Austro-Hungarian Cavalry WWI

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Pack-horse of a cavalry machine gun detachment; members of these and the telegraph detachments were the only cavalry troops to wear the pike-grey field uniform in 1914. The machine gun is the standard Schwarzlose M07/12; the tripod Is attached on the far side of the pack saddle, and note ammunition boxes for the 250-round belts on top. Infantry MG sections used pack mules.

In Vienna, there was a large gap between ideals and reality when it came to war. The poorly equipped Austro-Hungarian army was recruited from a great variety of ethnic groups, often with doubtful loyalty to the emperor. Mobilisation posters in 1914 came in 15 languages for an army that was 44% Slav, 28% German, 18% Hungarian, 8% Rumanian and 2% Italian, which created command problems between the German-dominated officer corps and the men. But the main difficulty in 1914 was the over-ambitious plans of the Austro-Hungarian commander, Conrad von Hötzendorf, whose lament that he deserved a better army was echoed by his men’s complaint that they deserved a better commander. Life in the Austro-Hungarian army is well described in Jaroslav Hašek’s book The Good Soldier Švejk.

THE CAVALRY

The cavalry was the most traditionalist and conservative arm on the Austro-Hungarian armed forces, some of the regiments tracing their lineage back as far as the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century. The greatest modernizing reform of the cavalry units was instituted after 1867 when the heaviest arm, the Cuirassiers, were disbanded and these regiments were convened to Dragoons. Furthermore, the practical distinctions between heavy and light cavalry vanished, and the remaining three types of regiment – Dragoons, Hussars and Ulans (the Austrian spelling) – continued carrying the same arms consisting of carbines, revolvers (later semi-automatic pistols) and sabres only.

In 1914 they still wore their distinctive uniforms with helmets, shakos and czapkas, blue tunics, Attilas and Ulankas, all with red trousers (for Hussars, in Hungarian style). The Dragoon units were identified by different facing colours and buttons, while Hussars and Ulans were distinguishable by their shako and czapka colours. In the case of the Hussars half the regiments wore light blue uniforms (Attilas) and half dark blue; again, buttons in white or yellow metal made further distinctions. The Ulans all had madder-red collars and cuffs, and made further distinction by the top colours of the czapka and the button metal.

During the early years of the 20th century machine gun and telegraph detachments had been formed and specially trained. To some extent, the machine gun detachments of the Dragoons and Ulans were the only cavalry troops to wear a pike-grey field uniform in 1914.

The peacetime organisation counted 15 regiments of Dragoons, 16 regiments of Hussars and 11 regiments of Ulans (Nrs.1-8 and 11-13). The normal strength of a cavalry regiment comprised six squadrons with 900 horses. In wartime the regiments were organised in Kavalleriedivisionen, each consisting of four regiments separated into two cavalry brigades.

In addition to the Common Arm)’ cavalry, the k.k. Landwehr had six regiments of Ulans, a division of mounted Tyrolean Landesschützen and another of mounted Dalmatian Landesschützen (each of two squadrons). The Hungarian Honved included ten Hussar regiments, and additional squadrons of Hungarian Landsturm Hussars.

It became evident during the early stages of the war that these formations were destined to suffer great losses, Hastily, at least some field items were created, sometimes ‘on the pot’; the helmets of the Dragoons were either over-painted in grey or covered, with grey linen, as were the shakos of the Hussars and the czapkas of the Ulans; sabre scabbords were also sometimes over-painted grey. Paradoxically, many Ulans still wore the high horsehair plume and brass chin chain with their field-covered czapkas. A further step was the ‘overpainting’ of the trumpeters’ traditionally white horses; this led to some strange effects, like black-over-painted horses shining violet after the first contact with rain.

As the war continued it became difficult to supply remounts to keep up with the casualties among the horses, and each year a larger proportion of the cavalry were dismounted to serve as infantry in the trenches. Altough they were issued field-grey uniforms from the second half of 1915, photographs show officers and men still wearing the winter overcoats of their old coloured uniforms. In reality the summer and autumn of 1914 saw the swansong of this old arm of service. It was on 21 August 1914 at Jaroslavice that the Dragoons and Ulans of the 4.Kavalleriedivision fought with distinction against Cossacks, Dragoons, Hussars and Ulans of the Russian 10th Cavalry Division in what was later called the last true cavalry battle in history.

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WHITE MOUNTAIN

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The Battle of White Mountain (1620), where Spanish-Imperial forces under Johan Tzerclaes, Count of Tilly won a decisive victory.

The Habsburg Offensive

Ferdinand’s offensive involved six separate armies. Bucquoy left Dampierre to hold Vienna with over 5,000 men against Bethlen, and advanced from Krems with 21,500 to eject Anhalt from his foothold in Lower Austria. Maximilian placed 8,600 men to guard his frontier with the Upper Palatinate, and accompanied the main army of 21,400 drawn from the troops that had blocked the Unionists at Ulm to enter Upper Austria on 24 July. Spain joined in by invading the Lower Palatinate, leaving Johann Georg no choice but to start operations against Lusatia in September. These moves were the necessary preparatory steps to the final assault on Bohemia itself.

The Confederates’ lacklustre campaign during the first half of 1620 disillusioned the Lower Austrians whose homes were being wrecked in the fighting. Ferdinand split the opposition by giving the verbal assurance he would respect the religious privileges of individual nobles provided they paid homage: 86 Lutheran lords and knights joined 81 Catholics and the representatives of 18 crown towns in accepting Ferdinand as the legitimate ruler of Lower Austria on 13 July. The remaining 62 Protestant nobles fled to Retz on the Moravian frontier from where they issued a declaration of defiance. The peasant militias offered only minimal resistance in the Upper Austrian mountains as the Bavarians poured in, capturing Linz on 3 August. Tschernembl and the radicals fled, leaving the moderates to surrender on 20 August, placing their 3,500 regular troops at the Liga’s disposal. Ferdinand now declared 33 of the Retz signatories outlaws. A couple of Austrian regiments remained with Anhalt’s army, but effectively both provinces had been lost to the Confederate cause. Adam von Herberstorff was left to hold Upper Austria with 5,000 men, while Maximilian and Tilly headed east along the Austrian–Bohemian frontier to join Bucquoy. Despite the Protestant majority among their inhabitants, both Austrian provinces had been recovered permanently for the Catholic Habsburgs without a single battle.

The situation grew even more serious for Frederick along the Rhine where his supporters were collecting to oppose Spain. After leaving Ulm, Ansbach marched north-west to Oppenheim, between Mainz and Worms, to cover the right half of the Lower Palatinate that protruded west of the Rhine. Together with 5,700 local militia, he now mustered 21,800 troops, and was joined by a further 2,000 English volunteers under Sir Horace de Vere in October, convoyed south by 2,000 Dutch cavalry under Prince Frederick Henry, Maurice’s younger brother. Sir Horace was one of the ‘Fighting Veres’ family with long experience of the Dutch wars, including the siege of Jülich. His regiment was the second British contingent, arriving five months after Grey’s regiment. Despite his numerical superiority, Ansbach was reluctant to fight, pinning his hopes of British mediation.

Luis de Velasco and 18,000 men were concentrated in Flanders to deter the Dutch, while Spinola left Brussels on 18 August with another 19,000, heading east through the electorate of Trier. Having secured Koblenz, Spinola rapidly overran Palatine territory west of the Rhine, taking Kreuznach and Alzey. Apart from brief skirmishes between the cavalry, Ansbach avoided contact. Nonetheless, Spinola remained concerned at the possibility of more substantial Dutch intervention with only a few months remaining until the end of the Truce, while his Italians refused to undertake another siege given the lateness of the season and the worsening weather. Ansbach retained the principal fortresses of Oppenheim, Heidelberg, Mannheim and Frankenthal as both sides retired into winter quarters in December. The Dutch went home, disgusted with the lacklustre Union leadership.

These operations dispelled Johann Georg’s hopes of a mediated settlement and he began his own advance, despite the obvious lack of enthusiasm among his officers. Count Wolfgang von Mansfeld, a distant relation of Frederick’s general, concentrated 8,300 soldiers and 3,000 militia at Dresden, prompting the Bohemians to halt grain sales to Saxony. Having summoned the Lusatian Estates to meet him, Johann Georg finally invaded on 3 September 1620, overrunning the western half of the two provinces. The margrave of Jägerndorf still held the east and had put 2,000 men into Bautzen. A Saxon defeat would destroy Johann Georg’s remaining credit in Protestant Germany and give the Bohemians a much needed boost. Despite obstruction from his subordinates, Wolfgang Mansfeld pressed on, forcing Bautzen to surrender on 5 October after a short bombardment that destroyed most of the town. Most of the Lusatian nobles and towns now accepted the Saxon guarantee for their privileges in return for renouncing the Confederation, but Jägerndorf still held out in Görlitz in the south-eastern corner of the province and it was now too late in the season to begin operations against Silesia further east.

