The Hejaz Railway

Railroads came late to the Middle East. By the end of the 19th century, there were just a few lines operating in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Their military and political value had been recognized by far-sighted rulers, however, and this was the catalyst for the construction of a railway deep in the desert of the Hejaz region of what is now Saudi Arabia—a line that would be made famous in the West by Lawrence of Arabia.

As with many pioneering railroads, the idea for its construction was mooted long before work commenced. German-American civil engineer Charles Zimpel proposed a line from Damascus to the Red Sea in 1864, and numerous similar lines were also suggested in the last third of the 19th century. However, it was the proposal in 1897 by Muhammad Insha Allah, an Indian Muslim teacher and journalist, that attracted the attention of the Sultan of the Empire, Abdulhamid II.

Abdulhamid was the conservative leader of the failing Ottoman Empire, ruling from Constantinople (now Istanbul). Soon after his accession, in 1876, the empire had lost two fifths of its territory, including European holdings such as Bulgaria and Greece, effectively ending Ottoman influence in Europe. Following this loss, the Sultan resolved to strengthen his hold over the remaining Asian part of the empire, which included the Arabian Peninsula. The political influence of the empire was waning, but Abdulhamid hoped to reinforce its religious significance. The proposed railroad offered an opportunity to consolidate his own position as Caliph, leader of all Muslims: the new line would ensure a fast, cheap way for pilgrims to travel to Mecca. Funding for the railroad was obtained largely through Muslim support due to its religious significance.

Work started on the 4ft 1111⁄16in- (1,500mm-) gauge railroad in late 1900 under the auspices of a German engineer, Heinrich Meissner, who drove the project for eight years. Initially, it was beset by problems and progress was slow. The original surveys were unsatisfactory and had to be redone. The laborers, mostly conscripts, worked in appalling conditions—poor treatment that resulted in a mutiny. Recognizing the lack of progress, the Sultan took a softer approach and Meissner began to impose a more acceptable regime, attracting experienced foreign workers from Belgium, France, and Germany in particular. In the later stages, however, Christians were not allowed to work on the southern end of the railroad because of religious sensibilities, but by then trained Turkish Muslim engineers were available.

Three teams were created: for reconnoitring, surveying, and construction. The reconnoitring team, which made a preliminary assessment of the route, experienced the most difficulties: they went into the desert mounted on camels and horses, venturing into unmapped land and facing hostile tribes, and so were accompanied by a cavalry detachment. The second team, the surveyors, used the maps created by the reconnoitring group to set out a detailed route for the construction gangs to follow. Construction was carried out by a special railroad battalion with four divisions, each one focused on a particular task: the advance party marked out a trace for the track and prepared the earthworks; the second division put down the ballast; the ties were laid by the third group; and the rails were laid in by the fourth.

Such a disciplined and organized process allowed rapid progress despite the difficulties of the terrain and other obstacles. It was not just the heat, which could reach 122ºF (50°C) in the middle of the day (matched by cold nights in winter), or the remoteness of the land, but the sheer scale of the operation: 1,000 miles (1,600km) of track had to be laid to reach the original target—the holy city of Islam, Mecca.

The scarcity of water was the worst problem faced by the builders of the line, which followed old pilgrimage trails. These had occasional wells and pools where rainwater collected, but, for the most part, the vital liquid was stored in cisterns installed along the line and replenished by tank cars transported down the newly constructed railroad. While lack of water was a perennial problem, ironically flash floods washed away parts of the line in the rainy season. To limit such damage, many sections of the railroad were built on embankments.

Sand drifts across the tracks were another obstacle. When construction reached the desert of the southern Arabian Peninsula, there was little vegetation to prevent sand being driven onto the railroad by the wind, and it was therefore necessary for the line to be protected by sandbanks made of stone and clay.

The greatest irony was the shortage of fuel. Coal mined in Turkey proved too smoky, and so fuel was imported from Wales at great expense, then mixed with the local coal. Since steam locomotives can run on oil, the solution was in fact near at hand. As James Nicholson, author of the line’s history, puts it, “In view of the fact that the Ottomans at that time also controlled the Eastern Province of what is now Saudi Arabia, they would have been surprised to discover just how easily all their fuel needs could have been met by what lay beneath the sands.”

The workers, who numbered 7,000 at the peak of construction, lived in small tents that had to be moved forward constantly as the line progressed. Laborers lived on a diet of bread, cookies, or rice with only occasional additions of meat. There were no fresh vegetables or fruit, so vitamin deficiency diseases, such as scurvy, were common. Cholera outbreaks were not unusual and caused widespread panic, with workers fleeing the camps, which delayed progress.

As the railroad approached Medina, plans were still in place to extend the line to Mecca. However, opposition to what was called “the iron donkey” was strong among the local tribes, who did not want to see it reach Mecca. Their objections were not solely stimulated by religion: many local tribesmen made their living from operating the camel caravans for pilgrims. This resistance culminated in a revolt in January 1908, when Abdulhamid’s political position was already weak. As a result the planned extension of the line to Mecca was scrapped. Instead, Medina, the second holiest city in Islam, became its terminus.

The last stretch of track from Al-‘Ula to Medina was the most difficult to lay in terms of the terrain, but work speeded up with the arrival of extra workers. The rapid conclusion of the project was partly to ensure that the line’s opening coincided with the anniversary of the Sultan’s accession to the throne on September 1, 1908. The deadline was met and there were celebrations in Medina, but the Sultan did not attend: his popularity was by this time so low that he feared his absence from Constantinople might result in a coup.

Despite the Sultan’s mounting political difficulties, the Hejaz Railway enjoyed eight years of normal operations, carrying many thousands of pilgrims to and from Medina. However, the line’s fate was always bound up with regional and, indeed, global political considerations, and World War I was to turn the railroad into a battleground.

The Ottoman Empire entered the war in 1914 on the side of the Germans. The British were keen to ensure that the Turks did not launch attacks elsewhere, and so encouraged the Arabs in the Peninsula to rise against them. The Hejaz Railway was an obvious target and in June 1916 the tribes began attacking the line. However, the Arabs needed explosives and better equipment, and that is where T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—entered the fray. Despite ranking only as captain and holding a desk job in Cairo, he persuaded his superiors to send him across the Suez Canal to support the uprising led by Prince Feisal, one of the sons of Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca.

Feisal’s irregular troops had already launched several successful attacks on the line when Lawrence joined them in early 1917. He led several more raids, both attacking trains and sabotaging the track. The strategy, an early use of guerrilla tactics, was not to close the line, but rather to tie up Turkish troops in its protection. Very few of Lawrence’s troops were killed in these raids—depicted so powerfully in the David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia—but thousands of Turks lost their lives and the strategy proved successful. Gradually, Lawrence and Feisal worked their way up the line and gained control of the railroad as the Turks fled north. This meant that Medina, and the Turkish troops defending it, were cut off from the rest of the Ottoman forces.

Lawrence and Feisal eventually joined up with the British forces under General Allenby for a final assault on Damascus. Feisal’s army, which included Lawrence, was given the task of cutting off the junction that led from the Syrian city of Daraa to the Mediterranean port of Haifa (now in Israel). The last, decisive attack on the Turks in Damascus in September 1918 was successful, but Medina was still occupied by Turkish troops who did not surrender until January 1919, arguably the last action of World War I.

As Lawrence recognized in his account of the battle over the Hejaz, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Turks were courageous and became adept at repairing the line. Following the war, and the division of the Ottoman Empire into states under British or French control, the operation of the line was split between the two European colonial powers. The Allies and the retreating Turks had destroyed much of the southern section of the railroad, but several parts remained open for traffic.

The best-used sections were freight services on the branch line between Damascus and Haifa and, until the start of the Syrian conflict, there was a passenger train from Damascus to Amman (the capital of Jordan). Saudi Arabia is also building a new network of lines to cater for the Haj and its freight needs, and there has even been talk of reopening the entire Hejaz Railway, but this may prove too expensive, and unnecessary now that many pilgrims travel to Mecca by air.

The eight years from 1908 to 1916 were to be the only time at which regular services operated along the whole railroad. Even then, conditions were uncomfortable for the pilgrims, as services were overcrowded and slow. The journey, however, which took just over a day, was a vast improvement on the old 40-day overland trip. It proved a brief heyday for one of the world’s most ambitious railroad construction projects.

Strategic Value

The First World War was the next important step in the evolution of the antithesis to the paradigm of interstate industrial war—most specifically the liberation campaign, as it would now be called, fought by the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula, led by their sheikhs, to free themselves from Ottoman rule. This did not initially appear a simple proposition: the failure of the Allies’ Gallipoli offensive, the surrender of British forces at Kut in Mesopotamia in April 1916 and the Turkish offensive towards the Suez Canal in 1916 all proved that Ottoman armies were still a force to be reckoned with. The British therefore built up a force in the Sinai Desert, and under General Allenby developed a campaign to defeat the Ottoman armies in Palestine—with the Arab nationalist forces mounting a supporting operation. From the British point of view the Arab cause was worth supporting because it promised a great increase on the pressure that could be brought to bear on the Turks. In this regard the situation was much the same as that in the Peninsular War against the French, when the Spanish guerrillas greatly aided the conventional forces of Wellington on the road to victory.

Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence was chosen to act as advisor and liaison officer to the Arab nationalist movements. Already posted to Cairo, where he worked for British Military Intelligence, Lawrence’s intimate knowledge of the Arab people, especially their culture and politics, made him the ideal candidate for the job. In October 1916 he was sent into the desert to report on the nationalist movements, and he quickly realized that the Arab political and strategic aims were “unmistakably geographical, to occupy all Arabic speaking lands in Asia.” In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published after the war, Lawrence reflected upon how this end was achieved, whilst also aiding the British quest—and in so doing clearly defined the three levels of war below the political and how each sets the context to the one below, thereby ensuring coherence:

The Turkish Army was an accident, not a target. Our true strategic aim was to seek its weakest link, and bear only on that until time made the mass of it fall. The Arab army must impose the longest possible passive defence on the Turks (this being the most materially expensive form of war) by extending its own front to the maximum. Tactically, it must develop a highly mobile, highly equipped type of force, of the smallest size, and use it successively at distributed points of the Turkish line.

In this way he sought to make the Arabs “an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas.” In these words Lawrence shows that the purpose of Arab battle in the field was attritional, to win each local fight, rather than one of wills. Within this perspective the object of the battles was only to fight at the tactical level and to stretch the Turks at the operational level to the point of moral rather than material collapse. The Arabs undoubtedly needed their own will to do this, but the promise of independence was a sufficient spur.

