Siege of Genoa (1746)

Italy and the naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684

At the same time as Strasbourg was being swallowed up in the north, the French appeared to give a clue to their sinister intentions elsewhere in Europe when they occupied Casale, a fortress in the Montferrat forty miles east of Turin. The Duke of Mantua was one of those hard-up petty potentates who abounded at the time, and after being sounded by the French he willingly parted with his enclave at Casale in return for a bribe.

It was bad enough that Louis got Casale at all, for it supplemented Pinerolo as a base for French operations on the Italian side of the Alps. The way in which the enterprise was carried out was more significant still, because the occupying force and the subsequent reliefs marched straight across Piedmontese territory without the formality of gaining the Duke of Savoy’s leave. In a similarly cavalier fashion the French made a naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684, simply because the republic appeared to be too friendly with Spain. This drastic measure confirmed the impression that Louis regarded north Italy as part of his own domains.

Piedmont and neighbouring states in the War of the Austrian Succession.

War of Austrian Succession

At the beginning of 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession the situation was altogether, in favor of the tenacious Maria Theresa. France, however, had in the meantime found a new ally in Genvoa, irritated by Piedmont and Austria for the threat to their possession of the Finale (Treaty of Aranjuez May 7, 1745). With the help of the Genoese, the two armies of the French-Spanish under Maillebois and Gages, came into Piedmont from the Riviera and defeated the Austro-Piedmontese at Bassignana (September 28), then occupied successively Tortona, Piacenza, Parma, Pavia, Alessandria, Asti and Casale, while Philip of Bourbon finally took Milan in December 19, 1745. In the Netherlands, France were dominant. The valiant Marshal Maurice de Saxe won the Anglo-Dutch at Fontenay (11 May 1745) and occupied Tournai (May 22), Ghent (July 10), Bruges (July 18), Oudenarde (July 21) and finally Ostend (July 23). To threaten England the French organized, in the summer of 1745, the landing of Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland (August 4).

In Germany, the French influence was almost nil, while England, threatened by Stuart, tried to reconcile once again Maria Theresa and Frederick II. The latter, however, due to the stagnation of diplomatic negotiations sort a military solution: won against the Austrians in Bohemia, invaded Saxony, won the battle of Kesselsdorf (December 15), occupied Leipzig and Dresden. So achieved his goal: Maria Teresa gave up Silesia and made peace (Treaty of Dresden, December 25, 1745).

France was supported by Spain, Naples, Genoa, and Austria, had as ally the kingdom of Sardinia, England, the Netherlands. The landing of the Stuart in Scotland caused, in the autumn of 1745, a general uprising of the Scots and caused terrible panic in London. But this uprising was ended with the battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746). The only consequence was the opportunity, given to Maurice of Saxony, to extend the involvement of the Austrian Netherlands, beating an Austrian army in Rocoux in September, and threatening Netherlands. On the other hand, Carlo Emanuele III took up the arms in agreement with Maria Theresa. So he reoccupied Asti on March 8, 1746, expelled the Franco-Hispanic armies from Piedmont and Lombardy, won in battle of Piacenza (June 16), that caused the enemy’s retreat into Genoa. At this time, the King Philip V of Spain died (July 9) and his successor, Ferdinand VI, was inclined towards peace and the withdrawal of his troops from Italy. The Austro-Sardinian pressed the enemy down on the Riviera, and Marshal Botta Adorno, occupied Genoa on September 7, while Carlo Emanuele III blockaded Savona, took Finale and pursued the Franco-Hispanic Army to Varo. Genoa underwent three months of harsh occupation by Austria, but due to a violent popular uprising, adroitly directed by the Genoese government (5-10 December 1746) freed itself.

The revolt in the Portoria district in Genoa against the Austrians in 1746, led by Giovan Battista Perasso (1735-1781) known as Balilla, 19th century print. Italy, 18th-19th century.

The Austrian alliance invaded Provence, with British naval support, but they were pushed back in 1747, while the Austrians failed to regain Genoa, which had rebelled against their control. The Genoese revolt of December 1746, a successful popular rising, prefigured much that was to be associated with the revolutionary warfare of the close of the century. The swiftly changing course of the conflict in Italy indicated the volatile character of war in this period.

Meanwhile, Carlo Emanuele III was able to occupy Savona (18 December). From Vienna, he asked for an expedition against Naples to chase away the Bourbons. But England did not want an absolute Austrian domination in Italy. So, Provence was invaded, the military port of Toulon was occupied and France was forced to halt its operations in the Netherlands. The Austro-Sardinian forces advanced to Antibes, but then retreated (February 1747).

In the last major conflict in Italy prior to the French Revolutionary War, Franco-Spanish forces failed in 1743-4 to break through the alpine defences of the kingdom of Sardinia, the most important possessions of which were Piedmont and Savoy. Politics offered a new approach: by gaining the alliance of Genoa in 1745, the Bourbons were able to circumvent the alpine defences and invade Piedmont from the south. Initial successes, however, were reversed in 1746 and the Austrians and Sardinians won a decisive victory at Piacenza (16 June 1746), ending, for the remainder of the ancien regime a quarter-millennium of French efforts to dominate northern Italy.


Fortress of Louisbourg

In a very rare display of joint effort the British North Americans managed to get this establishment into their possession in 1745.

Plan of Louisbourg, published at the conclusion of the French & Indian War, from Bellin’s Petit Atlas Maritime. The map shows major fortifications and includes a key locating 14 important points of interest.

Louisbourg was originally settled in 1713, and initially called Havre à l’Anglois. Subsequently, the fishing port grew to become a major commercial port and a strongly defended fortress. The fortifications eventually surrounded the town. The walls were constructed mainly between 1720 and 1740.

By the mid-1740s Louisbourg, named for Louis XIV of France, was one of the most extensive (and expensive) European fortifications constructed in North America. It was supported by two smaller garrisons on Île Royale located at present-day St. Peter’s and Englishtown. The Fortress of Louisbourg suffered key weaknesses, since it was erected on low-lying ground commanded by nearby hills and its design was directed mainly toward sea-based assaults, leaving the land-facing defences relatively weak. A third weakness was that it was a long way from France or Quebec, from which reinforcements might be sent.

Louisbourg was first captured by New England based British colonists in 1745, and was a major bargaining chip in the negotiations leading to the 1748 treaty ending the War of the Austrian Succession. It was returned to the French in exchange for border towns in what is today Belgium. It was captured again in 1758 by British forces in the Seven Years’ War, after which its fortifications were systematically destroyed by British engineers.

Even counting in the St Lawrence settlements, the people of French Canada amounted to seventy thousand or less at the time of the Seven Years War, which put them at a numerical disadvantage of something like twenty to one compared with the British Americans to the south. Until almost the very end, however, the Canadians maintained a clear superiority in mobility and military prowess over the British – seemingly incredible assets which they owed to a greater centralisation of control (despite notorious corruption in high places), their skill at managing the canoe and the musket, the facility of water transport, and their generally good relations with the Indians.

In contrast, the open but far more thickly-settled British colonies of the eastern seaboard grew at the slow pace of self-sufficient agricultural communities. They were boxed into the north by the nations of the Iroquois confederation and their French associates, and to the west by the Appalachians. There was little sign of common purpose among the British colonies. Indeed, out of all the expeditions mounted by the British in the earlier wars the only ones which bore lasting fruits were the enterprises which wrested New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch in 1664, and gained Port Royal (Annapolis Royal) and the mastery of Acadia in 1710. Louis XIV had to renounce Acadia (a lightly settled coastal province) and the great island of Newfoundland at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713.

Building a Fortress

The French appreciated that they would have to take fresh measures to safeguard the seaward approaches to the St Lawrence. Already in 1706 an anonymous memorandum had urged the government to set up a fortified colony on lIe Royale (Cape Breton Island), which formed the southern shore of the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence:

The proposed establishment will concentrate all the fisheries in the hands of the French and deny them to the English altogether; it will defend the colonies of Canada, Newfoundland and Acadia against all the enterprises of the English … and ruin their colony at Boston by excluding them from this great tract of land; it will give refuge to our crippled vessels … it will promote Canadian trade and facilitate the export of its grain and other produce; it will furnish the royal arsenals with masts, yards, timbers and planks. (McLennan, 1957, 30-1)

The Conseil Royal decided in favour of the thing in 1715. The first small band of settlers came ashore in the following year, and the chief engineer of Canada, Jean-Francois du Verger de Verville began a series of lengthy reconnaissances. In 1721 work finally began on the new fortress of Louisbourg. The chosen site was on the east coast of the island at Havre al’Anglais, a roadstead capable of sheltering an entire French fleet, which might then bottle up any British ships that sailed into the St Lawrence. Verville planted the town on a peninsula, and closed off the neck by a perimeter of two full bastions, three curtains, and two half bastions – one on each of the seaward flanks. A highly original feature of the design was the way the full bastion to the right, looking from the town (Bastion du Roi) was formed into a miniature citadel with gorge wall, barracks, governor’s lodging and chapel. The one factor which the French left out of their calculations was the absence ofanything which could be termed a ‘building season’. The fog and rain prevented the mortar from drying out during the summer, and the imprisoned water froze every winter, with devastating results to the masonry. Verville disliked the Canadian climate intensely, and the Canadians still more, and he spent every winter in the comfort of France. Thus Louisbourg absorbed immense sums of money, without ever being in good repair, and Louis XV complained that he almost expected to see the ramparts of this costly ‘Dunkirk of America’ rising above the horizon of France.

In a very rare display of joint effort the British North Americans managed to get this establishment into their possession in 1745. The canny and popular merchant William Pepperell gathered 4,000 troops from the New England colonies (which was a considerable achievement in its own right) and sailed to Cape Breton Island in the company of Commodore Warren and 1,000 marines. The many seamen and backwoodsmen proved to be an immense Lhelp in building the siege batteries, though somebody complained that the force was ‘in great want of good gunners that have a disposition to be sober in the daytime’ (ibid., 152). There were no engineers with the expedition at all (until two officers arrived from Annapolis on 5 June), and the French were perplexed by the very irregularity and unpredictability of the conduct of the siege. Louisbourg fell on 17 June after six weeks of attack.

The new governor, Commodore Charles Knowles, had no very high opinion of any kind of fortress as a prize: ‘Neither the coast of Acadia nor any of the harbours in Newfoundland (except St Johns and Placentia) are fortified, and these but triflingly, and yet we always be masters of the cod fisheries for that year whether there be a Louisbourg or not’ (ibid., 175). Indeed, the British government was not disinclined to listen to the instances of the French, who at the peace conference at Aix in 1748 were determined to regain Louisbourg at almost any price. The Comte de Maurepas, the minister of marine, viewed the place as the guardian of both New France and the Grand Banks fisheries, which latter were of great economic importance and a nursery of seamen. Out of these considerations the French sacrificed Madras in far-off India and the brilliant conquests of de Saxe in the Netherlands.

The British accordingly gave up Louisbourg. They partially made up for the loss in 1749 when they built four forts and a barricade at Halifax on the adjacent peninsula of Nova Scotia (Acadia). Within three years Halifax had a population of four thousand, and the potential to become one of the most important avenues of entry for British power to North America.