The main Confederate army had been paralysed by three pay mutinies from the end of June, which finally ended on 2 August when the government extorted more money from the Prague Jews. This denied Anhalt the last opportunity to crush Bucquoy before Maximilian joined him. Abandoning his positions in Lower Austria, he retreated north into Moravia, thinking his opponents were heading in that direction. This had been Bucquoy’s intention but Ferdinand overruled his own general, placing him under the command of Maximilian who followed Tilly’s advice to march directly on Prague. Maximilian had received 5,000 additional Liga troops, but his army already had 500 sick before it left Bavaria and was now gripped by ‘Hungarian fever’, a form of typhus or cholera depending on the contemporary diagnosis, that would kill 12,000 Catholic troops before the year was out.

The epidemic is an indication that the full horrors of war were present from the outset, and were not a product of escalating barbarity. The irregular forces on both sides were already infamous for their cruelty. The first group of Cossacks crossing Moravia in January 1620 had disrupted a wedding, kidnapping the bride after murdering the groom. Ferdinand informed the Saxon elector after the siege of Vienna that

the Hungarians had devastated, plundered and burned everything where they had stayed, and (it is said), stripped the people to their last threads, ruined, cut them down and dragged a large number of them as prisoners, subjected them to unheard of torture to find money and property, dragged away numerous lads of twelve to sixteen years old, and so ill-treated pregnant women and others, that many of them were found dead everywhere on the roads. They pulled ropes around the men’s necks so tight that their eyes popped out of their heads.

Ferdinand concluded with a remark that became the standard refrain throughout the war: ‘Indeed, the enemy has behaved so terribly everywhere, that one can almost not remember whether such tyranny was ever heard of from the Turks.’

The Liga troops behaved terribly during their invasion of Upper Austria, despite being well-supplied. The violence may partly have been revenge for the peasant resistance along the frontier, but there was already disorder on the march through Bavaria and the targets were indiscriminate, the men plundering Catholic monasteries and convents as well as Protestant homes. Catholic diarists depict such breaches of discipline as divine punishment for the heretical rebels, and clearly many senior figures used this as an excuse, ignoring the duke’s efforts to maintain order, like his courtiers who helped ransack Schloss Greilenstein in Lower Austria. Religious hatred was fanned by a large crowd of priests accompanying the combined imperial-Bavarian army, including the superior general of the barefoot Carmelite order, Domenico à Jesu Maria. Born Domingo Ruzzola in Aragon, he already had a reputation for prophesy and had won Maximilian’s confidence after curing an eye infection and other ‘miraculous’ acts.

Realizing his mistake, Anhalt hurried west to block the invasion from a position at Tabor as the imperial-Bavarian army reached Budweis. Thurn was still sulking at being replaced by Anhalt, while Count Mansfeld resented Hohenlohe’s promotion to field marshal and refused to cooperate, marching south-west in a futile attempt to distract Maximilian by threatening Bavaria. The duke bypassed Tabor to the west, storming Prachatice on 27 September, and moving through Pisek to reach Pilsen on 5 October. Mansfeld raced back, arriving just in time, while Anhalt followed to Rokycany a short distance to the east. Mansfeld opened the first of what would prove an almost continuous series of secret talks over possible defection. Maximilian and Bucquoy thought it was a ploy to gain time – supplies were running short and the duke was allegedly reduced to eating black bread while Tilly snatched an apple from a passing Dominican friar. It grew so cold that some soldiers froze to death at night.

Determined to maintain momentum, Tilly had no intention of being stuck outside Pilsen all winter and, backed by Maximilian, overruled Bucquoy to march north towards Prague. Marradas was left to blockade Pilsen, while Wallenstein was sent with a small imperial detachment into north-west Bohemia to establish contact with the Saxons still beyond the mountains. Anhalt dashed north to block the way to Prague, to an important road junction at Rakovnic. Possibly influenced by Maximilian’s example, Frederick now joined his troops, confirming Anhalt’s authority and temporarily boosting morale. The soldiers agreed to suspend another pay protest and dig into a wooded ridge behind a marsh. Maximilian was stuck in front of this position from 27 October. Bucquoy was badly injured in a skirmish on 3 November, but a supply train arrived the following day, reviving morale. Maximilian and Tilly knew they had only a short time to force a battle before winter suspended operations and gave Frederick a reprieve. Covered by morning mist and some noisy musketeers left to distract the Confederates, the army slipped round the ridge on 5 November and raced towards Prague. Anhalt only realized the danger later that evening, but force-marched his men to overtake his opponents and reach the White Mountain, about 8km west of the city, at midnight on 7 November.

The Battle of White Mountain

The coming battle was the first major action of the war and proved to be the most decisive.64 Anhalt’s position was relatively strong. The White Mountain ridge, taking its name from chalk and gravel pits, ran north-east to south-west for about 2km, rising about 60 metres from the surrounding area. It was strongest at the northern (right) end where the incline was steepest. This end of the ridge was covered by a walled, wooded game park containing the Star Palace, a small pavilion where Frederick and his wife had stayed prior to their triumphal entry to Prague a year earlier. The marshy Scharka stream lay about 2km in front of his position, but was deemed too far from the hill to be defended.

Anhalt had 11,000 foot, 5,000 cavalry and 5,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian light cavalry. He wanted to entrench the entire length of the ridge, but his mutinous soldiers were exhausted and said digging was only for peasants. Frederick went on to Prague, persuading the Estates to find 600 talers to buy spades, but it was too late and the soldiers managed to make only five small sconces. Most of the artillery had not caught up, and the ten cannon with the army were distributed along the line. Johann Ernst of Weimar held the Star Palace with his infantry regiment, while the rest of the Confederate army drew up along the ridge in two lines in the Dutch manner, interspersing cavalry squadrons in close support between the infantry battalions. The light cavalry were dispirited, having been surprised earlier that night and most were positioned fairly uselessly as a third line in the rear, while some covered the extreme right. Despite obvious shortcomings, Anhalt remained optimistic, believing the enemy would simply stall in front of his position as at Rakovnic, and Frederick remained in Prague to eat breakfast.

Thick fog obscured the imperial-Bavarian approach on the morning of Sunday 8 November. The advance guard secured the two crossings over the stream, followed by the rest of the army that deployed from 8 a.m. The Liga regiments drew up on the left opposite the northern end of the ridge, while Bucquoy’s Imperialists took station on the right. Together, they had 2,000 more men and two more cannon than their opponents, and they were in better spirits. Both halves of the army deployed in the Spanish fashion, grouping the 17,000 foot into ten large blocks, accompanied by small cavalry squadrons.

The commanders conferred while their men took up their positions and heard mass. Bucquoy wanted to repeat the earlier trick and slip past to Prague, but Maximilian and Tilly were convinced it was time for the decisive blow. The dispute was allegedly resolved by Domenico bursting in and brandishing an image of the Madonna whose eyes had been poked out by Calvinist iconoclasts. If this is true, it was a calculated act, because the Carmelite had found the icon in a ruined house over three weeks before. The Catholic troops were elated when they received the order to attack; they were tired of chasing the Confederates across Bohemia and savoured the prospect of plundering Prague.

The artillery had been firing for some time to little effect. At about fifteen minutes after midday all twelve guns fired simultaneously to signal the advance. The Imperialists had less ground to cover to reach the ridge than the Bavarians who also faced a steeper climb. Anhalt decided on an active defence, sending two cavalry regiments down the slope to drive off the imperial cavalry screening the flanks of the Italian and Walloon infantry spearheading the assault. Thurn’s own infantry regiment then moved down to engage the enemy foot as they laboured up the slope. Seeing their own horsemen retiring, the Thurn regiment fired a general salvo at extreme range and fled. Anhalt’s son tried to retrieve the situation with his own cavalry regiment from the Confederate second line, his men using their pistols to blast their way into one of the imperial tercios. For a brief moment it looked as if the Confederates might yet snatch victory, but more imperial horse came up, and even Bucquoy arrived, despite his earlier wound, to rally the infantry. Anhalt junior was captured and within an hour of the main action starting the Confederate horse were in full retreat, many units pulling out of the line without even engaging the enemy. The Bohemian foot followed soon after, while the Hungarians fled, some dismounting in order to escape through the vineyards covering the way to Prague. Despite claims of their being spooked by Domenico’s sudden appearance through the smoke, the panic stemmed from reports that Bucquoy’s Polish Cossacks had ridden round the south-west end of the ridge and were already at the rear. Schlick’s Moravians on the right lasted longer, largely because of the time it took Tilly to reach them, but they too gave way around 1.30 p.m. A few survivors resisted for another half hour in the Star Palace before surrendering.

