpreted the Charge of the Light Brigade as confirming, rather than undermining, the value of aristocratic leadership on the battlefield:

Talk to me of the aristocracy of England! Why, look to that glorious charge of the cavalry at Balaclava – look to that charge, where the noblest and wealthiest of the land rode foremost, followed by heroic men from the lowest classes of the community, each rivalling the other in bravery, neither the peer who led nor the trooper who followed being distinguished the one from the other. In that glorious band there were sons of the gentry of England; leading were the noblest in the land, and following were the representatives of the people of this country.

Contemporary accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade reflected this tension as to whether oligarchy or meritocracy represented the best path forward for the British Army. Certainly, there was ample criticism of some aristocratic commanders: there was no danger that either Raglan or Lucan would emerge from the Crimea as a hero. But Lord Cardigan was a different matter: he was seen not only as blameless – he had questioned Raglan’s order appropriately and then followed it when Lucan insisted that he must – but also as heroic. When asked how Cardigan had behaved in the charge, Captain William Morris of the 17th Hussars, another hero of the charge who will be discussed below, replied: `He led like a gentleman.’ Stories flew around the British camp that Cardigan’s horse had leapt over the Russian guns at the end of the valley as if he were fox- hunting. Even his bitter enemy Lucan had to concede that Cardigan `led this attack in the most gallant and intrepid manner’.

Deteriorating health led to Cardigan’s departure from the Crimea in December 1854. When he landed at Folkestone on 13 January 1855, he was greeted by a cheering crowd and a brass band playing Handel’s `See, the Conquering Hero Comes!’ All along the route of his train journey to London, people gathered to watch him pass, despite bitterly cold winter temperatures, and every station was bedecked with bunting. His portrait and prints of his horse leaping over the Russian guns were sold all over the country. He was, as a popular music- hall song extolled him, `Cardigan the Brave’; even Punch temporarily abandoned satire to show him charging at the Russian cannon. The `Cardigan jacket’, patterned after the woollen garment he had worn during the Crimean winter, became a popular fashion. Both Houses of Parliament offered their official gratitude, and he was invited to dine with Queen Victoria at Windsor, where the next morning he regaled the royal children with the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade. In February, a banquet was given in his honour at Mansion House by the Lord Mayor of London. He paraded to the event through the capital’s streets in his full- dress uniform, riding Ronald, the horse that had carried him during the charge – the crowds were so eager to obtain a souvenir that they plucked hairs from the latter’s tail and mane. In the pamphlet Our Heroes of the Crimea (1855), the journalist George Ryan wrote: `It may be said without fear of contradiction, that the Earl of Cardigan is now the most popular soldier in England. As a gallant chevalier he won his golden spurs in a tilt with giants. All salute him as the lion of the British Army; and a clasp to the Crimean medal will tell how he led heroes to fight on that bloody field, which gives to the world an example of devoted valour unequalled in warfare.’

Another hero to emerge from the Charge of the Light Brigade was Captain Louis Nolan, who prior to the Crimean War had a reputation as a skilled trainer of cavalry soldiers and horses and had authored two books on cavalry tactics. Although his regiment, the 13th Light Dragoons, was not sent to the Crimea, he was detached from it and placed on the staff of Brigadier General Airey so that he could help with the acquisition, transport and management of the horses for the cavalry division. After delivering the fateful order to Lucan, Nolan decided to ride forward in the Charge of the Light Brigade. It proved a fatal choice: most eyewitness accounts cite him as the first man killed, after a shell fragment struck him with full force in the chest. Once the recriminations began, Nolan was an obvious potential scapegoat, as he had not only delivered the infamous order to Lucan but had also possibly conveyed to him an erroneous sense of its meaning. Lucan, certainly, found it expedient to blame Nolan. In a letter published in The Times in March 1855, he claimed:

After carefully reading this order I hesitated, and urged the uselessness of such an attack and the dangers surrounding it. The aide- de- camp, in a most authoritative tone, stated that they were Lord Raglan’s orders that the cavalry should attack immediately. I asked him, `Where, and what to do?’ as neither enemy nor guns were within sight. He replied, in a most disrespectful but significant manner, pointing to the further end of the valley, `There, my Lord, is your enemy; there are your guns’.

