Turrets used in the Maginot Line

There were six types of turrets used in the Maginot Line, in different sizes and styles. The turrets ranged from 1.98m in diameter for the machine-gun turret to 4m for the 75mm M1933 turret for two guns. The 135mm and 81mm housed curved fire mortars. The mixed-arms turret was a refurbished M1905 75mm gun turret left over from World War I.

In the mid-1920s the French high command appointed a new set of commissions to study the future defences of the French border in the north as well as in the Alps: the Commission de défense du territoire (CDT), Commission de défense de la frontière (CDF) and Commission d’Organisation des Régions Fortifiées (CORF). The CDF was the main decision maker. Composed of engineering and artillery experts, it met on multiple occasions to debate the nature of the fortifications to be built and to decide which types of artillery and infantry pieces to install in the forts.

The removal of 75mm guns from the flanking casemates at Verdun led to the diminished functionality of the forts. It became a policy of the CDF and later the CORF (tasked with implementing the ideas of the CDF) to create casemate and turret pieces that could not be used outside of the forts. Thus, the piece and the envelope in which it was placed were to be indivisible. This included both the gun barrel and the carriage. The new forts were designed to ensure flanking of the intervals with casemate guns; long-range, short-barrelled cannons in retractable turrets for frontal action; and heavy, medium-range mortars to hit areas hidden from direct fire. The forts would keep infantry troops and sappers at bay with mortars, machine guns and automatic rifles.

The 75mm M1897 cannon was selected as the basic cannon-howitzer for flanking protection. A shortened version of the gun (with the barrel cut to 30cm in length) was selected for installation in the 75mm M1933 turret. It was modified to fit a new carriage, affixed with a hydraulic brake mechanism to give it a shorter recoil in the enclosed space, and a ball joint on the end of the barrel to fit snugly in the embrasure. To cover the ground that could not be reached by the longer-range cannon-howitzer, the French also developed the 75R32 gun turret, a mortar with an even shorter barrel. Finally, the 135mm M1932 Lance-Bombe heavy mortar had no precedent in French artillery history. The CDF proposed the concept of a bomb launcher, like a trench mortar, in a retractable turret to defend a space 3,000m to 4,000m from the approaches to the fort.

In general, the armoured turrets of the Maginot Line were built along the same principles as the earlier models. The guns were protected by a thick steel cap within steel walls. This cylinder, called the gun compartment, rested on a pivoting tube that was connected at its base to a balancing arm and a counterweight. The turret was built to function by electric power but it was equipped with a backup manual system. The shells were stored adjacent to the turret and lifted up to the gun compartment in an electrically operated lift. Spent shells dropped out of the gun breech into a chute that fed them to the lower floor of the bloc where they were recovered and re-used. Each turret was positioned in a concrete well and protected by a thick layer of reinforced concrete. The turret blocs were located on the surface and connected by staircase or elevator/staircase combination to the lower level of the underground fortress, the ouvrage. The turret blocs functioned efficiently with a highly trained crew to operate the guns, which were swift to fire and highly accurate.

Maginot Line 1940

In at least one regard, the Maginot Line proved to be an unqualified strategic success. The French created it with several major objectives in mind, such as channeling the Wehrmacht’s initial thrust into Belgium, thus keeping initial fighting off French soil. The Line achieved this goal, though the French lacked the mobile armored forces necessary to exploit it and deal a knockout blow to the German advance.

The German high command, or OKW, recognized France as the next target after Poland. Overrun in 1939 by Nazi attacks from the west and Soviet incursions from the east, Poland furnished an excellent proving ground for Blitzkrieg tactics. The fighting there also highlighted the weakness of certain German weapons systems such as the Panzer I and II tanks. Production therefore shifted to more effective Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs.

The invasion of Poland prompted Britain and France to declare war on Germany, starting World War II. Neither nation figured out to do next, however, leaving Hitler with the initiative. Conquering France and using that conquest as a springboard to either coerce the British into backing out of the war (Hitler’s preferred solution, as he hoped for an alliance with the English) or to invade the “Sceptered Isle” followed as the logical next step in the struggle.