The Victory of the Covenant?

Cromwell after the Battle of Marston Moor

By the time of John Pym’s death from disease in early December 1643 much of the architecture of Parliament’s eventual victory was in place, and he must take a large share of the credit for that. A military alliance with the Covenanters, in the service of yet another covenant, this time between the two kingdoms, was underpinned by novel forms of taxation which would provide the basis for public revenues for over a century (assessment, excise and customs). These were reinforced by penal taxation and seizure from those who opposed the aims of the Covenant. Parliamentary committees, proliferating like mushrooms, allowed Parliament to act as an executive body, albeit a rather poorly co-ordinated one.

Pym’s contribution to sustaining the political will to implement these measures was considerable, but not necessarily popular, even among those who had been riveted by his compelling speeches in May and November 1640. Although his influence grew out of those influential speeches, what he had in the end championed was quite different from a defence of parliamentary liberties and the Church of England. A week or so before Pym’s death, Parliament took a further highly significant step. In early November, Parliament had authorized the use of a new Great Seal, the highest symbol of sovereignty, and on 30 November it was entrusted to six parliamentary commissioners. It represented an escalation of the argument that the King enjoyed his powers in trusteeship, exercised in partnership with Parliament. When the King was absent or in danger of wrecking the kingdom, so the argument had gone, then Parliament could assume trust in his place. Now, it was said, those using the Great Seal were enemies of the state, which was not currently entrusted to the King. The new seal made the implications of this plain: it did not include the King’s image but that of the House of Commons, and the arms of England and Ireland. As one commentator put it, there was consternation among ‘all the People’ who had ‘reason to believe that, at last, the divisions between the King and Parliament would become irreparable, and that there would be no hopes left of their being reconciled to one another, the breach made in his Majesty’s authority being so great, that it portended nothing less than the ruin of the state and the dissolution of the monarchy’. In all these ways, defence of parliamentary liberty was clearly no longer the same as defence of the ancient constitution.

Pym’s death also coincided with a reorganization of parliamentary military command. The formal alliance with the Covenanters called into being the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which took over from the Committee of Safety in February 1644. It was the first body to have responsibilities in both kingdoms. In one sense it filled the gap of a single executive body, acting as a kind of parliamentary Privy Council. But it was also a highly political body, on which opponents of the Earl of Essex were prominent, men anxious for a clearer military victory in order to secure a peace on demanding terms. Holles, for example, was not on the committee, but Cromwell was, and its terms of reference compromised the powers granted to Essex in his commission. Pym, man of the moment in 1640, died at a point when the parliamentary cause had plainly moved a long way from the aims set out at the meeting of the Long Parliament – it was now a military alliance with the Covenanters, more or less on condition that the English church be reformed along the lines of the kirk, in the hands of a parliamentary committee acting as an independent executive and likely to seek a decisive military victory over their King. National subscription to the Solemn League and Covenant was promoted from 5 February, underpinning these aims.

In this context, the fate of William Laud has an obvious significance – putting the issues of 1640 back in the forefront of people’s minds, and paying an easy price to the Covenanters for their military support. Laud had been impeached on 19 October 1643, the first step on what proved a long path to his execution, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a narrowly calculating political act, another way of promoting Protestant unity without raising difficulties about church government, and an easy way to curry favour with the Covenanters. It also perhaps reflected how Laud was the personification of the dangers of Catholic conspiracy, all too evident following the Cessation. One newsbook argued that ‘the sparing of him hath been a provocation to Heaven, for it is a sign that we have not been so careful to give the Church a sacrifice as the State’. Strafford had died for the latter, but now revenge was sought on Canterbury in the cause of God: ‘he having corrupted our religion, banished the godly, introduced superstitions, and embrewed both kingdoms at first in tincture of blood’. But there was a more prosaic reason – while he lived on as Archbishop of Canterbury he had to approve ecclesiastical appointments and, though he did his best to comply, some appointments made demands on him that he could not in conscience approve. In any case there can have been little to justify the prosecution of an ageing bishop, or the ‘rancorous hatred’ with which his prison cell was searched for incriminating evidence. The hostility perhaps bears testimony as much to the difficulties of 1643 as to the certainties of 1640. It offered the same comforts as the bonfire of ‘pictures and popish trinkets’ staged on the site of Cheapside Cross in January 1644 to mark the defeat of the Brooke plot. Even so, it was another year before the trial was concluded.

Pym had died at more or less the pivotal moment in the fighting. By not losing in 1643, when military fortunes had favoured the royalists, Parliament had put its armies in a position to win, particularly in alliance with the Covenanters. This was not simply because of the intervention of the Covenanters, since the royalist momentum had already been halted, particularly by the victories at Newbury and Winceby. The first major engagement of the spring was at Cheriton (29 March), on the approaches to Winchester. A decisive victory that owed nothing to the Covenanters, it led to a royalist withdrawal and the recapture of Winchester. This not only halted royalist advances in the west but signalled, like Winceby, that the parliamentary cavalry was becoming a match for the royalists. It was followed within ten days by the fall of Salisbury, Andover and Christchurch (although Winchester Castle held out) and, by early April, Waller was on the verges of Dorset. Clarendon felt that the impact of the defeat at Cheriton on the royalist cause was ‘doleful’.

When the Covenanters arrived, then, it can plausibly be argued that the momentum was already with Parliament and that some of the further progress of parliamentary arms did not depend on their presence. On the other hand, this was also partly an illusion caused by royalist strategy. The King’s forces now dispersed, seeking to re-establish control in the regions, a necessary preliminary to building strength for a renewed offensive, and that continued to be a reasonably hopeful strategy. In any case, the Covenanters” army was undoubtedly significant in shifting the balance further in favour of Parliament, opening a new front in the north and introducing a new field army. In late spring there were five parliamentary armies in England. The Covenanters and the Fairfaxes in the north put pressure on Newcastle’s position, Manchester was besieging Lincoln, Waller was the dominant force in the west and Essex was preparing to take the field. Against this, Rupert’s army was in the north-west and potentially able to offer some support to Newcastle, but Charles had sustained a presence in the centre only by amalgamating his army with the remnants of Hopton’s. Prince Maurice was laying siege to Lyme, with a small force, and there was no army available to confront Manchester. The Covenanters did not turn the tide, but they did contribute significantly to the problem of over-stretch faced by the royalist forces.

Commitment to dispersal, and the demands of the overall situation, undoubtedly affected the movements of Rupert’s army during the spring. He had left Oxford for Chester in March, where he was lobbied to pursue the relief of Lathom House, but the chief priority was the relief of Newark, which was achieved on 21 March. It was a significant victory, not least because the besieging forces surrendered siege artillery, 3,000-4,000 muskets and large numbers of pikes. But there was an immediate demand for Rupert’s aid in the south. Many of his troops came from Wales and he set off there for replenishment and supply, but was recalled to Oxford on 3 April. The order was countermanded the following day, but it is evidence of the stretch that was now felt in the royalist ranks. Newcastle’s pleas for support in Yorkshire continued to go unheard and the royalists had also been defeated at Nantwich. On 11 April, Selby fell to the Fairfaxes and Newcastle withdrew to York. This allowed the Covenanters and the Fairfaxes to join forces at Tadcaster a week later, threatening the extinction of the royal cause in the north.

In this situation a parliamentary advance on Oxford, where morale was flagging, was quite possible. On 16 April the Oxford parliament was prorogued following an address imploring Charles to guarantee the safety of the Protestant religion; the failure of another political initiative and the death of what Charles was later known to have called his ‘mongrel parliament’. For Parliament, Oxford and York were the two key military objectives, and the royalist forces were stretched to cover both. While Charles sought to strengthen the position around Oxford with garrisons at Reading, Wallingford, Abingdon and Banbury, Rupert left once more for the north. The Committee of Both Kingdoms was also interested in both objectives, and as the Earl of Manchester took control of Lincolnshire he was sent to York rather than Oxford. Nonetheless, parliamentary advances in May put such pressure on the royalist position in Oxford that the King decided to leave. Charles left Oxford on 3 June with 7,500 men, leaving 3,500 to defend the town, armed with all his heavy artillery, and marched west via Burford, Bourton and Evesham. By the time he reached Evesham it was known that Tewkesbury had fallen to Massey and he opted to take up quarters at Worcester, arriving on 6 June. Three days later Sudeley Castle fell and he ordered a further withdrawal to Bewdley.

These then were promising days for the parliamentary armies. The King had withdrawn from Oxford and York was under pressure. But the initiative was lost. Essex was sent to relieve Lyme rather than join Waller in a pursuit of the King. This crucial and controversial decision was taken at a council of war at Chipping Norton, at which both Waller and Essex were present. It was an odd one, perhaps intended as a prelude to moving into the west and cutting off the King’s supply. Historians have subsequently blamed Essex and Waller for a crucial error, and at the time the Committee of Both Kingdoms was shocked by the decision and ordered Essex to return, something he notoriously failed to do, on 14 June. Having decided to take this course, and to ignore a direct order from the Committee of Both Kingdoms, it was of course important for Essex to succeed, and at first he did. He lifted the siege of Lyme on 14 June and took Weymouth the next day. He now resolved to push on into the west. It is more than possible that this reflects in part personal frictions between Waller and Essex, who had been at odds before and seem to have squabbled during this campaign. But this disagreement was probably exaggerated retrospectively by Waller and his supporters – he initially supported the decision. Essex challenged Parliament to relieve him of his command and got his way – on 25 June he was ordered to move west in accordance with his wishes. This order allowed him to continue the march he had already commenced in defiance of his previous orders.

Meanwhile, Waller pursued the royal army, which was moving back via Woodstock and Buckingham. He found it difficult to engage the army, and its very mobility was a problem, since it might suggest a move either on York or on London. Waller therefore had to have the defence of London in mind. This rested on a small and hastily assembled force under Major-General Browne and it appeared vulnerable until Waller made it back to Brentford on 28 June. In the end the indecisive engagement at Cropredy Bridge on 29 June was the only fruit of these manoeuvrings, and this must surely count as a lost opportunity for Parliament. After the battle the royal army was able to march off in pursuit of Essex in better spirits than the parliamentarians.

In the north, however, the parliamentary campaign was decisive. York had been under siege by Leven and Fairfax since 22 April and the only hope of relief lay with Rupert. In May and June he won a string of victories in Lancashire. These mobile campaigns were frustrating parliamentary armies in the south, but the position in York looked bleak. On 13 June the Earl of Newcastle had been invited to negotiate its surrender and it was thought that the city could only hold out for another six days.

On 14 June, Charles wrote a fateful letter to Rupert. ‘If York be lost I shall esteem my crown little less, unless supported by your sudden march to me, and a miraculous conquest in the South, before the effects of the Northern power can be found here; but if York be relieved, and you beat the rebels” armies of both kingdoms which were before it, then, but other ways not, I may possibly make a shift upon the defensive to spin out time until you come to assist me’. The loss of York would be a catastrophe except in the very unlikely event that Rupert was able to get away and secure victories in the south before the parliamentarian armies got there. On the other hand, if York was relieved and the northern army defeated, Charles might avoid defeat long enough for Rupert to come to his aid. Relief of York and defeat of the northern army were the best hope for the royalist cause.