But although Lucan hinted that Nolan’s conduct had bordered on insubordination, he could not assign him all of the blame for the debacle, for by doing so it would have appeared that he had been unwilling to stand up to a junior officer. Indeed, the Morning Chronicle wondered how such a relatively low- ranking officer could have been responsible for such a massive disaster: `What baffles the understanding is, in what respect Captain Nolan, whose position was merely that of an aide- de- camp, should thus have proved the unwitting instrument of the Light Brigade’s destruction.’

For that reason, few people saw Nolan as the primary culprit for the fiasco. Instead, he was often depicted as a martyred hero. His friends and admirers collected funds for a memorial, which was installed on the wall of Holy Trinity Church in Maidstone in Kent, where the depot for cavalry regiments serving in India was located. Each year, the Balaclava Commemoration Society held an annual dinner for veterans of the battle. In 1875, it was accompanied by a `Balaclava Festival’ in the central hall of Alexandra Palace. The centrepiece of the exhibition was an obelisk topped by a figure representing Honour and surrounded at the base by `relics of the engagement’. The obelisk listed the names of the seven officers who had been killed, with Nolan’s centrally positioned and in larger lettering.

A third individual who emerged from the Charge of the Light Brigade as a hero was Captain William Morris of the 17th Lancers. In March 1854, Morris was made deputy assistant quartermaster general of the forces that were being assembled for the upcoming Crimean campaign. This meant that, like Nolan, he served under General Airey, the quartermaster general. Still recovering from a serious bout of cholera, Morris arrived at Balaclava only days before the debacle. The senior officer of the 17th Lancers, Colonel John Lawrenson, was on leave, and his second- in- command, Major Augustus Willett, had died of cholera on 22 October. Despite his weakened state, Morris stepped in and took command of his old regiment on the day of the battle. When the Heavy Brigade charged in support of the 93rd Highlanders, Morris tried to lead the 17th forward to take advantage of the disarray of the Russians, but he was sharply rebuked by Cardigan. Several witnesses reported that Morris was furious at not being allowed to advance and, slapping his leg with his sword, said as he rode away from Cardigan: `My God, my God, what a chance we are losing.’ His wish for action was shortly to be granted. The Light Brigade was waiting at the entrance to the valley when Nolan, who knew Morris from Airey’s staff, galloped up carrying Raglan’s order. Nolan asked Morris where he could find Lucan. Morris pointed him out, then asked: `What is it to be, Nolan? Are we going to charge?’ As he spurred his horse towards Lucan, Nolan shouted back over his shoulder: `You will see. You will see.’

After relaying the order to Lucan, Nolan rode back to Morris and asked him permission to ride with his regiment, which Morris readily granted. Unlike Nolan, Morris survived the long ride down the valley. When he reached the Russian battery, he was accompanied by about twenty men, who charged the enemy cavalry positioned behind the guns. Seeing a high- ranking officer, Morris thrust his sword into the man’s body up to the hilt. He was then unable to extricate his blade, however, and as the man fell from his horse Morris was dismounted as well. He was still struggling to reclaim his sword when he received a severe blow to the head from a Russian sabre. He blacked out for a moment; when he recovered, he found that his sword had somehow come free, but he was now surrounded by Cossacks, one of whom delivered another head wound courtesy of his lance. The episode was witnessed by Sergeant Major Abraham Ransom:

Then I saw an act of heroism; [Captain] Morris was on foot, his head streaming with blood, engaging five or six Cossacks . . . Morris sought to defend himself by the almost ceaseless `moulinet’ or circling whirl of his sword and from time to time he found means to deliver some sabre cuts upon the thighs of his Cossack assailants. Soon, however, he was pierced in the temple by a lance- point, which splintered up a piece of bone and forced it under the scalp.