Frederick stayed in Prague all day and was tucking into lunch when the first fugitives arrived. Many drowned in the Moldau in their desperation to escape. The imperial-Bavarian army lost 650 killed and wounded, mostly to young Anhalt’s brave attack. The Confederates left 600 dead on the field, with a further 1,000 strewn on the way to Prague, as well as 1,200 wounded. The losses were severe, but most had escaped. Prague was a large, fortified city and it was unlikely the enemy could besiege it with winter approaching. It was here that Tilly’s strategy of relentless pressure paid dividends, transforming a respectable battlefield success into a decisive victory. Already weakened by Tilly’s vigorous campaign, Confederate morale collapsed. Even Maximilian was surprised at the extent of the enemy’s demoralization, expecting defiance when he summoned Prague to surrender. Confederate leadership was utterly pathetic. Tschernembl and Thurn’s son, Franz, tried to organize a defence on the Charles Bridge to stop the Bavarians crossing the river. Frederick hesitated, but Anhalt and the elder Thurn thought the situation hopeless. Queen Elizabeth, heavily pregnant with her fifth child, left early the next morning. Her husband feared angry citizens might prevent him escaping if he took the crown with him, so he left it behind, along with his other insignia and numerous confidential documents, and joined the refugees streaming eastwards out of the city.

Collapse of the Confederation

Imperialists were already entering the western side of the city, catching the tail of the royal baggage train. Many Confederates were still loitering, demanding their back pay, but they dispersed once Maximilian granted them amnesty on 10 November. Those foolish enough to remain were murdered over the next few days. The city was stuffed full of valuables, cattle and other property brought there for safekeeping prior to the battle and now abandoned in the precipitous retreat. Along with empty mansions and houses, it was too tempting for the victorious troops who began seizing what they found in the streets, then breaking into homes, and finally robbing with violence. ‘Those who have nothing, fear for their necks, and all regret not taking up arms and fighting to the last man.’

Under these conditions, further pursuit was impossible. The winter was also exceptionally cold, with even the Bosporus said to have frozen over. Mansfeld still held most of western Bohemia, while Jägerndorf was in Silesia and Bethlen in Hungary. Yet nothing could slow the collapse of Frederick’s regime as moderates distanced themselves from the revolt. The Moravian Estates already paid homage to Ferdinand at the end of December. Frederick fled east over the mountains into Silesia in the middle of November, but was given a frosty welcome by a population angry at his perceived Calvinist extremism. Fearing the Saxons would block his escape to the north, Frederick hurried on down the Oder into Brandenburg in December, leaving the Lusatians and Silesians to surrender to Johann Georg after prolonged negotiations completed in March 1621.

Bethlen had finally renounced his truce with the emperor on 1 September, advancing again with 30,000 horsemen to overrun Upper Hungary and retake Pressburg, where he intended to hold his coronation with the St Stephen’s crown he had captured the year before. Most of the Polish Cossacks arriving during 1620 had been attached to Dampierre’s command and deployed to cover the harvest against Transylvanian raiders. A Liga regiment arrived at the end of September 1620, as well as Croats and the private retainers of Magyar magnates tired of Bethlen’s depredations. The Inner Austrian Estates mobilized 2,500 men, while their Lower Austrian counterparts sent a Protestant regiment that had not joined the Confederate army. Dampierre advanced to disrupt Bethlen’s coronation, and though he was to be killed on 9 October he had managed to burn the Pressburg bridge, denying access to the south side of the Danube. Bethlen sent another 9,000 troops to help Frederick, but these arrived too late for White Mountain and retreated rapidly through Moravia in November.

Though the grand vizier ratified the alliance agreed with Frederick in July, it became clear that the sultan was only using this to pressure Ferdinand to adjust the 1606 truce. News of White Mountain reached Constantinople in January, removing any doubts about the wisdom of avoiding a breach with the emperor. Meanwhile, the Ottoman pasha of Buda seized the Hungarian border town of Waitzen long claimed by his master. This alarmed the Magyar nobility, exposing the consequences of their internecine struggle and Bethlen’s inability to protect them from the Ottomans. The leading families either declared for Ferdinand or at least joined the French ambassador in pressing Bethlen to reopen talks at Hainburg in January 1621.

Ottoman Naval Tactics

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During the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the invading Turks faced a major challenge. The Byzantines had erected a giant chain across the Golden Horn, a stretch of water that connected Constantinople to the sea. This chain effectively blocked the Ottoman navy from making their way to the enemy capital.
In order to overcome the chain, the Ottomans moved their navy overland using log rollers. This allowed the Ottomans to bypass the chain and attack the Byzantines from multiple fronts, ultimately aiding in the capture of the city that’s now called Istanbul.

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An Ottoman galley. Using sails and oars, the galley could keep moving regardless of weather. The banners with the downward crossed swords at the bow and stern are the colors of Barbarossa while the one depicting three crescent moons is the Ottomans’ imperial flag.

The pattern of Ottoman, and indeed all Mediterranean naval warfare, was very similar to the pattern of war on land. The most typical form of combat was not the major fleet engagement, but rather a continuous kleinkrieg of attacks on enemy coasts and shipping. This was the form of warfare which Ottoman fleets engaged in between the late fourteenth and the mid-fifteenth centuries. It was plunder from Christian shipping and settlements that sustained the Ottoman provinces in North Africa, and in particular provided a source of wealth for the Ottoman outpost of Algiers. The Knights of St John played a similar role in the Christian Mediterranean, and it was against these and other Christian predators that the admiral made his annual tours, even during years of formal peace.

When the Ottoman imperial fleet engaged in an action, it was typically an amphibious assault on a coastal or insular fortress, rather than a battle in the open sea. Almost all Ottoman naval victories, from the conquest of Mitylene in 1462 to the capture of Chania in 1645, were of this sort. Engagements between fleets on the open sea, like major field battles on land, were infrequent and, unlike field battles, rarely decisive in determining the course of events. The Venetian naval victory in 1416 was perhaps a factor in delaying the creation of an effective Ottoman war fleet until after 1450. The more famous victory at Lepanto did not, however, prevent the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus or the conquest of Tunis three years later. The Venetian victory outside the Dardanelles in 1656 caused severe problems for the Ottomans, but did not bring to an end the invasion of Crete. From the mid-fifteenth century, therefore, the most typical functions of the Ottoman fleet were sieges and raids on enemy shores. The fleet also served to protect Ottoman shipping and coastlines, and sometimes to restore the sultan’s authority in outlying provinces.

The nature of the galley limited the Ottoman fleet’s range of action. Galleys were long vessels, low in the water, with a shallow draught. They were not able to withstand heavy seas, and could not, therefore, put to sea in the winter, setting out in principle, if not often in practice, at the vernal equinox, and returning in October or early November. It was possible to risk keeping small flotillas or single vessels at sea during the winter, but not whole fleets. During the first half of the seventeenth century, Ottoman shipwrights started to build galleys broader and longer, with `melon sterns’ in order to withstand storms better, but this did not prolong the campaigning season. The limited sailing season in turn limited the operational range of the fleet. The other constraint on the range of a galley was the size of its crew.

In 1656, Katib Chelebi estimated that a galley carried 330 men, including 196 oarsmen and 100 warriors. An Ottoman galeass, he says, carried a crew of 600, and a heavy galley a crew of 800. In the previous century, numbers had been smaller, since galleys had three rather than four oarsmen to each bench, and 50 rather than 100 warriors, but numbers were still very large. At the same time, storage space on a galley was limited. It was not possible, therefore, to store on board more than about ten days’ supply of food and water. Water was available from springs and rivers ashore, and knowledge of their location was presumably traditional within the Ottoman navy. In addition, the Mediterranean map of Piri Reis, completed in 1526, but still in use in the mid-seventeenth century, identifies water sources around the shores of the Mediterranean. Food supplies were a greater problem.

Since a galley could not carry victuals for a whole season, it was necessary to supply the fleet from prearranged points on the shore or, as at Malta in 1565, or Crete in 1651, to transport food by ship. This required careful planning in advance. The basic, and probably the only food that the government supplied, was biscuit and the fleet’s requirements were enormous. For example, the treasury accounts record 2305 tonnes of biscuit for the fleet which recaptured Herceg Novi in 1539. To purchase the wheat, mill it, bake it into biscuit and transport it to the shore was therefore a major operation and a major expense. The Treasury raised the money locally, and distributed the work over a wide area. In 1566, for example, it ordered biscuit for the fleet from Arta, Patras, Navplion, Farsala, Trikkala and Gjirokaster in Albania and central and southern Greece, and from Thessaloniki in the north. 85 In the seventeenth century before 1645, when the size of the fleets was more predictable, Istanbul and Gallipoli were the major centres for baking, but the sixteenth-century practice of distributing the work around the provinces also continued. In this respect, Volos was particularly important. It served not only as the quay for the export of grain from central Greece, but also as a centre for the preparation of biscuit for the fleet. For example, in his tour of the Archipelago in 1618, Chelebi Ali took on a consignment of biscuit which had been baked at Volos and transported to Evvoia for collection by the fleet.

A consequence of this need to take on food at frequent intervals was that galley fleets could not operate safely if they were far from their own shores or if the sea lanes were insecure. This, combined with the short campaigning season, limited their range. For this reason, the Ottoman fleet could not dominate the western Mediterranean without a base for the winter and a supply of provisions. This was possible only briefly when, in cooperation with the King of France, the Ottoman fleet, in 1543-4, was able to overwinter in Toulon. For the same reason, Christian galley fleets could not gain command of the eastern Mediterranean. Even after the great victory at Lepanto, the fleet of the Holy League had no choice but to return to its home bases before the onset of winter.