This was a realistic view, but it conflated the relief of York and the defeat of the rebels: as it was to turn out it was possible to relieve York without defeating the Scottish and parliamentarian forces. Charles had not known this of course. His command to Rupert was:

all new enterprises laid aside, you immediately march according to your first intention, with all your force, to the relief of York; but if that be either lost or have freed themselves from the besiegers, or that for want of powder you cannot undertake that work, that you immediately march with your whole strength directly to Worcester, to assist me and my army, without which, or your having relieved York by beating the Scots, all the successes you can afterwards have most infallibly will be useless to me.

Again, the possibility was not recognized here that York might be relieved without defeating the besieging army.

On 28 June it was clear that Rupert was coming. Besiegers were too exposed between the walls of a defended city and an army able to line up in one place, rather than as an encircling force, and on 1 July the siege had been broken up. The parliamentary forces withdrew to Tadcaster and York had been saved. But Rupert seems, not unreasonably, to have interpreted the letter to mean not simply that he should relieve York but that he should engage and destroy the besieging army. He therefore decided to seek battle despite the clearly expressed view of the Earl of Newcastle that it should be avoided. Most subsequent commentators have taken Newcastle’s side: with the relief of York the King’s position had been rendered more stable and there was no good reason for risking an engagement with the besieging army. In fact Rupert had received numerous letters in the weeks before Marston Moor containing more or less the same message, and urging haste, and so he was not unjustified in seeing his orders in this way. It seems that other royalist commanders feared that Rupert, left to his own devices, would have given priority to establishing full control of Lancashire. But he was also aggressive by instinct and that he interpreted his order in that way would not have surprised Colepeper: when he heard that the letter had been sent he said to Charles, ‘Before God, you are undone, for upon this peremptory order he will fight, whatever comes on’t’.

For those interested in contingencies then, the moment at which Charles drafted that clause, or the moment when Rupert read it, was crucial to the course of the war in England. With York relieved, the King in what turned out to be a successful pursuit of Essex, and Oxford secure, honours might have been said to be even. But Rupert chose to engage numerically superior forces, with catastrophic results for the royalist cause.

Battle was joined at Marston Moor on 2 July. Rupert’s forces were considerably outnumbered, particularly the cavalry. His relieving army and the force garrisoning York numbered about 18,000. The parliamentarians, by contrast, probably had around 28,000 men, the result of the confluence of forces under the command of Leven, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Manchester. The bulk of the parliamentary forces, about 16,000, were Scottish and Leven was in overall command both as the ranking officer and as a man of formidable experience in the European wars. His forces were drawn up with the infantry in the centre, cavalry on the right under Fairfax and on the left under Cromwell and Leslie. Opposite Cromwell were Rupert’s cavalry, commanded by Byron, and Fairfax was opposed by Goring. Infantry numbers were fairly equal – around 11,000 on either side – but the parliamentary advantage in horse was considerable. This was not a guarantee of success, however, because the ground on which the battle was fought did not favour horse riders – furze, gorse, ditches and rabbit holes broke up the ground, making rapid advances difficult. Byron, in particular, was protected by rough ground.

The initial deployment was not complete until late afternoon, and several hours of inconclusive skirmishing had achieved little by 7 p.m. At that point Rupert thought the battle would be postponed until the next day, and Newcastle was repairing to his coach to enjoy a pipe of tobacco. But as a thunderstorm broke, the parliamentary infantry began to advance. The rain interfered with the matchlocks of the royalist advance guard and the parliamentarians” infantry successfully engaged with the main body of the royalist infantry. But the royalist riposte was very successful. Goring advanced on the parliamentary cavalry ranged against him, and his men began to inflict heavy losses. Byron, perhaps encouraged by the sight, advanced on Cromwell, but in doing so had to tackle the difficult ground himself. Perhaps that contributed to the ensuing rout, in which Cromwell’s cavalry were triumphant. But with Fairfax’s cavalry now defeated and Goring’s men inflicting heavy losses on the infantry it seemed as if Rupert’s decision might be vindicated. Many Scottish troops fled and at one stage all three parliamentarian generals appeared to be in flight, thinking that a royalist victory was in the offing.

It was the discipline of Cromwell’s cavalry that transformed this position. Fairfax made his way behind royalist lines to tell Cromwell what had happened on the opposite flank. Cromwell was able not only to rally his cavalry but to lead them back behind the royalist lines before leading a devastating charge on Goring’s forces from the rear. This was utterly decisive – the royalist infantry were now completely exposed, and outnumbered. Most surrendered, and the parliamentary victory was total. It is likely that the royalists lost at least 4,000 men, probably many more, and a further 1,500 were captured. Rupert left York the next morning with only 6,000 men and Newcastle refused to make a fist of the defence of York, preferring exile, he said, to ‘the laughter of the court’. York surrendered two weeks later and the parliamentary forces in the field now easily outnumbered the royalists. This was the worst case that Charles’s letter had sought to avoid: the loss of both York and his field army.

Marston Moor was certainly a massive blow to royalist morale, and decisive for the war in the north, but Parliament was robbed of an outright victory in England by a combination of poor military judgement and political hesitancy. The military adventure launched by the Earl of Essex and the reluctance of the Earl of Manchester to pursue a complete victory allowed the King to recover his position in the west and enter winter quarters in Oxford in triumph.

In mid-June, having lifted the siege of Lyme and captured Weymouth, Essex set off into the west. Waller could not offer support partly because of the reluctance of the London Trained Bands to serve for long away from home. Nonetheless, supported by the navy under Warwick’s command, Essex initially enjoyed considerable success. By early to mid-July he was threatening Exeter, where Henrietta Maria was recovering from the birth of her daughter, Henrietta Anne, on 16 June. Essex refused her safe conduct to Bath and offered instead personally to escort her to London. Given what subsequently happened, this would have been a considerable boon to the parliamentary cause, but Henrietta Maria refused – as both she and Essex knew she faced impeachment in London. Instead she fled to France, on 14 July, and never saw her husband again.

Influenced by the threat of the northern army moving south, and also perhaps by this threat to his wife’s safety, Charles moved decisively after Essex. On 26 July he reached Exeter and rendezvoused with Prince Maurice, who was at the head of 4,600 men, at Crediton the following day. Essex, meanwhile, was further west at Tavistock, where he had been received triumphantly – Plymouth had been secured. Cut off by a royal army and having secured Plymouth this might have been the moment for discretion, but instead Essex resolved to push on. On 26 July he decided to go on into Cornwall, arriving at Lostwithiel on 3 August. The King had pursued him, arriving at Liskeard the previous day.

Now bottled up, with the King’s army behind him, Essex had put himself in a desperate position. On 30 August he prepared to withdraw. The following night his cavalry were able to ride away, itself something of a puzzle since the King had been forewarned and yet apparently failed to cover the likely route of escape. The infantry fought a retreat to Fowey but were cut off by the arrival of a force under Goring, which commanded the road. That night Essex instructed Skippon to make such terms as he could while Essex himself slipped away on 1 September. The King offered surprisingly generous terms to Skippon, given the dire position in which Skippon found himself.

This was a massive blow to morale. Mercurius Aulicus was withering in its scorn, asking ‘why the rebels voted to live and die with the earl of Essex, since the earl of Essex hath declared he will not live and die with them’. According to the terms of surrender negotiated by Skippon the army was to be allowed to march out with its colours, trumpets and drums, but without any weapons, horses or baggage apart from the officers” personal effects. They were offered convoy, the sick and the wounded were to be given protection, and permission was given to fetch provisions and money for the defeated troops from Plymouth. These could be claimed as honourable terms, but they did not stick, and the defeated army was subject to humiliations amounting to atrocity. The royalist convoy could not protect the unarmed soldiers from attack and local people, men and women, joined in the assault. They were stripped by the women, and left lying in the fields. Some were forced ‘to march stark naked, and bare footed’, and pillage and assault continued. One victim was a woman three days out of child bed, stripped to her smock, pulled by her hair and thrown into the river. She died shortly after. Ten days later the survivors, perhaps 1,000 of the 6,000 who surrendered, marched into Poole, ‘insulted, stripped, beaten and starved’. Their numbers had been winnowed by desertion, but there were many who died on the road, after an honourable surrender. If the propaganda effect was dire, the strategic importance could not be exaggerated: ‘By that miscarriage we are brought a whole summer’s travel back’. Essex’s adventure, for which he was solely responsible, had gone a long way towards grabbing stalemate from the jaws of victory.

Worse was to come, at least in political terms. Fairfax, Leven and Manchester apparently felt that Marston Moor would force Charles to seek terms, and they did little to pursue an outright victory. In Manchester’s case, at least, this reflected his belief that a lasting peace would be one recognized as honourable by all parties, and could not be delivered by total military victory. War was a means to peace, and had to be treated with caution. This hesitancy allowed Charles to consolidate his position during September. Following his triumph over Essex, Charles moved eastwards again, arriving in Tavistock on 5 September. Having abandoned the attempt to retake Plymouth he sought to relieve garrisons further east and his forces established themselves at Chard, and both Barnstaple and Ilfracombe were retaken. His aim was to strengthen the garrisons at Basing House and Banbury to shore up the position of Oxford. This began to look like a potential threat to London and it finally spurred Manchester to bring his Eastern Association forces into the King’s way. It proved difficult to co-ordinate and supply the parliamentary armies, and the Trained Bands contingents were reluctant to move too far, so Waller was forced to pull back from the west in early October, unable to gain support for his position in Sherborne. As Charles continued to advance Parliament began to consolidate forces, calling off the siege of Donnington on 18 October. The King’s next objective was to lift the siege of Basing House, but Essex and Manchester joined forces there just in time, on 21 October, and the King was forced to withdraw to Newbury. Together with Waller’s remaining forces, and levies from the London Trained Bands, the parliamentarians were finally able to bring a large force, perhaps of 18,000 men, to bear on a royal force which on some estimates was only half as strong.


The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, by Alphonse de Neuville (1880)

Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton had experience constructing field fortifications, and he advised Chard and Bromhead to use grain sacks and biscuit boxes to shore up the defensive perimeter between the hospital and storehouse.

In many ways the Zulu War was like other small wars the British had fought: it began with an initial defeat and ended in victory; it was fought against savages on the Empire’s fringes; and the simple strategy and tactics employed, so well suited to disciplined Victorian soldiers, were not unlike the means used to win other small wars in other parts of the Empire. But the Zulu War was memorable for a number of interesting small events: tragic, humorous, disgraceful and gallant.

The officers of the 24th Regiment who were commanding troops at Isandhlwana stayed and died with their men, though all of them had horses and could have tried to escape. The only officer of the 24th to leave the battlefield was Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill, and he was ordered by Pulleine to try to save the Queen’s colours of the 1st battalion. He got as far as the Buffalo River, but was drowned trying to cross at a place that came to be called Fugitives’ Drift. The colours were later found and returned to the regiment. In a little ceremony at Osborne on 28 July 1880 the Queen decorated these colours with a wreath of immortelles. Ever after, the staff of the Queen’s colours of the 1st battalion of the 24th carried a silver wreath on it.