Morris was saved by the arrival of a Russian officer, who intervened to prevent the Cossacks from finishing him off. He surrendered his sword, but as more British troops arrived behind the guns the Russians found themselves with more pressing business. His head bleeding profusely, Morris tried to mount a riderless horse, but could only manage to grab the saddle. He was dragged along until his dwindling strength caused him to lose his grip. As a Cossack approached, he desperately lunged for a second horse and struggled into the saddle. The horse was shot from under him as he attempted to ride back to the British lines; pinned beneath on the ground, he lost consciousness temporarily. After he awoke, he began limping down the valley on foot. He was almost back to the British lines when he saw the body of his friend Nolan and collapsed beside it. He was found there by Captain John Ewart, who sent word back that an officer required aid, and shortly there- after Surgeon James Mouat and Sergeant Charles Wooden arrived on the scene. Both would later be awarded the Victoria Cross for saving Morris, as they were forced to fight off several Cossacks when carrying him to safety.

Morris’s injuries included two severe cuts to the head, a broken right arm from a sabre blow and a broken rib on his lower left side. After two months in the military hospital at Scutari, he returned home to convalesce in January 1855 and was invited to dinner by Queen Victoria. By June, however, he was back in the Crimea, where he was a figure of renown. Captain Henry Clifford of the Rifle Brigade reported to his family:

I saw a Capt. Morris yesterday, you have perhaps seen his name in the papers. He behaved most splendidly in the unfortunate charge at Balaclava, and was badly wounded in the head with a sabre cut, had three ribs broken and side very much torn, with a thrust from a lance and his right arm cut to the bone by a sword. No one thought he would live, but he is well enough to walk about now, tho’ looking very ill and after spending a few months in England has come out here again.

That same year, he was promoted to major and made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by the French. In his native Devon, Morris became a local hero. In 1856, he was honoured by a banquet at the Globe Hotel in Great Torrington, near his birth- place of Hatherleigh. The ceremony was presided over by Sir Trevor Wheler, a veteran of Waterloo, who declared that they were gathered

to congratulate that gallant officer on his safe return to his native shores and are desirous of placing on record the deep sense we entertain of the zeal and gallantry he has shown on all occasions when his services have been required by the country . . . I do sincerely believe that if the British cavalry had to give this sword to one of their officers more deserving than another, though there might be great difficulty in making their selection, their unanimous verdict would be `Give it to Colonel Morris, the bravest of the brave.’ The local poet Edward Capern composed fulsome verses in his honour:

Hail to thee! Hail to thee! Champion of Liberty!

Fresh from the field of his struggle and pain,

Hail to thee, hail to thee, bold son of chivalry,

Hail to the land of the Hero again.

Capern’s poem displayed the key component of heroic failure in the mid- Victorian era: the link between `chivalry’ and `struggle and pain’. Suffering was heroic and noble, even, or perhaps especially, if it occurred in a context of futility. Morris’s response to the adulation, meanwhile, embodied perfectly the ideal of the self- sacrificing hero who accepted his suffering as being all in a day’s work: `I have been promoted and rewarded by Her Majesty for my services, while other men more deserving than myself have either lost their lives or owing to unfortunate circumstances have gained nothing.’

After the Crimea, Morris returned to his regiment and was sent to India in 1857 to help quell the rebellion that had broken out earlier that year. The following year, while stationed at Poona in the Bombay Presidency, he died of dysentery. His fellow officers collected funds for a memorial tablet, which was installed in the church at Poona. It referred to the Charge of the Light Brigade only obliquely by listing the battles in which Morris had fought, including Balaclava. Back home, however, his role in the charge was the focal point of memorial efforts. In 1860, a 60- foot- high (18 m) granite obelisk was erected on Hatherleigh Moor. A bas- relief on the base by E. B. Stephens showed his limp body being carried from the battlefield, with the single word `Balaclava’ inscribed beneath. It was an odd depiction of a soldier: Morris was wounded to the point of helplessness in what was presented as the most noteworthy moment of his career. But it was in keeping with contemporary notions of heroic failure, in which heroism was defined more by suffering in defeat than by any action undertaken in victory.

BRITISH HEROIC FAILURE # 1 – Battle of New Orleans 1815

“Battle of New Orleans And Death of General Pakenham On the 8th January 1815”

The ability of death in warfare to create a hero from even the most unpromising circumstances was demonstrated by the examples of Major Generals Sir Edward Pakenham and Samuel Gibbs, who died in 1815 at New Orleans in the final battle of the War of 1812. A memorial statue in St Paul’s Cathedral by Richard Westmacott shows the two men standing side by side, with Gibbs leaning on Pakenham’s shoulder in a display of fraternity and calm resignation in the face of adversity. The inscription records that they `fell gloriously on the eve of January 1815 while leading the troops in an attack of the enemy’s works in front of New Orleans’.