Based on this strategy, Lawrence managed to convince Arab leaders to coordinate their rebellious efforts, and he was soon fighting with their irregular troops under overall command of Emir Faisal. Conducting operations mainly in the Arabian Peninsula, with limited means, he focused on implementing his strategy of hindering the Ottoman war effort. Initially, for example, Lawrence persuaded the Arabs not to drive the Ottomans out of the town of Medina, thus forcing the Turks to pin down troops to maintain the city’s garrison. Lacking men and matériel to engage a regular army in major battle, Lawrence encouraged small-unit tactics, and favoured raids conducted by 100 to 200 tribesmen against substantial conventional Turk forces. He then directed his attentions towards the Hejaz railway line, which was the only major line of communication and supply for Ottoman forces as Britain’s naval superiority in the Red Sea lay uncontested. With the Turkish army thinly spread across the empty vastness of the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs found it relatively easy to strike and sabotage the railway, which ferried men, supplies and munitions across the peninsula.

Lawrence and his Arab irregulars focused on continuously destroying sections of the railway for two years. Small units of men were deployed to lay charges on tracks in various locations. They used sophisticated explosive devices that would inflict as much damage as possible so that the Turks would be forced to make time-consuming repairs. One of Lawrence’s explosive devices was the “tulip bomb,” which twisted tracks to such an extent that they could not be restraightened. Another way to disable a railway was to “walk” a track out of service: groups of twenty men walked along the track, lifting rails and then discarding them. In a similar way, bridges were blown up to shatter rather than collapse as they consumed more man-hours to fix. Such was the Arab admiration for Lawrence and his use of explosives that they nicknamed him Amir Dynamite.

Such sabotage operations tied up increasing numbers of Ottoman troops, who were forced to protect the railway and repair the continuous damage. At the same time Turkish forces attempted to defend the Hejaz railway with outposts and patrols, but Lawrence’s men formed large moving columns capable of rapid hit-and-run operations. The conflict did indeed soon turn into a war of attrition; but Lawrence always used far smaller forces to attack and sabotage tracks and infrastructure than the Turks used to conduct repairs. In 1917 he coordinated a joint action between Arab irregulars and forces which rebelled against their Ottoman master, serving under Auda Abu Tayi’s command. In a daring overland attack, they seized the strategically important port of Aqaba; and in the final stages of the war, Lawrence was also involved in the capture of Damascus.

The Arab forces made a significant contribution to the British victory in the Middle East. They were credited with killing some 35,000 Turks and capturing or wounding a similar number. Every element of their fight reflected their part in the antithesis of interstate industrial war, much as the Spanish guerrillas and the Boers before them. By war’s end they had achieved their strategic aim, with approximately 100,000 square miles of territory under their control that had formerly been under Ottoman rule. As such, their political aim appeared within their grasp—but the British and the French, their allies in war, failed them. In carving up the defeated Ottoman Empire, they did not honour the expectations of the Arabs, in spite of Lawrence’s lobby at the Versailles peace talks in 1919, where he insisted this had been the understanding he had passed on to the sheikhs during the war. The Arabs were denied their regional independence, the provinces of the former Ottoman Empire became mandated territories ruled by the French and the British, and the House of Saud was left only with the sanctuary of the Arabian Desert. Within a matter of years this proved, quite literally, to be fortunate—since the largest reserve of oil in the world was discovered under their sands.


Kett’s Rebellion

Ignoring the populace has always been a dubious practice and in 1549 a series of small protests began, two of which erupted into major rebellions. The first began in Cornwall, where the people, who preferred Catholic Latin or Cornish to the enforced English they could not understand in church, invaded Devon and held Catholic services in Exeter Cathedral. This rebellion was brutally crushed in the village of Sampford Courtenay in Devon by the Duke of Somerset himself. The second uprising began at a summer fayre in Wymondham near Norwich and exploded into what has become known as ‘Kett’s Rebellion’.

The fuse for the rebellion was lit on 6 July 1549, when the annual summer fayre to celebrate the translation of St Thomas à Becket, whose chapel is in Wymondham, began. Two nights of merriment and festivities were planned and the revels were soon in full flow. Entertainment was put on, together with plays and pageants, there was food and drink in abundance and as the alcohol flowed among the locals, so did the talk. The conversation centred on their lot, the majority of which was decidedly bad. After two days of indulgence, groups formed among those people most aggrieved, and probably most addled, and they set off to destroy the enclosures and regain their common lands. One landowner whose enclosures were attacked was named John Flowerdew. To divert this mob away from his fields and those he had taken, Flowerdew paid the gang to go and pull down the enclosures that Robert Kett of Wymondham had erected. Little did he know that this 40 pence (a significant sum in those days) he paid to the mob was going to end up providing them with an inspired leader. As the crowd approached Kett’s house they were met by the tanner, and when they started to tear down his fences, to their amazement he joined in. Once the task was completed, Kett found a vantage point on his property and spoke to the crowd assembled before him. It is not clear exactly what Kett said to them, but what is certain is that he was offering up himself as their leader. The words must have been both influential and charismatic, because the offer was one that the disorganised mob were happy to accept. With Kett now duly instated as the official leader, the mob returned to Flowerdew’s lands and pulled the rest of his enclosures down.

The next day, 9 July 1549, Kett addressed a crowd that had assembled under an oak tree on Wymondham Common, close to the main road from Thetford to Norwich. Here Kett is reputed to have made another rousing speech, which apparently included the lines, ‘I refuse not to sacrifice my substance, yea my very life itself, so highly do I esteem the cause in which we are engaged.’ Whatever the other contents of the speech were, they clearly inspired the crowd, which now rose to a man and followed Kett on the road to Norwich. It seems, given the ease with which he was able to lead the peasants, that from the outset Kett had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve; this was nothing more revolutionary than a fair system of government for all, where the people were able to farm their lands without the constant threat of the landowners disrupting or ruining their lives. Maybe Kett was preaching to the converted and he just happened to be the man in the right place at the right time and that is why the commoners followed him. Yet the way in which he continued to lead this growing army of people suggests that he was a fair-minded man, with great charisma and tenacity. As Kett marched on Norwich to deal with the corrupt hierarchy of Norfolk society, his ranks swelled with folk from every walk of life: not just country folk, but urban people from Lynn and Yarmouth. They ranged from stonemasons to rat-catchers and from tailors to butchers, clearly showing that it was not just agriculturally based people who were concerned with the unjust power that the gentry and nobility now wielded. On 12 July this peasant army reached Mousehold Heath. This was an area of land that Kett already had knowledge of, for upon it stood a building called Mount Surrey, which was taken and made into Kett’s headquarters.

Mousehold Heath lies today, as it did in 1549, north-east of the city of Norwich and outside the city walls. This was the perfect place to encamp an army: Kett had a glorious view over the city below him, with the city walls, the cathedral and, most importantly, some of the gates and bridges clearly visible to him and his observers. From the records that remain, Kett was clearly a shrewd and capable man. He organised supplies for his army of followers, which by the end of July was estimated at being 20,000 strong. Kett first chose 2 in every 100 men to be administrators to assist in the organisation of the camp. Secondly he sent out commissioners with his official warrant, which he issued in the King’s name, to every country house to provide cattle, corn and all the necessary victuals to support his men. In addition to these ‘requested’ goods, many smaller farmers sent in additional goods in the forms of arms, ammunition and even money. In Norfolk, the gentry feared that their days of bounty had come to an end forever.

Once Kett had established his position on Mousehold Heath, it was clear that it would need something special to draw him down from such an advantageous position. Accordingly, messages were exchanged between the Mayor and his aldermen in Norwich with the regency in London and this resulted in the arrival of a royal herald on 21 July. The herald promised that all who went quietly home would receive a king’s pardon. The people, on hearing this, responded with cries of ‘God save the King’s majesty’, but Kett knew that this talk of pardon was for the rich and famous and those who had done ill. He responded that he and his men had done nothing amiss, other than the duties of a true subject. At this point the herald called upon the aldermen and the sword-bearer of Norwich to arrest Kett, but eight men and most of those elderly members of the town council against Kett’s 20,000 was not even worth considering and the aldermen retreated into Norwich.


Up to this point there had been civility in the proceedings, and the gates of Norwich had been kept open for all men, including Kett’s, to come and go as they pleased. The Mayor, by the name of Cow, now closed all of the gates and brought the city’s guns into the meadows by the river, aiming their barrels at Mousehold Heath. This was the opening move to a protracted siege that developed over the next five weeks into one of the most incredible periods of military activity ever seen in an English city.

Kett also had a number of cannon and he had already positioned these to cover the city walls and gates below the heath. Throughout the night there were constant exchanges of gunfire between the two batteries of cannon, but there was little damage caused to either side. The next morning some of the peasants attacked the city by swimming the river, while others scaled the walls and other groups attacked the closest gates. It was at Bishop’s Gate where the fighting was most fierce, but eventually the peasants broke in and within a short while were masters of the city. Seeing the situation, the royal herald again tried to intercede, but being ignored once more took his leave of the city. The Mayor and the aldermen were captured and taken to Mount Surrey, technically removing all lawfully constituted authority from Norwich, before being released unharmed and returned to the city.

The news that the royal herald carried back to London brought a swift response from the regency. The Marquess of Northampton, William Parr (brother to Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen), was sent to Norwich with a small advance force of at least 1,400 men that included mounted gentry and some bill-armed levies, but the majority were Italian mercenaries. Northampton arrived in Norwich unopposed on 30 July, but within twenty-four hours his small expeditionary force was under attack. Northampton’s men managed to drive off the first peasant assault, and rested that night after a day’s hard fighting. But on 2 August a second assault by the peasants led to a vicious struggle on ‘Palace Plain’ north of the cathedral and west of the Bishop’s House. This bloody battle lasted for some hours, but eventually Kett’s men won the fight and, their morale shattered, Northampton and the remnants of his army fled the city. Norwich was once more under peasant control. When Somerset learned of Northampton’s rout, he was furious and by the second week of August, commissions were in place in all the shires around Norfolk for the raising of the levy. Meanwhile, Somerset, who had planned to lead the relief army to Norwich himself, stepped down and allowed the Earl of Warwick to take command. There appears to be no reason available for Somerset’s decision to step aside. One can speculate that at heart he may have had sympathy with the peasants’ cause or, more likely given his role as protector, that he feared to be away from the young king, considering the mood within the country.

