Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort and a Batavian cohort.


By far the most famous defensive barrier in the Roman Empire; served for nearly 300 years as one of the major dividing lines between Roman Britain and the barbarians of Caledonia. With the exception of the Wall of Antonius, built just to the north, the Wall of Hadrian was unique in all of the imperial provinces. Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction in 122 A. D., and work was begun by Platorius Nepos, governor of Britain, who completed it around 126. The wall extended some 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend (Segedunum) to Bowness-on-Solway (or the Solway Firth). It was intended not as a formidable bastion but as a base from which Rome’s presence could be maintained. Roman troops, mainly auxiliaries, manned its turrets and were to fight any large enemy force in the field while keeping watch on the frontier. In the event of a direct assault, the defenses were only adequate, perhaps explaining the collapse of Roman power in Britain from time to time.

The original plans were probably drawn by Hadrian. The barrier was to extend some 70 miles and be made mostly of stone, 10 feet thick, while the rest would be constructed of turf, 20 feet thick. The turf wall was completed, but the stone sections had only just begun when the plan was extended several miles to ensure that the barrier covered the area from sea to sea. Further, the stone portions were to be only 8 feet thick, instead of 10, and approximately 20 feet in height; the turf portions, 13 feet high. Forts were distanced some 5 miles from each other, with so-called mile-castles spread out every Roman mile, connected by watch-towers. Two ditches were dug. The one in front was approximately 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, designed for defense and V-shaped. The ditch behind the wall has caused considerable archaeological debate. Called the Vallum (trench), it was straight and flat-bottomed, 20 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 10 feet across at the bottom, fortified on both sides by earthen walls (but then filled in). Scholars have speculated that it was once used for some other, non-military purpose.

Until the construction of the Antonine Wall in 142, Hadrian’s Wall was the only frontier marker in Britain. With the Antonine Wall in the north, its importance decreased briefly until 180, when the Antonine Wall was destroyed. In 196-197, Clodius Albinus took with him every available soldier in Britain for his bid for the throne, thus allowing the wall to be ruined, Septimius Severus repaired it from 205 to 207. Peace was maintained until the late 3rd century A. D., when the chaotic situation in Roman Britain following the deaths of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus brought the Picts down from Caledonia, Constantius I launched a restorative campaign but throughout the 4th century barbarian inroads put pressure upon the wall as Roman influence diminished. More invasions poured over the wall, only to be repulsed by Count Flavius Theodosius in 369. The last garrison on the wall withdrew around 400 as the barrier became a monument to Rome’s past.


A typical Roman fort of the Imperial period was shaped like a modern playing card, with two short sides and two long sides, and rounded corners. This is the evolved version of a Roman fort, since the earlier fortified camps of the early Empire were not so regularly shaped and were not generally designed as permanent bases for troops. The fort and supply depot at Rödgen in Germany was ovoid in shape, and while the fortress of Haltern was more regular in plan, it does not compare with the later permanent forts of the Empire.

Typically, early Roman forts were built of earth and turf ramparts (called murus caespiticus), topped by a timber breastwork, with access by timber gateways with towers on either side. There were usually interval towers ranged along the walls and at each corner. Forts were usually surrounded by one or more ditches, shaped like a letter V but with an aptly labelled “ankle-breaker” drainage channel at the bottom. The Romans usually took this drainage feature seriously, judging by the number of excavations that show that the ditch had been cleaned out and squared off. In the second century AD from the reign of Trajan onward, when the majority of forts had become permanent bases rather than semipermanent ones while the provinces were pacified and Romanized, forts and fortresses were generally, but not universally, built of stone. In some cases this meant refronting existing forts by cutting back the turf rampart, and in others building in stone from the outset.

Depending on the type of unit stationed in them, forts varied in size from 0.6 hectares for the small numerous forts in Germany and Dacia, to 20 hectares for a legion. There were a few double legionary fortresses such as Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Mogontiacum (modern Mainz, Germany) until the failed revolt of Saturninus, who gathered the combined savings of his legionaries to attempt a coup against the Emperor Domitian. After this, Domitian decreed that no two legions were to be housed together.

The internal arrangements of fortresses and forts was on the whole standardized, but with regional or local variations. The center range usually housed the headquarters building (principia), flanked by the commander’s house (praetorium) and the granaries (horreae). There were four main streets within the fort, and the orientation of the fort was taken from the direction that headquarters faced. The road running across the fort in front of the headquarters was the via principalis, with its two gates labeled for the right and left sides (porta principalis dextra and porta principalis sinistra). The road that connected the principia to the front gate (porta praetoria) was the via praetoria, and behind the headquarters another road, the via decumana, ran to the rear gate (porta decumana).

In several forts archaeological evidence shows that there were other communal buildings, for example the workshop (fabrica) where metalworking, woodworking, and repair of equipment and weapons would take place. There was also a hospital (valetudinarium). It should be acknowledged that from the ground plans alone, the workshops and the hospitals might have been confused, each consisting of small rooms off a central courtyard, but in a few cases medical instruments have been found, which strongly supports the label “hospital.” The forts on Hadrian’s Wall at Wallsend and Housesteads, and the fortresses at Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Novaesium (modern Neuss, Germany) are among examples where hospitals have been found. The majority of the buildings inside the fort would be the barrack blocks. For the infantry in legionary fortresses and auxiliary forts, barracks were normally laid out with ten rooms subdivided into two parts, one for sleeping and eating and one for storage, each room accommodating eight men, and therefore housing one complete century of eighty men. A verandah ran the full length of the ten rooms, and at the end of the barrack block there was usually a suite of rooms for the centurion. Cavalry barracks were different, reflecting the organization of the turma. From the evidence at the fort at Dormagen on the Rhine, and Wallsend on Hadrian’s Wall, it seems that the men and their horses were housed together. In at least three of the Dormagen stable blocks, there were double cubicles, with soakaway pits in those along one side, and hearths in those on the other, indicating that men and mounts shared the blocks (Müller, 1979; Dixon and Southern, 1992).

Roman Watchtowers

There is no real consensus as to what such monumental linear boundaries as the walls in northern Britain or between the Rhine and Danube in Germany were for and how they functioned. Almost as puzzling are cases where Roman soldiers were distributed in very small detachments, often less than ten men, manning watchtowers, constructed in lines following roads or along ridges. Such deployments seem to make little sense if the primary aim of the Roman army was to defend the provinces since any serious attack would surely have overwhelmed these weak defences.

Neither the view of the Roman Empire during the Principate as essentially defensive, nor the view that it was aggressive and still hoping to expand, explains properly what the army was actually doing. Mattern has recently suggested that the defensive-offensive distinction is anachronistic, and that we should view Roman foreign relations more in terms of concepts of honour and power. The theme of her book was essentially the ideology of empire, and it did not really explain how the army operated or whether or not its activities were effective. The shift in emphasis was very useful, for it is important to understand how the Romans conceived of their relations with other peoples, and it is within this framework that we should attempt to understand what their armed forces were actually doing.

For all the insights generated by this debate, the question remains of whether or not the Romans developed something which could reasonably be described as grand strategy. As with so many labels, there is a tendency for each contributor in the debate to provide his own definition for this term, making it easier to prove that the Romans either did or did not have one. The term was created in the twentieth century, and most of the definitions employed by modern strategic literature assume the existence of institutions and ideas utterly alien to the Roman Empire. For most modern states the ideal of international affairs is peaceful coexistence with their neighbours. Each state is considered to have a right to govern itself in its own way and by its own laws. In the modern world war is the anomaly, shattering the natural state of peace. For many societies in the ancient world the reverse was true, and peace was an interruption of the normal international hostility. The Romans were inclined to think of peace as the product of an enemy’s utter defeat, hence the verb `to pacify’ (pacare) was a euphemism for `to defeat’.

Peaceful coexistence with other nations, and most of all former enemies, was never a Roman aspiration. In some way we must relate our understanding of Roman ideology to the reality of military deployment in the frontier zones, many areas of which were constantly occupied for centuries on end. It is therefore worth considering the army’s deployment in these areas and trying to reconstruct what it was doing. In doing so we must try to look at the fringes of the Roman Empire from both directions.

Raiding does appear to have been endemic in the tribal societies of Spain, Britain, Gaul, Germany, Thrace, Illyria and Africa. Caesar claimed that the Helvetii migrated to occupy lands which would give them more opportunity to raid their neighbours (B Gall. 1.2).We are told that German tribes tried to keep a strip of depopulated land around their borders as a protection against enemy raids. This was also a measure of a tribe’s martial prowess and thus a deterrent to attacks. The Belgian tribes grew thick thorn hedges as boundary markers that were intended to delay raiding groups. They may also have been a sign that crossing them would be met with force, and it was probably no coincidence that Caesar’s army had to fight a battle at the Sambre soon after passing such a barrier (B Gall. 2.17, 6.23). The archaeological record of weapons burials in many regions of Europe confirms a picture of societies in which martial symbols were very important, and it is implausible to suggest that many Celtic tribes were not warlike warrior societies.

Our sources inevitably only report raids carried out on a large scale, usually by thousands of warriors. Only well-established leaders in reasonably united tribes could ever have mustered such forces. The warriors in many societies were strongly independent, choosing whether or not to join a leader who proclaimed that he was to lead a raid. Most raiding bands were probably much smaller. Even Ammianus, who provides far more detailed accounts of activities in the frontier provinces than any earlier source, never specifically mentions groups of fewer than 400 marauders. The distribution of Roman troops in penny packets to man lines of watchtowers might make a lot more sense if they were facing raids by equally small or smaller groups of warriors. The distinction between warfare and banditry blurs at this level, but there are many hints that small-scale violence was common in the empire.

Fortification in the Sixteenth Century

THE SIEGE OF A FORTRESS, BY ALBRECHT DÜRER, 1527 In 1527, Dürer published a treatise on fortification that proposed walls dominated by massive squat roundrels, towers that would also provide gun platforms. Strengthened by earth and timber, such squat towers were better able to take bombardment than high walls. This indicated that not everyone adopted the Italian alla moderna system of low, bastioned defences.

SIEGE OF BOULOGNE, FRANCE, 1544 Henry VIII’s attempt to expand the English position in the Pas de Calais led to the siege of Boulogne from 19 July. The lower section of the town fell rapidly, but the upper town proved more difficult and was put under bombardment, as shown here. Its walls were eventually breached and when the English dug tunnels under the castle, the French surrendered on 13 September. The English had deployed more than 250 pieces of heavy ordnance, including mortars firing exploding cast-iron balls. The following month, a French assault on Boulogne was beaten back. The English then heavily fortified Boulogne, beating off a French attack in 1549, but in 1550 it was returned to France as a result of negotiations.

MUSCAT, OMAN Al Jalali Fort in Muscat was built in 1586–88 to protect the harbour of Portuguese-ruled Muscat from Ottoman (Turkish) attack; the Ottomans had captured Muscat in 1552 and 1582. Named Forte de São João, the fort was built on top of a rocky prominence and included a gun deck designed to dominate the harbour. In 1650, Sultan bin Saif of Oman captured Muscat. The fort, now named al-Jalali, played a role in the civil war and Persian intervention of the early eighteenth century. After Ahmad bin Said al-Busaidi, the first ruler of the Al Said dynasty, captured the fort in 1749, he renovated it, adding the large central buildings and the round towers. Disputes among the ruling family ensured that the fort played a significant role in 1781–82. It subsequently became Oman’s major prison.

The spread and increasing sophistication of cannon became much more of a factor in the attack on fortifications, and their defence in the sixteenth century, although the situation varied greatly across the world. When the Spaniards arrived in Manila Bay in the Philippines in 1572, the local communities were defended only by a bamboo stockade at the entrance to the Pasig River, and only one stone fort is known to have existed in the Philippines before the Spaniards arrived.

In Christian Europe, in a very different context, cannon were most effective from the fifteenth century and, even more, the sixteenth, against the stationary target of high stone walls. As a result, fortifications were redesigned to provide lower, denser and more complex targets. There were developments and adaptations to resist cannon prior to the better-known system alla moderna (more recently called the trace italienne), including adding masonry reinforcements to existing towers and sloping skirts at the base of walls. The boulevards used, as at the siege of Orléans in 1429, were earth and timber outworks constructed to keep the besiegers from running their cannon close to the walls.

