Coastal Command Bombers Against the German Navy IV

“Operation Cerberus – The Channel Dash” by Philip E. West – Reproduced from SWA Fine Art Publishers. Here we see the Swordfish flown by Sub. Lt. Kingsmill and Sub. Lt. Samples with PO Bunce in the rear, fighting for their lives with his machine gun.

The Beauforts’ ranks were joined on 12 February 1942 by the crews of naval Swordfish which on that day attacked the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen and her consorts in the English Channel after they had broken out of Brest heading for the safety of their home bases. None of the bomber squadrons could attack before 1500 hours so the main hope was the slender force of Beaufort torpedo-bombers on 42, 86 and 217 Squadrons and the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish of 815 Squadron commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde. At 1130 hours very few of these aircraft were within range of the German ships. 86 and part of 217 were at St. Eval, in Cornwall; the remainder of 217 was at Thorney Island, near Portsmouth; and 42 was just coming in to land at Coltishall, the fighter airfield near Norwich, after flying down from Leuchars, having been delayed by snow on airfields. Only the six Swordfish at Manston and the seven Beauforts at Thorney Island were in a position to attack within the next two hours. As the Swordfish attacked the first to fall was Esmonde, a victim of the enemy fighters. The two remaining aircraft of his section survived the fighter attacks and pressed on into the storm of flak now coming up from the vessels. Repeatedly hit and with their crews wounded, the two Swordfish still headed for one of the two big ships visible through the clouds of mist and smoke. Both crews managed to launch torpedoes before their aircraft, riddled with bullets, struck the sea. Five of the six men were afterwards rescued from the sea. From the second section of Swordfish, which disappeared from view after crossing the destroyer screen, there were no survivors. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Seven Beauforts at Thorney Island were available at short notice when the order to attack was received. Two were armed with bombs, which had to be changed to torpedoes and a third developed a technical fault. Only four of the Beauforts thus took off at 1325 and when they did so they were twenty minutes late on planned rendezvous with their fighter cover at Manston. To make up for this delay both sets of aircraft were ordered while in the air to proceed independently to the targets but because of radio frequency problems the torpedobombers did not receive the message. Eventually the front section of two Beauforts set off for the French coast, found nothing and returned to Manston, where they discovered for the first time the nature of their target. Meanwhile the two rear Beauforts, which had lost touch with their leaders, had already landed at Manston, learned their target and the latest position of the ships and set off towards the Belgian coast. At 1540, about the same time as navy destroyers from the Thames estuary were making an extremely brave but ineffective attack, the two pilots sighted a large warship which they took to be the Prinz Eugen. Despite intense flak they turned in and launched their torpedoes from a thousand yards range but to no avail.

Aircraft of Bomber Command loaded up with semi-armour-piercing bombs, which had to be dropped from at least 7,000 feet, were ready to attack. Cloud was 8/10ths-10/l0ths, with base at 700 feet. Unless cloud-gaps occurred at precisely the right place and moment, the bomb-aimers would be faced with an impossible task. But the alternative armament, the general-purpose bomb, which could be dropped effectively from lower heights, would certainly not penetrate decks plated with several inches of steel. However, GP bombs could be used to damage the superstructure of the vessels and distract the attention of their crews from the torpedo-bombers. The first wave of 73 bombers began to take off at 1420. Most of them managed to reach the target area, individually or in pairs, between 1455 and 1558, but in the thick low clouds and intermittent rainstorms only ten crews saw the German ships long enough to release their bombs. The next wave, of 134 aircraft, began to take off at 1437 and arrived in the target area between 1600 and 1706. Twenty of these are known to have delivered attacks. A third and final wave of thirty-five aircraft took off at about 1615 and was over the target from 1750 to 1815. Nine managed to attack. All told, 242 aircraft of Bomber Command attempted to find the enemy during the afternoon; and of those that returned, only 39 succeeded in bombing. Fifteen aircraft were lost, mostly from flak and flying into the sea and twenty damaged. No hits were scored on the vessels.

While these attacks were in progress, the next group of torpedo-bombers was being launched against the enemy. 42 Squadron arrived at Coltishall to find no facilities for torpedo aircraft but nine of the Beauforts had flown from Leuchars with torpedoes on and these took off at 1425. The remaining five, having no torpedoes, remained on the ground. On leaving Coltishall the nine Beauforts headed south to Manston to link up with fighters and some Hudsons intended for diversionary bombing. They were then to follow the Hudsons out to sea. But when the Beauforts arrived over the airfield they were unable to form up with the other aircraft. After orbiting Manston for over half an hour, the Beaufort commander finally decided to set a course based on information of the enemy’s position given him before he had left Coltishall. As he turned out to sea with his squadron, six of the Hudsons followed him. The remaining five continued to circle until almost 1600 before withdrawing to Bircham Newton. In thick cloud and heavy rain the nine Beauforts and six Hudsons now pressed on towards the Dutch coast. The two formations quickly lost touch, but after an ASV contact the Hudsons sighted the enemy and attacked through heavy flak. Two of the Hudsons were shot down and no damage was done to the ships. A few minutes later six of the nine Beauforts, flying just above sea-level, also came across the main German force – the other three had already released their torpedoes against what were possibly Royal Navy destroyers. Most of the torpedoes were seen to be running well but none found its mark.

Nine Hampden crews on 455 Squadron RAAF, the second Australian squadron formed in Britain, led by Wing Commander G. M. Lindeman DFC had to go down to 800 feet to drop their bombs and they encountered intense and accurate AA fire. Squadron Leader W. H. Cliff, commanding 42 Squadron, who led the formation, had on either side of him a Beaufort captained by an Australian – Pilot Officer E. Birchley on his left and Pilot Officer R. B. Archer on his right. Shells and bullets from the destroyers forming a protective screen around the Scharnhorst flew all round them. Archer saw heavy shells hitting the wave-tops and light tracer whizzing over his aircraft. His Beaufort was hit by the Scharnhorst’s guns and his rear gunner was wounded. The gunner was receiving first aid from the navigator and wireless operator when an enemy aircraft appeared. When the gunner re-entered his turret, Archer ordered him out and his place was taken by the navigator, Sergeant D. N. Keeling RNZAF. Birchley, who had turned away in the opposite direction from Archer after dropping his torpedo, put his head out of the open window to try and see through the mist. Tracer bullets passed close to him. Both Australians thought they would never get out of the flak. Birchley flew within 100 yards of the Scharnhorst and his gunner had a glorious moment when he turned his machine guns on the deck. Archer was subsequently awarded the DFC.

By this time the two Beauforts on 217 Squadron which had failed to find the ships earlier in the afternoon had set off again from Manston. Operating independently both picked up the Scharnhorst off the Dutch coast with the aid of their ASV. But their attacks, delivered at 1710 and 1800, were as unsuccessful as all the rest.

One last chance now remained. There were still the Beauforts of 86 and 217 Squadrons at St. Eval. These had been hastily ordered to Thorney Island, which they reached at 1430. There, after adjusting torpedoes and refuelling, they took off to link up with fighters over Coltishall. The Beauforts reached Coltishall at 1700, but found no sign of the escort they were expecting. They at once headed out to sea and at 1805, in the growing dusk, with visibility less than 1,000 yards and cloud base down to 600 feet they came across four enemy mine-sweepers. One pilot caught sight of what he took to be a big ship, but by then his aircraft was so damaged that he was unable to release his torpedo. Soon darkness was upon them and at 1830 the Beauforts abandoned their search and set course back for Coltishall. Two of their number, victims of flak or the dangerous flying conditions, failed to return.

Australia’s one-legged Beaufighter pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bruce Rose DFC was probably the last airman to see the Scharnhorst that day. Flying through intense flak from the destroyer screen, he completely circled the cruiser before leaving for base. It was almost dark when he left. Single aircraft of Coastal Command which had been trying to shadow the German formation since about 1600 obtained two sightings before dark and two or three ASV contacts afterwards – the last of them, against the Scharnhorst, as late as 0155 on 13 February. Their reports correctly indicated that the German force had split up, but were too late to be of any value. As a final effort, twelve Hampdens and nine Manchesters were sent to lay mines in the Elbe estuary during the night. Only eight aircraft laid their mines and none of these did any damage. In the course of the evening, mines laid by 5 Group Hampdens or Manchesters in the Frisian Islands during recent nights, caused some damage when the Scharnhorst hit two mines and Gneisenau, one. The Gneisenau managed to maintain company with the Prinz Eugen and reached the mouth of the Elbe at 0700 on 13 February. The Scharnhorst was more seriously damaged. With speed reduced to twelve knots and shipping a thousand tons of water, she nevertheless managed to limp into Wilhelmshaven. The news of the escape of the German vessels was greeted in England with widespread dismay and indignation. ‘Vice-Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed,’ wrote The Times: ‘Nothing more mortifying to the pride of sea-power in Home Waters has happened since the 17th century.’

Both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were located in Kiel later. The Gneisenau received additional damage between 25 February and 28 February, during bombing raids on the dockyards at Kiel and was never in action again. The Navy got the Scharnhorst in the end and she was sunk on Boxing Day, 1943, off Norway. The Prinz Eugen reached Germany safely, but later, when on her way to Trondheim, was attacked off Kristiansund by HM Submarine Trident and severely damaged. The cruiser tried to get away again early on the morning of 18 May 1942, this time from Trondheim. Twelve Coastal Command Beauforts found and attacked her. Again Australian flyers helped to pound the 10,000-ton cruiser. It was a first experience of enemy fire for at least two of them – Pilot Officer E. Mc. McKern, a Beaufort pilot and his observer, Gordon L. Duffield. They were in the first wave. Shells from the anti-aircraft guns were whistling around them as they went in. Some of them burst over the aircraft’s nose and above the starboard wing, but they kept flying on. Another shell burst beneath the aircraft and shot it upwards. A Me 109 tried to stop it, but McKern’s RAF gunner poured a stream of bullets into its engine and it turned away, dropping down towards the sea. At 1,000 yards the Beaufort dropped its torpedo. Then it went straight on across the bows of the Prinz Eugen at about sixty feet and 600 yards in front of her. The destroyer ahead fired determinedly at the Beaufort as it came on, but it escaped damage and the crew got back in the last light to claim a ‘possible’ hit. Duffield brought back the only photograph which showed clearly the cruiser and her four protecting destroyers. Archer and Birchley, the Australians who had participated in the Channel attack, took part, but both were shot down. Archer was killed, Birchley taken prisoner.

On the night of 11/12 February the usual patrols over Brest were flown from dusk to dawn. A reconnaissance on the previous afternoon had revealed both battle-cruisers berthed at the torpedo-boat station, protected by anti-torpedo booms and the Prinz Eugen at the coaling wharf. Six destroyers were also in the harbour. Sometime during the night, which was pitch-black with no moon, they slipped out. On the morning of the 12th the weather was still thick and nothing was seen. A report received by Headquarters, Coastal Command, at 11.28 stated that a large enemy naval force, including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had been sighted between Berck and Le Touquet. A Beaufort, a Whitley and two Beaufighters were at once ordered off to shadow this force, while Hudsons and Beauforts, provided with fighter escort, endeavoured to deliver bombing attacks in the early hours of the afternoon. The weather was so thick that they achieved no result and it proved very difficult for the Hudsons and Beauforts to maintain contact with the fighter escort. Beauforts carrying torpedoes delivered attacks off Holland, which were possibly more successful. ‘One Squadron did so only at its second attempt. At the first the enemy was not found. At least three torpedoes were observed to be running strongly towards the targets and one crew reported that they had seen an enemy warship listing badly with smoke pouring from her bows. The Beauforts were subjected to very fierce anti-aircraft fire and to severe fighter opposition.

Most of them found the enemy by the simple process of running into heavy flak fired by unseen ships. One made three attempts to attack, but was by that time so badly damaged that its torpedo could not be released. ‘I saw my leader waggle his wing,’ runs the account of one pilot. ‘That meant that he had seen the ships … The Prinz Eugen was steaming along very slowly at the head of a tremendous line of ships. Destroyers were trying to lay a smoke-screen round her … At that moment I saw two Me 109s fly across in front of me… They circled to get on our tail and the Prinz Eugen was in my sights.’ He dropped his torpedo and then the Beaufort became involved in a heavy fight with the Messerschmitts. One of them was shot down and the other made off. ‘My Beaufort was hit in twelve places … A bullet had gone through a propeller and a cannon shell had ploughed a furrow in the tail-plane. The action was fought very near to Overflakee Island off the Dutch coast. We thought the name appropriate in the circumstances.’

In this confused and unsatisfactory action the palm for courage, cold and unshaken, has rightly been awarded to the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm, which, operating from one of the South coast bases of Coastal Command, delivered their attacks about noon. They came in low in two flights of three in the face of tremendous and accurate anti-aircraft fire, with swarms of enemy fighters about them and all discharged their torpedoes. They were all shot down and of the eighteen members of their crews only five survived.

On the afternoon of 23 February 1942 six Beauforts on 42 Squadron left Sumburgh for a sweep against enemy shipping. They reached the Norwegian coast, but saw no vessels and on the return journey the aircraft became separated. Suddenly Beaufort M, piloted by Squadron Leader W. H. Cliff, went into an uncontrollable dive and hit the sea. Cliff and his crew, who only a fortnight before had led 42 Squadron’s attack on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, thought that their last moment had come; but by some miracle all survived the impact and scrambled out, or were thrown clear, as the aircraft went down. Fortunately one of them was able to secure the dinghy and this all four men eventually succeeded in boarding. Very soon they were joined by one of the two pigeons carried in the aircraft. They at once captured this welcome arrival, attached to its leg a note of the approximate position of the crash and launched the bird into the air. But the creature was wet and darkness was already coming on. After performing a few perfunctory circles the pigeon merely alighted back to the dinghy; and no amount of cajoling, or beating about the head, could persuade it to resume its flight. Its fixed intention was obviously to make a fifth passenger. In disgust the crew therefore abandoned their attempts to drive it off and huddled together against the rigours of the February night.

By this time the search had begun. The last known position of the aircraft was 150 miles east of Aberdeen and throughout the night a Catalina sought in vain for the distressed crew. At first light other aircraft went out from Leuchars, Dyce and Arbroath, but several hours’ search yielded no sign of the missing men. Meanwhile a pigeon had arrived back at base-not the obstinate creature of the previous evening, but its companion from the same basket. Unknown to the Beaufort crew, ‘Winkie’ – as the unfortunate bird was called – had made his escape from the aircraft. He of course carried no message; but this did not defeat the acute intelligences at the station. Since he could not have flown in the dark, he must obviously have found somewhere to rest; and an examination of his feathers revealed unmistakable traces of oil. Someone hazarded the guess that he had spent the night on a tanker; enquiry revealed that such a vessel had been passing off the North East Coast; and from knowledge of its course and a calculation of the time taken by the pigeon to reach base, the area of search was readjusted to fifty miles nearer shore. The next aircraft sent out, a Hudson on 320 Squadron, flew almost straight to the spot where the dinghy lay tossing on the waves. The crew wirelessed a message to base and then dropped a Thornaby Bag. Three hours later a high-speed launch arrived and the sufferings of the four bruised and frost-bitten airmen were over.

The next occasion on which the Prinz Eugen was attacked by Coastal Command was on 17 May 1942 when she was found off the Southern tip of Norway seaming southward. She was on her way to a German port for repairs made necessary because of the damage inflicted on her by HM Submarine Trident. The attack was carried out by Hudsons and torpedo-carrying Beauforts escorted by Beaufighters and Blenheims. It was pressed home with the greatest determination in the teeth of heavy anti-aircraft and fighter opposition. The Beaufighters, sweeping ahead, raked the decks of the German vessels with cannon and machine-gun fire while the Hudsons and the torpedo bombers went in to the attack. In this action the rear gunner of one of the Beauforts beat off a series of attacks by enemy fighters lasting 35 minutes, though one of his guns had jammed and he himself had been wounded in the face, hands, legs and head. Five enemy fighters were claimed shot down and nine RAF aircraft failed to return. Fighter protection was not always possible; the waters in which targets were to be found were too far off. Blenheims, Beauforts and Hudsons still had to go out into the murk of a foggy day alone and unescorted to strike at such targets, themselves the target for German fighters. Sometimes a ‘strike’ was a running engagement against opposition that would increase as the minutes and the hours went by.