Somerset arrived at Norwich on 23 August at the head of an army between 12,000 and 14,000 in number, but his cannon were some hours behind and the 1,200 Landsknechts were a further three days away. Warwick marched into the city and once more a herald was sent to offer pardon to the peasants. They reacted as before with cries of ‘God save King Edward’, but the matter was soured when a young boy, making offensive gestures at the herald, was shot dead by an archer from the herald’s escort. Cries of ‘treason’ rang from the crowd and they urged Kett not to negotiate further and not to desert them now. Kett told the herald that there could be no parley, and that he was retiring to Mousehold Heath to prepare for battle. On hearing the news, Warwick seized sixty men and had them hanged in the market place below the castle, ‘without hearing their cause’, and he sent forth a proclamation that there was a curfew, and any found out of doors would be dealt with in similar fashion. Warwick then discovered something that must have infuriated him even more: Kett’s men had captured all his cannon. In a case of unbelievable stupidity, the drivers of the artillery train had entered the city at Bennett’s Gate in the west, and travelled straight through the city, exiting by Bishop’s Gate in the east and directly into the waiting arms of Kett’s men.

Kett was now vastly superior in cannon to Warwick and set up the new cannon alongside his existing ordnance, trained upon the city below. Although Warwick cleared the city of rebels during the day of 24 August, they returned the same night, setting fire to Conisford Street, which burned for a whole day and would have spread to the entire city if heavy rains had not helped to put the flames out. Sunday 25 August was a black day for Norwich: some of the walls were beaten down, some of the gates were broken, fires raged throughout the city, troops were mustering in the open spaces and all the time the rebels prowled outside the shattered city walls. Monday 26 August brought hope to the city: the German mercenary Landsknechts arrived and on Mousehold Heath a great fire was burning. The rebels had fired their camp and were preparing for battle. The peasants had revived an old traditional song as they sat round their campfires on the heath, and some of its words were these:

The country gnoffees, Hob, Dick and Rick, with clubs and clouted shoon, Shall fill the vale, of Dussindale, with slaughtered bodies soon.

Believing these words as an omen of their certain victory, the peasant army repositioned themselves on the western end of Mousehold Heath ready to attack. Dussindale was at that time a small area of land between Mousehold Heath and Norwich, and is not to be confused with the modern Dussindale Drive, a further 2 miles or so east of the city.

Warwick feared that the English shire levies might find the fight against their kin too bitter to swallow and might even end up rebelling themselves, so he left his English troops in the city with orders to prevent the rebels from entering. He then left Norwich by the north gate of St Martin’s at Oak and marched east around its walls until he arrived at the foot of the heath, where he deployed his force. Before hostilities began, Warwick again offered a pardon to all who would disperse. This was the fourth time that a pardon had been offered, and once more it was rejected; the hangings in the city on Warwick’s first day in Norwich gave the peasants no confidence in the nobleman’s words.

From the army of 15,000 that Warwick now had at his disposal, he took all of his 1,200 Landsknecht foot; with these he would probably have had a further 500 Welsh bowmen and 500 Irish swordsmen to protect their flanks, giving him a total of 2,200 infantry. In addition, he took all of his cavalry with him, which in total, given the size of his army, would have been no less than another 1,500 men. These would have been a mixture of Reiters (heavy cavalry armed with sword and pistols), heavily armed gendarmes with lance and mace, and light cavalry armed with an assortment of spears, javelins and cross-bows. Against this highly trained and disciplined force, Kett had around 20,000 peasants armed with a variety of weapons, many of which would have been gained as a result of their earlier victories. But these peasants were not highly trained; it is unlikely that they were formed into cohesive units all armed with the same weapon. They were brave, fit men who knew how to fight in a guerrilla or ambush style, but not how to tackle a disciplined army in a prepared battle formation.

Kett had two advantages: first he had a vast superiority in numbers, and second he had overwhelming ordnance. Unfortunately, he did not bombard Warwick’s army for long enough before the headlong massed charge of his army began; the peasants were convinced that the song was right and this was their day of destiny. This may have been because the first cannon shot from the rebels is reported to have brought down the royal standard, indicating that it must have come perilously close to killing Warwick himself. Whether the peasants saw this as a sign that the day was to be theirs is pure conjecture, but from a morale point of view it must have made their spirits rise. Warwick, however, had chosen his position well. This area of gentle land was one of the few places where cavalry could manoeuvre. Ignoring the fact that the peasants had chained gentlemen prisoners to act as a human shield in front of them, the Landsknechts absorbed the peasants’ charge and then began to push them back. Warwick then unleashed his cavalry, which would have attacked from their usual positions on both flanks of the infantry. The Landsknechts began their steady advance but, despite losing 3,000 men, the peasants who had survived the initial mêlée regrouped on the slopes of Mousehold Heath to fight again. Cavalry could not charge uphill and Warwick was still heavily outnumbered. Apparently, at this position, Warwick offered a king’s pardon to the rebels for a fifth time, and this time it was accepted, thus preventing any further slaughter. Robert Kett fled the field but was soon captured at the village of Swannington, some eight miles to the north of Norwich, and was hanged from Norwich Castle on 7 December 1549.

There were countless small disturbances in the late 1540s and, to begin with, the Duke of Somerset supported the principles and views of those protesting, including Bishop Latimer. In May 1549 Somerset himself set forth a proclamation denouncing all enclosures, and as late as 14 June 1549 he issued a general pardon to those who had taken the law into their own hands in removing or destroying them. But Kett’s Rebellion was something different: it came only two weeks after a riot at Attleborough, and only four weeks after the start of the Cornish rising, and if word spread of these rebellions, who knew how long it would be before the whole of England was up in arms? Significantly, Kett’s Rebellion had resulted in his gaining power of the then second city in the kingdom in order to administer his own equitable justice, blatantly flaunting his ‘fair’ courts in the faces of the appointed officers of the Crown. Kett was to Edward VI, and the stability of the regency, a very real threat and a danger that could not be tolerated. Somerset therefore had no political choice but to do a complete U-turn in his policy and go against his own convictions for the sake of his position and his future. It is also most likely that he feared putting down the rebellion with just an English army: what if this army were to be as inspired by Kett as the other commoners had been? The risk was too great and the rebellion had to be swiftly crushed. It was surely for this reason that Somerset called for the Landsknechts to be the mainstay of his army for the battle to regain Norwich, and the destruction of Kett’s peasant army. Given Somerset’s actions, Kett’s Rebellion must go down in history as the most successful and the most dangerous peasant uprising the nobility of England ever faced.


Edward VI inherited a prosperous country, but one which had seen years of unchecked exploitation of the poor man by the landowning gentry. Vast areas of common lands had been enclosed and many arable fields had been turned into pasture for cattle and sheep. The well-known orator Hugh Latimer (former Bishop of Worcester) had openly spoken out against these increasing enclosures in his famous ‘Sermon of the Plough’. This sermon was delivered before the court of Edward VI, and in it he denounced the nobles and gentry of England and Wales as ‘enclosers, graziers and rent-raisers’. Enclosures still carried on unchecked and as the price of wool continued to rise, wool was the oil of the Middle Ages, more and more common land and arable fields were turned into sheep pasture. However, even the courts of law backed the gentry in cases throughout the Tudor, Elizabethan and even into the early Stuart periods, as the Stixwold case in 1603 testifies.

To be fair to Edward VI’s father, Henry VIII had ordered direct action to stop the spread of the enclosures: he limited the amount of sheep to 2,000 per farm; and after one landowner had flattened people’s houses, Henry VIII ordered him to rebuild them and to rehouse the people. But these ‘punishments’ against the nobles and gentry of England and Wales were few and far between. The result of these enclosures was to take away from the common man the ability to support himself. As small communities and farms disappeared, so did the infrastructure that surrounded them; the blacksmith, the tanner and the weaver all lost their livelihoods as the hamlets died. People began to starve and to migrate either to places where common land was still available, or to towns in search of work and a home. In all people there is a willingness to put up with a certain amount of injustice, but all of us also have a breaking point beyond which we are not prepared to go. The peasants only needed the right kind of charismatic leader who spoke the words they understood, and they would follow them so long as they believed things would improve, hence the number of spontaneous rebellions that erupted at times of particular hardship or injustice. All too often, though, after the rebellion had failed, the peasants were back where they started from, though fewer in number than when they began; as for the landowners, they simply kept on putting up enclosures and they continued to prosper.


After Actium…

Cleopatra’s men sighted Antony’s quinquereme following them and she ordered them to make a signal of recognition. Probably they slowed and he was able to come on board. His mood was grim and he refused to speak to his lover. The pause in their flight seems to have allowed some enemy ships to catch up. These were of a type known as Liburnians, which were small, but fast. For a while his energy returned and Antony boldly faced about to meet them. One ship was lost, but the pursuit was also broken. Afterwards, he is supposed to have sat alone at the prow of the queen’s ship. Plutarch, who tells the story, says that he did not know whether Antony was consumed with shame or rage. On the third day they landed at one of the southernmost points of the Peloponnese. Cleopatra’s two closest attendants, probably her maids Charmion and Iras, managed to persuade him to join her. The lovers talked, ate together and slept together for the remainder of the journey. They were joined by some transport ships and also a few more galleys that had managed to escape from Actium, and perhaps this encouraged Antony. He took the money carried aboard one of the transports and gave generous gifts to his remaining followers.

They sailed to the North African coast, landing at Paraetonium (modern-day Mersa Matruh), some 200 miles west of Alexandria, where they separated. Cleopatra went back to her capital city, while Antony looked to rally his only remaining army of any significance. Four legions had been left in Cyrenaica under the command of Lucius Pinarius Scarpus — a great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who had been mentioned as a minor heir in the dictator’s will. It was a very modest force to set against the armies of Octavian, who controlled a much larger army than Antony even before he had enlisted the latter’s legions left behind in Greece. Pragmatically, Pinarius now changed sides, declaring allegiance to Octavian and executing the handful of his officers who resisted. The vast majority had no great desire to die for a lost cause. When the news reached Antony, his companions had to restrain him from killing himself.

Cleopatra remained far more determined. When her ships sailed into the Great Harbour at Alexandria, their prows were garlanded and musicians played. There was probably always ceremony when one of the Ptolemies entered or left the city, but in this case these were symbols of victory. Confident that news of Actium would not have preceded her, the queen took up residence in her palace. Yet she knew that her position was weak and promptly ordered the execution of many prominent Alexandrian aristocrats before any tried to challenge her. They were killed and their property confiscated. Much of her war chest must already have been spent to fund the campaign, and it was clear that nothing could be achieved without substantial money. Gold and other treasures were levied from the survivors and also taken from her country’s many temples. Artavasdes of Armenia, kept prisoner since 34 BC, was also executed, perhaps in an effort to please the king of Media and so secure his support, or possibly to take his remaining treasure. A late and rather questionable source claims that priests from southern Egypt now offered to fight for her. For some this is taken as a sign of her widespread popularity amongst Egyptians. If it in fact occurred, the fear generated by her recent purge would have provided as strong an incentive.