Nevertheless, fortifications designed to cope with artillery were first constructed in large numbers in Italy and were then spread across Europe by Italian architects. In this new system, bastions, generally quadrilateral or pentagonal, angled, and at regular intervals along all walls, were introduced to keep the besieger from the inner walls and to provide gun platforms able to launch effective flanking fire against attackers. Cannon were placed on the ramparts, which helped ensure that the defence could be active. The use of planned fire zones by the defence was more important than the strength brought by height, whether of position or of walls. Defences were lowered and sunk in ditches, obliging the attacker to expose their batteries, and the defences, strengthened with earth to minimise the impact of cannon fire, were slanted to help defeat cannonballs. There were similar designs in Japanese castles. These improvements in fortifications lessened the impact and decisiveness of artillery in siegecraft.

The often-cited idea that cannon brought the value of medieval fortifications to an end, and thus brought the medieval military system to a close, requires qualification. Even when cannon were moved up to take part in sieges, itself a difficult process in the transport system of the age, they were frequently only marginally more effective than previous means of siegecraft. Indeed, cannon initially failed more often than they succeeded, and many times a castle fell to treachery or negotiation, rather than bombardment. In addition, stormings, rather than sieges, were also important, as during the Italian Wars, when the French stormed Venetian-held Brescia in 1512.

Nevertheless, with the demise of the siege tower and the battering ram, siege operations in 1550 were different to those of two centuries earlier and were far more focused on cannon. At the successful English siege of Boulogne in 1544, more than 250 pieces of heavy ordnance were deployed, including mortars firing exploding cast iron balls. The introduction and effects of gunpowder weapons were gradual processes, more akin to evolution than the overused term revolution. Similarly, in response to gunpowder, there were a number of much cheaper ways to enhance existing fortifications than the system alla moderna, and these other methods were used much more extensively. As is always the case, most positions were not fortified at the scale and expense of the best-fortified locations. As a result, most sieges did not match the major and lengthy efforts mounted against the latter. Examples of such efforts included the eventually successful efforts mounted by Spain, in opposing the Dutch Revolt, against Antwerp in 1585 and Ostend in 1601–04, both well-defended as well as strongly fortified.

The largest new fortifications in Europe, those at Smolensk in Russia built between 1597 and 1602, were built in the traditional fashion with a high stone wall 6.5 kilometres long and 13–19 metres high, strengthened by towers. The vulnerability of high stone walls, however, meant that such fortifications were increasingly regarded as anachronistic. Indeed, Smolensk’s walls were breached by the besieging Poles in 1611 and by the Russians, when they recaptured it in 1654.

In general, fortifications were of most value when combined with field forces able to relieve them from siege. Indeed, many campaigns revolved around attempts to mount sieges and, in response, to relieve besieged positions. As a result of the latter, sieges led to major battles such as Pavia (1525), Nördlingen (1634) and Rocroi (1643). Sieges, moreover, were frequently determined not by the presence of wall-breaching artillery, but by the availability of sufficient light cavalry to blockade a fortress and dominate the surrounding country. Sieges accentuated the logistical problems that were so difficult for contemporary armies, as besieging forces had to be maintained in the same area for a considerable period, thereby exhausting local supplies.

Other factors were also involved in fortification, and in the campaigning linked to it. In terms of significance of power, the demonstration of force by means of fortifications could be more important than their specific usefulness in action. So also in attacks on fortresses. Thus, many sieges ended not with particular operations, but with a surrender in the face of a larger besieging army. This was a relationship that could be almost ritualistic in its conventions, and not only in Europe.


Outside Europe, Western expansion was anchored by fortresses. This was seen across the oceans and with the eastward expansion of Russia. In the latter case, forts were established at Samara and Ufa in 1586, and then, across the Urals, at Tyumen in 1586 and at Tobolsk, on the River Ob, in 1587. In their expansion, the Russians did not face fortresses in Siberia, but they did when they attacked Islamic opponents, notably the khanate of Kazan. This was a key target for Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’ (r. 1533–84). Kazan, long an opponent of Russia, not least as a source of slave-raiding by light cavalry, stood on a high bluff overlooking the Volga River. It had double walls of oak logs covered over with clay and partially plated with stones. These were formidable defences, even if they did not match the defences of the alla moderna. There were 14 stone towers with cannon and a deep surrounding ditch. Such ditches posed an obstacle to attackers, accentuated the height of the defensive walls, and made it much harder to undermine them. This factor remained a constant with fortifications.

The garrison of Kazan consisted of 30,000 men with 70 cannon, which was both a formidable force and the main army of Kazan, although there was also a light cavalry army, about 20,000 strong, that sought to harass the besiegers. Ivan attempted two winter campaigns against Kazan in 1547–48 and 1549–50, but these failed because the Russian army had no fortified base in the region, had to leave its artillery behind because of heavy rains, and ended up campaigning with an exclusively cavalry army that was of no use in investing the fortress of Kazan.

But for the third campaign, a base was secured. In the winter and spring of 1551–52, the Russians prefabricated fortress towers and wall sections near Uglich and then floated them down the Volga on barges with artillery and troops to its confluence with the Sviiaga, 25 kilometres from Kazan. Here, the fortress of Sviiazhsk was erected in just 28 days, providing a base. That summer, siege guns and stores were shipped to Sviiazhsk and a Russian army, allegedly 150,000 strong, with 150 siege guns, advanced, reaching Kazan on 20 August. The Russians constructed siege lines from which cannon opened fire and used a wooden siege tower carrying cannon, which moved on rollers. The ditch surrounding the city was filled with fascines and sappers tunnelled beneath the walls. The mines were blown up on 2 October, destroying the walls at two of the gates, upon which the Russian army, drawn up into seven columns, attacked all seven of the gates simultaneously. They soon broke through, and Kazan fell with a massive slaughter of the defenders. The furthest north of the Islamic khanates had fallen. Ivan exploited his success by moving down the Volga valley to capture Astrakhan in 1556 and to establish Russian power on the Caspian Sea. Thus, the capture of a major fortress had major and lasting strategic consequences for Russia and its neighbours.Overseas, the European powers were similarly dependent on fortifications. This was the case with both Portuguese and Spanish expansion, and subsequently with that of England, France and the Dutch. With limited manpower, the Portuguese Empire depended on the combination of fortified positions, notably citadels at ports such as Goa, Malacca, Mombasa, Mozambique and Muscat, with warships that used these ports. Spain was in a similar situation, although, alongside fortifications at ports such as Veracruz, Havana, St Augustine and Cartagena, more of its fortifications protected inland centres of government, such as Mexico City.


That the Ottomans (Turks) did not have a fortification re-evaluation equivalent to that of the Western Europeans, in expenditure or style, was not so much due to a failure to match Western advances, as because the Ottomans scarcely required such a development as they were not under attack. Moreover, the Ottoman emphasis on field forces and mobility, as well as their interest in territorial expansion, ensured that they were less concerned with protecting fixed positions. In contrast, Western losses of fortresses to the Ottomans early in the sixteenth century, such as Modon (1500), Belgrade (1521), and Rhodes (1522), as well as a lack of confidence in mobile defence, encouraged the introduction of the new angle-bastioned military architecture, which the Venetians were very quick to use in their empire. The Ottomans deployed 22 cannon and two mortars against Modon, firing 155–180 shot daily.

In 1529, the Ottomans were less successful when they attacked Vienna, the walls of which were 300 years old. Niklas von Salm conducted a vigorous defence, showing how fortifications could be rapidly enhanced and expanded at times of need. The energy and skill with which this was done was a key element in any successful defence and should not be detached from discussions of fortifications or treated as inherently secondary. Salm blocked Vienna’s gates, reinforced the walls with earthen bastions and an inner rampart, and levelled any buildings where it was felt to be necessary. This defence exacerbated the problems posed for the Ottomans by beginning the siege relatively late in the year. Having withstood the assault, Vienna afterwards constructed massive, purpose-built, encircling fortifications.

When the Ottomans needed fortresses they built them, for example along the Damascus to Cairo and to Mecca roads in order to protect travellers on these important routes from attacks by Bedouin Arabs, and at the southern end of the Red Sea. In the Van region of eastern Anatolia, an area threatened by the Safavids of Persia, the Ottomans heavily fortified a line of towns around the lake. Fortifications both held off the Safavids and also served to overawe the Kurds. In 1582, a chain of seven fortresses was built on the Red Sea coast from Suakin to Massawa in order to consolidate its capture from Ethiopia. In the seventeenth century, there were also to be important Ottoman fortifications in Yemen.


Fortresses, moreover, played a role in Japan. The extent of instability and civil warfare in the sixteenth century encouraged fortifications. However, the need for them in turn fell as cohesion and unity were imposed. Japanese castle building responded to gunpowder by combining thick stone walls with hilltops of solid stone. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the unifier of Japan in the 1580s and 1590s, proved successful in siegecraft, as with the fall of Odawara and other Hojo fortresses in eastern Honshu in 1590. Cannon became more important from the 1580s, but Hideyoshi’s success in sieges also owed much to other factors, notably the use of entrenchments to divert the water defences offered by lakes and rivers. These entrenchments threatened fortresses with flooding by rising waters, or with the loss of the protection by water features on which many in part relied. This was more generally true of many fortresses, not least because of their role in protecting crossing places against rivers, a function that remains significant to the present day.

In India, Akbar, the expansionist and successful Mughal Emperor (r. 1556–1605), anchored his position in northern India with a number of fortresses, especially Agra, Allahabad, Lahore, Ajmer, Rohtas and Attock. Sieges were also significant. Logistics played a major role in them, while negotiations frequently accompanied sieges as part of the process by which the display of power was intended to produce a solution. Not always, however. In 1567, Akbar declared a jihad against Udai Singh, rana of the Rajput principality of Mewar. Initial attacks on the Mewar fortified capital of Chittaurgarh (Chittor), which stood high on a rock outcrop above the Rajasthan plain, were repulsed, and Akbar resorted to bombardment and the digging of mines: tunnels under the walls filled with explosives. The latter were especially helpful in producing breaches in the walls, although the construction of a sasbat (or covered way) to the walls to cover an attack was also very significant. After a night-time general attack, the city fell in 1568, with all the defenders and 20,000–25,000 civilians killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The fortress was then destroyed. Hilltop locations reflected the major value of topography to the defence and the political message of overawing offered by fortresses. Fortification alla moderna was introduced to India by the Portuguese, who were also probably responsible for circular bastions there, but the diffusion of these techniques was limited.

In China, the military strength of the Ming empire (1368–1644) lay more in fortifications than in firearms. The majority of the army served against the Mongols along the vulnerable northern frontier where there was a series of major garrisons in the complex known as the Great Wall. This provision became increasingly important as Mongol attacks became much more serious in the mid-fifteenth century, and then again in response to ultimately successful Manchu attacks in the early seventeenth. The Chinese sought to cope by relying on walls and on garrisons at strategic passes. As a result, terrain and topography were to be aided by fortifications.

Numbers were crucial in Chinese siege techniques. The earlier use of gunpowder in China ensured that their fortified cities had very thick walls, which were capable of withstanding the artillery of the sixteenth century and earlier. As a consequence, assault, rather than bombardment, was the tactic used against fortifications. This was also appropriate to the large forces available. The risk of heavy casualties could be accepted, a matter both of pragmatic military considerations and of cultural attitudes towards loss, suffering and discipline. Sieges had to be brought to a speedy end because of the serious logistical problems of supporting large armies, which encouraged storming attempts.


Alongside improvements in fortification techniques in particular areas, there was also a destruction of fortifications, deliberate or by neglect, with the latter proving especially important in the rotting of wood and the filling in of ditches and moats by debris. There was also the neglect seen in deciding not to enhance fortifications, notably to counter new developments in artillery. Moreover, governments actively sought to weaken the military resources of real and potential domestic adversaries. As a result, building fortifications could become a questionable step. Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, began the construction of Thornbury Castle in 1511 when he was high in the favour of Henry VIII, but they fell out in 1521; Buckingham’s construction of the castle was one of the charges in the indictment that led to his execution for treason. The castle had six towers with machicolations and a gatehouse on the late-medieval pattern. The castle was confiscated by Henry.