Aircraft of Coastal Command, between 3 September 1939 and 30 September 1942 escorted 4,947 merchant convoys, attacked 587 U-boats and, if offensive operations against enemy shipping are included, flew 55 million miles.

Hampden AN149/X on 455 Squadron RAAF captained by Flight Sergeant J. S. Freeth took part in a hand in the submarine war on 30 April 1943 when U-227 suddenly appeared crossing the Hampden’s course, 110 miles north of the Faroes. The boat, which was commanded by 25-year old Korvettenkapitän Jürgen Kuntze, was on its first war cruise, having left Kiel on 24 April for the North Atlantic. Freeth dived immediately and laid a stick of depth charges alongside the conning tower. U-227’s stern rose ten feet out of the water and sank again. The Australians made another attack and the U-boat split into two parts with oil gushing from its sides. The German crew continued firing until the U-boat slithered under, but the Hampden, although hit; suffered no casualties. Afterwards the Australians counted thirty or forty heads bobbing in the water. One sailor shook his fist at the Hampden as it flew off to notify the Air Sea Rescue organization of the location. U-227 was lost with all 49 hands.

455 Squadron RAAF was converted from Hampden bombers to Hampden torpedo bombers in July 1942 and for a time a detachment operated from Russia. The presence of the Hampdens over the North Sea forced the enemy to provide both escort vessels and air cover for their convoys. Torpedo-bombers had to come down so low and keep such a straight course before they could launch their torpedo that sometimes they almost collided with their targets before they could pull up and away. It called for special training and outstanding skill and judgment in assessing the speed and direction of a moving ship and in launching the torpedo. Unless a torpedo was launched at the correct angle, it would dive below the surface and then come up again and do another dive, behaving just like a porpoise, instead of speeding straight to its target at the correct depth below the surface. At first the torpedo was loaded in a line parallel with the fuselage of the aircraft and the pilot had to approach the surface of the sea at the exact angle at which the torpedo should enter. Then the torpedo mounted the torpedo under the aircraft at an angle which enabled it to be correctly launched when the aircraft was flying parallel with the surface, or on an even keel!

It was the misfortune of war which led to Pilot Officer John Davidson, a young New Zealander, receiving a direct hit from a flak ship while he was seeking to bomb German E-boats off the Danish coast. Badly wounded in the thigh and leg, he hung on despite his injuries and flew his aircraft for 300 miles over the sea to his base. The aircraft itself was considerably damaged and when it arrived over the aerodrome the undercarriage was seen to be out of order. The bombs were still on board and the watchers down on the ground fully anticipated that unless the pilot could get the undercarriage to work, the aircraft and crew would be blown to pieces when he attempted to land. For half an hour the pilot flew around the aerodrome struggling to, make the undercarriage function properly, but the task was beyond him.

‘Can you go out over the Wash and jettison your bombs?’ asked Control.

‘Yes,’ he replied and flew off over the sea to drop his bombs; but owing to the damage to the aircraft there was one at the back of the rack which stuck. Unaware of this menace, he flew straight in to make a .crash landing and, as he touched, the bomb exploded and blew the tail to smithereens. The observer and the pilot tumbled out as the engine flamed up and began to run for their lives. Suddenly they thought of the rear-gunner, who was nowhere to be seen. Those who were hastening to their aid saw them turn back and rush into the flames and smoke. A few moments afterwards they emerged again, dragging Sergeant Aslett, the rear-gunner, as though he were a sack of potatoes. He was peppered with bits of nuts and bolts and scraps of metal and although he was knocked out by the explosion and would certainly have lost his life if Pilot Officer Davidson and the observer Sergeant Ross had not gone to his rescue, he recovered along with his companions, to bring their tale of high courage to a happy ending.

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Undeclared War

Despite General Edward Braddock’s massive failure and the unrest of the regiments at Fort Oswego, there was good news for the British in 1755. William Johnson’s troops had a surprising victory at Crown Point on Lake Champlain, taking Fort Frederick’s. Johnson, an Irish immigrant, emerged as the first hero of the war and set himself on a quick rise to fame and historical importance.

One of the reasons for Johnson’s success was due to his renowned ability to negotiate with the Indians. While George Washington had failed abysmally in his attempt to procure the help of tribes near Fort Necessity, Johnson recruited allies from the Mohawk and Iroquois to accompany his colonial troops. Included in his forces was Captain Robert Rogers, a 23-year-old recruit from New Hampshire who went on to lead the Rangers. Johnson’s forces approached Crown Point in early September. On September 8, the English forces surrounded the French and attacked from behind a breastwork of trees and overturned wagons. As the French advanced, the British climbed over the breastwork for hand-to-hand combat; the French fled in disarray. Johnson, who was wounded in the battle, performed a feat that was not to be repeated until 1758-defeating a French army with a colonial army unfortified by British professionals. Johnson received a baronetcy for his troubles.

All during the year of 1755 the British colonial forces suffered a lack of support (and, perhaps more importantly, funding) from both the colonies and the crown. The colonies were reluctant to provide funding for a war that they felt, perhaps rightly, was not their own. After all, it was Britain who had bullied the French for more territory. The British crown, meanwhile, was reluctant to send money to the colonies for war when catastrophes like Braddock’s continued to take place. A similar scenario took place on the French side, though with perhaps even more neglect. The French crown had less money to send their colonies, and France’s attention was in Europe, where Prussia was becoming increasingly antagonistic and was on the verge of invading Saxony in 1756, setting off the Seven Year’s War.

Declared War and French Dominance

The years 1756 and 1757 brought three things: the arrival of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, newly appointed commander-in-chief of the French forces in North America, declarations of war by the two mother countries, and a string of French victories in forts along the Northeast frontier.

While General Edward Braddock’s defeat at Fort Duquesne was offset by William Johnson’s victory at Crown Point, 1756 and 1757 brought nothing but bad news for the English. With the arrival of Montcalm in March 1756, an exceptionally talented strategist and warrior, the French forces gained a new level of professionalism, savvy, and strength. The British, meanwhile, were disorganized and fighting among themselves. Conflicts between British officers and colonial militiamen were common, culminating in the summer of 1756, when the regiments headed to Crown Point were upset by a small “mutiny.”

After almost two years of battles, England and France finally declared war on each other in May 1756. The declaration brought an influx of funding colonies and the arrival of even more British troops. The Earl of Loundoun was appointed commander-in-chief of the British troops in America, but he shortly proved himself as inept as Braddock in the all-important areas of Indian policy and frontier battle strategy. It was under Loundoun’s command that the “mutiny” of colonial militiamen exploded, and it was under his command that the British suffered some of the worst defeats of the war.

One of most devastating of these defeats was the fall of Fort Oswego on August 14, 1756. The loss of the fort shocked the British, though in hindsight it’s fall seems unsurprising. The fort was devastated by long periods of neglect. The surrounding tribes were already hostile to the British, and Montcalm swayed them further to the French side by spreading a rumor of plunder as a reward for all Indians who came to fight. The fort offered little resistance, and it fell to the French easily. This was an important strategic gain for the French, as it offered them control of Lake Ontario and access to all of the provisions and equipment that had been painfully transported to the fort.

The “mutiny” at Crown Point was another example of British failure to think clearly regarding colonial policy. Loundoun humiliated colonial officers by placing ceilings upon their rank, announcing that a regular British captain would outrank even the highest-ranking colonial. Loundoun caused further consternation by ordering that the troops be incorporated into a single body. His intention was clearly to fortify the colonial troops with British men; the colonial men did not take kindly to the implicit assumption of their inferiority. When Loundoun’s orders met with resistance, he denounced the colonials as mutinous and sent many of them home.

The Massacre at Fort William Henry

The fall of Fort William Henry and the ensuing “massacre” of the surrendered English on August 8, 1757 is one of the most famous incidents in American history. As dramatized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans , the fall of the fort was an incredible tragedy of epic proportions, an illustration of the nobility of the British and the savagery of both the French and the Indians, and an example of brutal primal rage. The real picture is more complicated.

On August 2, 1757 Major General Daniel Webb learned of a concentration of French forces preparing to attack Fort William Henry, which was on the southern end of Lake George along the route to Montreal. With the poor foresight typical among the British officers up to that point in the war, Webb decided to retreat, leaving Lieutenant Colonel George Munro in charge. When Munro, who was left to defend the fort with 2,300 men (only 1,600 of whom were fit for battle) learned that Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was preparing to attack the fort with over 7,000 men, he appealed to Webb for reinforcements. Though Webb had a good number of ready and able reinforcements at his side, he refused Munro’s request, and sent back a letter advising Munro to settle on the best possible terms. Amazingly, Munro held out against the French for four days. But the odds were virtually impossible, and he finally capitulated on August 9.

The British troops were disarmed as a condition of surrender, and made to march from the fort. As the inhabitants of the fort streamed out, the Ottawa, Abenaki, and Potawatomi Indians who fought with the French fell upon the British. The massacre began with the helpless-the wounded and sick men that had been in the fort’s hospital and were carried out last. Women and children, most likely families of the soldiers, were also murdered. Other victims included black and mulatto servants, Indian allies of the British, and retreating soldiers who were in sight when order broke down.

While the Indians attacked, the French did nothing to stop the massacre or go to the assistance of those who were being slaughtered. Montcalm excused his behavior with the following words: “I have been obliged here to gratify the Indian nations, who will not leave without me, and am obliged to pass my time with them in ceremonies as tiresome as they are necessary.” Montcalm did attempt to restore hostages that the Indians carried off, and he was successful at rescuing many of them.

The number of casualties of the massacre continues to be disputed. It is certain that the French underestimated the death toll, and the English wildly overestimated it, both for propaganda purposes. Contemporary historians normally place the number at over 200, with over 300 captives taken.

British Ascension (1758)

In December 1756, William Pitt became the leader of the British ministry. He adopted aggressive new policies that had a crucial effect on the latter half of the war. One of those policies was, in October 1757, to recall the Earl of Loundoun as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America.

The first battle of 1758 was, nonetheless, a failure for the British. They failed to take the Fort at Ticonderoga, despite having a force of 16,000 men to the French’s 3,500 troops. The battle was a disaster, due mostly to a lack of British leadership. The only British allies to emerge from the battle with any credibility at all were Robert Rogers’ Rangers, who were rapidly gaining fame and success for their skill at scouting, spying, and employing guerrilla tactics against the French.

Pitt’s new tactics soon began to take hold, however, and, after Ticonderoga, things quickly began to change for the British. On July 26, 1758, the British finally captured Louisbourg after many attempts. This victory opened the route to Canada. Just a month later the British achieved another victory by taking Fort Frontenac on the shores of Lake Ontario, and thereby cutting off the ability of the French to communicate with their troops in the Ohio Valley. In November, the British captured Fort Duquesne, the site of Braddock’s disaster and death. Duquesne was renamed Fort Pitt, after the new English leader, and eventually became known as Pittsburgh, PA.

With Pitt at the helm, England finally began to take advantage of its huge advantage in supplies and manpower, and the tide of the war quickly turned. In May 1759, the British captured the French island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe was a wealthy, sugar-producing island and the French would certainly want it back in any peace negotiation-a chip the British planned to use for their advantage. They followed this victory with the seizure of Ticonderoga in June and Fort Niagara in July. The French abandoned their post at Crown Point shortly after, leaving the whole of the western frontier to the British.

Battle of Quebec

After the French abandoned Crown Point, the British controlled the western frontier. However, the French strongholds were further north, in Quebec and Montreal. These were also the French cities and forts that were most heavily supplied, funded, and protected.

William Pitt emphasized the importance of gaining Quebec in assuring outright British victory; he gave the assignment of conquering the city to famed general James Wolfe. Wolfe and Vice-admiral Charles Saunders organized a team of ships and infantry to besiege the city. The battle began in June 1759 and lasted for three months. The ships ascended the St. Lawrence flawlessly and held out against massive French assaults of fire and cannon.

Despite the romantic glaze that hangs over the Quebec campaign, it was a desperate struggle that frequently became brutal. Wolfe, like Montcalm, was not immune to terrorizing the civilian population, and one of his first orders to scouting parties was to “burn and lay waste the country.” Louis-Joseph de Montcalm responded with equal brutality, threatening the frightened civilians with “the savages” when they meekly appealed to him for surrender.

Because Quebec was so mighty and heavily fortified, Wolfe was forced to starve the French out for two and a half months. The British forces were not large enough to completely surround the city and cut off its supplies; though French food and materiel were rapidly dwindling they were still enough to keep the soldiers alive.

Finally, on September 13, Wolfe landed a small host of soldiers in the middle of the night at l’Anse au Foulon, upstream of the city. Sheer luck played as much a role as skill in this success-Wolfe was able to fool a sentry and a general by speaking French and gathered the rest of his troops for the invasion. Montcalm was so disoriented by this bizarre turn of events that he made many mistakes in defending the city. First, he gathered his troops at the wrong place-downstream of the city, in a place called Beaumont. When they finally caught up to the British, Montcalm ordered them to charge instead of waiting for reinforcements. The battle lasted only fifteen minutes and both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed.

After the capture of Quebec, the rest of Canada quickly fell. The French attempted a brief countersiege from May 11-16, 1760, but quickly gave up. Montreal capitulated in September 1760, and the British General Amherst and the French Marquise de Vaudreuil signed letters of capitulation that finished the surrender of Canada. On or around September 15, the British flag was hoisted over the city of Detroit, effectively ending the war.

A Tenuous Peace (1760-63)

After the surrender of Canada in 1760, the war was effectively over in North America. Nonetheless, fighting continued in other parts of the world for the next two years and small skirmishes specially Indian raids occasionally broke out in the colonies and along the Canadian border.

Despite this, the French and Indian War ended French political influence on the North American continent, a fact underscored by the Treaty of Paris, signed at the end of the Seven Year’s War, in February 1763. As part of the negotiations for this treaty, France regained its wealthy sugar producing islands in the Caribbean that had been lost to the British during the fighting- Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Lucia. With the exception of New Orleans, France surrendered all of its North American possessions east of the Mississippi to the British. All possessions west of the Mississippi were given to the Spanish.

Although the British won the war with the French, the British still faced pressing colonial problems that the Treaty of Paris only aggravated. The Indians in particular were angered by the provisions of peace that left little room for their concerns. One of the reasons they agreed to fight-on either side of the war-was to ensure that they would retain the sole rights to their land. Instead, the exhausted Indians were faced with the immediate encroachment of British speculators, traders, and settlers.

Disaffected and impoverished, a host of Indian nations organized in April 1763 under the leadership of an Ottawa chief named Pontiac. The forces included Ottawas, Chippewas, Potawatomis, Hurons, Shawnees, and Delawares. On May 9, 1763, the allies laid siege to Fort Detroit. That summer, they proceeded to destroy forts at Venango, LeBoeuf, and Presque Isle. They also attacked forts at Niagara and Pittsburgh.

The British reacted immediately and brutally. Their tactics included both ruthless bloodshed (Commander-in-chief of the British forces, Jeffrey Amherst, encouraged soldiers to “Put to death all that fall into your hands”) and deception (the soldiers at Fort Pitt spread smallpox among the Delawares by presenting them with a “gift” infected blankets from the hospital nearby). Their tactics weakened the Indians and forced Pontiac to capitulate Fort Detroit on October 31, 1763.