Antony came to Alexandria, but once again sank into depression. A mole extended into the great harbour, from a point near the temple to Poseidon. Antony either converted an existing royal house built on the end of this or had a new structure built onto it. Giving up for the moment on being Dionysus or Hercules, he aped a famous – and semi-mythical – Athenian named Timon, who lived virtually as a hermit, lamenting his sorrows and loathing his fellow citizens. (Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was later inspired by the stories told of this man.) For a while Antony indulged himself in self-pity and bitterness, living in relative, although no doubt fairly comfortable, solitude.

There was opportunity for such theatrical displays, because in the aftermath of Actium Octavian had not launched a concerted pursuit. The immediate priority had been to deal with the Antonian fleet and the legions left behind. After the latter defected, Antony ceased to be a serious military threat. It was more important to secure Greece. Very quickly the various communities sent representatives to make their peace with the victor. The inhabitants of Charonea had been about to make another trek, carrying grain to Antony’s camp, when news arrived of Actium. They stayed at home and divided the stockpiled grain amongst themselves.

Octavian was generous to most of the communities of Greece and the eastern provinces. Some were again called upon to give money or art treasures to another Roman leader to gain his support. Antony’s appointees to the thrones of the eastern kingdoms all switched sides in the months after Actium. Herod was one of the last, and sent the royal regalia to Octavian, before presenting himself in person. It was important to keep the provinces and allied kingdoms stable and, apart from that, the men appointed by Antony had generally done all that the Romans required of them. They had obeyed him because he had represented Roman authority throughout the region. None saw any reason to lose power and perhaps their lives now that his strength was broken. Nor did any see the civil war as a chance to throw off the Roman yoke, any more than they had done in previous Roman conflicts.

In the middle of winter, at a time when sea travel was normally avoided, Octavian hurried back to Italy to deal with a crisis. There was continued discontent over the taxes he had raised for the war and, in response, he now drastically reduced his demands. Maecenas claimed to have discovered and suppressed a plot to seize power led by Lepidus’ son, who was promptly executed. More serious was discontent amongst soldiers due for discharge. Now that he had taken on responsibility for Antony’s nineteen legions in addition to his own forces, this task was massive in scale, but the veterans were impatient at any delay. Octavian had to appease the mutineers in person, but he needed money to fund the generous land allocations he had just promised. Seizing the wealth of Egypt became all the more pressing.


Cleopatra was far more active than her lover: she ordered the construction of ships at one of the ports on the Red Sea coast and some of her existing vessels were dragged overland from the Nile to join them. The labour involved was massive, adding to the already major task of moving her treasury to the port. From there she – and presumably Antony – could sail away, with enough wealth to ensure their comfort and sufficient courtiers and mercenaries to protect them. They might live in luxurious exile or even carve out a small kingdom in India. Perhaps she even dreamed of returning from exile, as she had done almost two decades before. For these plans her money was spent and the toil of her subjects expended. It was not to be, however. King Malchus – the Nabataean ruler whose lands Antony had ceded to Cleopatra – had little love for the queen and a natural desire to ingratiate himself with Octavian. Malchus attacked and burned the ships before the project was complete.

Cleopatra had not left Alexandria and was able to coax Antony into rejoining her in the palace. Canidius arrived to tell of the loss of the army and there was continued news of defections. There were still moments of optimism and grand plans. They may have considered sailing to Spain in the hope of reviving the war there. Unlikely though this sounds, one of Octavian’s officers was busy building fortified positions on the Spanish coast. It was probably too great a distance to travel without secure bases en route and, for whatever reason, the idea was abandoned.

Antony was happy to revel in luxury once more. Cleopatra arranged a grand celebration for his birthday on 14 January 30 BC. He was fifty-three. She let her own birthday pass in far more modest fashion, eager to focus attention on him and rebuild his confidence. The queen was thirty-nine. Their society of Inimitable Livers’ was disbanded and instead they formed a new club – the Sharers in Death’. The name was inspired by a play, telling of lovers who believed that their deaths were certain, although on the stage the story ended in a last minute reprieve.

The state of mind of both Antony and Cleopatra in the winter and spring of 30 BC is harder to judge and no doubt their moods swung. Both had survived apparently hopeless situations in the past and perhaps this encouraged them to cling on to hope now. The queen is supposed to have taken an interest in poisons, allegedly watching tests on condemned prisoners to see how quickly and reliably they died and the degree of pain and discomfort involved. Death was another form of escape, but neither of them was inclined to rush to that fate or to fail to explore other possibilities. Cleopatra made arrangements for Caesarion to be sent with treasure and an escort to India, doing on a smaller scale what she planned for all of them.

Caesarion was now about sixteen, and in a public festival Antony and Cleopatra celebrated his coming of age. He was enrolled in the ephebeia at the gymnasium, a quintessentially Greek ceremony. At the same time Antyllus, who was about fourteen or fifteen, also became formally a man, donning the toga virilis. It was seen as a promise that even if Antony and Cleopatra should die, then their heirs were ready as adults to take over their power. In particular, the promotion of Caesarion was intended to assure her subjects that the regime was stable. Perhaps it was also hoped that there would be more chance of his being allowed to remain as king if he was already firmly established.

Both Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly and independently wrote and sent messengers to Octavian in an effort to bargain. She assured him of her loyalty to Rome and at some point copied Herod’s gesture of sending the royal regalia, including the throne, sceptre and diadem. No doubt there were generous gifts and the promise of far greater wealth if either she or her children were permitted to keep some or all of her kingdom. Antony employed a friendlier version of his bluff style, now hearty in talking of their former friendship and amorous adventures they had shared in the past. He offered to go into retirement, asking permission to live in Athens if he was not allowed to stay with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Octavian made no concrete offer to either of them, at least publicly, although Dio claims that he secretly promised Cleopatra her kingdom if she killed Antony. Much of the negotiation was done by freedmen from their respective households, although Antony also sent Antyllus on one occasion. The youth brought gold, which Octavian took, before sending the boy on his way without making any concrete proposal to carry to his father. It is interesting that Antony and Cleopatra chose to contact their enemy independently, and that he preferred to reply in the same way. In his case, Octavian clearly hoped to encourage suspicion between the lovers that the other might make a separate deal.

One of Octavian’s representatives to the queen was a freedman called Thrystus, a man of charm and clear diplomatic skill. He was granted long private audiences with Cleopatra, prompting a mistrustful Antony to have him flogged and sent back to Octavian. Antony said that if the latter wanted to respond he could always give Hipparchus a whipping – referring to one of his own freedmen who had long since defected to the enemy. On another occasion he sent a different type of present, his envoys bringing a captive Turullius, last but one of Caesar’s assassins. The prisoner was sent to Cos and executed there, both for the murder and his desecration of the sacred grove.

Antony had little to offer, apart from voluntary retirement and a quick completion of a war that in any event could not last very long. His armies had dwindled away and the only group to declare open allegiance to him was a force of gladiators at Cyzicus in Asia Minor. Condemned to die in the arena, these men seem to have hoped to be turned into soldiers and win their freedom from Antony. Eventually they were suppressed and, although promised life by their captors, they were treacherously executed. Lepidus had been allowed to live, although the recent conspiracy involving his son may have made Octavian question the wisdom of this. Antony had always been a stronger figure and he had two Roman sons, one of whom had just come of age. To spare his beaten opponent would have been a great display of clemency, but also a gamble.

Cleopatra was better placed. Octavian needed to draw on the wealth of her kingdom, and she was in a position to make this easier for him. If she chose to resist, then in the short term she could also rob him of the revenue he desperately needed to provide for his veterans. Since her return to Alexandria, the queen had gathered a great deal of the readily accessible wealth of the kingdom. Much of this she stored in the mausoleum she was preparing for herself— the location is unknown, but it was near a great temple to Isis. Combustible material was piled inside the tomb, so that the building and its treasure could easily be destroyed if she issued the order. Even if the precious metals could be retrieved, it would take time before they could be restored to usable form. The preparations were not kept secret. Cleopatra was preparing for her death at the same time as she bargained for life.

In the summer of 30 BC Octavian attacked Egypt from two directions. An army came along the coast from Cyrenaica in the west, supported by a fleet. It included the four formerly Antonian legions and probably some of Octavian’s own troops. The whole force was under the command of Caius Cornelius Gallus, a descendant of Gallic aristocrats who had been brought into public life by Caesar. Octavian himself advanced from Syria in the east, marching overland to Pelusium along the traditional invasion route. Antony had whatever legionaries had been carried on board the ships from Actium, along with whatever forces had been stationed in Egypt or had been raised since his return. At most he is unlikely to have been able to muster a force equivalent to a couple of legions and auxiliaries, along with a small navy.

Antony first confronted the force approaching from the west, hoping to persuade his men to return to their former allegiance. Gallus is supposed to have had his trumpeters sound a fanfare to blot out the words. Antony attacked and was repulsed, then Gallus managed to lure the enemy ships into attacking the harbour and trapped them there. Antony and the remnants of his forces withdrew. In the meantime, Pelusium had fallen, apparently without a fight. Dio claims that Cleopatra had betrayed the fortress to the enemy. The commander of her garrison there was named Seleucus and Plutarch says that she had this man’s wife and children executed for his failure. This may have been genuine anger, an attempt to quash the rumour or even to conceal her involvement.

Coming back from his defeat, Antony bumped into Octavian’s vanguard and was able to rout some cavalry. He had archers shoot arrows into the enemy camp, each with a message tied to the shaft, offering the soldiers 1,500 denarii each if they came over to his side. None did. Even so, Antony returned to Alexandria – the action had been fought on the outskirts of the city – and without bothering to take off his armour, embraced Cleopatra and kissed her in suitably Homeric fashion. One of his cavalrymen had distinguished himself in the skirmish and Antony presented the man to the queen, who rewarded him with a helmet and cuirass decorated with gold. Perhaps the soldier was one of the bodyguard of Gauls he had given to her some years before. Whatever his background, he deserted to the enemy that night.