Social élites, notably across much of Western Europe, tended to look to the Crown and, in doing so, to abandon earlier tendencies to resist unwelcome policies by violence. For example, in England the shift from castle keep to architecturally self-conscious stately home was symptomatic of an apparently more peaceful society and a product of the heavy costs of castle building. Castles appeared to be redundant in the face of royal armies, as with the suppression of the Northern Revolt against Elizabeth I in 1569. In 1588, in response to the threat from the Spanish Armada, there were hasty preparations – cannon were mounted on castle walls; but the defences of England primarily rested on the fleet and the army.

Most fortifications in England were in a poor state. There had been an extensive abandonment of castles, in some cases from the 1470s, and far more actively under the Tudors who came to power in 1485. Dunstanburgh Castle was already much ruined in 1538 and Dunster Castle in 1542, as a consequence of a lack of maintenance for decades. In 1597, a survey found that Melbourne Castle was being used as a pound for trespassing cattle, and it was demolished for stone in the 1610s. John Speed described Northampton Castle in 1610: ‘gaping chinks do daily threaten the downfall of her walls.’ When, in 1617, James I visited Warkworth Castle, earlier a mighty fortress, he found sheep and goats in most of the rooms. Bramber Castle, formerly a Sussex stronghold of the Howards, was in ruins.

The major fortresses built in England during the sixteenth century were for frontier defence, and not for mounting or resisting rebellion. In particular, on the pattern of the Roman forts of the Saxon Shore, Henry VIII responded to the alliance in 1538 between the Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France, and the consequent fears of invasion by building, in the 1540s, a series of coastal fortifications on the south coast of England, including Camber, Deal and Walmer. These mounted cannon in order to resist both bombardment by warships and attack by invading forces. More generally, the anchorages on the south coast were to be protected by fortifications, for example Dartmouth Castle. The biggest single new fortified position was Berwick-on-Tweed, the principal fortress intended both to protect northern England from invasion and, more particularly, to provide a base from which attacks could be mounted on Scotland and notably on its capital, Edinburgh. The fortress also protected the anchorage in the estuary of the River Tweed. The modern new defences were very different to the castellated medieval ones there.

In Wales in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, many castles were abandoned or, as with Beaumaris and Conwy, fell into disrepair, while others were enhanced not with fortifications but with comfortable and splendid internal ‘spaces’, especially long galleries, as at Raglan, Powis and Carew. It was not only in Britain that castles fell into ruin. The same was true elsewhere. Thus, in the United Provinces (Dutch Republic), new fortified positions were concentrated in frontier regions, as, in particular, at Breda, but ruined castles were recorded by painters, for example Jacob van der Croos’ Landscape with Ruined Castle of Brederode and Distant View of Haarlem. Built in the third quarter of the thirteenth century and rebuilt a century later, the castle was set on fire by Spanish forces in 1573.

Increasingly, the new fortifications of the sixteenth century and later might provide lodgings for their garrisons, but generally were not private and domestic in the medieval tradition. Instead they were instruments of the state, as in the Roman period.

At the same time, civil wars, such as the German Peasants’ Revolt, the Dutch Revolt and the French Wars of Religion, put a continuing premium on older fortifications, both castles and city walls. They could thwart or delay attacking forces, and thus have a major operational, even strategic, impact, which was the case in all three of these conflicts. For example in France, the fortifications of the Protestant-held town of La Rochelle successfully resisted a Royalist siege in 1572–73, although it fell in 1628 after a 14-month siege.


Cultural factors were important to fortification. This was clearly seen in South-East Asia where most cities, for example Aceh, Brunei, Johore and Malacca, were not walled in the medieval period. However, in response to European pressure, construction of city walls spread in the sixteenth century, for example in Java. Nevertheless, the notion of fighting for a city was not well-established culturally. Instead, the local culture of war was generally that of the abandonment of cities in the face of stronger attackers who then pillaged them before leaving. As in parts of Africa, captives, not territory, were the usual objective of operations. European interest in annexation and the consolidation of position by fortification reflected a different culture. Thus, the role of fortifications in part depended on cultural factors, a point that is more generally true of conflict. This was the case not only with the prudential value of these fortifications, but also with their symbolic significance.

Roman Army Life in Britain III

Barrack blocks for the infantry could have up to sixteen pairs of rooms. The layout of these barrack blocks can be seen at Caerleon where the foundations consist of pairs of long narrow blocks 74 m (243 ft) long, facing each other and reflecting the division of the legions into double centuries. At one end were the centurions’ quarters, which take up a space equal to five of the rooms allotted to the legionaries. There is a washroom, a latrine and one room heated by a hypocaust; braziers probably heated the others.

Many barracks were at first built of timber, later to be replaced by stone as happened at Corbridge. One of the Vindolanda tablets refers to a decision to be taken on the number of waggons needed to carry stone to the fort. At Caerleon timber buildings were placed on stone foundations. Shirley has suggested that a single barracks block would require wood from 300 trees. For all the timber barracks a small forest of 70,000 would need to be cut down. The number of roof tiles needed – tegulae (flat tiles), imbrices (semi-cylindrical tiles) and shingles – would be prodigious. In addition there would be constant repair and rebuilding work by skilled military men. Shirley estimated the number of man hours needed to build a fortress as 16.5 million, probably comprising two 30-week seasons of 2,000 men.

If there were only 80 men to each century extra rooms might be given to the standard bearers or optiones. Larger rooms, sometimes suites of rooms, were provided at the end of the blocks for centurions. Each contubernium of eight men occupied two rooms, one holding equipment, and the larger one serving as living quarters. Many of the front rooms have a stone hearth for cooking or heating purposes. The internal areas varied from 15 sq. m (49 sq. ft) to 30 sq. m (98 sq. ft). A veranda at the front would have provided an extension of living space. Flooring of clay or gravel, possibly covered with timber planking, would be warmer than the stone-flagged floors found at Birrens and Ebchester (County Durham) and these would have been made comfortable with skins, rugs or even bracken.

Post-holes identified at the fort of Heidenheim in Germany may be linked to the provision of bunk beds placed against the wall. Mattresses or palliasses, however, stacked during the day, could be brought out to cover the floor at night. Sleeping arrangements might depend upon the tastes of the men and the time of watch. Barracks might not have been as crowded as they seem. Soldiers posted away from the forts, would allow their comrades some extra space. Beds might be shared between men on and off duty.

Auxiliary infantry cohorts were housed in the same types of barracks but the cavalry, organized into turmae (squadrons), would have needed to have more space allotted. Chesters, garrisoned by an ala of the Second Asturians, 500 strong, seems to have quartered the men in blocks with ten pairs of rooms, possibly to store equipment more easily. At Wallsend troopers and horses were installed in adjoining rooms with grooms accommodated in lofts above these.

Given the discipline of the army in the first two centuries the rooms would have to be kept tidy, ready for periodic inspection. There must have been some sensible method of storing military equipment and personal possessions in cupboards, pits, on shelves or hanging from hooks. Eight men living together for a long time would either come to some harmonious agreement or a dominating leader would arise to assert his own discipline and force ‘room duties’ on to others. Off-duty games could fill hours of boredom. Counters and a board have been found at Corbridge and a bag containing nineteen gaming counters was found at Ravenglass (Cumbria); a bronze inkwell at Longthorpe may indicate that some soldiers practised writing skills. Checking armour, oiling hinges and joints and repairing leatherwork would fill up time, as would other tasks. A Vindolanda tablet mentioned builders for a bathhouse, plasterers, workers with kilns and shoemakers.

Some entertainment might have been of a more sinister nature. Excavators recently found the body of a female child, with her hands tied behind her back, buried in a corner of one of the barrack blocks at Vindolanda. The find was dated to the mid third century when the fourth cohort of Gauls formed the garrison. She might have been a slave who was killed for not doing her tasks or been sexually abused and killed by the soldiers. Whatever the situation, her body was buried hastily to avoid discovery.

Bathhouses were a vital part of any fort for they allowed soldiers to bathe, clean themselves and provide relaxation when off-duty, soothing aching limbs and chatting to friends. Usually bathhouses were placed outside forts because of the danger of fire and the fact that men could relax more easily away from authority. The bathhouse at Chesters was situated close to the river, where there was easy access to water. Vitalis, a balneator (bath attendant), was in charge of the bathhouse at Vindolanda situated outside the south gate of the fort. Large fortresses provided more elaborate accommodation. Caerleon seems to have had two sets of baths, an official one inside the fortress and another outside the walls, possibly to allow soldiers to have greater relaxation. The discovery of hairpins and milk teeth inside the main baths may indicate that ladies married to senior officers and their children could use them at specified times. A lead plaque found on the site might be an admission ticket. Shellfish and other food remains suggest that a snack bar was provided. Baths continued to be built throughout the Roman occupation, the last ones being recorded at Binchester in the mid fourth century.

Another essential building was a latrine. At Caerleon during the reconstruction of the fort in the second century, the opportunity was taken to construct latrines in each corner of the ramparts. They were provided in the bathhouses of Bar Hill and Corbridge. Separate arrangements were made for one at Piercebridge, which could accommodate thirty soldiers. Some of the most elaborate remains are to be found at Housesteads, where the drains, the channel for flushing the sponges and the water tanks for washing hands still remain.

Latrines had to be kept clean but it would have been an unpleasant task. Slaves might have been available but soldiers detailed to do the work would need to be carefully supervised, especially at forts where the latrines were a series of seats built over wooden buckets. A papyrus from Egypt, giving a duty roster, included C. Julius Valens and Marcus Longinus A— as being detailed for ad cunus (drain duties) and ad stercus (latrine duties) respectively on 3 October and 6 October AD 90. The disposal of waste may not have always been carefully supervised; at Bearsden the waste debouched into the fort ditch. At several forts there was evidence that the latrine was in the veranda or in the barrack room itself.

All forts would have had an adequate water supply. Vitruvius recommends digging wells but where possible an aqueduct or leat was constructed. At Benwell, where the water brought for over three miles had become stale and flat, it was sent through five settling tanks to help it regain its sparkle. Sometimes fatigues would include carrying water. At Hod Hill water from the River Stour was the only supply, brought laboriously up the hill and poured into huge collection tanks, one of which had a capacity of 5,455 litres (1,200 gallons). At Housesteads, with a garrison of 800 men, it has been suggested that it would have been possible to collect water from the roof structures within the fort, giving a capacity of 8,000 tonnes of water collected into storage tanks. Excess water would have been used to flush the latrine in the south-east corner of the fort.

The cavalry needed stables and, where possible, these were placed inside forts or in securely guarded annexes to prevent horses from being stolen. Mules and baggage horses might have been kept in annexes and grazed outside the fort. Immediate access to the horses was necessary in an emergency and troopers might have felt happier placed near to their mounts. Celtic ponies would stand rough weather better than high-spirited ones; skeletons of horses found buried at Newstead give a range of twelve to fourteen hands high (1.21–1.42 m/48–56 in.).

Legionary forts would have had to find space for 120 horses, with remounts and those belonging to the officers bringing the total to at least 150. Auxiliary cavalry forts would have needed room for over 500 horses. Separate stable boxes were provided at the auxiliary forts of Benwell and Halton but unless the horses were sick or temperamental it would have been sufficient to tether them in rows. Drains were noted at Ilkley and Broughon-Noe and mucking out was done daily, as Xenophon emphasized; perhaps local farmers were glad to take the resulting dung. At the legionary fortress of Usk a barrack block was reconstructed as stables by the removal of the panels between the inner and the outer rooms, and by the cutting of cesspits. The horses were accommodated in the outer part, while hay and equipment were stored in the inner rooms. In another area stables and barracks were placed back to back, a most unusual arrangement, which suggests a temporary measure. Separate tack rooms would be essential as the ammonia vapour of urine can attack leather. Troopers could keep their own gear, including parade armour, in their quarters.

Other necessary buildings were workshops (fabricae), which Hygenius recommends should be far away from the hospital so that the noise would not disturb patients. Identification of these can only be tentative but buildings containing smelting hearths, ovens or metalworking debris indicate repair work on armour and weapons. Sweepings from a blacksmith’s forge were found at Benwell, where the cavalry regiment of Asturians was stationed. Traces of urine and excreta found in a building at Vindolanda and the bundles of leather panels found at Birdoswald and Bar Hill provide evidence for leather-working and tent-making at these forts. Hides are soaked in urine as part of the preliminary treatment. Wagons and carts would have been kept in open-fronted sheds like those deduced at Fendoch.