The OKW initially believed no invasion of France could hope to succeed prior to 1942. However, a much accelerated timetable proved possible with the power of modern transport and paratrooper action to launch a swift, successful offensive, the kind of campaign seen in the Germans’ lightning conquests of Denmark and Norway.

As the French predicted, the Germans entered Holland and Belgium first on May 10, 1940, with the intention of both outflanking the Maginot Line and drawing its defending forces away to the north. A French army under Henri Giraud moved to the support of the Netherlands, but the Wehrmacht’s “new style” of warfare prevented him from his intended goal of linking up with the main Dutch military force. The Germans used paratroopers – the elite Fallschirmjagers – to drive a wedge deep behind enemy lines, preventing the French and Dutch from linking up, and the Dutch army’s main concentration fell back northward while Giraud’s French forces withdrew to the south. When German bombing set fire to Rotterdam, Holland surrendered on May 14, 1940, after which the Germans sent fire engines to assist in halting the blaze.

The Wehrmacht also struck more rapidly than its enemies anticipated in Belgium. Glider-borne troops seized the main Belgian fortress in a few hours on May 11th, and Fallschirmjager took key river bridges, once again exerting powerful control over the battlefield and cutting off much of the Allies’ potential for tactical and strategic maneuver. French General Georges Blanchard led the First Army forward nevertheless, and in two tank battles, he managed to halt the Germans temporarily, but events elsewhere proved the undoing of the French defense.

Rather than throw the main weight of their attack either into Belgium – where they knew the French awaited them – or against the powerful Maginot Line, the Wehrmacht sent a deadly thrust through the Ardennes Forest instead. The French judged the Ardennes to be largely impassible for tanks, which it had been during World War I, but the advanced tanks of the late 1930s negotiated the forested and soft terrain with little difficulty. The French left the Ardennes as a leafy gap in their national “armor,” a narrow but crucial weak point between the Maginot Line and the armies supporting Belgium.

While the French concentrated their attention on Belgium, 1,222 tanks, 400 other vehicles, and 134,000 men under the famous Panzer General Heinz Guderian rolled steadily forward down the labyrinthine roads of the Ardennes. Arriving at the River Meuse at Sedan on May 13th, the Germans immediately attacked across the river. The stunned French defenders, manning small, isolated bunkers rather than massive ouvrages, found themselves under a torrent of fire and steel delivered from the sky by 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, including the dreaded Stuka dive-bombers, while the German engineers forced a crossing. Small parties of Wehrmacht soldiers crossed immediately in rubber boats to knock out the bunkers, as recounted by one Staff Sergeant Rubarth, soon to be a recipient of the Iron Cross for his actions in taking no less than seven of these structures: “I land with my rubber boat near a strong, small bunker, and together with Lance               Corporal Podszus put it out of action. … We seize the next bunker from the rear. I fire an explosive charge. In a moment the force of the detonation tears off the rear part of the bunker. We use the opportunity and attack the occupants with hand               grenades. After a short fight, a white flag appears. … Encouraged by this, we fling ourselves against two additional small bunkers.” (Jackson, 2004, 44-45).

The French failed to counterattack this penetration successfully, and within 48 hours, German armored units had plunged deep into French territory to the west. Many French divisions in the area, made up of second-rate units comprised of reserve troops and pensioners, panicked and fled without firing a shot.

The French formed a defensive line deeper in the countryside under General Maxime Weygand. Here, the French gave a better account of themselves, fighting with immense courage despite their lack of hope until the concentrated attacks of well-equipped and highly aggressive Wehrmacht infantry, deep penetration by Panzer attacks, and the relentless dive-bombing of the Luftwaffe compelled them to fall back. “The words of a German soldier provide an apposite summary of events after 5 June when the French Army was fighting against odds of three to one on the Weygand Line: ‘In the ruins of the villages, the French resisted to the last man … Here, on the Aisne, the French regiments were determined to defend every last route to the heart of France, in a battle that would decide the fate of their country. The poilu had done his duty.” (Sumner, 1998, 4).