‘The Sharers in Death’ held a last feast that night. It was lavish in scale, but tearful, with Antony talking openly of his desire for an heroic death – scarcely an encouraging topic for the night before a battle. Overnight, it was said people heard music and chants, just like one of the Dionysiac processions so favoured by the two lovers. The sound seemed to leave the city, as if the god was abandoning it. The Greeks and Romans were inclined to believe that the deities associated with a place left before a disaster. The Roman army regularly performed a ceremony intended to welcome the gods of a besieged city into new homes freshly prepared for them by the besiegers.

Antony had planned an ambitious combined attack for the following day, 1 August 30 BC. It would begin with warships attacking the enemy fleet and this would be followed by an assault on land. There was no realistic chance of victory, or at least not of any success that might actually turn the tide of the war. This may explain what happened next. Antony watched as his warships closed with the enemy, but was amazed to see them stop and raise their oars out of the water, a gesture of surrender. Closer to him, his cavalry followed their example, choosing this moment to defect. His infantry – less able to move quickly, less sure of each other’s mood or truly loyal –remained. They attacked and were quickly beaten. Antony returned to the palace and Plutarch claims that he was yelling out that the queen had betrayed him. Dio simply states that Cleopatra had ordered the ships’ captains to defect.

Most of the ships to escape from Actium were hers. Some may have been lost in the attempt to reach the Arabian coast, but any built to replace them were constructed and crewed at her expense. In most respects the naval squadrons were hers rather than Antony’s and so it is certainly possible that she had arranged their defection in secret negotiations. Most modern historians dismiss this as propaganda aimed at blackening her reputation. They may be right, and the truth in such cases was unlikely to have been widely known even at the time. However, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by fighting. Possessing the fleet gave a bargaining counter and giving it up could well have been a gesture of faith. Unconditional surrender either then or in the past months meant simply trusting to the mercy of the conqueror. Cleopatra hoped to persuade Octavian to make her a deal and that meant conceding slowly, demonstrating both her capacity and willingness to be of assistance. Giving up Pelusium, and later ordering the surrender of her fleet, would make sense as gestures, making Octavian’s conquest easier and less costly in lives. These would be coldly pragmatic decisions, but they were certainly not impossible ones.

Cleopatra was a survivor who had clung on to power for almost twenty years amidst all the intrigues of the Ptolemaic court and the chaos of Roman civil wars. It would have been out of character for her to despair and it is clear that she had not yet done so. She might be able to save something of her own power, or if not then secure the position of some or all of her children. Caesarion was vulnerable after the emphasis on his paternity in the struggle with Octavian, but he had already been sent away on the long journey that should eventually take him to India. Her children by Antony might well be more acceptable to the young Caesar, and the Romans liked to employ client rulers. Their father may already have been beyond salvation.



Downfall is a German-, Italian-, and Austrian-funded war drama depicting the bizarre final 10 days in the life of Adolf Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz), hunkered down in his Berlin Führerbunker in late April 1945 as the Red Army closes in to seal his doom. Based on several eyewitness histories, the film was written and produced by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.


Having produced Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s seven-hour visionary epic, Hitler-ein Film aus Deutschland [Hitler: A Film from Germany] (1977), Bernd Eichinger had long wanted to make a more mainstream flm about Adolf Hitler. Developments in 2002 gave him the fresh source material he needed. Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 to 1945, wrote a memoir in 1947-1948 but left it unpublished for more than half a century. Elderly and suffering from terminal cancer in 2001, Junge was finally persuaded by her friend, Anne Frank biographer Melissa Müller, to let her book, Bis Zur Letzten Stunde [Until the Final Hour], be published and to be interviewed for a documentary film by Austrian artist André Heller. Junge’s book came out on 1 January 2002, and Heller’s film, Im toten Winkel-Hitlers Sekretärin [Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary], was released six weeks later. Soon thereafter historian Joachim Fest published a more objective account of the same events: Der Unter gang: Hitler und das Ende des Dritten Reiches [Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich]. Sensing the time was finally right for a docudrama on Hitler-a subject heretofore taboo in Germany-Eichinger wrote a screenplay that detailed the last 10 days of Hitler’s life in the bunker, based primarily on Junge and Fest, but also drawing on a number of other sources: Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich (1969); Gerhard Boldt’s Hitler’s Last Days: An Eye-Witness Account (first English translation 1973); Siegfried Knappe’s 1992 memoir, Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949 (1992); and Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck’s Das Notlazarett unter der Reichskanzlei: Ein Arzt erlebt Hitlers Ende in Berlin [Field Hospital Under the Reich Chancellery: A Doctor Experiences Hitler’s End in Berlin] (1995). After completing a script, Eichinger sent it to director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who agreed to take on the project. Soon thereafter, acclaimed Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) was cast as Hitler. To prepare for the role, Ganz researched the part by visiting a hospital to study patients with Parkinson’s disease (from which Hitler suffered). He also studied an 11-minute tape recording of Hitler in private conversation with Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim secretly made in June 1942. Hirschbiegel also made every effort to achieve authenticity, especially with regard to the look of the Führerbunker. As he told interviewer Carlo Cavagna, “The bunker was constructed at the Bavaria Studios in Munich, following precisely the floor plan. What you see is really how it looked . . . I told them I wanted it exactly the way it was, and did thorough research about even where the table stood, and the position of the chairs, and things like that. And, furthermore, it was a fixed set. You couldn’t take walls out. I couldn’t remove anything, really. There was no, `Let’s take out that wall and use a long lens.’ So it was like we were shooting in the [actual] bunker” (Cavagna, 2005).


Principal photography of Downfall took place over a 12-week period (12 August-15 November 2003). All the interior scenes inside Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia and in the Berlin Führerbunker were shot on sets constructed at Bavaria Studios near Munich. Ironically, Hirschbiegel chose St. Petersburg, Russia, to stand in for war-torn Berlin. On certain streets of the city the architecture was virtually indistinguishable from Hitler’s capital because St. Petersburg’s early 18th-century buildings had been designed by such German architects as Leo von Klenze and Georg Peter Bärenz. The filmmakers found a street with empty buildings and obtained permission to block it off for many weeks. There they built a façade of the war-torn Reich Chancellery and installed Berlin-style street lamps, signs, WWII bombing rubble, wrecked vehicles, etc. They were even permitted to dig up the pavement to create defensive trenches, foxholes, and shell craters. Russians acted as extras, portraying both German and Russian soldiers. Plot Summary The film begins with an interview clip from Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002), featuring the real Traudl Junge (1920-2002) expressing her remorse for admiring Hitler in her youth. Then the film proper begins, showing a courtly Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) hiring Frl. Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) as his secretary at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia in November 1942. The story skips ahead almost two and half years later, to 20 April 1945 (Hitler’s 56th birthday) during the Battle of Berlin. A nearby artillery blast awakens Traudl, Frau Gerda Christian (Birgit Minichmayr), and Frl. Constanze Manziarly (Bettina Redlich), Hitler’s vegetarian cook. In the Führerbunker, Hitler enquires as to the source of the shelling. Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf (Justus von Dohnanyi) informs him that Berlin is under artillery attack, and Gen. Karl Koller (Hans H. Steinberg) further reports the shelling as indicating that the Red Army is just miles away from the center of the city. In the midst of Hitler’s birthday celebration, two of his officers, SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) and SS adjutant Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), implore their commander to flee from Berlin, but Hitler decides to stay. In a Berlin street some members of Hitler Youth are preparing an 88-mm flak gun for anti-tank defense. Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia), a member of the Hitler Youth, ignores the pleas of his disabled father (Karl Kranzkowski) when he asks him to desert and save himself. Elsewhere in the city, a physician (Christian Berkel) decides to stay in the face of an evacuation order, persuading an SS general to allow him to continue his work. Eva Braun throws a wild party in the Reich Chancellery featuring loud music, raucous dancing, and copious amounts of alcohol: a surreal bacchanal that ends abruptly when a Russian artillery shell blows out the windows, causing the celebrants to flee back to the Führerbunker. The next day, Gen. Helmuth Weidling (Michael Mendl) is condemned to execution for commanding his troops to retreat west. However, after he explains that there has been a misunderstanding, Weidling is promoted by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Dieter Mann) to supervise the defense of Berlin. During a military conference Hitler orders a counterattack by Felix Steiner’s combat group to check the Soviet advance. Generals Krebs and Jodl reluctantly inform him that Steiner’s forces are too weak to mount any such attack. Dis missing everyone from the room except for Keitel, Jodl, Krebs, and Burgdorf, Hitler flies into a towering rage against his generals’ alleged treacherousness and incompetence. After his anger is spent, Hitler concedes that he has lost the war, but still refuses to leave Berlin. Instead, he is intent on remaining in his city and commit ting suicide. After seeing hapless Volkssturm conscripts needlessly slaughtered in battle, Gen. Mohnke confronts Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes). Goebbels admits to Mohnke that he does not feel badly for the fallen civilians for they sketched out their fate when they first sided with Hitler. Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) pays a farewell visit to Hitler and admits that he has failed to follow the “scorched earth policy” commands. Displeased, Hitler does not shake Speer’s hand when he leaves. At dinner, Hitler flies into a rage when he dis covers that Himmler has colluded with Count Folke Bernadotte to work out the terms of Hitler’s surrender. Hitler demands that von Greim and his mistress, test pilot Hanna Reitsch (Anna Thalbach), retrieve Himmler and his adjutant, Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann). Upon finding out that Fegelein has deserted, Hitler orders his execution. Reich physician SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz (Christian Hoening), the head of the German Red Cross who infamously performed human medical experiments for the Nazis, begs Hitler’s permission to leave Berlin. When Hitler denies his request, Grawitz kills himself along with his family by setting off a pair of hand grenades over dinner. That night, Fegelein is arrested and executed. Mohnke reports that the Red Army is only 300 to 400 meters from the Reich Chancellery. Hitler reassures his officers that he’ll order Gen. Walther Wenck’s 12th Army to break off from the Western Front and march east to join the fight against the Soviets-an absurd, unworkable proposition. After midnight (29 April 1945), Hitler communicates his last will and testament to Traudl and then marries Eva Braun as a show of gratitude for her loyalty. Finally accepting that the situation is hopeless, Hitler decides to commit suicide to avoid capture. Hitler consumes a last meal and says his goodbyes. He hands his Golden Party Badge Number 1 to Magda Goebbels, who pleads with Hitler to flee Berlin. Instead, Hitler remains and kills himself off-screen. Eva Braun also commits suicide. Their bodies are carried out of the bunker and cremated in a shell crater in the Chancellery garden. Magda and Joseph Goebbels follow suit, murdering their own children and killing themselves off-screen. Military staff members evacuate the bunker, but Krebs and Burgdorf also give in to suicide. Weidling broadcasts to the city that Hitler is dead and declares that he will be seeking an immediate cease fire. Traudl, Gerda, and the remaining SS troops join Schenck, Mohnke, and Günsche as they try to flee the city. Meanwhile, the child soldiers have all been killed-except for Peter, who discovers that his parents have been executed. With Red Army soldiers approaching, Traudl decides to leave the bunker. She and Peter join up and make their way through the ruined streets, avoiding Russian soldiers. At a bridge, Peter finds a discarded bicycle. They both get on it-Peter sitting “side saddle” on the top tube while Traudl pedals-and the pair bicycle away from Berlin. An epilogue describes the fates of the other Führerbunker inhabitants, and the film ends with a final excerpt from Heller’s documentary.