Granaries (horrea) grouped in pairs are easily identified by the remains of rows of stone or timber pillars, which allowed air to circulate underneath, and buttresses on the outer walls to restrain the pressure of the grain. At Corbridge small doors allowed access to the space beneath the floors, possibly for inspection or to let dogs or cats enter to control vermin, not an unexpected problem. Burnt grain at South Shields contained skeletons of rats, mice, voles and other vermin. Vermin might be smoked out and burnt material discovered by the sides of the granaries at Cadder and Slack was suggested to be the remains of fires for this control. The weight of the grain required heavy stone floors and buttresses placed at frequent intervals to control the side pressure on the walls. Wooden louvres were set between the buttresses for internal ventilation. Normally the floor was placed on parallel sleeper walls or pillars. Hardknott, Rudchester and Corbridge had loading platforms covered with a portico to make easier the unloading sacks of grain directly from carts.

Grain was probably kept stored in sacks or bins leading off a central passage. Tacitus in the Agricola said that forts in the conquered area of Scotland held sufficient supplies to feed the garrison for a year. Calculations made of grain in granaries in Britain indicate that supplies were far and above what was needed to feed a particular garrison. This may have been to ensure that sufficient food was available in case of a siege or that the garrison should never go short of food in case of a mutiny. Other provisions could be stored in these buildings – meat, dried and salted in barrels, cheese, lard, pulses, salt, amphorae containing wine, olive oil and garum. Pliny mentioned a carnarium, a wooden rack from which dried or fresh meat could be suspended. The librarii horreorum, in charge of issuing supplies, would ensure constant replacement rather than let food become bad or stale. One fort held vast supplies. In the third century South Shields was remodelled to become a supply base for the campaigns of the Emperor Septimius Severus in Scotland. At least 22 granaries were available, which, if all full, would have had capacity of 8,000 tonnes.

There was no large mess hall in a fort. Each contubernium had to prepare its own meal. The basic diet of a soldier consisted of corn (which could be made into soup, pottage or pasta), bacon, cheese, vegetables, oil and wine, and the cost of their provisions was deducted from their pay. An extra deduction was made to cover the greater variety of food during festival days such as Saturnalia. Boudicca sneered at the Romans when she made her speech before her final battle, saying they had to have kneaded bread, wine and oil and that if they ran short of these they perished, which seems to indicate that the military’s essential ingredients were known to the Britons early after the conquest.

Pork in the form of meat, bacon and sausages, the latter being cheap and long lasting, would be standard. Bones on military sites indicate that increasing quantities of beef were provided. The Vindolanda accounts indicate large numbers of chickens being bought, possibly more to feed the officers than the men. One account dated to AD 101–104, when Flavius Cerialis was prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, refers to geese and chickens being supplied, which might have been to serve visiting officers or a visit of the provincial governor. Officers got better food, which probably included game hunted as part of their sporting activities.

Other foods were available. One of the Vindolanda accounts asked for 100 apples if good ones were available and 100 or 200 eggs ‘if they could be bought at a reasonable price’. A slave was ordered to procure radishes seemingly as a treat for Saturnalia. If soldiers required snacks or a treat they could supplement their diet by buying from itinerant tradesmen or from shops in the vici.

Normally soldiers had two meals a day. Josephus said that the men ate when they were commanded and were expected to eat during the day sitting down but could recline during evening meals. Each contubernium would be given a grain ration, which had to be collected from granaries and then ground. At South Shields, bread wheat and spelt were stored in one granary burnt down in the late third or early fourth century. Near the entrance were discarded weed seeds containing corncockle, which can be poisonous if baked in bread. It has been suggested that soldiers had collected their rations from the granary and cleaned the grain where the light was better, obviously being ordered to make sure that the wheat was safe before it was ground.

A stone hand-mill was carried on the pack of the unit’s mule. Grinding would be done by the contubernium, a strenuous job, probably taking over one-and-a-half hours to produce a decent quality of grain as it might have had to be repeatedly ground and sieved up to three times. Possibly enough flour would be ground for two to three days to save time. Water and salt would be added to knead the flour and the resulting dough would be baked in ovens situated alongside the walls of the camp or fort for baking. Meat and other foods could also be baked there. There were two kinds of bread. Panis militaris castrensis was black bread or hard tack and panis militaris mundis was baked from finer flour and served to officers. The daily ration of a Roman soldier would probably have consisted of about 850 gm (30 oz) of bread which would provide 1,950 calories.

The recommended diet for men in the British army in barracks has been estimated to produce 2,900 calories. A man on active service in the field requires between 3,400 and 3,600 calories. According to Roth, the daily military ration of a soldier in the Roman army might consist of grain (pulses or bread), meat (probably 226 gm/8oz), vegetables, cheese, olive oil, possibly 70 gm (2.5 oz), a quantity of wine between 0.54 and 0.27 litres a day, salt and other condiments. This diet would give a total of 3,390 calories and 142 gm (5 oz) of protein, quite adequate for a man living in a fort and doing heavy work.

The wine was a sour wine and if mixed with water would have doubled the quantity for drinking. The auxilia, especially those from the northern provinces, drank beer. Both beer and Celtic beer were ordered at Vindolanda, suggesting that these were different kinds of beer. One letter from Masclus, a decurion, to the prefect Flavius Cerialis indicates that supplies had run out under his command, with the implication that some should be sent very quickly.

The army diet would not be entirely a Roman one as more than half the legions and certainly most of the auxiliars came from the provinces. The legions which came over at the conquest had been based in the Rhineland and the Danube regions where their taste might have been more akin to the ethnic groups. Bones excavated at many of the forts indicate that the preference was for beef, which is more a northern than a southern taste. This was particularly apparent at Colchester in the first century AD and in the camps established by the army during their campaigns in the north. A specific change of diet has been noted on the Antonine Wall where Vivian Swan has identified pottery akin to that made in North Africa. It has been suggested that reinforcements from Britain were sent to the Emperor Antoninus Pius’s troops in his Mauritanian War (AD 146–9). The survivors returned to Britain together with North African and Moorish soldiers who brought with them their own pottery for their distinctive cooking methods. A plentiful supply of herbs and spices would be available.

The army had to have fit men and this was ensured by a vigorous training routine, care in the choice of the campsite, a good water supply and a healthy diet, but men might have had to be treated in a hospital (valetudinarium). They would have had special food there; Plutarch and Vegetius recommended chicken. A tablet at Vindolanda reported that some of the men were sick or wounded and at least ten suffered from conjunctivitis, not surprisingly if men used a communal towel. Not every fort had a hospital, although forts would have medical orderlies attached to them. That at Housesteads was placed next to the principia; at Benwell, it took the form of a central courtyard surrounded by a double range of small rooms and had a small latrine and a bath. Healing herbs could be grown in the sheltered courtyard. Facilities would be available to treat sick soldiers in most forts but anyone who fell seriously ill or was badly wounded could be transferred to the legionary fortresses for treatment, where they were served a special diet. The large fortress hospital at Caerleon seems to have had sufficient rooms for each of the sixty-four centuries of the legion; later, parts of it were heated to give greater comfort to the sick. Soldiers could also be sent to convalesce at spas such as Buxton and Bath.

Medical staff were recorded and they probably provided a distinct professional corps. The optio valetudinarii, in charge of the hospital, supervised a staff of immunes, who performed medical tasks, and capsarii, who dressed wounds. Roy Davies, in his study of the Roman medical staff, suggests that there might have been several medici, each having the same title but performing different duties. A tombstone at Housesteads describes Anicius Ingenuus of the First Cohort of Tungrians as medicus ordinarius. It has been suggested that this man and four others known in Britain were qualified doctors with the same status and rank of a centurion but serving under a camp doctor. Many doctors were Greek, like Hermogenes who dedicated an altar in Greek to ‘the mighty Saviour Gods’ at Chester. Complete sets of surgical implements have been found on continental sites and isolated implements are known at Newstead and Housesteads.

One of the Vindolanda tablets gives a list of ingredients brought into the fort between AD 101 and 104, which seem to have been used as medical supplies. These include black bryony berries used in the treatment of wounds, pitch, which was mixed with garlic for treating arrow wounds, resin, which could be mixed with garlic and sulphur for drawing out pus, and anise as a treatment for stings and insomnia. One item seems to have referred to linen soaked in honey. Honey was used for treating wounds, drawing out splinters and other intrusive objects, and for treating inflammation. Another item was siliginus or soft wheat. This could have been used as flour for bread but Pliny the Elder said that if the grain was roasted and ground into flour it could be used as a poultice, which seems sensible, and also to stop eye discharges.

There were also vets to ensure the welfare of the horses and mules, together with the numerous cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry on which the troops would rely for food; Abio and Virilis are recorded as vets at Vindolanda sometime between AD 101 and 105. For a favour and a cash payment, they might have attended pets kept by soldiers and the civilians in the vici. Candidus and Lucco are recorded as tending the pigs.

Much of the description given above could be said to provide only a typical account of life in camps and forts. Obviously not all soldiers would be in a fort at the same time. Men needed to be trained in the use of a catapult or an onager. Some would be out on patrol noting if there were threats of violence and thereby put down an incipient revolt. They could be sent out to collect taxes, fetch in supplies, supervise harvesting and organize the rounding up of cattle to provide meat and leather. About AD 90 soldiers from Vindolanda had been sent to London to provide part of the bodyguard for the imperial governor. Over 300 had been dispatched to Coria (Corbridge). Forty-six men were reported to have been sent as a guard to Ferox, probably the Legatus Legionis of Legion IX at York.

According to the Vindolanda tablets some leave was granted. There seems to have been a strict formula for applying. One tablet, requesting leave from either Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, or his successor, Priscinus, Prefect of the First Cohort of Thracians, gives this formula: ‘I Messicus … ask my lord that you consider me a worthy person to grant leave at Corio (Corbridge).’ This fort was only 29 km (18 miles) away so this would be a short leave. Soldiers were given rest periods, especially on days devoted to religious observances, and many may have gone to spas such as Buxton and Bath. Desertions and absence without leave, however, were not infrequent. Possibly, unless there was a state of emergency, a particular fort might have been half-empty of its garrison.

Relations with civilians might not always have been amicable. Soldiers could assault and oppress them and the law or brute force could be on their side. Their cases could be treated more leniently in law courts and soldiers were exempt from service in mines and were spared torture. Requisitioning of fodder, food and transport would have caused problems. Even so, soldiers may have visited the vici to be with families and friends, consort with prostitutes, drink and gamble in inns, negotiate with traders and engage in numerous other social ploys. Military and civilian life were not entirely divorced from each other and there is reason to believe that by the second century, in some of the forts, civilians were sharing in soldiers’ lives not only outside the forts, but also within them. 

The Building of ‘the Tower’

Illustration of how the Tower may have looked, c1300 by Ivan Lapper.

Moving slowly, and savagely stamping out sparks of resistance as he went, William took until mid-December to reach Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. He found the wooden London Bridge – the only river crossing – barred against him. Cautiously, he marched west, burning and looting, until at Wallingford he met a submissive Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, sent by the Witan to offer him the crown. On Christmas Day 1066, William I was crowned by Stigand in Edward the Confessor’s newly built Westminster Abbey.

Outside the abbey, the coronation ceremony was disrupted by angry Londoners loudly opposing their new, foreign-born king. Alarmed, Norman soldiers rushed from the abbey with drawn swords. It was a reminder that their conquest was far from complete. They were a tiny, beleaguered army amidst a hostile, barely cowed populace which bitterly resented these strangers with their weird tongue and alien ways. The Normans had killed the English king and decimated his host, but to enjoy the fruits of victory they realised they must be equally ruthless in repressing Harold’s discontented former subjects. And they had a tried and tested method at their disposal: the castle.