With the end of Pontiac’s war, the fight for control over the North American empire east of the Mississippi was officially over, though small battles with the Indians continued for years. Their fear of “foreigners”, both French and Indian, subsided, the British turned their attention to the colonies. Having spent so much time, money, men to keep the colonies, England was now determined to keep the colonies in line and make them as profitable as possible. To ensure that they attained these goals, the British gave up their longstanding policy of salutary neglect, and instituted harsh policies and high taxes for the colonials. England’s harsh treatment of the colony’s after 1763 had precisely the opposite of its desired result: instead of making the colony’s profitable, it made them increasingly angry, and eventually ed to another uprising-the Revolutionary War, which exploded just thirteen years later.

Though most of the North American fighting ended on September 8, 1760, when the Marquis de Vaudreuil surrendered Montreal-and effectively all of Canada-to Britain, the French and Indian War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763. The treaty resulted in France’s loss of all its North American possessions east of the Mississippi (all of Canada was ceded to Britain) except Saint Pierre and Miquelon, two small islands off of Newfoundland, marking the beginning of an era of British dominance outside Europe.

Britain also gained control of French Canada, a colony containing approximately 65,000 Frenchspeaking, Roman Catholic residents. Early in the war, in 1755, the British had expelled French settlers from Acadia, some of whom eventually fled to Louisiana. Now at peace and eager to secure control of its hard-won colony, Great Britain found itself obliged to make concessions to its newly conquered subjects.

The European theatre of the war was settled by the Treaty of Hubertusburg on February 15, 1763. The war changed economic, political, and social relations between Britain and its colonies. It plunged Britain into debt, which the Crown chose to pay off with tax money from its colonies. These taxes contributed to the beginning the American Revolutionary War.

The war changed economic, political, governmental, and social relations between Britain, France, and Spain, their colonies and colonists, and the natives that inhabited the territories they claimed. France and Britain both suffered financially because of the war, with significant long-term consequences.

The Seven Years’ War nearly doubled Britain’s national debt. The Crown, seeking sources of revenue to pay off the debt, attempted to impose new taxes on its colonies. These attempts were met with increasingly stiff resistance, until troops were called in to ensure that representatives of the Crown could safely perform their duties. These acts ultimately led to the start of the American Revolutionary War. For France, the military defeat and the financial burden of the war weakened the monarchy and contributed to the advent of the French Revolution in 1789.

France returned to North America in 1778 with the establishment of a Franco-American alliance against Great Britain in the American War of Independence.

Roman Britain’s Navy

The Classis Britannica was responsible for patrolling the north-western waters of the Roman Empire. It was based at Boulogne (Bononia).

In AD 69-70, the Rhine frontier was in tumult. The aftermath of Nero’s reign and suicide had left not just Rome in disarray. During the so-called `Year of the Four Emperors’, the civil war that convulsed Rome as multiple rivals tussled for the imperial throne, disaffected former allies rebelled. Notable among them was Gaius Julius Civilis, an auxiliary Roman officer and prince of the Batavi, a prominent Germanic tribe of the Rhine delta in what’s now the Netherlands.

Angered by Rome’s treatment of his tribe after years of stalwart service – including important contributions to the invasion and subjugation of Britain from AD 43 – Civilis launched a revolt, persuading other nearby Germanic tribes to join him.

After a number of battles and sieges, Civilis was subdued. Tacitus, who recounted the story in his Histories, describes how the Legio XIV Gemina (`Twinned 14th Legion’) was transported across from Britain to help the mopping-up operation. The legionary commander, Fabius Priscus, marched his troops to suppress the Nervii and Tungri tribes – and in doing so left his fleet exposed. The nearby Cannenefates tribe launched an assault, destroying or capturing most of the ships. And so the narrative of Britain’s maritime power – this being the first recorded mention of the Classis Britannica, the first navy of Britain – enters the historical record in ignominy.

First fleet

The Classis Britannica was the regional fleet of the Roman province of Britannia from the mid-first century to the mid-third century, one of 10 such fleets across the empire. These fleets originated with the Augustan reforms of the Roman military, replacing the larger ad-hoc fleets that had served Rome well during its earlier conflicts in the Mediterranean.

The Classis Britannica as a named body came into being shortly before the AD 69/70 Batavian Revolt described earlier. However, the origins of the fleet stretch back to the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43.

After the initial invasion, the fleet took part in every aspect of the subsequent expansion across the islands of Britain, eventually taking geographical responsibility for the Atlantic approaches, the English Channel, the east and west coast of Britain and the North Sea basin. As is clear from its deployment to Germany during the Batavian revolt, it was also given responsibility for protecting the north-west European coast, with its headquarters fortress at Boulogne. Less than two centuries later, the Classis Britannica disappears from the historical record; the last known reference came in AD 249, relating to Saturninus, a North African-born captain.

During its existence, the Classis Britannica had more than one role. The commander of the British regional fleet was appointed directly by the emperor, and reported to the province’s procurator, who was tasked with making the province pay. So the fleet undertook civilian tasks – for example, running key industrial enterprises such as the principal iron-working sites in the coastal weald. It was, though, primarily a military force, and its martial duties fell under the aegis of the province’s governor. These military roles included controlling maritime zones around Britain, regular patrolling, gathering intelligence, transport, amphibious warfare and communications.

The chief fighting ship was the liburnian, a war galley equipped with ram and ballista. Being a small bireme (powered by two banks of oars), this was more agile than the larger polyreme galleys of the Republican navies. Numerous types of cutters and skiffs were also employed, as were a wide variety of transport ships. These were usually built in the Romano-Celtic tradition, with shallow hulls for navigating coastal waters, and high bows and sterns for riding out heavy seas.

The ships were manned by a fighting and sailing crew organised in a similar way to land counterparts. The sailing company comprised marines, valarius sailors and remiges oarsmen – professionals, not slaves. From the outset, the mix of men was cosmopolitan, reflecting the empire itself. The original fleet used in the Claudian invasion was built around a core of experienced men from the Classis Misinensis regional fleet in Italy; later, most of its sailors and shipbuilders came from various European tribes – including the latterly rebellious Batavi.

During the Claudian invasion of AD 43, 900 ships were constructed to carry Aulus Plautius’s invasion force of 40,000 legionaries and auxiliaries in three waves across the English Channel. The fleet then supported the spearheads during the breakout from the invasion beaches of eastern Kent. It remained prominent in the final defeat of the Catuvellauni (who led the British resistance), and carried Claudius himself across from Gaul to take credit for the successful campaign.

The regional fleet then played a key role in the various conquest campaigns, an example being Vespasian and his Legio II Augusta (Augustus’s Second Legion) in south-west Britain during the late AD 40s. The Classis Britannica provided support during the future emperor’s relentless advance, providing the vital transport capability that enabled the land forces to leap ahead, objective by objective. After four seasons of campaigning, the southwest was fully conquered and the fleet, based in a series of new fortified harbours, was beginning to forge up into the Bristol Channel.

By the mid-AD 70s, the province was effectively established along lines recognisable for the rest of the occupation, with south and east fully functioning as part of the empire, and the north and west being a militarised border territory. With the northern border set along a line between the Solway Firth and the Tyne, later to be fortified under Hadrian, the scene was set for the Classis Britannica to again play a major campaigning role, this time under governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who made ambitious attempts to conquer Scotland.

Agricola arrived in Britain in AD 77 and, after a brief campaign in Wales, turned his attention northward. His targets were the native tribes of Scotland, broadly referred to as the Caledonians, and in the spring of AD 79 he launched his forces in that direction. This campaign featured the familiar pattern of coastal legionary spearheads on both the east and west coasts supported by the Classis Britannica, which controlled the sea close to the shore and fulfilled the supply and scouting roles.

The presence of the fleet was evidently a shock to the natives: in his Agricola, Tacitus reports that its galleys spread terror among the Caledonians. Agricola mounted four subsequent campaigns in the north, building military anchorages on the east and west coasts of Scotland and far north-west England to support the fleet. The fighting included a successful amphibious assault either north across the Solway Firth from Cumbria or west across the river Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, and in the fifth year of his campaign Agricola brought the natives to battle at Mons Graupius below the Moray Firth in the Grampians. The result: the total defeat of the Caledonians. The Classis Britannica then completed the first Roman circumnavigation of Britain.

Agricola was recalled to Rome some time before AD 85, after which the empire lost interest in the far north of Britain. The Classis Britannica spent much of the second century supporting the military presence on the northern border. It came to prominence again in AD 196 when the British governor Clodius Albinus launched an unsuccessful usurpation attempt against the emperor Septimius Severus. It appears that the Classis Britannica sided with Albinus – the fleet would have been needed to carry his troops to the continent – and so fell from imperial favour.

However, the fleet made a spectacular return to action in the early third century, when Severus attempted his own `shock and awe’ conquest of Scotland. At this time the Maeatae in central Scotland and Caledonians farther north had become so troublesome that the governor made a desperate request for new troops or for the emperor himself. He was lucky: he got both.

Imperial assault

In AD 208, Severus crossed the Channel with a huge imperial entourage including the Praetorian Guard and crack units from the continental legions. Carried by the Classis Britannica, this force landed at Richborough (near Sandwich in Kent), travelling north and collecting British legions en route to York, where Severus set up his imperial capital.

The emperor launched the first of two massive assaults northward in AD 209, deploying 50,000 men and massively expanding the fort and harbour at South Shields to act as his main supply base. As this enormous force headed north, the Classis Britannica again sat tight on the maritime flank, its galleys and transports surging ahead of the land forces to harry the natives and secure assault harbours. The regional fleet’s importance in this campaign is indicated by the number of coins featuring a naval theme issued at this time.

Once again, as the legionary spearheads probed northwards, fortified harbours at Cramond on the Forth and Carpow on the Tay were used. The campaign progressed steadily, though it is clear that the stream of casualties from guerilla warfare began to mitigate against Roman success. When it became obvious that the natives wouldn’t oblige with a meeting engagement, a truce was agreed and the emperor headed back to York with terms that met his satisfaction.

The terms clearly weren’t so agreeable to the natives, who revolted the following year, prompting Severus to plan a new campaign. Ill health got the better of him, and the advance was led by his son, Caracalla. This campaign, undertaken in AD 210, was especially brutal: Severus ordered his troops to kill all of the locals they encountered. Though the campaign again concluded without a major battle, it was ultimately successful in that peace fell on the northern border for a period of 80 years.

The navy vanishes

The campaigns of Severus marked a high point in the career of the Classis Britannica – though he himself died in York in AD 211. The fleet then found itself combatting a new menace in the form of Germanic maritime raiders travelling across the North Sea.

The fleet disappears from the historical record in the middle of the third century, but its fate is a mystery. A number of events offer explanations; in each case the fleet was vulnerable, at some stage backing the wrong horse during the sometimes violent and dramatic changes in imperial leadership, and suffering as a result. One was the scramble for imperial control between senate and military after the assassination of Alexander Severus in AD 235, which initiated the `Crisis of the Third Century’. Another was the `Gallic Empire’ founded by Postumus that lasted from AD 260 to AD 274. Finally, there was the `North Sea Empire’ established by the usurper Carausius, which lasted from AD 286 to AD 296.

In my opinion, the most likely of these scenarios would have been in the context of the `Gallic Empire’, by which time it might also have been the case that the fleet was simply too expensive to maintain given the economic troubles of the empire. However it came about, we know that sometime in the middle of the third century Britain’s first navy disappeared – the end of a major fighting force that played a vital role in the story of Roman Britain.

Sea Eagles of Empire: Simon Elliott (History Press, 2016)

The Roman war machine comprised land and naval forces. Although the former has been studied extensively, less has been written and understood about the naval forces of the Roman empire and, in particular, the regional navies which actively participated in most military operations and policed the seas and rivers of the Empire. Until the mid-third century, in a British context, this navy was the Classis Britannica—a strong fighting force in its own right. The composition, ship types, roles, tactics, and technology have never been studied at length. Here Simon Elliot tells the story of this illustrious naval force in their metal-beaked galleys and their exploits defeating enemies of the Empire and keeping the peace around the British Isles.

The Roman Navy: Ships, Men & Warfare 350 BC – AD 475 by Michael Paul Pitassi (Seaforth, 2012)

The Roman Navy was remarkable for its size, reach and longevity. As significant as the Royal Navy was to the British Empire in the nineteenth century, the Roman Navy was crucial to the extraordinary expansion of Imperial power and for its maintenance over a period of more than 800 years. The fabric and organisation of this maritime force is at the core of this new book.

Roman Britain and the Roman Navy by David JP Mason (History Press, 2009)

So much has been written about the Roman army in Britain that the vital role of the navy – both in support of the army and in the defence of this distant Roman province – has been largely overlooked. In providing the first comprehensive account of the Roman navy’s importance in the conquest and defence of Britain, David Mason has redressed the balance. Combining archaeological evidence from recently excavated ships and harbour works with information from ancient sources, the author demonstrates the fleet’s vital importance to the success of the Roman military conquest. He also provides new insights into the logistics and tactics of the Roman naval forces and their close cooperation with the Roman army.

British Preventive War in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, 1718–1719 Part I

The Battle of Cape Passaro, 11 August 1718 by Richard Paton (oil on canvas, 1767).

Painting of battle showing Spanish flagship Real San Felipe (centre) being bombarded by British ships.

For various reasons His Majesty could not join the alliance [between Hanover, the Emperor and Poland] as King, but that would not prevent the British fleet in the Baltic from operating in support of that alliance, and applying the right to self-defence as it has done against Sweden in the past and still does, even though His Majesty has not declared war on the King of Sweden.

 George I’s Hanoverian chief minister, Count Bernstorff, in 1718, on why George could not provide an official guarantee to use the Royal Navy against the Russians.

Very shortly after the Utrecht Settlement, it became clear that the new geopolitical architecture of Europe was designed to contain the old threat – from France – and not the emerging challenges in northern and southern Europe. By the end of the decade, it became clear that the biggest danger to Britain’s security came from the rising power of Tsar Peter the Great in the Baltic, and the resurgence of Spanish ambitions in the Mediterranean. In both cases, the threat was as much to the overall balance of power as to the position of the Royal Navy; indeed, because neither Madrid nor St Petersburg hesitated to play the Jacobite card, the Protestant Succession in Britain itself was also in peril. The two theatres were separated by huge distances, and yet the problems were interconnected, not least because two of the most important European powers, France and Austria, had interests in both spheres. In each case, the use of naval power provided a tempting but as it turned out insufficient solution. In the end, the balance in the Mediterranean and – less successfully – the Baltic, and with them Britain’s naval supremacy, could only be safeguarded through skilful diplomacy. Stanhope’s grand design for Europe provided for the time being, at least, a collaborative framework within which British interests were secured. He responded to the unfamiliar challenges not by drawing in his horns, but by broadening Britain’s strategic perspective.

Britain’s policy in the Mediterranean after 1714 aimed at ‘double containment’. Stanhope preached the need to guard against the revival of French power, especially an attempt to reunite the Spanish and the French crowns. But he was also profoundly concerned about Spanish ambitions to rebuild her Mediterranean empire at Austrian expense, especially in Italy. At the same time, Britain sought to restrain the Austrians: the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, the sometime ‘Charles III’ of Spain, was still smarting from the loss of his own claim to the Spanish throne; and he still had a substantial following among Catalans opposed to Castilian domination. Finally, Britain had her own, narrower agenda in the region: holding on to Gibraltar and Minorca (two key naval bases retained at Utrecht); to exploit the Asiento, or the right to trade in slaves with the Spanish colonies; and to consolidate her trade with Spain. The instruments available to pursue these interests were limited: a Royal Naval squadron and the bases at Minorca and Gibraltar, but no ground forces worth speaking of. What Britain lacked in brute coercive power would have to be made up through diplomatic manoeuvre, bribery, persuasion and bluff. Moreover, she would not just react to threats, but seek to forestall them.