In reality, there was little that was glorious about the deaths of Pakenham and Gibbs. Pakenham had previously fought brilliantly in the Peninsular War – Wellington credited his daring flanking manoeuvre as being responsible for his victory at Salamanca – but he had not wanted to go to America to fight in a conflict that few Britons understood or cared about, while Napoleon was still on the loose in Europe. His misgivings were not assuaged by his initial assessment of the situation at New Orleans, as the swampy landscape made the swift and unified movement of troops all but impossible. But knowing how difficult it would be to move the army to another position, Pakenham reluctantly agreed to go ahead with the plan of attack drawn up by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the commander of the British naval forces. On the morning of 8 January 1814, the British troops were forced to cross a mile of flat, open, marshy ground as the Americans fired at them from behind a mud-and-log rampart. Their discipline and courage might still have secured victory, but a misunderstood order meant that they had not brought the ladders required to scale the rampart. As the carnage mounted, some men refused to advance, and Pakenham galloped to the head of his lines to try and rally them. Lieutenant George Robert Gleig described what happened next:

Poor Pakenham saw how things were going, and did all that a General could do to rally his broken troops. Riding towards the 44th which had returned to the ground, but in great disorder, he called out for Colonel Mullens to advance; but that officer had disappeared, and was not to be found. He, therefore, prepared to lead them on himself, and had put himself at their head for that purpose, when he received a slight wound in the knee from a musket ball, which killed his horse. Mounting another, he again headed the 44th, when a second ball took effect more fatally, and he dropped lifeless into the arms of his aide-de-camp.

This was not quite accurate: Pakenham was carried from the field still alive, but barely. He died under a tree a few minutes later, only thirty-six years old.

Pakenham’s death left his second-in-command, Gibbs, in charge of the battle. He, too, made a desperate attempt to rally the troops, charging to within 20 yards (18 m) of the American front line. There, he too was shot, and he died the next day. The third-in-command, Lieutenant General John Keane, was severely wounded but survived. For the British, the Battle of New Orleans was a debacle: 291 men were killed, 484 taken prisoner and 1,262 wounded, adding up to 2,037 total casualties; three generals and eight colonels and lieutenant colonels died. A mere thirteen Americans were killed. 4 Gleig was stunned when he rode over the battlefield after a temporary truce had been declared a few days later:

Of all the sights that I ever witnessed, that which met me there was beyond comparison the most shocking, and the most humiliating. Within the small compass of a few hundred yards, were gathered together nearly a thousand bodies, all of them arrayed in British uniforms. Not a single American was among them; all were English; and they were thrown by dozens into shallow holes, scarcely deep enough to furnish them with a slight covering of earth. Nor was this all. An American officer stood by smoking a segar [sic], and apparently counting the slain with a look of savage exultation; and repeating over and over again to each individual that approached him, that their loss amounted only to eight men killed, and fourteen wounded. I confess, that when I beheld the scene, I hung down my head half in sorrow, and half in anger.

To make matters worse for the British, the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 had been signed on 24 December, two weeks before the battle.

New Orleans was a shocking defeat. A month before the battle, Colonel Frederick Stovin, assistant adjutant general to the British army, had been breezily confident. Writing to his mother from aboard HMS Tonnant, Admiral Cochrane’s flagship, he bragged: `I have no doubt of our success, for although the Americans are quite aware of our intentions I do not believe they can collect above 3 or 4000 men to oppose us and we have 6000 – theirs inexperienced and undisciplined; ours perfect soldiers and in the habits of victory.’ Afterwards, his attitude was very different. He had been wounded in the neck, but was most devastated by the loss of his `inestimable friend’ Edward Pakenham: `It has almost unhinged me and given me a distaste [for] the service on which we are employed.’ His disparagement of the Americans had vanished; he now found it to be `truly repugnant to fight against people who speak the same language, many of whom are really your countrymen and . . . claim their origins so immediately from your own soil’.

