Ancient Egyptian Fortresses


This was a site between the second and first cataract of the Nile near WADI HALFA, settled as an outpost as early as the Second Dynasty (2770–2649 B.C.E.). This era was marked by fortifications and served as a boundary of Egypt and NUBIA (modern Sudan) in certain eras. The New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.) pharaohs built extensively at Buhen. A Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.E.) FORTRESS was also discovered on the site, with outer walls for defense, bastions, and two interior temples, following the normal pattern for such military structures in Egypt. HATSHEPSUT, the Queen- Pharaoh (r. 1473–1458 B.C.E.), constructed a temple in the southern part of Buhen, with a five-chambered sanctuary, surrounded by a colonnade. TUTHMOSIS III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.E.) renovated the temple, enclosing a complex and adding porticos.

The actual fortress of Buhen was an elaborate structure, built partly out of rock with brick additions. The fort was set back from the river, giving way to a rocky slope. These walls supported external buttresses, which were designed to turn south and east to the Nile. A ditch was added for defense, carved out of rock and having deep sides that sloped considerably and were smoothed to deter scaling attempts. A gateway in the south wall opened onto an interior military compound, which also contained the original temples. AMENHOTEP II (r. 1427–1391 B.C.E.) is credited with one shrine erected there.


The defence of Egypt and its soldiers took various forms, including defensive building works (such as fortresses, walls, and border posts), the use of personal shields by soldiers, and, arguably, through political manoeuvres by Egypt’s rulers. One of ancient Egypt’s largest defensive projects was the building of border fortresses. There were several examples of these built throughout Dynastic Egypt’s history on the orders of several pharaohs. One of the most famous Pharaohs, Ramesses II, ordered the building of a line of such fortresses along Egypt’s northwestern coast in a bid to prevent further infiltrations into his lands by the ‘Sea Peoples’.

As previously discussed, prior to the New Kingdom, Egypt usually had a policy of defending its existing borders rather than looking outwards at the state’s geographical and political expansion. As a result of this particular outlook, Egypt had no standing army, but instead relied almost exclusively on provincial militias and conscription when threatened with invasion. One example of this took place in the Sixth Dynasty (during the reign of Pepi I) when an attempted invasion by the ‘sand-dwellers’ or ‘Shasu’ threatened his eastern borders. The force raised by Pepi I was led by Weni, a court official with no previous military leadership experience. With numbers on his side Weni’s lack of experience was overcome, leading to a successful outcome for Egypt. Due to this Weni was then appointed as the army commander for at least four more operations against the ‘sand-dwellers’. It would seem that Pepi I was perfectly content to leave his army’s activities at defensive manoeuvres and had no desire, and perhaps no resources, to expand Egypt’s borders at that time. So did Old Kingdom military/defence attitudes influence the building of fortresses? Fortresses certainly do not seem to have been designed specifically for outward invasions.

Fortresses (rather than fortified towns) were built by the ancient Egyptians in order to guard and control Egypt’s vulnerable northern and southern frontiers. These, primarily mudbrick, structures could hold up to a few hundred troops (occasionally comprising Nubian, Philistine, or Libyan soldiers), serving for up to six years at a time. According to the Semna Papyri (reports that were sent by the commander of the fortress at Semna to the military headquarters at Thebes during the reign of Amenemhat III), these troops had to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance patrols of the surrounding areas at regular intervals. There were examples of fortresses (called the Walls of the Prince) that were built in the eastern Delta during the reign of Amenemhat I (1991-1962BC), which were designed to defend the coastal route from the Levant. This was at around the same time as a fortress was built at Wadi Natrun, which was designed to defend the western Delta region against invading Libyans. These sites were maintained and improved during the New Kingdom, perhaps as a way to prevent reinvasion by the Hyksos, who had ruled this area of Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period between the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.

The mudbrick fortress of Buhen, in Lower Nubia (in the Second Cataract, 156 miles upstream of Aswan), is one of the most well-known and impressive of these structures. Buhen was one of the most elaborate of ancient Egypt’s fortresses and united all the Second Cataract fortresses under its command by the time of the New Kingdom. Initially founded in the Second Dynasty, the site was established early on as a trade centre, becoming known for copper-smelting in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. It was during the Middle Kingdom that the fortress was enlarged and strengthened in order to become a frontier fortress, one of a string of eleven in the area. These improvements took the form of mudbrick ramparts added to the 4m thick outer western wall, which itself incorporated five large towers. There was also a large central tower that served as the main entrance (comprising two openings with double wooden doors) and a drawbridge. The inner fortress was built along a more regular square plan and had towers at each corner along with bastions that were at 5-metre intervals.

While fortresses always played a defensive role to some extent, there are many interpretations as to their core role, both in terms of function and symbolism. Shaw is of the opinion that these Nubian fortresses were not designed for border defence but were, in fact, to protect Egypt’s monopoly on exotic trade goods (such as gold and ivory) which were brought up through Nubia into Egypt.412 Archaeologists generally believe that fortresses such as Buhen were designed for propaganda reasons, with elaborate crenellations, bastions, and ditches. As Buhen was built on flat ground with a square ground-plan it would have looked very impressive but, arguably, would have been difficult to defend effectively as it lacked any advantage, such as being built on top of a hill or other elevated land. Certainly by the New Kingdom, Buhen had become a primarily civilian settlement, as Egypt’s frontiers were pushed further south.

Arguments on their exact role aside, the importance of fortresses cannot be ignored and the erection of new fortresses (or rather forts and walls) continues long throughout the New Kingdom and beyond. Some of the most notable include the string of forts along the Mediterranean coast of the Delta that were commissioned by Ramesses II and the forts at Qasr Ibrim and Qasr Qarun that were built by the Roman rulers in the Graeco-Roman Period of Egypt’s history. During periods of great disturbance (such as the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period) there was an increase in the building of fortifications. The Kushite King Piye even boasted on his stele at Gebel Barkal of his defeat of the Egyptians in 734BC, which includes a mention of Middle Egypt and its nineteen fortified settlements along with various walled cities in the Egyptian Delta.416 This boasting by Piye shows the importance of fortresses in the defence of ancient Egypt, at least in the minds of Egypt’s enemies.

The fortress of Mirgissa

Egyptian Fortresses

Egypt’s Largest Ancient Fortress Unearthed


From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable I

German Brandenburger commando troops firing at Soviet troops on a bridge over the Oder River with an 8.8 cm Flak anti-aircraft cannon, 1945. Photograph by Heinrich Hoffman.

In early 1945, the Eastern Front was what it had been since the Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa: a German graveyard, the theater that claimed the lion’s share of the army’s divisions and generated the most casualties. The German strategic decision in 1944 to prioritize the Western Front, deal the Anglo-Americans a sharp blow, and then turn back with redoubled fury to the east was also the same thing it had been all along: nonsense. Errors on the strategic level are always the most serious, trumping operational brilliance and tactical acumen. Indeed, strategic errors have a way of being fatal. The Wehrmacht’s dramatic path in 1944 from defeat to catastrophe to rebirth on the Western Front was an epic in its way, but an empty one. By late 1944, the Eastern Front had gone into free fall.

The Red Army had spent the autumn mercilessly gouging into the flanks of the German strategic position. A series of offensives smashed Army Group North—always the weakest and most undersupported of the army groups—and herded its two component armies (the 16th and 18th) into one of the most senseless military positions of all time: the Courland Pocket. The small hump of western Latvia from Libau in the west to Tuckum in the east held over thirty German divisions that were cut off from the rest of the Wehrmacht and from the homeland—a force that had to be supplied by sea. The Soviets launched three great offensives into Courland in 1944, two in October and one in December, and then three more in 1945 (January, February, and March). The German force, renamed Army Group Courland in January 1945, warded off all of them, a masterpiece of defensive positional warfare against a powerful enemy, but in the end these thirty divisions stayed right where the Red Army wanted them: in a self-imposed prison camp. Indeed, the defense of the Courland Pocket benefited from the large number of German divisions packed like sardines into a very tiny front. For once on the Eastern Front, German divisions didn’t have to defend outrageously extended fronts, and under such conditions they gave a good accounting of themselves. From time to time, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff since July 21, 1944, pleaded with Hitler to evacuate Courland and bring the lost armies home to bolster the defenses of the homeland. Over and over again, Hitler refused, and he could always count on a reliable ally in the argument: Admiral Dönitz. He claimed that keeping a toehold in the Baltic Sea was essential to testing Germany’s new, fully submersible Type XXI U-boats, one of those miracle weapons that Hitler claimed was eventually going to win the war. At any rate, as 1945 dawned, it was unlikely that Germany could have scrounged up enough ships, transport capacity, and fuel to evacuate Army Group Courland—even if Hitler had agreed.