The galley determined the nature of Mediterranean warfare as much as it did the operating range of the fleets. As an oared vessel with a shallow draught, it did not rely on the wind and could operate close to the shore. For caulking, oiling or carrying out repairs, it was easy to pull ashore on a sandy beach. These characteristics made it especially useful as a pirate vessel, particularly on a windless day, when its prey might lie becalmed. Its ability to come close to the shore was also useful when bombarding coastal fortresses, one of the major functions of a galley fleet. Equally, if an enemy attacked such a fortress, an inshore squadron of galleys could provide a line of defence against the attacking fleet, while itself finding shelter beneath the guns of the fort.

Before the introduction, some time in the late fifteenth century, of artillery, the basic method of galley warfare was ramming and boarding. Artillery did not change this practice. A galley carried cannon on its prow and approached the enemy head on, hoping to fire at least one salvo before the men on the forward fighting platform attempted to board. It was important not to allow the enemy to attack the sides of the vessel, where he could inflict the greatest damage. The vulnerability of the galley’s flanks and the disposition of the guns gave commanders no choice but to adopt a line abreast formation, with all the ships’ prows facing forward at the enemy fleet or fortress. Success depended on maintaining this formation and, when facing the enemy fleet, outflanking it and breaking its ranks. In 1656, Katib Chelebi described the ideal Ottoman battleline: `In battle, the galleys should be arranged in rows. The Admiral’s ship should be in the rear, with five vessels to accompany it, three in the rear and two in front.’

The Ottoman fleet, therefore, from the late fourteenth century onwards, adopted the prevailing techniques of Mediterranean warfare. It seems, however, that Ottoman shipbuilders and seamen tended to be less competent than their western European rivals, notably the Venetians. In the fifteenth century, the fleets of Mehmed II, particularly the one which attacked Negroponte in 1470, relied on overwhelming superiority in numbers of ships, not on superior tactical skills. Even at the height of Ottoman naval power in the mid-sixteenth century, observers sometimes commented on the inadequacies of the Ottoman fleet. In 1558, for example, the Venetian bailo noticed a lack of skill, evidently by comparison with Venetian shipwrights, among the craftsmen in the Imperial Arsenal, and described the galleys themselves as `not lasting more than a year, and when they come to disarm, it is pitiful to see them in a state of disrepair.’ Some Ottomans, too, were aware of shortcomings. Writing after 1541, Lutfi Pasha comments on the importance of maritime affairs, but also notes that `in the organisation of naval expeditions, the Infidel is superior to us’.

In the seventeenth century, too, Katib Chelebi mentions further problems, albeit ones that were probably common to all Mediterranean fleets. He warns in particular about the use of prisoners- of-war and convicts as oarsmen. These, he says, are liable to mutiny, and `countless ships have been lost in this way’. The skippers should always mix prisoners with `more reliable Turks’ from the annual levy. In this respect, he commends Jigalazade Sinan Pasha, who was twice Admiral between 1591 and 1605, for placing every three prisoners with three `Turks’, so that the ships were safe. He also gives advice on how to attack the enemy. A sea battle, he warns, is a `death trap’, and if the fleet attacks when it is inshore off the Ottoman coast, the troops on the galleys will swim ashore to escape the combat. The fleet should never give battle in these circumstances. If, on the other hand, the enemy is inshore off the Ottoman coast, then it is safe to attack, as the men cannot escape. The only way to save their lives was to stand and fight.

The advantage which the Ottomans enjoyed in naval warfare was not, therefore, in shipbuilding, seamanship or fighting ability, but rather in the abundance of materials, money and men, which allowed the rapid construction of new fleets. It was perhaps, too, the ease with which they could replace ships that explains the apparently forlorn appearance of their galleys on their return from sea. It was an advantage which they enjoyed from the fourteenth to the late seventeenth centuries.

During the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Ottoman fleet had adopted the standard galley tactics of the Mediterranean. After 1600, it faced two new strategic problems. The first of these was temporary. The other was to render galley warfare obsolete.

The first problem was the appearance of Cossack raiders on the Black Sea, from which the Ottomans had excluded foreign fleets since the conquest of Caffa in 1475. From the late sixteenth century, the Cossacks on the Dniepr and the Don began to make frequent and destructive raids on coastal settlements and, to counter these, the Ottoman government fortified towns and villages along the coast, sent forces overland to engage the raiders, and sent the imperial fleet, or detachments of it, to encounter them at sea. In naval warfare, however, the Cossacks enjoyed an advantage. On their raids they used shaykas; that is, portable rowing boats with flat bottoms and no keel, which they could use in shallow waters and reed-beds. The Ottoman galleys also had a shallow draught, but far less so than the shaykas, and the Cossacks used this difference to their advantage. In 1614, ships of the imperial fleet pursued the Cossacks after these had attacked Sinop, but were unable to follow them down the Dniepr. In the following year, when the Admiral, Jigalazade Mahmud Pasha, attacked the shaykas, the Cossacks lured him towards the shore until his galleys ran aground. For this reason, Katib Chelebi advised that a galley fleet, in an encounter with the Cossacks, should always drive the shaykas out to sea, and should not attack close to the shore. In this case, the galleys would run aground. In the open sea, however, shaykas were no match for galleys. The ability of shaykas to hide in reed beds also presented problems. The galleys could stand in deeper water and besiege them, but their bombardments were useless against an invisible enemy that could slip away in the darkness. To counter these tactics, from the 1630s, Ottoman fleets themselves began to use flat-bottomed rowing boats, carrying troops and artillery to send into the reeds. This was the tactic that the Warden of the Arsenal, Piyale, used in 1639 in his fight with the Cossacks in the Strait of Kerch. This tactic, together with the recapture of Azov in 1642 and the refortification of Ochakov at the mouth of the Dniepr eventually brought the Cossacks under control.

In the long term, the more significant problem for the Ottoman fleet was the changing nature of naval warfare. For the first forty-five years of the seventeenth century, there had been no major wars in the Mediterranean, and the function of the Ottoman fleet had been to keep the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean free of predators and occasionally to suppress rebellions. A galley fleet had been adequate for this task. It was during this period, however, that northern European ships began to appear in the Mediterranean in increasing numbers, and although their purpose was trade, they carried heavy armaments. The technique of casting iron cannon, which were cheaper than the bronze ordnance that they displaced, had made this possible. These vessels, with their high sides and the ability to fire heavy broadsides were superior in combat to the Mediterranean war galley.

The Venetians, but not the Ottomans, had mastered the techniques of building and manning war galleons, with the result that when war broke out with Venice in 1645, the Venetian fleet enjoyed a clear advantage in battle. The only galleons in the Ottoman fleet came from Algiers which, in 1645, provided a squadron of 20 vessels. Apart from these, the Ottoman government also rented sailing vessels from the Dutch and, in the late 1640s, began to build their own. Katib Chelebi tells how the grand vizier took the decision after discussions with `certain people’ who told him that the enemy galleons could use the wind to run down the Ottoman fleet, forcing it to scatter. Equally, they could anchor outside the Dardanelles, preventing the exit of the Ottoman galleys. The galleons’ firepower was clearly overwhelming. Katib Chelebi also records how, when discussions were in progress, the Chief Mufti Abdurrahim, had summoned him and asked him if the Ottoman fleet had used galleons in past naval wars. He had replied that, in large scale campaigns, it had used galleons for transport, but only galleys for combat. He added that building galleons was not a problem: the difficulty was to find skilled crews and gunners. Katib Chelebi reinforces his scepticism about the introduction of galleons by giving instructions on how a galley should fight a galleon, giving examples of successful engagements in the past. A galley, he writes, should not immediately engage a galleon, but should first immobilise it by destroying its rudder and rigging, taking advantage of the fact that the broadside guns on a galleon had a shorter range than the artillery on a galley.

Events were to prove Katib Chelebi right. The adoption of the galleon by the Ottoman fleet was not a success. The galleons in the fleet of 1656 could not prevent an overwhelming Ottoman defeat and, in 1662, the grand vizier brought the experiment to an end. In 1669, the Cretan war ended in victory for the Ottomans, but the inadequacy of the fleet had been a major factor in its prolongation.

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Jan Žižka

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Jan Žižka leading his troops (illumination from the late 15th century)

One-eyed Taborite fanatic and brilliantly innovative general who invented the Hussite tabor. In 1409 he led Tatar, Cossack, Hungarian, and Bohemian mercenaries in the pay of Poland-Lithuania in a campaign against the Teutonic Knights, culminating in the extraordinary fight at Tannenberg in 1410. His main claim to fame was as the original Hussite commander during the Hussite Wars. He won victories at Kutná Hora (1422) and Nêmecký Brod (1422), both battles where he deployed firearms troops behind the Hussite Wagenburg.