After the battle of Boomplatz in 1848 the Queen had noted that, as usual, there was a higher percentage of casualties among the officers than among the other ranks. She wrote to Lord Grey: ‘The loss of so many officers, the Queen is certain, proceeds from their wearing a blue coat whilst the men are in scarlet; the Austrians lost a great proportion of officers in Italy from a similar difference in dress.’ The Queen was probably right. Still, many officers continued to go into battle wearing blue patrol jackets. In at least one instance their blue coats saved their lives.

There were some civilians with Chelmsford’s army, mostly transport and supply people, so the Zulu warriors had been told by their chiefs to concentrate on the soldiers, who could be distinguished from the civilians by their red coats. One of the few soldiers to escape from Isandhlwana was thin, square-jawed Lieutenant Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, nineteen years old, who lived to command the British Second Division in the retreat from Mons in 1914. He, like the other four officers who escaped, was wearing a dark coat that day. All red-coated officers were killed.

Smith-Dorrien did not have a command; he was serving as transport officer. As usual, transportation of supplies was one of the army’s major problems and there was a need for more animals than South Africa could supply. Every ox, mule and horse in the country that was for sale or hire was swept up by the army, and Chelmsford was forced to look outside the country for more. A British officer in the American Far West trying to buy animals for the Zulu War would be a theme too improbable for the producers of Westerns, but one British officer found himself buying mules for Chelmsford in Texas.

Part of the tide of Zulus which swept away the six companies of the 24th Regiment at Isandlhwana lapped at the little post at Rorke’s Drift a few miles away on the same day. Here was enacted one of the most incredible dramas in the history of the British army. The story has been brilliantly told in detail by Donald Morris in The Washing of the Spears, but it deserves to be retold here for it describes an outstanding example of the type of courage so often displayed by ordinary officers and men of Queen Victoria’s army.

Rorke’s Drift had been churned into a muddy quagmire by the passing army and the continued movement of oxen and supply wagons. A mission station-farm was located about a quarter of a mile from the drift on the Natal side of the river and this had been turned into a field hospital and supply centre. On the morning of 22 January there were thirty-six men in the hospital, together with a surgeon, a chaplain, and one orderly; eighty-four men of B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment and a company of Natal Kaffirs were there to guard the crossing; there was also an engineer officer who helped wagons to cross the river, and a few casuals.

Neither of the two regular officers entitled to hold a command (the surgeon-major did not count) was regarded as outstanding. At least neither of them had ever done anything remarkable in their careers up to this point. The senior of the two was black-bearded Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard, the Royal Engineer officer. Commissioned at the age of twenty-one he had served for more than eleven years without ever seeing action or receiving a promotion.

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was in charge of B company of the 24th at Rorke’s Drift. His brother, Major Charles Bromhead was in the same regiment, as was natural, for members of the Bromhead family had served in the 24th Regiment for more than 120 years. Charles was regarded as a brilliant officer; he had been in the Ashanti War with Wolseley and was now on staff duty in London. But Gonville, thirty-three years old with nearly twelve years of service, had been a lieutenant for eight years; he was not so bright and was almost totally deaf. He ought not to have been in the army at all. That he was left behind and assigned to the dull job of watching the river crossing was probably due to the natural reluctance of Pulleine to allow him to command a company in battle.

It was about the middle of the afternoon before Chard and Bromhead learned from two volunteer officers of the Natal Kaffirs of the disaster at Isandhlwana and of their own danger. There were no defences at all at Rorke’s Drift, but Chard decided that it would be impossible to bring away all the sick and injured men in hospital so they must do what they could to make the mission defensible. Using wagons, biscuit boxes, bags of mealies and existing walls, they managed to enclose the house, barn and kraal. Fortunately, the buildings were of stone, as was the wall around the kraal, but the house, now being used as a hospital, had a thatched roof, making it vulnerable. All the sick and injured who were well enough to shoot were given rifles and ammunition and Chard counted on having about 300 men to defend his little improvised fort.

A few refugees from Isandhlwana reached Rorke’s Drift, but most continued their flight. The mounted natives who had been stationed at the drift and the native contingent with Chard all fled, together with their colonial officers and non-commissioned officers. Chard was left with only 140 men, including the patients from the hospital, to man his 300 yard perimeter. Late in the afternoon a man came racing down the hill in back of the station shouting ‘Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass!’ And a Zulu impi of 4,000 warriors now descended on Rorke’s Drift.

The soldiers were still carrying biscuit boxes and mealie bags to the walls when the Zulus, with their black and white cowhide shields and with assegais flashing in the sun, came running into view. Boxes and bags were dropped, rifles and cartridge pouches were seized and the soldiers ran to man the barricades. Rifles crashed as the defenders fired into the black masses of Zulu warriors that swept down on them. The Zulus had a deadly open space to cross and took terrible casualties – but they came on in waves. The soldiers could not shoot fast enough and as the Zulus swept around the walls of the hospital there were hand to hand fights along the makeshift barricades, bayonets against assegais, the Zulus mounting the bodies of their own dead and wounded to grab at the rifle barrels and jab at the soldiers.

The men of the 24th had already been enraged before the Zulus arrived by the sight of their native allies and colonial volunteers deserting them. One soldier had even put a bullet into the retreating back of a European non-commissioned officer of the Native Contingent. They were in a fighting mood, and now with the Zulus upon them they fought with a frenzy.

Some of the Zulus who were armed with rifles crouched behind boulders on the rocky slopes behind the mission and fired at the backs of the defenders on the far wall. Fortunately their shooting was erratic, and they did little damage. The steady marksmanship of the soldiers was better; one private downed eight Zulus with eight cartridges during the first charge. The soldiers had found plenty of ammunition among the stores in the barn and the chaplain circulated among them distributing handfuls of fresh cartridges.

There was wild, vicious room to room fighting when the Zulus broke into the hospital; the sick and wounded, together with a few men from B Company, held them off with desperate courage until they set fire to the thatched roof. Meanwhile, Chard was trying to withdraw his men into a narrower perimeter encompassing only the barn, kraal and the yard in front of the barn. Into this area the men who had escaped from the hospital, the freshly wounded and Chard’s remaining effectives retreated and continued the fight. It was dark now, but the Zulus still came on and by the light of the burning hospital the fight went on.

In rush after rush the Zulus pressed back the soldiers. The kraal, which had been defended by bayonets and clubbed rifles when there was no time to reload, had at last to be abandoned. Rifles had now been fired so often and so fast that the barrels burned the fingers and the fouled guns bruised and battered the shoulders and frequently jammed. The wounded cried for water and the canteens were empty, but Chard led a sally over the wall to retrieve the two-wheeled water cart that stood in the yard by the hospital. It was about four o’clock in the morning before the Zulu attacks subsided, but even then flung assegais continued to whistle over the walls.

It seems nearly incredible that even brave, disciplined British soldiers could have sustained such determined attacks by men equally brave and in such numbers. But they did. By morning, Chard and Bromhead had about eighty men still standing. Fifteen had been killed, two were dying and most were wounded. When dawn broke over the hills, the soldiers looked over the walls and braced their tired, wounded bodies for another charge. Their faces were blackened and their eyes were red; their bodies ached and their nerves were stretched taut from the strain. But the Zulus were gone. Around them were hundreds of black corpses; a few wounded Zulus could be seen retreating painfully over a hill; the ground was littered with the debris of battle: Zulu shields and assegais; British helmets, belts and other accoutrements; broken wagons, biscuit boxes and mealie bags, and the cartridge cases of the 20,000 rounds of ammunition the defenders had fired. Chard sent out some cautious patrols, but there were no signs of the enemy in the immediate vicinity. The soldiers cleared away some dead Zulus from the cook house and began to make tea.

About seven-thirty the Zulus suddenly appeared again. Chard called his men and they manned the walls, but the Zulus simply sat down on a hill out of rifle range. They, too, were exhausted, and they had not eaten for more than two days. They had no desire to renew the fight. Besides, the leader of the impi had disobeyed the order of Cetewayo by crossing the Buffalo River into Natal and he was doubtless considering how he would explain to his chief the costly night of savage fighting outside the boundaries of Zululand. While Chard and his men grimly watched, the Zulus rose and wearily moved off over the hills.

Later in the morning, some mounted infantry rode up and soon after Chelmsford appeared with what was left of his main force. He had hoped that some portion of his troops had been able to retreat from Isandhlwana to Rorke’s Drift, but he found only the survivors of those who had been left there. With the remnants of his column and the handful of men from Rorke’s Drift, he sadly retreated into Natal.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded the defenders of Rorke’s Drift: the most ever given for a single engagement. There might have been even more, but posthumous awards were not then made. Both Chard and Bromhead received the medal. There were many Welshmen in the 24th (which later became the South Wales Borderers), and among the eighty-four men of B Company there were five men named Jones and five named Williams; two of the Joneses and one Williams won the Victoria Cross. Private Williams’s real name, however, was John Williams Fielding; he had run away from home to enlist and had changed his name so that his father, a policeman, would not find him.

Private Frederick Hitch, twenty-four, also won a Victoria Cross and survived his years of service to enjoy the wearing of it as a commissionaire. The bad luck of his regiment seemed to pursue Hitch and his medal, even to the grave. One day while Hitch was in his commissionaire’s uniform and wearing his medals a thief snatched the Victoria Cross from his chest. It was never seen again. King Edward VII eventually gave him another to replace it, but when Hitch died in 1913 this one, too, had disappeared. Fifteen years later it turned up in an auction room; his family bought it and it is now in the museum of his old regiment. Mounted on his tomb in Chiswick cemetery was a bronze replica of the Victoria Cross. In 1968 thieves stole that.

Lieutenant Chard finally received his first promotion – to brevet major, becoming the first officer in the Royal Engineers ever to skip the rank of captain. He was also invited to Balmoral where Queen Victoria gave him a gold signet ring. He served for another eighteen years in Cyprus, India and Singapore, but he received only one more promotion. In 1897 cancer of the tongue caused him to retire and he died three months later.

Bromhead was also promoted to captain and brevet major, though he never rose any higher. He, too, was invited to Balmoral by the Queen, but being on a fishing trip when the invitation arrived he missed the occasion. He died in 1891 at the age of forty-six in Allahabad, still in the 24th Regiment.

Bromhead and Chard were fortunate in a sense when their moment for glory arrived: fighting with their backs to the wall, they had only to show the kind of stubborn bravery and simple leadership for which the British officer was conditioned and which he was best equipped to display. No great decision or military genius was required of them. But this is not to detract from their feat of courage and the British army was rightly proud of them.


Chard and Bromhead achieved a certain degree of fame, but there was another subaltern who became better known in Britain, though for quite different reasons: he once chose to be prudent rather than heroic. His fate was tied to the Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, only son of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie and the great hope of the French Bonapartists, who already called him Napoleon IV.