Likewise, in the south, the Red Army spent the autumn leveraging the advantages gained by Romania’s defection. The Soviets overran the Ploesti oil fields, coerced Bulgaria to declare war on Germany, drove into Yugoslavia, and captured Belgrade in October. These successes fatally compromised the position of German forces in Yugoslavia and Greece, and the German occupation force in the southern Balkans, General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E, received orders to evacuate Greece, southern Albania, and southern Macedonia in October. Löhr brought his force north, with Tito’s Partisan forces nipping at their heels the whole way. Over and over again, German forces had to fight their way out of encirclements, but they could always amass sufficient force against the lighter-armed Partisans to do so. The Wehrmacht was less well equipped to deal with Allied air attacks, however, especially on the twisting mountain roads of central Bosnia, and the entire march north was an exercise in misery.

The next target in line—and Soviet strategy in this period of the war has all the meticulous sense of purpose of a clerk checking off boxes on an inventory sheet—was Hungary. After the huge losses the Hungarians suffered in the Soviet Union since Stalingrad, the country had clearly been wavering in its allegiance to the Axis. On March 12, 1944, the Germans had carried out Operation Margarethe, occupying the country to prevent an Italian- or Romanian-style defection. By October, Soviet forces had driven deep into Hungary, and fierce armored battles were raging around Debrecen in the Great Hungarian Plain. The Hungarian head of state, Admiral Miklós Horthy, negotiated an armistice with the Soviets. His announcement of the armistice on October 15, 1944, led the Germans to carry out Operation Panzerfaust, a coup by fascist fanatics of the Arrow Cross movement. Horthy was out, and Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi was in. The Germans purchased Horthy’s acquiescence by kidnaping his son, Miklós Jr., beating him senseless, rolling him up in a rug, and transporting him to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany (Operation Mickey Mouse): a suitably gangsterish event that tells us all we need to know about the nature of Nazi foreign policy. Keeping Hungary loyal had little impact on the military side, however. After clearing the plain on the eastern bank of the Tisza River, the Soviets stormed toward Budapest. On December 5 they launched an offensive on both sides of the capital and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve 1944. The siege, with four full German divisions inside the ring, would rage well into 1945.

All of these attacks in the northern and southern sector of the front left the center more or less untouched. Soviet forces still stood where they had since August: along the Vistula River, opposite Warsaw. And for anyone who had been paying attention to Soviet strategy thus far in the war, clearing the flanks could mean only one thing as 1945 began: an offensive along the central Warsaw-Berlin axis and a drive into the heart of Berlin. The end of the fighting back in August had seen Soviet armies seize three great bridgeheads over the Vistula south of Warsaw: at Magnuszew, at Pulawy, and on a long stretch of the Vistula between Baranow and Sandomierz, moving north to south. To the north of Warsaw, the Soviets held three more bridgeheads over the Narew River, two around Pultusk and a third at Lomza. Again, to anyone cognizant in Soviet battle planning, the maintenance of such numerous and expansive bridgeheads was a clear expression of operational intent. Unlike past offensives, the Soviets did not go to great lengths to employ maskirovka or deception. There could be no fooling the Germans as to the site of an attack so monstrous in size, and with German reserves chewed up in the Ardennes and in the fighting in Hungary, it hardly mattered how sly the Soviets tried to be. Most of the massive preparations for the great offensive—the Vistula-Oder operation—took place in the open.

And massive they were: two Soviet fronts bursting with men, tanks, and guns. On the Soviet right, directly opposite and to the south of Warsaw, 1st Byelorussian Front (Marshal G. K. Zhukov) assembled ten armies (eight combined-arms armies for the initial penetration, two tank armies, and two cavalry corps for exploitation along the attack axis) plus an air army. Such a robust force offered unlimited operational possibilities, and Zhukov seemed determined to try them all. He envisioned no fewer than three penetrations: the major one from the Magnuszew bridgehead, a 15-mile-wide by 6-mile-deep bulge over the river just south of Warsaw. Zhukov crammed three armies into Magnuszew, the 8th Guards Army under General V. I. Chuikov (formerly the 62nd Army, the heroes of Stalingrad), 5th Shock Army, and 61st Army. They would make the penetration, setting the stage for the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 2nd Guards Tank Army to launch the exploitation to the west. Zhukov designed a second, smaller penetration north of Warsaw, where 47th Army would take advantage of the general rupturing of the German line to cross the Vistula, loop around Warsaw to the north, and link up with the 61st Army coming up out of Magnuszew to encircle the city. Finally, a third drive would emerge out of Pulawy, in the southern reaches of Zhukov’s sector: 69th Army and 33rd Army would penetrate the German lines and link up with forces coming down out of Magnuszew, creating a series of tactical encirclements.

To the south (left) of Zhukov lay Marshal I. S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Here, too, stood ten full armies at the commander’s disposal, eight combined-arms armies and two tank armies. Konev’s plan was the opposite of Zhukov’s, however, and much simpler: while Zhukov was attacking in many places at once, Konev planned on one single great thrust. He jammed no fewer than five of his armies—half the total force—into the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead (the 6th, 13th, 52nd, 3rd Guards, and 5th Guards). Moreover, Konev planned to insert 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Guards Tank Army into the breakout from the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead on day one. The assault of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front might well have been the single greatest concentration of land power in all of World War II.

Taken together, the two Soviet fronts amassed shocking numbers for the upcoming offensive. Konev and Zhukov had no fewer than 134 rifle divisions, 33,000 guns, 7,000 tanks, and 4,700 aircraft. In all, they commanded 2.25 million men. The two fronts contained about one-third of all infantry formations on the entire front and almost one-half of all the tanks. One authority calls the Soviet advantage “both absolute and awesome, fivefold in manpower, fivefold in armor, over sevenfold in artillery, and seventeen times the German strength in the air.” As always, the prelude to deep battle was concentration of massive force on extremely narrow fronts, and the Vistula-Oder operation was no different. The Soviets were able to lay on 220–250 guns per kilometer of front, a (theoretical) artillery piece every 4 meters, along with 21–25 tanks. It was a devastating concentration of offensive power, beyond anything the Soviets had yet achieved, even in their megavictory in Byelorussia the previous summer. A five-to-one advantage in armor across the entire front can easily become a superiority of ten- or even twenty-to-one in certain chosen assault sectors.

Moreover, the Soviet Stavka constructed this behemoth force while simultaneously planning another two-front offensive against East Prussia. The 2nd Byelorussian (Marshal K. K. Rokossovsky) and 3rd Byelorussian (General I. D. Cherniakhovsky) Fronts would launch a vast concentric operation against the exposed province. The operational scheme was essentially that of the Tannenberg campaign in 1914. Cherniakhovsky’s force would launch a frontal blast due west, driving on a direct route through Gumbinnen and Insterburg toward Königsberg. Once he had pinned German forces in place, Rokossovsky would come up from the south though Osterode and Allenstein, head toward the Baltic Sea at Elbing, and drive into the deep flank and rear of the German defenders. German forces in the province belonged to Army Group Center, under the command of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt. He had three weak armies (from left to right: 3rd Panzer, 4th, and 2nd) and a badly distended position, with 4th Army occupying a lazy, indefensible bulge looping out toward the east. The initial Soviet attacks intended to Kessel 4th Army by smashing the two armies on its flanks. Launching two vast offensives at once, the Soviet Union had become a military superpower by 1945, the purveyor of strategic land power par excellence.

And what of the German force defending the Vistula line? Here stood Army Group A (formerly Army Group North Ukraine, renamed after its brusque eviction from Ukrainian soil in July 1944), under the same officer who had commanded it during that previous catastrophe: General Joseph Harpe. Army Group A contained four relatively threadbare armies stretched over a 420-mile front and deployed along a more or less straight line stretching from north to south:

9th Army (General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz)

—opposite the Magnuszew and Pulawy bridgeheads

4th Panzer Army (General Fritz-Hubert Gräser)

—opposite the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead

17th Army (General Friedrich Schulz)

—south of the Vistula to the Beskid Range in the Carpathians

Armeegruppe Heinrici: 1st Panzer Army and 1st Hungarian Army

(both under the command of General Gotthard Heinrici)

—holding the army group’s right wing in the Carpathians.

Altogether, Harpe’s army group could call upon a mere twenty-five divisions on line to hold this long front (standing against 134 Soviet divisions), along with 1,300 tanks (against 6,500). Twelve panzer divisions stood in reserve, but few were at full strength and fuel was in short supply—the Wehrmacht’s “new normal” since the loss of the Ploesti fields. Air support for the front, courtesy of VIII Fliegerkorps flying out of Kraków, was minimal. The Fliegerkorps could barely put 300 aircraft into the air (against 4,700), and those that were theoretically available to fly often didn’t, due again to serious fuel constraints. Army Group A also suffered from a serious shortage of munitions of all sorts, and many of Harpe’s units in January 1945 had an ammunition load for only two or three days of high-intensity combat.