In contrast to the urban Hussites of Prague, Žižka represented a different population within the movement. A minor landowner from Budweis (Ceske Budejovice) in southern Bohemia, he had not only served as a captain in King Wenceslaus’s palace guard but also served as a mercenary-possibly even at the famous Battle of Tannenberg against the Teutonic knights in 1410.16 Battle scarred and strategically minded, the one-eyed Žižka was a formidable commander whose leadership fueled the radical Hussites’ military strength against the increasingly daunting crusading forces arrayed against them. Infuriated by the Prague Hussites’ capitulation to Sigismund in 1419 and by the royalists’ subsequent brutal persecution of rural Hussite communities, Žižka had withdrawn from the city to Pilsen in the south; however, he would not remain there for long.

Jan Žižka, “the Blind” (a disability he shared with the Bohemian king, John of Luxembourg, killed in the French line at Crécy, in 1346), who was to lead the Hussites to many a victory, was also the pioneer of mobile warfare in the West. His troops were largely untrained townsmen and peasants, but under Žižka they defeated trained foot-soldiers and cavalry. His great innovation was the Hussite war wagon. Nearer in capability as a military vehicle to a twentieth-century tank than an ancient war chariot, it was a four-wheeled farm cart, modified to produce a fighting vehicle. A heavy board was slung on one side of the cart to provide protection for the vehicle’s crew of eighteen armed men. Other boards could be slung out over the wheels to protect the vehicle and between the wheels beneath the wagon as stabilizers. On the march, the wagons carried army supplies. With the approach of an enemy in open country the crews maneuvered their vehicles to form a compound where infantrymen could shelter. This could be further reinforced, if the army was under prolonged attack, by closing the gaps between the wagons with dedicated heavy shield boards. Sited on rising ground and further defended by a ditch, such a wagon laager became a near impregnable fortress. Žižka may have got the germ of the idea from campaigning experience in Russia where transport wagons were sometimes thrown into a defensive laager known as a goliaigorod. The Hussite armies seem to have been the first to deploy the fully developed idea on a Western battlefield. Within minutes the enemy who thought he was engaging a bellicose rabble of under-trained civilians found himself confronted with a Well-defended fortress.

Žižka experimented with the concept. He mounted artillery pieces in the Wagons-“those snakes with which they destroy walls,” wrote a contemporary. Then he equipped the crews with handguns. There is evidence that he deployed the war wagons in action on the move. In one battle, we are told, “they advanced and, by shooting at the enemy with their guns, drove the king and his whole army from the positions that they held.” At the Battle of Malesov in June 1424 he anticipated tank tactics, using his wagons to break an enemy formation. Holding a hilltop, he positioned a line of rock-filled supply wagons flanked by cavalry troopers. “When half of the enemy force had crossed the bottom of the valley … he ordered the battle wagons be rolled down the slope and thus broke up the enemy ranks.” His own horsemen were then able to scatter their opponents with comparative ease.

The new war wagons, adaptable to attack or defense, became the hallmark of Hussite armies and probably influenced military development elsewhere. For them to be effective, chain-of-command discipline, far from standard in the average medieval army, was essential. Maintaining them in running order, deploying them efficiently on the move and finally working them in battle conditions meant division of labor among the eighteen-man crew, rigidly enforced in action.

THE HUSSITE WARS

Between 1421 and 1434, antagonism was the dominant theme of Bohemian history. The thirteen years of warfare between is best understood not as sustained combat but rather a slow (yet violent) series of crusading waves met, sometimes defensively and sometimes offensively, by Hussite armies. Already in midsummer of 1421, Sigismund was coordinating an assault on Bohemia with German support, hoping to cut the Hussite’s ground out from beneath them. Crusaders’ early success in sieging the town of Zatec northwest of Prague soon failed, however, when news of the rehabilitated Žižka’s imminent arrival prompted many of their number to flee. Undaunted, Sigismund augmented his army with expensive mercenaries (many experienced from fighting Turks) and turned his attention east. Pointing the “crusader” army toward his old base of Kutna Hora, Sigismund hoped to seize the largely German Catholic town whose minority Czech population had recently joined the Hussites. The armies met in late December 1421, clashing at strategic external positions, while royal supporters within Kutna Hora secretly opened a gate to the crusaders. Soldiers massacred the Hussites within the city.

After desperately fighting their way through the opponents’ ranks, Žižka and his forces made their way to safety north of the city. Regrouping within only a matter of weeks, they charged back south in early January of 1422 with renewed force that so overwhelmed a crusading army that Sigismund decided to evacuate Kutna Hora. Royalist attempts to face off against the Hussites were repulsed along the way, and morale was finally shattered when fleeing troops jammed a bridge at the town of Nemecky Brod. Žižka’s army devastated both town and army, forcing the defeated Sigismund to flee east to Moravia for safety.

To rub salt in the wound, the grand duke of Lithuania (whom the Hussites had “elected” king in Sigismund’s place) chose this moment to make his move. Writing to the pope in early March, the duke offered to protect the Czechs and heal the religio-political rift, bringing them back safely to Roman Catholicism. And to make his presence directly felt in Bohemia, he sent his own nephew, Prince Charles Korybut of Lithuania, to act on his behalf. Sigismund, safe but isolated in Moravia, doubtless felt the ground shifting uncomfortably beneath him. In the autumn, a new wave of crusaders (this time invading Bohemia from the north and west) encountered Prince Korybut at the castle of Karlstein, where the outcome was an armistice signed on November 8, 1422.

Interestingly, the settlement and ensuing lull turned out to be more damaging to the Hussite cause than the furious warfare had been. External foes had always served to temporarily unite the riven Hussite ranks-in the absence of such pressure, however, religious disputes once again splintered the Czech cause, as did the social and economic divisions of urban and rural culture. By the summer of 1423, rival groups of Hussites were fighting one another, a breach in which Žižka himself played a role. Abandoning the extreme radical community at Tabor in August 1423, the commander relocated to eastern Bohemia as leader of a more moderate group known as the Orebites. In June of 1424, Žižka’s army defeated Hussite rivals from Prague, and the rural Orebites and Taborites reconciled. On October 11, the old soldier died of disease while besieging an enemy position; distraught at his loss, his followers among the Orebites now called themselves “the Orphans.”

After his death the Taborites reputedly stretched his skin to make from it a great war drum.

Among the most influential leaders after Žižka ‘s death was the surprising figure of Prokop Velicky, a married priest and Utraquist from Prague who headed up Taborite armies in their many battles against royalist crusaders in the following years. Prokop the Great, as he became known, shifted Hussite warfare to a more deliberately offensive strategy of raiding into territories that had previously yielded crusading forces. After another failed crusader attack in 1427, no further Catholic armies tried to invade Bohemia for four years. Far from dampening the Czech martial spirit, however, the crusading lull merely provided the Hussites an opportunity to raid expansively and destructively on what they called “beautiful rides” through Germany, Austria, Hungary, and even Poland. Sigismund’s repeated efforts to intercept and rout the Hussite armies failed, despite his increasing familiarity with their methods and technologies, and a final devastating defeat of the crusaders in 1431 paved the way for a final settlement. Yet divisions among Hussites had been deepening across the years, and the process by which peace finally emerged had as much (or more) to do with internal conflicts as with pressure from royalist Catholics.

After Bismarck I

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Destroyer HMS Maori (F24) underway, coastal waters.

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HMS Maori Sinking.

Legend has it that, after a Bismarck officer was hauled up over the side of HMS Dorsetshire, plucked from a watery grave by the willing hands of his enemies, he told his British rescuers: ‘Us today, you tomorrow.’1 And so it was in the months and years which followed that his prediction came to pass for a number of the ships, their sailors and marines, who had pursued the mighty German battleship.

It was late when Winston Churchill’s doctor, Charles McMoran Wilson, encountered the Prime Minister’s secretary, Mrs Hill, coming out of the PM’s bedroom. She seemed relieved to see him. ‘He has just heard some very bad news,’ said Mrs Hill, indicating that he should go in. McMoran Wilson suggested, as the Prime Minister disliked being fussed over by a doctor at the best of times, it might be best to leave him alone. But Mrs Hill insisted: ‘I think he would like to see you.’

Churchill was sitting on the edge of his bed, head in his hands, seemingly in a daze.

‘You know what has happened?’ he asked, looking up.

‘No.’

The Prime Minister explained that the Japanese had sunk both Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya. Gone was the battleship that fought so valiantly against Bismarck in the Denmark Strait and which had carried him to Placentia Bay in August 1941, then rode shotgun on a Malta convoy before being sent to the Far East to safeguard Singapore. Both capital ships were lost in the South China Sea, on 10 December 1941. The First Sea Lord had advised Churchill not to send them to Singapore, but he overruled Admiral Pound, hoping the sight of those magnificent ships would deter the sons of Nippon. It was Admiral Pound who broke the news to the Prime Minister, ringing him in the early hours of 10 December. Setting aside a tray of paperwork to pick up the handset of a telephone on a bedside table, Churchill thought the First Sea Lord’s voice sounded odd, the first intimation something bad was about to be revealed. Churchill heard Pound cough and gulp, his words at first faint.

‘Prime Minister, I have to report to you that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse have both been sunk by the Japanese – we think by aircraft.’

It was simply unbelievable, even after all the other shocking ship losses during 1941 in the Mediterranean.

‘Are you sure it’s true?’ the Prime Minister asked.

‘There is no doubt at all.’