The Prince Imperial had been educated in England and had attended Woolwich, although he was not given a commission. After Isandhlwana, when reinforcements were being shipped out to Chelmsford, he begged to be allowed to go fight. Although Disraeli thought it would be ‘injudicious’, the Empress Eugénie enlisted the support of the Queen on her son’s behalf and he was at last permitted to go to war as a ‘spectator’. Chelmsford was told to look after him. The Prince wrote his will – the only document he ever signed as ‘Napoleon’ — and, taking the sword carried by the first Napoleon at Austerlitz, he sailed for Durban. There he donned the undress uniform of a British lieutenant and with a valet, a groom, and two horses – one of which was named ‘Fate’ – he proceeded to the front to join Chelmsford’s staff.

He was a lively, popular young man and eager to see action. He went out on a few patrols and worried his commanders by his dash and daring. The Duke of Cambridge had told Chelmsford: ‘My only anxiety on his conduct would be, that he is too plucky and go ahead.’ After one experience with the Prince, Buller refused to take responsibility for him. The Prince told Wood: ‘I would rather fall by assegai than bullets as it would show we were at close quarters.’ Chelmsford finally ordered that the Prince should remain in the camp unless he went out with a strong escort.

Chelmsford’s columns were now beginning to move into Zululand and the Prince was given the task of sketching the ground over which one of them travelled. One 1 June the Prince asked if he could extend his sketch to cover the ground they would be covering on the following day. The ground had already been gone over by a patrol and no Zulus had been seen, but orders were given that a dozen troopers accompany him. It was then that another staff officer, Lieutenant Jahleel Carey, apparently on an impulse, asked and obtained permission to go with the Prince.

Lieutenant Carey, son of a clergyman, was an exceptionally religious officer and devoted to his wife, two daughters and his mother. He had been commissioned in the 3rd West Indian Regiment and had taken part in a minor expedition to Honduras in 1867. Three years later he went on half pay in order to go to France with an English ambulance unit. He had now served fourteen years in the Army and had passed through the staff college. He had transferred to the 98th Regiment (North Staffordshire) and was soon to be gazetted captain. This was a fateful day in his life.

Not all of the troopers assigned to go with the Prince appeared – they reported to the wrong place – but Lieutenant Carey and the Prince took the seven men that did report and set off. A light rain was falling as they rode out of camp. Major Francis W. Grenfell saw them and called out to the Prince, ‘Take care of yourself, and don’t get shot!’ The Prince waved and replied that Carey would take good care of him.

It is not clear who was, or ought to have been, in command of this little party. Technically, of course, the Prince had no authority and Carey, as the only commissioned officer, was in charge, but the Prince seems to have given most of the orders and the soldiers obeyed him. Shortly past midday they halted at a deserted kraal, pulled thatch from a roof to build a fire, and made coffee. The kraal was, they knew, only temporarily deserted, ashes by one of the huts were still warm, but no lookouts were posted and no member of the party seemed anxious. Carey and the Prince discussed the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte as they rested and drank their coffee. About 3.30 they prepared to move on. The horses were saddled. The men stood by their horses’ heads. The Prince gave the preliminary order, ‘Prepare to mount!’ Each left foot was put in a stirrup. Then the order, ‘Mount’. And at that moment there was a crash of musketry and about forty Zulus ran screaming towards them. Most of the troopers gained their saddles and their horses carried them away, but the Prince’s horse shied and dashed off before he could mount. For a hundred yards he clung to a leather holster attached to the saddle; then a strap broke and the Prince fell beneath his horse.

The horse trampled on his right arm, but he leapt to his feet, drew his revolver with his left hand, and started to run. The Zulus were behind him running faster. One hurled an assegai that pierced his thigh. He stopped, pulled it out and turned on his pursuers. He fired two shots, but missed. Another assegai struck him in the left shoulder. He tried to fight with the assegai he had pulled from his thigh, but, weak from loss of blood, he sank to the ground. In a few moments he was overwhelmed. When found, his body had eighteen assegai wounds.

Of the Prince’s escort, two had been killed and one was missing. Lieutenant Carey and the four remaining men had been carried off by their frightened horses at the first volley but they stopped and came together in a depression about fifty yards from where the Prince was killed. None had fired a shot at the Zulus. To Carey it seemed foolhardy to return to look for the Prince when they were so obviously outnumbered. He led his men back to camp.

When Lieutenant Carey entered the officers’ mess he was greeted for the last time by a cheery remark from a fellow officer: Major Grenfell called out, ‘Why, Carey, you’re late for dinner. We thought you’d been shot.’

‘I’m all right,’ Carey said glumly, ‘but the Prince has been killed.’

The word soon spread through the camp. Chelmsford was shaken. All those responsible knew the importance of the tragedy, not only to the world at large but to their own careers and reputations. The wretched Lieutenant Carey sat down that night and wrote the whole story to his wife: ‘I am a ruined man, I fear. … But it might have been my fate. The bullets tore around us and with only my revolver what could I do. … I feel so miserable and dejected!’ He had reason for feeling sorry for himself. It was probably true that there was little he could have done to save the Prince and that he probably would have been killed himself had he tried. But he did not try. And for this he was condemned by every officer in Zululand; indeed, by every officer in the British army. He tried to find excuses for himself. Apparently he came to believe in his own blamelessness and to resent the scorn of his fellow officers. He demanded a court of inquiry to clear his name. The court met and recommended that he be court-martialled. At his trial Carey maintained that he had not been in command of the party but had only accompanied the Prince to correct his sketches. He did everything possible to shift the blame for the disaster onto the victim. He did not succeed. The court found him guilty of misbehaviour in the face of the enemy.

The news of the death of the Prince Imperial created a sensation in England. Queen Victoria heard of it on the forty-second anniversary of her accession to the throne while at Balmoral castle. The newspapers were soon full of it. It was the biggest story of the year and was given more coverage in the press than the defeat at Isandhlwana, and far more than the gallant defence of Rorke’s Drift.

Carey was sent back to England where he found considerable sympathy among civilians who did not understand the soldiers’ code and who thought that Chelmsford and the Duke of Cambridge were more to be blamed than he. Carey, in his talks with the many reporters who interviewed him, put more and more of the blame on the Prince. In spite of everything, Eugénie pleaded with Queen Victoria not to allow him to be punished and the Queen reluctantly wrote to the review board to ask them to drop the charge, which they did. Carey was ordered to report to his regiment, but he was still not content. He felt that he would be completely vindicated only if Eugénie received him. He wrote time and time again requesting this, but, unknown to him the text of the letter he had written his wife immediately after the fight admitting his cowardice, had been sent to Eugénie. He wrote and talked so much that at last the Empress released the letter to the press. Carey was ruined.

When he rejoined his regiment Carey found himself a pariah. No one spoke to him. Officers turned their backs when he approached them. He had disgraced his regiment and the army, and he was never forgiven. Oddly enough, he did not resign but endured this social hell for six years until he died in Bombay.

Soldiers and civilians obviously had different views of the affair. For the most part the soldiers kept their mouths shut, but Wolseley, writing to his wife, expressed the views of many officers when he said: ‘He was a plucky young man, and he died a soldier’s death. What on earth could he have better? Many other brave men have also fallen during this war, and with the Prince’s fate England as a nation had no concern. Perhaps I have insufficient sympathy with foreign nations; I reserve all my deep feeling for Her Majesty’s subjects.’

A month after the Battle of Ulundi, Cetewayo was captured and sent off to England. There on 14 August 1882 he was presented to Queen Victoria. She recorded the meeting in her journal: ‘Cetewayo is a very fine man in his native costume, or rather no costume. He is tall, immensely broad, and stout, with a good-humoured countenance, and an intelligent face. Unfortunately, he appeared in a hideous black frock coat and trousers. …’ Cetewayo could not wear his necklace of lions’ claws for it had been appropriated by Wolseley, who broke up the necklace, had the claws suitably mounted, and presented them to the wives of important men.

Cetewayo was later returned to Zululand and reinstated. The Queen thought this a mistake, but, as she told Sir Henry Ponsonby, ‘Cetewayo is unscrupulous, as might be expected, but he is not a fool; and I do not think he will with his eyes open come into collision with us again.’ She was right.

The British army went away to fight elsewhere and the Zulus were left to try to recover from their disaster. They never did. Eighteen years later Zululand was annexed to Natal. In 1906 the Zulus made a last attempt to be free, but their revolt was quickly suppressed. The Zulus still exist, one tribe among many in the Republic of South Africa, and they still make their distinctive black and white cowhide shields and their sharp assegais – tourists like them.


David Morier, the British artillery train at the camp of Roermond (Flanders) in 1748. Lt. – Gen. Albert Borgard, 1st Col. – Commandant of the Royal Artillery, in Holland – centre.

The successes of Gustavus Adolphus ‘s field artillery in the seventeenth century exerted a profound effect throughout Europe. The British army responded by differentiating between its large caliber siege and coastal “heavy equipments” and its “light equipments” for field use. The light equipments were of bronze or brass and incorporated guns as heavy as 12-pounders and howitzers up to 24-pounders. As early field carriages were heavy, ponderous affairs, English field artillery of the period was typically deployed in more or less static positions as “Artillery of the Park,” to provide covering fire for infantry and cavalry units.

During the latter seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth centuries, the British army began detaching two light field pieces per infantry battalion and cavalry regiment. The remaining, typically heavier, artillery stayed centralized in the Artillery of the Park. Although that arrangement occasionally provided a tactical edge on the battlefield, the army ultimately found it organizationally impractical. As a result, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain abandoned the earlier system in favor of an autonomous Artillery of the Park arrangement.

English as well as most other European smoothbore cannons were made of both iron and bronze, and in England they were classified into four major types: guns, mortars, howitzers, and carronades. The small swivel gun also saw extensive use during the period as well. The trunnions of early English field pieces were typically mounted somewhat below the barrel’s centerline.

Britain’s progress from the jumble of various earlier artillery types to a rational organization mirrored that of other European powers. The various calibers, established during the Elizabethan period, included 6-, 9-, 12-, 18-, 24-, 32-, and 42-pounders-sizes that remained in British service through the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth centuries. The country began the century fielding a cannon design known as the “Rose and Crown” after the raised decorative motif cast into the upper face of its second reinforce. Later cannons were decorated with the raised royal cipher of the individual monarch, the name of the founder, and the date of manufacture. In use from 1650 through the end of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714, most if not all Rose and Crown pieces were of iron and exhibited a long, graceful profile with the trunnions situated below the tube’s centerline and a rather plain, unadorned cascabel.

Despite his country’s attempts at standardization, when General John Armstrong investigated Britain’s ordnance inventories in the 1730s he found six sizes of 24-pounders then in service, ranging from 8 to 10.5 feet in length. After a series of tests, Armstrong attempted to correct the situation with what has come to be known as the Armstrong System, consisting of the optimal lengths of brass (bronze) and iron guns. Still, the situation was little better in 1764; Board of Ordnance records indicated, for example, three lengths of bronze 6-pounders and seven of iron. The board’s official listings of recognized cannons of that year illustrate a dizzying array of artillery pieces then in British service.

However well intentioned, Armstrong’s reforms proved short-lived as other theorists stepped into the debate. Chief among them was John Müller, the master gunner of Woolwich. Author of Treatise of Artillery (1768) and Elements of the Science of War (1811), Müller exerted considerable influence over European and U. S. artillery development and theory during the latter half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Müller’s main concern was to increase the efficiency of British cannons by eliminating all unnecessary weight without sacrificing their effectiveness or compromising their crews’ safety.