After everything that had gone into building it, the Maginot Line proper only saw action following these opening disasters. With the British in full retreat from Dunkirk and the Panzers pushing towards Paris, the Germans felt secure enough to attempt reduction of the Maginot Line on their flank. The first encounter with the Maginot Line involved four petit ouvrages on the extreme western end of the fortifications, known as the “Maginot Line Extension.” The Germans attacked the westernmost of these from May 17-18 after a preliminary bombardment that annihilated the ouvrage’s antitank defenses and barbed wire entanglements. A small, relatively weak position armed only with 25mm cannons and machine guns, “La Ferte” still resisted as vigorously as possible. German combat engineers used explosive charges and 88mm guns to blow open a number of the ouvrage’s turrets, after which they dropped charges inside. Return fire ceased late on May 18, and when the Germans cautiously entered the ouvrage on the morning of May 19, they found the approximately 100 defenders dead but mostly unwounded; they had apparently asphyxiated when the ouvrage’s ventilation system failed. Their commander, Lieutenant Bourguignon, asked his superiors repeatedly via radio for permission to evacuate due to uncontrolled fires in the fortification, but the French command refused to listen to him and the French soldiers slipped into their final sleep during the night.

Following this appalling failure, the French sector commanders, not wishing to vainly sacrifice more men, ordered the other three ouvrages of the Maginot Line extension evacuated, but events overtook the French defenders before they could carry these orders out.

The initial German thrust bypassed the city of Maubeuge and its defenses, but the OKW tasked following units with seizing the city in late May, despite the French emplacements defending it. The Maginot defenses in the area consisted of four ouvrages, named Bersillies, Sarts, La Salmagne, and Boussois, interspersed with 7 interval casemates, 13 casemates forming a 6-mile line in the Mormal Forest, and various small blockhouses. The French 101st Division of Fortress Infantry manned these positions, supported by 120mm and 155mm artillery batteries.

The 5th Panzer Division and the 8th and 28th Infantry Divisions of the German Army advanced to seize these defenses on May 18, and though heavily outgunned, the French defenders fought valiantly, pinning the German forces in place for four days before the Wehrmacht finally overcame them. “Boussois was the first to come under fire on 18 May. Although its 25-mm guns were no match for German 150-mm cannons and deadly 88-mm Flak, the little fort resisted gamely. On 20 May, […] The mixed arms turret of Block 2 at Boussois suffered some damage and was unable to retract, but it was repaired in the dead of               night. On 21 May, the powerful interval casemate of Heronfontaine repelled a German assault with its mixed-arms turret.” (Kaufmann, 2006, 162).

The Germans pounded the French positions with powerful mortars, including 210mm mortars, and repeated Stuka dive-bomber attacks, but the cement and steel resisted these strikes and the French fought on. The Germans finally reduced the casemates by attacking them from their blind side and using 88mm guns point blank. This damaged the ventilation systems sufficiently so that the French surrendered to avoid death by asphyxiation.

Meanwhile, the four petit ouvrages proved tougher nuts to crack. The Germans eventually forced their evacuation or surrender by use of demolition charges, 88mm gun fire directed point-blank at firing embrasures, and flamethrowers. The Wehrmacht troops found it necessary to lay down enormous smoke-screens so that they could approach the emplacements across open ground to lay charges.

On May 22nd, the Germans attempted the reduction of Fort Boussois. Their first dawn attack came to grief when their supporting artillery fire fell short and killed or wounded large numbers of attacking troops, forcing them to fall back. Later in the morning, a massive artillery bombardment forced the French to retract their eclipsing turrets into their wells, reducing defensive fire enough for German combat engineers to climb on top of the ouvrage. Locating the ventilation system conduits, the Germans dropped explosive charges in, knocking out the air purification systems. Faced with a slow but inevitable death by asphyxiation, the gallant French defenders surrendered at noon.

That afternoon, the ouvrage La Salmagne also fell. Smoke rounds enabled German combat engineers to climb atop it. These men used axes to destroy many of the machine guns protruding from firing embrasures and began their search for the ventilation shafts. The French, knowing the game was up, surrendered before their ventilation failed. The French evacuated their last positions on May 23rd, but the Maubeuge fight had demonstrated the toughness of even petit ouvrages and casemates against the era’s heaviest weapons.