Downfall premiered in Munich on 8 September 2004 and went into wide release in Germany and Austria a week later. The movie was also showcased at a number of international film festivals, and an extended version was shown in two parts on German television in October 2005. Final box office numbers were impressive; Downfall made $93.6 million against an estimated production cost of 13.5 million ($15.9 million). The film also garnered many film awards, including a 2005 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. Reviews were mostly positive; many were adulatory. Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw exemplified affirmative opinion when he extolled the film as a “superb reconstruction” and avowed that he “could not imagine how a film of Hitler’s last days could possibly be better done.” Kershaw also added his voice to a chorus of praise for Bruno Ganz’s performance: “Of all the screen depictions of the Führer . . . this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler’s voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic” (Kershaw, 2004). Still, some critics panned the film. For example, J. Hoberman found it both “grimly self-important and inescapably trivializing” (Hoberman, 2005). The most scathing critique of Downfall was rendered by another German filmmaker, Wim Wenders. For Wenders, the movie seems to adopt young Traudl Junge’s naive point of view: enthrallment to Hitler’s charisma not sufficiently countered by the bookend clips of the real Junge repudiating her younger self. Wenders also objected to Hirschbiegel’s decision to not show Hitler and Goebbels in the act of committing suicide: “Why can’t we see Hitler and Goebbels dying? Are they not becoming mythical figures by not exhibiting them? Why do they deserve so worthy an outlet, while all the other good and bad Ger mans are [graphically] killed? . . . The film has no opinion on anything, especially of fascism or Hitler . . . so the seducer and the victim find themselves united once again in the arbitrary lack of attitude that makes this film so incredibly annoying. [This] lack of narrative [slant] leads the audience into a black hole, in which they are induced (almost) imperceptibly to see [history] this time somehow from the perspective of the perpetrators, at least with a benevolent understanding for them” (Wenders, 2004).

Reel History Versus Real History

In general terms Downfall ranks as one of the most historically accurate films ever made. It does, however, rearrange the order of some of the events and resorts to some streamlining. Furthermore, Peter Franz, the Hitler Youth boy decorated by Hitler, is a fictional character, so his joining up with Traudl Junge to flee Berlin is also a fabrication. In reality, Junge did not escape Berlin so easily. After hiding out in a cellar for a week with other Führerbunker refugees, Junge was arrested by the Soviets on 9 May 1945, imprisoned and interrogated for the next five months, and later hospitalized with diphtheria. She returned to Munich, her home town, in 1946.

Tirah Field Force (1897-1898)

The North – West Frontier of India was ablaze in Pathan tribal hostilities in 1897. The British sent many punitive expeditions to suppress these tribal revolts. The Tochi Field Force was sent to quell the Isazais in the Tochi Valley, and the Mohmand Field Force was organized to suppress hostile Mohmands. The Malakand Field Force conducted operations against the Swatis, Utman Khel, Mamunds, and Salarzais, and the Buner Field Force punished the rebellious Bunerwhals.

The Afridis had been receiving a subsidy from the Indian Government for many years to safeguard the strategic Khyber Pass. On 23 August 1897, hostile Afridis and Orakzais attacked and seized the forts at the Khyber Pass. Four days later, Orakzais attacked in overwhelming strength the British posts on the Samana Ridge, about 30 miles south of the Khyber Pass and the southern boundary of the Tirah region, and close to Peshawar.

To punish the rebellious tribes and dis courage any further hostilities to the south, especially in Waziristan, it was decided to form the Tirah Field Force and invade Tirah, the homeland of the Afridis and Orakzais. It was initially difficult to assemble a sufficient number of men due to other ongoing punitive operations. On 10 October 1897, however, under the command of General Sir William S. A. Lockhart, the Tirah Field Force was assembled at Kohat and prepared to advance. Numbering 34,506 British and Indi an officers and troops, with 19,934 noncombatant followers and 71,800 transport animals, the Tirah Field Force was the largest British Army expedition to deploy to the field in India since the Indian Mutiny.

The Tirah Field Force consisted of two divisions, plus support and reserve elements. The 1st Division was commanded by Major General W. P. Symons, with its 1st Brigade commanded initially by Colonel (later General Sir) Ian S. M. Hamilton, then by Brigadier General R. Hart, V. C., and the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brigadier General A. Gaselee. Major General A. G. Yeatman – Biggs commanded the 2nd Division, which consisted of Brigadier General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade and Brigadier General R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade. The lines of communication were commanded by Lieutenant General Sir A. P. Palmer, and the Rawalpindi Reserve Brigade by Brigadier Gener al C. R. Macgregor. There were also two mobile columns (the Peshawar Column , commanded by Brigadier General A. G. Hammond, V. C., and the Kurram Movable Column, by Colonel W. Hill) to provide flank security and support. Support elements included 10 field and mountain artillery batteries, totaling 60 guns, and the first machine- gun detachment deployed to the North- West Frontier.

The Tirah Field Force strategy was to advance north, subjugate the Tirah region, then move farther northeast to recapture the Khyber Pass. The Tirah area, however, was basically unknown to the British, and the combined strength of the Afridis and the Orakzais was estimated at around 40,000-50,000.

The British advance began on 11 October 1897. Seven days later, routes over the Samana Ridge were reconnoitered, and fighting broke out almost immediately. The 5,000-foot high Dargai Heights, key terrain dominating the area, were seized by the British on 18 October with casualties of 10 killed and 53 wounded. It was decided not to hold the Dargai Heights and the British evacuated the position.

After more units and supplies, including ammunition, had arrived, the Dargai Heights were again attacked on 20 October 1897. The Pathans had reinforced their positions on the Heights, and a British artillery barrage failed to dislodge the tribal warriors. Gurkhas led the attack, but were pinned down by accurate rifle fire. At about noon, the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders- with bayonets fixed and the regimental bagpipes playing “Cock o’ the North” – led a five battalion assault. Before the British reached the summit, the tribesmen fled. The second capture of Dargai cost the British 36 killed and 159 wounded, and was the only set – piece battle of the campaign.

A pause in the hostilities ensued as the 1st Division and transport, traveling on bad roads, rejoined the leading 2nd Division. The advance continued on 28 October 1897, and the next objective was the 6,700-foot Sampagha Pass. The Tirah Valley was reached after little resistance on 1 November 1897. The following eight days were spent gathering supplies and reconnoitering the area. The Orakzais were showing signs of submission although there was constant harassment and sniping from the Zakha Khel, a powerful Afridi clan. Lockhart retaliated by launching a scorched earth campaign, leveling villages, destroying crops, and felling orchards. On 11 November, Orakzais tribal chiefs agreed with peace terms to return all captured weapons to the British, surrender 300 of their own breech – loading rifles, pay a 30,000 rupee (£10,000) fine, and forfeit all allowances and subsidies.

British units continued operating to eliminate resistance throughout November 1897, but the Zakha Khels engaged in frequent hit – and – run engagements, especially against vulnerable support and transport elements. The Afridis, as a tribe, had not submit ted fully to the British, but with the approach of winter, the British began their 40-mile march through the Bara Valley to the Khyber Pass on 7 December 1897. Each division marched on a separate route. In snow and frigid temperatures, the British continued. The 2nd Division was harried the entire way and fought numerous rear- guard actions. The British march “looked more like a rout than the victorious withdrawal of a punitive force”(Miller 1977, p. 279).After having been separated, the Tirah Field Force’s two divisions converged at the Indian frontier town of Barkai on 14 December.

Lockhart did not feel he had totally accomplished his mission. On 22 December 1897, the 1st Division marched to the Bazar Valley, the home of the Zakha Khel, and the Peshawar Column advanced to the Khyber Pass. (This latter operation is frequently called the Bazar Valley Expedition.) By 1 January 1898, three British brigades held the Khyber Pass, while two additional brigades blockaded the Afridi territory. The British fought a few engagements and destroyed Afridi villages and captured Afridi cattle and sheep. The last of the Afridi clans submit ted to British demands in April 1898, signaling the end of the Great Pathan Revolt. From 12 October 1897 to April 1898, the British suffered 1,150 total casualties (287 killed, 853 wounded, and 10 missing).

References: Barthorp (1982); Featherstone (1973); MacNeil (2001); Miller (1977); Nevill (1912)

Many Rivers to Cross

The geography of the Axis–Soviet borderlands was defined in great part by the numerous rivers, particularly the Bug and the Dniester that faced AGS and AGC respectively. Elements of AGN would have to cross the Niemen River followed by the Dvina and the Lovat, the spaces between which were cut by smaller rivers and tributaries. In many areas the approaches were swampy and the bridges few and far between and frequently incapable of sustaining more than light vehicles. Therefore, the fighting would be dominated by both sides attempting to take or hold bridging points. To further complicate the issue vast swathes of the western USSR was heavily forested, remaining what it had been for thousands of years – a primeval wilderness. Many of the waterways were well over 100m wide and certainly during the early weeks of the Barbarossa campaign swollen by heavy rainfall. AGC faced the additional problem of its invasion route being split in two by the soaking morass known as the Pripet Marshes.

The armoured spearheads of AGC, Second and Third Panzer groups (Generals Hoth and Guderian respectively), would confront these problems from the very first day. Indeed, Hoth’s forces had to deal with three rivers within 60km of their ‘dry’ border crossing. Second Panzer Group crossed the Bug River in the vicinity of Brest-Litovsk Fortress on bridges captured by Russian-speaking special forces troops of Regiment 800 – the Brandenburgers. These specialists in infiltration and sabotage were also largely responsible for widespread disruption of the Soviet communications system by the simple expedient of cutting the wires of the civilian network. Radios were in short supply and consequently the Red Army depended on civilian landlines. Furthermore, when radios were available their operators were frequently jammed and continually monitored. A commonly intercepted message within the first 24 hours of the invasion was, ‘The Germans are attacking what shall I do?’