Churchill was plunged into turmoil, later confessing: ‘In all the war I never received a more direct shock.’

Who could have imagined the Japanese would deliver such a blow? They had sunk or damaged eight American battleships at Pearl Harbor on 7 December but, until Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom, no capital ship on the open ocean had ever been destroyed by aircraft. Being sent to the Far East, so far from home, was not something the men of Prince of Wales regarded with great enthusiasm. Having spent so much time in the thick of the action, however, the long voyage did at least offer an opportunity for relaxed gunnery training, including on the anti-aircraft weapons, and to practise more traditional seamanship skills previously neglected. The accepted wisdom was, anyway, that the Japanese were not very good aviators. Lieutenant Commander McMullen attended an intelligence briefing in which it was claimed they could not fly at night because they had such poor eyesight and therefore could not see in the dark. How on earth would they manage to hit a battleship with a torpedo? But, while Prince of Wales was in dry dock at Singapore, the Japanese made a night attack. Nine aircraft, flying in perfect formation, dropped bombs on the naval base. As the Japanese planes were frozen in a searchlight, the anti-aircraft guns of Prince of Wales joined the flak barrage, but scored no hits. Soon news began flooding in of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It seemed the Japanese were not only good pilots, they had aircraft and weapons capable of sinking battleships.

Force Z, as Prince of Wales, Repulse and their escort destroyers were known, set sail from Singapore on 8 December, after hearing reports of Japanese transport ships heading for Malaysia. Shortly before the Prince of Wales left, Captain Leach invited his son, Henry, serving in the cruiser Mauritius, then in dock at Singapore’s naval base, to dinner aboard the battleship. It was the first time they had met since Christmas 1940, when the captain had been horrified to learn his son was drafted to Prince of Wales and arranged a transfer. Leach the younger thought his father was distracted by some gnawing anxiety, which he caught a hint of when Captain Leach suggested taking on the Japanese was a mission against the odds. A couple of nights later, father and son met for a swim at the naval base swimming pool and afterwards had drinks with the commanding officer of Repulse, Captain William Tennant. Two hours after Henry Leach said goodbye to his father, Prince of Wales set sail. The future Falklands War-era First Sea Lord later wrote of that parting: ‘I never saw my father again.’

Bad weather initially hid the British vessels from Japanese scouting planes, but when it cleared they were cruelly exposed. The only real defence against determined air attack would have been fighters from an aircraft carrier sailing with the two big ships, but the vessel assigned to that role had run aground in the Caribbean and was instead in dry dock for repairs.

Hard-pressed in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, and particularly with convoy runs to Russia, which had just started, the Royal Navy had been unable to find another carrier to send.

Flying from bases in Indo-China, eighty-five Japanese aircraft attacked Force Z at 11 am on December 10, the first wave of bombers passing over Prince of Wales to attack Repulse. Later, both ships were assailed by torpedo-bombers approaching on the bow and stern. Prince of Wales suffered hits in her stern that damaged her steering and propellers. As she started listing to port she turned around in a huge circle, shuddering under a constant onslaught. Repulse succumbed first but by that stage Prince of Wales was a sitting duck, with seemingly endless waves of Japanese aircraft coming in. She was soon beyond hope and the ‘abandon ship’ order was given. Many of the seriously wounded, who would not be able to escape, were taken to the battleship’s small chapel, where the ship’s dentist was doing what he could to ease their pain. As he moved among the wounded, the floor of the chapel slick with blood and vomit, the dentist was approached by a sailor, who told him: ‘Sir, the Captain says that you should please come onto the upper deck and get away.’ The dentist thanked the sailor but shook his head. ‘Tell Captain Leach thank you very much, but I’m not going to leave my patients.’ The Rev. Wilfred Parker, who had delivered the prayer before the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 was tending to wounded elsewhere. Both men went down with the ship.

Boy Seaman Alan McIvor, who had used his wits to get an 8-inch shell from Prinz Eugen ejected from his gun turret, was wounded in the head. Fortunately he was able to leave the ship without even getting his feet wet, walking along a plank that had been laid across from the battleship’s stern to HMS Express, an escort destroyer, which had come alongside.

Eighteen-year-old Marine Peter Dunstan, who somehow managed to struggle up from below decks, was shocked at the angle to which the ship was listing. Momentarily bemused by the unfamiliar chaos that had gripped his usually well ordered ship – smoke and flame everywhere, wreckage cluttering the deck and men staggering about clutching wounds, shouting their heads off – he just stood there until somebody shouted, ‘Jump!’

Managing to pull himself onto a raft with a number of others, Dunstan turned to watch as the ship rolled over, spotting senior officers still standing on a bridge wing. They were gone within an instant, taken down to oblivion in a frothing, churning sea.6 Captain Leach had to be one of them, and his corpse was spotted later floating in the water, but not recovered.

Junior rating Joseph Willetts had also escaped to Express and then watched Prince of Wales slowly turning turtle, he believed still with hundreds of sailors trapped inside her hull. He saw those who had made it to the upper deck, but had yet to jump, trying to scramble clear, a few falling into the sea where some ingested oil and soon died. The Japanese had by now stopped their onslaught, and the ocean was littered with dead and wounded. Willetts decided he had to do something to help. Hanging on to a stanchion with one hand, he dropped over the side of Express to offer his other hand to survivors in the water. In this way, one by one, he saved some of them from a watery grave. But eventually, his strength ebbing away, Willetts had to be hauled back up on to Express. He found himself next to a petty officer gunner, seemingly without injury, who was standing perfectly still watching Prince of Wales begin to slide stern first under the waves. The petty officer looked at Willetts and said: ‘I’m going back … I’m not going to leave the lads there.’ The senior rating jumped over the side and swam the 100 yards back to the Prince of Wales, just so he could be sucked down with his shipmates.

Lieutenant Commander McMullen was taken down with the ship, but then, like Ted Briggs of Hood, popped to the surface. He got into a Carley float with four ratings whom he found singing the Volga Boat Song to keep their spirits up: ‘Yo heave ho! Yo heave ho! Once more, once more, Yo heave ho!’

Arriving just too late to matter, Buffalo fighter aircraft wheeled overhead. Shocked survivors shook their fists and hurled abuse skywards, cursing the RAF for failing to protect them against the Japanese. And so, Prince of Wales –sent to try and prevent an attack by Japan on British colonies in the Far East – was lost on a forlorn mission bitterly opposed by senior officers, but forced on the Royal Navy by Churchill. Prince of Wales took 327 of her officers and men with her to the bottom of the South China Sea, while a further 513 went down with Repulse, the ship Admiral Tovey had sent away to refuel in May 1941 rather than risk her in a battle with Bismarck. The two great ships were dinosaurs killed by gnats.

Electra had gone east with Prince of Wales, her fate seemingly still intertwined with the battleship that she had been in company with during the Bismarck Action. As such, she accompanied the battleship and Repulse on the ill-fated foray to prevent the Japanese landings. Her men looked on horrified as Japanese aviators, unlike their Italian and German counterparts, proved adept at high-level bombing, scoring a hit on Repulse which saw black smoke belching out of a large hole in her deck. Then, the destroyer men watched as torpedo-bombers skimmed low over the sea from all directions, Electra trying in vain to place herself between them and the British capital ships and shooting down a Japanese aircraft. First Repulse succumbed, and then Prince of Wales stopped dead in the water, mortally wounded. This time, rather than receive the thunderbolt of disaster via signal, as had been the case with Hood, the destroyer’s sailors saw the dreadful spectacle unfold before their eyes. Prince of Wales, which had escaped to fight another day on 24 May, just over six months earlier, began to sink. This time Electra could save more than just three lives. Provided she got there in time, she could offer salvation to many more.

After ordering the terrible news to be conveyed via signal to Singapore, Commander May took his destroyer in, finding Express was already nestled alongside Prince of Wales taking off survivors. Therefore Electra went in search of survivors from Repulse, pulling them from an oil-covered sea in various states of distress.

As Prince of Wales rolled over, bilge keel threatening to capsize Express, the destroyer backed away, fortunately speedily enough to avoid that fate. Watching from Electra, Lieutenant Cain saw ‘a whirlpool, spread over the water in brief fierce testimony of the violence of her passing …’ It wiped men ‘from the sea like chalk figures from a slate.’ Electra was able to pull several hundred survivors from the sea and carried them to Singapore, more than making up for the paltry few she had saved from Hood.