The slow, piecemeal reduction of the Maginot Line continued, though the Germans focused most of their efforts elsewhere for a time. The Wehrmacht took a few casemates here and a petit ouvrage there, but they were mostly content to leave the line be for a time. This changed on June 14 when the Wehrmacht launched Operation Tiger against the Sarre Gap. This relatively weakly defended section of the Maginot Line lay between the two massively fortified, modern sections of the line guarding the frontier from Switzerland to the Ardennes. This southward offensive planned to pierce the Gap, defended only by blockhouses and dikes rather than a continuous line of ouvrages, with 11 infantry divisions against 5 French regiments, plus Luftwaffe air support and a colossal supporting force of 1,000 artillery pieces.

The Germans commenced their attack with vast artillery bombardments, followed by large infantry and vehicle attacks. However, the French defenders of the Sarre Gap fought back ferociously. The blockhouses, despite their small size, made good use of interlocking fields of fire to mow down the German attackers. The French also opened the gates to prepared “flood zones,” filling whole areas of the front with river water and thus further impeding the German advance. Pre-sighted French artillery pounded the Wehrmacht with lethally accurate shelling.

The German commander, von Witzleben, almost called a full retreat at nightfall on June 14, as the French had repulsed most of his attacks with heavy losses and the few gains appeared tactically insignificant. However, a German patrol in the Kalmerich Forest captured a French courier bearing a retreat order, which convinced Witzleben to order another attack the following morning. The French, falling back under cover of darkness, found themselves overtaken by a fresh German offensive the following morning. Once again, the French soldiers halted the immensely superior numbers of the Germans by using the defensive positions further from the border as a force multiplier. On the night of the 15th, however, they withdrew rapidly, enabling an unopposed German breakthrough in the Sarre Gap on June 16th. At this point, the Germans had broken the Maginot Line’s remaining defenses in two.

Despite the breakthrough in the Sarre Gap, the Metz and Lauter halves of the Maginot Line remained unconquered. Massively fortified and heavily armed, the fortress system readily survived the loss of the Sarre section at its center and continued to hamper German troop deployments across the border.

The Germans launched Operation Little Bear, a Rhine crossing at another weak point in the Maginot Line, on June 15th. 400 pieces of artillery destroyed many small casemates and bunkers outright, but the ouvrages proved immune, as usual, to both artillery fire and Stuka dive-bombing. By June 16th, the French retreated from their riverbank positions, but they did so only to occupy even tougher positions in the Vosges Mountains, limiting the effect of Little Bear and leaving the Maginot Line still essentially intact and combat-ready. This situation did not change until after the armistice on June 25th, 1940.

Nothing highlights the fact that the Maginot Line could have proved decisive if better supported and used as a base for aggressive counterattacks based on flexible, largely independent commands than the reality that its defenders were the last French soldiers to surrender. “[W]hen the armistice took effect, the main fortifications of the Maginot Line were still intact and capable of continuing the fight. Although active combat had ended,              several fortress commanders refused to admit defeat. Remaining defiant, they surrendered only after being ordered by Gén. Georges, and then only under protest. In early July, a week after the rest of the French Army laid down arms, the last fortress was handed over by its crew to the Wehrmacht.” (Romanych, 2010, 90).

Ironically, the fortress system whose name has become a synonym for a fear-inspired defensive strategy actually stood as the last defiant bastion of France during the Nazi conquest of 1940. Though this defiance remained largely symbolic, the final spark of French fighting spirit kindled for a moment in the Maginot Line.


Battery Lindemann

View of one of the 406mm naval guns while being installed at Battery Lindemann. The gun had a range of between 29 and 34 miles.


Photos from propaganda magazines showing Battery Lindemann under construction and completed.

Perspective view of Battery Lindemann.

Although the navy had its own construction units, this project was too large for them to handle. The OT had to deploy about 9,000 men to prepare positions for all the batteries in the Pas de Calais. Most of the batteries required for Operation Sealion initially occupied temporary firing positions until the concrete fortifications were ready to receive them.