While Louis XIV still lived, a fresh struggle with France for control of the Mediterranean could not be ruled out. After his death in 1715, Spain soon emerged as the principal threat. For Elizabeth Farnese, the second wife of the King of Spain, was concerned to find suitable inheritances for her children; Philip’s family by his first wife would succeed in Madrid. This could only be achieved in Italy, at Austria’s expense. But first Philip’s chief minister and a close confidant of Elizabeth, Cardinal Alberoni, needed to neutralize the Royal Navy; only then could a combined naval and ground assault on the Austrians take place. To that end, Alberoni granted Britain favourable terms in a new commercial treaty in December 1715. He hoped thereby to win over merchant and colonial interests in London, and give them an incentive to oppose a military confrontation with Spain. This was a clever strategy: not only was there a large overseas trade at stake, but British manufacturing exports to Spain and Portugal were steadily expanding, almost the only European market where that was still the case.

Confrontation with Spain thus made no commercial sense at this point. Indeed, the Tory MP for Scarborough later complained, after the outbreak of hostilities, that he had ‘carefully looked over all the treaties before them but found not one article in them for security of the English commerce and desired that in this address they would mention it to His Majesty’. If Stanhope refused to turn a blind eye to Spanish ambitions in the western and central Mediterranean, it was because strategic concerns mattered more to him. He responded to Alberoni’s advances with his own vision for a geopolitical reordering of the Mediterranean. Stanhope envisaged a set of interlocking exchanges and guarantees. The Emperor, Charles VI, should forgo his claim to the Spanish crown; in return he would be confirmed in possession of his territories in Italy and the Netherlands. At the same time, Charles should offer the Savoyards Sardinia in exchange for Sicily. This would create greater contiguity for both states, and thus strengthen them in their respective barrier functions. Spain would have to renounce her more extensive claims in Italy, but Elizabeth Farnese’s son, Don Carlos, would secure the reversionary interest on Parma, Tuscany and Piacenza: they would fall to him after the reigning Duke died. Britain, for her part, was willing to surrender Gibraltar if that would lead to a stable settlement; after all, bases were a means to an end, not the end itself.

Stanhope was therefore prepared to make sacrifices for a lasting settlement in the Mediterranean. Elizabeth Farnese, however, would not accept anything less than the return of all or at least a major part of the former Spanish European empire. In 1717 the Spaniards seized Habsburg Sardinia in a coup de main. It was clear that Spain would have to be coerced, and in order to do so Stanhope had to embed his Mediterranean strategy within a broader European vision. French cooperation was clearly essential, another argument in favour of the alliance which Stanhope pursued with such success in 1716. Equally important were the Austrians, with whom relations were also restored in 1716–17. But Stanhope had to take into account not only Britain’s bilateral relations but also the relations of her allies with third parties. Of particular worry was the distraction caused by the resumption of hostilities between the Austrians and Turks in 1716. It was for this reason that British and Hanoverian observers looked to a rapid Austrian victory. As Schulenburg remarked to Görtz, news of Habsburg successes ‘had revived the low spirits here’ and would have ‘a very positive effect for His Majesty’s interest in all areas’ – that is, in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Britain therefore also helped to mediate the Peace of Passarowitz in July 1718, between the Emperor and the Turkish Sultan.

All this involved a widening of British diplomatic horizons. Of course, the connection between the northern and western balances had already been grasped by Marlborough; and the need to relieve the Emperor of the Turkish threat had been a consideration in London since the Nine Years War. Still, Britain had hitherto never really had a holistic eastern policy, designed to see issues in the round rather than in isolation. This was a function not so much of ignorance as of institutional blinkers, resulting from the division of foreign affairs into a Northern and a Southern department. This was bad enough in the case of relations with France, where British statesmen were well aware of the ways in which Mediterranean and northern affairs could interconnect. But it was critical in the case of Austria, Russia and Turkey, which were peripheral to both departments. A modern observer would have noted that there was a distinct lack of ‘joined-up government’ in British foreign policy. Coherence had to be supplied by an individual, either the monarch or a dynamic chief minister, as Stanhope was.

The Spanish problem, however, remained. Taking advantage of Britain’s preoccupation in the Baltic, and hopeful that her commercial diplomacy had made the cost of war unacceptably high to London, Spain continued her Mediterranean advance. There was little the Austrians, who had no navy worth speaking of, could do about this beyond appealing to Britain and France for help. Counter-measures were hampered by the paralysing effect of the Whig split, which the Spanish ambassador to London exacerbated wherever he could. In Parliament, Walpole not only opposed the Baltic policy, but also tried to block approval of the money supply for the Mediterranean fleet, on the grounds that it would lead to war with Spain. Stanhope was acutely conscious of these constraints. In mid February 1718, he wrote of his determination ‘to hide from foreign nations if possible our nakedness’.

But it was the Spanish invasion of Sicily, and the expulsion of the Austrian garrison, in July 1718, which finally forced Britain’s hand. Shortly afterwards, Daniel Defoe summed up the resulting strategic threat to the British position in the Mediterranean. ‘If the present Spanish King sets up a superiority of his naval power,’ he wrote, ‘Sicily, in such a hand, would be like a chain drawn across the mouth of the Levant Sea.’ ‘Great Britain,’ he went on, ‘cannot acquiesce in letting Spain possess Sicily without giving up her trade to Turkey and the Gulph of Venice… to Gallipoli for oil, to Messina and Naples for silk; and in a word her whole commerce of the Mediterranean.’ Defoe concluded by asking, ‘How long shall we be able to carry on our navigation and commerce with our people in Jamaica, Barbados etc., if the naval strength of Spain shall be suffered to grow to such an immoderate and monstrous pitch?’ As if all this was not bad enough, there were also fears of an attack from New Spain on the British in the Carolinas. In George’s mind, the looming Spanish hegemony in the Mediterranean and the confrontations with Sweden, Prussia and increasingly Russia in the Baltic seemed to blend into one continuous encircling front against him. He was enveloped not only in Britain and America but in Hanover as well. Something drastic needed to be done.

Within a month, the Mediterranean squadron of the Royal Navy under Admiral Byng attacked and annihilated the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro. Since Britain and Spain were not yet at war, this action, as the naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan noted, was the ‘destruction not of an actual but of a possible rival’. It was a preventive strike designed to eliminate a potential threat to British interests at an early stage. As Sunderland remarked to the Duke of Newcastle on hearing the news, ‘there is now a thorough end put to the Cardinal’s great projects and to the rising power of Spain at sea.’ Likewise, the Hanoverians around the King welcomed the news of the Spanish defeat as a relief not only in the Mediterranean. ‘Clipping Spain’s wings in Italy,’ Schulenburg hoped, would ease Britain’s situation in the Baltic: ‘it would be very convenient for us to be secure from that side while we are being threatened by some terrible catastrophe from the opposite corner [of Europe]’ – that is, the Baltic. Military action was accompanied by active diplomacy. The Hanoverians, especially Bernstorff and Bothmer, were very active in helping to bring about the Quadruple Alliance of August 1718, by which Charles VI joined the Triple Alliance of Britain, France and the United Provinces with a view to containing Spain. Through a combination of coercive and collaborative instruments, the Spanish advance in the Mediterranean had been contained, and the rise of a naval rival forestalled.

All the same, many in the political nation and in the public sphere at large were profoundly ambivalent about the triumph at Cape Passaro. Rather than retrospectively sanction the operation, one critic, Lord Strafford, announced that ‘before they approved the sea fight, they ought to be satisfied whether the same happened before or after the signing of the Quadruple Alliance.’ He therefore moved that Byng’s instructions should be laid before Parliament. Likewise, Walpole – still determined to make mischief for his rivals in the ministry – argued that ‘the giving sanction… to the late measures, could have no other view, than to screen ministers, who were conscious of having done something amiss, and, who having begun a war against Spain, would now make it the Parliament’s war.’ Instead of applauding, he continued, Parliament ‘ought to show their entire dissatisfaction with a conduct that was contrary to the laws of nations, and a breach of solemn treaties’. Stanhope responded to these charges robustly. He made clear that Cape Passaro had been an act not merely of tactical but also strategic preemption. It was aimed, first of all, at stopping Spain from breaking out of the constraints of the Utrecht Settlement, rebuilding their Mediterranean empire and perhaps even reuniting the French and Spanish thrones. Secondly, Stanhope argued, ‘it was high time for Great Britain to check the naval power of Spain’. Better to confront it now than later. Indeed, rather than disavowing Byng, Stanhope stressed that the Admiral was following royal instructions. The King, in turn, had ‘acted by the advice of his Privy Council; that he was one of that number; and he thought it an honour to have advised His Majesty to these measures’, which he believed to be necessary in the national interest. All the procedures, in short, had been followed. The ministry were all in this together. Stanhope spoke with such passion and eloquence that most were persuaded.

War was formally declared between Britain and Spain in December 1718, followed by a French declaration of war on Spain in January 1719. Three months later, the French launched a successful invasion of northern Spain, supported by a diversionary British operation in Galicia. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy drove the Spaniards from the western Mediterranean. Despite the fact that all three combatants had extensive colonial holdings, this was essentially a European war, fought in Europe for European ends. Spain tried to unseat George by sponsoring a Jacobite invasion of Scotland in April 1719. James III, however, was unable to make a landfall, and the rebellion under the Earl of Mar soon fizzled out. The unequal contest lasted less than a year. In December 1719 Alberoni was dismissed and in early 1720 Spain made her peace with the Quadruple Alliance. All Spanish–Austrian differences were referred to a future Congress at Cambrai, which would meet early in the new decade. Perhaps fortunately for those who had begun the war in such legally dubious circumstances, it had ended well.

Exultant Whigs saw in this outcome not only a vindication of their policies but also a guarantee of their domestic political ascendancy. As Newcastle wrote to Stanhope in October 1719, he could not ‘apprehend that we have anything to fear’ in new elections. He believed that their ‘merit of having settled a universal peace in Europe’ would ensure the King’s ‘hearty adherence to the Whig interest’. Likewise Stanhope saw ‘the prospect of seeing a peace both in the south and the north before next spring’. ‘This good situation,’ he added, ‘will probably put our friends in good humour at our opening the Parliament.’ Indeed, it would be advisable ‘to make the best use and advantage possible of this good humour’ by pushing through contentious domestic measures such as the Peerage Bill. Not everybody shared this optimism. It was true, as Schulenburg noted in August 1718, that ‘once re-established, the tranquility of the south will add great lustre to the King our master, I wish I could say the same for the north, and in order to render the happiness of the King complete, the submission of the P[rince of Wales] must round off these grand projects. I hope it without believing.’

For in the Baltic, Britain-Hanover faced a massive new threat to her interests: Russia. Ever since the turn of the century, when Peter the Great’s ambition erupted on to the European scene, British statesmen and publicists had watched the growth of Russian power with apprehension. By promoting Russia through the provision of naval expertise, England and later Britain seemed to have nurtured a potential rival. As the Whig pamphleteer Daniel Defoe wrote in 1705, the example of Russia ‘may serve to remind us, how we once taught the French to build ships, till they are grown able to teach us how to use them’. By 1718, the British representative in Russia, James Jefferys, was warning that ‘The improvements he [Peter] has made, by the help of English builders, are such as a seaman would think almost impossible for a nation so lately used to the sea.’ The Russians, he lamented, had now ‘built three sixty-gun ships, which are in every way equal to the best of that rank in our country’. Some time later, in April 1719, Jefferys asked Stanhope ‘whether it will be for the interest of Great Britain to be a spectator of so growing a power as this, especially at sea, and brought about by her own subjects’. As the Swedish empire in the Baltic disintegrated and the Russians advanced into Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Mecklenburg, unease turned to alarm.

British policy was driven by strategic, not economic considerations. Indeed, there was a strong commercial lobby which wished to avoid war with Russia at all costs. As one Hanoverian reported in the autumn of 1719, there were many ‘English merchants who trade with Russia [who] have made representations to the Regents that they have more than two million pounds sterling worth of assets which they would risk losing if one hastily [ brusquement ] declared war on the Muscovites’. There were also merchants who complained of Swedish depredations against British commerce, and so these economic considerations had a way of cancelling each other out, in that a breach with either country would be economically costly. Moreover, Britain had an existential reason to fear Peter. Ever since the failed rebellion of 1715, Jacobites had swarmed across Europe armed with letters of introduction from James III, many of them to Russia. Their expertise was welcomed there with open arms. Supporters of the Pretender trained Peter’s army, built and led his navy, and one even served as his personal physician. As relations with Britain deteriorated, these men gained ever greater prominence. Throughout 1716, they tried to mediate a peace between Sweden and Russia, so that either or both sides would be free to attack George. In 1718, they tried again, this time with a view to bringing Spain into the alliance as well. Of course, whether Britain was compelled to oppose Peter because of his support for Jacobites, or whether he felt obliged to support them because of British hostility, is a moot point. Ministerial measures had partly helped to create the threat they sought to contain.

The main instrument of British policy in the Baltic would have to be the Royal Navy, if possible with Dutch support. ‘By all I can learn here of the state of affairs in the north,’ Stanhope wrote in late May 1719, ‘I think it would be of the utmost consequence if we could appear with a joint force in that sea sufficient to give weight to our mediation.’ One method considered by Stanhope was a surprise attack on the Russians by sea, if necessary without formal declaration of war. He wanted to inflict a ‘Cape Passaro’ on them, a phrase which in those days had something of the quality that ‘Copenhagen’ had for the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century navy. Clearly, the strategy of pre-emption, which had served so well against Spain in 1718–19, was infectious. But Stanhope knew that – as in the Mediterranean – military instruments alone would not suffice. If Russia was to be contained, a fundamental rethink of policy in the Baltic was required. Fortuitously, an opportunity was now at hand.

In December 1718, Charles XII was killed in action in Norway, to almost universal relief; his more moderate sister Ulrica Eleonora succeeded to the throne. This was the moment for a rapprochement with Sweden, in order to restore it as a bulwark against Peter the Great. The choice of envoy to Sweden fell upon Lord Carteret. This was significant, because it shows the extent to which the King was swayed by foreign political considerations rather than just party ones. Carteret’s family background was Tory, albeit loyal; he himself had a voting record in Parliament as a Hanover Tory. But what really recommended him to George was his firm European orientation and his linguistic skills. Schulenburg described Carteret thus: ‘He is a young nobleman who has very good qualities, and much more politeness and obligingness towards foreigners than is usual among islanders and free peoples [ les peuples libres ]. He speaks French, which has enabled him to get to know the King, who values him for his merits.’ He finished by saying that ‘if so far he has not, properly speaking, belonged to any party, he was far from being odious to the Whigs and Tories’, both of whom were now assiduously courting him. Of course, it did Carteret no harm that he was on good terms with some of the King’s Hanoverian ministers, particularly Görtz, and seems to have been regarded with a good deal of suspicion by the Prince of Wales; Caroline confessed to her lady-in-waiting Mrs Clayton that ‘I am afraid of him’. He even got on with the famously cantankerous and suspicious Admiral Norris.