He subsequently reduced barrel lengths and the amount of metal used in their construction. Whereas the shortening of the cannon barrels was a rather straightforward proposal, the limiting of actual gunmetal used in the tube presented a number of more complex issues. To ensure safety, earlier guns had often been overengineered, being cast in the form of a series of “reinforces” that stepped the outside diameter of the barrel downward from breech to muzzle. Müller favored a smoother exterior profile yet did somewhat reluctantly agree to allow the addition of more or less decorative bands around the tubes, at least to suggest added strength. He also reduced the windage in British guns, making them more efficient in harnessing the explosive power of the charge and thus reducing the actual powder needed.

By midcentury British guns were relatively consistent in style, with a cleaner exterior profile; they were distinguished by a raised band around the center of the cascabel. As the century progressed minor changes occurred, including a flattening of the surface of the breech face, straight rather than tapered trunnions, and the addition of rimbases to the trunnions. On bronze guns, a connecting ring at the breech for the elevating screw was added. Although iron was much less expensive and the most common metal for artillery, Müller also advocated the use of the more flexible and hence less brittle bronze for seacoast and shipboard use. To this argument he also added bronze’s advantage in that it does not rust-a considerable problem for iron guns used near saltwater or sea air.


As the century progressed, the British leadership gradually grew to appreciate the advantage of mobile artillery in the field. During the 1701-1713 War of the Spanish Succession, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), proved a pioneer in the tactical use of field artillery against the forces of Louis XIV. At the 13 August 1704 Battle of Blenheim, Marlborough, after four unsuccessful attacks, detached a number of pieces from the Artillery of the Park and ordered them forward with his infantry. Their added firepower at the pivotal moment of the battle proved a decisive factor in breaking the French lines. At the 11 September 1709 Battle of Malplaquet, Marlborough again proved himself when he moved his forty-gun Grand Battery forward with his infantry. Their fire devastated the French cavalry waiting in reserve and contributed to the French withdrawal from the field. A half-century later, at the 1759 Battle of Minden during the Seven Years’ War, the Royal Artillery placed a 12-pounder battery in position to enfilade the French positions and then moved it forward with the infantry to provide fire support. Experience during the Napoleonic Wars prompted the Royal Artillery to refine its field artillery equipment and tactics still further.

As the gun drill was virtually identical for all British field pieces of the period, artillery companies were assigned the appropriate ordnance to suit the needs of individual campaigns. The standard field pieces included the light 3-pounder gun, the 6-pounder, 9 – pounder, and 12-pounder guns, and the 4.4-inch and 5.5-inch howitzers. Of those weapons, the 9-pounder gun seems to have fallen in and out of favor before making a comeback in 1808 during the Peninsular Campaigns. Introduced in 1719, the excellent brass 9-pounder proved itself on numerous battlefields and saw extensive service during the Seven Years ‘ War. It was, however, not included in the official lists of ordnance in 1753 and seems to have been dropped in favor of the 6- and 12-pounder guns and the howitzers.

The situation reversed itself when, in preparing for the Peninsular Campaigns, British artillery commanders deemed the 12-pounder gun too cumbersome to negotiate Spain’s rough terrain and primitive roads. As a result, the 6-pounder was the heaviest British field gun at the beginning of the campaign. Unfortunately, however, having sacrificed firepower for mobility, British crews soon found themselves outgunned by the French, who fielded both 8- and 12-pounders. Significantly more powerful than the 6-pounder and lighter than the 12-pounders, the 9-pounder thus presented a logical compromise and was soon reintroduced into the British artillery train. To compensate for the 9-pounders’ weight, their horse teams were increased from the normal six horses to eight. The 9-pounders went on to render such outstanding service that Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), ordered that the majority of his horse artillery and later his field batteries be issued large numbers of the guns. Prior to the duke’s decision, the British Royal Horse Artillery went through a number of ordnance types in search of the ideal combination of mobility and firepower. As originally organized in 1793, each troop fielded two light 12-pounder guns, two 6-pounder guns, and two light 5.5-inch howitzers. Having proved too heavy, the 12- pounder was dropped by the end of the decade, and from about 1800 troops were issued five 6-pounder guns and one light 5.5-inch howitzer. Wellington’s reform then altered the mix to five 9-pounder guns and one 5.5-inch howitzer.

Masters of the Skies

Units and Organization of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in January 1944.

By the beginning of May, the US General Ira Eaker, commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Force, (MAAF), could call on no fewer than 3,960 operational aircraft in Italy alone, a formidable air force. In sharp contrast, his counterpart, Feldmarschall Wolfram von Richtofen, had just a little over three hundred. How the tables had turned. In the first two years of the war in the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe, along with their Italian partners, the Regia Aeronautica, had all too often ruled the skies. Their fighter planes, especially, had frequently overwhelmed the tired and battered Hurricanes and Kittyhawks of the RAF. Since then, however, better aircraft, increased production, and the arrival of the Americans in the theatre had coincided with lessening German production and shortages of fuel. All aspects of the German war machine were now being hugely stretched and the Luftwaffe were among the hardest hit. Those aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground by the Allied air forces were no longer being replaced in kind.

So it was that every time Leutnant Willi Holtfreter took to the skies, he invariably found himself surrounded by hordes of Allied fighters. Rather as the beleaguered RAF pilots had discovered two years before over Malta, Willi found that instead of actually shooting down any enemy planes, he was doing well just to get back to base safely.

Just turned twenty-one, Willi was from the village of Abtshagen, near Stralsund on the Baltic coast. Before the war, the village had been dominated by the timber works, renowned for its manufacture of parquet flooring, and Willi’s father was a foreman there. The third child of a family of two boys and two girls, he had a sheltered but happy upbringing. Like most children, he left school at fourteen and immediately went to work at the timber factory as an apprentice. But while he was quite content with this line of work, he developed a passion for aircraft. Not far from his home was an airfield and he and his friends would often watch planes there. Then, with the Hitler Youth, he learned to fly gliders. ‘It was incredible that you could do this for free,’ he says. ‘To have that opportunity was very exciting.’

At the outbreak of war he was studying woodwork technology in Dresden, but returned home to register for the Luftwaffe before he was due to be conscripted into the army. ‘You had to volunteer to fly,’ he explains. ‘And I was happy to do so. Like most people, I wanted to do my bit for the Fatherland.’ On registering he stated his desire to become a fighter pilot, but as with the RAF or US Army Air Force, whether a potential pilot ended up flying single- or multiple-engine aircraft tended to be decided on as flying training progressed. As it turned out, however, he was indeed singled out to fly fighters, and after more than a year of ‘pretty thorough’ training, he was posted to the Fighter Reserve in France in November 1943, before being sent to join the celebrated fighter group, JG 53, in Italy at the end of March.

Jagdgeschwader 53 was one of the oldest Luftwaffe fighter groups. Known as the ‘Pik As’ – the Ace of Spades – the group had become one of the top-scoring fighter units, having served in France, over Britain, in Russia, North Africa and over Malta. Like all German fighter groups, it was divided into gruppen – or wings, and was, by the spring of 1944, split up, with just III Gruppe left in southern Italy. By the beginning of May they had just over thirty single-engine Messerschmitt 109s left.

One of these had been lost by Willi on 1 May. Flying over the Cassino front, he and his three other colleagues had soon been pounced on by hordes of Spitfires. Badly hit, he had been forced to bail out for the second time in eight days. He was not alone. Since the beginning of March, III/JG 53 had lost no less than thirty-eight aircraft, destroyed either in the air or on the ground.

But with such a dearth of resources, all the Luftwaffe in Italy could do was send up men like Willi Holtfreter on a fool’s errand in the vain hope that they might achieve something, however slight.

This was not the case for the Allies, however, who spent much time and soul-searching trying to master the opportunities offered by air power. Mediterranean Allied Air Forces was now a vast behemoth of an organisation, with British and Commonwealth units operating hand-in-hand with American. By May 1944, it was the biggest air force the world had ever seen, with more than 12,500 aircraft throughout the Mediterranean theatre. To ease potential clashes of nationality, the system of commander and deputy commander that had been implemented by the Allies in all theatres extended to the air forces too. Thus the American, General Eaker, was commander of MAAF, with Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, British, as his deputy. Defining these roles, however, was no easy matter, because in the case of Slessor, his responsibilities extended beyond those of MAAF, since he was also Commander-in-Chief, Royal Air Force Mediterranean and Middle East, and therefore in charge of subordinate commands in Egypt, East Africa, the Levant, Iraq and Persia, which meant that west of Greece he was responsible, through Eaker, to the Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean, and east of Greece to the British Chiefs of Staff only.

It was an odd and potentially fraught set-up but happily for the Allies it caused few difficulties. ‘It worked all right,’ wrote Slessor, ‘because I had in Ira Eaker an Allied Commander-in-Chief who was not only an old friend but a great airman and a splendid chap who stood on no dignities, trusted me to serve him loyally in the sphere where he was responsible and left me to get on with it – and gave me all the help he could – where he was not permitted by his directive from Washington to have a direct interest.’ Eaker was every bit as warm in his praise of Slessor. ‘Nothing could have pleased me more,’ he told Charles Portal, the British Chief of the Air Staff on hearing of Slessor’s appointment in January. ‘I also wish to assure you that without question he and I will work together in perfect harmony.’

That these two men were able to operate so well together was enormously fortunate because both were experienced and highly able commanders, whose close partnership was much needed in Italy – a theatre where air power was able to give the Allies an essential and decisive edge. Although both had started their careers as fighter pilots – Slessor had made the first ever aerial attack on a Zeppelin during the First World War – more recently their backgrounds had been with bombers. Eaker had commanded the US Eighth Air Force in Britain, overseeing the daylight strategic bombing of Germany, until getting the top job in the Mediterranean. Slessor, on the other hand, had commanded 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command, in England, and had then taken charge of Coastal Command where he had played no small part in the destruction of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic.

Although both men had been hoping to play major parts in the upcoming invasion of France, they recognised that a considerable challenge faced them in Italy. With such an enormous force, spread over such a wide area, theirs was a massive responsibility. The two biggest components were the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force – MASAF – and the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force – or MATAF. The former consisted of one group of RAF heavy four-engine bombers and the US Fifteenth Air Force, predominantly made up of heavy long-range bombers but also a fighter component largely used for escorting the bombers. Their task was to continue the strategic bombing campaign both within and outside Italy. In contrast, MATAF’s role was more directly to support the ground forces. This consisted of the US 57th Bombardment Wing of twin-engine bombers; of the US 12th Tactical Air Command; and of the Desert Air Force, the battle-hardened force that had fought throughout the North African campaign, and which was a polyglot mixture of RAF, South African Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, and Polish bomber and fighter wings. In addition were the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force, the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing, and the US 51st Troop Carrier Wing. The guiding principle was to have joint operational staffs but separate administrative staffs. In other words, at MAAF headquarters, in matters of operations, signals and intelligence, the staffs were mixed, but otherwise American and British forces were left to get on with their tasks on their own. For example, the 12th Tactical Air Command was a purely US Army Air Force show, while the Desert Air Force remained entirely in the hands of the RAF.