Although the Kriegsmarine planned to position additional 380mm gun batteries along the Baltic after the summer of 1940, it gave the French coast higher priority in preparation for Operation Sealion. The new interest in the Baltic stemmed from the Soviet Union’s occupation of the three Baltic States in the summer of 1940, which gave the Red Fleet new bases outside the Gulf of Finland. The naval staff drew up plans for two batteries of 380mm guns, one to be sited on the Danish island of Bornholm and the other on the German coast near Kolberg to bar the Soviet fleet from the western end of the Baltic. Work began in November 1940 but had come to a stop by April 1941 as the site of the southern battery at Bornholm neared completion. The navy decided against emplacing any of the guns there and moved them to Hanstholm in Denmark, where work had also started back in November. The machinery and equipment went to Kristiansand in Norway, where another 380mm battery under construction was to join with Hanstholm to close the Skagerrak Straits. The largest guns were the 406mm (16-inch) pieces of Battery Schleswig-Holstein that the navy had installed at Hela on the Hel Peninsula in November 1940 to cover the approaches to Danzig. These were the ‘Adolph’ guns, intended for the 56,000-ton H-Class battleships. Organization Todt began the work late in 1940 and the site was ready for occupation by April 1941. The first gun’s test-firing took place in May, followed by the other two guns in June and October. The position included two munitions bunkers, a 23-metre-high fire-control position towering above the forest, and three large concrete emplacements for the turreted guns.

Not long after the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the Kriegsmarine bottled up the Red Fleet at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, reducing the need for the heavy battery positions in the Baltic. In September 1941 the naval high command (OKM) determined that Battery Schleswig-Holstein would be better employed in France, and by December the guns had been dis mantled and made ready for shipment to the West. The gun crews and other personnel did not leave Hela until April 1942, by which time the guns were already in France. The OT had begun the construction of the battery position in December 1941. The initial designation was Battery Grossdeutschland, but later in 1942 it was renamed Battery Lindemann in honour of Captain Ernst Lindemann, who went down with the Bismarck on 27 May 1941.

Construction for Battery Lindemann had to wait until the arrival of the guns from Hela in early 1942, since the casemates had to be built over the guns. These guns first fired in the summer of 1942.

Construction of a Battery Position

The construction time for a battery with concrete emplacements varied according to the size and type of gun position. A simple concrete platform that allowed the artillery piece to rotate from its fixed position took the least time to pour and cure and constituted the first construction step for a battery position. At this early stage the position also included concrete storage chambers for ammunition. This first stage took a relatively short time to complete. A gun casemate for an artillery piece with or without a shield or turret required much more time to put together. The casemates for the super-heavy artillery had to be built around the guns, which took even longer than for most gun positions. A large artillery piece to be emplaced on a large concrete bunker-like position with a turret or shield for protection took about the same length of time since the structure’s concrete roof had to be poured and cured sufficiently before the installation of the gun. A large gantry crane had to be brought to the site to emplace the guns and their turret before the construction of the casemate walls and roof.

Battery Lindemann, the largest in the Pas des Calais, is a good example. Work on its foundations began at the end of 1941, well before the first guns arrived. Once the guns were emplaced, work continued through 1942. The last gun positions were not ready until late spring 1942 and the first test-firings did not take place until June and July.

It took from six months to a year to get most of these batteries operational. Besides the firing positions, munitions bunkers, crew shelters and fire-control posts, other positions also had to be built to serve the battery.