All these numbers were indicative of the Soviet strategic edge: resources, industrial capacity, and increases in productivity, of course. They were also a product of German decision-making over the last six months. Hitler and the OKW had made a particularly fateful choice the previous fall when they decided to form a new army (the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich) rather than transfer newly raised units to strengthen German armies already holding the line against the Soviets. We might say the same for their decision to deploy that new army in the west for the Ardennes offensive. That choice meant that German defenses in the east would lack a reserve army that Harpe or the General Staff and the OKH could insert to smash a Soviet breakthrough with a bold Panzer counterstroke. Finally, once it was clear that Wacht am Rhein was finished, Hitler and the OKW decided to transfer the 6th SS Panzer Army not to the east, as originally promised, but rather to the southeast, to Hungary, where it launched a series of three failed relief offensives to break the Soviet siege of Budapest (Operations Konrad I–III). All of these choices meant starving Army Group A and the other German forces currently defending the long line from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. And yet, we cannot merely label these decisions “wrong.” However Hitler or anyone else shuffled them, there simply were not enough German divisions, corps, or armies to do all that needed to be done. Whether 6th SS Panzer Army fought in Budapest or on the Baranow bridgehead line was hardly going to change the ultimate verdict of the war—not at this late date.

We could say the same thing about the operational scheme mooted by Harpe’s chief of staff, the young and energetic General Wolfdietrich Ritter von Xylander. In the current conformation of the front, the Baranow and Magnuszew bridgeheads jutted into German-held territory. German forces deployed on that sector of the front, therefore, were in a salient pointing east, nearly encircled even before the start of the fighting. Xylander devised a plan he dubbed Schlittenfahrt (“Sleighride,” named, incidentally, for the signature maneuver of the Great Elector of Brandenburg in the Winter Campaign of 1678–1679). Just before the offensive, German forces would evacuate the bulge, moving back in three stages to the previously prepared Hubertus Line. The immense Soviet bombardment would therefore strike air—and so would the irresistible momentum of the initial Soviet attack. They would still come forward, but without their usual power. German forces would be standing in good order on a well-prepared, fortified line and be able either to hold the Soviet drive or even to strike a counterblow if conditions were favorable. Moreover, Xylander calculated that Schlittenfahrt would free up, at a minimum, four divisions, which he could use to form a strategic reserve for the army group.

Guderian presented Schlittenfahrt to Hitler at a conference at the Eyrie on January 9, along with a demand for reinforcements from the west and the by now obligatory demand for the evacuation of the Courland Pocket. While the scheme seems sensible enough, the Führer wasn’t having it. The proposed operation was just another retreat, he said, just another refusal to follow his orders to hold the line. Manuever wasn’t important to the outcome of the upcoming battle. Determination and strength of will: those were the keys. Hitler responded to Guderian’s presentation of the dire situation at the front with all the contempt he had built up for years against the generals, their propensity to “operate,” their constant demands for retreat. He didn’t believe Guderian’s intelligence estimates on Soviet tanks and guns, labeling them “completely idiotic.” Guderian responded that they came from the intelligence service, particularly from General Reinhard Gehlen in the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) office. “If you think he belongs in a madhouse, then lock me up, too!” Even though the rage on both sides subsided, and the discussion returned to a more civil space, the entire experience “was extremely unpleasant,” Guderian wrote. Hitler had reverted to an “ostrich strategy.” Meanwhile, the Eastern Front had become “a house of cards. If the front is penetrated at any point, the whole thing would fall apart.” Hitler’s response had all the charm of a funeral bell tolling: “The East must rely on itself and survive on what it has.”

Guderian’s account of the January meeting has become the accepted narrative, and no indications that he was lying, or even exaggerating, have ever come to light. Indeed, in a nighttime conference after the Chief of the General Staff departed, Hitler expanded on his skepticism of the reports he had heard earlier that day:

I looked at the numbers today, and we have 3,000 tanks and assault guns in the east. Since we usually shoot up enemy tanks at a 3–1 ratio, the Soviets need 9,000 tanks to destroy us. They need a 3–1 superiority. But they don’t have 9,000 tanks, not at the moment.

And here: if we look at the whole front, they’re supposed to have 150 guns every kilometer. That’s 1,500 guns on a ten-kilometer front. There is no way that can be true! That would mean 15,000 guns on a 100-kilometer front, and 20,000 guns on a 150-kilometer front. The Russians aren’t made of artillery!

In fact, we can say that they were made of artillery. Hitler’s departure from reality—born either of ignorance or of willful self-deception—is striking. The time had long passed when the Führer’s intuition and amateurish luck could lead to positive battlefield outcomes. His “unprofessional and defective” decisions were leading them all to doom, and they were directly responsible for the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.

But in the interests of historical accuracy and fairness, let us note that Xylander’s plan was no more realistic than Hitler’s. The notion that the proposed Schlittenfahrt or any similar operational stratagem could ward off the dark fate awaiting Army Group A on the Vistula belongs to the realm of fantasy. Consider the words of the German official history. The controversy over Schlittenfahrt was “irrelevant,” the author argues:

Plans of this sort could not replace the German army’s losses in materiel and personnel or reduce the opponent’s superiority, neither on the Vistula nor weeks later on the Oder.

On the basis of the numbers alone, the outcome of the upcoming offensive was not in doubt. For the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich, the time for brilliant maneuver was over, since space was lacking. The depth required [for a war of maneuver] lay to the east, not west, of the Vistula. Each retreat brought the eastern opponent to the borders of the Reich. The danger loomed of ground operations on the soil of the homeland.

Indeed, like Model and Rundstedt pressing their point with Hitler and Jodl for the “small solution” during the 1944 Ardennes planning cycle, Xylander, Harpe, and Guderian were declaring allegiance to a way of war they had learned in the War Academy and then tested in the field in the early days of World War II: that war consists above all of a series of cleverly designed and boldly executed military operations, devoid of context, politics, or economics.

Handed impossible orders to hold out to the last man but lacking enough men to do so, Guderian attempted to compensate by digging a series of fortified positions on and behind the Vistula line. Hundreds of thousand of civilians, both German and Polish, as well as prisoners of war, went to work digging trenches and artillery emplacements, felling trees for roadblocks, and protecting the major towns and cities with all-around fortifications. The system was impressive enough on paper, including a Hauptkampflinie (main battle line) backstopped by no fewer than four lines (designated “a” through “d”) extending to a depth of 150 miles, with intermediate positions between them. A final barrier, the Nibelungen-Stellung (Nibelung Position), stretched from Bratislava in the south to the Stettin on the Baltic Sea coast. East Prussia, too, had an impressive system of prepared defenses. Many of them, like the Lötzen Triangle in the lakes district, were of great antiquity but still useful as defensive force multipliers within the dark forests of the province.67 Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht lacked many of the necessary materiel to build and hold a modern fortified line, including concrete, construction tools, fuel for the tractors, and, above all, artillery to place in the new bunkers; the works remained inadequate and incomplete on the eve of the Soviet offensive.

Mobilizing civilian labor was a double-edged sword for the army, moreover, since it brought the civil administration into play. As they had with the formation of the Volkssturm, the Gauleiters sensed that that their moment had come. They could see that fortification-building and civilian mobilization meant access to greater power and funding. Nazi officials in the eastern provinces soon began to intervene in the process of fortification building. The results were catastrophic. Arguments over jurisdiction and precedence arose between the army and the civilian authorities, resulting in confusion, waste, and redundancy of effort. Erich Koch, for example, former Gauleiter of occupied Ukraine and now holding the same office in East Prussia, was an energetic fellow—in all the worst ways. While he knew nothing of fortification or military affairs in general, he was certain that he “was smarter than a trained commander.” East Prussia wound up with a haphazard gaggle of poorly placed bunkers, trenches that meandered off into nowhere, and observation posts without a line of sight through the forest. Koch also came up with one of the war’s most absurd inventions: a concrete tube two feet in diameter, sunk into the earth so it could allow enemy tanks to pass; a man would then open its lid to spray enemy infantry with machine-gun fire. The test of battle soon showed the problems: the man inside the tube was terrified, he had no real contact with the outside world once he’d gone underground, and any sort of artillery strike on his position led to shattered concrete and the grisliest wounds imaginable. The infantry called it the Koch-Topf (“cooking pot”).

The Dutch Attempt to Seize Portuguese Macau

Dutch ships firing their cannons in the waters of Macau, drawn in 1665.