Why, then, instead of quickly burying their embarrassing defeat at New Orleans, did the British choose to grant Pakenham and Gibbs the very visible honour of a memorial statue in St Paul’s? To answer this question, we first need to take into account that military martyrdom held a powerful cultural appeal in the early nineteenth century. From a British perspective, martyrdom was particularly powerful when it involved men of elevated social status like Pakenham and Gibbs. This period saw the emergence of a new emphasis on duty as a social and cultural ideal among the British elite, as the upper classes responded to pressure for parliamentary reform and increased democracy by promoting a new image of themselves as a `service elite’ dedicated to supporting the national interest. This fresh dedication to duty often manifested itself in the form of military and naval contributions, thereby providing a justification for continued upper-class domination of wealth, status and power in Britain. In assessing the heroism of elite officers like Pakenham and Gibbs, it was of little significance that they had lost the Battle of New Orleans, especially since the defeat had occurred in a war that had minimal consequences for British power or prestige. What mattered was their willingness to serve and the fact that they had laid down their lives for their country. The fact that their deaths occurred as they tried to rally their troops from a catastrophic defeat only threw the heroism of their actions into higher relief.

To comprehend fully the heroism of Pakenham and Gibbs as it was culturally defined in the early nineteenth century, however, we need to take into account the broader context of the relationship between Britain’s military forces and civil society in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this era, though many Britons took pride in the army when it won important victories, they also feared it as a potential source of repression and tyranny and believed that, in peacetime, it should be kept as small as possible. They also had little regard for common soldiers; Wellington’s description of them as the `scum of the earth’ encapsulated the predominant popular perception. For much of the nineteenth century, the army was an object of both suspicion and contempt.

Both the elite who filled the officer ranks and the government who relied on the army to win the war against Napoleon had a strong interest in overcoming this distrust of a strong military. One strategy they used was to elevate martyrs who died in battle, who acted as reminders of the patriotic and benevolent nature of the armed forces.

Another example of a contemporary mode of representing military leaders who had fallen in the moment of victory. This mode had evolved from Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which depicted the death of General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. West’s painting was immensely popular: King George III commissioned a copy, and an engraved print was a tremendous popular success. The Death of General Wolfe influenced British martial art for decades afterwards: many subsequent depictions of death in battle featured a prostrate hero at the centre of the composition, with the action raging around him and with his most prominent officers looking on mournfully as he expired. These paintings were rarely historically accurate, but they were not supposed to be. Instead, they were intended to convey the sorrow occasioned by the death of a great hero, as well as to ensure that his demise was surrounded by appropriate ceremony and recognition of its significance.

The Death of General Wolfe

The War in The Indian Ocean, 1803-06

Defeat of French Admiral Linois by Commodore Dance, February. 15th. 1804

Defence of the Centurion in Vizagapatam Road, September. 15th 1804

For the Royal Navy, there was no more demanding station than the East Indies. The command stretched over an enormous area, amounting to almost 29 million square miles from the Cape of Good Hope in the west to Manila in the east, which made locating enemy forces and coordinating operations incredibly difficult. On one occasion in 1805, two British fleets spent months sailing around the Indian Ocean in an attempt to combine forces, only to keep missing each other. It followed that protecting British trade against enemy predations was a severe challenge, made harder still by the paucity of resources devoted to the region. In July 1803 the naval force amounted to a mere nine vessels and it was not until the following year that the fleet began to reach a respectable size. Moreover, all merchant ships entering and leaving the region travelled along a precarious trade route, forced to negotiate enemy privateers based at the French ports at Ile Bonaparte (formerly Ile Bourbon, and nowadays Réunion) and Ile de France (Mauritius). The defence of British commerce was complicated further by the monsoon, which created specific windows in which trade could enter and leave the region, seasonal restrictions that were well known to the watching French squadrons as they waited to attack British shipping.