In 1944, air power was in many ways still in its infancy and, despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, the Allies were still feeling their way with regard to its use, both in terms of its potential as a means of long-range strategic bombing, and in the way it could support troops on the ground.

Fortunately, however, there were not only extremely experienced and capable men at the top, but also a wealth of young, dynamic, and operationally seasoned men at both squadron and wing levels of command. This was especially true of the Desert Air Force, whose headquarters and flying units were liberally sprinkled with men who had been combat flying almost since the beginning of the war.

One of these men was Wing Commander Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas who, despite being only twenty-three, had seen action over Dunkirk back in May 1940, and then had subsequently flown throughout the Battle of Britain. So, too, had his adored older brother, John, a young man who had seemed destined for great things. He had been killed in October 1940, having shot down and killed the great German ace, Helmut Wick. It had thus been left to Cocky to fly the family colours, and it seemed the gods had decided to shine on him. By the age of twenty, he was commanding 56 Squadron at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, before being given the task of forming the first Typhoon fighter-bomber wing. He had then been posted to Tunisia in January 1943 to lead 324 Wing, which included five squadrons of Spitfire; and when still aged only twenty-two, had led the wing to Sicily, and then to the Salerno beachhead, before finally, in January 1944, joining the Desert Air Force Staff.

Standing well over six foot, with a mass of blond hair and a somewhat goofy expression, he cut an unlikely and gangly picture as a fighter pilot, yet he had repeatedly risen to every challenge. Working directly for Air Vice-Marshal William Dickson, the CO of the Desert Air Force, Cocky acted as his eyes and ears in all the fighter and fighter-bomber wings. Young, experienced men like Cocky were also there to help bring new ideas and innovations into the operations of the Desert Air Force (DAF) and to create an atmosphere where opportunities for improvement were always encouraged.

Great steps had already been made in recent times, especially in the North African campaign with the development of army – air co-operation. This meant positioning air force and army headquarters next to each other, respective commanders working closely together, and using an entire air force – known as a tactical air force – in direct support of the army.

However, with almost no aerial opposition whatsoever over Italy, this level of co-operation had recently been taken a step further with the development of what was known as the ‘Cab-Rank’ and ‘Rover David’ systems, enabling the air forces to reduce the time it took to respond to a request by the army for air support. These had been the brainchild of another young fighter commander, a South African, Group Captain David Heysham. The systems were simple. On the ground, an RAF officer would act as the controller, directing aircraft on to a target using a VHF radio transmitter. Assisting him with a clear picture of the situation on the ground and helping to establish the target would be an officer of the Army Air Staff. These ‘Rover Davids’ would drive around a given area of the front in an armoured car, or truck and jeep, in what was termed a Mobile Observation Room Unit. Meanwhile, up above would be six or more bomb-laden fighter aircraft circling the same pre-arranged area, gridded maps and aerial photographs stuffed down their flying boots, waiting to be directed onto a target by the Rover David. This was the Cab Rank, and it enabled pilots to bomb and strafe with machine-gun and cannon fire moving or static targets in a matter of minutes after being detected. ‘This “Rover” technique was tremendously successful,‘noted Cocky Dundas. ‘It not only achieved very much more effective tangible results than the old system, when all targets had to be selected before the aircraft left the ground; it was also a wonderful thing for the morale of the soldiers fighting on the ground.’

On the broader, more strategic view of how air power should be employed, there remained, however, notable differences of opinion, especially with regard to the campaign in Italy. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, previously C-in-C Mediterranean Air Command before it evolved into MAAF, had been a proponent of his scientific adviser, Professor Solly Zuckerman, who believed that the best way to stop enemy rail movement was by destroying marshalling yards and the rolling stock based at big railway centres. But a new theory had more recently developed, known as ‘interdiction’ – which meant blowing up bridges, blocking tunnels and cutting tracks, and keeping them cut.

On the face of it, Slessor was a supporter of Zuckerman’s views because he had written as much in a book on the subject of air power that had been published in 1936. However, it also occurred to him that it wasn’t really a question of favouring one view over the other, or following a rigid operational doctrine. Following on from further discussions with Eaker, Slessor drew up a new bombing directive, in which the heavy bombers of MASAF would concentrate on bombing marshalling yards, while the medium bombers and fighter-bombers would make every effort to fulfil the interdiction policy. Where Slessor now took exception was to the idea of using air power to bombard the enemy’s defensive positions. ‘It was perhaps memories of the old Western Front many years before,’ he wrote, ‘where bombardments really were bombardments, going on for days and weeks on end and blasting almost every identifiable feature of the landscape out of recognition that led me to doubt whether a concentrated air bombardment, however heavy, would prove to be the key to unlock a strongly prepared position in the face of resolute and skilful resistance.’

The bombing of Monte Cassino and Cassino town underlined this belief. The two attacks, on the monastery in February and on the town in March, had certainly pulverised the targets but had hardly helped the Allied troops on the ground. Rather, the Germans had found defending amongst the rubble easier than when the buildings had still been standing. The failure of these attacks did, however, enable Eaker and Slessor instead to launch Operation STRANGLE on 19 March. This was a direct preparation for the DIADEM offensive, but rather than trying to obliterate the Gustav Line, its object was to destroy German supply lines and thus throttle them where they stood.

While the medium bombers and fighter-bombers concentrated on this ‘simultaneous interdiction’ policy, the heavy bombers of MASAF pounded marshalling yards in northern Italy, but also, throughout April, attacked targets in the Balkans with particular ferocity, the aim being to continue their strategic bombing work, interrupting the flow of oil and other materiel into all parts of the Reich. By taking the strategic bombing campaign into Romania and other areas of Eastern Europe as well as enemy-controlled ports around the Eastern Mediterranean, the Allies hoped to debilitate the German war effort in general, which included that in Italy.

Amongst those taking part in Operation STRANGLE were the pilots of the single-engine aircraft of the US 27th Fighter-Bomber Group. Operating from airfields around Caserta, the men of the 27th FBG were now highly experienced in the art of dropping bombs on specific targets, having been one of the first US outfits to be designated specifically in the role of fighter-bombers.

Lieutenant Charles Dills flew his forty-sixth combat mission the day Operation STRANGLE was launched, and in the weeks that followed was flying almost daily – sometimes twice daily – hitting German columns of vehicles, enemy supply dumps, railway lines, railway viaducts and bridges. He and his colleagues might not have had to worry too much about the likes of Willi Holtfreter, but low-level combat flying was extremely hazardous. There was always plenty of small-arms fire and flakj to contend with. And at such low heights there was little chance of bailing out. If a plane came down, then more often than not, the pilot came down too, and very few survived.

It had taken a while for Charles to realise this. ‘To begin with it was all kind of a lark and I didn’t really think of the dangers,’ he admits. But back in early February, Charles had been flying as wingman to his flight leader. They were flying at around 300 mph, just 200 feet above the ground looking for anything to strafe. Charles had been looking around – behind him and either side, and then suddenly had turned back and seen his flight leader in a steep dive. A second later he had exploded on the ground. ‘It was a shock,’ admits Charles. ‘I just couldn’t believe it.’ In a state of numbed confusion, he had circled over several times, calling for him on his radio, but then there had been flak all around him and he had managed to pull himself together and head home. Later, it had been concluded that the flight leader had been hit in the head by a freak rifle shot. ‘That’s when you realise this is a pretty serious business,’ says Charles, ‘and you start getting a bit mad and you realise you’re only going to survive if there’s nothing else alive to shoot at you.’

From La Moure, in north Dakota, Charles had had, like many of those growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, a tough childhood. He was the third of four children, two girls and two boys, although his younger brother had tragically died at birth. Despite this, the 1920s were his family’s ‘happy time’, with father and uncle running a successful drugstore business and the family living comfortably. The tide would soon change, however. In 1930, his father died of cancer; the business had to be sold and Charles and his mother and sisters moved to Fargo. For the next few years, with America in the throes of the Depression, she did her best to keep the family by running a small lingerie business, but then she also contracted cancer and died. An orphan at fourteen, Charles was sent to live with his uncle, who looked after him and ensured he went to good schools. It paid off because after leaving high school, he went to North Dakota Agricultural College.

Charles had, however, always had a passion for aircraft, and in his second year at college, in 1941, he was given the chance to learn to fly. This was thanks to Roosevelt’s Civilian Training Program, a scheme designed to speed up the rate at which pilots could be prepared for war, and Charles enrolled even though he was against America joining the war. By January 1942, he had his civil pilot’s licence; six months later he had joined the US Army Air Force. A little over a year later, he was on his way to Italy.

Charles had joined the 27th Fighter-Bomber Group the previous November and since then had become one of the most experienced pilots in his squadron, although he was yet to lead a mission himself. ‘I was relatively small,’ he says, ‘and I looked like I was perhaps nineteen. I always looked younger than my real age. The senior guys in the squadron always used to think of me as a bit of a kid brother.’

His part in Operation STRANGLE came to an end on 24 April. Loaded with fuel and armed with six 20lb fragmentation bombs and a 500-pounder strapped underneath, he taxied his P-40 Kittyhawk over to the runway as normal. But there was a strong crosswind and as he sped down the runway a heavy gust blew him sideways towards the left of the runway where a trench had been dug. Giving the engine some emergency boost he felt the undercarriage lift off the ground, but unfortunately his tail wheel had snagged into the ditch as the front of his plane lifted into the air – and this took away just enough speed to prevent him from climbing further. In a trice, his Kittyhawk began roll to the left. ‘It’s amazing how quickly you think in an emergency like this,’ says Charles. ‘I remember thinking, if my left wing-tip clears the ground, I’ll land on my back. If it doesn’t, I’ll cartwheel. Either of these seemed a sure death. So I pulled back the mixture control and killed the engine. The plane straightened up and slammed to the ground, wiping out the landing gear.’

It was nonetheless a heart-stopping moment, especially with seven live bombs strapped underneath. The aircraft tilted to the right, tearing off much of the wing as it dug into the ground. As the plane slewed heavily, the bombs fortunately rolled away from underneath him, but the pierced-steel plating runway bowed upwards with the force of the crash and slammed against the rear of his fuselage, knocking the tail ninety degrees from the cockpit. Incredibly, Charles walked away with nothing more than a scratched thumb, but his commanding officer felt the time had come to give him a break. The next day he was sent to the American rest camp on Capri for a week.

By that time, however, Eaker and Slessor had realised that Operation STRANGLE had not fulfilled its objective of making it impossible for the Germans to remain south of Rome. On paper the interdiction policy was sound, because the railway system in Italy was highly vulnerable to aerial attack, with its multitude of tunnels, bridges, viaducts and embankments. The limiting Italian terrain also meant the Germans were predominantly using only three main rail routes – the western, central and eastern – all running roughly north – south down the leg of the country.

Early results had been promising. By 4 April, Kesselring’s Army Group was receiving just 1,357 tons of supplies per day, rather than their minimum daily requirement of 2,261 tons. From 22 March, the eastern route was almost entirely impassable, while large parts of the central and western routes were also almost continuously blocked. By the end of April, the central route was cut in sixty-nine places, and by the end of the first week of May, 155 more had been added. When STRANGLE officially ended on the eve of the battle on 11 May, 22,500 tons of bombs had been dropped – more than during the entire London Blitz.