Map of Macau Peninsula in 1639, the city now reinforced with walls and forts

The First Fortifications

At first there were no fortifications in Macau. As mentioned previously, the Chinese were suspicious of Portuguese intentions and were careful to prevent them becoming too strong, and a part of this was their objection to the building of forts. The Portuguese controlled the seas and, whether or not they had colonising intentions, they came to realise that direct conflict with the Chinese was not feasible. They therefore accepted the Chinese demands and appeared to coexist peacefully with them.

Dr. Francisco de Sande reported in 1582 that:

The Portuguese of Macao are still nowadays without any weapons, or form of justice, having a Chinese Mandarin who searches their houses to see if they have any arms and munitions. And because it is a regular town with about 500 houses and there is a Portuguese governor and a bishop therein, they pay every three years to the incoming viceroy of Canton about 100,000 ducats to avoid being expelled from the land, which he divides with the grandees of the household of the king [emperor] of China. However, it is constantly affirmed by everyone that the king has no idea that there are any such Portuguese in his land.

As late as 1598 when Dom Paulo de Portugal protested about the Spanish trading at Pinhal,2 he did not feel able to be too forceful, as Macau was an open unprotected place. However, others were a greater threat to Macau.

Portugal’s geographical proximity to Spain became political after the death of Dom Sebastião in 1576. There was no male heir and, after a short period of uncertainty, the claim of the Habsburg King Philip II of Spain was endorsed by the Cortes which in 1581 proclaimed him king. Thus Spain and Portugal shared the same monarch, although the Portuguese fiercely clung to the notion of the countries remaining separate. One negative effect for Portugal was that Spain’s enemies became Portugal’s. These included the Dutch and English who were both naval powers. They were soon attacking Portuguese vessels and between 1623 and 1636 some five hundred Portuguese ships were lost.

Ships were not their only aim but the colonial territories as well. The Dutch first appeared at Macau in 1601 when a fleet under Admiral van Neck approached. They sent a party to take soundings of the harbour but the Portuguese attacked them and eighteen were hanged and two sent to Goa. That did not stop the Dutch, and they returned two years later when two of their ships opened fire on Macau and plundered and burnt a carrack. The next year a Dutch envoy tried to establish trade with China but the Portuguese influence stopped that, at which the Dutch Admiral van Waerwijk set sail to take Macau. He was halted by a typhoon and then driven off by a fleet of war junks. A report by Captain Matelieff in 1607 to the Dutch government confirmed that there was still a lack of forts and walls.

The Dutch were not the only threat as some of the British adventurers also cast their eyes on Macau, but the Dutch were in greater numbers. The Dutch made plans for taking control of Macau and they estimated this to be an easy task. In the instructions to the Dutch admiral, it was stated that:

Macao was always an open place without a garrison, which, despite of its being provided with a few munitions and some shallow entrenchments, could easily be taken by a force of a thousand or fifteen hundred men and converted into a stronghold which we could defend against the entire world.

However, elsewhere in the same document it is noted that some steps had been taken to fortify the city, albeit that the Chinese were still against such works.

Ever since we and the English have traded with Japan with many ships, the population has been greatly alarmed. The place was therefore strengthened with some bulwarks, and they brought twelve cannon from Manila, whence another five guns are expected. They would gladly fortify the city but the Chinese will not allow it, saying that there will be time enough to do so when the enemy actually appear in sight.

Richard Cocks, writing to his employers, the East India Company in London, on 30 September 1621, confirmed the Dutch assessment, stating that:

It is very certen that with little danger our fleet of defence may take and sack Amacon in China, which is inhabeted by Portingales. For the towne is not fortefied with walls; neither will the King of China suffer them to doe it, nor to make any fortifications, nor mount noe ordinance upon any platforme; and ¾ partes of the inhabetantes are Chinas. And we are credably informed that, these last two yeares, when they did see but two or three of our shipp within sight of the place, they were all ready to runn out of the towne, as I have advized the Precedent and Councell of Defence at Jaccatra; and, had but 2 small shipps, as the Bull and Pepercorne, entred this yeare, they might easily have burnt and taken 17 sale of galliotas which weare at anchor, amongst which weare the 6 galliotas which came into Japan, being then full laden; and, had they taken this fleet, the Portingales trade in these parts of the world is quite spoiled, both for Manillas, Malacca, Goa, and else wheare. And the King of China would gladly be ridd of their neighbourhood; as our frendes which procure our entry for trade into China tell me, and doe say that he wished that we could drive them from thence.

Clearly the Portuguese needed to prepare for an attack and, in spite of the Chinese objections, they took steps to improve their security. The first defensive works were probably in the form of simple bulwarks, using guns that could be spared from the ships. As noted above, cannon were also brought in from Manila and some progress had been made in building proper defensive works to house them. Fei Chengkang notes that between 1608 and 1615 the batteries of São Francisco and Bom Parto had been built to protect the Praya Grande and that there was a battery at the entrance to the Inner Harbour. He also notes that a city wall had been started as early as 1605 in the area north of the Jesuit seminary, although this may have been their boundary wall, albeit built with defence in mind.

The continuing Dutch incursions so alarmed the citizens that in 1612 representatives from Macau went to Canton to argue that fortifications were required to defend the territory against the Dutch. There is no record of the Chinese having given any approval, but in the face of the Dutch menace a decision to fortify Macau was made in 1615. By then, in addition to the batteries noted above, the construction of the fort at the Monte was also well advanced. Francisco Lopes Carrasco was the officer charged with building the extended fortifications. He arrived in 1616 and established his headquarters at the Monte Fort, apparently as a guest of the Jesuits, as at that time it was part of their seminary complex. It is not known what plans he drew up or how much work was completed in the early years. However, there were fortunately some effective batteries in place by 1622.

The 1622 Attack by the Dutch

The early preparations were well justified as in June 1622 a Dutch fleet, under Admiral Cornelis Reijersen, was on its way to take Macau. The preparations for the attack were very thorough. Two hundred and one soldiers on board the fleet were formed into three companies and drilled daily under the command of two captains and an ensign. The sailors were divided into six companies of fifty men each, a total of three hundred. These nine companies of European soldiers and sailors were organised into three detachments —advance-guard, main-guard and rear-guard— each composed of one company of soldiers and two of sailors. The detachments were distinguished by red, green and blue flags and each was provided with six hundred pounds of small shot, six barrels of gunpowder and a surgeon. There were also sixty scaling-ladders, a thousand sandbags and three cannon. In addition to the five hundred Europeans there was a Japanese contingent and some Bandanese and Malays, the whole landing force amounting to about six hundred men.

The fleet arrived in sight of Macau on the 21 June where it was joined by the four ships (two Dutch and two English) of Janszoon’s blockading squadron. Reijersen now found himself at the head of a force of thirteen Dutch ships (Zierickzee, Groeningen, Delft, Gallias, Engelsche Beer, Enchuysen, Palliacatta, Haan, Tiger, Victoria, Santa Cruz, Trouw and Hoop) carrying a force of 1,300 men, so that he was able to reinforce the landing detachment by another hundred Europeans. The two English ships — the Palsgrave and Bull — decided not to participate in the attack, because Reijersen, in accordance with his instructions, refused to allow their crews any share in the expected booty.

On 23 June, to distract attention from the intended landing-place, three of the ships — Groeningen, Gallias and Engelsche Beer, anchored off the São Francisco bulwark, which they heavily bombarded during the afternoon. Apart from some material damage the Portuguese did not suffer any losses. The next day the Dutch ships Groeningen and Gallias resumed and intensified their bombardment of the São Francisco bulwark. The Portuguese gunners replied with equal determination and better success, as the Gallias was so badly crippled that she had to be abandoned and scuttled a few weeks later.

Meantime, about two hours after sunrise, the landing force of eight hundred men embarked in thirty-two launches (equipped with a swivel-gun in the prow) and five barges. They steered for Cacilhas beach to the northeast of the town, protected by fire from the guns of two of the ships. Further protection was provided by the smoke from a barrel of damp gunpowder that had been ignited and placed to windward; one of the earliest recorded instances of the tactical use of a smoke screen. About 150 Portuguese and Eurasian musketeers under the command of Antonio Rodriguez Cavalinho opposed the landing from a shallow trench dug on the beach.

From the start luck favoured the defenders. A musket-shot fired at random into the smoke screen struck the Dutch admiral in the belly, so that he had to be taken back to his flagship at the beginning of the action. This did not deter the Dutch and they were able to establish a beachhead. They disembarked their three field-pieces and the rest of their men without serious opposition. The senior military officer Captain Hans Ruffijn then organised two rear-guard companies to stay on Cacilhas Beach, with a view to covering the withdrawal of the main body if the attack on the town should prove unsuccessful. This done, he resumed the advance with six hundred men.