The battery was operational by June 1942 and formally inaugurated in September. It consisted of three 406mm cannon each mounted in a turret within its own casemate. The walls of the upper level of the casemate were built around the gun turret. Each of these Regelbau S-262 gun casemates, identified as Anton, Bruno and Caesar, were large enough to contain quarters and facilities for the garrison, as well as munitions storage. Separate chambers in the magazine at the lower level held 600 rounds, powder charges and fuses. There was also a heating and air- conditioning room, an engine room and a filter room. The intermediate level and the upper level housed quarters for the garrison, the NCOs and officers, with showers, toilets and other facilities. A guard post covered the men’s entrance and on the opposite side another, larger entrance with a guardroom allowed access to munitions and supplies. At the end of the entrance an overhead monorail system carried shells to a hatch and lowered them to the magazine level. The roofs were thick enough to resist 380mm shells. The overall dimensions of the casemates were approximately 50 x 47 metres

In 1943 the OT completed ammunition magazines large enough for trucks to enter, as well as a hospital bunker. Wire obstacles and sentry posts surrounded the battery site. In addition, the battery was defended by 20mm Oerlikon and 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns captured from the British, two 75mm guns, several 25mm and 50mm anti-tank guns, a few mortars and several heavy machine-guns mounted in Tobruks. The thirty Tobruks were Bauform/Regelbau-58c intended for machine-guns. An additional Tobruk mounted one of the two 50mm anti-tank guns. Near the main gate leading to the town of Sangatte there was a Regelbau-655, a troop shelter with one chamber for six men, one for ammunition and an attached Tobruk. This bunker measured 10 x 10 metres. The battery formed a strongpoint manned by naval troops, but many of the bunkers were army designs. At the main gate there were two pre-fabricated concrete one-man sentry posts.

A large, two-level fire-direction S-100 Leitständ (fire-control) bunker served as the eyes of the battery guns. The OT built only four additional bunkers of this type in Norway and Denmark for the super-heavy 406mm gun batteries and for two other batteries. The Leitständ bunker housed an office for the battery commander and the bunker commandant. A rotating steel cupola mounted a 10-metre stereoscopic range-finder near the front of the block. In front of it was an observation cloche. A telephone and a radio room for receiving and relaying instructions were in this forward section, below the cloche and range-finder cupola. The operators in these rooms also received information from other observation positions. Behind these rooms there was a large computations room where about a dozen men tabulated the information and used plotting boards and charts to make the calculations for the firing orders that were sent to the gun casemates. Beyond this large room, near the entrance, were chambers for officers, NCOs and enlisted men. A ventilation room and an engine room to power the bunker and its equipment were located at the end of the bunker on either side of the entrance and gas lock. The lower level included quarters for the enlisted men with showers, toilets and a heating room. This large bunker measured 28.6 x 20.6 metres. Except for the positions on the roof, earth covered the exposed surfaces. The entrance at the rear was accessed from ground level by an incline.

One of the key instruments for locating targets was mounted on the roof of the S-100 bunker. This was the See-Riese FuMO 214 radar known as the Giant Würzburg (Würzburg-Riese) by the Allies. The Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine both used this type of radar. The one at Battery Lindemann was a naval version. The radar, like the cupola for the range-finder, stood above ground level, since this was the only way it could function properly.

The entire battery site occupied a position 500 to almost 1500 metres behind the coastal cliffs that rose over 20 metres above the beach. The coastal road ran between the cliffs and the battery position, which began on a small rise. Here stands the S-100 fire-control bunker with a view of the sea. The ground drops slightly behind this bunker for a few hundred metres and then begins to rise. This is where the three gun casemates were built. The ground rises behind the gun casemates, forming an escarpment. The small rise in front of the gun casemates and the escarpment behind them hides the bunkers from sight from the sea. Anti-aircraft guns and their facilities were located at the top of the escarpment.

The S-100 fire-control bunker was forward of the gun positions on a rise in the terrain that leads down to the sea cliffs across from the main coastal road. The battery and all its associated positions were surrounded by obstacles that included an anti-tank ditch and a wall along a few sections. The outer perimeter consisted of about 700 ‘Belgian Gates’ that were once part of a continuous anti-tank barrier south of Brussels extending towards the Meuse between Namur and Liege in 1939-1940. Barbed wire and minefields extended beyond the perimeter. Some minefields were actually inside the perimeter. An electrified wire fence surrounded each of the three gun casemates.