Fortified hilltops had been commonplace in England for centuries; as the ramparts and ditches of Dorset’s Maiden Castle, dug by the ancient British, attest. The Romans had their fortresses too, as the stones of Hadrian’s Wall bear witness. But it was the Normans who patented the ‘motte-and-bailey’ castle. The idea was simple. Where there was no convenient natural hill, as with a sandcastle, the Normans threw up an artificial mound – the motte – crowned by a wooden tower. They then dug a defensive ditch – the bailey – around its base, using the excavated earth to make an additional encircling rampart, surmounted by a wooden fence. By 1066 the Normans were past masters at the speedy construction of these flat-pack fortresses – they could build one within a week – and their first acts upon landing had been to put up two, at Pevensey and Hastings.

Eventually, the Normans would build some eighty-four motte-and-bailey castles across their newly conquered kingdom. The early ones were sited near their Sussex beachhead – Lewes, Bramber and Arundel – guarding strategic river valleys in case they needed to retreat to the coast in a hurry. The temporary wooden castles were soon replaced by solid stone, once the Normans felt confident that they were in England for good. The functions of the castle were twofold: as the imposing home and headquarters of the local magnate; and as a refuge for his loyal soldiers, servants and tenants in times of trouble. They were the nodal points of the feudal mesh of occupation that the Normans threw over the conquered kingdom.

William rewarded the knights who had followed and fought alongside him with large parcels of conquered English land – together with the overlordship of the peasants who tilled the soil. Great castles were erected at Dover, Exeter, York, Nottingham, Durham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge and Colchester. Norman names – de Warenne, de Lacey, Beauchamp – replaced Saxon ones in the nobility and clergy as a military occupation morphed into a new social structure.

William lavished special care on one castle in particular. His new capital, London, was vulnerable to attack on its eastern, seaward side. It clearly needed the protection that only a great castle could provide. England’s earlier military masters, the Romans, had pointed the way. In the fourth century AD, to defend the port-city they called Londinium Augusta, they had thrown up a stout city wall. It ran north–south from today’s Bishopsgate down to the Thames before swinging west along the northern bank of the river. Only the foundations of the wall remained by William’s time, but it was in the angle of its south-eastern corner, on the site of a former Roman fort named Arx Palatina – erroneously thought by the Normans (and by Shakespeare) to have been put up by Julius Caesar – that William decided to build his super-castle.

The rowdy scenes at his coronation had made it very clear that Norman rule could only be imposed by brute force. As a contemporary French chronicler, William of Poitiers, recorded, ‘Certain strongholds were made in the town against the fickleness of the vast and fierce populace.’ A fortress to house London’s garrison and intimidate its inhabitants – who totalled around 10,000 in 1066 – had to be constructed without delay. Within days of the Christmas coronation, conscripted gangs of Saxon labourers were hacking into the frozen soil. The remains of the Roman city wall served as a temporary barrier on the new fortress’s eastern and southern sides. A wide and deep ditch, surmounted by a palisaded rampart, went up on the western and northern sides of the site. A wooden tower was erected within three days in the middle of this rough rectangle. After a decade, however, largely spent in stamping out rebellions in the west and north of his new kingdom, William decided to remake his temporary timber structure in permanent stone.

William had the very man in mind to realise his vision. He envisaged the building of a mighty edifice that would be at once fortress and palace – the last word in state-of-the-art military architecture, as well as an impressive royal residence. A towering, solid structure that would literally set Norman superiority in stone, inducing a Saxon cultural cringe and snuffing out any notion of further resistance to his rule. The master architect that William hand-picked to oversee the project was a talented cleric named Gundulf.

Born in 1024 near Caen, Gundulf, like many medieval bright lads, entered the all-powerful Church. Legend says his decision was prompted by his miraculously surviving a storm during a perilous pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 1050s. He became a protégé of Lanfranc, the Italian-born prior of the great Benedictine Bec Abbey. Gundulf demonstrated a particular talent for architecture, designing churches and castles. He was an emotional man, given to outbursts of weeping, which won him the disrespectful nickname ‘the Wailing Monk’. Nevertheless, when William sacked the Saxon Stigand and chose Lanfranc to succeed him as the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, the new archbishop brought his temperamental clerk with him to Canterbury, where Gundulf supervised extensions to the cathedral.

The castle-building cleric caught the Conqueror’s eye, and Gundulf was soon summoned to London. William suggested that Gundulf should crown his architectural career by building in London the greatest castle in all Christendom. Gundulf was reluctant. Ageing and increasingly pious, he told the king that in his time left on earth he wanted to construct an ecclesiastical, rather than a secular, edifice – if possible a cathedral. No problem, William replied. At Rochester, near Canterbury, there already was a cathedral, in ruins since being pillaged in a Viking raid. He offered Gundulf the vacant bishopric and money for the cathedral’s restoration – so long as he built the great London castle first. So – doubtless with more tears and fears – Gundulf accepted his commission. In 1077 he became Bishop of Rochester, and the following year – 1078 – work on London’s new Tower commenced.

Gundulf set about his task with vigour. He was fifty-four, old by medieval standards, yet would not only complete both the White Tower and Rochester Cathedral (along with a fine new castle there), but also see out both the Conqueror, and William’s son and successor, William Rufus. The White Tower gained its name from the blocks of pale marble-like Caen stone imported from Normandy with which it was constructed – with infill of local coarse Kentish ragstone – and from the coats of gleaming whitewash with which it was eventually plastered. The Tower was a huge structure, the biggest non-ecclesiastical building in England, rising some ninety feet above ground, with four pepperpot turrets, one at each corner. All the turrets were rectangular, with the exception of the north-east one, which was rounded to contain a spiral staircase.

When complete, the White Tower measured 107 feet (33 metres) from east to west, and 118 feet (36.3 metres) from north to south. The massive walls were fifteen-foot thick at their base, tapering to eleven at the top, built on foundations of chalk and flint. An undercroft, or basement, formed the lowest floor of the White Tower, where a well was sunk to supply the inhabitants with water. The cellar vaults were used at first for storing food and drink, as well as arms and armour. A more sinister function was their later use as the Tower’s principal torture chambers, the agonised screams of victims muffled by the surrounding earth and stone. The main, middle floor was entered, then as now, on the south side by an exterior wooden staircase, which could be quickly removed in case of siege. This floor was originally the living quarters of the Tower’s garrison, and was divided into three vast rooms: a refectory with a great stone fireplace where the soldiers ate and made merry when off duty; a smaller dormitory with another fireplace where they slept; and, in the south-east corner, the beautifully simple Romanesque Chapel of St John, with its twelve huge pillars.

The second floor of the White Tower was reserved for the use of the constable – the Tower’s commander appointed by the monarch – for important guests, and eventually for state prisoners of high status. The rooms consisted of a great hall complete with fireplace – used for state banquets – with a minstrels’ gallery running around it; and the constable’s chamber, a space which served as bedroom, meeting room and living quarters for the Tower’s top official. Each floor had latrines with chutes into underground cesspits emptied by the ‘night soil men’.

South of the White Tower, a gaggle of smaller buildings sprang up to serve Gundulf’s great structure. These, the first of many additions and extensions added to the original keep across the centuries, were temporary structures not designed to last. There were stables, blacksmiths’ forges, stores for building materials, chicken coops and pigsties. Before he died, Gundulf oversaw the building of a high curtain wall guarding the Tower on its southern, river side, and the first of many smaller towers girding the great central keep. It is not known exactly when the oldest surviving tower outside the White Tower, the Wardrobe Tower, was built; and the date of the construction of the royal palace south of the White Tower is equally uncertain. It is likely, however, that by the time of Gundulf’s death, aged eighty-four, in 1108, a start had been made.

Gundulf had long outlived his original patron. Having finally subdued the English, William the Conqueror was faced with rebellion in his native Normandy by his own oldest son, Robert Curthose. It was on a punitive expedition against the rebellious town of Mantes, in 1087, that the Conqueror, his youthful stockiness run to fat, met his end. Having torched the conquered town with his customary savagery, William was riding through the blazing streets when his horse stepped on a burning ember. The beast bucked violently, throwing William’s great gut against the hard iron saddle pommel, and causing devastating internal injuries to his swollen stomach. William took ten days to die in agony. Feared more than loved, when he expired, his remaining followers stripped his bloated corpse and then scarpered. The Conqueror’s final indignity came at his funeral, when monks attempted to stuff his carcase into a small sarcophagus. The cadaver split, filling the church with such a noxious stench that mourners fled. It was an inglorious end for the victor of Hastings and the founder of the Tower.

Features of an Atlantic Wall Bunker

Features of an Atlantic Wall Bunker

The bunker was primarily an instrument of defence. For that purpose, most but not all Regelbauten included a number of standard features. The fortress engineer staff selected designs they needed and adapted them to local conditions. As a result, some bunkers in areas that were less vulnerable might lack some of the standard features designed to counter any assault. Shortage of construction materials also affected the design.

Whether the bunker was a weapons position, an Unterstand or a supporting position, the desired features included a protected entrance, and some bunkers had two. The simplest Regelbau bunkers had a 3cm-thick steel armoured door usually located inside a protected entrance hall with an open entranceway in the outside wall.67 The hallway connected at right angles to a small corridor with the door at the end. An embrasure for small arms covered the outside access to this corridor. A grating gate often closed off the open access to the entrance corridor. In some instances, where an entrance corridor was not present, the armoured door was on the outer wall. Often the armoured door was a heavy ‘Dutch Door’ that allowed the top half to open if the bottom section were blocked by rubble resulting from damage. The armoured doors included a double lever lock system and a rubber seal lined the edges to render them airtight and gas proof. A peephole with a cover allowed the occupants to inspect newcomers before letting them in. Except in the H-702, the armoured door opened into a gas lock for added protection. These entrance corridors included a decontamination niche, usually located at the opposite end from the entrance to the air lock.

Some bunkers included a close-combat room, a defensive position for a light machine-gun or small arms on a wall section that projected slightly beyond the outside wall so that its embrasure could cover the entire exposed wall and the entrance. One or two Tobruks at the rear of the bunker served as observation positions and provided additional protection for the entrance.

All bunkers, except the smallest, had some type of ventilation system. Armoured grilles covered air intakes on the outer walls. Larger bunkers included steel air ducts suspended along the ceilings and a ventilation system to which air filters could be introduced in the event of a gas attack. In multi-room bunkers and bunkers with gunrooms there were valves on the internal walls to control the internal air pressure, to provide gas protection and to reduce the effects of blasts on the human body. In the case of the latter, it proved not to be very effective. Most Regelbauten had additional heating vents, especially in the crew quarters. Although the larger, more complex bunkers usually had a form of central heating (even air-conditioning for cartridge rooms), most bunkers used a small standard type of heater, a WT80, in the crew areas; this type of heater had a roof vent that was designed to trap a grenade should the enemy get that close. Many of these features, including the anti-gas protection, were common in the permanent fortifications of most nations during this era.

Although the size of the bunkers varied widely, the height of rooms was established at 2.1–2.3 metres. The number of rooms was determined by the size and purpose of the bunker. Usually the interior walls were of concrete poured during the construction of the bunker, but in some cases they were made of brick. The interior doors, if armoured, were of thinner steel, but wooden doors were also common, especially if the door was for a brick wall. Normally, wood lined the walls and served as insulation because bunkers were cold and often damp. A standard concrete thickness was prescribed for all floors, but some were also covered with asphalt tiles to counter blast pressure effects from a direct hit on the bunker. These floor coverings enhanced the protection provided by the pressure valves between rooms.

Almost every type of Regelbauten had an emergency exit that consisted of a well on an exterior wall that led to the roof. This well had handrails for the troops to climb out, but it was filled with sand or gravel. The emergency exit was accessed through a small door on an inside wall. One or two small brick walls beyond this door had to be broken to allow the contents of the escape well to spill on to the floor of the bunker. The men inside would have to clear away the debris before they climbed out the escape well.

Larger bunkers normally included some type of communications equipment. For internal communication between rooms, the voice pipe was a standard feature. This fast and effective method was found in the many permanent fortifications of other nations as well. For external communication, the most common method was by runner, but telephones or even radios linked most large bunkers, especially artillery bunkers, to their command post. When a radio was present, the antenna was often located in the entrance hallway. The antenna extended and retracted through a tube in the ceiling. The command post usually had a telephone and radio link to higher headquarters. Telephone cables buried about 2 metres deep linked most of the bunkers in a strong-point to one another and to a higher headquarters.