Ljungstedt quotes from an account of the events in the Senates archives as follows:

The Tocsin was rung: our people flew to assist us. The enemy had nearly passed the hermitage of Guia, when a heavy gun and some of less size were fired at them from the Monte. This salute made them stop and finding that a great number of men were in front, the commander apprehensive of being surrounded, sought some strong hold on the declivity of the mountain at the foot of Guia. Of this movement the Portuguese availed themselves, they attacked the enemy in the rear with so much resolution, that the Dutch threw away standards, arms, everything that they might get quickly back to the bay. The two companies stationed at Casilhas, endeavoured to rally the fugitives, when the Portuguese fell upon them so furiously with fire and sword that the enemy were compelled to seek for safety on board the ships. Many tried to reach the boats by swimming; of them 90 were drowned, and almost as many were slain in the field. The Dutch lost five standards, five drums and a field piece, that had just been landed, and more than a thousand arms. Four Captains were slain, and one taken with seven prisoners. Four Portuguese and two Spaniards, with a few slaves were killed. Some Portuguese slaves, who had behaved bravely and faithfully during the action were emancipated by their masters: the Tsung-tuh of Canton, sent them two hundred piculs of rice.

Surprisingly he does not mention that a lucky cannon-ball from a large bombard in the half-finished citadel of Sao Paulo do Monte, which was served by the Italian Jesuit and mathematician Padre Jeronimo Rho, struck a barrel of gunpowder which exploded in the midst of the Dutch formation with devastating results. Nor does it describe the vital part played by the commander of the garrison of the Fort of Sao Tiago at the Barra. He, realising that the main attack was coming from the landward side and that the naval bombardment of Sao Francisco was a feint, sent a party of fifty men under Captain Joao Soares Vivas to help. These reinforcements swung the balance and resulted in the rout of the Dutch.

It is perhaps ironic that Richard Cocks, who a year earlier had written to say how easily Macau could be taken, had to write a report of the battle on 7 September 1622 stating that three to five hundred men had been killed and four ships burnt. It was a great victory but it was not until 1871 that a monument to it was erected in the Jardim da Vitória.


An M50 tank that was used in a static defence role by the Israelis. This view shows the access to the shelter. To give added protection the spoil would have been built up around the sides of the tank so that only the turret was visible. This example was located on the coast at Kibbutz Hanita, just south of the Israel/Lebanon border.

 The Israeli Defence Force also used obsolete American M48 tank turrets as improvised fixed fortifications.

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945 there was a huge stockpile of military materiel as the victors reduced their armed forces to peacetime levels and the Axis powers were disarmed. The surplus hardware was either scrapped or was sold to newly liberated countries or to states that had secured independence. In this scrabble a number of Sherman tanks, which had formed the mainstay of the American armoured forces during the war, were ‘acquired’ by the Israelis and some were used in the 1948 War of Independence, although most arrived after the hostilities had ended.

Despite this setback Israel’s neighbours were determined to eliminate this Jewish homeland and began to strengthen their armed forces. The Egyptians, for example, from 1953 began to procure Soviet T34/85 tanks and SU100 tank destroyers. These were more than a match for the basic Sherman and although the Israelis were able to purchase a number of AMX13 light tanks form France it was clear that the most logical approach was to upgun the reliable Sherman. It also seemed eminently sensible to use the high velocity long-barelled 75mm gun fitted to the AMX13 (and which had been used so successfully by the Germans in the Panther tank).

The larger breach and length of recoil meant that the turret had to be remodelled and the new tank was christened the M50 and by 1961, one hundred Shermans had been reconfigured. Advances in armour technology, however, meant that the 75mm main gun was no longer powerful enough to penetrate the armour of the tanks now fielded by Israel’s enemies. Plans to mount the French 105mm gun (from the AMX30) were introduced which meant that the turret had to be remodelled again and in 1962 the first of the so-called M51s was delivered. The M50 and M51 served throughout the 1960s and were the mainstay of the Israeli armoured forces in the Six-Day War in 1967. However, by the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 the Sherman had been relegated to the reserve, replaced by the more powerful American M48, M60 and British Centurion tanks. Some Shermans were still in use in the 1980s and 1990s but they were gradually withdrawn from service.

The fighting that had raged on and off since the War of Independence, and in which the Sherman had played such an important part, had seen the state of Israel grow significantly in size with land seized from her Arab neighbours. The occupied territories were soon settled, but being so close to Israel’s avowed enemies they were exposed to attack and needed defending. One solution was to use emplaced tank turrets.

As the M50 was withdrawn from service a number were modified and were used in a static role to defend the West Bank and the border with Lebanon and Syria. The tank was emplaced whole and all variants of the Sherman hull (including M4, M4A2 and M4A4 models) were seemingly used. Before installation the more modern HVSS tracks and suspension were removed and replaced by the old VVSS bogies which enabled the tank to be unloaded from the transporter and more easily moved to its final location. The engine deck was sometimes removed and replaced with a flat plate. Access to the position was gained either through an enlarged rear door or by removing the transmission cover at the front. A concrete walkway linked the entrance to the tank to a revetted communication trench that often led to further defensive positions. To provide extra protection for the hull, earth and rocks were banked around the tank so that only the turret was visible. Inside the M50, the engine was removed, as were all other fittings save for the turret basket and ammunition stowage. The tank retained its 75mm CN 75-50 main gun and coaxial 7.62mm MG. Later turrets from the more modern M48 tank were used with one being emplaced at Kibbutz Yiron.

Many of the tanks fielded by Israel’s neighbours in the six wars that punctuated the second half of the twentieth century were supplied by the Soviet Union or its satellite states. Many of these were captured by the Israelis and were pressed into service by the Israel Defence Forces, some as fixed fortifications. Turrets taken from ex-Soviet BTR 60 Armoured cars were used in the Golan Heights as were T34/85 turrets and there are also unconfirmed reports that IS3 turrets were used in the Bar Lev Line.

Today a number of these turrets can still be seen, but they are no longer in active service. The role of deterrent has now passed to helicopter gunships and ground-attack aircraft that are quickly able to strike at enemy insurgents.


The Army of Stephen The Great

The first recorded use of handguns in the Principalities is in the XVth century. The Wallachian Voivode Vlad the Impaler and the Moldavian Voivode Stefan the Great successfully used handheld arquebuses in several battles including the Battle of Valea Alba in 1476 and at the Battle of Vaslui in 1475 when Stefan ordered his artilery, followed by the archers and handgunners to fire on the Ottoman army from three sides. However, the Wallachians and Moldavians themselves refused to use gunpowder until later on because it was associated with brimstone and the devil. As such, in the XVth century the handgunner corps of both Moldova and Wallachia were made up mainly of mercenaries, generally Hungarians, Szekely, Germans, Serbians, Bulgarians and other South Danube nations. The word ‘lefegii’ literally means wage earners as the hangunners served in exchange for wages. By the start of the XVIth century the locals started using the arquebus and joined the ranks of the Lefegii. In Moldova the arquebusiers were known as ‘sânețari’ from the word ‘sâneață’ meaning gun and in Wallachia they were known as ‘pușcași’ with the same meaning. These men are armed with experimental weapons which have more an psychological impact on the enemy. The handguns can not be used in rainy weather and are prone to misfire but if used at the right moment they can break the morale of the enemy and cause them to rout.


The destruction of the South Danubian states meant by the Ottomans in the XVth century led to numbers of soldiers making their way North of the river to continue the struggle against their foes. Foremost amongst these soldiers are the Serbian Hussars that joined the Moldavian armies and took part in numerous battles such as the Battle of Razboieni in 1476. The Moldavians soon learned from these horsemen and formed their own corps of cavalryman known as Hansari. This army corp had a special status in the Moldavian army as, unlike other corps such as the Curteni or Lefegii which went to war in exchange for tax exemptions or for wages, they went to war in exchange for receiving loot from the battle fields (this known as ‘dobanda’). The Hansari were usually free men or small landholding peasants and their number never exceeded several thousands. This army corps appeared in the second half of the XVth century and continued to be part of the Moldavian army all the way to the XVIIIth century. Like the Curteni the Hansari were organised in units called ‘vatafii’ and were commanded by an officer called ‘vataf’. Like the equivalent Hussar corps in other armies the Hansari are very lightly armoured being protected only by a wing shield and are armed with a long cavalry spear. The Hansari exchange armour for speed and the ability to strike in the battlefield wherever the enemy is weaker.