By 1500hr on 22 June, Barbarossatag, units of Second Panzer Group had bypassed Brest Fortress and were into open country. Third Panzer Group, crossing all three rivers by captured bridges, were within 48 hours responsible for breaking the connection between the NW and W fronts where the Eleventh and Third armies linked. With his communications with Third and Fourth armies in chaos, the W Front’s commander, General D.G. Pavlov, could only guess at what was going on. It seemed that his Tenth Army in the centre of the front was the only unit holding together. In an attempt to restore contact with the NW Front, Pavlov ordered a counterattack in the direction of Grodno.

The operation was to be led by General I.V. Boldin, the W Front’s second-in-command, and involved VI Mechanized and VI Cavalry corps from Tenth Army and XI Mechanized Corps from Third Army. The mechanized corps each had 2 tank divisions, totalling some 1,000 armoured vehicles. A formidable force, it included over 200 T-34 and KV-1 tanks. Despite the numbers, it was German experience that told and the attack failed and Grodno was lost. On 25 June Moscow ordered the W Front to fall back to a line running north to south from Lida–Slonim–Pinsk on the edge of the Pripet Marshes. Unfortunately for Pavlov, Hoth’s armour was already on the way to Minsk via Vilnius, which had fallen on 24 June. To the south Second Panzer Group, having destroyed 95 per cent of XIV Mechanized Corps’s 480 tanks, was well on its way to Baranovichi.

Moscow’s next instruction to Pavlov was to ‘achieve positive control over front line units’ and to ‘evacuate Minsk and Bobruisk’ to the south west. But by this time most of the W Front’s original forces were being contained in what became known as the Minsk Pocket. The German term for this technique is kessel, which translates as cauldron and this is the term that will be used in this book.

Minsk, capital of the Belorussian SSR, had already witnessed the evacuation of the Communist Party’s officials. Martial Law had been declared in the western and southern districts of the USSR on 22 June and the evacuation of officials and state property from Minsk began three days later in the face of Third Panzer Group’s rapid advance. In the process of this Hoth’s forces were passing through the fixed defence line of the 1920s and 1930s. Line is a misnomer, conjuring as it does the impression of fortifications similar to those of the Maginot Line. The so-called Stalin Line was neither continuous nor in many places was it anything other than a set of blueprints. It had been conceived as a series of fortified zones covering river crossings and other points of strategic value from the 1920s when the border ran along the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian frontiers. To cover the designated areas hundreds of concrete machine-gun and field-gun bunkers were built between 1928 and 1939. When the frontiers moved westwards another series of fortified zones was planned – the so-called Molotov Line. Such engineering works were expensive in terms of time, money, resources and manpower. Furthermore, prioritizing which to build varied with the prevailing political mood. Weapons allocation was transferred to the Molotov Line so that many assets were shipped from the Stalin to the Molotov Line. A case of robbing Joseph to pay Vyacheslav.

Consequently, the invaders were faced with a patchwork of fortifications, some tough and viable, others simply holes in the ground. Manning these systems fell to the remnants of first-line units, reserves and local militia, few of which had the specialist training required to carry out such work.

With Guderian reluctantly closing on Minsk from the south and Hoth moving more eagerly from the north, Pavlov ordered the recently raised Thirteenth Army to hold the Minsk Fortified Region. On 29 June the city was surrounded and Belorussia lost, and 24 hours later Pavlov was relieved of command of the W Front and replaced by Marshal S.K. Timoshenko. Simultaneously, OKH (Oberkommando der Heeres (German Army Supreme High Command)) ordered von Bock’s AGC to align his forces for ‘operations in the direction of Smolensk’. OKH was, until late 1941, subject to control from the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht which directed army, air force and navy operations). When Hitler took leadership of the OKH, in December 1941, it effectively became independent of OKW. As AGC regrouped, Hitler and his staff had to decide what their course of action would be – where would von Bock’s armour go next?

AGN’s left flank rested on the Baltic Sea and was the responsibility of General von Kuchler’s Eighteenth Army. In the middle of AGN General Hoepner commanded Fourth Panzer Group and on the right flank Sixteenth Army, led by General Busch, was tasked with maintaining the connection with AGC. AGN was commanded by Field Marshal von Leeb. Fourth Panzer Group was expected to secure the river crossings and made a mixed start. By 23 June one crossing over the Dubysa River by 1st Panzer Division had been taken but 6th Panzer Division failed in similar missions because of a shortage of fuel brought on by the heavy going. It was then attacked by strong Soviet armoured units. For 24 hours battle raged at close quarters as 1st Panzer Division fought through to relieve its sister unit. Eventually, with constant support from Fliegerkorps 1, the tables were turned and the Soviet attackers were thrown back with losses of 90 per cent in men and machines. With much of the Soviet tank force thus eliminated, the panzers were free to resume their missions. General Manstein, commanding LVI Panzer Corps (8th Panzer and 3rd Motorized infantry divisions) was in the happy position of exploiting the gap created by Hoth’s Third Panzer Group when they pushed the NW Front’s Eleventh Army east instead of north. Now the race was on to capture the vital Dvina River bridges at Dunaberg. General F.I. Kuznetsov, commanding the NW Front, recognized the threat and committed the newly raise Twenty-Seventh Army, composed entirely of infantry but supported by XXI Mechanized Corps, to make for Dunaberg. However, locally conscripted militia were unable to prevent the city’s bridges and fortifications from being captured. As elsewhere in the Baltic States, natives took up arms to attack what they regarded as Russian occupation forces.

Stavka had ordered Kuznetsov to hold the Dvina River line but, despite counterattacking valiantly, he had signally failed to do so. Incredibly, he instructed Twenty-Seventh Army to fall back to the east and thus opened the road to Leningrad! As the men of Eleventh and Twenty-Seventh armies retired they began to reach parts of the Stalin Line which Kuznetsov had been told to hold. General N.F. Vatutin was ordered to join Kuznetsov as Chief-of-Staff with an instruction directly from Stalin to halt the Germans ‘at all costs’.

On AGN’s left Sixteenth Army made rapid progress across Lithuania and in ten days had covered some 120km, crossed the Dvina River, captured Riga and proclaimed a Latvian Provisional Government. Cheered on by the Lithuanians and Latvians, the operation to date had seemed to some ‘like an exercise.’ However, despite almost cornering Eighth Army, its infantry had been unable to effect an encirclement and the Soviet troops fought on doggedly.

Away on the right flank the forward elements of General Busch’s Sixteenth Army had reached the capital of Lithuania, Kaunas, which had already been liberated by local forces. The newly formed Lithuanian Provisional Government took office in the capital on 23 June. However, they were too late to save the bridges over the Niemen River and its tributaries. Supported by local forces, 121st Infantry Division held off several Red Army counterattacks to occupy the city. With Kaunas secure, Sixteenth Army’s infantry set off in the wake of the panzers in an east–north–easterly direction. As they advanced there were increasingly numerous and worrying reports of attacks by roving groups of Russian stragglers on their dramatically stretched supply lines. To counter this threat unofficially raised units of Lithuanians and Latvians were permitted to carry out security duties, a task that they undertook with relish and often little mercy.

But now it was von Leeb’s turn to commit errors which would gift his opponents time to prepare defensive lines before Leningrad and realign their battered forces. Hoepner’s panzer group was ordered to halt along the Dvina River and await the arrival of Sixteenth Army, which took until 4 July. To compound matters von Leeb did not unite his armour into one mass but instead he prevaricated and lost more precious time. In his defence Fourth Panzer Group was a precious asset not to be committed recklessly to battle in the vast, dank, brooding forests in front of Leningrad unless it enjoyed the close support of infantry. As Sixteenth Army fell in along the Dvina River and its supply columns pushed ahead as fast as they could, Stalin wasted little time.

The N Front’s troops in and around Leningrad were to create a defensive line along the Luga River from the coastal city of Narva to Lake I’lmen. This cobbled together force was to be known as the Luga Operational Group (LOG). Behind the Luga Line a series of defence lines were to be put in place with the final section covering suburban Leningrad. The people of the former capital were mobilized to dig and the fit and able to fight.

As well as noting the defensive preparations German intelligence also observed the build-up of Soviet forces in the Velki Luki area, which posed a threat to the junction of AGN and AGC. Leningrad was not about to be abandoned to the invaders without a fight.

Far away to the south Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Army Group South’s Brandenburg Special Forces failed to take the bridge over the San River until late on 22 June. III Panzer Corps, part of First Panzer Group, broke through Soviet infantry positions and was en route for Lutsk, an important road and rail hub on the Styr River. It was taken on 25 June. To the south infantry of General Kempf’s XLVIII Panzer Corps opened the way for 11th Panzer Division to advance on Dubno. To interdict this movement General M.P. Kirponos, commanding the SW Front, set several of his mechanized corps in motion to counterattack. IV and XV Mechanized corps were both bloodily repulsed, while others, having endured a gruelling march of up to 75km under almost continual Luftwaffe attack, arrived with their numbers significantly depleted. 13th Panzer Division had little difficulty in fending off their poorly coordinated attacks. Elsewhere, however, it was a very different story. XV and VIII Mechanized corps had nearly surrounded 11th Panzer Division until the jaws of the encirclement were torn apart by 16th Panzer Division. Sensibly, Kirponos withdrew his armoured units on 27 June before the losses became too great. Despite this prudent move, a gap was now developing between Fifth and Sixth armies which First Panzer Group was about to exploit.

As Fifth Army retired to the southern reaches of the Pripet Marshes Sixth Army prepared to defend Lvov. At his HQ von Rundstedt was concerned that AGS’s right flank, Seventeenth Army, was moving too slowly and exposing other forces to Soviet penetration from the south. Anxiously, von Rundstedt awaited Hungarian and Romanian intervention. While considering how best to encircle Lvov, von Rundstedt received news that 9th Panzer Division was to the rear of the city and the Soviets were hurrying to leave.

Covered by a succession of rearguard actions, the SW Front fell back in relatively good order towards the Stalin Line. On 2 July Hungarian forces crossed the Dniester River and Seventeenth Army broke the connection between Kirponos’s Sixth and Twenty-Sixth armies. However, as AGS advanced its frontage increased, as did that of the Soviets just as they began to lose their cohesion. Now moving into more open country, von Kleist’s armour was able to pursue its opponents with greater effect. Once again the defences that stood before the Axis troops were a mixed collection of useful and useless, manned in many cases by reservists with little or no idea how to make use of what weapons they held.