Some combat bunkers and the larger Unterstände included a periscope for all-round surveillance. In the smaller bunkers the crews had to rely on the few embrasures to survey their surroundings. Most weapons embrasures had a stepped opening that narrowed towards the armoured embrasure. This feature, known as an anti-ricochet device, prevented enemy rounds from being funnelled into the embrasure. Some types of casemate with a large opening that allowed the gun a field of fire of up to 120° sometimes did not have or could not accommodate the stepped anti-ricochet device. Additional protection for large gun artillery bunkers often consisted of a stepped carapace extending beyond the roof. Some observation bunkers had cantilevered roofs to protect the observers.

Bunkers were usually covered with earth. Only their roof positions, walls with embrasures and entrances were exposed fully or partially. For additional protection many of the post-West Wall era bunkers had a stepped entranceway so that their floor level was below ground level for additional protection. In some locations it was not possible to cover the bunkers with earth because the terrain lacked relief. In some cases an artificial hill was raised around the bunker. In other cases the engineers employed various types of camouflage, even disguising the bunkers as civilian structures with a judicious coat of paint. Exposed walls received a camouflage paint job. Different types of texturing on the concrete surface were done in the mould when the concrete was poured. Bunkers that were not earth-covered and those with exposed walls had rounded corners to deflect enemy shells.

The interiors of the bunkers were rather spartan. Whenever possible there was electric lighting, but kerosene and/or acetylene lamps were the only light sources available in isolated areas. The men ate at wooden tables, slept on steel bunks and stored their personal effects and equipment in lockers. The soldiers cheered up their environments with wall paintings, but they were not allowed to conceal the painted wall signs that identified the rooms, the instructions for operating equipment, the warnings or the components of the bunker. Most interior rooms were painted white; it is believed that green and black were used on most of the metal components. A personnel shelter often had a nearby water source, unless it had its own well. While a large bunker normally had latrine facilities, most combat bunkers and Unterstände had none. Instead, the troops used a latrine bucket with a seat (a portable toilet) that was often located in the close-defence position, which gave the soldiers some privacy. Otherwise, the gas lock or the decontamination niche served as a latrine. The men probably used the latrine bucket only during combat. Most Wn would have some type of latrine facilities outside the bunkers for the troops. The StP was likely to have a latrine bunker.

The German Infantry Company and Platoon in Coastal Defence

The actual composition of German infantry units in coastal defence is a bit confusing. The organization of the company changed after 1940 when its standard composition was three rifle platoons and a heavy weapons platoon. In 1939 the platoon or zug (Schutzenzug or rifle platoon) consisted of a three-man light mortar section with a 50mm mortar and three thirteen-man rifle squads, each of which had a light machine-gun – an MG-34. Between 1941 and 1944 modifications took place, which reduced the rifle squad to ten men. A complete reorganization in 1943 introduced the ‘1944 Infantry Division’ with platoons of four rifle squads. The squad leader carried a submachine-gun. The standard rifle squad was referred to as gruppe (Schutzengruppe or rifle squad), which translates as ‘section’ instead of ‘squad’ and causes some confusion in written accounts. In 1944 many platoons numbered only three squads, which reduced their firepower to three light machine guns. The platoon’s mortar team initially had light 50mm mortars that were eventually replaced with 81mm mortars, and then eliminated in the ‘1944 Division’. The infantry company also included a machine-gun section with two heavy machine-gun teams. The heavy machine-guns were the same MG-34 or MG42s used in the rifle platoons, but with different mounts. In the battalion heavy weapons company, which had a heavy machine-gun platoon and two 81mm mortar platoons before 1944, one of the mortar platoons received 120mm mortars.

The change in the organization and appearance of the ‘1944 Infantry Division’ had little effect on the divisions assigned to coastal defence since most were static formations. The companies and platoons of these old divisions did not update to the new standards and they received older weapons and captured foreign models. Thus a rifle platoon assigned to beach defence might have more than the allotted number of machine-guns and could even have heavier weapons. Since their primary mission was to defend a Wn or StP, their internal organization was modified based on the position they held. The elements of these divisions that were not assigned to a Wn or StP and were held as reserve units conformed more closely to the standard table of organization for the pre-1944 division.

Atlantic Wall: Bunkers and Organization for Defence

Regelbau M162a fire-control bunker for gun battery at Frederikshavn, Denmark, in the summer of 1945. This photo was taken by Frits G. Tillisch, a Danish army officer serving in the Danish Resistance.

Cross-section of one of Mirus Battery’s gun emplacements. Modified drawing from Report on German Fortifications (Office of Chief of Engineers, US Army, 1944). (J. Kaufmann)

When the Germans went over to the defensive in the West after 1940, they increased the number of batteries to protect the ports and deter an Allied landing. However, even if the guns were able to damage some enemy ships or sink them, it is doubtful whether they alone could have stopped a raid or major landing. The Germans, therefore, had to create additional defences and protect the likely invasion beaches adjacent to or near ports and their gun batteries, which represented possible targets for an enemy landing operation. As a result, they established a complex of bunkers and other fortifications around each battery that included, in addition to the gun casemates, personnel shelters, supporting facilities and bunkers for machine-guns and other infantry weapons. Eventually this led to the formation of strongpoints (StP) and strongpoint groups. Smaller groupings of infantry bunkers and associated supporting positions formed resistance nests (Wn) charged with holding the key beaches or adding to the all-round defences for a fortress or smaller position. A variety of specialized bunkers existed for machine-guns, anti-tank guns, infantry guns and so on.66 The Tobruk pit, introduced in 1942, greatly enhanced all-around security in Wns and StPs. Each position required wire obstacles and, where possible, minefields and field fortifications.

The naval engineers determined where to deploy their heavy coastal batteries and the layout of their gun emplacements and associated supporting positions while the army engineers created the defensive scheme for protecting these batteries. In Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, Colin Partridge reveals that OB West issued Basic Order number 7 on 28 May 1942 establishing four categories of coast defences. The types of defensive positions from smallest to largest were:

1. Widerstandsnest (Wn) or Resistance Nest

2. Stützpunkt (StP) or Strongpoint

3. Stützpunktgruppe or Strongpoint Group

4. Küstenverteidigungsabschnitt and Verteidigungsbereich or Defence Area

The Widerstandsnest – often referred to on maps as ‘W’ or ‘Wn’ with a number designation – varied in size, but were the smallest defensive positions. The smallest Wn was manned by a squad-sized unit of approximately ten men, while the largest required up to a platoon-sized unit of thirty to forty men. In 1944 a German squad consisted of nine men, and a platoon comprised three squads, but many squads were not at full strength.68 Squad weapons included the squad leader’s 9mm MP-40 machine pistol (submachine-gun), a 7.92mm MG-42 light machine-gun and K-98 Mauser 7.92mm bolt-action rifles. Some units still used the older MP-38 and MG 34. Other types of machine-gun and assault rifle were issued during the war, but most went to SS units, which never served in coast defence, and to other specialized Wehrmacht formations. Three squad members served the machine-gun. These included a gunner, his assistant and an ammunition carrier. The two gunners carried pistols and the ammunition carrier a rifle. The remaining men in the squad were riflemen, so a reduced squad was short of riflemen.69 The infantry platoon also included a three-man light 50mm mortar team. Some of the troops in a Wn came from the battalion’s machine-gun company, which included three heavy machine-gun platoons (two squads, with two heavy machine-guns each) and a heavy mortar platoon (three squads, with two heavy mortars each). The heavy mortar was an 81mm mortar with a three-man crew. However, by 1944 it was replaced with a 120mm mortar in many units and the 81mm mortars were assigned to the infantry platoons to replace their inadequate 50mm mortars.

Besides mortar ammunition, the German rifle platoons needed only 7.92mm ammunition for their rifles and machine-guns and 9mm rounds for the few sub machine-guns and pistols they used. The squads stationed in a Wn or StP often ended up with foreign weapons requiring other types of ammunition. Some of the platoons were equipped with older or captured weapons instead of the standard issue, which complicated the ammunition requirements.

According to Colin Partridge, the 1942 directive called for the Wn to be manned by one or two squads with anti-tank gun, machine-gun and mortar positions. Except for the machine-gun, these weapons were not of the type found in an average German infantry squad since many were foreign-made. Since the platoon only had one mortar, these squads had to receive additional weapons. In some cases the troops in the company’s weapons platoon had to be augmented.

The crew of the smallest type of Wn, which comprised only one or two bunkers and associated field fortifications, consisted of a squad-sized formation. Probably half of the men took up posts in the weapons bunker and the remainder manned the rest of the bunkers and/or field fortifications in the complex. The squad often had a second machine-gun. A resistance nest, consisting of several bunkers and field fortifications, required up to a platoon. This type of position could include an antitank gun or cannon. Except for the Tobruks – most of which were one-man open firing positions – weapons bunkers normally needed three to eight men. A typical Wn comprised a personnel shelter (often with an associated Tobruk), an artillery or infantry observation bunker, a bunker for an anti-tank gun and one or more Tobruks. These resistance nests served individually in an interval between stronger sectors or were associated with other Wns to create a defensive barrier along a section of coast.

The Stützpunkt (StP) or strongpoint consisted of several Wns. The 1942 directive ordered the StP to provide protection for artillery or flak positions. This entailed a higher command system and usually required a company-sized unit. Field fortifications surrounded the entire position and often consisted of a couple of personnel bunkers, three or more weapons bunkers and associated Tobruks. The StP were armed with anti-tank guns, light anti-aircraft guns and multiple machine-guns for defence. Often heavy coastal batteries were incorporated into a strongpoint.

The Stützpunktgruppe (StP Gr) or Strongpoint Group was a collection of several strongpoints and Widerstandsnests that often required from two companies to a reinforced battalion-sized force. Generally this type of position included a bunker for the battalion headquarters for command and communications, a medical bunker, flak positions and/or other supporting facilities. Many coastal batteries were surrounded by a strongpoint group or were part of it. The strongpoint group covered a vulnerable landing area or held a key position like a small port.

These three types of defensive position could be grouped into an even larger fortified position known as a Verteidigungsbereich (VB) or Defence Area. In Der Atlantikwall, Rudi Rolf points out that ‘fortress construction work’ was begun on the sectors encompassed by the ports of Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Cherbourg and the area around Cap Gris-Nez in 1941. In the spring of 1942 these locations were identified as a Festungsbereich (FB) or Fortress Area. In 1943 this term was dropped and replaced with Verteidigungsbereich. The formation of the Verteidigungsbereich led to the designation of Festung or Fortress for the former FBs that included several major ports with U-boat or S-boat bases. Not every major port was designated as a VB or Fortress, however; Ostend in Belgium, for instance, is a notable exception.

Thus in 1943 and 1944 sections of the coast of France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway were identified as

1. Festung or Fortress;

2. VB or Defence Area; or

3. Freie Küste (literally ‘Free Coast’) – the area not covered by a Festung or VB, but which may have included StP or StP Gr.

Norway, Denmark and the German Bight had no officially designated Festung, but a few historians claim that some VBs were really Fortresses. Denmark included four VB (Frederikshavn, Hansted, Aalborg and Esbjerg). In Mur de L’Atlantique en Norvège, J.B. Wahl lists at least eighteen Festung in Norway, but none is comparable to those in France and the Netherlands.70 The Netherlands included one VB (Den Helder) and two Festung (Ijmuiden and Hoek van Holland). The mouth of the Schelde, including Walchern Island, was included in a KVA (see below). The remainder of the Dutch coast consisted of sections defended by StPs and sometimes StP Groups. A port that was not a Fortress or VB was usually protected by a StP Group.