The boieri class emerged from the chiefs (knezes or judes) of rural communities in the early middle ages, initially elected, who later made their judicial and administrative attributions hereditary and gradually expanded them upon other communities. After the appearance of more advanced political structures in the area, their privileged status had to be confirmed by the central power, which used this prerogative to include in the boieri class individuals that distinguished themselves in the military or civilian functions they performed (by allocating them lands from the princely domains). Being a boyar implied three things: being a land-owner, having serfs, and having a military and/or administrative function. A boyar could have a state function and/or a court function. These functions were called “dregătorie” or “boierie”. Only the prince had the power to assign a boierie. In time the boieri split into two different classes the boieri mari (great boyars) who owned large swathes of land had important functions in the administration and the boieri mici (lesser boyars) who owned less land and less important administrative positions. Starting with the first half of the XVth century the boieri became the most important political class in the Principalities. Since the boieri of the Princely Council had amongst their attributes the election of the voivode this led to increased instability as successive voivodes were elected and then overthrown at the whims of the powerful boieri. During the times of war the boieri have the obligation to raise all the fighting from their domains and join the army of the voivode. Since they are the wealthiest class in the land the boieri use heavy armours and shields for their protection and are armed with cavalry lances. They fulfill the role of heavy cavalry on the field and if their loyalties can be harnessed they can prove to be formidable foes.

Established during Stephen’s reign, the army was composed of the personal guard, a powerful and impressive special unit composed of 3,000 courtiers, most of them footmen (similar to janissaries who guarded their sultan) of the fortress guard troops (an entity composed of hirelings who were paid a monthly wage and meat and bread rations) and the border guard troops, composed of the people living along the borders who were awarded certain service privileges and commanded by marele vornic.

In wartime, Stephen was able to gather an army of 60,000 people, most of them riders. His military forces consisted of the peacetime army; boyars, or noble riders (similar to the Ottoman spahis, but having a higher motivation to fight and a stronger cohesiveness); and servant riders or footmen (called dărăbani). To these forces were added the “spoils” units, so called because the prince had promised them the items plundered from the enemy in case of victory. This army was composed of units of peasants and hirelings.

A warning and mobilization system was also set up for crisis situations. The warning was the prince’s call, and following it, the princely peacetime couriers, or ocălari, would speedily ride around the country on its main roads, giving notice to everybody. Ringing church bells and fires lit on hilltops would disseminate the call to every corner of the land. Men who were able to fight would grab their arms and horses and gather under their flags at predetermined meeting points. From there, columns of peasant fighters led by pârcălabi would head to the gathering post established by the prince.


The Moldavian army’s armament was designated both for hand-to-hand fighting (maces, hatchets, sickles, scythes, spears, and swords made in the country) and distance fighting (200 meter-range bows; between sixteen and twenty-four arrow quivers; firing weapons like small-caliber guns and cannons made of cherry wood, strengthened with iron or bronze rings and using stone or iron cannonballs made in Transylvania (Braşov) or Poland (Lemberg). Stephen the Great hired armorers and craftsmen to help with the local production of the bows, arrows, and swords with which he equipped his peasant fighters. The peasant fighters were responsible for bringing their own arms into battle when they were summoned. The Moldavians’ military dress was the same as that of their ancient ancestors, and the punishment for the use of foreign clothing and arms was death.


During the reign of Stephen the Great, the fortresses were ruled by pârcălabi,-officials who had military, administrative, and judicial authority. Thus they could be found on the border fortresses like Soroca, Tetina, and Hotin (built to counter the Poles’ attacks from the north); Chilia and Crăciuna (on the southern border to counter the Ottomans’ and Wallachians’ attacks); and Cetatea Alba., Tighina, and Orhei (on the eastern border to counter the Tatars’ attacks). The western border was secured by Cetatea Neamt, ului, Suceava’s fortress, and the Carpathians.

Stephen the Great is also the one who incorporated cannons into the fortress defense system, placing them on the country’s strategic access routes. Around the fortresses were built brick and stone external walls in the form of a polygon; they had towers at the corners to deflect cannonballs. The fortresses were also protected by grooves that were five meters deep-large enough to provide protection-and sometimes filled with water.


On a crisp, sunny winter’s day on a red earth hilltop in North Vietnam, a young Californian named Howard Simpson was reluctantly fishing around with borrowed chopsticks in a lunchtime bowl of pho soup, while trying to ignore the stench of torn-up corpses festooning the barbed wire a few yards away. Simpson, a stocky World War II veteran with a broad smile and thick glasses, was an information officer from the US Embassy in Saigon. Part of his job was to monitor the use that the French Expeditionary Corps was making of the generous flow of US aid provided through the Military Advisory Assistance Group installed in Vietnam two years previously. He had hitched a flight here from Hanoi on a C-47 full of ammunition, to gather facts and impressions after what was being presented as a particularly significant French victory over the Communist Viet Minh insurgents.

The French theory was that even in the roadless wilderness of this ‘High Region’ a strong air–ground base could be implanted and kept supplied by airlift alone – a concept for which the British ‘Chindit’ campaign in Burma in 1944 offered encouraging precedents. The Viet Minh had been born as elusive guerrilla bands; but for two years now, with Chinese help, they had been reinventing themselves as a conventional army, with 10,000-man divisions and light mobile artillery. Such forces are a great deal more unwieldy to move and supply than furtive packs of guerrillas, and the French Air Force could hope to track and harass their marches, robbing them of surprise. By using their American-supplied transport aircraft to create and sustain strong garrisons in the hills, complete with field artillery for defence and paratroop battalions for aggressive sorties, the French high command hoped if not to block, then at least to channel and hamper the cross-country movement of Giap’s large regular formations, and to lure him into attacking them where they were strongest. Howard Simpson would be told that what had happened here at Na San seemed to vindicate that hope.

The garrison which had defended Na San over the previous few nights was a microcosm of the French Expeditionary Corps and its local allies. As he was jeeped across the camp Simpson saw French Colonial and Foreign Legion paratroopers, Legion infantry, North African riflemen, lowland Vietnamese from the Red River delta, and Thais recruited in the hills round about. Virtually all the officers were mainland Frenchmen or ‘blackfeet’ from France’s North African colonies. On previous occasions Simpson had not received a particularly warm welcome from the French Army in the field. Here at Na San, however, most of the officers of the Troupes Aéroportées d’Indochine (TAPI) and the Légion Étrangère were happy to drink the ‘Amerloque’s’ whisky and let him look around; they had a story that deserved to be told.

Since mid-October 1952 the Viet Minh’s military commander-in-chief, General Vo Nguyen Giap, had been leading three divisions of his best troops, trained and equipped by Communist China, deep into these Thai Highlands – the jumbled, forested hills of north-west Tonkin that straddled the border with Laos to the south. Until recently these sparsely populated highlands had played little part in France’s six-year-old Indochina War; the cockpit of the fighting against General Giap’s regulars had been the Red River delta, 100 miles away to the east. But after a first probe in October 1951, this last autumn Giap had opened a new front here in the High Region.

The tribal peoples of the border country had no love for Ho Chi Minh’s Communist cause, and the French had never needed to guard these hills with more than a chain of tiny forts scattered along the ridges between the Red and Black rivers, mostly garrisoned by local recruits. There were no usable roads, and apart from jungle tracks the lines of communication to these remote posts had been maintained by air. Few had airstrips that would take anything larger than small bush aircraft, and any large-scale resupply or reinforcement had to be done by parachute. Since October 1952, these little garrisons had been swept aside by Giap’s advance; French paratroopers had made sacrificial jumps to buy time for their retreat, and now the remaining defended islands in this green ocean had been pushed west of the Black River. Their anchor had been planted here, at Na San, where a dirt airstrip had been skinned with pierced steel plates to allow its use by the Air Force’s C-47s, and an entrenched camp had been created in Giap’s path with frantic haste. It was held by a mixed garrison of a dozen battalions, designated ‘Operational Group Middle Black River’ – GOMRN for short.

The defences of Na San were a series of dug-in positions surrounded with barbed wire and minefields, most of them manned by single companies of a hundred or so French troops, and arranged to occupy a rough ring of hilltops about 3 miles across that surrounded the airstrip cupped in the valley below. Inside this outer rampart GOMRN’s commander – a dour, one-eyed paratroop colonel named Jean Gilles – had built a continuous inner ring of entrenched strongpoints around the airstrip, headquarters, medical aid post, stores depots, and artillery and heavy mortar positions. But not all the garrison had arrived, the defences had not been fully prepared, and most of the vital artillery was not yet in place when the first Viet Minh units reached the area in the third week of November. In keeping with their guerrilla tradition, they arrived unannounced.