he battery complex also included a medical bunker, H-118, identified as the hospital. This bunker, measuring 22.2 x 12.8 metres, was smaller than the fire-control bunker but was large enough to house a couple of wards for patients, an operating room, a storage room and the quarters of the medical officer and his staff. Near this bunker stood the huts for the garrison, and a little further to the west were the two large ammunition bunkers. These two bunkers measured about 20 x 20 metres and were built into the terrain. Only the tunnel-like openings that ran in front of each bunker and the outer wall were exposed. On the south side of the position, near or at the top of the escarpment, two areas on either side of the anti-aircraft positions were encircled with double apron barbed wire obstacles. One of these areas included troop accommodation and entrances to a tunnel system that was never completed. The other area included two observation bunkers to assist in fire-control. Battery Lindemann and its associated close-combat defensive positions formed a strongpoint (StP) known as StP Neuss. Strongpoints like this or for smaller batteries often included covered brick-lined trenches that allowed the troops to move relatively safely from one point to another. This strongpoint was so heavily bombarded that it was difficult to determine if there had actually been covered trenches on the site. Other obstacles included steel hedgehogs, anti-tank ditches, etc. An anti-tank ditch ran along much of the east side, outside the perimeter made of Belgian Gates, and was backed by a concrete anti-tank wall up to 4 metres high. The medical bunker, the fire-control bunker and the three gun casemates were linked to a water line with a pumping station located between the gun casemates and the fire-control bunker.

Some features that show up on plans of Battery Lindemann but are often ignored are the hydrants. High-pressure water hydrants were distributed at various points at the large gun battery positions –and even the U-boat bunker complexes – for fire-fighting because fire extinguishers in the fortifications had limited capabilities. At complexes like Lindemann, special features like the hydrants, air-conditioning systems for cartridge rooms and power generating systems were necessary to operate the equipment effectively.

The other heavy battery positions were not much different from Battery Lindemann and were usually part of an StP. The engineers and artillerymen had laid out the batteries to meet the needs of the weapons available to them. As a result, except for the types of structure needed, no two batteries were identical. At Battery Lindemann and Battery Todt the large naval cannon were mounted in armoured turret types designated as Bettungsschiessgerüst C/39, but at Battery Grosser Kurfürst the 280mm gun was found in a single gun turret mounted on a large S-412 bunker. Like the Lindemann and Todt casemates, this bunker included all the facilities needed for munitions, the machinery and the crew. Batteries Fjell and Oerlandet in Norway were even more impressive than the ones in France. Their 280mm triple-gun turrets from the battlecruiser Gneisenau were mounted on an emplacement with a concreted shaft that connected to the magazines and a tunnel system below it. The shaft of Battery Fjell below the turret was 17 metres deep and consisted of six levels that were used for loading the weapon. Battery Vara at Kristiansand, Norway, had 380mm guns mounted in a turret on an emplacement that was part of a complex of four large single-level gun bunkers somewhat similar to the 305mm guns of Battery Mirus on the Channel Islands. The S-169 gun emplacement was actually adjacent to the bunker facilities and not on top of the bunker as at Battery Grosser Kurfürst. Since there was nothing below the gun position, this type was considered an open emplacement. One of these S-169 gun bunkers – only four of which were actually built – included a casemate over the gun turret.

Csókakő Castle

Csókakő Castle – an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages (Credit: Ferenc Tamas)

Towering above its surroundings, a fortress perched high above a village has a timeless appeal. It is a magnet to the eyes, allowing the imagination to wander back in time to the Middle Ages when chivalry and honor were seemingly all that mattered. It is as though warriors are still perched on the heights above, behind formidable walls, ready to defend to the death their lonely outpost. For the enemy, these same walls would have looked impregnable. They offered an almost insurmountable obstacle, but that was nothing compared to the topography. Sloping, precipitate hillsides were as much a part of an elevated castle as were its stone walls. By the time a besieging army attempted to scale nature’s heights, they would have despaired at the near impossible task of confronting the thick, stone walls ahead and above them.

Located in the Transdanubian region of western Hungary, high above an 1,100 person strong village bearing the same name, the medieval castle of Csókakő has stood the test of time. Its location bears as much responsibility for its security as the stone walls. The castle was constructed several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape on a rocky plateau that is part of the Vertes Mountains. The hillsides were nearly vertical on three sides of the castle’s strategic location. The lone approach was from the western side, but a defensive ditch guarded that direction. Natural geological processes that unfolded over millennia created this piece of highly defensible terrain. It is little wonder that the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages chose such a strategic setting to safe guard their existence.