Nine months to the day from Bismarck’s sinking, Electra was claimed. Her death ride came during the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942, as she aimed to protect Exeter, the latter having suffered a crippling hit in a boiler room. Exeter needed time to get moving again. American and British destroyers made a smokescreen to hide the crippled British cruiser from the enemy and waited for the attack that would surely come. Cain contemplated mens’ attitude to mortal danger, the feeling of personal immunity ‘that other ships sank, and that other men died, but that we were immortal’. How else could he and his shipmates have survived so long? Exeter was finally able to get underway again and retire from the scene. As the Japanese came forward in strength Allied cruisers and destroyers counter-attacked, Electra vanishing into the smokescreen and seconds later breaking through the other side. For a few brief moments, the only sound was her engines and the noise of the sea parting in huge bow waves. Every man aboard was grimly silent, waiting for first sight of the enemy. Electra appeared to be alone, but then cutting across her path came the menacing silhouettes of a Japanese light cruiser and half a dozen heavy destroyers. Electra charged bravely on, exchanging fire with the enemy. Three devastating hits slammed into the British destroyer – one cutting off communication between the bridge and the rest of the ship, another wrecking the electrical system forward, the third exploding in the aft boiler room. Electra came to a halt with steam and smoke pouring through multiple holes. The Japanese fighting line had disappeared, but a single enemy destroyer came back to finish Electra off. Cain, swearing blue murder, ordered torpedoes fired, a forlorn attempt to blunt the enemy attack. None hit. Electra, with no central gunnery control and no power forward was a sitting duck as the heavily armed Japanese warship circled, taking out turrets one by one. Fire took hold aft, preventing any shells from being passed back to Y turret, the only one left in action, which soon ran out of ammunition, its gun falling silent. A message came down from Commander May on the bridge: ‘Prepare to abandon ship.’

Many officers and men who had been astonished, and deeply dismayed, by the lack of survivors from Hood were to be among those claimed by the sea that day. Cain was hit in the legs by shrapnel, the wail of the Japanese shell ringing in his ears as he continued trying to get a Carley float into the water despite his wounds. Fortunately for Cain he did not escape in it, for the Japanese destroyer decided on some target practice against the Electra’s floats and their survivors, achieving a direct hit on the one Cain helped put over the side. He escaped on another, which fortunately avoided the attention of the merciless enemy. Only fifty-four of Electra’s 144-strong ship’s company survived. Commander May was not among them, choosing to go down with his ship. He appeared on the bridge, giving those in the water an encouraging wave just seconds before Electra sank. Cain heard ‘one gentle sigh from our ship as she plunged below, her torments ended’, the White Ensign flying proudly from her gaff. The American submarine S38 rescued Electra’s survivors, ten of them so ill they had to be left in the care of Dutch doctors in Java, while the other forty-four, including Cain, made it to Australia aboard a small steamer called Verspeck. They reached Fremantle on 10 March, nine days after Exeter was sunk in a sequel to the Battle of the Java Sea, the cruiser meeting her end in the Sunda Strait. After taking shelter at Surabaya to effect further temporary repairs, Exeter set sail on 28 February, in the early hours of 1 March sending a signal picked up by a British destroyer, reporting sighting three enemy cruisers. Unable to make more than sixteen knots, Exeter was easy meat for the Japanese warships, which reduced the British cruiser to a floating wreck via gunfire before sending in a destroyer to torpedo her. Fifty-four of Exeter’s men went down with her, while 651 survivors were rescued and taken prisoner by the Japanese. Meanwhile, in Australia, some of Electra’s survivors were put on the Ceylon-bound liner Nankin, which was intercepted by the German raider Thor. Cain and others were among those transferred to a Japanese destroyer off Java, not far from where their ship had been sunk. They were to spend three years as prisoners. Also subjected to the degradation and brutality of captivity in Japanese hands were men from Prince of Wales, captured after fighting on land in defence of Singapore. A number of them died in captivity, one more sweep of the scythe that is war’s bitter harvest.

Like the Swordfish of Ark Royal who put paid to Bismarck nearly seven months earlier, those infernal Japanese aircraft that destroyed Prince of Wales dropped torpedoes and bombs that cost a fraction of what it took to create a vessel with the awesome firepower of a battleship. In both cases a few impudent torpedoes found the battleships’ unprotected Achilles heel – their steering and propulsion. Like Achilles crashing to the dusty plain beneath the walls of Troy, the myth of battleship omnipotence had been slain. However, the ships the torpedo-bombers flew from – the new capital vessels that replaced battleships as rulers of the seas during the Second World War – were also not invulnerable. Ark Royal was sunk in the western Mediterranean by a single torpedo fired by U-81 but she did not go down straight away, for her crew managed to get tows across from two tugs. However, in transferring the majority of the ship’s company to the destroyer Legion key damage control personnel went, too, and it was not possible to return them. The structure of Ark – the vast hangar running through the entire length of the ship – also enabled flooding to take hold rapidly. In the early hours of 14 November, with fire breaking out and water ingress creating an irretrievable list of 35 degrees, those left aboard abandoned ship, all save one sailor who went down with Ark. A number of the aviators who flew in the Swordfish attacks from Ark Royal did not survive the war. The leader of the strike from Victorious, Eugene Esmonde, was killed on 12 February 1942, leading 825 NAS on a mission to prevent the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen from breaking through the English Channel to Germany – the notorious ‘Channel Dash’. Esmonde’s aircraft suffered a hit as he made his torpedo run in the Channel, going down in flames. None of the other aircraft made it, all but five of the eighteen aviators in the squadron losing their lives. The Germans had learned how to shoot down Swordfish. Esmonde’s body was eventually washed up in the Medway and he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Eight of the forty-three Fleet Air Arm aviators who took part in attacks launched by Ark Royal against Bismarck later lost their lives. Among them was Tim Coode, who led the successful strike on the night of 26 May, killed in early 1943. Based ashore at a naval air station in east Africa, his aircraft caught fire and crashed during a night low-flying sortie. David Godfrey-Faussett was also killed, during a flying accident at night in March 1942, his Swordfish plunging into the North Sea off Easthaven.

Ever the fighter, it took four days for Cossack to give up the fight after she was struck by a torpedo fired by U-563 west of Portugal. On 23 October 1941 Cossack was helping to escort a UK-bound convoy, the fatal hit suffered just forward of the bridge on the destroyer’s port side, blowing off her bows and ‘about a third of the forward section of the ship’. She suffered 159 deaths12 and her twenty-nine survivors were picked up by fellow British escorts Carnation and Legion as well as the Free French warship Commandant Duboc. The following day a salvage team, including some of Cossack’s own men, was put aboard from Carnation. They strove valiantly to save the ship: ‘The fires were put out and bulkheads were shored up. The ship was lightened by throwing loose equipment, ammunition etc. overboard. Working under Commander E Halliwell, the engineering officer and senior survivor, they managed to get the main engines going again, although they could only proceed stern first, heading back to Gibraltar very slowly.’ They managed to stabilize the situation and on 25 October a tug from Gibraltar duly arrived and a tow was successfully put across. Towed stern first into steadily worsening seas, the salvage team was taken off during the night but could not get back aboard, the tow being slipped on 27 October, leaving Cossack slipping below the angry waves. Among the men lost in Cossack was telegraphist Eric Farmer who left such a graphic account of the Bismarck Action. The survivors took passage home to the UK in another veteran of the Bismarck Action, battleship Rodney, which had spent some time based at Gibraltar as flagship of Force H. Vian had departed Cossack that June, on promotion to Rear-Admiral and was tasked with organizing protection for convoys to northern Russia. When it came to the rest of Vian’s heroic destroyers of the 4th Flotilla, they were all lost in 1942: Maori was sunk by air attack in harbour at Malta, 12 February; Zulu sunk by air attack, off Tobruk, 14 September; Sikh sunk by enemy shore batteries, at Tobruk, 14 September.

Like Dorsetshire, the destroyer Maori had of course rescued Bismarck survivors and similarly, she too fulfilled the German officer’s grim prediction of ‘us today, you tomorrow’. But her casualties were light and only one man was killed when a Luftwaffe bomb penetrated and exploded in her machinery space in the early hours of the morning, a fire detonating a torpedo magazine blowing the ship apart. Fortunately the ship’s company was sleeping ashore rather than aboard ship. Maori broke in two, with her bows and stern poking above water. Because it was a hazard to shipping in the middle of Malta’s busy harbour, the wreck was raised and moved to a creek. After the war in Europe ended Maori’s wreck was raised yet again, towed out to sea and consigned to a permanent grave in deep water. In August 1942, Zulu and Sikh had joined forces with two other warships and RAF aircraft to hunt down and kill U-372 off Haifa. Both Tribal Class destroyers met their end during an ill-starred venture to put ashore a Royal Marine raiding force at Tobruk. Just after 5.00 am on 14 September, as the ships moved in to carry out the landings, a searchlight illuminated Sikh and an 88mm gun in a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battery opened fire, displaying its lethality against targets other than aerial ones. Shells ripped into Sikh in several places in quick succession, putting her propulsion out of action and setting off the ammunition and demolition charges belonging to embarked marines. Her bridge was also wrecked. Sister ship Zulu attempted to tow Sikh out of trouble but was hit several times herself, abandoning the idea. Sikh was scuttled shortly after 7.00 am, 115 of her men lost and many others taken prisoner. After withdrawing from the range of enemy guns, Zulu sought protection from the cruiser Coventry. A few hours later enemy dive-bombers plunged from the clouds, leaving Coventry so badly damaged she had to be scuttled by fire from Zulu’s guns. Hardly had Zulu left this disaster in her wake, with Coventrís sailors joining Royal Marines packed aboard her, when no less than eighteen enemy dive-bombers attacked at once and from all directions. With a bomb destroying her engine room, the doomed warship was left dead in the water. Even then her end did not come quickly. With most of those aboard evacuated to another British warship, a valiant attempt was made to tow Zulu to safe harbour, all the while under enemy air attack, but the situation was soon rendered hopeless. Zulu turned turtle and sank just inside the breakwater at Alexandria, the Royal Navy’s main base in the eastern Mediterranean. Thirty-seven of Zulu’s men lost their lives.