Yet despite this the Germans had not withdrawn. With the kind of efficiency and improvisation that prompted awe from the Allies, the Germans managed to repair large parts of track and numerous bridges, while also making good use of lesser roundabout routes and moving goods between trains across damaged parts of track. Overseeing this work was a ‘General with Special Responsibility for the Maintenance of Rail Communications in Italy’ newly appointed by Kesselring. German engineers provided the skills; the Organisation Todt, the German military labour force made up of mostly press-ganged Italians, provided the workers. It also helped that Kesselring had ensured that considerable stocks had been built up at the front during the winter, and that, with a stagnant front, he was using up little of his stocks of fuel and ammunition. As Slessor recognised, German troops seemed to be hardier than many of the Allies. ‘He doesn’t worry about ENSA shows or V cigarettes,’ he noted, ‘Coca-Cola or chewing gum, the masses of motor vehicles, or all the luxuries without which it is assumed that the modern British and American soldier cannot wage war.’ Germans, it appeared, could survive four or five days on the same tonnage the Allies consumed in a day. Furthermore, they had managed by moving greater volumes of traffic by road and by sea, using coast-hugging lighters at night, and taking what they could from the land. ‘The fact is,’ noted Slessor in a report written on 16 April 1944, ‘if you don’t care a damn about the civilian population and are prepared to use all the transportation resources to hand (and, incidentally, forced civilian labour) for purely military purposes,’ then only a small proportion of a transport potential needed to be used to achieve a minimum requirement.

These were important lessons and were duly noted – both in Italy and by those preparing for D-Day. Air power alone could not destroy the enemy in the field. Alexander, on the other hand, was delighted by the efforts of the air forces in the weeks before his offensive had been launched. ‘I never felt,’ he said, ‘that these air attacks would force the Germans to withdraw.’ Rather, he had hoped they would be able seriously to hamper German supply and reinforcement. In this aim, STRANGLE had been an unquestionable success.

Air power had played an integral part in the Allies’ success in both North Africa and Sicily. It would continue to do so in Italy – but it could never do the job of the men on the ground.

Castalla (1813)

The Battle of Castalla, 13 April 1813.

Following the success of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca and the temporary recovery of Madrid, the 1812 campaign in central Spain petered out after the failure to capture the castle of Burgos, and was followed by a difficult and costly retreat all the way back to the Portuguese border. However, the severe French losses in Russia had caused the recall of significant numbers of French troops from Spain during the spring, to face the advancing Russian and Prussian troops in central Europe. Wellington therefore saw great opportunities for the campaign of 1813, with the weakened French forces compelled to remain on the defensive. To aid his great surge forward, he looked to the British forces under the recently arrived Sir John Murray and the Spanish 2nd Army to cause a major diversion in eastern Spain, thus preventing Suchet from supporting the main French army’s efforts.

Sir John Murray is often viewed as a controversial choice for this command, largely on the basis of the harsh judgement of William Napier, the historian of the Peninsular War. He is highly critical regarding Murray’s lack of initiative in cutting off the retreat of Marshal Soult’s army from Oporto in 1809, when he commanded a brigade there. His leaving the peninsula soon after this, however, was not actually related; he simply refused to serve under William Carr Beresford, who had been created a Portuguese Marshal but was still junior to him in the British army. Indeed, Wellington, a harsh judge, who did not bear fools easily, commented on Murray’s wish to leave the army with the words ‘he will be missed’; clearly Wellington cannot have been unhappy with his performance.

During the winter of 1812 the British force still at Alicante on the east coast had grown, with reinforcements arriving from Sicily and Lisbon, and now amounted to 16,000 men, including Whittingham’s Spanish division. The Spanish 2nd Army had also been reorganised and now numbered some 20,000 men in four divisions, one of which, under Roche, was attached to Murray.

It is true that some of Murray’s troops were not of a particularly high quality, many being Italians or French, Swiss and Polish deserters. Indeed, in early February eighty-six men of the 2nd Italian Levy deserted en masse, taking their officer with them as a prisoner. Another serious difficulty was the procuring of draught animals to move stores and supplies. The troops had arrived without horses and it proved very difficult even to establish a supply train in eastern Spain, and this severely hampered any movements. Food was supplied regularly from Sicily and Algeria, but the troops needed to remain close to the coast to be able to access it, which placed a severe restriction on their manoeuvrability.

Suchet’s army retained three divisions around Xativa and had one brigade further forward at Alcoy; this Murray decided to encircle and destroy, but the attempt failed. Murray then put forward the idea of landing Roche’s division at Valencia, in the rear of the French army, and capturing it from the sea. Messages from Bentinck in Sicily, however, stating that he might be compelled to recall his Sicilian troops, ended any thoughts of such an operation – probably a good thing for all concerned.

All this inertia played into French hands and Suchet decided to strike whilst the allied divisions were still spread out and their actions uncoordinated. He attacked in two columns, successfully separating Murray from part of the Spanish army, which was forced to flee to the west, and driving Murray’s force back towards Castalla. Realising the danger, Murray immediately ordered his entire force to concentrate at Castalla, including Whittingham’s and Roche’s Spanish troops. Murray’s own troops then took up a position lining the crest of the hills to the south of the town of Biar, and centred around the hill with the castle of Castalla perched on its summit. Suchet made heavy weather of clearing the two battalions of British troops defending the Biar Pass, who then retired leisurely to the main position when the pass was no longer tenable. The delay meant that any attack by Suchet on the main allied position would now have to wait until the following day.

On 13 April 1813, in an action not unlike that at Bussaco, the French marched in solid columns up the slope of the hill, only to be met by the allied reserves advancing to line the crest at the vital moment and destroying the head of the French columns with a couple of devastating volleys, before following up with a determined bayonet charge. Whittingham’s Spanish also fought well and performed their part admirably; eventually Suchet realised the futility of continuing the attacks and took his troops back beyond the Biar Pass to avoid being trapped in front of it. Murray failed to move forward to take advantage of his victory and was generally criticised by the officers of his army for failing to do so.

Unaware of this action, Wellington penned a memorandum with his orders for the army of the east coast. His main priority was the assembly of a force of no fewer than 10,000 men, which was to be disembarked to besiege Tarragona. Such a move, Wellington judged, would force Suchet to pull back from Valencia and eventually, possibly, even from Catalonia entirely. Wellington indicated that Suchet might intervene and force the abandonment of the siege of Tarragona; in that case, Murray was to re-embark his troops and go to Valencia, and aid the Spanish in driving what remained of Suchet’s forces northwards. Wellington also warned Murray that on no account was he to allow any part of his force to be destroyed; this was unfortunate, as it undoubtedly made a naturally cautious general a very nervous one indeed.

Rear Admiral Hallowell had escorted the convoy of transports initially used to land the army at Alicante, and his squadron of three ships of the line and a few frigates still lay close at hand. Therefore, in line with his instructions, by 31 May Murray embarked 18,000 troops with a large siege battery and sailed for the Catalan coast.

On 2 June the fleet arrived off Cape Salou, 8 miles south of Tarragona. Here they met with the Spanish General Copons, who agreed to station a force of about 12,000 men of his 1st Army to the west of Tarragona in support. Murray immediately detached a brigade of troops commanded by Colonel Prevost under convoy to the Coll de Balaguer, where Fort San Felipe commanded the coastal road from Tortosa to Tarragona. After four days of bombardment, the fort surrendered when a lucky shot from two mortars sent ashore by HMS Stromboli ignited a magazine, causing an explosion.

Meanwhile the main force disembarked on 3 June and the investment of Tarragona was completed by that night. Having inspected the fortifications, Murray, with his chief engineer and artillery officers, all agreed that the only realistic line of attack was from the west. This was exactly as the French had concluded previously and by 5 June two initial batteries had been constructed. The French garrison numbered some 1,600 men under the command of General Antoine Bertoletti, who already held little hope of a successful outcome, with the western defences still not properly repaired since the French siege. General Murray was, however, actually the more nervous. He constantly fretted about a combined attack from Suchet in the south and Decaen from the north, which could overwhelm him. He also overestimated the strength of the city defences and the numbers of the defenders. He was severely criticised by his own officers for the handling of the siege, and they unanimously declared that an immediate assault on the southern defences would certainly succeed, but Murray refused to countenance such an attempt. His engineers also signally failed to drive the agenda, making contradictory analyses which further drained Murray’s confidence in the proceedings. Indeed, Murray wrote to Wellington that ‘I am much afraid we have undertaken more than we are able to perform.’

Hallowell and his sailors ignored such pessimism and energetically worked to land more siege guns and construct further batteries. By 10 June they had five batteries in operation and by the following morning there was a suitable breach in the walls of Fort Royal. Clinton’s troops were ordered to be prepared for an assault that very evening.

Murray then rode out to meet General Copons and heard from him that French forces numbering some 10,000 men were marching south from Barcelona, but that the Spanish forces had moved to intercept them. Returning to the siege, Murray then heard that Suchet was still some 30-odd miles away, on the other side of the Coll de Balaguer. Despite the fact that Suchet had no way of immediately threatening the siege operations, this news seems to have unnerved Murray to the point that he cancelled the planned assault and ordered the army to re-embark completely by dark on 12 June. He was confronted by a group of his senior officers, who argued that they should march to destroy the French column approaching from the north before continuing with the siege. But hearing on the 12th that this column was now only a few hours’ march from the city, Murray issued a series of both contradictory and deeply embarrassing orders effectively abandoning everything. In fact, the column had turned around and returned northward on learning that Pellew had landed his marines in their rear in the Bay of Rosas.

Hallowell refused to abandon all their stores so lightly and he delayed sailing until 13 June in order to bring on board all the supplies and horses, but eighteen cannon were spiked and abandoned in the batteries.

Murray had further decided that the force at the Coll de Balaguer was also to be withdrawn and the Spanish forces were effectively abandoned to escape as best they could. However, news that Suchet was actually moving southwards because of reports of Spanish advances towards Valencia, and that one French brigade had been left in an isolated position and might be cut off, seems to have renewed Murray’s belief and he promptly ordered the army to disembark again!

The intended attack came to nothing and the army simply sat and waited for Murray to make any decision at all. Instead, he ordered a council of war on 17 June, which agreed that the only realistic option now was to re-embark, which was accomplished by the 19th. Bentinck had finally arrived from Sicily on 18 June and promptly superseded Murray, but he agreed with the decision to abandon the campaign, and ordered the fort at the Coll de Balaguer to be blown up. The army sailed back to Alicante in ignominy.

Even the historian Fortescue, his harshest critic, recognises that the position Murray found himself in may well have made re-embarkation essential, but the unnecessary haste and confusion engendered was unfounded, for there was certainly time to have recovered all the siege artillery. It was not the decision that is most criticised, but the unseemly rush and the embarrassing losses incurred because of it.

The final chapter of this shambolic and deeply embarrassing campaign led to Sir John Murray having to face a court-martial in January 1815; unbelievably, he was acquitted of all charges, but found guilty of an error of judgement in abandoning his guns. It did not, however, negatively affect his future career one jot!