The navy was further hampered by poor charts, uncooperative merchants and the ever- present threat of fever. Between 1806 and 1810, over a thou- sand men died of disease, and the navy was forced to resort to large- scale impressment from merchant ships to make up the deficiencies in manpower. Perhaps the greatest challenge, though, was the vast distance between a fleet in the Indian Ocean and the Admiralty in London. Naval commanders were often operating with information months out of date and with no clear idea as to what the Admiralty wished them to do. A letter sent by sea took between four and five months to arrive, while the passage by land through Turkey and the Middle East was fraught with its own dangers. Put simply, it took an awfully long time for messages to reach India and even longer when enemy fleets were cruising in the Indian Ocean: one message sent late in 1803 took eleven months to arrive. Naval commanders did correspond with the Admiralty but essentially they were left to their own devices, forced to judge situations and make decisions without recourse to a higher authority. As a result, the war in the East remained remote and isolated from the rest of the naval conflict.

Such was the distance that even declarations of war could take months to arrive. July 1803 found Admiral Peter Rainier gazing expectantly into the port of Pondicherry, an unfortified harbour on the south- east coast of India. Anchored inside was a French fleet that had sailed to the Indian Ocean during the Peace of Amiens under the command of Charles- Alexandre Durand Linois. For two months, Rainier received unconfirmed rumours that war between Britain and France had resumed, but without official authorisation he refrained from attacking. Rainier had commanded the East Indies station for eight years, a role that had made him an incredibly rich man: at his death his property was valued at nearly a quarter of a million pounds, an astonishing sum even by standards of naval prize money. By 1803 he was eager to come home and had already attempted to resign his position once before. With his unparalleled knowledge of the region, however, the Admiralty was reluctant to allow him to return, and insisted that he remain in command. On the night of 24 July, correctly anticipating the news of war, the French squadron slipped past his fleet and put to sea. Rainier was left scrabbling. `At Daylight I sent ships out in different directions to observe what course he had steered,’ he wrote to the Admiralty, `but none of them were able to get sight of him.’ Not until the end of August did the news of war reach Rainier, by which time Linois’s fleet had disappeared into the vast Indian Ocean.

Linois’s escape struck at the heart of Britain’s trading empire. Since the loss of the American colonies, the East Indies had become a region of great commercial opportunity, while trade with India and China had grown rapidly in the late eighteenth century. In 1803 it accounted for £6.3 million of British imports, more than that of any other region of the world. It was of vital importance to the British government’s execution of the war, for the revenue generated by trade brought vast fiscal resources into the nation’s coffers. In 1803 the revenue on tea alone was worth £1.7 million to the Treasury, enough to cover a sixth of the entire naval budget. This commerce was conducted exclusively by the leading trading organisation of its time, the East India Company, which governed British trade across the Indian Ocean. Although a semi- private company, it effectively ruled and administered large stretches of India, its power centralised in three presidencies at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, with a further outpost at Penang. The Company acted as a state in its own right, funding a private army to back up its interests, and also supported a small naval force known as the Bombay Marine. This was insufficient for the Company’s needs, however, and the Royal Navy was therefore charged with protecting the region’s vast coastline from French incursions, while also defending the Company’s seaborne commerce.

The unique nature of the East Indies station provoked contrasting emotions among the officers and sailors posted to the region. As Rainier’s bank balance could attest, there was considerable prize money to be made, and for others the exotic East promised novelty and adventure. Robert Hay, a sailor on board Culloden as it voyaged to the East Indies in 1804, was initially fascinated by what he encountered:

`The appearance of everything here was new and strange,’ he later wrote. Not everyone, however, was so enthusiastic and even Hay himself began to have second thoughts: In these warm climates, men have a much greater number of enemies to annoy them than in the more temperate regions. The first and minutest, though not the least troublesome, is the mosquito . . . as soon as the shades of night set in, they begin their depredations, and woe to every inch of human skin exposed to the attacks, especially that of newly- arrived Europeans, whose face, after sleeping ashore on the first night, may be so disfigured as to be scarcely recognisable by his most intimate acquaintance.