Strongpoint PA8 in the northern face of the inner ring was held by only 110 men – 11th Company, III Battalion of the Foreign Legion’s 5th Infantry Regiment – but it was exceptionally well built. Its commander, Captain Letestu, had served in the Maginot Line as a young ranker, and understood exactly how to lay out a defensive position; under his guidance his légionnaires had worked with a will, and their generous allocation of machine guns were well sited in sandbag ‘blockhouses’ pushed out to sweep the approaches to the wire. All this fieldcraft and labour might have gone for nothing on the night of 23/24 November. With neither warning nor preparatory fire, a Viet Minh battalion infiltrated right up to the northern wire of PA8 under cover of some nervous movement by Thai troops, and at about 8pm they tried to rush it. The only other officer, Lieutenant Durand, was killed at once, and Letestu led a small counter-attack force into a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the two enemy platoons that had got into the trenches. The Viet Minh were finally killed or driven out at about 9.30pm, by which time 11th Company had already lost 15 men dead or disappeared and as many again seriously wounded.

Meanwhile heavy mortar fire was falling on the southern part of the position, heralding another attack. In the absence of French artillery, Captain Letestu got in radio contact with the Foreign Legion mortar company in the central area, and although no fire plans had yet been prepared Lieutenant Bart managed to bring down the fire of his ten weapons on the threatened sector and the gullies approaching it.4 A company of 3rd Colonial Parachute Battalion from the central reserve was sent to reinforce PA8, arriving at about 11pm just in time to help hold off a dangerous attack; but Letestu was furious to overhear their commander Captain Guilleminot reporting that he had arrived to ‘retake the strongpoint’, and obliged him to get back on the radio and put the record straight. The wounded were now being cared for by the battalion medical officer Lieutenant Thomas, who with Sergeant Chief Rinaldi had disobeyed orders and crawled half a mile from the central camp to slip through the enemy ranks and the barbed wire.

The last attack came at about 12.30am; it was repulsed like the others, and a useful part was played by a ‘PIM’ – a Viet Minh prisoner long kept by the company as a tame porter. On his own initiative he replaced the wounded crew of one of the company’s 60mm mortars and loaded and fired it by himself. The enemy finally fell back under cover of darkness, taking most of their casualties with them, but 64 corpses and five abandoned wounded were found around the strongpoint. Next morning Colonel Gilles – not a man much given to public praise – told Captain Letestu that he had saved Na San; he also ordered the officers of the other strongpoints to come and examine Letestu’s ‘magisterial’ example of field fortification.


A pillbox of the FW3/22 design, a regular hexagon, at Wellingore airfield, Lincolnshire. Some of the reinforcing steelwork can be seen, and another, identical pillbox is visible in the distance.

One of the principal designs of pillbox was the hexagonal FW3/22 infantry pillbox designed to accommodate up to five light machine-gunners (armed with Bren guns), together with one rifleman. It was to be built of reinforced concrete, with walls 12–15 inches thick, i.e. bulletproof. The huge loss of equipment in France, however, meant that the infantry rifle would have to replace the Bren in this and other designs. A larger design was numbered FW3/24; the most frequently built, this was an irregular hexagon, with a theoretical complement of five light machine gunners, two riflemen and a commander. FW3/23, a rectangular shape sometimes seen built into river or sea banks, had a rear portion accommodating an open light anti-aircraft position. Its complement was four men armed with three light machine guns and one rifle.

An FW3/28a pillbox with two alternative positions for a 2-pounder anti-tank gun above the Kennet and Avon Canal, part of the GHQ Line. Wootton Rivers, Wiltshire.

The design of even the standard FW3 pillboxes varied from area to area: for example, some entrances were protected by an external blast wall, which might also contain a loophole. In the absence of the blast wall, one assumes a wall of sandbags was constructed to protect an entrance, this vulnerable feature being positioned facing away from the likely direction of attack. One or more small rifle slits in the entrance wall gave rear protection. Other pillboxes, such as the FW3/27 often seen on airfields, where all-round fire was considered absolutely necessary, were entered by low-level ‘creeps’. Different Commands had their own designs: Northern Command, for example, employed a lozenge-shaped design, examples of which can be seen in the Holderness area of Yorkshire and along the River Coquet stop line. Inside the majority of pillboxes would be an internal wall, often ‘T’- or ‘Y’-shaped, to support the roof and deflect blast, splinters or bullets ricocheting inside the pillbox.

Where pillboxes were built in what were considered to be primary strategic locations, these were often of a so-called ‘shellproof standard’, having walls at least 42 inches thick, as opposed to the bulletproof standard of 12–15 inches. The shellproof design was expected to be proof against tank and light artillery fire. There is evidence that some pillboxes not built to this standard were later strengthened with additional concrete skirts. Along Southern Command’s section of the anti-tank GHQ Line, for example, in July 1940 it was planned to have approximately six hundred shellproof pillboxes in place, with a much smaller number of the bulletproof design of pillbox. In addition, over two hundred of the 2-pounder anti-tank gun design – the FW3/28 and FW3/28a (with dual positions for the gun) – were planned. Because of materials shortages and changes in tactical thinking, initial plans were seldom fulfilled.


The land defences of Britain 1940–2, showing principal stop lines (these often following physical features) and Army Commands.

The British Isles, located off the mainland of Europe, have faced the threat of large-scale invasions for almost a thousand years, the last successful landing being that of William of Normandy in 1066. William and his knights also brought over their horses (as the Wehrmacht, still partly dependent on horse-drawn transport, would have done in 1940). Medieval wars with France and Henry VIII’s conflict with Catholic Europe led to invasion fears and as a result a number of artillery forts were built along the south coast. The conflict with Napoleonic France led to the building of Martello towers (brick-built artillery towers sited to defend the vulnerable coastline of south-eastern England) from the end of the eighteenth century. The rise of the French navy under Napoleon III initiated the building of the powerful Palmerston forts around the main naval bases (named after the British Foreign Secretary) in the mid-nineteenth century. With the outbreak of the First World War and with German forces on the other side of the Channel, anti-invasion defences were constructed along British coasts. These included fieldworks, together with small concrete defence works; the latter were christened ‘pillboxes’ after their apparent resemblance to the small, round boxes used at that time to contain pills. Small reinforced concrete defence works had also been used with deadly effect by Germany, in conjunction with machine guns, along the Western Front.

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 and the occupation of much of western Europe by Germany in the summer of 1940 meant that invasion was once again a likely threat. Even before the German offensive in France had ended, the British GHQ Home Forces had issued an instruction in the middle of May 1940 for defensive steps to be taken against the landing of enemy troops by air, tactics that had been employed successfully in Norway and Holland. With the fall of France in June, Germany began to make preparations for the invasion of Britain, issuing Führer Directive 16 on 16 July. If Germany had had sufficient maritime ability to invade at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, then this might have met with success. However, she had also lost vital aircraft, especially transports, and much of the armoured equipment used in France was at its last gasp. Operation Sea Lion, the code name for the invasion, was planned to make use of both seaborne and airborne forces, and a date was set by Hitler and the German High Command for the launch of the operation: 16 September 1940. The planned invasion envisaged seaborne landings between Worthing and Folkestone with airborne landings behind the port of Dover.

A number of events led to the postponement of the planned invasion, the principal one being Germany’s failure to gain air superiority during the Battle of Britain. Another factor was the German navy’s (and probably also Hitler’s) disquiet at the chances of successful and sustained landings in the face of the much stronger Royal Navy, coupled with the prospect of deteriorating seasonal sea conditions. In addition, the attraction of an attack on Germany’s ideological enemy, the USSR, meant that in the late summer of 1940 Hitler had already begun to switch his attention eastwards, and the army groups gathered for Sea Lion were gradually moved to Poland. Hitler would pin his hopes on the success of the U-boat offensive and the Luftwaffe’s night bombing campaign against Britain, expecting that this would bring the country to its knees and lead to its surrender, or to the agreement of terms favourable to Germany, especially once the USSR was defeated. But this was not known to Britain in the latter part of 1940 and into 1941. Whilst Britain prepared for what seemed an imminent invasion, a part of the British Isles was already under German occupation: the Channel Islands had been seized in a relatively bloodless manner in June 1940; their occupation would last until May 1945.


The catastrophic collapse of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1940 led to the evacuation of British (and French) forces from Dunkirk, and this was coupled with the British Army’s massive loss of war material, especially heavier weaponry. The most serious losses were in heavy machine guns and artillery, especially anti-tank guns. The British Army’s 2-pounder anti-tank gun was a complicated and precision-made weapon and it would take time to make good the losses. In the meantime the Army would have to rely on extemporised anti-tank weapons such as obsolete artillery pieces and even the Molotov cocktail, a bottle filled with an inflammable liquid ignited by large matches attached to the sides of the bottle.