In France and Belgium OB West divided the entire coastline into Küstenverteidigungsabschnitt (KVA) or Coastal Defence Sectors, which might include any of the above types of sections in the sector and facilitated command and control problems. Initially, in 1941 the FBs were created mainly around ports. Most of the construction involved naval positions. The FBs were still under the command of a naval officer in 1942. The designation changed to VB in 1943 when most of the Regelbauten construction was for army positions. Prior to this, the army had relied mainly on field fortifications built by the regimental troops of a division. Usually, a VB included one of a division’s regiments and its colonel was the designated commander of the VB. The FBs that had been designated as Festung created a special command problem because the Kriegsmarine had divided the coastline into sections commanded by Seekommandant (Seeko). This naval commander, usually an admiral or captain, was in command of all naval land forces, including the naval coastal batteries. The harbour commanders were subordinate to him. The Seekommandant’s port commanders, usually naval captains, often outranked the army Fortress commanders, the latter often having the rank of colonel. Most Fortress commands included naval units and naval ground units, and the special detachments assigned to the fortress by the army and the Luftwaffe. In some cases an army division was assigned to a fortress, putting its general in command. This often happened shortly before and after the Allied invasion of Normandy. A KVA was supposed to be defended by any army division that included troops to hold the various fortifications, augmented by troops from the higher Corps and Army commands. The artillery batteries, which did not belong to an army division, and the coastal artillery units came under Corps command. Hitler decreed that after the enemy landed on the beaches, the naval coastal batteries came under army command.

OB West created twenty-one KVAs in France and three in the Low Countries. Letter designations from A through to J (the letter I was not used) were used in the Fifteenth Army command that included all of Normandy in 1942. The Seventh Army command (Brittany to the Spanish border) began its designations with A at St Malo in Brittany and ended them with F on the Spanish border. In May 1942, after reorganization, First Army took over a section of the Atlantic coast, including the corps of the Seventh Army stationed in KVA D through to KVA F. Seventh Army retained command in Brittany and took over Lower Normandy (Fifteenth Army’s KVA H through to KVA J), including a corps from Fifteenth Army assigned to that region. Some KVA were subdivided when a second or even third division took over part of its coastal defence after 1942. The Fifteenth Army’s KVA A in Belgium was divided into KVA A3 and A2. KVA A1 in the Netherlands included the mouth of the Schelde. Thus, there was one division in each of the three parts of KVA A. KVA D and E in Fifteenth Army command, KVA J and C in Seventh Army command, and KVA E in First Army area were divided into 1 and 2 each. These were not subdivisions but new KVAs. This was done to avoid having to re-letter the entire system.

‘Mulberry’ Floating Harbours

Co-ordinating the effort required awesome organisation and logistics. The Allies had to marshal and maintain over 2 million men, 11,000 aircraft, and 7,000 ships in England. The prodigious industrial output to meet their requirements had to be matched by efficient distribution. The engineering work behind the landings was staggering, and thousands of construction workers were recruited to work night and day. The Petroleum Warfare Department pioneered PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean), ready to pump millions of gallons of petrol across to the invaders. To get the astonishing volume of men, equipment and supplies ashore in north-western France, Churchill’s pet project, the technologically ingenious ‘Mulberry’ floating harbours, were essential. Two were to be constructed off Normandy. Over a hundred enormous 6,000-ton reinforced concrete caissons called ‘Phoenixes’ (each 60 feet high, 60 feet wide and 200 feet long) would be towed across the Channel from Selsey Bill and Dungeness by some of the fleet of 132 tugs and then filled with sand from ‘Leviathans’ so they sank to form a breakwater in the Bay of the Seine. Outside this artificial reef was a floating line of ‘Bombardons’ towed from Poole and Southampton to calm the waves, and inside, in shallower water, a line of ‘Gooseberries’, formed from two dozen redundant merchant navy vessels, Liberty ships and one old dreadnought that were scuttled and sunk where needed. In the calmer waters within the two-square-mile Mulberry harbour, strong Lobnitz or ‘Spud’ pier heads were sunk deep into the sand which allowed long bridges or floating roadways to the shore, known as ‘Whales’, to float up and down with the tides. The menagerie of code-names was augmented by power-driven pontoons called ‘Rhinos’ and amphibious vehicles known as ‘Ducks’.

Artificial Ports

When the Allies prepared for the Normandy landing, it became evident to them that the Germans would do everything possible to prevent their French ports from falling into enemy hands. They consequently decided on a surprise approach, which involved bypassing existing ports and landing on a bare expanse of beach. Two structures were designed to accomplish this purpose: landing craft of various types that were to be deliberately run aground on the beach and then opened to discharge their cargo, and artificial ports.

Churchill had conceived the idea of artificial ports as far back as 1915. In 1940, as prime minister, he thought of it again. On May 30, 1942 he elaborated on his concept in a note dispatched to Mountbatten, who for some time had pondered over the problems that would be posed by a military landing. During a meeting of the chiefs of staff, Mountbatten declared; “If there are no employable ports, we can build them piece by piece and tow them over.” After reconnaissance information about Dieppe confirmed the need for “mulberries” (the code name given to these artificial ports), two of them were constructed in June 1944 for use at Arromarches and Vierville. Their use came as a complete surprise to the Germans, who had never even suspected their existence. Carried over the English Channel piece by piece, these two ports, complete with breakwaters, loading platforms and mobile jetties almost Vs of a mile in length, had a storage capacity exceeding the port of Dover. They could handle daily cargo unloadings of 6,000 tons of equipment and 1,250 tons of vehicles. The construction of these brilliant examples of British naval engineering in gcnuity, weighing one million tons each, required the labor of 20,000 men over a period of eight months, as well as 100,000 tons of steel and 8.75 million cubic feet of concrete. The Vierville port, constructed under extremely bad weather conditions, turned out to be useless. So did the Cherbourg “mulberry,” which was finished on June 27, 1944. But the Arromanches mulberry was able to discharge cargoes of 680,000 tons of equipment, 40,000 vehicles and 220,000 men between mid-July and October 31, 1944.

The artificial port used at Arromanches consisted of four basic elements. The first was breakwaters of three different sorts. One line of breakwaters was formed by filling 60 old ships with 500,000 tons of cement, which, of course, caused them to sink. Next came 146 open caissons of reinforced concrete. Six different types of caissons were made, ranging in weight from 1,672 tons to 6,044 tons; they were deployed at different levels as the depth of the ocean floor increased. The largest could be used where the ocean floor reached a depth of 30 feet. These caissons, armed with Bofors guns to protect personnel, were towed across the Channel by 1,500-horsepower tugs. At the proper moment the caissons’ valves were opened; they then filled with water and sank. The outermost breakwaters, cylindrical metal floats 225 feet long and 16 feet in diameter, were assembled side by side in groups of three and supported by a concrete “keel” weighing 750 tons, the upper part of which emerged six feet from the surface of the water. Anchored at a depth of 65 feet, they were placed end to end to form a floating breakwater a mile long, which took the first shock of the waves, before they struck the caissons.

The second element of the mulberries was fixed oi sheltering jetties. Floating caissons were placed end to end and sunk in lines at right angles to the shore. They protected the port from waves, and from attacking midget submarines or frogmen, and served as loading platforms for small ships.

Next were wharves made of pontoons. To keep the floating platforms at a steady horizontal level, which was necessary to avoid complications in unloading ships, they were anchored to steel braces on the ocean floor by a system of pulleys and cables. To compensate for the tides, pontoons were raised or lowered by winches. The winch operation was controlled by extensometers that were connected to the cables securing the pontoons to the steel braces.

The most difficult problem was how to maintain a continuous connection between the pontoons and the shore, which, at high tide, was about 3,000 feet away.’ In spite of the breakwaters the sea was in such constant turmoil that there was doubt as to how long floating jetties made up of several sections would behave. Exhaustive studies beginning in 1941 led to the construction of a jetty supported by floating caissons. Each 100-foot section was composed of two girders in an extremely rigid “bowstring” form, transversely connected at the center by an equally rigid strut and at different points on the strut by a number of articulated braces. The striated sheet metal deck was fixed to the various braces in such a way as to permit expansion. Thus, the ends of the two master girders could take various positions relative to one another. The whole structure was made of high-elasticity steel; its components were riveted together.

The variation of the tides was such that the floating jetties needed the capacity to lengthen or shorten. For this purpose they were fitted with telescoping sections, each consisting of twin girders whose ends were enclosed in a central unit into which they could slide. In this way each section could be lengthened by nine feet.

The installation of an artificial port required a graded shoreline, depending on its composition-i. e., whether it was primarily wet sand, pebbles, marsh etc. Roads in some cases needed to be constructed from prefabricated material shipped across the English Channel and swiftly laid by engineering crews. The road-building material was sometimes prefabricated metal mats, or perhaps of mineral or vegetable origin. In this last instance a British Valentine tank was sent forward with an enormous drum dispensing several hundred feet of coconut matting. A roadway laid down in this fashion over wet or dry sand proved excellent for wheeled and tractored vehicles.

Further amazing engines onshore also sprang from Churchill’s ‘inflammable fancy’: armoured tank bulldozers and ploughs, special fat-cannoned Churchill tanks for blasting blockhouses, other ‘Crocodile’ Churchill tanks that could squirt petrol and latex flames over a hundred yards, great machines for laying fascines across mud or barbed wire, or for thrashing their way with flailing chains clear through exploding mine fields. These devices came from Churchill’s direct encouragement and protection of a brilliant maverick, Major General Sir Percy Hobart of 79th Armoured Brigade, and were collectively known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.

The deception plan for NEPTUNE, the cross-Channel attack, was called Plan FORTITUDE, and its object was ‘to induce the enemy to make faulty dispositions in North-West Europe’. FORTITUDE NORTH aimed to keep Hitler worrying about Scandinavia, and the danger to Germany posed by an Allied attack on Norway and Denmark. Dummy wireless traffic and bogus information from double agents indicated that the (notional) British Fourth Army in Scotland, supported by American Rangers from Iceland, was going to attack Stavanger and Narvik and advance on Oslo. British deceivers also worked hard on the neutral Swedes. The commander-in-chief of the Swedish Air Force was asked for ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the event of an Allied invasion of Norway. As his office was being bugged by the pro-Nazi chief of Swedish police, this information went straight to Berlin. When Hitler read the transcript he ordered two more divisions to reinforce the ten already in Norway. Thus 30,000 more soldiers were diverted away from France.

The Sea Battles for the Dardanelles I

Fort Seddulbahr before the bombardment on 19 February 1915.

Reconstructed Turkish heavy gun site at the Dardanelles Straits before the bombardment by the British and French fleets

Turkey’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers did not bring about the strategic advantage for which Germany had hoped. Bulgaria and Romania did not join the alliance with the Central Powers and remained neutral. Thus a direct overland transportation link between these allied states was still missing and this was of decisive importance for delivering essential weapons and ammunition to Turkey. Even Romania insisted on its neutrality and no longer permitted freight from Germany to pass through its territory, which had previously been possible by paying bribes.

In mid-November 1914, based on reports from Istanbul, the Foreign Ministry emphasised in a memorandum to the German High Command that the number of mines in the Dardanelles and the army’s ammunition would hardly suffice for two battles, so that ensuring a transit route to Istanbul through Serbia became one of the most important tasks of German war planning. The document pointed out that should Turkish requirements not be fulfilled due to shortage of ammunition, then the possible negative consequence could be the mobilisation of the entire Balkans against the Central Powers. On the other hand, as a positive effect of a campaign against Serbia, and thus by keeping the Turkish army as an ally, then 700,000 Turks as well as a further 400,000 men of the Bulgarian army could be made ‘usable’ for German purposes. Towards the end of November 1914 Austro-Hungarian troops tried to defeat Serbia but during the first half of December this offensive ended in a severe rout and the Central Powers’ withdrawal from Serbia. The overland route to Turkey remained blocked.