Some of those with prior experience of the region took the opportunity to switch command: Lieutenant Hawkins of Culloden was `not fond of India’ and transferred to a ship on a home station after discovering its destina- tion. It was for precisely this reason that the Admiralty was determined that the experienced Rainier should remain on station, at least until a suit- able replacement could be found. With Linois’s fleet loose in the Indian Ocean and capable of striking at any of Britain’s Indian possessions, Rainier was attempting to find a needle in a haystack. The Commander- in- Chief was faced with a difficult choice: he could concentrate his resources on protecting Company trade or arrange them to defend Britain’s Indian possessions, but his limited means meant that he was unable to do both. Frustrated by this dearth of resources, he was forced to explain to the Governor- General, the Marquis Wellesley, that he had no spare ships to chase Linois. Rainier organised his fleet to defend what he believed were the weaker parts of the Indian coastline, at Goa, Bombay and Trincomalee, while a small detachment of a frigate and two sloops was sent under Captain Walter Bathurst to protect Madras. Rainier kept together his four ships of the line, which included the 50- gun Centurion, to repel any surprise French incursions. In the face of this limited force, over the next two and a half years Linois’s squadron proved a persistent and aggressive adversary, attacking trade and raiding British settlements, returning each winter to its base at Mauritius. Faced with such a nimble and elusive foe, Rainier was constantly playing catch-up.

The French threat was quickly made clear. Having escaped from Pondicherry in July, Linois had headed south to Ile de France, where he finally confirmed that war had been declared. On 8 October, Linois put to sea with the warship Marengo, two frigates, Belle Poule and Simillante, and the corvette Berceau, and headed north once again. He was well aware of his operational advantage over Rainier. As he explained in 1803, `there are many points to guard, their forces must be greatly stretched. That gives me hope to do them much harm by moving the great distances within the different parts of the Indian Seas.’ The French ability to attack suddenly, and with devastating effect, was demonstrated on 2 December 1803, when Linois’s squadron descended unexpectedly on Sumatra, sailing into Bencoolen harbour. Flying British colours until the last minute, the squadron caught the British unprepared and completely fooled them – the garrison even sent out a pilot to help navigate the fleet into port. Two prizes were taken and five merchantmen burnt, while landing parties set fire to the warehouses. Having wreaked havoc, Linois escaped to the safety of the nearby Dutch colony of Batavia. Rainer did not hear of the raid until two months later, by which time Linois was long gone.

Rainier’s limited resources also meant that the annual China convoy, which carried vast quantities of tea to Britain, sailed on 31 January 1804 without a naval escort. It left with 27 poorly armed Indiamen, carrying a cargo worth £8 million on board. It was an easy target for the French, and at daybreak on 14 February it was intercepted near the eastern entrance of the Strait of Malacca by Linois’s squadron. In a bluff that was as brave as it was fortunate, the convoy’s commander, Nathaniel Dance, steered straight for the French with his ships in a line- of- battle formation and ordered them to fly the naval ensign. He hoped to fool the enemy commander and, as luck would have it, Linois had received erroneous intelligence that British naval forces were in the region. Believing the Indiamen to be ships of the line, he delayed further action until the next morning. Having finally attacked, a brief and confused engagement of forty minutes convinced Linois that he was up against warships, and he made the terrible decision to haul off. Determined to maintain the pretence, Dance signalled a general chase after the retreating foe, and Linois was completely deceived. The Battle of Pulo Aura, as it became known, was a triumph for the East India Company and a disaster for the French but it clearly demonstrated that the Royal Navy was overstretched. In October and November 1804 Rainier ordered as many ships as possible to protect the China trade through the Malacca Strait, and to ensure there was no repeat of Pulo Aura.

After his embarrassing defeat, Linois returned somewhat chastened to Ile de France. In Europe, Napoleon was furious: `the conduct of Admiral Linois is miserable,’ he wrote to Decres. `He has made the French flag the laughing stock of the Universe.’ Linois had an uncomfortable interview with the equally unimpressed French Governor- General, Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen, who urged him to return to sea immediately. Dutifully, Linois continued to prey on British trade for the remainder of 1804, with some success. In September his small squadron attacked naval ships stationed at Vizagapatam, severely damaging the British Centurion and coming away with the East India vessel Princess Charlotte. The operation demonstrated once more the difficulty of protecting a long coastline, but Linois again came under heavy criticism from Decaen for not annihilating the British warship. However, his attacks began to take their toll on Rainier, now ageing and increasingly worn out by the demands of the station, and in 1804 a replacement was sent out to take command. Rainier’s final task was to escort the China trade back to Britain: in September 1805 a convoy with cargo worth £15 million arrived home without loss. This was the most valuable ever to leave Indian waters, and a fitting end to Rainier’s long and under-appreciated career.