Hasty preparations were immediately put in hand for the country’s defence against invasion by sea and air: Britain now knew of Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics and could respond, albeit with very limited military assets. With Germany occupying most of western Europe, it was not known from which direction the enemy might come or where he might land. General Ironside, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, had to produce a scheme to defend many hundreds of miles of coastline (the ‘coastal crust’), and to provide a substantial inland barrier (the GHQ Line), as well as mobile reserves behind the Line. In the event, the Germans would opt, in their planning for Sea Lion, for the shortest crossing route. The British Army Commands had also to consider a possible German occupation of the neutral Irish Republic with German diversionary attacks aimed at Ulster or, by air or sea, against the western side of Britain. Landings on the Scottish coast from occupied Norway had also to be considered.

The fear of fifth columnists and paratrooper landings led, on 14 May 1940, to the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard. A covert branch of the Home Guard was also formed, the Auxiliary Units, trained to function as stay-behind cells operating from underground, camouflaged bases. Their role would be to harass an invader’s rear areas by sabotage and assassination. In addition, a parallel secret intelligence organisation was set up with a force of civilian spies in order to gather intelligence information. This information was to be passed by radio to army signal units, who were also located in underground hides. The organisation was known as the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Section. Some remains may still be seen: for example, the camouflaged signals base (Zero Station) on the top of Blorenge hill above Abergavenny in South Wales. The National Trust organises guided walks at Coleshill House, the headquarters of the Auxiliary Units, where an underground training hide, known as an operational base, may still be seen.

The threat of enemy invasion, whether real or imagined, led to the erection of many improvised roadblocks around the country, intended to hinder enemy movement and to act as posts to check identities, but these often proved obstructive to the movement of home forces and many were soon removed. The enemy’s innovative use of aircraft to land troops in order to capture airfields and other strategic or vulnerable points such as bridges led to a new threat coming from the sky: airfields now had to be protected against airborne landings, as well as against bombing and strafing attack. Areas where enemy gliders or transport aircraft might land were obstructed by poles and wires, or whatever was available – even by old cars and sewer pipes. Lakes and reservoirs had cables stretched across their water, and pillboxes were sited to prevent enemy seaplanes landing and disgorging troops. The signal that enemy forces had landed was the ringing of church bells in the vicinity: church bells were otherwise not heard for most of the war.

Around and behind the coast, fieldworks and concrete defences (pillboxes and gun houses) were built, minefields were laid (in June 1940, fifty thousand anti-tank mines had been issued), and many types of obstacle were installed or erected to prevent the enemy’s movement, especially of his tanks. Twelve armoured trains, manned by Polish soldiers, patrolled the coast from Cornwall to the Moray Firth. The defence of beaches and landing grounds by pillboxes and fieldworks had begun before the Second World War in Britain’s colony of Malta, against the rise of Mussolini’s Italy.

In 1940 Defence Zones were established around the parts of Britain’s coasts deemed most vulnerable, with restricted access for civilians. Residents in the Zones were told to stay put in invasion occurred, to avoid roads being clogged with refugees, but this did not stop a gradual and large-scale migration from coastal areas in the early war years. Although a ‘scorched earth’ policy (the destruction of food supplies, petrol installations and vital public services and buildings so as to deny them to the enemy) was considered in the event of an invasion this idea was quickly dropped. To hinder an invader further, milestones and signposts were removed. Instructions were issued for the denial to an enemy of fuel supplies by immobilising machinery or by contamination. Also, any vehicles likely to fall into enemy hands were to be immobilised. Beaches were defended by pillboxes, barbed wire, minefields and, from 1941 onwards, anti-tank and anti-boat metal scaffolding.

Inland, anti-tank stop lines were built, the principal one being the GHQ Line running inland along the southern and eastern sides of England, protecting approaches to London, with subsidiary stop lines built by Army Commands to give some protection to the vital ports and manufacturing regions such as the Midlands against the invader’s armoured thrusts. These lines, a key factor of the country’s defences in the summer of 1940, followed existing features wherever possible, such as canals, railway lines, rivers and also natural barriers such as the North Downs (GHQ Line). Where existing features were not available, anti-tank ditches were dug. Crossing points were defended by pillboxes and gun houses, with major towns and cities along the lines’ routes turned into anti-tank islands. It was hoped that these defences would delay the enemy long enough for precious reserves to be directed towards the threat. In effect, a battleground had been prepared.

The British Expeditionary Force already had experience of building anti-tank ditches and pillboxes in France during the winter of 1939–40. The anti-tank ditches were revetted with wood to present a sheer face to any tank encountering the obstacle. Ideally, both faces of the ditch would be reinforced so as to prevent a tank backing out of the ditch. In other locations riverbanks were similarly revetted. Important bridges were identified for demolition, the larger ones receiving demolition chambers in bridge supports, such as the railway bridge crossing the South Forty Foot Drain in Lincolnshire. At Sarre in Kent minor bridges were destined to receive pipe mines. It was realised that not every bridge could be destroyed: vital services such as telephone or electricity cables, gas mains and water supplies often ran across bridges, meaning that these should not be destroyed. And the possibility of British counterattacks against the invader had to be considered. Roads, bridges and airfield runways would be cratered by buried charges – if time allowed.

Because the enemy’s intentions were not known, the defence posts along the lines had to have all-round defence. Where anti-tank obstacles of steel rails with concrete cylinders were sited, these had to be provided with hardened defences (pillboxes) or fieldworks for troops to prevent the obstacles’ removal. The surveying of the defence lines was carried out by Royal Engineer reconnaissance parties, sent by the Army Commands, which had previously identified suitable routes in their Command areas. It was intended that the lines and their defences would prove a barrier to the enemy’s general movement, especially that of his tanks and reconnaissance forces. Where the nature of the defence work was identified – be it pillbox, fieldworks, minefields or obstructed bridges – these would be marked on the ground and on a map referred to in the Royal Engineers’ report to the Command. Where bridges crossed the stop line, these were prepared for demolition, obstructed with steel rails or, where the surface of the bridge was suitable, mined. The anti-tank mine was a cheap and effective weapon. Large stocks were accumulated and used not only by the Army but also by the Home Guard: for example, Eastern Command (see the National Archives, reference WO 166/1193) anticipated that the Home Guard in the Cambridge area would acquire over ten thousand of these weapons by late 1941. The mines were not to be laid until the enemy was close.

The steel-rail anti-tank barriers were, on the giving of the appropriate code word (various words were used to denote different states of emergency), ‘armed’ by slotting them into wooden-lined prepared sockets, gravel being packed around any gaps to prevent removal by the enemy. Instructions issued by Northern Command in late 1941 advised that vertical and bent (not welded) rails presented a satisfactory anti-tank barrier as long as the sockets were also lined with wood. To reinforce the barrier, concrete cylinders (they came in two sizes), in groups of three, were to be placed in front of the steel barrier to prevent the tank charging and breaking the rails. In some areas the cylinders had a central hole in which to insert a pole to enable their movement along the ground. Gaps at the side of the barrier would be closed by concrete ‘dragons’ teeth’ (also known as pimples) or anti-tank walls. The inland stop lines, it was hoped, would prevent the rapid progress of the enemy’s reconnaissance forces and delay and ‘corral’ the enemy’s tank and infantry forces, giving time for the reserves to be gathered together for an attack. However, some of the stop-line defences were futile given the shallowness of many of the watercourses chosen, especially during the summer months. A Southern Command report in July 1940 on a proposed stop line along the River Wylye in Wiltshire concluded that it could be breached with ease and, once breached, would render the rest of the line ‘useless’. Although many stop lines were proposed, it is clear that a significant number were, on surveying, found to have no tactical value and were abandoned; others were never fully developed. In June 1940 Army Commands were also preparing towns and cities for defence as anti-tank islands, but at that time resources were very thinly spread. London, in addition to its southerly protection by the GHQ Line, would eventually have three concentric rings of defences, with the central government area of Whitehall being one of three ‘keeps’, the others being at Maida Vale and the Tower of London. The vital port of Liverpool, in addition to defences ringing the city, had also to have defences on the Wirral to protect the approaches to the Mersey Tunnel.

The pillboxes, designed to provide hardened fighting bases for the troops defending the stop lines and Vulnerable Points (VPs) such as airfields, were built in vast numbers in the space of a few summer months and were of a number of official and unofficial designs. Research carried out in connection with the Defence of Britain Project from 1995 onwards indicated that approximately 28,000 were built, of which a little short of 25 per cent survive. In May 1940, before France had fallen, a list of drawings was issued to Army Commands by the War Office Department FW3 (Fortifications and Works) of a range of pillbox designs for use in differing tactical situations. At the same time drawings were also issued for the design of the iron-rail anti-tank barriers, the bent-rail version (commonly known as the ‘hairpin’).