Field Marshal von der Goltz was again posted to Istanbul in November 1914, transferred from a controversial period as military governor of Belgium. This assignment had been engineered on the initiative of Ambassador von Wangenheim, who evidently wanted to be rid of the recalcitrant General Liman von Sanders and hoped that he would be better able to exercise influence on the conciliatory old Field Marshal. When von Sanders learned of Wangenheim’s efforts to bring back von der Goltz, he tried to dissuade the head of the Military Cabinet in Berlin and stated that, in his view, his relationship with the Ambassador was not as bad as was apparently mistakenly assumed. Von Sanders received support through a letter that Lieutenant Colonel Thauvenay, a member of the Military Mission and now quartermaster at Turkish Headquarters, wrote to the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. In the letter, Thauvenay tried to excuse the conflicts between the Head of the Military Mission and the Ambassador, indicating that it was due to the General’s military integrity and straightforwardness. He considered von der Goltz was unfit to have an active role in the Turkish military, since he had already ‘sinned enough in the Turkish army’ and what was needed was ‘not a smiling advisor but a firm hand’. This entreaty was unsuccessful however, and von der Goltz arrived in Istanbul on 12 December 1914. But not even von der Goltz himself knew for what purpose he had been assigned to Turkey. He had received no clear instructions or support from either Germany or the Turks. Von der Goltz was not made subordinate to the Military Mission, had no other powers and was therefore not suitable for the German Ambassador’s intention, which was namely that he should act as a replacement for Liman von Sanders. On the contrary – in a telegram on the departure of the Field Marshal from Berlin, it was said that the posting was ‘merely an act of courtesy and has nothing to do with warfare or military operations’. This was understandably unsatisfactory for von der Goltz, who still regarded himself as the figurehead of German-Turkish cooperation and was now bitterly disappointed with his dubious status and lack of recognition:

‘Here I am only to hold a purely honorary position. Not even an adjutant was to be allocated to me. […] Any rights, powers or courses of action to gain influence have not been granted to me. I was not authorized to recruit other officers. All these rights, especially a significant monetary fund, however, were placed at General v. Liman’s disposal, were contractually guaranteed to him, and the Military Cabinet nervously ensured that I was not interfering with these rights.’

Nevertheless, at the beginning of February 1915 the Sultan gave von der Goltz the function of an advisor at the Turkish headquarters and let him take part at General Staff meetings. Although he felt like a ‘spare wheel’ in this position he nonetheless gave expert advice to the Turkish leadership and wrote assessments and reports to Berlin. Thus during these weeks von der Goltz principally viewed his task as explaining to Istanbul the war question against Serbia and in supporting the new Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, with his assessments. He saw the advantage of a military operation against Serbia as of grand strategic effect, both in Turkey and in the Balkans, and wrote to Falkenhayn:

‘If, on the other hand, we succeed in bringing the Balkan states over to our side through early success in Serbia, our prevalence over Russia would be finally settled. We have Bulgaria and as soon as we or our allies are with strong forces in Niš the rest will follow on. Then the well-equipped Turkish army of six corps, now inactive in Thrace and Constantinople, can be used.’

Von Falkenhayn was not against this line of reasoning, but had to keep his eye on all the theatres of war and thus saw no possibility of carrying out a major offensive against Serbia. Even the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, saw no chance of even a limited operation against Serbia in order to open just a single corridor as a transport route.

Meanwhile, on 3 November 1914, the Allies had launched a first attack on the entrance to the Dardanelles – apparently, however, more with the intention of probing the defence capability or damaging installations than trying to make a breakthrough. Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle reported:

On the morning of the 3rd at 7 o’clock, 10 English[sic] and French ships of the line were lying in two semicircles at the entrance of the strait, and fired at the two forts at Kumkale and Seddulbahr from a position 16,000 metres away, where no Turkish guns could reach. Out of the slight morning mist, muzzle flashes constantly light up, the forts are shrouded in smoke and dust from which continuous tongues of flame rise up. Half an hour later a tremendous white cloud of smoke appears over Seddulbahr, and stayed in the air for minutes. A [sound like] heavy thunder is heard. The ships peel off and disappear in the haze. That was the start, but a bad start. Through an incomprehensible act of carelessness by a coastal battery, many hundreds of hundredweights of old gunpowder had remained piled up in an underground storage area. This storage area was hit by a shell and the whole battery, along with 5 officers and 60 men, were blown to pieces.’

After this attack and during the following weeks it remained quiet in the Dardanelles. This afforded the Turks more time to continue their preparations for defence. An additional Turkish artillery battalion had been assigned in mid-December for the defence of Beşika Bay (just slightly north of Nagara); Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle first of all had to put this unit through some basic training:

‘Simply looking at them, my head was shaking in disbelief and even my Turkish battery commanders, who were used to many things, remained speechless at this pile of military destitution. The battalion was taken in hand and two days were needed to restore order and bearing. First, everything went to the delousing facility, which was set up in a bakery. Meanwhile officers and NCOs of the Howitzer Regiment were tasked to inspect materiel and equipment, any items deficient were noted and indents placed with the quartermaster. Fourteen days later Marshal Liman v. Sanders visited the battalion in its firing position. Chance would have it that just at the time, when we were standing in one of the batteries, a destroyer was approaching the shore. The Marshal gave the order to fire. This battery had never before fired a single live shot. I prompted the battery commander, checked the sighting and the first shot near the target caused the boat to turn off. The battery was praised and was very proud. The following day, a French cruiser appeared and gave us thanks with 60 heavy shells, which it fired – not at the battery but against a dune 200 metres away, which I had set up at night, using tree trunks as a decoy.’

Meanwhile, new calls for help went out from Istanbul to Berlin. On 30 December, Ambassador von Wangenheim announced that, with the continuing geographical isolation of Turkey, ‘the moment could be foreseen where Turkish thirst for action and will to fight may cease’. On 4 January 1915 Falkenhayn was notified about a meeting of the generals and admirals stationed in Istanbul regarding the ammunition situation in Turkey, where they concluded that even with the most economical consumption, ‘the ammunition for the army and navy would only last until mid-March’. Admiral von Usedom, who was responsible for the defence of the Dardanelles, had also stated that ‘he could vouch for the defence capability of the Dardanelles against a first attack, but that he could not give the same guarantee for a repeated attack’.

Churchill had discussed the question of opening the Dardanelles in November 1914 in the context of a new strategic offensive in southern Europe to win over the Romanians, Bulgarians and perhaps the Greeks as allies; however, this plan was not pursued due to a lack of available forces. Only at the beginning of January 1915, in response to a request from Russia, who wished to take the pressure off their Caucasus front, was further planning resumed in London. However, since the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, did not want to make troops available for the Orient Front, the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, was asked how this task could be achieved. He replied on 5 January that although he could not take the Dardanelles by a surprise rush attack, he could take them with the fleet in a large and extended operation. This statement formed the basis for the decision of the British Military Council on 28 January 1915, which recommended an attack on the Dardanelles solely as a fleet action. Preparations for this attack took several weeks. In mid-February it was believed that the plans for attack were ready. On 19 January, Russia had been informed of the intended operation; in London it was expected that with the operation to force the Dardanelles, Russia would at the same time carry out a naval attack on the Bosphorus and a landing on the Turkish Black Sea coast. This, however, was rejected by Moscow due to insufficient forces being available.

Meanwhile the Allied fleet, lying off the Dardanelles, had been considerably strengthened. In addition to the sixteen large British battleships and cruisers, four French battleships and the Russian protected cruiser Askold arrived in January, so that at least twenty-one large warships were now off the Dardanelles. At first the Allied fleet limited itself to continuous monitoring of the entrance to the Dardanelles. From mid-January 1915, there were signs that the Western powers intended an attack on the Straits. On 15 January a French submarine broke through the defensive anti-submarine net stretched across the Dardanelles. Through the courageous intervention of Navy Lieutenant Prince Reuss, who set course in a small ship towards the submarine and dropped depth charges, the submarine was forced to surface at Nagara and fired on by coastal batteries. The Austro-Hungarian Military Representative in Turkey, Field Marshal Lieutenant (Feldmarschalleutnant) Josef Pomiankowski, reported:

‘As an enemy submarine appeared shortly thereafter, it was immediately fired upon and severely damaged, leaving the commander with no choice but to surrender. The crew was captured, but the boat – it was the French submarine Saphir – was towed to Constantinople, where I had the opportunity to inspect it. Saphir belonged to a very outdated type, and was also much neglected. German naval officers told me that in the German fleet boats of this type no longer existed.’

Beginning on 2 February, individual ships began to shell the outer fortifications. On 19 February the Anglo-French fleet again shelled the outer fortifications of the Dardanelles with twelve warships. Admiral von Usedom described this in detail and thus gave an example of the leadership qualities of the German forces taking part:

‘The French used their heavy artillery, the Englishmen [sic] followed soon thereafter with their medium artillery, so that now broadside salvoes were being fired at three minute intervals against all four forts. The batteries were heavily hit; and clear hits could be made out in the fort at Seddulbahr and in the Kumkale battery. At Fort Orhanié the clouds of smoke from the explosions were right in front of the traverses. The ships came closer and closer to the forts. Apparently they believed the batteries to have been fully destroyed. This now gave Orhanié and Ertugrul the opportunity to counter-fire at 16.45 hrs. At the same time all hell broke loose, in which all the ships now seemed to take part. At intervals of 40 seconds, salvo followed salvo. At times, the forts were completely obscured by the black clouds of the explosions. Nevertheless, Orhanié and Ertugrul continued firing. Towards18.00 hrs, the enemy broke off the bombardment. The battery commander of Orhanié, Lieutenant Hans Woermann, as well as the Turkish interpreter and telephonist, who had been in the second observation station of the battery, were killed at 16.10 hrs by 2 shells of 15 cm calibre, after being forced to abandon the first observation post as a result of it being hit. Deputy Ordnance Technician Joerss, sheltering with others outside the battery, assumed the post of the dead battery commander. Since the phone line was out, he no longer had communications with the other batteries. On his own initiative, when the second enemy ship came into bearing from the left, he opened fire at a distance of 44 hm [4400 metres]. Then the Englishman immediately turned to starboard to increase the range.’

The losses caused by this attack totalled four dead, including two Germans, and nine wounded on the Turkish side. Lieutenant Colonel Kannengiesser wrote about this attack:

‘The first attack on 19 February 1915 was aimed at the outer forts of Seddulbahr and Kumkale at the entrance [of the Dardanelles], which were fired at from long range, and vanished under a dense hail of shells, smoke, dust and splinters. Aircraft directed the fire. How can 30-year old guns with quite outdated traverse and firing methods counter this? As Carden withdrew his ships when darkness falls, the loss of people and materiel is insignificant.’

The destruction was judged to be low in relation to the estimated 800 to 1000 shots fired by the Allied naval guns. At Kumkale, only a 28-cm gun had been permanently knocked out, but Fort Seddulbahr had suffered greater damage. In preparation for the breakthrough and also for landing operations, the forts at Kumkale and Seddulbahr were systematically bombarded almost every day. With field artillery support, the forward Turkish infantry managed to beat off the smaller Allied daylight landings, which were aimed at demolishing gun barrels and ammunition bunkers in the forts. On 25 February 1915 the Allied fleet made another attack on the outer forts, which were almost completely destroyed after a seven-hour bombardment.

These initial experiences of the Allied fleet and their limited visible successes led to new British operational planning. The experience during the British fleet’s 1807 Dardanelles breakthrough was also remembered, in which, after entering the Marmara Sea, fleet re-supply was disrupted by Turkish troops on either side of the Dardanelles. Therefore land forces had to be included in the planning to secure the coastal areas after the breakthrough. The basic decision was made on 16 February 1915, but it was only on 10 March that the total strength of the Expeditionary Force was finalised: four English divisions and one French division. However, the exact operational role for this force had not yet been defined. It should follow the outcome of the fleet operations, which were maintained. Thus there was still no joint or coordinated operational planning for the deployment of Allied naval and land forces.

Despite the Entente’s limited success so far, the attacks on the Dardanelles had caused great concern in Istanbul. Although Turkey had already been a Central Powers’ alliance partner for several months, deliveries of much needed supplies from Germany still could not be transported there and unrest began to grow against the background of the imminently anticipated attack on the Dardanelles. On 1 March Enver wrote to von Falkenhayn that the situation was serious, as the Allied fleet was gradually destroying fortifications and could thus force a passage through the Straits. In a second telegram of 8 March, Enver recalled the precarious situation and described the opening-up of an overland transportation route through Serbia as the ‘vital question for Turkey’.300 On 10 March, Admiral von Usedom wrote to von Falkenhayn: ‘Despite the relatively meagre success of the enemy, destruction of all the Dardanelles fortifications cannot be prevented in the long run, if the munitions and mines which have been on order for months do not arrive as soon as possible.’

The Foreign Office warned:

‘Should the Dardanelles and Constantinople fall, this would not only signify a great moral boost for the Entente, with immense repercussions for all of Islam and for Turkey’s existential endangerment, but also a revitalisation of the war effort in Russia and France, thus not only prolonging the war but also driving all the Balkan states (Bulgaria and Romania) into the arms of the Entente.’