Operation Munich was the code name for Romania’s invasion of the USSR by which it hoped to reintegrate the lost province of Moldavia. German elements of Eleventh Army took a major bridge spanning the Prut River on 30 June, but the main blow came on 2 July with an attempt to split Eighteenth and Ninth Soviet armies. Eleventh Army was sandwiched between Third and Fourth Romanian armies to the north and south respectively. The attack was preempted by General I.V. Tyulenev’s blow at the junction of Fourth and Eleventh armies. German support for the Romanians was swiftly provided and the S Front, weakened by transfers elsewhere, was ordered to withdraw and re-assemble near Uman, roughly 120km to the north east. Initially, von Schobert moved, utilizing the recently arrived Italian CSIR, to encircle S Front between the Bug and Dniester rivers. Crossing the latter between 17 and 21 July, a combination of unseasonably bad weather and recently introduced Soviet scorched earth tactics allowed the S Front’s forces to escape.

The SW and S fronts had achieved some success in holding up AGS’s progress, indeed considerably more than W or NW fronts had, but both were now starting to suffer from the same symptoms of impending doom already experienced by the W Front. Communications were disintegrating and there was very little left to defend before the Dnieper River and the Ukrainian capital of Kiev aside from the rolling steppe. Kirponos’s front slowly but surely began to unravel. By mid-July Fifth Army was holding out on the southern edge of the Pripet Marshes, while Sixth and Twelfth armies gravitated towards the S Front’s operational area.

Much as was the case with AGN, Hitler wanted to use the panzers of AGS to do more including the capture of Kiev while von Rundstedt wished to leave Kiev to the infantry of Sixth Army. But now the flanks of the latter were receiving the attention of Fifth Army. On 4 July elements of Kleist’s First Panzer Group had broken into the Stalin Line at Novgorod-Volynski, 250km west of Kiev. 13th Panzer Division took Berdichev three days later and on 9 July Zhitomir fell and III Panzer Corps was ordered to take Kiev. This was in line with the Führer’s wishes but he wanted part of Kleist’s armour to participate in an encirclement of Soviet forces in the Dnieper River bend to the south of Kiev. This topic became the subject of much debate but before a conclusion was reached 13th Panzer Division had crossed the Irpen River and was within 25km of the Ukrainian capital. The appearance of German tanks that close to Kiev horrified the Soviets. Stalin ordered an immediate series of counterattacks by the S and SW fronts. These desperate efforts were poorly coordinated and costly both in terms of men and materiel. The German armoured formations held on desperately as infantry, both motorized and on foot, was rushed to their aid. By 19 July von Stulpnagel’s Seventeenth Army was coming up and it was decided to use nine of its infantry divisions to replace I Panzer Corps, which would now combine with other infantry divisions to encircle Soviet troops in the Uman area. Satisfied that he had blunted the German attack, Kirponos was unaware that it was elsewhere along the Eastern Front that the stage was being set for an even greater disaster than those that had already overtaken the Red Army.

Croatian Survival

Relief of the battle of Sisak.

Map of Croatia in 1593.

Although fairly autonomous, Croatia was part of the Hungarian kingdom and thus political relations between Croatia and the Ottoman Empire were mainly confined to interactions with local authorities, such as correspondence about and negotiations of borderland issues.

Despite the fact that formal political relations were limited, the Ottoman Empire was nevertheless an important presence for the peoples of Croatia, especially after the early 15th century when the continued expansion of the Muslim Ottomans began to be perceived as a threat to the Catholic population of northwestern Croatia and central Bosnia. After the fall of Bosnia to the Ottomans in 1463, Ottoman expansion continued in the southern areas (Herzegovina and the coastland up to the river Cetina), yet in other places it could not break the defense system set up by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (r. 1458-90). A new wave of Ottoman conquests began in 1521 and lasted until 1552, at the end of which the Ottomans had conquered a good portion of present-day Croatia, including territories between the rivers Drava and Sava. For approximately the next 150 years, due mainly to the fact that the Habsburgs had established an efficient defense system in Hungary and Croatia, the borders in the north and south stabilized. The border was, in effect, a strip of no-man’s-land running between Koprivnica and Virovitica near the river Drava to Sisak, then westward to a point near the present-day town Karlovac, then southward to the Plitvice lakes, and in the southwest to the Adriatic; in Dalmatia the Venetian- held territory was reduced to small enclaves around the principal towns.

However, east of the Habsburg border in the central region of Croatia, between the rivers Una and Kupa, Bosnian ghazis or Muslim warriors were still making gains against Croatian nobles, who were fighting without Habsburg support. The situation changed in 1593 when the Croatians broke the offensive power of the Bosnian troops with lasting consequences in a battle at Sisak, on the confluence of the rivers Sava and Kupa. In 1606, at the Ottoman-Habsburg Treaty of Zsitvatorok that ended the war of 1593-1601 between the two empires, the Croatians made some further territorial gains, but from 1699 to 1718 Croatia’s surface almost doubled as a result of the treaties of Karlowitz and Passarowitz that ended the Long War of 1684-99 between the Ottomans and Habsburgs. However, it took some time to negotiate clear lines of control and actual change came slowly. The jurisdiction of the Croatian autonomous administration in the northern parts of the reconquered lands down to the river Danube was extended in 1745, while the rest was integrated in 1871 and 1881, after the Habsburg Military Border was abolished.

The rout at Mohacs was a momentous event for the Croats. The joint kingdom established in 1102 was ended. The Croats were without a ruler. A few days after Ferdinand’s coronation in Pressburg the Sabor assembled at Cetingrad, near Bihak, to elect him as king of Croatia. Most Croats backed the Habsburg candidate, although they were determined to make use of the choice to reaffirm Croatia’s privileges and its status as a kingdom.

On New Year’s Day 1527 the Sabor met at the Church of the Visitation of St Mary in the Monastery of the Transfiguration under the presidency of the Bishop of Knin and the heads of the Zrinski and Frankopan families.

Following final negotiations with three Habsburg plenipotentiaries, they elected Ferdinand as king of Croatia. The Sabor made it clear to Ferdinand that they had elected him in the hope of gaining more military aid against the Ottomans – `taking into account the many favours, the support and comfort which, among the many Christian rulers, only his devoted royal majesty graciously bestowed upon us, and the kingdom of Croatia, defending us from the savage Turks…’. The ceremony closed with a Te Deum and `a tumultuous ringing of bell’. The document of allegiance was sealed with the red-and-white coat of arms of Croatia, which marks the first known occasion on which the chequer board symbol was used as Croatia’s emblem.

The Sabor of Slavonia, which was dominated by Hungarian magnates, did not share the Croats’ enthusiasm for the Habsburgs. In 15 05 it had pledged never to accept another foreign (non-Hungarian) prince, and supported Zapolya.

Krsto Franltopan, the brother of Bernardin, emerged as a powerful supporter of Zapolya in Slavonia and joined him in flirting with the Turks, although he was killed in the early days of the civil war, Simon Erdody, the Bishop of Zagreb, was another pillar of the pro-Zapolya faction, laying siege to his own diocesan capital in 1529 and burning the outlying hamlets. A force loyal to Ferdinand raised the siege of Zagreb, destroyed the Kaptol, and extinguished this threat to the Habsburg claim. In 1533 a joint session of the Sabors of Slavonia and Croatia-Dalmatia confirmed Ferdinand’s title to all the Croat lands.

Croat hopes of recovering large tracts of the country with the aid of the Habsburgs were disappointed. As an election sweetener, before the assembly in Cetingrad, Ferdinand promised to pay for 1,000 cavalry and 1,200 infantry to defend the Croatian border, while the Estates of Inner Austria, Carinthia, Carniola and Styria voted money to supply garrisons in the frontline cities of Bihać, Senj, Krupa and Jajce in Bosnia. But this investment was insufficient to keep the Ottomans at bay. The Habsburgs pockets were not deep enough, and the complicated arrangement of their possessions, in which there were many estates with overlapping jurisdictions, made it difficult to harness their resources. Instead, there were stopgap measures and half-built castles, manned by soldiers who often were not paid for years on end.

The results on the ground were depressing. From 1527 to the 1590s the Croats continued to lose territory. In 1527 the Ottomans overran Udbina, in Lika. In the same year the last Christian-held fortress in central Bosnia, at Jajce, also collapsed. By the end of the 1530s, the Turks had mopped up the last spots of resistance on the southern bank of the River Sava in northern Bosnia, and had advanced through Slavonia as far west as Naŝice and Poriega. In Dalmatia, the Turks conquered most of the land that was not occupied already by Venice. Obrovac fell in 1527 and in 1537 the fortress of His, the last Croat stronghold south of the Velebit Mountains succumbed. In the 1540s the pace of the Ottomans’ advance in Slavonia was equally relentless, as they pushed westwards as far as the line between Virovitica, Cazmanad Sisak.

During the next three decades they continued their advance through the north-west of Bosnia in the direction of the Habsburg garrison town of Karlovac, south-west of Zagred. The biggest disaster of the period was the loss of the royal free city of Bihać in 1592. The town was razed and the inhabitants – those not killed – fled. The loss of Bihać to Croatia was permanent. The city was rebuilt and revived as a Muslim city surrounded by Serb orthodox peasants. The fall of Bihać was almost followed by the loss of Sisak, which was attacked in 1593 by an Ottoman force under Hasan Predojević, the Pasha of Bosnia. Had Sisak crumbled, the way would have been open to Zagreb. The threat threw the Sabor into panic and a hastily recruited force of about 5,000 professional soldiers under the Ban, Thomas Erdody, was despatched to the town. The Ottomans were too confident. The Croats, made fearless by terror of the consequences of failure, took the initiative and fell on the Turks with ferocity. This rare and surprising victory was not followed up. An attempt to recapture neighbouring Petrinja, where the Ottomans had erected a fortress, was not successful. Nevertheless, the Ottomans had reached their high-water mark in Croatia by the end of the 1590s, leaving a strip of territory around Zagreb, Karlovac and Varaždin under the control of the Sabor and the Habsburgs.

The Habsburgs called the string of garrisoned castles they maintained in Croatia the Military Frontier – Vojna Krajina in Croatian. It was not a piece of territory but simply a series of forts manned by German mercenaries who were backed up by local troops. At first, most of these local soldiers were Croat refugees who had fled north from Dalmatia or trekked out of the interior of Bosnia, ahead of the Ottoman advance. The soldiers manning these garrisoned forts became known as frontiersmen – granićari in Croatian.