Carteret finally set off for Sweden in May 1719, accompanied by ‘three secretaries, two chaplains, three chefs, a pastry-chef [ confiseur ] and several other servants’. By the time he arrived, Sweden was in dire straits and on the verge of invasion by the Tsar. Only Britain, Carteret argued, now stood between Russia and the total domination of the Baltic. If nothing was done, he warned Robethon in late July 1719, ‘the Tsar will be absolute master of Sweden and of the Baltic, which would not be in Britain’s interest nor that of the whole of Europe’. For this reason Carteret repeated over and over that ‘we ought for the sake of our own interests as English [sic] men not to stand by as unconcerned spectators but prevent their ruin if possible.’ Moreover, Carteret warned that failure to prop up Sweden might well lead to a Russo-Swedish rapprochement at Britain’s expense. Given the determination of the Swedish parliament – the Senate – to come to terms with Russia, this was perfectly possible. ‘If they had made peace with the Tsar, or even should be upon good terms with him while he remains in the Baltic,’ he wrote, ‘they may in conjunction not only affront in these seas, but also give us trouble at home.’ In other words, they might support a Jacobite invasion. This was not just about state interests, he argued, but also about the preservation of the ‘Protestant cause’, something which he knew to be dear to George’s heart.

Predictably, the chief stumbling block was Bremen and Verden. George would have been happy to trade the duchies for an ‘equivalent’. His Hanoverian diplomats, however, soon realized that the Swedes were insisting ‘on the restitution of the duchies of Bremen and Verden without an equivalent’. Despite their parlous situation, the Swedes were determined to maintain their footing in Germany. Indeed, the presentation of Carteret’s credentials in Stockholm led to an immediate row. The President of the Swedish Chancery, Count Cronhielm, quickly spotted that the list of his monarch’s titles therein was incomplete because it did not include the two duchies. All this put Carteret in the very difficult situation of appearing to press George’s Electoral ambitions at the expense of the British interests he was sent to represent. He did not doubt that the duchies could be secured if George ‘would give more and engage himself to do more for them than they are worth’. This price would be an alliance, subsidies, military and naval assistance ‘to reduce the Tsar to his ancient limits’.

In spite of these tensions, Carteret worked closely with the King’s Hanoverian servants. The Electoral minister in Stockholm, Count Bassewitz, proved a useful source of information at the Swedish court, and Carteret was careful to coordinate most of his moves – particularly the delicate matter of bribing Swedish politicians – with him. He summed up the extent of his cooperation with the Hanoverian when he reported to Stanhope that ‘I have obeyed your lordship in giving Mr Bassewitz all the assistance and support I can, & I believe he will say that I have not been unuseful to his negotiation. I shall take care in forming the defensive alliance to follow your lordship’s instructions in relation to the guaranty of the Provinces in Germany and of the Duchy of Sleswick.’ What is further remarkable here is that this is not a dispatch to the King, but between two British ministers, indicating the extent to which Hanoverian concerns were part of their remit. But then as Carteret remarked, he believed ‘the Electoral interests are inseparable from the royal ones’ in Sweden. Both shared the overriding aim of containing Russia. In the end, the Swedes conceded the loss of Bremen and Verden, essentially because they had no choice. ‘Our success,’ Carteret reported, ‘is owing chiefly to the Tsar. He at the gates of Stockholm has reasoned the best for us.’ Wisely, he did not crow about his victory in Stockholm, but rather sought to conciliate the browbeaten Swedes and motivate them for the coming showdown with Russia. ‘I am never for pushing a victory too far,’ Carteret remarked sagely.

British Preventive War in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, 1718–1719 Part II

John Norris by Godfrey Kneller in 1711. As a flag officer, Norris was sent with a fleet to the Baltic Sea to support a coalition of naval forces from Russia, Denmark and Hanover taking in the Great Northern War. Tsar Peter took personal command of the coalition fleet and appointed Norris as his deputy in 1716: together they protected British and other allied merchant vessels from attack by warships of the Swedish Empire. In November 1718, following the death of Charles XII of Sweden, Britain switched sides and Norris returned to the region to protect British merchant shipping from attack by Russian raiders. Norris also acted as a commissioner in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Nystad which ended the War in September 1721.

The Battle of Grengam, 1720 by Ferdinand Victor Perrot. The Battle of Grengam of 1720 was the last major naval battle in the Great Northern War that took place in the Åland Islands, in the Ledsund strait between the island communities of Föglö and Lemland. The battle marked the end of Russian and Swedish offensive naval operations in Baltic waters. The Russian fleet conducted one more raid on the Swedish coast in spring 1721, whereupon the Treaty of Nystad was signed, ending the war.

If George’s British and Hanoverian ministers agreed on Sweden, they were bitterly divided over how to proceed in the southern Baltic. Here too the Hanoverians feared Russian power, which still threatened the Electorate from Mecklenburg in the north-east and, more remotely, from Poland in the east, where Russian troops were stationed. One Hanoverian described the Tsar’s forces, sent to Mecklenburg to support its Duke against his nobility, as ‘as much Vandals as Russians’. Bernstorff turned to the Austrians for help. The treaty he proposed in July 1718 was intended to block passage through Poland, and thereby ‘prevent the Tsar and Sweden from intimidating the King [George] or the Polish Republic into joining them and thus opening the door for them to return to the [German] Empire whenever it pleased them’. Before entering into any such alliance, however, the Austrians wanted to know whether George would ‘join the alliance as King as well and [whether] he would support it with an adequate fleet’. It was exactly the same issue which had complicated the coalition against Sweden and contributed to the Whig split in England. But Bernstorff had in the meantime fallen out with Stanhope and Sunderland and was in no position to make any such commitment on Britain’s behalf. In the end he had to go behind Stanhope’s back and provide a written undertaking that George would protect Danzig and Elbing with the naval resources at his disposal.

The resulting Austro-Hanoverian treaty of January 1719 was designed to stabilize the situation in Poland and Mecklenburg. It was concluded by George in his capacity as Elector only, not as King of England. Both parties undertook to maintain the territorial integrity of Poland; external powers should not be permitted to meddle in Poland’s internal affairs or to undermine the domestic cohesion necessary for it to act as a buffer state. The parties to the contract also undertook to enforce a resolution of the Reichstag – which Charles had blessed two years earlier – calling upon the Duke of Mecklenburg to come to terms with his nobility. In reality, of course, the intention was not so much to uphold imperial law as to contain the Tsar: after all, what was the point of slamming the front door shut in Poland if the Russians could arrive by sea through the back entrance in Mecklenburg? This intervention – known as a Reichsexekution – went ahead successfully in late February and early March 1719. The Russians abandoned Karl Leopold, Duke of Mecklenburg, and withdrew from Poland. To everybody’s relief, George was never called upon to fulfil his commitment to use the Royal Navy to defend the Polish ports of Danzig and Elbing against the Russians.

Stanhope watched these developments with alarm. He had been deliberately sidelined over the Austrian treaty, which was directed at least as much against Prussia as against Peter the Great. Bernstorff’s worries about Russia in 1716–18 had been genuine, but they were largely limited to Mecklenburg; even the ejection from Poland was secondary. In fact, most Hanoverians were relatively relaxed about the Russian threat once the situation in Mecklenburg was resolved and the Royal Navy was on its way. Prussia, by contrast, was a much more immediate threat in geopolitical terms. Bernstorff’s view was also heavily coloured by the fact that he owned three villages which the King of Prussia had promised to cede to Hanover by the Treaty of 1715, but which he had so far stubbornly refused to evacuate. Stanhope, on the other hand, saw Berlin as crucial to the ring of containment around Russia in the Baltic. He was horrified by Bernstorff’s unconstitutional and – as he saw it – impolitic promise to use the Royal Navy to defend Polish ports against the Prussians and Russians. As Schulenburg reported at the height of Bernstorff’s discussions with the Austrians, ‘the English ministers are very unsettled by the fact that one does not keep them at all informed on the plans and views one has on the affairs of the north. They would be seriously embarrassed if called to account by the House of Commons, or to explain the cost of the squadron that has been sent there.’

Instead, Stanhope was determined to conclude an alliance with Berlin in 1719, so that the Prussian army and the Royal Navy might combine to rein in Peter the Great. In this spirit, the British ambassador in Berlin approached the Prussian king and ‘represented the advantage and necessity of establishing such a friendship on a solid foundation in respect to the ties of blood, the situation of their states, their common interests in the Empire and the Protestant religion’. As far as Stanhope was concerned, Bernstorff’s policy was bad for both British and Hanoverian interests. The resources necessary to take on both Frederick William and Peter were simply not available. ‘We should not be able at the same time to break with the Tsar and the King of Prussia,’ Stanhope told Carteret. ‘The King’s territories would thereby be exposed to too evident dangers to which we should not be in a condition to resist.’ This in turn would expose him to another round of parliamentary clobbering at a time when his northern policy was already under pamphlet attack. The ministry, in fact, could ill afford the continuing divisions between Whig and Tory, and among Whigs. Re-establishing domestic unity was central to a strong foreign policy, and yet the direction of policy was a matter of intense political controversy. Thus when George and Stanhope tried to conciliate the Tories over domestic issues, even offering to drop measures in favour of Dissenters in return for parliamentary support on foreign policy, they found that continuing differences over that policy proved insuperable.

These concerns interacted with a developing high-political confrontation between the Hanoverians, particularly Bernstorff, and the court Whigs over the Peerage Bill of 1718–19. This measure was the brainchild of Sunderland and was enthusiastically adopted by Stanhope. It severely limited the number of new peerages which George’s successor would be able to confer. Ostensibly this was intended to prevent a repeat of the massive surge of Tory peerages in the years before 1714, and to make Britain a more reliable partner on the international scene by reducing instability. The real motive, however, was the determination of the court Whigs to secure themselves against the reversionary interest after George’s death. The King himself was persuaded of its merits, if only in order to torment the Prince. Predictably, the Bill was rejected by the Tories, by Townshend and by Walpole, in his case on the not altogether plausible grounds that it precluded the upward corporate mobility which made the English system go around. It was also, of course, furiously opposed by the Prince of Wales, who saw in it a means not only of ‘attacking’ him but perhaps a first step towards excluding him from the throne altogether. As Caroline reported to Mrs Clayton, she and the Prince were ‘working like dogs’ to prevent it; she recounted with some pride and clear Germanic intonation her success in mobilizing ‘Torries’ and ‘Vecks’ (Whigs) against the Bill.

What Stanhope and Sunderland had perhaps not reckoned with was the resistance or at best ambivalence of the Hanoverian ministers. To be sure, Germans were keen to do the King’s bidding; but they were not prepared to be a party to depriving the Prince of his birthright. For this reason, they not only persisted with their attempts to bring about a reconciliation between father and son, they also opposed anything which tended to deepen the rift or force them to take sides. Besides, Bernstorff was unhappy with any measure that tended to curb the royal prerogative. The result was a rapid breakdown in relations between him and the court Whigs. Moreover, the German ministers seemed to be on the verge of successfully mediating the royal split. From the point of view of Stanhope and Sunderland, the reconciliation threatened to endanger their relationship with George, which had been at least partly based on their staunch partisanship during the estrangement. Unbolting the ‘German’ ministers now became a priority.

Against this background, the gulf that was opening up between Stanhope and Bernstorff on the Prussian issue was a threat, but it was also an opportunity. Crucially, George himself came around to the Prussian alliance, and had always differed with Bernstorff about the magnitude of the Russian threat. Just as Stanhope had used Baltic policy in 1716–17 to supplant Townshend, he now exploited the question of a Prussian alliance to consolidate his position yet further with the King and to wrap himself in the patriotic rhetoric of British interests over Hanoverian sectionalism. Bernstorff’s concern with Mecklenburg and his three villages, which had formed such an important part of the opposition Whig critique in 1716–17, now made Stanhope’s breeze to blow. The fact that an alliance with Lutheran and Calvinist Prussia could be spun in favour of the ‘Protestant interest’ in Germany – whereas Bernstorff had just concluded a pact with the Empire’s foremost Catholic prince – did Stanhope no harm at all with British public opinion. This was because a row had erupted in the Empire which was to set the tone for British foreign policy in the coming decade.

In September 1719, the Catholic Elector Palatine Charles Philip banned the Protestant catechism in his territories, and evicted the reformed congregation from the Heiliggeistkirche in his capital of Heidelberg. This was a direct violation of the Treaty of Westphalia, which had laid down that Catholics and Protestants should enjoy the Simultaneum, that is share the church in question. Even if they had wanted to, George and the ministry could not have ignored this challenge to the religious status quo in central Europe. A cry went up not only in Germany itself, but also in Britain. Almost immediately, the September 1719 edition of the Political state of Great Britain warned that the Elector’s coup was regarded as part of a pan-European attack on Protestantism. Two months later, the House of Lords passed an address in support of the Palatine Protestants. Their cause and that of European Protestants was thought by many to be one and the same. The Palatinate, after all, was where the fatal critique of the Stuarts had begun exactly one hundred years earlier. The Protestant outworks of Britain were once again under threat.

As in the seventeenth century, this was not so much a religious as a strategic judgement. Austria had exhausted its potential usefulness to George: the Spanish threat in the Mediterranean had been seen off, and Vienna was of limited use in the Baltic. Moreover, the Austrians were dragging their heels on the investitures for Bremen and Verden. Taking on Vienna over the Palatine also enabled George to bid for control of the Corpus Evangelicorum, still nominally presided over by the Catholic King of Poland, and to pre-empt Prussian ambitions there. But the really decisive factor was the growing sense that the ambitions of Emperor Charles VI in Germany and the Mediterranean represented a threat to European stability, and thus to the security of Britain itself. It was in this context that the spectre of another Catholic League in Germany revived memories of the bitter defeat of the Elector Palatine and European Protestantism in the 1620s. Only by shoring up the Empire, therefore, could Britain’s security be guaranteed. Indeed, in October 1719 and again in May 1720, Stanhope went so far as to suggest that Britain should join France and Sweden as a guarantor power of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. So when George took up the cause of the Palatine Protestants he was motivated by more than just religious solidarity, however genuine, or the desire to improve Hanover’s standing in the Empire. He was positioning himself within a Protestant English discourse about grand strategy.

In these circumstances, Bernstorff’s strongly pro-imperial leanings were a liability. The showdown took place in Hanover, in the course of George’s visit in the summer of 1719. He was accompanied, once again, not only by his retinue, his German ministers, some favoured English aristocrats and various foreign diplomats, but also by Stanhope as Secretary of State. If at first sight Stanhope appeared outnumbered and on foreign turf, he had taken the precaution of loosening some of Bernstorff’s teeth in advance by conspiring with his rivals in Hanover, particularly George’s Hanoverian secretary, Johann Philip von Hattorf and Görtz. In late June/early July, they struck: Hattorf presented a memorandum of complaint against Bernstorff’s management of business, while Stanhope used the question of a Prussian alliance to undermine his position with the King. Their victim does not seem to have put up very much resistance, perhaps because he was no longer in the best of health. Even before his departure for Hanover, Schulenburg had noted with a certain schadenfreude that Bernstorff was ‘extremely weak and dispirited’ from gout, and that he was ‘declining strongly and losing his memory’. Bernstorff received no help from Robethon, with whom he had also fallen out. The movements of the various parties in late June 1719 say it all: Bernstorff repaired to his estates to lick his wounds, Robethon stayed in Hanover, while the triumphant Hattorf and Stanhope joined George for the waters at Bad Pyrmont. On the first day of August, Admiral Norris was told henceforth to take instruction only from Stanhope.