BATTLE OF THE YALU, [ORYOKKO NO TATAKAI] (1904)

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Japanese Army Crossing – The Yalu River

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The first major land engagement between Russian and Japanese forces during the Russo-Japanese War. It was fought 1-5 May 1904 and resulted in the first serious defeat of the Imperial Russian Army. The setting of the battle was decided following Japanese landing operations in Korea. At this stage the Russian Eastern Detachment under the command of Lieutenant General Mikhail Zasulich was deployed along the western bank of the Yalu River in an attempt to prevent the Japanese forces from crossing the river and invading Manchuria. On the eastern bank of the river, the Japanese First Army, under General Kuroki Tametomo, was deployed. On 15 April, General Aleksei Kuropatkin issued a memorandum stressing the importance of not allowing the Japanese a decisive victory in the first battle so as not to raise their morale. In the same spirit, however, Kuropatkin warned Zasulich to avoid a decisive battle and instructed him to determine the enemy’s strength, disposition, and marching lines, and “to retreat as slowly as possible to the mountains.”

The Eastern Detachment consisted of the Third Siberian Army Corps supported by the Trans-Baikal Cossack Brigade under Major General Pavel Mishchenko. The combined Russian fighting force amounted to 16,000 riflemen, 2,350 cavalry, 640 mounted scouts, 48 field guns, eight mountain guns, and six horse artillery guns. Based on military intelligence reports, Kuroki concluded prior to the battle that the Russian forces could be outnumbered at any point along the elongated front of about 275 kilometers [170 miles]. His First Army was stronger by far than its opponents, consisting of the 2nd, 12th, and Imperial Guards Divisions, over 40,000 strong. The Japanese troops marched for six weeks before arriving at the Korean border town of Wiju [Sinuiju, Uiju; Gishu], where they prepared for the battle and carefully monitored the enemy positions. Zasulich did not exert much effort to learn more about the Japanese dispositions, nor did he do much to conceal his own.

Kuroki decided to attack on 1 May 1904, three days after his forces finally succeeded in emplacing at the front 20 120-millimeter [4.7- inch] converted naval howitzers. On the night of 25 April and during the following day, Japanese troops took the islands of Kintei and Kyuri, located between the Yalu and the Ai Rivers. Their movement forced the Russians to evacuate also a stronghold known as Tiger Hill, which commanded the adjacent points of passage. The next day Japanese engineers threw 10 bridges across the relatively narrow Ai River, with much opposition from the Russian side. Early on 29 April, Lieutenant General Inoue Hikaru’s 12th Division accomplished its task of clearing the high ground up to the Ai River. Aware of the size of the force facing him, Zasulich neither retired nor concentrated his forces at this point, still convinced that it was a feint. That afternoon he dispatched a battalion to recapture Tiger Hill, and its success in doing so was one of the few reverses the Japanese experienced. It did not affect their tactical plans.

The next day Japanese howitzers redeployed on Kintei island battered the Russian artillery batteries and rendered them ineffective in the ensuing battle. Having lost his artillery, Lieutenant General Nikolai Kashtalinskii, commander of the 3rd East Siberian Rifle Division, who took command of the sector two days earlier, requested permission to withdraw. Zasulich declined, and during the night the entire Japanese First Army crossed the Yalu River and its channels. On the morning of 1 May, Kuroki began a full-scale attack, committing his three divisions. While crossing the narrow waters of the Ai, they suffered heavy causalities, but the attack continued. Broken up by superior numbers, the Russian line formed groups, each of which, after resisting for a while, was driven back. In this situation Zasulich ordered the retreat. By 10:00 the Russians had abandoned Chuliencheng, the Manchurian town facing Wiju on the western bank of the Ai River, where their headquarters were located.

Russian attempts to stem the rout farther to the west, near the little settlement of Hamatang, failed; under the growing pressure of the Japanese 12th Division, the smaller force under Colonel Gromov succumbed and began to retreat. For his decision, Gromov was later court-martialed. He was exonerated but later committed suicide. Further desperate attempts by Russian forces to form rear guards collapsed under local Japanese superiority, whereas the hesitant Zasulich made no stand even at the strategically important town of Fenghwangcheng [hoojo]. The Japanese occupied the site unopposed on 5 May 1904, although they did not pursue their demoralized opponents, who retreated northwest toward Liaoyang, thereby allowing the Japanese Second Army to begin landing in Pitzuwo on 5 May. Russian casualties numbered about 2,700 men, including 500 prisoners of war, whereas the Japanese lost 1,036 killed and wounded. The Russians lost also 21 guns and eight machine guns. Altogether, the battle of the Yalu marked the onset of the Russian defeat against the Japanese and would be remembered as such for decades to come. It was the first time in the modern age that an Asian force crushed a European force in a full-scale clash. The contemporary psychological impact of the debacle on the Imperial Russian Army was so immense that in retrospect some writers have treated this medium-scale confrontation as the decisive battle of the war.

Army of the Levant

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1er Régiment Etranger de Cavalerie, 1er REC. The only cavalry regiment in the French Foreign Legion, since the 2nd Foreign Cavalry Regiment (2e REC) has been disbanded. 1er REC has been stationed at Quartier Labouche in Orange, France since it moved from Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria in October 1967.

The regiment was created in Tunisia in 1921 around a cadre of Russian White movement veterans with extensive light cavalry experience from the Russian Civil War. It subsequently served in Syria and Morocco in 1920′s and 1930′s.

Uniforms of the Troupes Speciales varied according to arm of service but showed a mixture of French and Levantine influences. Indigenous personnel wore either the keffiyeh headdress (red for Druze and white for other units), fezzes or turbans. The Circassian mounted troops wore a black full dress that closely resembled that of the Caucasian Cossacks, complete with astrakhan hats. A common feature across the Troupes Speciales was the use of “violette” (purple-red) as a facing colour on tunic collar patches, belts and kepis. Squadron or branch insignia often included regional landmarks such as the cedars of Lebanon or the main mosque of Damascus.

In 1920, the French were given a mandate over Syria and Lebanon by the League of Nations. During this period Syria was known as the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon was known as the French Mandate of Lebanon.

From 19 April to 26 April 1920 the San Remo Conference was held in Sanremo, Italy. After this conference was concluded, the short-lived monarchy of King Faisal’s was defeated at the Battle of Maysalun during the Franco-Syrian War. The French army under General Henri Gouraud then occupied the Mandate of Syria and the Mandate of Lebanon.

A force called the Syrian Legion was raised by the French authorities shortly after the establishment of the two mandates. This comprised both cavalry and infantry units and was drawn mainly from minority groups within Syria itself.

Following the Druse revolt of 1925 to 1927, the Syrian Legion was reorganised into the “Special Troops of the Levant” (Troupes Speciales du Levant) augmented by North African infantry (tirailleurs) and cavalry (spahis), Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère), and Colonial Infantry/Artillery units (both French and Senegalese). The whole force constituted the Army of the Levant and was responsible for keeping order in both French mandates during the interwar period.

The French Mandate Administration followed a principle of divide and rule in organising the Troupes Speciales. As far as possible the Sunni Muslim Arabs, who made up about 65% of the population of Syria, were excluded from service with the Troupes Speciales, who were drawn mainly from Druze, Christian, Circassian and ‘Alawi minorities. During the period from 1926 to 1939, the Army of the Levant included between 10,000 and 12,000 locally engaged troops organised into: ten battalions of infantry (mostly ‘Alawis), four squadrons of cavalry (Druze, Circassian and mixed Syrian), three companies of camel corps (méharistes), engineer, armoured car, and support units. In addition, there were 9 companies of Lebanese light infantry (chasseurs libanais) and 22 squadrons of Druze, Circassian, and Kurdish mounted infantry forming the auxiliary troops (Troupes Supplementaires). This latter force provided a form of military police (gendarmerie) for internal security purposes and were primarily deployed in the areas of their recruitment. Some of the Lebanese units were trained as ski troops for mountain service and wore the berets of the French elite mountain infantry (Chasseurs Alpins).

By 1938, the Troupes Speciales numbered 10,000, with 306 officers of whom only 88 were French. A military academy (École Militaire) was established at Homs to train Syrian and Lebanese officers and specialist non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

During the 1930s the French Army experimented with integrating mounted and mechanised cavalry units into larger formations. Dragoon regiments were converted to motorised infantry (trucks and motor cycles), and cuirassiers to armoured units; while light cavalry (Chasseurs a’ Cheval, Hussars and Spahis) remained as mounted sabre squadrons. The theory was that mixed forces comprising these diverse units could utilise the strengths of each according to circumstances. In practice mounted troops proved unable to keep up with fast moving mechanised units over any distance.