The Ottoman victory at the battle of Mohacs, 1526, not only decided the fate of Hungary but also drastically transformed the battle environment and face of the combat in the western theater. After Mohacs, the Habsburgs, who had replaced the Hungarians as the Ottoman’s principal adversary, launched a large construction campaign of renovating old fortresses and building new ones based on the latest Italian designs. This was congruent with contemporary Western European experiences and pitched battles, and short decisive wars became very rare, whereas long wars of sieges and reliefs became the norm. Süleyman conducted seven large campaigns against Hungary between 1529 and 1566. Although the borders of the empire moved further west, none of the campaigns achieved the decisive victory that would have led to the stability and security the Ottomans required. This inconclusive state of events-in which fortresses changed hands, new ones were built, and the personnel strength of fortress garrisons ever increased – continued to dominate the Ottoman northwestern frontier until the end of the seventeenth century.

Because of the formidable terrain, Csókakő castle was a mighty symbol. Constructed in the late 13th century, it became one of the main political centers for Fejér County, second only to the royal coronation site at nearby Szekesfehervar. The castle was a critical part of a series of fortifications built to guard the road between the cities of Gyor and Komarom. Despite Csókakő castle’s supposedly impregnable location it fell to the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. This was just the beginning of a chaotic period in the castle’s history. It was the scene of numerous battles over the next 140 odd years as it changed hands multiple times. For instance, in a battle that took place in the autumn of 1601, Hungarian forces under the command of Archduke Matthias emerged victorious. Less than a year later they had lost the castle. It was not until 1687 that the fortress was cleared of all Turkish forces. At this point the region was devoid of population and the castle began an afterlife as a ruin. After resettlement of the area the Austrian Habsburg’s had little interest in rebuilding the castle. They did not want to give any possibly rebellious Hungarian subjects a fortification that one day might be captured and used against them.

The County of Fejér – coat of arms

The coat of arms is a standing, triangular shield with a blue background.

An irregular green hill can be seen at the bottom of the shield and a castle stands on it. It is built of silver bricks. A spired bastion rises on either side of the castle. A drawn-up portcullis opens in the middle of the castle wall. In the middle a red topped tower rises above the castle wall. Two smaller triangular shields are put on the upper part of the shield. A gold bunch of grapes can be seen on the left shield. A gold vine leaf is joined to the bunch of grapes from the right. A gold handled, silver bladed knife can be seen to the left of the bunch of grapes. A silver stylized bird (a daw) can be seen on a gold twig on the left shield.

A stylized castle can be seen on the coat of arms which symbolizes the castle of Csókakő. The castle is divided into an older, upper castle and a later built lower castle in reality. Heraldry prohibits the representation of the space that is why only a civil-living quarters’ tower – which rises above the castle wall – symbolizes the upper castle.

On the right-hand side of the coat of arms the so-called – floating coat of arms – represents a stylized, silver daw. The castle and the village got its name after that daw.

On the right-hand side there is also the another coat of arms agrees with the original seal mark of the village or the rubber-soled seal mark from 1903. All in all it can be said that the coat of arms of Csókakő is a so-called information coat of arms since it tells us the name, the history and the geographical position of Csókakő.

Ancient Egyptian Fortresses


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The fortress of Mirgissa

Egyptian Fortresses

Egypt’s Largest Ancient Fortress Unearthed

From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th Army (General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz)

—opposite the Magnuszew and Pulawy bridgeheads

4th Panzer Army (General Fritz-Hubert Gräser)

—opposite the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead

17th Army (General Friedrich Schulz)

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

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

(both under the command of General Gotthard Heinrici)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dutch Attempt to Seize Portuguese Macau

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

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

The First Fortifications

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

Dr. Francisco de Sande reported in 1582 that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1622 Attack by the Dutch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Army of Stephen The Great

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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