Court Whigs were quick to claim this as a victory of English over ‘German’ interests, and later generations of historians were inclined to agree. As Sunderland reported to Newcastle from George’s hunting lodge in Hanover, ‘The world will be convinced by what the King will both say and do that neither Bernstorff nor Cadogan [William, Earl of Cadogan, a Privy Councillor and a highly influential Whig] have any credit & that he will not suffer any foreigner to meddle in our affairs, this you may depend upon.’ Stanhope echoed this view a week later: ‘I cannot promise that the old man [Bernstorff] will be left behind,’ he wrote, ‘but I may safely assure your grace that though he should come the King will do whatever shall be proposed to him to make everybody sensible that he is not to meddle in English business.’ Back in London, Newcastle faithfully spread the word. What the King had done, he wrote, ‘must please all those that pretend to be Englishmen and Whigs. He has told Mr Bernstorff & all the rest of the Germans that if ever they pretend in any manner whatsoever to meddle in English affairs, he will turn them out of his service & have nothing more to do with them.’ It now appeared that, as Sunderland claimed, ‘our affairs in all parts go as well as can be wished’. Newcastle also exulted that ‘Everything goes as well abroad as possible. As to the south, the Catalans will all take up arms for the recovery of their liberties. The courts of Sweden and Prussia do just what we would have them.’ He added that with the ‘figure our King makes abroad, the few enemies he has must be forced to submit’. Stanhope could now press ahead with his plans for a Prussian alliance directed against Russia, which was concluded in September 1719. A pact to support the Protestant cause in the Empire was agreed in May 1720. These negotiations were carried out with the full support and involvement of George, as Elector, and with the cooperation of his Hanoverian diplomats. The sidelining of Bernstorff and the conclusion of the Prussian alliance was therefore hardly the reassertion of British over ‘German’ interests, though it suited Stanhope to give that impression. Rather, it was the triumph of one form of ‘German’ policy over another.

The time seemed right to make a last effort to push through the Peerage Bill, which had been withdrawn after a first attempt in 1718. As Stanhope argued in late October 1719, now was the time to parlay diplomatic success into domestic political gain. The good news from Europe, he wrote, ‘prepares us to expect speedily the submission of Spain to our terms. Even the Tsar… is said to put water in his wine.’ He hailed ‘the prospect of seeing a peace both in the south and the north before next spring. This good situation will probably put our friends in good humour at our opening the parliament and it seems to us very advisable to make the best use and advantage possible of this good humour by getting the Peerage Bill.’ It was now or never for the Peerage Bill. Stanhope and Sunderland pulled out all the stops, even appealing to the Tories. ‘You are mad,’ one of the supporters of the Peerage Bill told a Jacobite: ‘if this Bill fails, there may be reconciliation in the royal family & then where is your hope?’ ‘Are these not honest people,’ Caroline commented bitterly, fearing the Bill would be the signal for a general assault on the Prince. ‘The prince,’ she wrote, ‘has reliable information that if the bill passes the House of Commons, one will attack him even to the point of excluding him [from the succession].’ But the combined forces of Walpole and the Prince and the Princess of Wales proved too strong. The Peerage Bill was finally defeated in the Commons in December 1719. This damaged the ministry, though as yet not fatally.

Despite a promising start, things also began to go badly in the Baltic. It was not the diplomacy that was at fault. As we have seen, Carteret had executed the difficult manoeuvre of allying with Sweden against Russia while despoiling her of Bremen and Verden on behalf of his monarch. At the same time, the British mediated a settlement between the Prussians and the Swedes, at some territorial cost to the latter; this was designed to enable a common front against the Tsar. The rhetoric of the Protestant cause was now deployed to rally Lutheran Sweden and Prussia against Russia. The Danes returned most of what they had grabbed, but were permitted to retain Schleswig, which they seized from the Swedish ally, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Hostilities between Sweden and Poland were brought to an end in 1720, again with significant British involvement. Stanhope’s grand plan for the reorganization of the North was taking shape. Peter the Great was now on his own.

The problem lay in the fraught and unpredictable application of military power. As soon as agreement with Sweden had been reached, Carteret began to implore Admiral Norris to move against the Russians. Norris, however, was a Baltic veteran, and he had been badly burned by the controversy over Bremen and Verden. He insisted on more explicit instructions from London before he would move. In the meantime, Carteret frantically urged him on. ‘The scales of the north are in your hand,’ he wrote in late August 1719. ‘You can cast the balance as you please. The cause of Liberty and the Protestant religion will be served by rescuing this brave nation [Sweden] and I know by experience how true a friend you are to those sentiments both at home and abroad.’ When Norris finally did take on the Russians, all he could do was to deter the Tsar from launching a landing on Sweden or from establishing an effective blockade. What he could not deliver was a decisive blow against the Russian navy. This was because the Tsar’s main fleet sheltered under the cover of shore batteries along the Baltic coast. Moreover, the Russians possessed numerous galleys and shallow draught vessels which could operate off islands and inlets where they could not be engaged by Norris’s force. There was thus no way of preventing the devastation of the Swedish coast, the consequent growth of war-weariness in Stockholm, and the progressive disintegration of the anti-Russian coalition.

To make matters worse, Stanhope failed to mobilize Prussian, Polish and Austrian ground forces to attack Peter the Great across his western border. The principal reason for this lay in Berlin: Frederick William of Prussia could just about grasp that a residue of Swedish power should be preserved to counterbalance Russia, but he was too terrified of Peter and too mistrustful of Britain to move to open conflict. In short, by late 1720 the policy of containment of Russia was in ruins. Sir Josiah Burchett, Secretary of the Admiralty, summed up the British predicament in the Baltic in a pamphlet published that year. ‘What will be the event of the accession of so great a power by Sea and Land,’ he wrote, ‘in the hands of a Prince, Master of so wide a Dominion, peopled with such infinite multitudes, and what alterations in the affairs and interests of Europe it may occasion, I leave to the politicians to discuss.’ Six years into the Hanoverian succession, therefore, there was still no cause for complacency.

All the same, a great deal had been achieved. Britain’s traditional European alliances with the Emperor and the Dutch had been restored. France had been first contained, and then – from 1716–co-opted into a collaborative management of the European balance. As the Undersecretary of State, George Tilson, put it in October 1721 after Stanhope’s death, ‘I think he made… use of France both in the North and the South, for things which were necessary to us.’ The sense of isolation and disengagement which had characterized British policy immediately before and after the Treaty of Utrecht had been overcome. Britain was now a German power, and the better for it. The new King had brought with him a wealth of expertise in himself and his Hanoverian ministers, which was to stand Britain in good stead in central and northern Europe. A sustained popular and parliamentary critique of the German connection had been weathered, though by no means suppressed. Jacobite challenges, particularly in 1715 and 1719, had been seen off; no effective collaboration between the Pretender and a foreign power had been established. The threat of Spanish expansionism in the Mediterranean had been contained, at least for the time being, and British naval ascendancy there was copper-fastened by the French destruction of Spanish dockyards during the invasion of 1719. Above all, the interventionist orthodoxy in foreign policy, which had been eclipsed under the Tories, was re-established. Overseas interests were not neglected, but kept in proportion to Britain’s primary concern of maintaining the European balance of power. The Royal Navy had been used extensively, but generally as an instrument in European politics: in 1715–17 against the Swedes in the Baltic, in 1718 against the Spaniards in the Mediterranean, and in 1719–20 in the Baltic again, this time to intimidate Russia. At the beginning of 1720, therefore, the Whig ministers had some grounds for satisfaction. They could not have foreseen that British politics were about to be thrown into turmoil by a bolt, if not quite out of the blue, then at least from the deep blue sea. The first of many eighteenth-century colonial bubbles was about to burst in their faces.

THE ARROW LEAVES THE BOW

Admiral Philips still convinced that the Fleet’s guns could ward off an air attack and satisfied that if he remained more than 200 miles from the coast of Indo-China he would be beyond range of Japanese aircraft, Phillips went ahead. According to one officer, Phillips told the assembled meeting: ‘I feel we have got to do something.’ Another recalled: ‘Admiral Phillips summed up in words something like this – “We can stay in Singapore. We can sail away to the East – Australia. Or we can go out and fight. Gentlemen, we sail at five o’clock.”’

The Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Express, Electra, Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, cleared the dockyard boom at 1735 that evening and slowly increased speed to a steady 17 knots. Now identified by the code-name Force Z the squadron was headed by the flagship with the Repulse following 4 cables astern, and the ruddy glow of a spectacular tropical sunset painted a lurid backcloth above the port horizon as the ships altered course north-eastwards.

As the Japanese war machine was embarked for the Malay peninsula on 4 December in an armada of twenty-seven transport ships, its commander, Yamashita Tomoyuki, penned a poem:

On the day the sun shines with the moon

The arrow leaves the bow

It carries my spirit towards the enemy

With me are a hundred million souls

My people of the East

On this day when the moon shines

And the sun both shine.

Yamashita was the son of a country physician, but groomed by his father to be a career soldier from an early age. He had risen fast. He was an imposing physical presence; when on a peacetime posting to Korea he had taken up calligraphy and used the nom de plume ‘Daisen’, or ‘Giant Cedar’. He was a political general in whom many had seen a rival to Tojo, a man with whom, in his early career, Yamashita had been close. They became estranged when radical, reformist young officers of the ‘Imperial Way’ clique looked to Yamashita for leadership. When some of them were involved in a failed coup d’état in February 1936, Yamashita had interceded for them by insisting that an imperial representative should witness their suicides. This impertinence incurred the wrath of the emperor. In many ways, Yamashita saw his subsequent career as an act of expiation for this transgression. Thereafter, even on campaign, he would always place his desk to face the imperial palace in Tokyo. He fought in North China and was entrusted with a mission to Nazi Germany in June 1941, where Hitler and Goring had briefed him on Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. On his return from Europe, he was posted by Tojo out of sight to Manchukuo, but such were his abilities that he was suddenly recalled to Tokyo when the government took the decision to go to war with the West. Only on 8 November 1941 was he given command of the 25th Army: three divisions of 60,000 men. On joining his command at its great muster in Hainan island, Yamashita announced he would be in Singapore by New Year’s Day.

There was hard calculation behind Yamashita’s optimism. Japanese planners were by now well briefed on British weaknesses. In November 1940, a British ship, SS Automedon, had been sunk in the Indian Ocean by a German raider. It was carrying to Singapore the pessimistic defence appreciations of the Imperial General Staff and, with them, a clear indication that Britain was unable adequately to reinforce Malaya. This golden trove of documents had been passed on to Tokyo. But Yamashita also knew that, should he fail, his career would be at an end. His officers were experienced, but most were unknown to him. Many key commanders, such as the sinister planning chief Masanobu Tsuji, were closely identified with his rival Tojo. The men of two of his divisions, the 5th and 18th, were hardened veterans of the war in China. They were supported by the elite Imperial Guard. Yamashita’s first order in assuming command in the field was ‘no looting, no rape, no arson’. To Yamashita, the war was not only one of liberation of subject peoples of Asia, but a sacred task undertaken beneath the full gaze of world opinion. On board the ship, each soldier was given a copy of Masanobu Tsuji’s booklet: Read This Alone and the War Can Be Won. It described war in ‘a world of everlasting summer’: the jungle and mangrove terrain, the food and hygiene, even etiquette in a mosque and local toilet habits (‘the left hand is regarded as unclean’). Soldiers were ordered to ‘show compassion to those who have no guilt’. But, ominously, they were also warned of the ‘Overseas Chinese’: they were extortionists and beyond the pale of any appeal to ‘Asian brotherhood’.

The armada soon ran into cloud. As it broke, around 3 p.m. on 6 December, 300 miles out from the coast of Malaya, the pilot of an Australian Hudson flying out of Kota Bahru sighted the ships. The message was radioed back to British commanders. Both Heath in Kuala Lumpur and Percival, en route from there to Singapore, expected Brooke-Popham to launch Operation Matador. He did not do so. He felt he had insufficient evidence of Japan’s hostile intent. Although Ultra intercepts made it clear that Japan was planning a strike against both Thailand and Malaya, they also left open the possibility that a feint was underway to provoke a British breach of Thai sovereignty, which – as Crosby in Bangkok kept impressing upon Brooke-Popham – might have disastrous diplomatic consequences. Further aircraft were scrambled, and a Catalina flying-boat approaching the fleet on the morning of 7 December was shot down by a Japanese naval Zero. The Japanese task force fanned out towards its landing sites along the coast. Still Brooke-Popham hesitated, to the fury of his subordinates. Proof positive of hostile intent came only with a sighting of warships and transports off Patani and Kota Bahru on the evening of 7 December. By this time Matador became, as it has remained, an academic exercise: it was never launched. Percival declared that it was now ‘unsound’ as it was too late to deny the Japanese the key landing grounds in Thailand. By 1.35 a.m. on 8 December Japanese landings had begun at Kota Bahru. It was the first land battle of the great Asian war: the attack on Pearl Harbor was still several hours away. The battle for Kota Bahru centred on its aerodrome; the Japanese rained fire on its defences. In one day sixty Allied planes in northern Malaya were put out of action. There was a shocked mood of paralysis in the town. As British officials gathered in the residency on the night of 8 December, there was ‘an eerie quietness’ in the air. ‘There was absolutely nothing to do,’ one recalled. It was never intended to defend Kota Bahru. The British commander took the view that once the European women and children were evacuated and the Sultan of Kelantan and his wives had withdrawn to his private residence inland, there was nothing there to defend. The Indian garrison fought back to the railhead at Kuala Krai. In the chaos of the retreat, the 1st Hyderabads who guarded the aerodrome killed their British senior officer. After the aerodrome fell, largely intact, the remaining civilians were ordered out. They told their Malay colleagues to stay at their posts and hope for the best. Kota Bahru would set a pattern to be repeated across the entire peninsula.

Shenton Thomas’s initial reaction to the landings would later haunt his memory: ‘I suppose you’ll shove the little men off’, he is said to have commented. The British had been blinded by racial assumptions: that the Japanese were small, myopic and with a level of military achievement below that even of the Italians. But Allied commanders were soon to concede that the Japanese were far tougher than their own troops. Many of the men of the 18th Division were hardy Kyushu coalminers. Wavell himself called them ‘an army of highly trained gangsters’. Most of the British soldiers had not seen combat before. Their steel helmets and respirators were superfluous; the Japanese went to war in shorts, a light shirt and plimsolls. This was inelegent but effective. The assumption that the Japanese could not tolerate jungle conditions was an irrelevance. ‘Malaya had the best roads in the British Empire’, wrote one engineer shortly afterwards, ‘with the possible exception of Great Britain.’ The Japanese hurtled down them, bypassing British prepared positions. Each Japanese division had been issued with 6,000 bicycles. Years of Japanese imports had left a profusion of spare parts in the towns and villages of Malaya. The ‘bicycle Blitzkrieg’ was strikingly effective; Allied troops mistook the sound of it for the rumble of tanks. One Japanese officer noted that those who had made the long journey down the peninsula, often cycling twenty hours a day, afterwards ‘had a lot of trouble in walking’.

Shenton Thomas had assumed, as did most of Malaya, that a British counterblow would come swiftly. One potential response was a rapid response from the Royal Navy. Yet on 8 December Admiral Phillips was in Manila, and there was no agreement in London as to Force Z’s role. Phillips initially planned to make for Darwin and then, in a symbolic gesture of Anglo-Saxon solidarity, to support the remnants of the US Pacific Fleet. Given the failure to repel the landings in the northeast of the peninsula, Phillips steamed north, leaving Singapore on the late afternoon of 8 December, to engage and destroy the Japanese landing flotilla. It was a bold, risky undertaking. Phillips demanded air cover off the Malayan coast at daylight on 10 December. He was told as he sailed that ‘Fighter protection on Wednesday 10th will not be possible’. Phillips had to rely on surprise. But late on 8 December he was sighted by Japanese aircraft, and decided to turn back to Singapore. He had almost come within sight of the Japanese strike force. Then, just before midnight, came reports of further Japanese landings at Kuantan. Force Z turned to meet them. Phillips did not ask for air cover, probably because he believed none was available, and that he was out of range of Japanese strike aircraft. He also believed in maintaining radio silence at sea. In the event, the Air Force did not know where he was. Neither, initially, did the Japanese. From Indo-China thirty bombers and fifty torpedo bombers had been despatched early on 10 December to find Force Z; they had flown far to the south, and, low on fuel, were returning home, when, just after 11 a.m., the cloud broke and the ships were sighted and attacked. Repulse and Prince of Wales were sunk. Phillips went down with his flagship and 840 men. Fighters had been scrambled from Singapore on the news of the attack. They arrived in time to see the destroyers picking up survivors. The sea lanes to Ceylon, India and Darwin lay open and unprotected.