His replacement was Rear- Admiral Edward Pellew, who had formerly commanded off Ferrol. Assertive and dynamic, he brought a new vigour to the war in the East. As he sailed out, and in characteristically brisk prose, he dreamed of `giving a blow to the inveterate and restless Enemies of Mankind’. A series of reinforcements from Britain supple- mented the East Indies fleet throughout 1804, and Pellew was able to spread his forces far more widely than Rainier, sending ships to protect the China trade and the Strait of Malacca. Like many others, Pellew struggled to adapt to the oppressive climate, and spent his first weeks bitterly regretting the lengths he had gone to in order to secure the appointment:

We have reached our destination without accident and have felt the glowing heat of a Thermometer at 88º, how I should hold out against such melting I know not . . . I cannot say I am much struck with the Country, and am often very angry with myself for being instrumental to my leaving England and think I did not act wisely.

He was even less impressed with the administrators he found on land: `In short it is a climate of indolence and luxury,’ he wrote, `united with avarice and oppression of which I am truly disgusted.’ He was mercilessly rude about the young men he found lounging around uttering `elegant Quotations from Shakespeare’, and was critical of the East India Company’s control of India, which he likened to Napoleon’s domination of Europe. He had no qualms, however, about halting French imperial ambitions.

From the beginning of his command, Pellew received numerous complaints about the shortcomings in the navy’s protection of commerce. One of the first letters was from Lord Wellesley, bemoaning `the vexatious list of the Captures recently made by the French in these Seas, and carried into the Mauritius in the face of our Cruisers off that island’. This point was immediately hammered home when Linois emerged again in the summer of 1805: on 1 July his small but powerful squadron intercepted and captured the 1,200- ton Indiaman Brunswick off Ceylon. Brunswick had lost many men to naval impressment and was heavily outmatched in terms of guns: threatened with an overwhelming broadside, its captain had little choice but to surrender. On board was the midshipman Thomas Addison, who was devastated to give up the vessel: `I cannot express the intensity of my feelings,’ he later wrote, `being compelled to yield into the hands of the enemy this fine, beautiful and valuable ship.’ Addison and the ship’s officers were held on board Marengo, where they were forced to submit to trying conditions. `They have a poor idea of cleanliness; neatness is out of the question,’ wrote Addison. `Our living was wretched. Only two meals per diem; both put together would hardly make a good English breakfast, with a purser’s pint of sour Bordeaux claret, and a half pint of water.’

After this valuable capture, Linois sailed south hoping to prey on the trade route between the Cape and Madras. In August his fleet encountered a convoy of eleven large ships sailing eastwards, commanded by Rear- Admiral Thomas Troubridge, until recently a Lord of the Admiralty in Whitehall. Linois steered to intercept, only this time he found a real naval escort defending the convoy. The two fleets exchanged distant fire: Addison, still imprisoned in the depths of Marengo, was forced to listen to the sounds of battle. `Firing now commenced with great spirit,’ he recalled, `we heard a thundering return from the English man- of- war, which was soon followed by terrific screams between decks.’ Troubridge did not attempt to chase Linois, for his task was to see the convoy through to India rather than eliminate French cruisers. `We saw no more of the French,’ wrote one of his passengers, Mary Sherwood, `but we afterwards ascertained that we had made Linois suffer so severely that he was glad to get away.’ While Troubridge headed north, Linois proceeded to the Cape, his squadron weakened by successive storms, and then into the South Atlantic where he aimed to raid the coast of West Africa. On 13 March 1806, he met the squadron commanded by John Borlase Warren that had left Britain months earlier in search of Willaumez’s fleet. Forced to fight against a superior foe for the first time – Warren’s flagship was the powerful 90- gun London – Marengo was reduced to a shattered hulk before the French commander finally surrendered. After almost three years of cruising he had captured shipping worth £600,000, a considerable sum that had caused great concern in India and London. However, Linois’s destructive campaign was over and he remained a prisoner until 1814.

The British Man of War London capturing the Marengo of Admiral Linois, 13 March 1806