On the same night as the Kota Bahru landings, the first air raids struck Singapore. They hit the shopping arcades of Raffles Place, blew out the windows of the department stores and threw up the turf of the Padang. But Chinatown bore the worst of it: around sixty people were killed. There was no blackout. The head of air-raid precautions was at the cinema at the time. Lim Kean Siew, son of the Penang Straits Chinese notable Lim Cheng Ean, witnessed the event with his student friends from the elite Raffles College. Its Class of ’41 included men who would dominate the government and politics of Singapore and Malaya for two generations, including two future prime ministers and one future king. ‘The heavens have opened’, commented one student. ‘The heavens had indeed opened for us’, Lim Kean Siew wrote. ‘From a languid, lazy and lackadaisical world, we were catapulted into a world of somersaults and frenzy from which we would never recover.’ Like many of his friends, Lim left Singapore and headed up-country for Penang to be met on arrival with word of the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse. This event stunned Britain’s Asian empire more deeply than any of the worse news that was later to come. The relentless demonstration of Japanese technological prowess did more to break civilian and military resistance than any other factor. Few people knew the fleet had even put to sea. The kingpin of the China Relief Fund, Tan Kah Kee, was called at his millionaires’ club on the night of 12 December with the ‘terrible news. I could not sleep a wink all night… the enemy had already landed on mainland Malaya, and since the enemy bombers were this effective, it seemed unlikely that Singapore could be defended’. When he was told the next day that the British treasurer had removed government bonds worth $8 million from the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation, ready for them to be burnt, he concluded that the British had no intention of defending the island.

The main thrust of the Japanese advance shifted to the west coast. The British default defence of the borderlands, Krohcol, failed, and Heath’s III Corps fell back into northern Malaya. Yamashita had ordered kiromomi sakusen, a ‘driving charge’. His 5th Division and Imperial Guards competed against each other in the advance. The first of a series of theoretical lines of defence for the British was at Jitra in Kedah. Tsuji commented later that it should have held out for three months, but it collapsed in fifteen hours when Japanese tanks threw its defenders into demoralized confusion. Yamashita celebrated this at his forward HQ in the state capital of Alor Star whilst his troops foraged for ‘Churchill supplies’ of abandoned tinned food and fuel for their vehicles. Yamashita had now captured four ‘Churchill aerodromes’. The tactical retreat and piecemeal British defence of the north created chaos within Heath’s forces. For the remainder of the campaign they were unable to fall back to properly prepared positions. He told Percival that the only practical recourse was to draw back further and form a more robust line of defence in Perak. Vast military stores were abandoned. Within a month of hostilities 3,000 vehicles were crammed into northern Malaya. But within another month they had changed direction. Their Asian drivers were the principal targets of Japanese war planes. In Perak planters were recalled from their soldiery to get their labourers to work on defence projects in the state; they too were attacked from the air. Many of them fled, as people began to abandon the towns of northern Malaya.

The moral collapse of British rule in Southeast Asia came not at Singapore, but at Penang. The retreat through Perak had left Britain’s oldest possession in Malaya stranded. It too was a fortress with a designated ‘fortress commander’. But the decision was taken not to defend it. This gave the Japanese assault when it came, on 9 and 10 December, a terrible surreal quality. For the first two days Japanese planes flew reconnaissance missions, unchallenged. To E. A. Davis, an employee of the Eastern Smelting Company working as a volunteer fireman, it was ‘just like an aeronautical display’. The whole of Georgetown turned out to watch. However, on Thursday 11 December the planes attacked with bombs and almost continuous machine-gun fire. The spectators were hit in their hundreds. ‘They watched with fascination’, wrote Lim Kean Siew, ‘not knowing what was coming as a shoal of fish would stay to watch in silence as a fisherman surrounds them with a net.’ A downtown market was a principal target. Parked handcarts with their handles pointing skywards had been mistaken for ack-ack guns.

An English doctor, Oscar Fisher, recorded in his diary that the scene was like H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds come to life. Refugees fled Georgetown to the suburbs and villages around Penang Hill. The centre of the metropolis had moved overnight. By evening of the first day traffic control, food distribution and policing were largely maintained by Asian and Eurasian ARP wardens and auxiliary firemen. The general hospital was overwhelmed by around 700 casualties: of these 126 died in the first twenty-four hours. There was no anesthetist available and amputations were carried out in the conditions of a nineteenth-century battlefield. There were fourteen operating tables being worked at once. ‘Everybody that could hold a knife was doing all sorts of operations’. The stench of gangrene was appalling. The full extent of the butchery was impossible to assess; it was two to three days before the fallen could be buried.35 Bodies still lay on the streets after the city’s capitulation. The resident commissioner estimated the number of dead and injured at 3,000; some 1,000 lay under the rubble. Army disposal units were overcome by the stench even wearing gas masks. Then came cholera and typhoid.

Japanese radio broadcasts taunted the British: ‘you English gentlemen: “How do you like our bombing? Isn’t it a better tonic than your whisky soda?”’ In the crisis, the politics of racial segregation within colonial society were taken to their brutish extreme. According to one British volunteer fireman who managed to escape, the resident commissioner of Penang, L. Forbes, forbade fire crews to take pumps past a line drawn along Penang Road, a commercial thoroughfare that divided the main area of European settlement from the Asian shophouses of Georgetown. Efforts were to be concentrated on residential property. The rest could burn. When the blazes later spread, he refused to have European homes destroyed as a firebreak. Firemen believed the Japanese planes were targeting them: of the 200 on duty, around sixty perished. The European evacuation was surreptitious and ignominious. The order to leave came quietly in the night on 16 December. Europeans gathered at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, many of them under strict orders, disgusted at leaving their local staff and servants. Dr Fisher was told abruptly that it was ‘total war’ and he was needed elsewhere. Europeans crowded to the docks on every conceivable form of transport: six people to a rickshaw. At the quayside, the one senior Asian civil servant who had been served the order, the Chinese judge and Volunteer Force officer Lim Khoon Teik, was turned out of the boat, yet the fortress commander still managed to get his car on board. The quay was cordoned off by armed volunteers. Survivors from the Prince of Wales manned the ferries that evacuated the women. J. A. Quitzow, like many single women, had demanded to stay but was ordered out. The manner of the British withdrawal, she wrote a few weeks later, was ‘a thing which I am sure will never be forgotten or forgiven’.

There was no British officer to surrender the island to its new masters. It was M. Saravanamuttu, the Indian editor of the English language newspaper, the Straits Echo, who lowered the Union flag at Fort Cornwallis the next morning. Only one European stayed on the island, a doctor in the general hospital. The news of the surrender of the town was delivered to the Japanese by a Eurasian racehorse trainer, who cycled twenty-one miles to the command at Sungei Patani to tell them and to request that the bombing cease. Thus, over a century and a half of British rule came to an end.

The outrage at the desertion of Penang was inflamed by Duff Cooper’s statement, in a radio broadcast from Singapore on 22 December, that ‘the majority of the population had been evacuated’, and by accompanying images of Europeans disembarking from the ferries to tea and sympathy on the dockside at Singapore. Shenton Thomas had assured the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements a few days earlier that there would be ‘no distinction of race’. But this was already contradicted by the military’s offer of free passages out for service wives. By the end of December the work of European women was on such a scale, with several hundreds in ‘essential war services’, that Thomas continued to resist the compulsory evacuation of married women without children and wondered if any compulsion should be placed on unmarried women to leave. And, as Percival too recognized, they worked side by side with Asian women. Duff Cooper and the governor were at loggerheads on the issue. The War Cabinet discussed it on the same day as Duff Cooper’s speech and Churchill affirmed the earlier principle of non-discrimination. ‘But’, the Cabinet noted, ‘this might not be so easy, since Chinese and Malayans would not be permitted to land in many countries.’ At this point only fifty Chinese and fifty Europeans had been given entry to the Commonwealth of ‘white’ Australia. Ceylon would only take 500 refugees and wanted preference given to the Ceylonese of Malaya. One solution was to take a token few non-European civilians out, land them in the Dutch East Indies and turn round the ships as quickly as possible. The application of this policy was left to the discretion of Duff Cooper. But he believed that it was scandalous to evacuate British troops first ‘and to leave the women and children to the tender mercies of a cruel Asiatic foe’.

Yamashita was enraged by reports of indiscipline in the wake of the capture of Penang. He had offenders from the Kobaysahi Battalion court-martialled and executed. Their battalion and regimental commanders – who were still in the front line – were placed under close arrest for thirty days. The rumour of war created terror and disorder ahead of the Japanese vanguard. Horror stories reached Malaya from the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941. There had been a horrendous slaughter of civilians, over 2,000, as drunken Japanese soldiers ran amok in the flush of victory. European nurses had been raped and killed. Their patients had been bayoneted. British propaganda had played not only on the impregnability of Malaya’s defences, but on Japanese atrocities in China, particularly against women. It had striking success. So much so that when the British ceased to have faith in their ability to defend their own womenfolk, colonial rule shed much of its threadbare legitimacy. The loyalty of key servants of the eastern Raj was severely shaken. In Singapore, Sikh policemen were read a statement by the inspector general of police to explain the abandonment of many of their colleagues in Penang; they were told to accept it as ‘the fortune of war’. Reading it to them, their immediate senior officer added his personal assurance that he would stick by them in Singapore. He was later to escape the island. Japanese propaganda played on these betrayals. ‘Malayan and Indian soldiers!’ it proclaimed, ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and cooperate with the Nippon Army!’

The leader of the Indian Independence League in Bangkok, Pritam Singh, called on overseas Indians ‘to eliminate the Anglo-Saxon from the whole of Asia’. Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, another Japanese intelligence officer who saw himself in the T. E. Lawrence mould, flew down from Bangkok with Pritam Singh to establish a branch of the IIL at Alor Star in Kedah. Fujiwara approached a disaffected Sikh captain of the 1/14 Punjab named Mohan Singh, who had been stranded in the retreat and surrendered near Jitra on 15 December. Fujiwara was impressed by the authoritative bearing and sense of discipline of the Indian army officer. He was enlisted to control Indian stragglers in the north, and persuaded to organize them into a new fighting force. It was to be an Indian National Army. From the outset, Mohan Singh impressed on the Japanese that the soldiers were ‘a very strange mixture’ and were dispirited by the fighting. It would take time to build and prepare a force. At a meeting in Alor Star on New Year’s Eve, the Indian officers involved insisted they would not fight in Malaya, but only in India, and then on equal terms with the Japanese. The name of Subhas Chandra Bose, still in Berlin, was mentioned. ‘In most cases’, Mohan Singh wrote to Fujiwara, ‘people worship him like a god.’ Mohan Singh came south with the advance, to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and finally Singapore. The POWs who came forward were given white armbands with the letter ‘F’ on them, to show they worked for Fujiwara’s organization. There were only 229 of them, but they added to the atmosphere of rumour and the disillusionment of Indian troops. Mohan Singh had brought into being, by this simple act, one of the great legends of the war in the East and a healing balm for India’s sense of self-respect. In Berlin, Subhas Bose learned of it almost immediately.

As European society rolled back down the peninsula it became entirely detached from the society it governed. The fall of Malaya was not only a military failure but a complete collapse of British administration. Alien artefact that it was, the Malayan Raj was very dependent on its technocratic achievements for legitimacy. The scorched-earth policy destroyed much of this and had a devastating psychological effect on the people of Malaya. Some questioned the policy; Percival himself was very conscious of the dangers of destroying Asian businesses. Many Europeans mourned a life’s work gone up in smoke. In Pahang, the British hastened to abandon not only the port of Kuantan but also the great lode tin mine, the largest in the empire, and the Raub gold mine. Everywhere the story was similar. Officials spent the last days of rule burning their papers, settling wages and dumping stores of rice. All useable transport, tanks, guns, agricultural and engineering plant, and even domestic animals, then joined the stampede south. In Trengganu, with the river bridges blown up and rumours of further Japanese landings at Kuantan, Europeans found themselves stranded, with no order to evacuate. The only way out was over the central range to Kuala Lipis. Fourteen Europeans, including two women, made a 120-mile forced march through the forest to the railhead, accompanied by two Malay policemen. The two European residents on Langkawi island north of Penang only heard about the fall of the north in a Japanese proclamation setting out the new arrangements of government. They fled by sampan and were picked up hundreds of miles south near Port Swettenham. Elsewhere, others took to the jungle.

By this time the industrial heartland of Perak and Selangor was no sanctuary. The casualties from air-raids on up-country towns were heavy; the first raid on Taiping claimed around sixty civilian lives. There was no alert and, again, the market and its surroundings were targeted. The army insisted on a curfew, with a shoot-on-sight policy, just as people began to take to the roads, especially along the coasts where more Japanese landings were expected. The British Resident in Perak was himself shot at as he evacuated, because there were several Malays in his car, who at this stage were all seen as suspect fifth columnists or looters. On 22 December the hotels and golf-courses of the Cameron Highlands were abandoned. The manager of the Cameron Highlands Hotel, Felix Inggold, described morosely to his client the Rajah of Sarawak how hé destroyed his Christmas stock of liquor, all $14,000 worth. As the British pulled out an emotional appeal was made to the Asian members of the local defence force to show their loyalty by remaining with their units. ‘After lengthy discussions amongst themselves, they settled the matter by resigning as a body’. This was repeated elsewhere. Communities had to take responsibility for their own defence. For Ho Thean Fook, a young primary school teacher in Papan in Perak, the first sign of the British rout came with the arrival of a Chinese propaganda theatre troupe from the mining centre of Ipoh. A young actor announced to the townspeople: ‘the British are treating their empire as property and handling the whole thing as if it were a business transaction’. The civic-minded had already taken basic services into their own hands. They had the presence of mind to lay on a tea party for the vanguard of the Imperial Army. As Japanese troops rolled in they demanded women. But in this, too, the townspeople were prepared: all the young women were in hiding. One local recognized the Japanese interpreter as the owner of a photography shop in nearby Ipoh.

On 20 December Port Swettenham was bombed, and on 26 December Klang and Kuala Lumpur. In Klang, Japanese planes came in low over the rubber estates and machine-gunned everything they saw. It was, the British ARP warden, wrote, ‘Klang’s Waterloo, for from that day it ceased to exist as an organised community’. The bombing had lasted less than a minute. Businesses closed, the streets cleared. In Kuala Lumpur, government buildings were demolished and the local watering place, the Spotted Dog, was hit. Kuala Lumpur was the scene of some of the most drastic scorched earth, with the destruction of railway stock and the great marshalling yards at Sentul. British soldiers resented the hard labour this involved. One subaltern saw a sign affixed to an army truck: ‘We are the wogs’. As many as 51 million cigarettes, $50,000 worth of whisky and 800 tons of meat in Cold Storage’s stockroom were destroyed. There was general looting, less for profit than for food from shuttered provision stores. On the night of 9 January the final clearance occurred. The general hospital was abandoned by the military, who had occupied it, and its patients consigned to the care of Asian doctors. Bangsar power station was blown up and the police disbanded. The residency was cleared in five cars and three lorries. The stokers for the trains south from Kuala Lumpur were again recruited from survivors of the Prince of Wales. The government veterinary officer at Banting, on the coast, with Tamil labour drove 2,300 head of government Bali cattle nearly fifty miles down the coast; this stampede was eventually to arrive in Singapore. It was estimated that three-quarters of the Asian population had left the town. One European, the medical officer of the leper settlement at Sungei Buloh, refused to leave. The patients were left with a little food and with 60,000 hoons of opium; 2,000 sufferers of a population of 3,000 were to die within two years. They were also to become a centre of support for guerrilla resistance to the Japanese.

For the Japanese, the principal obstacle on the road to Kuala Lumpur was a ‘rocky bastion’ at Kampar, a 4,000-feet high crag some ten miles south of the mining centre of Ipoh, which was evacuated by 26 December. The last to leave here were the Chinese and Eurasian girls who had manned the telephone exchanges for the military. The position was caught by a dramatic Japanese flank attack, using a flotilla of forty motor boats brought overland from the beachhead at Singora in Thailand and reassembled at the mouth of the Perak river. There were no Royal Navy ships to intercept them. Faced with the landings of Imperial Guards, the British were forced to fall back from Kampar to the Slim river, where Japanese medium tanks cut through the battered and exhausted troops of 11th Indian Division and all but broke it as a fighting force. There were few anti-tank rifles; key bridges were not blown up; stranded units fell into the hands of the Japanese. The road to Kuala Lumpur was open. The first Japanese troops entered the capital of what had been the Federated Malay States on the evening of 11 January. Lieutenant-Colonel Tsuji was among them: ‘This metropolis’, he recorded, ‘presented a dignified and imposing modern appearance.’ Passing through streets lined with Chinese shophouses, ‘We felt as though we had entered the crossroads of the central province of China.’

Hurricane Fighter into Battle I

Poland’s first Hurricanes were bought in 1939 but only one from an order for ten was delivered before the German invasion, the remaining nine being allocated to the RAF or diverted to Turkey instead. However, several expatriate Polish pilots flew Hurricanes within the RAF, with the first Polish-manned squadrons forming in Britain in 1940, of which Nos.302 and 303 (Polish) Squadrons took part in the Battle of Britain.

In total, seven Polish-manned squadrons, each named after a Polish city or individual, operated various Marks of Hurricane, namely: No.302 (City of Poznan); No.303 (Kosciuszko); No.306 (City of Torun); No.308 (City of Krakow); No.315 (City of Deblin); No.316 (City of Warsaw); No.317 (City of Wilno)

Pilots from 303 (Polish) Squadron: From the left Pilot Officer Miroslaw Feric, Flight Lieutenant John Kent, Pilot Officer Bohdan Grzeszczak, Pilot Officer Jerzy Radomski and Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach in the background, Pilot Officer Witold Lokuciewski, Flying Officer Zdzislaw Henneberg, Sergeant January Rogowski and Sergeant Eugeniusz Szaposznikow.

The Hurricane’s baptism of fire came on 21 October 1939, when A Flight of No.46 Squadron took off from RAF Digby, Lincolnshire, and was directed to intercept a formation of nine Heinkel He 115B floatplanes from 1./KüFlGr 906, searching for ships to attack in the North Sea. The He 115s had already been attacked and damaged by two No.72 Squadron Spitfires when the six No.46 Squadron Hurricanes intercepted the Heinkels which were flying at sea level in an attempt to avoid further attacks. Nevertheless the Hurricanes shot down three of them in rapid succession and damaged another (although No.46 claimed five and No.72 claimed two!)

By late 1939/1940, many of the early delivery machines were in the process of being updated with ‘metal’ wings, 1,030hp Merlin III engines, ejector exhaust manifolds, de Havilland and Rotol variable speed three-blade propellers, reflector gunsights instead of the original ring and bead type, internal and external armoured windscreens and armour-plated rear cockpit bulkheads – none of which could be achieved overnight of course – resulting in a range of modifications, for a while, that numbered an estimated twenty-seven different standards.

The Phoney War

In response to a request from the French government for ten fighter squadrons to provide air support, in addition to ten squadrons of Fairey Battles that were flown to bases in metropolitan France in late August/early September 1939, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command, argued that this number of fighters would severely deplete Fighter Command’s British defences, and so initially only a token force of four Hurricane squadrons, Nos.1, 73, 85 and 87, were sent to France in early September 1939, (all Spitfires being retained for Home defence). The RAF supplied two air contingents initially – the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) and the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The four Hurricane squadrons initially formed No.60 Wing within the Air Component of the BEF, but by the middle of September further RAF squadrons comprising Blenheim IV bombers and Lysander tactical reconnaissance and army co-operation aircraft started arriving. Over the following autumn and winter, the squadrons were rotated around various bases while Nos.1 and 73 Squadrons were detached from the BEF’s Air Component control during the winter to form No.67 Fighter Wing attached directly to the AASF.

On 30 October, Hurricane pilots experienced their first action over France. Pilot Officer P. W. O ‘Boy’ Mould of No.1 Squadron, flying L1842, shot down a Dornier Do 17P from 2.(F)/123, sent to photograph allied airfields close to the border, about 10 miles west of Toul, becoming the first RAF pilot to down an enemy aircraft on the continent in the Second World War. Flying Officer E. J. ‘Cobber’ Kain, a New Zealander, was responsible for No.73 Squadron’s first victory, on 8 November 1939, whilst stationed at Rouvres. He went on to become one of the RAF’s first ‘aces’ of the war, being credited with sixteen ‘kills’ before his death in a flying accident on 6 June 1940.

Hurricanes were also involved in the German invasion of Norway. On 9 April 1940, under codename Operation Weserübung the Wehrmacht invaded Denmark, which capitulated after a day, but Norway continued to resist. On 14 April Allied ground troops were landed in Norway, but by the end of the month, the southern parts of the country were in German hands. On 14 May 1940, No.46 Squadron embarked on HMS Glorious and sailed for an airfield near Harstad, Norway, to augment the Gladiators of No.263 Squadron operating from improvised airfields and the frozen lake at Lesjaskog, but they had to return with the carrier to Scapa Flow when the landing ground was found to be unusable.

On 26 May, ten of the squadron’s Hurricanes were flown off to Skaanland, but due to the soft surface two crashed on landing so the remainder were diverted to Bardufoss, sixty miles further north. After providing fighter cover for the Narvik area for two weeks the order to evacuate all Allied forces from Norway was received and, on 7 June, despite the lack of arrester hooks and no deck landing training, the squadron flew its surviving Hurricanes back on to Glorious’ deck – all landing safely. The squadron’s ground crews embarked in other ships and re-assembled at Digby, though tragically, HMS Glorious and her destroyer escort were intercepted by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during their return home, and sunk. Only two RAF officers survived the sinking, one being No.46’s CO, Squadron Leader K. B. B. (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth) Cross. Despite this disaster the squadron was operational again by the end of June, at Digby.

Battle of France

By the spring of 1940, it became rapidly apparent that the handful of Hurricane squadrons based in France would be woefully inadequate to offset an impending Luftwaffe avalanche. In May, three more Hurricane squadrons, Nos.3, 79 and 504, were sent to reinforce the earlier units as Germany’s Blitzkrieg gathered momentum. On 10 May, the first day of the Battle of France, Hurricane squadrons claimed forty-two Luftwaffe aircraft shot down for the loss of seven Hurricanes with none of the pilots killed. Hurricane units also escorted bombers, including those involved with the raids against the Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt bridges on the Meuse, at Maastricht by No.12 Squadron’s Fairey Battles on 12 May. The escort consisted of eight Hurricanes from No.1 Squadron, but when the formation approached Maastricht, it was bounced by Bf 109Es from 2./JG 27. Two Battles and two Hurricanes were shot down, two more Battles were brought down by flak and the fifth was forced to crash land.

On 13 May 1940, more Hurricanes arrived, bringing the total of Hurricane squadrons operating from French soil to ten – Nos. 1, 3, 73, 79, 85, 87, 242, 501, 504 and 615 Squadrons (No. 615 having exchanged its Gladiators for Hurricanes in the preceding weeks) – but heavy losses continued and by the end of the first week of fighting only three of the squadrons remained near operational strength. With ferocious air combat continuing from dawn to dusk, throughout May, the order was finally received on the afternoon of 20 May 1940 for all Hurricane units based in northern France to abandon their bases and return to the UK. During eleven days of fighting in France, between 10 to 21 May, Hurricane units claimed 499 ‘kills’ and 123 probables, although contemporary German records examined post-war, attribute 299 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and sixty-five seriously damaged by RAF fighters. Number 1 Squadron was the most successful of the campaign, claiming sixty-three victories for the loss of five pilots. On the evening of 21 May, the only Hurricanes still operating in France were those of the AASF that had been moved to bases around Troyes and when the last Hurricanes left France, of the 452 Hurricanes sent only sixty-six returned to bases in the UK with over 170 having to be abandoned at their airfields.

During Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of British, French and Belgian troops cut off by the German army surrounding Dunkirk – Hurricanes continued to operate from British bases and it was over Dunkirk that the Luftwaffe suffered its first serious rebuff of the war. Although operating from captured bases in France, the Bf 109 was at the outer limits of its range and possessed less flying time over the area than the defending Hurricanes (and Spitfires) operating from airfields in southern England. Luftwaffe bombers, many still based in western Germany with farther to fly, found that British fighter attacks often prevented them from performing to their customary, often uninterrupted, degree of effectiveness and both sides suffered heavy losses, which for the Luftwaffe, came as a bit of a shock. For instance, Fliegerkorps II reported in its War Diary that it lost more aircraft on 27 May attacking the evacuation area than it had lost in the previous ten days of the campaign.

Initial engagements with the Luftwaffe had showed the Hurricane to be a tight-turning and steady platform but the Watts two-bladed propeller was clearly unsuitable and its replacement with de Havilland and Rotol units was a priority. The Merlin III engine was designed to run on standard 87 octane aviation fuel, but from early 1940, increasing quantities of 100 octane fuel became available, which together with modifications to allow an additional 6psi of supercharger boost for five minutes, increased engine output by nearly 250hp and gave the Hurricane an approximate increase in speed of 25 to 35mph below 15,000ft, which greatly increased the aircraft’s climb rate. This form of emergency power was an important modification that allowed the Hurricane to be more competitive against the Bf 109E and to increase its margin of superiority over the Bf 110C, especially at lower altitudes.

Deliveries of new Hurricanes fitted with Rotol constant-speed propeller units (CSU) commenced in April/May 1940 and Hurricanes already in France were being retrofitted with Rotol CSUs by parties of the manufacturer’s engineers flying out from England to do the work. The Rotol CSU transformed the Hurricane’s performance and prompted de Havilland to undertake a modification programme of upgrading its older two-pitch propeller into a similar CSU, so that by the late spring/early summer of 1940, most frontline operational Hurricanes were fitted with either Rotol or de Havilland constant-speed propeller units.

The Battle of Britain

By the end of June 1940, following the fall and surrender of France on the 22nd, almost half of the RAF’s Fighter Command squadrons were equipped with Hurricanes. A short lull ensued whilst the Luftwaffe replaced its losses from the French Campaign and established itself on the airfields in the countries they had captured. In Britain this time was spent in putting as many new fighters and trained pilots into service as possible to prepare against the attack everyone knew was coming. The future of Britain was about to be decided in the skies above southeast England, and, as the country’s new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who took over the premiership on 10 May, put it, ‘What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin’

The Battle of Britain officially lasted from 10 July until 31 October 1940, with the heaviest fighting taking place between the beginning of August and mid-September. On 16 July, Hitler ordered the preparation of a plan to invade Britain, under ‘Directive No 16: The Preparation of a Landing Operation against England’ better known today as Operation Sealion. All preparations were to be made by mid-August and it was scheduled to take place in mid-September 1940. Sealion called for landings on the south coast of England, backed by an airborne assault. Neither Hitler nor the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces), believed it would be possible to carry out a successful amphibious assault on Britain until the RAF had been neutralised. It was believed that air superiority might make a successful landing possible although it would still be a very risky operation requiring absolute mastery over the Channel by the Luftwaffe.

The Battle went through a series of phases:

Phase 1: From 10 July to 11 August 1940, which saw a series of running fights over convoys in the English Channel and occasional attacks on coastal shipping, convoys and harbours, such as Portsmouth, by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers.

Phase 2: From 12 to 23 August 1940 when the Luftwaffe started to shift its attacks over to RAF airfields, the ground infrastructure and aircraft factories

Phase 3: Which saw intensified Luftwaffe attacks on RAF airfields from 24 August to 6 September 1940 – and came very close to destroying Fighter Command and its bases.

Phase 4: From 7 September to 31 October 1940, when the Luftwaffe changed its tactics and resorted to attacking areas of political significance such as London in daylight, using area bombing tactics.

Phase 5: From late September 1940 through to the spring of 1941 when the Luftwaffe turned more and more to a night bombing campaign against London and the UK’s major cities – known as ‘The Blitz’.

As may be imagined, with Hurricanes making up half of Fighter Command’s frontline force, the type was heavily committed to the Battle and Hurricane squadrons were involved in all the Phases, including some of the first nocturnal interceptions when the Luftwaffe started night bombing raids from late September. Despite the undoubted abilities of the Spitfire, it was the Hurricane that scored the higher number of victories during this period, accounting for almost 60 percent of the recorded 2,739 German losses. Although the Hurricane was slower than both the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, with its thick wings which affected rapid acceleration, it could out-turn both of them. The Hurricane was a steady gun platform, and in spite of its performance differences compared to the Bf 109, the Hurricane was still a capable fighter, especially at lower altitudes. One tactic of the Bf 109 was to attempt to ‘bounce’ RAF fighters in a dive. If spotted in time, Hurricanes were able to evade such tactics by turning into the attack or going into a ‘corkscrew dive’, which the ‘109s, with their lower rate of roll, found hard to counter. If a Bf 109 was engaged in a ‘straight dogfight’, the Hurricane was just as capable of out-turning it as the Spitfire, although in a stern chase, the Bf 109 could easily outpace and evade the Hurricane.

In the summer of 1940, Hurricane Is, (and Spitfire Is) were powered by Merlin III engines, fitted with a float chamber SU carburettor. When a Hurricane (or Spitfire) performed a negative-G manoeuvre (i.e. pitching the nose hard down), fuel was forced up to the top of the carburettor’s float chamber rather than into the engine, leading to loss of power. If the negative-G continued, then enough fuel would collect in the top of the float chamber to force the float to the floor of the chamber. This would in turn open a needle valve to maximum, flooding the carburettor and drowning the supercharger with an over-rich mixture which would lead to a cutout, thus shutting down the engine completely – a serious drawback in combat!

Bf 109s and Bf 110s used Daimler-Benz DB 601 inverted V12 engines fitted with fuel injection pumps, not carburettors, which kept their fuel at a constant pressure whatever manoeuvres they performed and did not suffer from this problem. They could exploit the difference by pitching steeply forward whilst pushing the throttle wide open; pursuing British fighters were left ‘flat footed’ as trying to emulate the manoeuvre would result in loss of power, or fuel flooding and engine shutdown. The only British countermeasure available was to half-roll, so the aircraft would only be subjected to positive-G as they followed a German aircraft into a dive, which invariably took just enough time to let the enemy escape.

Complaints from the pilots led Beatrice Tilly’ Shilling, a young engineer working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, to devise a disarmingly simple solution – a flow restrictor which was a small metal disc, much like a metal washer. The restrictor orifice was made to accommodate just the fuel needed for maximum engine power, the power setting usually used during dogfights. Whilst not completely solving the problem, the restrictor, along with modifications to the needle valve, permitted Hurricane and Spitfire pilots to perform quick negative-G manoeuvres without loss of engine power. In early 1941, Miss Shilling and a small team from the RAE travelled around Fighter Command’s airfields fitting these restrictors, giving priority to front-line units and by March 1941 the device had been installed throughout RAF Fighter Command. Officially named the ‘RAE restrictor’, the device was immensely popular with pilots, who affectionately named it ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice’ or simply the ‘Tilly orifice’. This simple solution was only ever a stopgap as it did not allow inverted flight for any length of time, however, the problems were ultimately overcome by the introduction of Bendix and later Rolls-Royce pressure-carburettors in 1943.